Building Muscle and Increasing Athletic Endurance with Essential Fatty Acids

Every expert seems to advise everybody to consume more essential fatty acids, especially those in fish oil supplements. But is fish oil really helpful in athletic training.

Fish Oil for Bodybuilding

A typical pitch for fish oil goes something like this:

"Once humans got sufficient omega-3 essential fatty acids from a whole food, paleolithic diet. Now, scientists estimate, 95% of us are deficient. And what is the best way to boost omega-3 consumption? Fish oil."

Fish oil certainly is the most efficient way to boost consumption of the essential fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid, also known as EPA.

Microalgae supplements provide docosahexaenoic acid, also known as DHA, but not EPA, and the body has to convert yet another non-essential fatty acid found in plant oils, alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, into the fatty acids it actually needs.

Fish oil provides the right fatty acid for fighting inflammation in a form the body can use right away. But how important is it for bodybuilding?

The big benefit of fish oil in bodybuilding is in preventing aches and pains, especially those associated with sports overuse injury. The less you hurt, the more you can work out.

You still have to give your muscles their recovery time even if you do take fish oil, but when it is time to do your regular workout, you may be able to do it with less pain to interfere with real gains.

What If You Exercise for Weight Loss?

But what if you aren't trying to compete in a muscle-building contest? What if you are just trying to get rid of fat and flab?

Scientists at the Nutritional Physiology Research Centre and the Australian Technology Network Centre for Metabolic Fitness recruited overweight men and women to exercise and to take either a placebo or a fish oil supplement every day, providing 1560 mg of DHA every day and 360 mg of EPA every day. Both groups worked out three times a week for 45 minutes at 75% of their maximal heart rate. At the end of the 12-week study, only the group that had taken fish oil both lost fat and gained muscle.

But exercise expert Dr. John Berardi reports that a study at the University of Western Ontario, where he is on faculty, found that the basal metabolic rate can go up 300 to 400 calories a day when exercisers consume fish oil. Even if they don't actually exercise.

How Much Fish Oil Do I Need?

To get the muscle-building and fat-burning benefits of fish oil start with enough fish oil to get 2,000 mg of DHA plus EPA. If you take a high-DHA brand like Xtend-Life (which is recommended, because DHA is the ingredient that helps the heart rhythm stay regular during exercise), that's about 5 capsules a day. Or if you just don't want to take that many capsules, a single teaspoon (5 ml) of Nordic Naturals cod liver oil will work just as well.

Selected References:
  • Want to read the original research? Here is where you find the University of South Australia study online.
  • Hill AM, Buckley JD, Murphy KJ, Howe PR. Combining fish-oil supplements with regular aerobic exercise improves body composition and cardiovascular disease risk factors. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 May;85(5):1267-74.
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