In health and exercise science, useful data can be hard to come by. Many different factors can affect the results, making them hard for those of us outside of the laboratory to put into action.
A study's lifting program and results might look great, for instance, but the participants may be novices and you're advanced. Or perhaps the subjects are relatable but the workout is unfeasible. If it's a supplement study, the dose might be enormous, making it financially impractical and often physically unpleasant.
This makes it all the more special when a study arrives like the one published in the "European Journal of Applied Physiology" by a team of researchers led by Jacob Wilson, PhD, a Bodybuilding.com columnist.1 The title is a mouthful: "The effects of 12 weeks of beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate free acid supplementation on muscle mass, strength, and power in resistance-trained individuals." But get past all those words and you'll see it offers the trifecta of academic awesomeness: It's based on a rock-solid program, was tested on experienced strength athletes, and shows some seriously impressive results.
If your goals include big-time gains in strength, muscle mass, and power production, this is one experiment you should perform on yourself. Here's what you need to know.
HMB: Not Just for Beginners Anymore
HMB, or beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate, is a metabolite of the amino acid leucine, arguably the most important of the essential amino acids for muscular development. Previous studies over the last two decades have concluded that HMB can improve lean body mass gains and strength in novices when combined with resistance training.2,3 Studies involving experienced trainees have shown mixed results and have often suffered from limitations like a lack of supervision, non-periodized program, or unreasonably short duration.4,5
When taken as a supplement, HMB is thought to enhance recovery of damaged skeletal muscle tissue. The first few weeks on a new program introduce the most damage to muscle, so it is consistent that HMB has shown the most results with novice trainees in the beginning of a program. However, studies have failed to introduce both significant intensity and sufficient duration to make HMB supplementation demonstrate its effectiveness for more advanced athletes.
This new study provides for these factors; it includes excellent training, proper dieting, and controlled supplementation, using a new, more bioavailable form of HMB free acid, or HMB-FA. The researchers started with a periodized 12-week program using trained individuals who on average benched 1.3 times bodyweight and deadlifted double bodyweight. Training was supervised for 100 percent compliance, and diet and supplementation were strictly monitored. Even the control—people who were taking a placebo rather than HMB-FA—gained an average of 4.6 pounds of muscle over the course of the study and gained an increase in their 3-lift total of more than 55 pounds.
The experimental group followed the exact same program and diet but took 1 g of HMB-FA three times daily—an amount that's in-line with manufacturer's recommended dosages. This one addition seemingly made a world of difference. The experimental group increased total strength more than three times as much as the control group; it had a greater increase in vertical jump power; and it experienced a greater increase in lean body mass.
That's an incredibly impressive result.
Overreach For Dramatic Gains
Remember when you first started working out and a few sets of push-ups could boob-punch you so hard that you couldn't cough without crying for three days? The lesson was that it doesn't matter how intense the exercise you do is; it's how accustomed your body is to that exercise. Sure enough, a few weeks later, you could handle with ease what crippled you initially.
Your body has an amazing ability to adapt to physical stress. But to experience the type of high-level results that many of us seek, you need to push beyond that ability. When taken too far, too often, this is what gets labeled "overtraining." When done strategically, though, it's called "overreaching." It's when you're overreaching that a recovery aid like HMB-FA begins to make a real difference.
In action, this meant that the experimental group not only got jacked and lost body fat, but it also kept performing at a high level once the training began to be too tough to completely recover from. The placebo group, on the other hand, saw its strength decrease about 5 percent as the volume in the program went up and the program entered the overreaching phase. This group still ended in a better place than where it started, but didn't progress as far and struggled at times along the way.
12 Weeks To The Next Level
Are you ready to tackle this experiment firsthand? The workout details are below, but let's get your expectations in-line first.
This is a cycle that can help you attain some impressive overall body composition and strength gains, but it's not a traditional bodybuilding plan. This program was designed to elicit the maximum amount of muscular stimulation, so there is a heavy emphasis on compound movements. Researchers have found significant improvements using lifts like squats and deadlifts to realizing the benefits of HMB-FA, rather than leg curls and presses.
I see your wheels turning: "So I'll just add in my isolation lifts after I do all that other stuff." Stop right there. This program was created by human performance experts using a bulletproof design. It's complete, with no frills, and is designed to maximize every set.
Avoid the temptation of making significant alterations to the program; it works as is. Save the detail work for later.
Phase One (8 weeks)
The first phase of the training cycle uses a periodized, three-day-per-week schedule built around full-body workouts. Each day is a little bit different in volume and intensity, using a concept called undulating periodization. One day utilizes conventional hypertrophy loading, one day is for speed work, and another day focuses on strength.
Through phase one, systematically vary your approach to the listed 8-12 rep range, as well as the rest periods. Week one, try sets of 12 with 60-second rests. The next week, try 10 reps with 60-second rests. Week three, try 8 reps, 90-second rests, and a slightly heavier weight. This is how the researchers structured the workouts, according to Wilson. But he emphasizes that no matter the rep range or load, the researchers demanded that the lifters use full range of motion on all movements to maximize the muscle damage and growth stimulus.
Similarly, after week four of phase one, make slight alterations to your exercise selection. For example, if you've been performing conventional deadlifts, switch to sumo. If you've been doing high-bar squats, do wide-stance low-bar squats. You could also swap out the barbell military press for the dumbbell press, overhand bent-over rows to underhand, or pull-ups for chin-ups. Pick something that's the same, but different.
Phase Two (2 weeks)
The second phase, which runs for two weeks, could be considered the climax of the program. If this were a Bruce Willis movie, this would be the part where he dives onto a helicopter while the building below him explodes. The training volume is increased considerably, with the full body worked five consecutive days.
You may think that this doesn't allow for adequate recovery, and that's precisely the point. This period of training is designed to elicit "overreaching," doing the kind of damage that novice lifters get when they first get into serious training.
Your workload tapers off to favor recovery after you push hard for two weeks. This is where you'll start to see serious body composition results. Expect to have regressed slightly as you start this phase, but then to make drastic improvements by the end. This is the part where Bruce Willis gets the girl that is obviously way too young for him.
- 25-percent protein
- 50-percent carbohydrates
- 25-percent fat
The following list represents the supplement protocol for the study, where researchers were trying to control variables to identify cause and effect among study subjects. We certainly recommend that you include these supplements, like the study subjects did, but you shouldn't feel limited to them. If you want to continue taking your protein powder, multivitamin, or whatever, by all means, do so.
- 30 min. prior to training: MuscleTech Clear Muscle 1g
- Lunch: MuscleTech Clear Muscle 1g
- Dinner: MuscleTech Clear Muscle 1g
- Wilson JM, et al. The effects of 12 weeks of beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate free acid supplementation on muscle mass, strength, and power in resistance-trained individuals: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2014 Jun;114(6):1217-27.
- Jowko E, et al. Creatine and beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate (HMB) additively increase lean body mass and muscle strength during a weight-training program. Nutrition. 2001 Jul-Aug;17(7-8):558-66.
- Nissen S, et al. Effect of leucine metabolite beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate on muscle metabolism during resistance-exercise training. J Appl Physiol (1985). 1996 Nov;81(5):2095-104.
- Kreider RB, et al. Effects of calcium beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate (HMB) supplementation during resistance-training on markers of catabolism, body composition and strength. Int J Sports Med. 1999 Nov;20(8):503-9.
- Thomson JS, et al. Effects of nine weeks of beta-hydroxy-beta- methylbutyrate supplementation on strength and body composition in resistance trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 May;23(3):827-35.