What supplements do Olympic weightlifters use?

By: Maria Trimarchi

To maximize their training, weightlifters need to make sure they're getting the best possible nutrition.
To maximize their training, weightlifters need to make sure they're getting the best possible nutrition.

Weightlifting has been an Olympic sport since the first modern-day games in Athens in 1896, and ever since, it's been a battle to see who is the strongest, the fittest and, ultimately, a winning Olympian.

A study conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital in Massachusetts suggests that human growth hormone (hGH) is a commonly used substance among American male weightlifters of all levels. Researchers found that as many as 12 percent of weightlifters surveyed admitted they use the anabolic steroid, with the median usage lasting for a 23-week period [source: Malinowski]. And it's not only at the amateur level -- U.S. Olympic weightlifter Patrick Mendes was recently suspended for two years for using hGH. He is not alone.

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But there's a difference between enhancing your performance with substances that may harm you or give you unfair advantage in your sport and taking supplements to make sure you're getting all the protein, carbohydrates, fats, and vitamins and minerals you need in your daily diet. The World Anti-Doping Agency maintains a strict list of substances Olympians are prohibited from using, both in and out of competition -- the list currently includes anabolic agents, peptide hormones, beta-2 agonists, hormone antagonists and modulators, diuretics and other masking agents, stimulants (caffeine was prohibited until 2004), narcotics, cannabinoids, and glucocorticosteroids. Athletes are also prohibited from gene doping, enhancement of oxygen transfer (also known as blood doping), and chemical and physical manipulation. When Pat Mendes tested positive for hGH, for example, he was in violation of the International Weightlifting Federation Anti-Doping Policies and the USADA Protocol for Olympic and Paralympic Movement Testing -- and was subsequently banned from participating in the 2012 London games.

But none of those are actually dietary supplements. An athlete's dietary requirements can far exceed what most of the rest of us need because they use more energy, but your intake needs are also based on your overall health, how your metabolism works and, in general, how your individual body works. Olympic athletes have the best odds of achieving their best performances when their nutritional needs are met and maintained.

Just like us non-Olympians, the types of supplements Olympic weightlifters use are going to be determined by their own bodies' needs. Olympic nutritionists emphasize the importance of a well-balanced diet full of energy-boosting and tissue-rebuilding foods, such as carbohydrates, protein, fats and fluids, but Olympic athletes may supplement their diets with vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iron and zinc, as well as amino acids, among other compounds. Let's look at some of the most commonly used supplements, beginning with what amino acids are and why they're important for weightlifters.

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Breaking Down the Benefits

Elite athletes use much more energy that the rest of us, but nutritionists and sports medicine professionals rarely recommend dietary supplements over a balanced diet unless an athlete has a deficiency. Still, many athletes and Olympians may choose to supplement their diet to help the body perform, recover and repair itself at peak performance.

Amino acids are what the body uses to build protein, and they also play a role in your body's metabolism and its ability to repair body tissues. There are three amino acids that the body can't produce itself, which have to come from food and supplements: These are called branched-chain amino acids (BCAA). One of the three, leucine, is believed to be responsible for synthesizing protein in the body -- essential for building muscle tissue -- hence why some elite athletes choose to take BCAA supplements.

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Additionally, the amino acid L-Glutamine is popular among weightlifters and body builders, because it prevents muscle loss, promotes muscle growth and helps boost the muscle energy supply.

Your body also uses amino acids to produce a chemical called creatine, which it stores in its muscles. Creatine entered the public consciousness when athletes in the former USSR began to use it as a performance enhancer -- since 1992, it's been a go-to supplement for many athletes, because it may help improve overall performance as well as build strength and lean muscle mass during brief, intense training -- including weightlifting. Findings from a study that followed weightlifting performance while participants were using creatine supplements showed that weightlifters taking it had an average of 8 percent greater muscle strength and a 14 percent increase in lifting performance over those using a placebo [source: Rawson].

In addition to amino acid supplementation, weightlifters may find they benefit from glucosamine supplements. Glucosamine is an amino-monosaccharide, a compound of protein and carbohydrate that naturally occurs in your body and may help the body recover from injury by repairing and strengthening cartilage and reducing joint pain as well as joint swelling and stiffness.

There are also three essential minerals that keep Olympian bodies (and those of mere mortals) in tip-top shape.

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Calcium, Iron and Zinc

Vitamins and minerals also help the body manage your energy levels, how well your immune system works and how efficiently your muscles contract. Olympic-level athletes, such as elite weightlifters, use more energy and place their bodies under more stress when they train than many of the rest of us, and there are three essential minerals that can help them manage that: calcium, iron and zinc. Let's look at calcium's benefits first.

Your body needs calcium to grow strong bones and to maintain that strength and health. It also plays an important role in heart health and blood clotting, as well as how well your nerves communicate. Calcium boosts bone density (which reduces the risk of bone fractures).

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Iron is an essential mineral and one of the most common nutritional deficiencies among athletes [source: U.S. Olympic Committee]. Iron (and the B-vitamins B12 and folate) is essential for making healthy red blood cells. It also plays an important role in how your body gets oxygen from your lungs to all its cells and in energy production.

Of those three essential minerals mentioned above, that leaves us with zinc. Zinc deficiency may lead to a weakened immune system, but what's special about zinc and elite athletes is that if their bodies don't have enough of the mineral, they can't maintain adequate levels of testosterone in the blood. Without the right level of testosterone, the body can't maintain adequate muscle mass and muscle strength.

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