Nitric Oxide: Does it work for Building Muscle?
What is it about the psychological effects of
a 'muscle pump' that tends to send our neural
synapse activity from the purely logical sides
of our brains to the emotional? Is it that we
think we've finally achieved that elusive 'mind/muscle
connection?' Are we inherently emotional when
it comes to our bodies? Do most muscle building
enthusiasts and aspiring bodybuilders simply find
themselves desperate for evidence that their iron
pumping efforts are paying off in some way - any
Regardless, it can only be this psychological
effect that perpetuates the long-time belief that
nitric oxide (NO) supplements can help build muscle
mass. All that's required is a massive 'belief'
in a cause/effect relationship - in this case
the notion that a 'muscle pump' is a precursor
to 'muscle gains' - followed by evidence (no matter
how small) that a pill or powder can facilitate
or accentuate this 'pump'effect. Then, 'voila'
- you've got a "nutritional supplement"
with a built-in mechanism for at least a few weeks
worth of repeat sales. 'Muscle Pumps' have nothing
to do with Muscle Growth
If long-term muscle growth eventually gives us
the sensation of bigger, stronger arms hanging
by our sides while an enhanced 'muscle pump' gives
us nearly the same sensation (albeit temporary)
- then repeated and enhanced experiences of the
latter must eventually lead to the former - correct?
"If my arms are repeatedly bigger during
workouts - they stand a better chance of being
bigger (and stronger) all the time - right?"
Not so fast, my (likely) over-trained "gym
rat." The sensation that occurs during a
workout that's often referred to as a 'pump' actually
has NOTHING to do with muscle growth. If you believe
the 'nitric oxide works for muscle building' crowd
who claims otherwise, I've got beach front property
in Montana to show you.
Seriously, a muscle that's become "pumped"
during a workout is more a phenomenon of built-up
lactic acid than anything else. Lactic acid is
a byproduct of anaerobic energy production. It
accumulates within a contracted muscle cell because
the cell wall becomes impermeable during contraction.
At the same time, blood flow becomes constricted
during this muscular contraction. What's more,
the longer the muscle is contracted, the greater
the lactic acid build-up combined with the constriction
of blood flow.
This is why high repetition exercise
sets tend to create a greater "muscle pump"
than lower rep sets. When this sort of "hose
kink" in the blood vessels is relieved at
the cessation of muscular contraction, the blood
rushes into the interstitial spaces around the
muscle tissue and causes the temporary swelling
we refer to as a "muscle pump."
Despite what the 'nitric oxide works for building
muscle' marketers would have you believe, muscle
building is an unrelated phenomenon to what was
just described. Muscle growth occurs due to a
long and successful series of "muscle tear-down
sessions" (workouts) intermittently combined
with "muscle recuperation sessions"
(rest days between workouts).
It's as simple as
that. When we utilize the overload principle (optimally)
while making sure the muscle tissue not only fully
recuperates between workouts, but is also in possession
of compensatory strength and tissue, our muscles
will grow. They will get stronger and bigger -
regardless of how well (or even whether) we achieve
a "pump" during workouts.
What does Nitric Oxide do?
'Nitric Oxide supplements' are purported to be
blood vessel vasodilators. This means that the
marketers of these products are claiming that
nitric oxide facilitates the relaxation and widening
of blood vessels. This, in turn, is being purported
as a way to increase blood flow to working muscles
(enhancing the 'pump'), and resting muscles (enhancing
Theoretically, this sounds like a fun thing to
believe. If the 'nitric oxide works for muscle
building' crowd is right, what could be more enjoyable
for a hard working bodybuilder than achieving
a bigger pump in the gym while obtaining better
recuperation outside the gym? Sounds like just
what the doctor ordered for the purely emotional
side of my psychological makeup.
Ah... but my logical side steps in. Nowhere have
I seen, either in studies or my own anecdotal
experience, any evidence that:
1. Nitric Oxide supplements significantly cause
blood vessel vasodilation.
2. Increased vasodilation of blood vessels (if
it does occur) enhances inter-workout muscle recuperation.
Think of your blood vessels as an interstate
highway. Think of protein synthesis (muscle repair)
as highway workers doing repairs on the side of
the highway. If we open up another lane and provide
more room for the workers to get their repair
trucks in and out of the site, it doesn't mean
they WILL work faster. It doesn't even mean that
they could work faster if there are other, more
important contributing factors to the speed and
efficiency of their work.
If the intricacy of
the specific repair work requires 'X' amount of
time regardless of the increase in space resulting
in improved transport of waste material from the
site and building material to it, then an "opened
up" highway will make no difference to the
speed of repair of the side of that highway.
Be Discriminating with 'Muscle Building Products'
Am I telling you not to try what the 'nitric
oxide works for muscle building' crowd is trying
to sell you? No... I will not tell someone what
to do with their own money. I also won't attempt
to dissuade individuals from trying something
for their own experience if they're extremely
curious about it, provided I don't think it will
hurt them in any way.
That said; I have twenty-three years of experience
in completely natural bodybuilding. My early years
of that experience were spent in utter frustration
with my progress. As a young neophyte, I threw
thousands of dollars at the popular supplements
of the late 1980s/early '90s - the 'nitric oxides'
of that day, as it were.
Not until I discovered the true "secrets"
to successful natural bodybuilding did I stop
being frustrated with wasted time and money. And
since then, I've been able to laugh at the 'nitric
oxide works for muscle building' crowd as they've
replaced one 'snake oil' for another