Sometimes it feels like you need a degree in biology to properly understand all of the different terms involved with bodybuilding. Without properly accounting for each of the various biological processes involved in hypertrophy and physical exertion though, you won’t be able to maximize the impact of your training or help yourself to burn fat and build muscle at the fastest possible rate.
Nitric oxide is one more example of a molecule within the human body that is of great importance to bodybuilders. Once you understand its role and you know how to increase it, you’ll find your workouts are more intense, your growth is accelerated and your health is improved across the board. Read on to find out more about this critical substance – we promise you won’t need to be a biology major to understand it!
What is Nitric Oxide
Nitric oxide has numerous roles within the body but among the most important is to help with the dilation of blood vessels. This in turn means that more blood can fit through those narrow passageways, carrying more oxygen, more glucose and more nutrients along the way. Whenever you contract your muscles to lift a weight or to jump for a ball in sports, this requires a supply of glucose and oxygen. Whenever you struggle over a difficult sum, your brain will use oxygen to fuel you through it.
Nitric oxide helps to improve the speed and strength of that supply and as such it can increase your strength, your heart health, your sleep quality, your memory and more. For bodybuilders though, what’s most interesting is that it can increase strength and even growth post-workout.
On top of all that, nitric oxide can also act as a neurotransmitter helping nerve cells to communicate. It actually has a unique ability to affect neurons that aren’t connected to one-another which makes it potentially useful as a ‘nootropic’ to enhance learning and memory. It also aids in the relaxation of smooth muscle, particularly in the stomach.
Why Bodybuilders Need Nitric Oxide
Think back to how it feels to finish a great workout. One of the most notable feelings that comes from such a workout is the ‘pump’ which makes your muscles feel swollen and harder. Often a workout is most rewarding once you achieve this feeling, as it means that you’ll be able to use your muscles to their max and you’ll feel every contraction all the more. Plus, it helps that the pump also makes you look much bigger and more ripped than you normally would do which is always good for a little added motivation.
The reason your muscles swell like this is that they’ve been working hard and thus require more oxygen and more nutrients. Thus the blood flow increases and your muscles end up looking bigger and performing better as a result of the extra oxygen, energy and nutrients. Subsequently, this increased blood-flow will also provide your muscles with all the nutrients (amino acids in particular) needed for hypertrophy AKA muscle growth.
By increasing your nitric oxide levels, you can enhance your supply of blood by widening the veins to the point where your muscles will be permanently fueled with more oxygen, more nutrients and more glucose. Likewise, you can also use supplements that take immediate effect in order to give yourself a sudden influx of extra nitric oxide and to trigger pump even before you’ve worked out.
So the question is, just how do you go about increasing your nitric oxide levels?
How to Increase Your Nitric Oxide Through Diet
There are numerous foods you can eat that will increase your nitric oxide levels. Here are just a few:
Nitrate Rich Foods
A number of foods naturally contain nitrates, which get converted into nitritines by your tongue and then into nitric oxide by the bacteria in your gut. Handy!
Nitrate-rich foods are also pretty abundant and they’re not too expensive. Great examples include: spinach, beets, carrots, iceberg lettuce, celery, cabbage and collard greens.
In the past there was some concern about nitrates converting to nitrosamines in the body which are carcinogenic. More recent research tells us we don’t need to worry about that however and if you’re getting a good helping of vitamin C it will completely block any conversion.
Garlic and Vitamin C
Garlic is well known for being highly rich in nitrates which is just one of the reasons that it’s such an amazing super food (there are many more besides). In some studies, garlic has been shown to be more effective in reducing your blood pressure than even prescription medication. Vitamin C meanwhile increases nitric oxide production in the body and protects those NO molecules once they’re created.
By combining nitric oxide and vitamin C, one researcher found that nitric oxide output was increased by 200%.
-arginine is a substance we’ll come to later that converts into nitric oxide via the action of a particular enzyme called ‘eNOS’ (nitric oxide synthase enzyme). Watermelons contain citrulline which in turn converts to L-arginine and is actually better at increasing arginine in the body than even direct consumption of L-arginine. Okay, that’s all a bit complicated but all you need to know is that watermelons are great for NO. Alternatively just take a complete amino acid supplement which will also do the job.
Grape Seed Extract
Don’t you love it when you find a food that boosts multiple bodybuilding-related functions in the body? Grape seed extract is just one such food. Not only is grape seed known for its role in increasing testosterone but it can also help to increase nitric oxide levels. In particular, studies have shown that a dose of 100mg/kg can increase NO levels by as much as 138%.
Eating grapes alone probably won’t do the trick though and nor will most of the supplements. Probably the only way you’ll get enough then is to consume the bulk powdered form.
