Many of the most ripped, well-conditioned athletes we’ve had the pleasure of watching compete in bodybuilding are in the masters divisions. In fact, there are theories that a change in relative distribution of body fat from beneath the skin to the organs that occurs with age may actually give masters athletes an edge in getting shredded, as subcutaneous fat, the fat just below the surface of the skin, blurs the underlying muscle. Unfortunately, however, there is a progressive increase in overall fat tissue that occurs with age, regardless of distribution.
Perhaps the greatest disadvantage to bodybuilders, particularly after the age of 50, is a progressive loss of muscle. In fact, we see a one per cent decline in muscle tissue per year after 50, resulting in 30 per cent loss in muscle by the time a person gets to 80. While training can blunt that decline, recent studies show that even high-intensity sprinters and weight-training athletes can lose muscle fibre size with age.
Fortunately, science is finding ways to combat those effects. Based on our research and that of a number of other scientists, we believe the next big breakthrough is supplementation with beta-hydroxy-beta-methyl-butyrate.
Leucine, the father of HMB
Whenever we take in high-quality proteins — milk- and meat-based products — our body breaks them down into 20 different amino acids that ultimately are responsible for muscle growth. Of those aminos the primary regulator of muscle protein synthesis — the building of muscle tissue — is leucine. In fact, leucine alone can stimulate as much protein synthesis as the rest of the 20 aminos combined. That revelation led scientists to investigate whether leucine’s effects on muscle size changed with age. They found that older people become resistant to leucine. So small amounts of protein — e.g., five to 10 grams — were not able to stimulate protein synthesis in the masters-aged subjects. It turns out that larger doses of leucine, such as three grams, the equivalent of approximately 30 to 40 grams of high-quality protein, can stimulate protein synthesis in those over 50 to the same extent as in young adults.
What’s so special about leucine? It’s converted in the body into HMB, and scientists have found that when you inhibit that conversion, you inhibit some of its anabolic and anticatabolic effects on muscle.
In 2008 we wrote an extensive paper for a nutrition and metabolism journal covering HMB’s benefits in untrained and trained individuals. Essentially, we discovered that it has consistently showed large positive effects in untrained people; however, where trained people were concerned, about half of the studies found HMB had little effect, while the other half found it helped tremendously. Upon further investigation we noted that it was only in studies that used high-volume, high-intensity, hardcore training regimens that HMB had positive effects.
Furthermore, we found that HMB worked in situations where people were at risk for losing muscle; for example, when they’re restricting calories. So, in order to work, HMB has to be taken in a situation where there is a chance for a lot of muscle damage, muscle wasting or caloric restriction. As we age, we become more susceptible to muscle damage, clearly susceptible to muscle wasting and, if we are bodybuilders, accustomed to long periods of calorie restriction. So HMB may be the perfect supplement for older athletes.
The effects of HMB
One of the first studies looking at HMB’s effects in older populations was done by Dr. Flakol and colleagues, who found that 12 weeks of HMB supplementation increased limb circumference — meaning muscle thickness — as well as strength. More recently, however, Dr. Bair and colleagues gave masters-age subjects HMB for 12 straight months and found that it increased muscle mass progressively over the year. More recently we looked at what HMB could do at the cellular level. Exciting news: We found that it could completely prevent the decrease in muscle cell size with age.
The most popular theory is that HMB works by being converted into the building blocks of the muscle cell membrane. That’s important because with age there is a serious degeneration of the membrane, so much so that under a microscope we would classify people as having resting muscle damage even when they haven’t exercised. HMB is actually able to repair that damage.
In addition, with age protein synthesis may be blunted, and protein breakdown may be increased. Our experiments along with those of others have shown that HMB increases growth factors, which increases protein synthesis in older muscle and prevents protein breakdown. HMB appears to be essential for any masters-level bodybuilder.
The best way to take HMB
We know that HMB, at least in young people, appears to increase muscle mass at an ideal dose of three grams per day; however, it’s possible that older people may require more. Until that is tested, we do know that two to three grams produces strong results in masters-level subjects.
In a recent study we looked at the best time to take HMB and found that it prevented a blood marker of muscle damage from rising when taken before but not after exercise. We recommend a gram with breakfast and dinner and one to two grams prior to exercise.
Bodybuilding is one of the most demanding sports on earth. It requires flawless diet, disipline and at times the ability to endure agony in the gym. Bodybuilding is unique among sports in that it can take decades for an athlete to peak. Some don’t peak until they are at masters level, although there are clearly some obstacles that must be broken through. The science behind HMB continues to demonstrate that it may be a vital tool in your climb to get to your best contest condition. IM