Adaptogens and Ashwagandha, in particular, have become incredibly popular in the last few years.
They seem to have appeared out of nowhere and have taken us by storm with the many potential benefits and little to no drawbacks.
Do people use Ashwagandha for bodybuilding? Is it all it’s cracked out to be? Let’s see what the research suggests.
Ashwagandha, Muscle Growth, and Strength
Every month, a seemingly more effective supplement for muscle and strength gain shows up. Most of them don’t work, of course, but that might not be the case of ashwagandha. In fact, the situation is quite curious.
In one 8-week controlled trial, men who were given 500 mg of standardized root extracts of ashwagandha had improved speed and lower body muscular strength when compared to the placebo group (1). Additionally, the subjects who were given a daily dose of Arjuna had improved cardiovascular endurance and lower systolic blood pressure.
Researchers concluded that both supplements appeared to be safe for adults so long as the dosages were right.
In another study, researchers split 57 men (aged 18 to 50) into two groups: one group took 300 mg ashwagandha root extract twice a day, and the other was given a placebo (2). All men had little to no experience with weight training.
Researchers wanted to examine the effects of ashwagandha on muscle strength and size, as well as markers of recovery, body composition, and serum testosterone levels.
Both groups began a resistance training protocol for eight weeks before the initial measurements were repeated.
When compared to placebo, the Ashwagandha group had shown:
- More significant strength gains on the bench press and leg extension
- Considerable muscle growth in the arms and chest
- Much less exercise-induced muscle damage (i.e., better recovery)
- Higher increases in testosterone levels
- Greater fat loss
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In another study, subjects were given an increasingly higher dose of ashwagandha for 30 days (3). They began with 750 mg and got up to 1250 mg in the last ten days of the trial.
Aside from one drop-out who experienced hallucinogenic effects with vertigo at the lowest dose, all other subjects had reduced LDL (bad) cholesterol, increased strength, maintained normal organ function, and reduction in body fat percentage. Six of the subjects also experienced improved sleep.
Ashwagandha seems to be showing promising results. But it’s worth noting that more research needs to be conducted before we can draw a conclusion. After all, these were all short-term studies with relatively few subjects.
How these effects might change on a longer time scale (say, six months) or with more participants is not clear right now.
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Ashwagandha and Fat Loss
A few studies – some of which we covered above – have linked ashwagandha supplementation with fat loss. But is that the case?
A couple of interesting studies (one done on newbies and one on subjects with the binge-eating disorder) have made claims that fat loss is improved with ashwagandha (2, 4). So it’s fair to say that ashwagandha can help us lose fat, but it’s also important to point out that it might not be able to do that on its own.
In one study done on elite Indian cyclists, subjects were split into two groups: one group was given 500 mg capsules of aqueous roots of Ashwagandha twice daily, and the other was given a placebo (5).
After eight weeks, researchers concluded that the Ashwagandha group saw significant improvements in their aerobic capacity when compared to placebo. However, there were no improvements in fat oxidation in either group.
One last thing worth pointing out here is Ashwagandha’s effect on thyroid function. It appears that Ashwagandha may increase the levels of T3 and T4 in subclinical hypothyroid patients, two hormones essential for body temperature, and metabolic health, among other things (6).
Optimal levels of these hormones are crucial for effective fat loss. But Ashwagandha may prove to be useless or even dangerous in people with overactive thyroids or those who are currently taking thyroid medication.
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So, Is Ashwagandha Beneficial for Bodybuilding?
Some research certainly suggests so. We’ve got multiple studies that show promising benefits of Ashwagandha in terms of muscle growth, fat loss, strength, and power output.
And while I would love to jump on the bandwagon and praise Ashwagandha as a gift to humanity, It’s still early to say.
Sure, Ashwagandha has been shown to help subjects build a bit more muscle and have a higher power output on specific exercises. But the issue here is that all of these studies are short-term (eight weeks or less) and there are very few participants (the biggest one so far has 57 subjects). In the majority of cases, participants are also untrained or have minimal training experience.
We need longer-term studies with more participants before we can draw any definitive conclusions regarding Ashwagandha’s real effects for us. Do these effects persist if we take Ashwagandha for over eight weeks? Does the body build some sort of tolerance to it? Are these effects pronounced in participants with more training experience?
These and many more questions can’t be answered right now.
If you’re interested in taking this adaptogen for the other benefits (which we’ll cover next), go ahead. But if you want to take it to improve your bodybuilding efforts, take these results with a grain of salt.
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Other Benefits and Potential Side Effects of Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is one of the most thoroughly researched adaptogens out there with studies dating back to the 60s and 70s. Over that period, researchers have compiled a list of benefits:
Lower cortisol levels, and increased resistance toward stress.
Cortisol is essential for good health. It aids us in waking after sleep; it leads to superior fat loss; it keeps inflammation levels normal, and helps with alertness.
But when it becomes chronically-elevated, cortisol can wreak havoc on our health. This is most often due to chronic stress.
Research seems to suggest that Ashwagandha supplementation safely and reliably reduces cortisol, increases resistance toward stress, and improves self-assessed quality of life (7, 8).
So far, we know that Ashwagandha may increase resistance toward stress. In some studies, this benefit has been linked to a reduction in anxiety, especially as it relates to stress (9).
In another study, Ashwagandha supplementation appeared to help subjects reduce their stress-induced eating and lose weight more effectively (10).
Other studies were able to replicate these results, though the anxiety-reducing effect appeared to be smaller when the source wasn’t chronic stress.
It seems like Ashwagandha might be able to do it all. In some studies, Ashwagandha appears to improve cognitive function, memory, ability to focus, and information processing speed in people with mild cognitive impairment (11).
In one placebo-controlled trial, Ashwagandha was shown to improve cognitive capacity in subjects with bipolar disorder (12).
In the above video, Jeff Nippard (natural bodybuilder) gives his opinion on supplementing with Ashwagandha. This site has no relation to Jeff. I just like his stuff.
Ashwagandha Side Effects
The only drawbacks to Ashwagandha so far appear to be mild drowsiness and sedation in a small percentage of research participants. In one study we referenced earlier, a single subject reported experiencing hallucinogenic effects with vertigo at a dose of 750 mg daily (3). But seeing as this was an isolated incident, we can’t say if this is a real side effect. This “side effect” is actually a benefit for me. I don’t necessarily use Ashwagandha for bodybuilding but I do use it to help me relax and get some sleep. Any fat loss or muscle gaining benefits I get are a bonus!
In conclusion, Ashwagandha is an herb that many can benefit from. It’s stress reducing abilities can significantly improve ones quality of life. Additionally, it may have benefits related to bodybuilding such as inducing fat loss and muscle gain. More research is needed to determine its long term effects on gains.
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