How to Use Amino Acids for Bodybuilding

Amino acids have become some of the most popular types of bodybuilding supplements across multiple disciplines. Both BCAAs and EAAs can be used on their own or in the form of “stacks”—specialized blends of multiple supplements that work together synergistically to provide even greater benefits than when taken on their own.

Bodybuilding usually refers to increasing and sculpting muscle mass for appearance as well as strength. In a more general sense, bodybuilding can refer to increasing muscle mass and function for the purpose of competing in sports such as football or power sports (e.qg., shot putting, discus throwing, etc.). It is a given that bodybuilding requires resistance training. If bodybuilding is for the purpose of improving competitive performance in a specific sport there are likely to be training requirements unique to that sport. This discussion on amino acids for bodybuilding will, therefore, not focus on the specific aspects of training. Regardless of the goal of training, amino acids play a key role in bodybuilding.

The Impact of Nutrition on Bodybuilding

Training tends to be the first factor most consider when seeking to build lean muscle, however, the nutrients we provide our bodies with can be equally influential—or more so—in determining how quickly we progress toward our goals. No matter how intensely you train, you will not be able to achieve the results you desire if you’re lacking certain crucial nutritional elements.

Obtaining all the nutrients you need from your diet alone in the quantities necessary for maximal bodybuilding results can be challenging. That’s where workout supplements come in.

By taking targeted sports nutrition supplements, you can ensure you get all the nutrients you need to build muscle, speed recovery time, decrease muscle soreness, amp up energy levels, and more.

Bodybuilding Supplements Then and Now

Depending on how broadly you interpret the idea of dietary supplementation, the idea of bodybuilding supplements can be traced back to ancient Greece.

According to Professor Andrew Dalby and other experts, Greek and Roman athletes consumed large quantities of meat and wine as well as herbal concoctions and tonics with the goal of increasing their strength and stamina.

In the early 1900s, Eugen Sandow, a pioneering German bodybuilder whose legacy earned him the honorific “father of modern bodybuilding,” advised all who wished to maximize their muscle growth to adhere to the dietary rules he himself followed. Bodybuilder Earle Liederman, who rose to prominence in the 1920s, recommended drinking what he called “beef juice” or “beef extract” (a substance the luminaries of today’s wellness landscape call “bone broth” and chefs simply refer to as “consommé) in order to speed muscle recovery.

In the 1950s, protein powders entered the picture as recreational and competitive bodybuilding became ever more popular with ever-broader audiences in the United States and elsewhere. Irvin P. Johnson, who operated a bodybuilding gym in Chicago, was one of the first to market egg-based protein powder. According to an article he published in Iron Man with the title “Build Bigger Biceps Faster with Food Supplements,” his specialized line of protein powders fueled serious strength gains. According to the article, he went from only being able to leg press 165 pounds for 10 repetitions to 660 pounds for 12 repetitions!

The bodybuilding supplement industry grew at an exponential rate throughout the 1970s and 1980s, fueled both by increased interest in recreational bodybuilding as well as advancements in advertising. Then, in October of 1994, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, a piece of legislation that transferred responsibility for determining the safety of dietary supplements such as protein powders and other mainstays of sports nutrition from the government to the manufacturers of the products. Unless they added a new dietary ingredient, manufacturers were no longer required to provide the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with evidence to substantiate the safety or efficacy of their products. Legal experts believe this opened the door for the supplement industry to sell even more of their products. According to a Consumer Reports publication, annual sales of sports nutrition supplements hit $2.7 billion in 2010. And according to the “Sports Nutrition and High Energy Supplements – Global Market Outlook (2017-2026)” report sports nutrition and high energy supplements made $44.58 billion in 2017 with an outlook of $124.85 billion by 2026.

Defining the Term “Bodybuilding Supplements”

Just as the term bodybuilding can encompass both physique-focused and performance-focused endeavors, so too can the term “bodybuilding supplements” encompass a multitude of dietary supplements utilized by individuals engaged in bodybuilding as well as weight lifting, mixed martial arts, and other athletic pursuits to increase lean body mass as well as bring about other desirable outcomes such as:

  • Decreased body fat
  • Sharper muscle definition
  • Enhanced athletic performance

Amino acids have become some of the most popular types of bodybuilding supplements across multiple disciplines. Both branched-chain amino acid supplements (BCAA supplements) and essential amino acids (EAAs) can be used on their own or in the form of “stacks”—specialized blends of multiple supplements that work together synergistically to provide even greater benefits than when taken on their own.

Making the Most of the Building Blocks of Protein

Amino acids have earned the nickname “the building blocks protein” because of the vital role they play in creating muscle tissue. While it’s certainly possible to obtain all the amino acids you need simply by eating high-protein foods like eggs, lean meats, legumes, vegetables, and pseudo-grains like quinoa, amino acid supplements can be a convenient and efficient way to maximize the benefits of amino acids.

