nitric-oxide boosting supplements now come in supercharged versions—here’s how these new formulas can advance your muscle gains

The new NO boosters: nitric-oxide boosting supplements now come in supercharged versions—here’s how these new formulas can advance your muscle gains

Jim Stoppani

BY now, serious bodybuilders know about nitric oxide, or NO for short. After all, NO and products that boost its effectiveness are flying off store shelves at a rate unseen in the supplement world since creating came to the forefront in the ’90s. The simple reasons–the science behind NO is solid, and these products help increase muscle strength and size.

Most NO boosters share one thing in common: their primary active ingredient is arginine. Now, they contain more than just this important amino acid, packing a whole host of ingredients that bump up the effectiveness of arginine. Here’s the NO-how on using these additives to ratchet up your nitric-oxide levels and muscle growth. TYPECASTING | Nitric oxide, a gas produced naturally in the body, is responsible for numerous processes, but the most important for bodybuilders is vasodilation–NO causes the smooth muscle cells of blood vessels to dilate, allowing more blood to flow through. The more blood flow, the more oxygen, nutrients and anabolic hormones your museles can get to fuel workouts, repair postworkout damage and ultimately grow.

In the body, arginine, in the presence of an enzyme called nitric oxide synthase (NOS), is converted to NO, which means taking more arginine can lead to higher NO levels.

There are several types of arginine on the market today. The first and the most basic one is L-arginine, the simplest form of the amino acid. However, L-arginine can be poorly absorbed; that fact led to the genesis of other versions that are more easily used by the body.

* Arginine alpha-ketoglutarate (AAKG) Besides apparently improving uptake, the alpha-ketoglutarate molecule in AAKG is a precursor to another amino acid, glutamine, which the body can use to produce arginine. It’s like getting double the arginine in one dose.

* Arginine ketoisocaproate (AKIC) The ketoisocaproate part of AKIC has anticatabolic properties, meaning it helps to prevent muscle breakdown during strenuous exercise. It also plays a role in energy production and aids the removal of ammonia during workouts, which otherwise could induce muscle fatigue. Furthermore, in the body, ketoisocaproate gets converted to beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate (HMB), which can increase muscle mass and prevent muscle breakdown.

* Arginine mallate This version contains malic acid, a molecule involved in energy production. Malic acid helps burn the lactic acid produced during workouts; the result is more energy for training.

* Arginine ethyl ester The latest arginine variation to make the scene, this is arginine with the addition of an acid and an alcohol. The ester group enhances an arginine molecule’s ability to pass across cell membranes, such as in the intestines–thus the easier absorption–as well as muscle cells.

CRANKING UP NO | These days, products that supply only arginine–regardless of what fancy molecules it’s attached to–are being crowded out of the marketplace by more ramped-up formulas. Many supplement manufacturers have raised the ante by adding various other compounds to their products to enhance the effectiveness of arginine by further increasing arginine levels, augmenting NO levels or magnifying the effects of NO in the body. Look for arginine products that contain one or more of the additives listed here, or take them separately along with an NO product of your choosing.

* Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the key form of energy produced by every human cell. When you ingest ATP, it ends up in your liver and is added to red blood cells. The red blood cells then travel to muscles, where the ATP is released and reacts with specific receptors inside the blood vessels. When ATP binds to the receptors, NO is released, causing the vessels that supply your muscles to open wider and allow more flow.

* Citrulline is an amino acid that not only helps to detoxify the liver and promote energy, but also raises blood levels of arginine, which can then be converted to NO. Citrulline, taken in addition to arginine, helps to create a constant supply of NO prerequisites for an even better pump. Citrulline is usually available either as L-citrulline or as citrulline malate, which is composed of the amino acid with malic acid attached to it. Malic acid helps muscles use the lactic acid that builds up during training, and that actually helps prevent fatigue.

* Cnidium monnier is an extract from the fruit of the Chinese plant Cnidium monnieri. Known as she chuang zi in traditional Chinese medicine, it has been used for various skin conditions and as a natural libido booster for men. It also has been found to enhance NO release and to inhibit phosphodiesterase-5 (PDE-5), the enzyme that turns off NO’s vasodilating effects. The result is a greater pump that lasts longer.

