Much has been said, researched and discussed about the benefits of many supplements, and maybe none more so than HMB – otherwise known as beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate.
First developed and in our gyms in the 1990s, the main focus was how expensive they were, and whether they were worth it. The studies into HMB supplements seemed to conflict. While some concluded they were beneficial, others didn’t. Back then, you either had to try them to see if they worked for you or (considering the cost) give them a miss.
But today, thankfully, the cost of HMB supplements has come down. And a new 2017 study provides new evidence to get us excited about this supplement.
Pushing HMB Supplements to Their Limits
There is a good reason as to why many of the earlier studies conflicted with each other. It turns out that the HMB supplements were given to subjects of differing strength, fitness and body composition. It’s now widely accepted that HMB supplements only work when they’re pushed: This means that they will only work in highly trained individuals capable of really pushing themselves to their limits of muscle strength, power and aerobic capacity.
But Let’s Break this Down
Positive benefits are seen in untrained individuals, but only in the short term. When untrained individuals begin working out, they’re nearly always putting their body through a punishing regime. They typically push themselves to their own limits, and recovery is long and hard. Taking HMB supplements during this time will positively affect output and body composition. This was demonstrated in one of the earliest scientific studies into HMP supplements, a much referred to study in 1996 by Nissen et al. But over time and continuous training, untrained individuals become semi-trained individuals. They no longer find the same exercises as hard, and HMB becomes inefficient at improving results.
In trained individuals, who follow training regimes that stay the same and don’t change, HMB supplements also fail to work. A study by Kreider et al in 1999 concluded that “HMB supplementation during resistance training does not reduce catabolism or affect training-induced changes in body composition and strength in experienced resistance-trained males”.
However, this is Not to Say that HMB Supplements Don’t Work
Far from it, in fact. But as mentioned earlier, they need to be made to work. And this is best seen in trained individuals who mix up their work outs. Sticking to the same routine (as in the 1999 study), will see benefits plateau. And that’s when frustration and negativity kicks in. Sticking to the same routine (be that the same exercises, same weights or same rep range) means you’re not progressively overloading. If you’re not causing the necessary damage to your muscles then there’s nothing for HMB supplements to work with.
It’s All About the Regime
Some careful planning and ‘periodised’ training in highly trained individuals is key. A study in 2014 by Wilson et al used this as their hypothesis, and proved it to be true – HMB supplements, in conjunction with high intensity, periodised training results in increased lean body mass, muscle growth, strength and power. It also concluded that HMB supplements can help prevent “typical declines in performance that are characteristic in overreaching”. They effectively reduce the time it takes to reach the point where performance begins to decline.
All of the subjects in this study were elite athletes, at the top of their game, able to squat over 500 lbs and deadlift over 600 lbs. Over eight weeks they underwent a BRUTAL training regime that was regularly changed up. Then for the following two weeks, they doubled this training protocol. Those taking HMB supplements demonstrated a dramatically improved recovery time, less muscle damage, more lean muscle mass production and more fat loss than those on a placebo.
We can conclude that HMB supplements work in already trained individuals, capable of pushing to the next goal. But what do I mean when I say ‘work’. What do they do? What benefits do HMB supplements have and do they really make that much of a difference?
Well, as ever, in true Fitness Savvy style, we’ve done all the scientific research so you don’t have to. And we’ve found a recent study (July 2017) that answers all of that, and more…
All About that Brand New HMB Supplement Study
In a nutshell, HMB supplements work. The 2017 study by Durkalec-Michalski et al, which looked at athletes trained in combat sports, concludes that “HMB supplementation in athletes training in combat sports promotes an advantageous reduction of fat mass and increase in fat-free mass, anaerobic peak power, average power, and post-anaerobic exercise lactate concentrations”. It also found benefits to aerobic capacity. Sounds like the holy grail of high-end sports supplements, huh?
