Forget the latest celebrity diet and fitness plans. If you want to significantly change your physique in the shortest space of time, it’s best to ask the experts. Bodybuilders are the real pros when it comes to getting ripped, shredding fat and maintaining muscle because they’ve tried and tested all the strategies in the book. And while no one would argue that it takes superhuman amounts of effort and dedication, the transformations they can achieve are nothing short of jaw-dropping.
To create their defined, well-built physiques, bodybuilders lift weights heavy enough to create micro tears in their existing muscle tissue. They then rest the muscle so it has the chance to repair itself. But it’s when it heals the real magic happens, because it will be bigger and stronger than before. This phase is known as ‘bulking’, because bodybuilders will also eat more calories than they need to fuel those new muscle fibres.
But for bodybuilders, big muscles aren’t enough. To ensure there’s not an ounce of fat to hide those rippling abs, they also have to spend a number of weeks in the ‘cutting’ phase. When cutting, they’ll combine dieting and cardio strategies to get their body fat as low as possible, trying not to lose any lean muscle in the process.
Amateur and competitive bodybuilders alike take their nutrition seriously. As well as following a strict dietary plan, most of these athletes take proteins and nutritional supplements to help them get the optimal results from their efforts. But whether they’re cutting, bulking or maintaining, you’ll almost always find a bottle of omega-3 fish oil nestled among the powders and vitamins on their shelves.
Bodybuilders take omega-3 as they think it can give them an edge when it comes to building muscle and losing fat. In fact, naturopathic doctor, author and strength coach Dr Marc Bubbs has referred to omega-3 as a ‘game changer’ for those training intensely.
But is that true? And if so, could omega-3 help a regular gym-goer who’s just looking to add a little more lean muscle to their frame? Find out in our guide to bodybuilding and omega-3 fish oil.
What is bodybuilding and why is it so popular?
Competitive bodybuilding is different from powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting. Weightlifters have to exhibit physical strength and technique, but both male and female bodybuilders are judged purely on their appearance. In the run-up to a bodybuilding event, competitors combine different strategies in order to cut fat and increase muscle until they reach their aesthetic goals.
The most highly prized look among bodybuilders is one that’s well-built, balanced and lean - a shape which has long been held as the body ideal for men. Even as far back as the 1990s, Men’s Health magazine featured cover models with rippling abs, adverts for protein shakes and articles on how any man could achieve big shoulders and a small waist.
But the ‘strong is the new skinny’ message is now spreading to the other 50 percent of the population. While women’s fitness magazines were once full of low-calorie diets and cardio plans to help us achieve the typical model physique of waif-like thinness, today’s cover stars display six-pack abs and defined arms. From Instagram stars to personal trainers, feeling strong in body and mind has become the new model of femininity to aspire to.
The importance of building muscle
Strong may be the new skinny, but it’s also good for our health. From keeping you stable to warding off osteoporosis, boosting your metabolism and protecting your joints, adding strength training to your fitness regime can offer impressive benefits for everyone.
It’s vital to maintain muscle as you age. Unless you work hard to protect it, muscle mass declines naturally when you’re over 30. Known as sarcopenia, a loss of lean muscle tissue is even experienced by top athletes who continue to train hard throughout their lives.
But, if you don’t exercise, muscle atrophy will happen more rapidly, bringing with it frailty and instability which raises the risk of serious falls. Physically inactive people are thought to lose as much as three to five percent of their muscle mass every ten years after the age of 30.
Why do bodybuilders take fish oil pills?
Bodybuilders take fish oil supplements because they believe it will help them achieve a lean, defined look. While some claim to be attracted by its overall health advantages, for many this is only a side benefit. The truth is that bodybuilders take fish oil for its potential impact on body composition.
There are literally hundreds of articles and discussions about omega-3 and bodybuilding on popular sites such as T Nation and Bodybuilding.com, because bodybuilders believe it can help them grow new muscle tissue when they’re bulking and prevent muscle wastage when they’re cutting.
