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Human study: strength training builds more muscle with vitamin C and E

Vitamin C
If elderly men and women take 1000 mg vitamin C [structure below] and 600 mg vitamin E daily, they build up more muscle mass than elderly people who only do strength training. Researchers of ageing processes at the Canadian University of Sherbrooke published an article on this in Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice. Are the discredited antioxidant vitamins good for something after all?

A few years ago, a controversial study was published which showed that high doses of vitamin and C sabotage the positive effects of cardio training on the body's insulin and glucose metabolism. In that study the researchers had used healthy young men. Another study showed that high doses of vitamin C have a negative effect on muscle recovery. British researchers had discovered that the muscles of young people taking large amounts of vitamin C recover less quickly from intensive exertion. [Br J Nutr. 2006 May;95(5):976-81.]

For a long time sports scientists thought that vitamin C and E were actually good for athletes' muscles. They believed that these vitamins inhibited inflammation and thus speeded up muscle recovery. This theory was disproved however by studies in which young strength athletes were given anti-inflammatories. [J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2001 Oct;86(10):5067-70.] These showed that substances like ibuprofen and acetaminophen inhibited muscle growth.

Anti-inflammatories have a different effect in elderly people though. In this group they may actually stimulate muscle growth.

Which automatically leads to the question whether in the elderly antioxidant vitamins such as E and C perhaps also have a positive effect on the muscles. The answer is 'yes', according to the Canadians. They got nearly 50 men and women, average age 66, to train for 6 months with weights, or do nothing. Half of the training group and half of the inactive group were given a placebo. The other half were given vitamin C and E. The training group went to the gym three times a week, where they did seven basic exercises, covering all the large muscle groups. They worked at 80 percent of their 1RM.

The figures below show what happened to the test subjects during the period of the experiment. Placebo = no training + placebo; RT = placebo + weight training; AS = no weight training + vitamins; RT + AS = weight training + vitamins. The vitamin E that the test subjects took was ordinary alpha-tocopherol.

Human study: strength training builds more muscle with vitamin C and E

Human study: strength training builds more muscle with vitamin C and E

The subjects who only trained did not accumulate any fat-free mass and lost hardly any fat. The subjects that had trained and taken vitamins had gained one and a half kilograms of fat-free mass after six months. What's more their fat percentage had decreased by just over one percent.

"Antioxidant supplementation likely reduced damages and increased protein synthesis induced by muscle contraction associated with high-intensity resistance training", the researchers write in an attempt to explain their results. "This study was limited by a small sample size and the subjects' good health. Nevertheless, to overcome these limits, we used a strong research design and a well-controlled intervention. We believe this deserves to be further examined in pre-diabetic or diabetic individuals."

The idea that strength-training elderly people unlike young people react positively to antioxidant supplements is not that unlikely, if you look at the literature. Epidemiological studies have shown that elderly people who have taken more antioxidants like vitamin C and E throughout their life have stronger muscles. [Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Feb;79(2):289-94.] Animal studies have shown that elderly rats make more muscle tissue if they are given extra rutin, vitamin A and E, zinc and selenium in their food.

Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 2009 Nov;71(5):666-72.

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