Most guys who lift weights have two goals in mind: get bigger and get stronger. Luckily, supplements that help with one often help with the other, and many gym jocks claim that to be the case with HMB, or beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate.
Can HMB really help you build muscle AND strength? Let’s take a look.
What Is HMB?
The branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) leucine is an essential amino, meaning your body needs it but cannot manufacture it from other nutrients. You must take it in directly from dietary sources, including egg whites, fish, poultry, and red meat.
Scientists have found that leucine plays a role in both protein synthesis and limiting proteolysis — protein breakdown. Studies have also shown that much of leucine’s effect on proteolysis is provided by a specific metabolite, HMB. In particular, HMB is produced when leucine is consumed for energy production or protein synthesis.
HMB also helps you build protein, though to a lesser extent than leucine itself.
By helping tip the balance of the protein equation in your favor, then, HMB should be able to help you build muscle and, therefore, strength.
What Do Studies Say About HMB and Strength?
Almost from the time that supplement companies began promoting HMB as a potential mass builder in the mid 1990s, scientists have been studying the compound for its effects on the human body.
While there are multiple studies that show little to no effect on strength or mass for those taking HMB, there are also plenty that show fairly strong evidence that HMB can help at least SOME lifters in these areas.
For instance, researchers from Iowa State University examined the effects of HMB on weight-training response in 1996. They found that, not only did subjects taking HMB experience reduced indicators of proteolysis than did those taking a placebo, but strength gains followed suit. Specifically, the HMB group experienced a greater percentage of strength increase in both the squat (8.2 % v. 6.6 %) and bench press (5.0% v. 1.7 %).
A 2001 study from Poland focused on the combination of creatine and HMB, but found similar results for HMB to the Iowa study. Those subjects taking HMB recorded a two-fold (or more) better increase in strength, on average, for the the squat, bench press, and power clean as those taking a placebo. Those taking only creatine experienced similar results, while those taking a combination of HMB and creatine achieved a nearly four-fold better strength improvement than the placebo group.
A 2008 literature review by scientists from the University of Illinois looked at several available studies across a wide range of subject populations, from untrained individuals to young athletes to cancer patients. They also noted several cases in which HMB supplementation seemed to make little difference, but there were a number of studies that showed significantly better strength increases when using HMB as compared to using a placebo.
Can HMB Help YOU?
In all, the science around HMB is something of a mixed bag, with some studies showing significant effects on strength and others showing little to none.
Because HMB helps to limit proteolysis, it likely exerts its maximum effect during periods of extreme or novel muscular stress. This happens when you are new to weight training, when you are changing your routine significantly, OR when you are adding a lot of weight to the bar on a consistent basis.
High-level athletes who are more or less maintaining will likely have a lower rate of protein turnover than those training under those conditions listed above, which may explain why HMB does not always make a big difference for advanced men.
If you’re new to the game, though, or training extremely hard, there is a good chance that HMB can help you to at least some extent.
Before you begin taking HMB, make sure to talk with your doctor and tell him your plans. He can help you make sure that HMB — or any other supplement — won’t cause you any health problems and that you’ll stay on the road to getting big and strong without compromising your safety.