One of the most compelling reasons to use supplements can be captured in a single word: bioavailability. Bioavailability refers to how efficiently a substance can be metabolized and the percentage of what’s ingested that’s utilized for its intended purpose inside the body.

Several factors determine the bioavailability of each amino acid. For example, when taking in amino acids from a food source, the amount of fat contained in that food influences the length of time it takes for amino acids to be put to use. The way you cook food can also impact the amino acids it contains. Some heat-sensitive amino acids can even decompose when cooked. And not all amino acid supplements are metabolized at the same rate. The physical nature of the supplement will have the most significant influence on its bioavailability. A BCAA powder, for instance, will be digested differently than a supplement in pill or liquid form. The extent to which a supplement is pre-digested as well as whether it contains any fillers or binders impact its overall bioavailability.

Understanding Muscle Protein Turnover

Muscle protein turnover is the metabolic basis that powers increased muscle mass, strength, and function.

Muscle protein turnover refers to the constant breakdown of older muscle proteins that are no longer operating at peak efficiency and their replacement with newly synthesized, more efficient muscle protein fibers. The balance between protein synthesis and breakdown determines whether a muscle is growing or shrinking.

Muscle function is accomplished by the contraction of muscle protein fibers. Muscle strength and function are determined by how many muscle protein fibers you have and the efficiency with which they contract. Increasing muscle protein mass and contractile efficiency is accomplished by optimizing muscle protein turnover.

For bodybuilding, the goal is to make the rate of muscle protein synthesis exceed the rate of protein breakdown. Further, the increased balance between muscle protein synthesis and breakdown should optimally be accomplished mainly by stimulating synthesis, not lessening breakdown—protein breakdown gets rid of muscle proteins that are not functioning efficiently, so it is good to keep that process functioning at full speed.

The Mechanics of Muscle Protein Synthesis

Muscle proteins are composed of a series of amino acids hooked together in a specific order determined by the messenger RNA (mRNA) in the cell for each specific muscle protein. The sequence of the mRNA is dictated by the DNA in the cell. There is a specific molecule for each amino acid (tRNA) that delivers it to the mRNA as required for incorporation into the protein that is being produced.

A simple, conceptual way to think about the process of muscle protein synthesis is to compare it to the construction of a building. The DNA is basically the idea for the design of the building. The RNA is the written plan or blueprint, and transcription of the mRNA from the DNA is the process of writing up the plan. The tRNA molecules that bring the amino acids to the mRNA for incorporation into protein are like trucks that bring bricks to the building site, and the hooking of amino acids together in the proper order on the mRNA corresponds to the builder putting the bricks together according to the blueprint. The protein is the final product, or completed building, ready to serve its function.

The details of how muscle protein is made are important only so that it is clear why all the amino acids must be available in abundance. If the mRNA dictates that the next amino acid in the chain making up the protein is a particular amino acid that is deficient, then the process is halted and no muscle protein is produced.

How Amino Acids Impact Muscle Protein Synthesis

We must derive certain amino acids, as I touched on earlier, from dietary protein. However, the human body can synthesize other amino acids through chemical reactions that occur in the liver and select sites throughout the body.

The amino acids that must be obtained from the diet are called essential amino acids, or EAAs, while the amino acids that can be made in the body are called nonessential amino acids, or NEAAS.

The nine essential amino acids are leucine, isoleucine, valine, phenylalanine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, and tryptophan. Three of the EAAs, leucine, isoleucine, and valine, have been subcategorized as branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), a descriptor which refers to their chemical structure. We typically put the number of nonessential amino acids at 11, as that’s how many NEAAs can be found in human protein, though other NEAAs like citrulline and ornithine can be found elsewhere in the body.

Since your body can produce NEAAS and they are available in abundance, the availability of EAAs serves as the limiting factor for setting the rate of muscle protein synthesis.

Using Essential Amino Acids to Stimulate Muscle Growth

Consuming essential amino acids, either as dietary protein or supplements, is the most potent stimulus of muscle protein synthesis. Consuming nonessential amino acids, either alone or with EAAs, has no impact.

EAA supplements have been shown to trigger muscle protein synthesis and increase muscle mass, strength, and physical function in at least 25 clinical trials. The muscle-building response to EAAs is 2 to 4 times greater than the muscle-building response to the same amount of a whey protein supplement. The muscle-building response to EAAs is even greater than the response to hormonal treatment with testosterone, growth hormone, or insulin.

There is one very big must when it comes to EAA supplementation, however. In order to be effective, all the EAAs are required. That being said, there are varying degrees of importance among the EAAs.

Leucine, which is both an EAA and a BCAA, is particularly important. Leucine is the most abundant EAA in muscle protein, so it should comprise the highest proportion of an EAA supplement. Beyond its role as a component of muscle protein, leucine can signal the molecular mechanisms within the cell to initiate the process of protein synthesis. Important as leucine may be, however, it cannot function alone. All the other EAAs are required as well, roughly in proportion to their relative content in muscle. It is not possible to make muscle protein from leucine alone.

