HMB, or beta-hydroxy-beta-methyl butyrate, is a popular bodybuilding supplement that has been shown under certain conditions to help lifters build new muscle and improve their strength. But what if you’re an athlete more interested in performance improvement than gaining muscle? Can HMB help you then?
In order to understand whether HMB can enhance athletic performance, it’s helpful to know what it is and what kind of results you can expect from taking it.
Let’s jump in.
A Metabolite of Leucine
Leucine is a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) that has been shown to both enhance protein synthesis and to retard proteolysis — muscle breakdown — in humans. It was noted early on in the study of leucine that much MORE of this essential amino is required to affect proteolysis than to boost protein synthesis.
This led to speculation that the suppressed proteolysis observed by scientists was actually due to the presence of one or more metabolites, byproducts produced when leucine is broken down either for energy or during protein synthesis.
Subsequent studies led support to this theory and pointed to HMB as the key metabolite responsible for reduced proteolysis.
For instance, a 1996 study from Iowa State University found that supplemental HMB significantly dampened proteolysis for subjects engaged in strenuous weight training multiple times per week over the course of several weeks. Later studies found similar results, and many showed that HMB could boost protein synthesis, too, leading to mass and strength gains.
What Does It Mean for Athletes?
Many times, athletes are not interested in gaining weight and, in the cases of wrestling and boxing, gaining is a detriment as it can potentially lead to moving up in weight class.
Does that mean HMB should be avoided by athletes? Not necessarily.
While athletes must focus a significant portion of their training time on learning and perfecting the skills involved in their sports, nearly every sport requires quick movements and fast play in order to succeed at the highest levels. The generation of that speed is directly tied to muscular strength.
The more force you can generate with your muscles — the more weight you can lift — the faster you can move when NOT under load.
A 2008 review of studies into HMB’s effects on exercise performance found that, while there were several instances when HMB produced no meaningful results, there were plenty of experiments that yielded significant strength gains. Even among experienced lifters, HMB often yielded strength increases around 50% better than those achieved with a placebo, provided that exercise was very intense.
What’s more, the reviewers reported on multiple studies that examined the effects of HMB when combined with endurance training, which holds special interest for many athletes. One of those studies showed that cyclists achieved a nearly 10% increase in VO2 max, a measure of cardiovascular capacity, when taking HMB and logging an average of 300 miles per week over six weeks. Those receiving a placebo showed no improvement.
No supplement will improve your sports skills, but any substance which helps you gain strength and improve your endurance has the potential to make you a heartier, more effective athlete. HMB is one supplement that fits the bill, especially if you train really hard on a consistent basis and need to stave off the effects of muscle breakdown.
Athletes, especially, need to be careful about the substances they put in their bodies, though. Your first stop should always be your doctor’s office, as your physician can help you decide whether HMB is a safe choice for you. You also need to pay special attention to the list of banned substances for any organization in which you compete, and it’s a good idea to check with your coach or trainer to make sure HMB does not violate any rules.
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