And research would seem to support that. One study, by the Centre for Human Nutrition, Division of Geriatrics and Nutritional Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine, found that taking an omega-3 supplement led to a 50% increase in the upregulation of mTOR, which is the genetic signalling pathway that stimulates lean muscle growth.
Omega-3 bodybuilding benefits
As any regular gym-goer can attest to, it’s difficult to add just a modest amount of lean muscle to your frame. Even if you weren’t planning on flexing your way through a bodybuilding competition, just adding five to ten pounds of new muscle would be a welcome addition to the physiques of most gym-goers. Here’s how omega-3 can support you in your muscle building goals.
Omega-3 fish oil benefits for muscle building
Supplementing with EPA and DHA, the active ingredients in omega-3, has been shown to support muscle protein synthesis. This process allows the body to turn the protein you eat into the fuel needed for your muscles to grow bigger.
In one study carried out by Washington University, nine healthy men and women took 4,000mg of fish oil for eight weeks. Omega-3 was shown to increase their muscle-building response to both insulin and amino acids. Having a high amount of omega-3 in the muscle seemed to prime it for protein synthesis, making it more able to build and maintain muscle.
Another study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, involved 60 healthy men and women aged between 60 and 85. They were randomly assigned to take either 4,000mg of omega-3 fish oil per day or a placebo made of corn oil. After six months, those receiving the omega-3 supplement had increased thigh muscle volume and handgrip strength.
Omega-3 fish oil can limit muscle degradation
Besides muscle building, the other holy grail of bodybuilding is how to keep hold of the muscle when you’re trying to shed body fat. Omega-3 is thought to help here, too.
In a fascinating study carried out at the McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, 20 healthy, active women were divided into two groups, with one assigned to take 5,000mg of omega-3 and the other a placebo. They took the supplement for four weeks, after which all of the women had to wear an immobilising leg brace for two weeks. The women had to eat the same diet so that they all received the same amount of protein.
The women taking the fish oil supplements showed significantly less muscle wastage during the two weeks and were the only ones to recover full muscle volume by the end of the study.
Other omega-3 fish oil bodybuilding benefits
So we’ve seen how omega-3 can help bodybuilders make and keep new muscle fibres. But can it help them build their dream bodies in other ways too?
Omega-3 fish oil benefits for fat loss
Bodybuilders take the ‘cutting’ phase of their transformation incredibly seriously. During this period, they cut calories to get as lean as possible and many believe that omega-3 can help them in their weight loss efforts.
Competitive bodybuilder Layne Norton also has a PHD in nutritional sciences. Writing on Bodybuilding.com, he says: “EPA and DHA have been suggested to support insulin function and increase glucose and fatty acid uptake into muscle cells. This may help partition nutrients toward muscle and away from fat, improving overall body composition and providing more fuel to the muscle during workouts.”
Studies appear to support this. According to the Journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, healthy adults who took 3,000mg of fish oil per day for 12 weeks saw their metabolic rate increased by an average of 5.3%, meaning they burned more calories even when at rest.
And while a 2015 meta-analysis of 21 studies concluded that fish oil does not affect body weight, it was found to reduce waist circumference and improve waist-to-hip ratios.
Omega-3 fish oil benefits for muscle recovery
Weight training at the gym can lead to some serious muscle burn. To get those bulging biceps, bodybuilders must lift progressively heavier weights to cause micro tears in their muscle tissue. Delayed onset muscle soreness (known as DOMS) is the inevitable result and it’s usually felt 8 to 72 hours after a strenuous session.
But omega-3 supplements are thought to speed up the rate at which DOMS subsides, partly because of its anti inflammatory effects. Strenuous exercise is known to cause acute levels of increased inflammation, something that the omega-3 fatty acid EPA has been found to be particularly good at soothing, wherever it occurs in the body.
A 2015 study from the Journal of Sports Science Medicine gave 27 women 3,000mg of DHA (one of the active ingredients in omega-3 fish oil) for a week. They reported 23% less soreness after doing bicep curls than the placebo group.
