This article was featured in Flex Magazine, April 1995 issue. It was written
by Bob Lefavi, and Timothy C. Fritz. Bob Lefavi, PhD, is an assistant professor
in Georgia Southern University's graduate health science program, located at
Armstrong State College, Savannah, Georgia. He was the 1990 IFBB North
American bantamweight champ, and was runner up in the 1989 USA, and 1992
Nationals in that weight class. Timothy C. Fritz, B. Nutr. Sc., is a graduate research assistant in Georgia Southern University's exercise science program in Statesboro, Georgia.
What every bodybuilder should know
You know all those monsters you see in the magazines month after month, the
ones you've been working your butt off to look like? Well, take heart. The
fact is, they don't train much differently than any of us mortals do.
Ok, sure, they probably work out with heavier weights and more likely than not
are genetically gifted for bodybuilding, but if you get a chance to hang around
the greatest athletes in the sport, you come to realize that it's their concern
for the little things, like dietary and training details, that separates them
from the average Joe in the gym.
These details include really warming up before a workout, actually weighing
food, planning the day's meal in advance and so on. From studying many of these
athletes, it's easy to conclude that this attention to seemingly insignificant
minutiae is what makes great bodybuilders stand out from the rest.
For instance, when was the last time you gave any thought to your dietary
mineral intake? No, I don't mean popping a few supplements occasionally,
I mean really taking a good look at the level of minerals in your diet. If it's
been a while, you're not alone.
Many bodybuilders give little thought to those elements in their diets that don't
provide calories. That's a big mistake, because your diet contains plenty of
vital components that do more than just provide energy, like supporting muscle
tissue, enhancing growth, etc. In fact, these nutrients, called micronutrients,
may be more important for bodybuilders than calorie producing nutrients
precisely because of these other physiological functions.
The purpose of this article is to review the top 10 dietary minerals from a
bodybuilding perspective. Will it really make a difference for you to become
familiar with this stuff? Not if you're as muscular as you want to be. After
all, these are just the little things.
When considering how important a dietary mineral is in bodybuilding, we can look
at the sport's nutrition research to answer at least one of four questions.
- Is the mineral directly involved in muscle action, protein synthesis,
or the integrity of the muscle cell.
- Does exercise result in an increased requirement of that nutrient for
- Do athletes typically have suboptimal intakes of that mineral?
- Does dietary supplementation with that mineral improve performance and
With these questions in mind, we can now review the minerals that best promote
increases in strength and growth. Here is our list, in reverse order.
This mineral is an important electrolyte found within muscle cells and works
closely with sodium to regulate body water levels. As well, Potassium plays
a critical role in facilitating the electrical potentials across nerve and muscle
cells that result in muscle contraction. Potassium is even involved in
glycogen storage (for high intensity muscular energy). A poor potassium /
sodium balance can lead to improper fluid levels, dehydration, muscle cramps
and weakness. Fortunately, dietary intake of potassium is generally not a
problem for most people, but bodybuilders should become familiar with its
role and the foods where it can be found.
The trace mineral Copper may soon prove more vital to bodybuilders than was
previously thought. It's included in this list not because of its involvement
in oxygen transport and utilization (as well as many enzymatic reactions, not
the least of which is helping in the production of noradrenaline) but because
Copper has been shown to increase in the bloodstream during intense exercise.
This fact leads to the conclusion that copper plays a direct role in high
intensity muscular work such as bodybuilding, and that there may be conditions
under which some bodybuilders ingest suboptimal amounts. Although most folks
probably do take in enough copper, it's a good idea to monitor your copper
intake. You'll likely hear more about this mineral in the future.
This is a nonelectrolyte mineral that has received much recent attention in
the bodybuilding community due to the perceived effects of one of its salt
forms, vanadyl sulfate. Vanadium is to sea creature what iron is to humans;
it makes a jellyfish's blood green like iron makes our blood red. Although the
vast majority of research on Vanadium supplementation has been carried out on
diabetic rats, the published results tend to show a promising glycogen storing
effect on muscle tissue. This may explain the subjective analysis of some
bodybuilders who swear the feel 'harder' after taking vanadyl sulfate. Problem
is, we really don't know much yet about vanadyl sulfate's effects on athletic
performance. Nor do we know much about the long term effects of supplementation
with vanadium salt, but there is a theoretical mechanism of action and at least
You may be aware that the mineral Iron is a constituent of hemoglobin and is
responsible for oxygen transport and, indirectly, subsequent oxidative energy
production. What does this have to do with bodybuilding? Well, your ability to
recover between sets is related to the efficiency of your aerobics system.
The more oxygen you can supply to your working muscles, the quicker your muscles
can recover in time for another hard set.
Moreover, Iron is particularly critical for female bodybuilders. Women lose
some Iron in their menstrual flow every month. As well, female weight trainers,
who typically don't consume much red meat, which is high in iron, may not
readily replace vulnerable iron stores. Therefore, female bodybuilders run
the risk of anemia if they're not careful about iron intake.