The Role of Essential Amino Acids for Bodybuilding

It is clear from the above discussion that making sure you consume enough essential amino acids is an important part of bodybuilding. Even when using EAA supplements, the main source for your essential amino acids intake will likely be dietary protein. Therefore, the place to start is with your diet.

Protein is the key dietary component of the basic bodybuilding diet. It will increase your muscle mass. You should set a goal of eating approximately 30% of your caloric intake as high-quality protein.

When I say high-quality protein, I mean a protein that contains a high abundance of essential amino acids. High-quality proteins are generally animal-based proteins. These protein food sources also have a significant amount of non-protein calories. Therefore, eating a sufficient amount of high-quality protein to supply all the EAAs you need is difficult through normal diet alone.

You will most likely run into issues with the flexibility of your diet when eating this amount of high-quality protein food sources because of the non-protein calories. Therefore, EAA supplements can play a vital role in helping you meet your dietary goal for EAA intake.

While the focus of your basic diet should be high-quality protein, you must remember that energy substrates (carbohydrates and fat) are important too. As an example, in a tightly controlled study, subjects drank the same amount of protein in the form of milk. In one case, it was skim milk, and in the other case whole milk. The stimulation of muscle protein synthesis was greater with the whole milk. Under these study conditions, the additional calories provided by the fat in the whole milk helped to fuel muscle building.

You must be in a positive energy balance to gain a significant amount of muscle mass. Carbohydrate is of less importance for resistance training than it is for endurance training, but you should eat enough fruit and vegetables to meet the RDAs for micronutrients. Also, carbohydrate intake will stimulate insulin release, and insulin is an anabolic hormone that will increase the amount of muscle protein made from your EAA intake.

Fat intake will also amplify the anabolic effect of EAAs, and therefore you can eat animal-based, high-quality protein foods without worrying about eating too much fat.

What you do want to keep in mind with your bodybuilding diet is that the more you eat, the bigger you will get. If you do eat a lot while lifting heavy weights and consuming EAA supplements as recommended, a significant part of the weight gain will be muscle.

You will also gain fat with this dietary approach, so you need to carefully monitor your body composition to be sure that the extra fat you put on does not counteract the benefits of the muscle gain. In a sport like powerlifting, that is not likely to be the case, but if you are bodybuilding for appearance, you must reach a balance between muscle and fat gains. This can be accomplished by incorporating aerobic exercise into your training program.

How to Use Essential Amino Acids for Optimal Bodybuilding Results

amino acids for bodybuilding

The research documenting the optimal use of amino acids for bodybuilding is extensive. Experts can provide precise guidance on the effects of taking EAAs both pre-workout and post-workout.

Consuming 15 grams of EAAs 30 minutes before starting your workout will elevate blood concentrations of essential amino acids throughout your workout and stop the muscle breakdown that would otherwise occur. A 15-gram dose of EAAs achieves a greater response on muscle protein synthesis than either casein or whey protein can, without creating the fullness that can hinder a workout.

Then immediately after your workout, take another 15 grams of EAAs. One hour later, take another 15-gram dose.

These recommendations stem from the assumption that you will be working out every day. When you do take off days, you should still consume the same amount of EAAs. Instead of using your workouts to determine the timing, however, take your EAAs between meals.

Between the completion of dinner and breakfast the next morning, you may go for 12 hours or more without food. During this post-absorptive time, muscle tissue breakdown transpires in order to supply amino acids to tissues and organs that have no protein reserve. Therefore, to fuel maximal muscle-building response around the clock, you should consume another 15 grams of EAAs before bedtime. If you have wholly committed to maximizing muscle gain, you can even set your alarm for a final dose at about 4 am.

Alternatively, you can take 20 grams of casein protein at bedtime. Because casein coagulates in the stomach, your body digests it at a slower rate, meaning the amino acids it contains are then absorbed over many hours. While the anabolic effect will be less than if you take the EAAs, this approach will save you the trouble of getting up in the middle of the night.

The total amount of supplemental EAAs you ingest should be in the range of 60 grams per day. Consuming this amount of EAAs will stimulate the production of new muscle protein without you having to also take in a significant amount of non-protein calories. The result will be a lean body with increased muscle mass and minimal increase in fat mass. Sixty grams of EAAs in addition to what you eat as part of your bodybuilding diet is needed to drive protein synthesis past what may be your normal genetic limit.

Do EAA Supplements Have Side Effects?

This a reasonable question, because bodybuilding requires a much higher than average EAA intake. An important caveat to state up front is that I am focusing exclusively on side effects from EAA supplements.

When your EAAs come from an unusually high amount of dietary protein intake, that will increase the rate of amino acid oxidation and as a result, burden the kidneys to excrete the ammonia and urea that are natural byproducts of NEAA oxidation.