* Ginkgo biloba, from the gingko tree (which is purported to be the world’s oldest living tree species), has figured in herbal health regimens for as long as 5,000 years. These days, it’s mainly featured in supplements aimed at improving mental acuity, but it can also magnify arginine’s effects.

Flavone glycosides (an active component in gingko) lessen the stickiness of platelets, which help blood clot. Lessening platelet stickiness can enhance blood flow to muscles.

* Jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum) is often referred to as southern ginseng, because it grows mainly in south central China; it has a chemical composition and function similar to Asian ginseng. The active saponins in jiaogulan are called gypenosides–many of these are similar to the ginsenosides in ginseng. Gypenosides possess strong antioxidant properties that also enhance the production of NO to boost blood flow and improve recovery from exercise.

* N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) is a derivative of the amino acid L-cysteine. NAC is more water soluble and, therefore, more bioavailable than regular L-cysteine. Research has established that NAC exerts powerful antioxidant effects. In this role, NAC scavenges the body for and neutralizes harmful free radicals that can cause oxidative damage to muscle tissue, organs and DNA. In addition to protecting the body from oxidative damage, NAC has been shown in clinical studies to enhance the ability of blood vessels to dilate. Scientists believe it does so by enhancing the bioavailability of NO and helping to prevent its breakdown.

* Panax ginseng (American ginseng), not to be confused with the more familiar Asian ginseng, has been revered for numerous benefits, including increased concentration and libido. It contains some types of ginsenosides (the active components of ginseng) that have been found to enhance the activity of NOS and, thus, the conversion of arginine to NO.

* Pycnogenol, a trademarked extract of the French maritime pine tree, is a potent antioxidant flavonoid that also helps to boost the conversion of arginine to NO. Research shows that Pycnogenol enhances NO production in blood vessels by activating NOS, the enzyme that catalyzes the conversion of arginine to NO. Some experts argue that without the activity of NOS, extra arginine consumed might not get converted to NO. Raising both arginine and the activity of NOS covers both bases.

* Rutaecarpine is an extract from the herb Evodia rutaecarpa, which is used for fat loss. The difference is that this extract has the ability to promote blood-vessel dilation through a mechanism not involving NO. Research shows it works by altering calcium levels in the cells that make up blood vessels, resulting in relaxation of said vessels, opening them wider to allow more blood through. Taking it with arginine can have added effects on blood flow and muscle pump.

CLOCK WORK | NO products continue to evolve since their introduction. However, one thing remains the same–the importance of timing. Regardless of the form of arginine you prefer, the add-ons you look for in an NO product or whether you like to include the add-on ingredients yourself, the best time to take NO supplements remains the same.

Take three to five grams (g) of some form of arginine along with the extra NO boosters of your choice two or three times per day, on an empty stomach when possible. The most critical dose is 30-60 minutes before all workouts (and prior to your preworkout meal). To enhance recovery, have a second dose within an hour after a workout–many bodybuilders take an NO product immediately after training, followed by a protein shake 30 minutes later. Another dose, consumed in the morning, will help you start the day strong.

In addition to arginine, FLEX recommends ingesting a form of citrulline along with an NO add-on that enhances the activity of NOS, such as Pycnogenol or American ginseng, and one that decreases PDE-5 activity, such as Cnidium monnier. Once those bases are covered, consider adding an ingredient that boosts blood flow by a mechanism other than NO, such as rutaecarpine or ginkgo.



You won’t find an individual arginine or NO product on the market that contains all the following boosters (and it’s not necessary to take all those we have listed, either individually or in a single formulation, to get a powerful response). Regardless of which ones you choose, look for products that contain these doses.



ATP 125-250 milligrams (mg)

Citrulline 1-3 g

Cnidium monnier 30-50 mg

Ginkgo biloba 40-80 mg

Jiaogulan 50-100 mg

NAC 1-2 g

Panax ginseng 100-200 mg

Pycnogenol 50-100 mg

Rutaecarpine 10-100 mg


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