Lifting weights might seem like a physical pursuit, but your mind has a massive influence on your muscles. If you've ever had a cup of coffee or Red Bull before a workout, you know the positive impact caffeine can have on your focus, drive, and overall training session. Caffeine is just one ingredient in a broad category of supplements called nootropics that may boost your brainpower, affecting things like focus and fatigue.
Nootropics provide major training benefits, but many of them have benefits outside the gym, too! These cognitive enhancers are known for their positive effects on mental performance, and some have even been suggested to improve memory, speed up the recall of information, and increase energy and focus. Think of them as gains for your brain!
Adding nootropics to your supplement stack can provide the following benefits:
Who wouldn't benefit from a better memory? (There might be someone out there, but if so, I forgot who it is.) Say goodbye to the days of walking into a room and forgetting why you went in there in the first place. Nootropics may help boost your memory, making it easier for you to remember where you put your keys. Creatine, choline, and piracetam are commonly used as memory enhancers.
Most of us probably turn to caffeine—a popular nootropic—to enhance focus and attention, so it makes sense that this class of supplements can be used to improve alertness and are stimulatory in nature. Furthermore, some evidence suggests that acute ingestion of a cocktail of nootropic supplements may prevent declines in reaction time usually associated with fatiguing exercise.1
Nootropics can help prevent fatigue by blocking receptors in the brain, or by providing more efficient production of energy. By reducing fatigue, you can work longer and more efficiently. Creatine and rhodiola rosea are two effective agents for this.
Decreased Stress Response
An intense bout of exercise is sure to increase cortisol levels, which we all know can be detrimental to your gains. However, nootropics—specifically phosphatidylserine—can blunt the cortisol response, preserving your hard-earned muscles. We typically see the highest cortisol response with prolonged exercise, so if you've amped up your cardio, this can be a positive addition to your stack.
Supplements for Optimal Brain Power
Nootropics are typically single compounds, and while one ingredient on its own may offer brain benefits, some of them can be combined (or "stacked") to offer even greater effects! Here's a look at the most potent ingredients and combinations.
Phosphatidylserine is an important chemical with widespread functions in the body. It's key in the maintenance of cellular functions, especially within the brain. There's a decent amount of literature showing its positive effects in elderly individuals both with and without cognition and memory impairments.2,3
Phosphatidylserine has also been shown to improve cognitive function before a bout of exercise.4 By supplementing with phosphatidylserine, individuals may potentially be able to obtain better results from exercise (by staying focused and alert) and at the same time improve mood and mental function.
And for all of you struggling through calculus, supplementing with phosphatidylserine has been shown to increase cognitive function during math problems (faster times completing calculations and increased number of correct answers).
As mentioned above, phosphatidylserine can also blunt the cortisol response following aerobic activity.5 So, not only will you be able to answer the question, "What is the square root of 2 to the negative 9 plus 3 power?" without the use of a calculator, you'll be able to maintain your muscle mass!
L-Theanine + Caffeine
L-theanine, a nonprotein amino acid common in green tea leaves, can have a significant impact on reducing stress levels. Add caffeine to the mix, and you may experience greater improvements in mood, reduced levels of stress, and an increased ability to focus.
Studies looking at the effects of both L-theanine and caffeine have found a rise in focus, motivation, and mood, improved alpha wave levels (a sign of relaxation), and reduced heart rate and blood pressure.6-8 It seems as though adding theanine to the mix negates many of the side effects of excessive caffeine usage while enhancing the positives.
My all-time favorite supplement comes up with another win! For the same reasons we take creatine to improve muscle mass and strength, creatine can also enhance memory and overall brain function.
Sound strange? It's really quite simple: Your brain, just like your muscles, uses ATP for energy. So it makes sense that increasing the availability of PCr (phosphocreatine) in your brain would help with ATP synthesis and energy formation.
Studies have demonstrated creatine supplementation as an effective way to improve both short-term memory and reasoning skills, suggesting its use as both a brain and performance booster.9
This popular herbal nootropic can help increase levels of acetylcholine within the brain. Increasing this important neurotransmitter means improved memory and enhanced cognitive functions. Because you don't need a large dose of this ingredient to see beneficial effects, you'll start to note its presence in more pre- and post-workout blends.
Choline + Piracetam
Choline is found in a lot of the foods we eat, but typically not in a large enough dose to have any meaningful benefit. Supplementing with choline alone can be a powerful nooptropic because it serves as a direct precursor to acetylcholine—which can improve memory formation. Combining it with piracetam can not only lead to further improvements in memory, but may also help treat neuro-degenerative diseases, like Alzheimer's and dementia, in the elderly.10,11
Piracetam works by increasing acetylcholine uptake and utilization in specific regions of the brain responsible for memory formation.12 Like choline, piracetam can work on its own, but delivers a much stronger punch when combined with choline.