The great thing about EAA supplements, however, is that there is no such increased oxidation of NEAAs when EAAs are consumed. This is because NEAAs are not also being consumed but are rather being produced in the body. In fact, the oxidation of the NEAAs actually goes down, since they are being incorporated into protein at an increased rate.

Consequently, there is no reason to worry about the side effects of EAA supplements. The FDA has determined EAA supplements to be Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS), while the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Science has determined that there is no upper limit of consumption beyond which would not be safe.

The Best Strength Training Workouts Share These 5 Core Principles

Cardio training is an excellent way to stay healthy and lose weight, but strength training can give your weight-loss goals an extra kick—and it is more useful for building muscles than cardio workouts are. Check out the best strength training workouts for your back, shoulders, arms, legs, knees, chest, and abdomen.

If you’re new to the concept of strength training, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of strength workouts out there. Some programs prioritize good form over everything else, while others emphasis a high-intensity approach. Program A suggests starting with dumbbell rows and Program B begins with the shoulder press. Program C insists the best results come from training 4 days a week, yet Program D claims you can see even more significant gains by training a mere 2 days weekly. It would be understandable if trying to sift through the vast amounts of sometimes contradictory information about so-called “best strength training workouts” drained the energy you intended to channel into your workout.

So, how can you actually determine which strength training workout will be best? The short answer: the best strength training program for you will depend on your goals, your experience level, and your personal preferences. For the long answer, read on.

Strength Training, Defined

The simplest, most fundamental definition of strength training is any muscle-building activity. To get a bit more precise, strength training describes physical exercise that uses resistance to induce muscular contraction, thereby increasing strength, anaerobic resistance, and the size of skeletal muscles.

That said, it’s a common misconception that lifting weights will make you bulky. In fact, strength training can lead to more significant weight loss results than cardio training. According to Michaela Devries-Aboud, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at McMaster University, when you lift weights, you overload your muscles, which then trains them to adapt to lift more weight. This increases lean muscle mass. The more lean muscle you have, the more calories you burn at rest. Having more muscle increases your everyday basal metabolic rate, making it easier to create a calorie deficit, a central component of weight loss.

While it’s common to see the terms “weightlifting,” “resistance training,” and “strength training” used interchangeably, they are not synonymous with one another. Resistance training refers to any exercise that causes your muscles to contract against an external resistance, which can be your own body weight or any other object that activates muscle contraction. The term “strength training,” which is also associated with weight lifting, refers to resistance exercises designed to build strength. And weight lifting functions as a subcategory of strength training.

Curious about what strength training workout routines entail? While there’s plenty of variation, you can expect the following aspects to appear in any strength training approach you try.

  • Heavy lifts: The defining characteristic of strength training is that you increase the amount of weight you lift over time. This is the best way to build strength. As you progress, you will go through periods in which you increase the volume (meaning more sets and more repetitions), but the ultimate goal is to push, pull, and squat increasingly heavy loads.
  • Short sets: Strength training emphasizes sets of lower repetitions (often abbreviated to reps)—typically, between four and six—in order to allow you to lift as much weight as possible. For those who are new to the world of weight lifting, a set is a series of reps completed back-to-back and followed by a brief break before the next set.
  • Rest periods: Taking a rest period that allows for recovery prior to each set allows you to lift more weight, which again, is the number one priority. It also ensures you can maintain proper form throughout all your sets, which improves performance and reduces risk of injury.
  • Compound exercises: These exercises involve tasking multiple joints and muscle groups with moving through a full range of motion, and perfectly facilitate the goal of moving the heaviest weight possible. Some examples of compound exercises include: the squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and chin-up/pull-up.

Cardio training is an excellent way to stay healthy and lose weight, but strength-training can give your weight-loss goals an extra kick

Why Choose Strength Training

According to the Mayo Clinic, strength training deserves a place in any fitness program. Even if you’re a serious runner or a yoga devotee, it’s important to make time for strength training exercises.

One reason for this is that as we age, our lean muscle mass naturally decreases. From age 30 to age 70, you can lose more than 25% of the strength muscle fibers in your body. Studies show that strength training can counteract negative aspects of the aging process by ensuring you maintain your muscle mass and motor function as you grow older.

Some other proven ways that strength training can benefit your overall health and well-being include:

  • Encourage weight loss: In addition to the calories you burn while working out, and as touched on previously, strength training increases your basal metabolic rate so your body burns more calories at rest.
  • Increase bone density: Strength training places stress on your bones in a safe, structured way, which increases their density and reduces your risk of developing osteoporosis.
  • Improve balance: Research shows that building muscle can lead to better balance. This reduces risk of falls, allowing older individuals to remain more independent. It can also elevate quality of life for individuals of all ages.
  • Alleviate symptoms of chronic conditions: Experts have found that strength training can reduce the frequency and severity of symptoms related to a number of chronic conditions, including heart disease, arthritis, depression, and more.
  • Enhance cognition: It appears that consistent strength training sessions can sharpen cognition and learning skills.