Indeed so. The aim of this study wasn’t just to measure the known effects on body composition, but to also look at the effects of HMB supplements on physical capacity. So the results were very good. HMB supplements, when they’re put to work, lead to positive changes in body composition, power, performance and recovery.
These benefits (leading to noticeable peaks in performance in trained and competing individuals) can mean the difference between a medal finish/personal best/smashing of a goal and extreme disappointment. What’s more, this study found that in the subjects given HMB supplements, fat decreased, and fat-free mass increased, but with no overall change in body mass. This could be crucial in sports such as boxing, where there are strict weight categories.
HMB supplements work by increasing protein synthesis and decreasing protein breakdown. This probably sounds familiar to you as someone who trains. Other supplements do the same. So what else makes HMB supplements stand out? Aside from the positive changes in body composition, what about those other benefits to power and aerobic and anaerobic capacity? Some of these benefits have been found in previous smaller-scale studies. The 2017 study backs up these findings, in a bigger study, and a more robust way.
It’s All About the Anaerobic Power
Being able to utilise maximum strength, power and speed depends on a lot of anaerobic capacity. This recent 2017 study found “a significant increase in the anaerobic power and post-exercise lactate concentrations” in those taking the HMB supplements compared to those on the placebo pills. The researchers concluded that “HMB positively supported anaerobic capacity and improved the athletes’ buffer capacity”.
An increase in anaerobic capacity means an increased ability to train. This enables an individual to perform at a higher exercise intensity. You don’t need us to underline, bold and italicise how good that is.
As well as this, they found “an increase in the maximum speed with a simultaneous reduction of time needed to achieve peak power”. So in other words, HMB supplements increased the speed of the workout and reduced the time required to reach peak power. Any need for me to get my capital letters out?
HMB Supplements and Resistance Training
Several previous studies looked at the effects of HMB supplements in resistance training, too. This 2017 paper refers to a few previous studies which further back up their findings, not only in combat sports. One, by Kraemer et al in 2009, looked at resistance training individuals over 12 weeks. They concluded that HMB supplements “beneficially affected training-induced changes in lean body mass, muscle strength, and power”.
So HMB supplements work well for trained resistance athletes and sportspeople too.
But What About Endurance Sports?
We’ve found a study for that as well.
Carried out in 2007 by Lamboley et al, this study looked at the effects of HMB supplements on endurance training in college students. The researchers found that subjects supplemented with HMB considerably increased their VO2max during exercise. However, this study focused on individuals who were not highly trained and only exercised at recreational levels. They had no previous experience in aerobic training. It’s therefore postulated that any benefit would soon come to an end as individuals could no longer push themselves harder.
In the 2017 study we’re focussing on, trained combat sports athletes were studied. HMB supplements increased the aerobic adaptation in these highly trained athletes. Even a tiny increase in aerobic adaptation (and therefore sports capacity) can be advantageous when training at such a high level.
HMB is also thought to help slow down the loss of exercise capacity and muscle volume, strength and power. This can typically occur during body mass reduction regimes prior to a competition. This is especially important in those who need to cut to reach a lower body mass to meet a specific bodyweight category.
Effects on Blood Markers
Enzymes such as creatine kinase (CK) and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) are chemical markers of muscle damage, found in the blood. The 2017 study found no difference in the levels of these markers, or on levels of testosterone or cortisol. A handful of previous studies have recorded a decreased level of CK and LDH in the blood after HMB supplementation. However, the majority support the findings of Durkalec-Michalski et al.
Durkalec-Michalski et al theorised that the timing of HMB supplementation could have an impact on CK, LDH and therefore muscle damage. They noted that further studies of this nature, with HMB supplements given immediately before exercise, an hour later and then three hours after the end of exercise could demonstrate different results. It could also be the case that CK and LDH are reduced – but in the very short term – before the body adapts to the effects of HMB supplements. Sampling the subject’s blood as Durkalec-Michalski et al did, after 12 weeks, might have missed any dips in levels of CK and LDH during the 12-week experiment. The type of training could also impact on the effect of HMB supplements on blood markers. As can the subject’s own biology, or homeostasis, on levels of enzymes and hormones.