A mineral that is present in the body in large amounts, phosphorus is
directly linked to exercise metabolism since it produces high energy molecules
such as Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) and Creatine Phosphate. Phosphorus
works in conjunction with Calcium, so it's important to keep phosphorus
and calcium intakes close to a 1:1 ration; an imbalance creates a potential
nutrition problem. Of further interest, phosphorus supplementation has been
shown to decrease blood lactic acid levels during exercise.
As most bodybuilders know, Sodium is an electrolyte that plays a vital role
in the regulation of body fluids. The level of sodium in the body determines
the amount of water the body will 'hold', and high intakes can cause body
tissues to swell. (It is not uncommon to look like 'Quasibloato' and be up
to two pounds heavier the morning after scarfing down a Big Mac and large
fries.) Although a normal diet usually contains a reasonable amount of sodium,
be careful not to limit sodium intake too much at contest time to get an
ultra shredded look. An excessively low sodium intake turns on protective
mechanisms within the body that cause sodium and water retention. Finally,
keep in mind that sodium plays a major role in resistance training; its function
in nerve impulse transmission and muscular contraction is critical to
bodybuilders. Dietary sodium isn't all that bad, it's having the right amount
The trace element Chromium is the key part of glucose tolerance factor,
a substance that help insulin bind to its receptors on tissues. In other
words, Chromium help insulin do its job of transporting glucose, amino acids
and fatty acids into cells. Athletes probably need more Chromium than
nonathletes, but whether chromium is truly anabolic is a bone of contention
among scientists. The fact is that chromium appears to help glucose metabolism
and probably helps in lipid metabolism but has not yet been clearly established to
increase lean body mass. Claims of ripped, freakish physiques from chromium
supplementation are premature, to say the least. However, this mineral weighs
in at number four because athletes must become more familiar with its role in
Think Zinc for growth. That's right, the mineral zinc is involved in virtually
all phases of growth. Even more critical for bodybuilders, studies have shown
that high intensity exercise stimulates excessive zinc loss. Further, diets
of some athletes have been found to be low in zinc. This potential double
edged sword, excess loss coupled with possible low intakes, moves zinc into
our number three position. If you're not mindful of your zinc intake, your
growth may be stymied.
The most abundant mineral in the body, Calcium is the second most important
mineral for bodybuilders. There are several reasons for this.
- Bodybuilders may have difficulty maintaining the needed 1:1 calcium to
phosphorus ratio. First, many lifters try to avoid dairy products (containing
calcium) because of a relatively unfounded fear that they will 'smooth them out'.
Second, a typical bodybuilding diet is high in protein, meaning that it's also
high in phosphorus (further throwing off this ratio) and causes excess
amounts of calcium to be excreted in urine.
- Calcium is the primary mineral involved in muscular contraction (ever
head of calcium ions in the 'sliding filament theory of muscular contraction'?)
- The structural stress from weight training requires a steady supply of
calcium to maintain high bone density.
- Female athletes need to be especially careful of their dietary calcium
intake, as low estrogen levels can contribute to decreased calcium absorption
and increased calcium loss. Also, keep in mind that Vitamin D help with
calcium absorption, making vitamin D fortified dairy products a good source
of this mineral.
Magnesium takes the number one spot not only because it has a theoretical
mechanism of action (a plausible way it can help bodybuilders) but also due
to recent studies identifying the performance enhancing benefits of
Magnesium's role in bodybuilding revolves around energy production and protein
synthesis. Studies on many different types of athletes have revealed excessive
magnesium losses in sweat. Unfortunately, bodybuilders probably don't make up
for these losses in their diets, as many food high in magnesium (nuts,
legumes, etc) do not typically top a bodybuilder's grocery list.
Brilla and Haley from Western Washington University in Bellingham recently
published the results of a research study in which magnesium supplemented
lifters exerted greater quadriceps force that unsupplemented lifters. Considering
magnesium's role in bodybuilding, factors leading to a possible suboptimal
magnesium status in athletes and results of research such as this, it's not
hard to see why so many sports nutrition specialists working with
strength / power athletes are excited about magnesium's potential.
One word of caution. Minerals are critical for peak performance. However,
overdosing on one or all of these elements can spell disaster. Too much of
one mineral can cause a functional imbalance of another mineral or cause
negative side effects without the original benefits. Too much zinc, for
example, can lead to problems with lowered HDL levels (the 'good' cholesterol).
The bottom line is to make sure you get what you need and not to megadose.
Remember, minerals may be more important for athletes than many of the
nutrients that provide calories precisely because of their often unique
physiological functions. In particular, these 10 minerals may prove
especially critical for bodybuilders because of their nutritional status
for athletes and their roles in growth, energy production and muscular
contraction. Don't brush off these critical dietary components. After all,
it's the little things that count.