5 Core Principles the Best Strength  Training Workouts Share

There is no single best strength training workout. As we discussed in the introduction, several factors will influence which strength training workout is the best fit for you. Given that a universal goal for all strength training workouts is to build strength, however, there are certain core principles that the best and most effective workout plans share.

1. Practice Progressive Overload

The principle of progressive overload is central to classic strength training plans. Progressive overload describes the practice of overloading your muscles by attempting to lift as much weight as possible. The muscles respond by growing stronger, which allows you to lift heavier weights, which causes your muscles to grow stronger again.

Unless you are an advanced lifter, however, or working under the supervision of an experienced coach, you should not attempt to perform exercises at the absolute limit of your strength—what’s known as a one rep max. It’s possible to make significant strength gains using the principle of progressive overload to fatigue the muscle fibers by lifting sub-maximal weights for more than a single repetition.

To do so, many recommend training to failure, though different experts stake out sometimes contradictory views on the best way to put that into practice. Reaching momentary muscular failure means that the first repetition at a given weight fails due to inadequate muscular strength. Some coaches hold that you should train to failure on all sets, while others state that will result in overtraining and recommend only training to failure on the last set of a given exercise.

It’s possible, too, to build strength in less intense ways. Progressive overload does not require one rep max lifts or training to failure. Instead, you simply need to ensure that you steadily increase the amount of resistance you’re working against. If you’re lifting weights, for instance, that means the amount you load onto the bar should be heavier 3 months from now than it is today.

2. Pay Equal Attention to All the Major Muscle Groups

Most of us tend to have a natural affinity for certain lifts. Say, for example, that the deadlift comes easily to you. It could be tempting to make that a mainstay of your strength training sessions and neglect the overhead press, pull-ups, the bench press, and so on.

While this may initially feel gratifying, over time, it will result in muscle imbalances. The best strength training programs give equal attention to the upper and lower body. That doesn’t mean you need to do a full-body workout every time (although there’s nothing wrong with that approach). You’ll just want to ensure that all the major muscle groups get fatigued so that you build strength evenly throughout your body.

3. Give Your Muscles Time to Recover

As touched on previously, practicing progressive overload helps to build muscle. As you may know, or may be able to intuit, this type of training is quite demanding. That means you should give as much time and attention to recovery as you do to the active part of your training regimen. The stronger you get, the more important recovery becomes.

The best strength programs drill progressive overload for each major muscle group and—crucially—include adequate time for those muscles to rest and repair before they’re trained again.

Just as there’s no single answer to the question of which strength training workout is best, the amount of time required between workouts varies. For those new to strength training, some guidelines you may find helpful are to aim for training each muscle group at least 2 times weekly while including at least a full rest day between training sessions for each muscle group. That means if you tax your arms and chest with the bench press on Monday, you would let those muscle groups rest until Wednesday at the earliest.

4. Include Rest Periods Between Sets

It’s vital not only to include rest periods, but also not to shortchange them. While it can be tempting to stick to short rest periods, which allow you to push through a workout faster and feel more of a burn as you do, cutting your rest periods short undermines the paramount principle of progressive overload.

Short rest periods will steer you toward lighter weights, or fewer sets, both of which will impede your progress. According to a study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, individuals who take longer rest periods between sets build more muscle and gain more strength than those who take shorter rests.

So, just how long of a rest period should you use? A review paper published by Menno Henselmans, a peer-reviewed researcher and member of the Legion Athletics Scientific Advisory Board, set out to answer that question.

After closely analyzing all existing research on how different lengths of rest periods impact muscle and strength gains, Henselmans found that the best metrics come from your intuition. The most effective rest period will be as much time as you need in order to feel wholly prepared for your next set.

If you have the kind of temperament that thrives on precise measurements, you can stash these away. Typically, the time it will take you to recover works out to 2 minutes for light to average sets and 3 for your heaviest sets. Depending on the day, you may feel you need to take longer—and you should listen to that feeling.

5. Make Exertion Enjoyable

Don’t discount this principle. Michelle Segar, psychologist and author of “No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness,” explains in her book that the human brain is geared to make decisions that lead to immediate gratification. That means if you want to stick to a strength training program, it’s important to choose one that results in immediate, satisfying results.

No one can change their physique in a single training session, but the approach you choose should consistently yield perceivable changes that make you excited for each session.

Keep in mind, too, that if a particular strength training program isn’t delivering in the way you’d hoped, you can try a different one. That said, hopping from one to the next can impede progress. Unless it makes you entirely miserable, commit to a program for at least 3 months, enough time to accurately gauge what it has to offer.

Cardio training is an excellent way to stay healthy and lose weight, but strength-training can give your weight-loss goals an extra kick

How to Start Strength Training

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), adults should train each major muscle group 2 or 3 days weekly.