Similar to choline and huperzine A, bacopa monnieri improves acetylcholine release, which can help enhance your memory. The traditional Ayurvedic herb can also reduce stress on dopaminergic systems, helping to increase feelings of happiness and pleasure. Supplementing with bacopa monnieri may lead to improved short- and long-term memory, better reasoning test performance, enhanced attention, and reduced anxiety.13-14
While its traditional use may have been to prevent altitude sickness and to help cope with cold climates, Rhodiola Rosea is finding new uses as a mood enhancer and antifatigue agent. Rhodiola helps to increase serotonin levels, which can improve your overall mood and may improve reasoning skills as well.15
Quite possibly the most researched nootropic, Asian ginseng has been shown to improve memory, enhance focus and attention, and boost mood. It may even be able to improve performance (both reaction time and endurance).16-18
Nootropics Dosing Chart
|L-theanine||100 mg per day||Reduced stress levels|
|Caffeine||50 mg per day||Improved focus and mood|
|Phosphatidylserine||200-600 mg||Improved cognitive function|
|Choline||200-300 mg per day||Improved memory formation|
|Piracetam||1600 mg per day||Improved memory|
|Creatine||5 grams per day||Improved short-term memory and reasoning skills|
|Huperzine A||100 mcg||Improved learning abilities|
|Bacopa monniera||300 mg per day||Enhanced attention, reduced anxiety|
|Rhodiola rosea||350 mg per day||Mood enhancer|
|Asian ginseng||100 mg per day||Enhanced focus and mood|
The field of nootropics is a blossoming field, and as such, few well-controlled clinical trials exist. While admittedly some of the science has focused on animal models, there are still some important points to take away: Supplementation stands a chance to improve higher-order thinking and cognition, improve focus, enhance mood, and subdue feelings of pain and fatigue.
For those days when you're feeling more fatigued than usual, or having a hard time making it though your workouts, consider using this new class of "smart" supplements to give your body and mind an extra boost!
Shop our top nootropics!
Including C4 Neuro and Carbon Prep, available only at Bodybuilding.com.
* Ratings as of article's date of publication
- Hoffman, J. R., Ratamess, N. A., Gonzalez, A., Beller, N. A., Hoffman, M. W., Olson, M., ... & Jäger, R. (2010). The effects of acute and prolonged CRAM supplementation on reaction time and subjective measures of focus and alertness in healthy college students. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 7(1), 1-8.
- Richter, Y., Herzog, Y., Cohen, T., & Steinhart, Y. (2010). The effect of phosphatidylserine-containing omega-3 fatty acids on memory abilities in subjects with subjective memory complaints: a pilot study. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 5, 313.
- Vakhapova, V., Richter, Y., Cohen, T., Herzog, Y., & Korczyn, A. D. (2011). Safety of phosphatidylserine containing omega-3 fatty acids in non-demented elderly: a double-blind placebo-controlled trial followed by an open-label extension. BMC Neurology, 11(1), 79.
- Parker, A. G., Gordon, J., Thornton, A., Byars, A., Lubker, J., Bartlett, M., ... & Kreider, R. B. (2011). The effects of IQPLUS Focus on cognitive function, mood and endocrine response before and following acute exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 8, 16.
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- Juneja, L.R., Chu, D.C., Okubo, T., Nagato, Y and Yokogoshi H. (1999). L-theanine—a unique amino acid of green tea and its relaxation effect in humans. Food Science and Technology, 10, 199-204.
- Petroff, O. A. (2002). Book Review: GABA and glutamate in the human brain. The Neuroscientist, 8(6), 562-573.
- Kelly, S.P. (2006). Increases in alpha oscillatory power reflect an active retinotopic mechanism for distracter suppression during sustained visuospatial attention. Journal Neurophysiology, 95(6), 3844-3851.
- Rae, C., Digney, A. L., McEwan, S. R., & Bates, T. C. (2003). Oral creatine monohydrate supplementation improves brain performance: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over trial. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 270(1529), 2147-2150.
- Waegemans, T., Wilsher, C. R., Danniau, A., Ferris, S. H., Kurz, A., & Winblad, B. (2002). Clinical efficacy of piracetam in cognitive impairment: a meta-analysis. Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders, 13(4), 217-224.
- Bartus, R. T., Dean, R. L., Sherman, K. A., Friedman, E., & Beer, B. (1981). Profound effects of combining choline and piracetam on memory enhancement and cholinergic function in aged rats. Neurobiology of Aging, 2(2), 105-111.
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- Stough, C., Lloyd, J., Clarke, J., Downey, L., Hutchison, C., Rodgers, T., & Nathan, P. (2001). The chronic effects of an extract of Bacopa monniera (Brahmi) on cognitive function in healthy human subjects. Psychopharmacology, 156(4), 481-484.
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- Kennedy, D. O., & Scholey, A. B. (2003). Ginseng: potential for the enhancement of cognitive performance and mood. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 75(3), 687-700.
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