Changing Up Training – A Quick Note
Interestingly, during the Durkalec-Michalski at al study, the athletes didn’t make any changes to their dietary habits or training regimes – during the HMB supplementation nor the placebo period. As their diet remained consistent throughout, yet their body mass stayed the same, it means that their diets provided enough daily energy to support their daily energy expenditure. (Remember that fat mass went down, and fat-free mass went up, but no changes to overall body mass were reported.) The researchers therefore reasonably concluded that “HMB supplementation resulted in some desired changes in the body composition”.
This also means that previous beliefs that HMB only works well when individuals carry out periodised training could well be misleading. More studies would be needed, potentially over longer periods of time to see whether results would taper off, or studies carried out with measurements taken throughout the 12-week period. It’s unclear from this study if there was a peak in body composition changes throughout the study, which then began to taper off, as measurements were only taken at the end.
The Real Positives of HMB Supplements
That said, all the evidence does point to the positive benefits of HMB supplements being at their highest during diverse and progressive exercise. In highly trained individuals, the exercise stimulus must be relatively stronger than in an untrained individual in order to get the maximum benefit from HMB supplements. The exercise stimulus must be enough to stimulate the synthesis of protein in the muscles and also supress catabolism in order to positively affect body composition.
The reduction in fat mass has been hypothesised by Durkalec-Michalski et al to be due to an increase in the oxidation of the building blocks of fat, fatty acids. Lipolysis (the breakdown of lipids) and insulin sensitivity increases are also thought to contribute.
The Durkalec-Michalski at al Study
Let’s talk briefly about how robust this study was. All too often we hear studies quoted and it turns out they’re not very robust at all. We’d never quote from a dodgy study or rave about a supplement using unqualified data.
This 2017 study was a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study. This means that subjects were randomly assigned either HMB supplements or a placebo, and they, nor the researchers, knew which protocol they were on. The study lasted for two 12-week periods, with a ten-day ‘washout’ (to rid the body of the effects of HMB supplements for those on them) period in between. The crossover part means that each subject underwent a 12-week period on the HMB supplements, and a 12-week period on the placebo. Subjects didn’t know which protocol they were on, or whether they were taking HMB supplements in the first 12 weeks, or the second.
All 42 subjects were male, highly trained in combat sports including wrestling, judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, healthy and with at least five years training experience. Each was given either a capsule equivalent to 1000mg HMB three times a day, or a placebo capsule three times a day. On training days, capsules were taken in the morning upon waking, immediately after training, and before going to bed. On non-training days, capsules were taken with breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Each athlete underwent a series of tests including body composition analysis, aerobic and anaerobic capacity and blood sampling for biochemical analysis, before and after each 12-week period of the study. Body composition was measured using bioelectrical impedance. Aerobic capacity by measuring VO2max and ventilatory threshold whilst indoor cycling. Anaerobic capacity was measured on the same cycling machine, with measurements of peak power output, average power output, minimal power output and maximum speed taken whilst cycling at maximum effort. Finally, blood samples were taken to measure the levels of the enzymes creatine kinase (CK), lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) and the hormones testosterone and cortisol. Conditions such as time of test and temperature of the lab were kept consistent throughout.
Fitness Savvy’s Take on HMB Supplements
Our final verdict on HMB supplements? They work.
HMB supplements help reduce fat mass and increase lean muscle and fat-free mass. They also increase aerobic and anaerobic capacity. If you’re a highly trained athlete and you love mixing up your exercise and pushing your limits, then HMB supplements are for you.
At the moment, the recommended dosage is 3mg a day, spread over three 1mg doses. The Durkalec-Michalski at al team recommends further study on exactly when HMB supplements should be taken but before exercise, an hour later and then three hours after exercise ends seems to be the regime for optimal benefits.
If you do decide to take HMB supplements, talk to us and let us know how you get on! We can compare notes…