Older adults or those who have been previously sedentary should begin with light intensity exercises. One reason for this is that muscles get weaker after age 50 at a rate of approximately 15% per decade. To avoid over-taxing muscles, older adults as well as those unaccustomed to strength training should begin with lighter weights and shorter sessions. The ACSM recommends exercising 2 days per week and doing one set of 10-15 repetitions for each muscle group. Weight can be increased at regular intervals, bringing benefits such as increased bone density and decreased insulin resistance. Older adults should be sure to include core exercises in their training program to improve balance and stability.

According to Shawn Arent, director of the Center for Health and Human Performance at Rutgers University and a Fellow in the American College of Sports Medicine, a 2-day weekly strength training program can yield impressive results for novices. For those who are already fit, strength training (whether done on its own or in addition to another training modality) optimizes your well-being, though you will typically need to devote at least 3 days a week in order to make progress.

Weights and repetitions depend on your age, previous experience, and baseline strength. When in doubt, remember that one set of 12 to 15 repetitions typically suffices for full-body exercises as well as those targeting individual muscle groups.

The ACSM guidelines address recovery time as well, suggesting that you allow each muscle group 48 hours to recover before targeting it again. Muscle soreness is likely to happen as you’re building up your strength, so allowing time for rest and recovery is crucial.

Before starting a strength training workout, begin by running through a quick warm-up. Typically, that looks like 5 to 10 minutes of cardio exercises and/or dynamic stretches.

If you’re new to strength training, your priority should be learning proper technique. Dial down the intensity as low as you need until you’re fully confident in your starting position and progression for an exercise. It can be incredibly valuable to work with a coach who can observe you and communicate where your form may be slipping.

When you design your strength training plan, you should tackle full-body exercises as well as those that work large muscle groups in the upper body or lower body—such as the glutes, quadriceps, back, chest, and hamstrings—before smaller muscle groups like the shoulders, triceps, biceps, and calves. If you fatigue a smaller muscle group first, the larger group will not work at its maximum potential.

Here’s an example of what this looks like in action: for a workout that includes bent-over rows and bicep curls, complete the bent-over rows first. You work your biceps in both exercises, but you also target the larger and stronger back muscles in the rows. If you’ve already fatigued your biceps, then your back muscles will not get an optimal workout.

Choose isolation exercises, which work only one muscle group at a time, to increase the intensity for that muscle group. All bicep and tricep exercises are isolation exercises.

One way to use isolation exercises is to start with a heavy weight that you can do for 10 repetitions, complete the 10 repetitions, rest, and then do another set of repetitions using a lighter weight. Do as many repetitions as you can at that weight, then continue to scale down as you reach your fatigue threshold. Add one set that requires you work to the point of momentary muscular failure for each workout, choosing a different exercise and a different body part each time. Keep a record of how many repetitions you can perform, then challenge yourself on a weekly basis by trying to improve your total.

Building an Effective Strength Training Workout Plan

As touched on previously, a good, effective strength training workout plan will work all the major muscle groups in the body: the back, abdomen, chest, arms, and legs. Each of those muscle groups is comprised of other, smaller muscles and muscle groups, such as the quads and abdominals.

Here’s an outline of which exercises target specific muscle groups. Many of the exercises below are compound exercises, meaning they engage multiple muscle groups. In those instances, they’re listed beneath the largest muscle group they target.

Back and Core

Working the muscles of both your upper and lower back is incredibly important, particularly if you spend your day working in front of a computer.

Some fundamental back exercises include dumbbell rows, deadlifts, and Romanian deadlifts.


Keep in mind that your core muscles wrap around your back. If you suffer from lower back pain, strengthening your core muscles can help address that.

To practice engaging your core muscles, place your hands just above your hips and tighten the muscles beneath your palms—this is called bracing.

Many experts feel that compound, full-body exercises work the muscles of the abdomen more effectively than isolation exercises like crunches.

Planks and side planks are two effective body-weight core exercises that can help you build strength.


A number of exercises can help you develop a muscular chest. You’re likely familiar with the bench press and push-ups, two challenging choices that certainly produce results.

The chest press, of course, also targets this muscle group. Other exercises include dips and flys.


Many people hope to develop strong, toned shoulders and arms—often, the focus here is more on the desired appearance than functional goals.

Some of the best exercises to work your shoulders include side lateral raises, overhead press, reverse fly, bicep curls, and tricep extensions and kickbacks.


You can strengthen your legs and knees using bodyweight exercises or weighted exercises. Building strong quads—the four large muscles that run along the front of the thigh—helps to support and fortify your knees.

Squats, of course, are a classic and highly effective leg exercise. Many regard them as the most challenging leg exercise, especially when heavily weighted. Olympic lifts like the snatch and power clean also work the muscle groups in your legs. The Bulgarian split squat improves balance while building strength, and walking dumbbell lunges can double as cardio exercise.

