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Energy in a Bottle?

You’ve got to hand it to sports supplement companies: They’re always coming up with something new to entice potential customers. Much of their innovation is driven by competition, and the seemingly “revolutionary” products that result have both positive and negative aspects for consumers. The positive aspect is that many newly developed supplements are based on good science and truly offer benefits to users—for example, creatine and beta-alanine. While there will always be “outliers,” for whom even those products produce little or no results, they do work for the majority of people who use them. Without a doubt they’re based on solid scientific foundations.

The negative aspect of new-product development involves marketing products that don’t have scientific legitimacy. One example was an herbal product made from an obscure Nigerian herb that was supposedly a potent aphrodisiac. A study that used rats as subjects found that the herb significantly increased testosterone. No follow-up study confirmed that effect in humans, but that didn’t stop certain people from marketing the herb under the premise that it “boosted testosterone levels 200 percent.” It did—but only in rats.

The proven effectiveness of creatine has resulted in a plethora of alleged new-and-improved supplements, but the jury is still out on many of them. The basic mechanism of creatine is that it acts as a backup for the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate in cells, particularly in muscle cells. ATP is the most elemental form of energy produced in the body, and all foods, whether carb, fat or protein, are eventually converted into it. The structure of ATP consists of a backbone of adenosine complexed with the 5-carbon sugar ribose, which has three phosphate groups attached to it. When the bonds of one of the phosphate groups are broken, energy is produced. That converts ATP into ADP, with two bonded phosphate groups left, but ATP is most active with three phosphate groups attached. That’s where creatine enters the picture.

Creatine is stored in muscle both in a free form and in a form bonded with phosphate. When ATP is converted into ADP, creatine donates a phosphate group, thereby replenishing the depleted ATP structure. In that respect, creatine acts similarly to a second battery in a car. By maintaining ATP levels, it maximizes energy production, which translates into numerous beneficial effects, including more intense training.

Since ATP is the most elemental energy source, why not just supplement with ATP? Theoretically, any supplement that can boost ATP should result in increased energy during high-intensity exercise, such as bodybuilding training. A study in which rodents were given five milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight of an oral ATP supplement led to an increase in ATP uptake and production. That suggested that ATP supplements could benefit humans, but a later study done with humans that compared a high dose (225 milligrams) with a low dose (150 milligrams) of oral ATP taken for 14 days found no differences in blood ATP. The supplements also had no effect on bench press strength or endurance, along with no changes in peak power, average power or total work during anaerobic-exercise testing. There was, however, a 22 percent increase in bench press training volume after 14 days of supplementation in the ATP subjects compared to those taking a placebo.

Despite the lukewarm response shown in that initial human study, a few companies have marketed ATP supplements on the premise that since ATP is the immediate source of energy in the body and creatine supports ATP, taking a direct ATP supplement should prove even more effective. A recent study that examined the effects of a commercial ATP supplement featured 24 healthy young men, average age 23.1 While all regularly engaged in weight training, aerobics and sports, none were competitive athletes. They took either a placebo or a commercially available ATP supplement, in a dose that was based on their weight.

The supplement didn’t improve muscle strength, power output or endurance. The dose of ATP was considerably higher than the dose used in the previous ATP study. The authors suggest that the subjects didn’t respond to the oral ATP because it didn’t survive the digestion and absorption process in the gut. On the other hand, since they took no measurements of blood ATP, how much it was elevated remains speculative. The researchers focused on ATP-supplement-induced exercise-performance increases and found none.

This study is a classic example of something that seems plausible but doesn’t pan out in real-world testing procedures. While there’s no doubt that boosting ATP would likely improve training intensity, oral ATP supplements don’t appear to be the way to go. A more prudent and proven method of maximizing ATP in muscle is to stick with creatine monohydrate supplements.

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1 Herda, T.J., et al. (2008). Effects of a supplement designed to increase ATP levels on muscle strength, power, output, and endurance. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 29:5:3.

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