Omega-3 fish oil benefits muscle recovery by making its own chemicals that seem to "turn off" inflammation. The body converts EPA into chemicals called resolvins, which block inflammatory cytokines and prostaglandins. So now there’s no excuse not to do an extra 20 press-ups!
Omega-3 can help bodybuilders on a restrictive diet
One vital food source that is severely limited in a bodybuilder’s diet is fat, meaning they can be lacking in the essential fatty acid fats their bodies need to function. A high-quality fish oil supplement can help bodybuilders to maintain their strict dietary plan and still receive all the nutrients their bodies need.
Cod liver oil or omega-3: which is best for bodybuilding?
Cod liver oil is an excellent source of vitamins A and D, but it doesn’t contain anywhere near the levels of EPA and DHA that are in omega-3. It’s these two active ingredients that have been shown to help bodybuilders reach their body composition goals.
Cod liver oil can also contain high levels of heavy metals. As the liver is where toxins and contaminants are processed, this type of oil is more likely to contain environmental pollutants. Taking a good quality omega-3 fish oil that publishes its test results (such as the products we sell at Bare Biology) means you’re guaranteed to be taking something pure and fresh.
What’s the correct omega-3 dosage for bodybuilding?
How much omega-3 should you take for bodybuilding? It depends on who you ask. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson takes a tablespoon of fish oil per day to help him achieve his impressive physique. Arnold Schwarzenegger takes 1,000mg six times a day (according to his seminal book The Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding).
But what does the research tell us? Well, it’s worth noting that in the bodybuilding studies we’ve mentioned, the amounts of omega-3 used were significant, at around 3,000mg per day. Luckily you can get this dose by taking just one teaspoon per day of a clinical strength omega-3 fish oil such as Life & Soul liquid (previously Lion Heart) from Bare Biology. Other brands may say 1,000mg on the packaging, but be wary as this is normally just the weight of the capsule and the amount of EPA and DHA may well be far less.
When’s the best time to take omega-3 supplements for bodybuilding?
Nutrient timing is incredibly important for bodybuilders. The advice from T Nation’s nutritional scientist Mike Roussell PHD is to take omega-3 with meals and preferably not first thing in the morning. He says, “EPA and DHA are ‘magical’ but they're also fats. This means they can be burned as energy. So don't take them at a time when your body is dying for fuel – it's just a waste.”
Taking omega-3 supplements with a meal, preferably one that contains other fats, can also help with their bioavailability which is your body’s ability to absorb the active ingredients. The bile and enzymes produced will help you breakdown the fat, helping to transport the omega-3 to the parts of the body that need it most.
What’s the best fish oil supplement for bodybuilding?
When it comes to supplements, the best fish oil for bodybuilding is one that contains high amounts of both EPA and DHA. That’s because most of the clinical trials that have shown beneficial results had subjects who were taking relatively high, clinical doses each day.
In the case of muscle recovery, for example, the participants took 3,000mg of EPA and DHA per day. Our Life & Soul clinical strength fish oil has all the essential fatty acids you need to get the full range of omega-3 bodybuilding benefits, with 3,500mg of omega-3 (2,000mg of EPA, 1,000mg of DHA and 500mg of other omega-3s) in every single teaspoon.
It’s also guaranteed to contain low amounts of environmental toxins and comes from pure, sustainable and fresh oily fish.
Can omega-3 benefit bodybuilding?
Whether you’re a competitive bodybuilder or just want to boost your performance at the gym, taking omega-3 fish oil can help - and you don’t have to eat pounds of fish to reap the benefits if you go for a high quality fish oil.
Make sure you choose a brand that is safe and pure, with high levels of EPA and DHA like our Life & Soul omega-3 fish oil. Just remember though that while omega-3 has been shown to help bodybuilders with their goals, they won’t do anything on their own. You still have to put in those hours at the gym!