Cardio training is an excellent way to stay healthy and lose weight, but strength-training can give your weight-loss goals an extra kick

Key Facts About EAA Supplements and Resistance Exercise

Together, resistance exercise and EAAs can stimulate muscle protein synthesis greater than they can alone. Increasing muscle strength and mass requires a close interaction between exercise, daily diet, and EAA supplementation. Let’s take it step by step.

In a previous blog post, I covered aerobic exercise and how essential amino acid (EAA) supplements can be used to mitigate the effects of muscle breakdown and improve performance. But what about combining EAA supplements and resistance training? Does that lead to any impressive benefits?

If you’ve spent any time in the company of individuals seeking to increase their physical strength and build muscle mass recently, you’ve likely heard them talking about branched-chain amino acid supplements (often referred to as BCAAs). They’ve become about as ubiquitous as whey protein! Proponents believe BCAAs can maximize muscle growth, decrease post-workout muscle soreness, enhance mental focus, and more. But recent studies indicate that when it comes to using amino acid supplements to enhance muscle protein synthesis (the building of muscle protein), there may be a much more effective option.

Before exploring the relationships between resistance exercise, amino acid supplements, and muscle protein turnover, let’s get clear on some of the basic terminology.

Resistance Training, Defined

Resistance training can take many forms. You can lift weights to build muscles, or use the machines at the gym, or even use your own body weight in resistance exercises such as planks and pull-ups. If you’re curious about resistance training but not sure where to begin, I recommend checking out this post.

Research links resistance exercise to a wealth of benefits, including better joint function, increased bone density, and enhanced muscle, tendon, and ligament strength.

To get the best results from any exercise program, including resistance training, it’s vital to provide your body with the fuel it needs to power through workouts and recover in between sessions. Increasing muscle strength and mass requires close interaction between exercise and daily diet.

Protein is, hands down, the most important nutrient for anyone engaged in a regular resistance exercise training program. Protein contains amino acids, which are the building blocks of your muscle tissue. Even if you make sure to prioritize protein intake at every meal, you can still amplify your anabolic response via amino acid ingestion. In the most basic terms, taking amino acid supplements promotes muscle protein synthesis (sometimes abbreviated to MPS response) and can help your body build the most muscle in the shortest amount of time.

Understanding the Role of Amino Acids

In technical terms, amino acids can be defined as simple organic compounds that contain a carboxyl (-COOH) and an amino (-NH2) group. When these compounds link together, they form protein molecules. And it is those protein macromolecules that make up your muscles.

Your body needs 20 different amino acids to produce protein. Scientists categorized nine of these as essential amino acids.

Key Facts About EAA Supplements and Resistance Exercise

Your body absolutely requires these nine amino acids not only to produce protein but also to carry out basic bodily functions that keep you alive. However, it cannot make them. Instead, they must be obtained from the food you eat. Anyone seeking to optimize her physical performance and muscle growth should review this list below outlining some of the important roles the essential amino acids play:

  1. Leucine: Many bodybuilders and athletes sing the praises of leucine supplementation—and for good reasons. One of the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), leucine plays a significant role in muscle anabolism. It also activates mTORC1 (more on what that means later).
  2. Lysine: This amino acid contributes to muscle growth as well as tissue repair and nutrient uptake throughout the body. Lysine is the second most abundant protein found in human muscle tissue.
  3. Valine: Another of the three BCAAs, valine promotes muscle growth and tissue repair. Studies show that valine can have significant anabolic effects.
  4. Isoleucine: The third BCAA, isoleucine makes major contributions to hemoglobin synthesis as well as the regulation of energy and blood sugar levels. Isoleucine also speeds recovery, decreasing the time needed to repair post-exercise muscle damage.
  5. Threonine: Best known for keeping your muscles and connective tissues strong and limber, threonine also contributes to muscle protein synthesis. Plus, it can speed healing and help you bounce back faster from injuries.
  6. Phenylalanine: Adequate levels of phenylalanine are crucial for the structure and function of a vast number of proteins and enzymes. One of this amino acid’s most notable functions is as a precursor to another amino acid, tyrosine, which your body converts into a number of brain chemicals including dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.
  7. Methionine: Your body needs methionine in order to carry out tissue repairs as well as to generate new tissue. Without methionine, the synthesis of protein cannot begin. Methionine also spurs the formation of collagen and cartilage.
  8. Histidine: Another of the amino acids involved in muscle anabolism, histidine combines with beta-alanine to form the dipeptide carnosine, which improves your performance during high-intensity exercise. Histidine is also involved in the synthesis of hemoglobin as well as tissue repair.
  9. Tryptophan: This amino acid maintains the balance between protein synthesis and breakdown in adults. And like phenylalanine, tryptophan is a precursor for important brain chemicals—in this case, serotonin and melatonin.

Amino Acids Flip the Switch for Muscle Growth

After you’ve considered the list of the ways the essential amino acids contribute to muscle protein turnover, you will hopefully have grasped a key fact: BCAAs are not the only amino acids involved in muscle growth and repair. So when it comes to amino acid supplementation for sports nutrition purposes, taking a BCAA supplement simply doesn’t make sense.

Over the course of the 3 decades I have spent conducting NIH-funded research on muscle metabolism, I have garnered extensive data on how the muscles of the human body maintain themselves. The protein in your muscles continually break themselves down and rebuild themselves. In order to do this, they need a steady supply of all 20 of the amino acids involved in muscle protein turnover.

In order for muscle protein synthesis to begin, you must provide your body with one of the organic compounds that flip the “on switch.” Research indicates that leucine, an EAA and BCAA, may just be the most potent activator of the MPS response.

As I mentioned above, leucine supplementation activates the mTORC1, or the mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1, thereby flipping the switch that turns on muscle protein synthesis. Scientists have found that leucine supplementation on its own requires a protein dose containing between 2.5 and 3 grams of protein in order to activate mTORC1. However, when individuals consume leucine in combination with the other eight essential amino acids, the required dose drops to 1.8 grams of leucine.

The mTORC1 pathway controls both anabolic and catabolic signaling of skeletal muscle mass, meaning it regulates both muscle growth and muscle tissue breakdown. Research has shown that pairing resistance exercise with essential amino acid supplementation has an additive effect when it comes to stimulating muscle protein synthesis via the mTORC1 pathway.

In other words, taking essential amino acids maximizes the hard work you put in during your training sessions and makes it easier for you to gain muscle.

How EAA Supplements Amplify the Benefits of Resistance Exercise

Resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein turnover. Muscle protein turnover is the balance between how much muscle protein is broken down and how much muscle protein is built back up. This is how muscle fiber function improves. Newer, better functioning fibers are synthesized to replace older ones that are not functioning as well. Both muscle protein breakdown and muscle protein synthesis are stimulated.

Since resistance exercise increases the efficiency of muscle protein synthesis, the increase in synthesis will be slightly greater than the increase in breakdown. The stimulation of protein synthesis is limited, however, because some of the essential amino acids released by protein breakdown are oxidized and not available to be reused for synthesis. Thus, even though the muscle is able to produce new protein more efficiently during resistance exercise, the balance between muscle protein synthesis and breakdown remains negative (i.e., net loss of muscle protein) in the absence of nutrient intake.

Therefore, performing resistance exercise in a fasted state does not result in a positive muscle protein balance. To tip the balance in favor of muscle building, you must consume essential amino acids to replace those oxidized while exercising.

If you’re simply looking to increase muscle strength, then you only need to consume EAAs. But, if increasing muscle strength and muscle mass is your goal, you need to eat extra calories in addition to EAAs. You can tailor your nutrition to your resistance-exercise goals—mass, strength, or both—by adjusting your EAA and extra calorie intake.

Together They Are Stronger

As I mentioned briefly earlier, there is an interactive effect between resistance exercise and EAAs. Both stimulate muscle protein synthesis, and the combined effect is greater than either of their individual effects.

Essentially, resistance exercise primes the muscle to produce protein at an accelerated rate, but muscle protein synthesis is limited by the availability of essential amino acids in the fasted state. With targeted supplement support, you can go from fasted to full of free essential amino acids ready and waiting to be put to use. The ingested EAAs are rapidly consumed by the muscle, in part because blood flow to muscle is increased by resistance exercise, and in part because the molecular mechanisms in the muscle cells that regulate the rate of synthesis are turned on. The net result is that the major gain in muscle mass that occurs after resistance exercise is due to the combined effects of exercise and the increased availability of EAAs.

In my research, I have found that when EAAs were given before resistance exercise, muscle protein synthesis was stimulated more than when given after exercise, but the EAAs given after exercise still caused a significant stimulation.

Together, resistance exercise and EAAs can stimulate muscle protein synthesis greater than they can alone.

When Do I Take My EAA Supplements?

Unlike EAA supplementation for aerobic training, EAA supplementation during resistance training necessitates a before, during, and after approach that is customized according to your muscle and strength-building aims.

If an EAA supplement is ingested 30 minutes before resistance exercise, the muscle is put into a very anabolic state (where it is building up). If EAAs are consumed immediately after exercise there is also a stimulation of net muscle protein synthesis, but less so than if given before the workout.

So, you’ll want to take EAAs before a resistance workout to prevent the net breakdown of muscle protein during the workout. During resistance exercise, there’s an increase in blood flow to the muscle, and this increase can help deliver the ingested amino acids directly to the muscle for absorption. By increasing the blood concentrations of EAAs, the concentration gradients force EAAs into the muscle cells instead of out. Without EAA supplementation, the EAAs are forced out of the muscle.

Consuming EAAs after the workout will further stimulate protein synthesis and prolong the muscle-building response. The optimal approach is to take EAAs before and after resistance workouts, and throughout if possible.

Together, resistance exercise and EAAs can stimulate muscle protein synthesis greater than they can alone.