Ginseng has historically been popular for a range of uses but it seems there’s some truth to its purported benefits. Ginseng contains active compounds which are known as ‘ginesonides’ which are similar in structure to androgens like testosterone. In studies, it has been found to improve not only testosterone but also circulation, sleep quality, libido and yes – nitric oxide. Once again then this is a great ‘bodybuilding superfood’ but just make sure you get the real thing as there are a lot of useless products out there. The type you want is ‘Panax ginseng’ which is sometimes referred to as ‘real Korean ginseng’.
Quercetin is a flavonoid that works well when combined with a range of other similar compounds like tannins, genistein and resveratrol. When combined with those, quercetin is able to increase your nitric oxide levels. For these reasons it’s better to get it from your diet rather than as a supplement and eating onion is one of the best ways to get the effects – which you’re probably already doing anyway…
Chilies are good for all kinds of things and have great thermogenic properties. At the same time, cayenne pepper in particular is very high in capsaicin which is great for nitric oxide as well as testosterone.
Omega 3 Fatty Acid
Omega 3 is crucial for your joints, your brain function, your central nervous system and your nitric oxide levels. You can get it from supplementation or from fish, vegetable oils, chia seeds and avocados. Either way, if you only make sure you get one thing for your general health it should probably be omega 3.
Supplements for Increasing Nitric Oxide
Add a few of those things to your diet and immediately you’ll have increased your nitric oxide levels several fold and you should start feeling the benefits.
If you’d rather hack the system though and rely on some supplements, then there are a number of other options you can use. Including:
CoQ10 or ‘coenzyme Q10’ is a molecule that can be found in the mitochondria of cells. In case you forgot your biology 101 (we said you wouldn’t need it…), the mitochondria are the ‘energy plants’ of your cells which help your body to use ATP (the pure energy ‘currency’) that the body retrieves from glucose.
CoQ10 is synthesized by the human body so in theory you don’t need to supplement with it but if you’re looking to enhance your mitochondrial function then adding a little extra never hurts. Furthermore, adding more CoQ10 in supplement form will also increase nitric oxide levels and like vitamin C will also help to protect those nitric oxide molecules once they’ve been created.
CoQ10 supplementation is a little expensive though, so you may prefer to consider cheaper options.
Niacin, also known as vitamin B3, is crucial for all kinds of vital jobs in the body – including energy production, hormone synthesis and gene expression. Meanwhile, it also increases nitric oxide levels and because it can also reduce LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) it’s a fantastic supplement for those who struggle with high blood pressure.
A ‘maritime pine bark extract’, this contains 65-75% procyanidin which is the same as that found in grape seed extract. The good news is that you probably can get enough this way through supplementation, so it might be one worth trying.
We mentioned already that it’s better to supplement with L-citrulline than L-arginine but that’s not to say you still can’t get benefits from a little L-arginine. This is one that a lot of bodybuilders use and it is backed up by numerous studies so if you’re looking for a straightforward way to raise your levels then this is a popular choice to go with. It’s also included in the vast majority of pre-workout supplements for the same reason.
Nitric Oxide Supplements
There are a ton of supplements out there that are designed specifically to increase nitric oxide levels prior to a workout. One of the best known of these for instance is ‘NO2- MAX from Crazy Bulk’. These combine a number of different ingredients designed to work synergistically to help increase nitric oxide levels both in the short-term and in the long term. Of course some of these work better than others and we won’t get into that here but now you know all the different ingredients that can increase NO and how they work, there’s nothing to stop you just reading the back of the pack and making up your own mind!
Once you’ve got your diet and your supplementation down that’s your nitric oxide sorted right? Actually not quite – if you want to really do everything possible then you should also look into making a few lifestyle changes that can support your natural production.
Get Rid of That Mouthwash
Remember right at the start of this article we mentioned that the bacteria on your tongue would convert nitrates into nitritines? See, not all bacteria is bad for you and if you’re killing off all your bacteria with mouthwash then you won’t get the full benefits of the nitrate containing foods in your diet.
So unless you have a gum infection – forget about the mouthwash!
Want to increase your muscular strength and hypertrophy? Then stick on a rom com! Seriously: laughing has been shown in many studies to have all kinds of positive effects on the body. In fact, watching a 60 minute comedy has been shown to increase levels of growth hormone, dopamine and nitric oxide! We already know that laughter is good for your immune system too, so go ahead and get giggling!
Sunlight triggers the production of vitamin D and thus testosterone and also encourage the skin to synthesize more nitric oxide. Get outside for your next workout and your body will feel the benefits.
Last but by no means least, exercise can also increase nitric oxide. You know this because you get that awesome feeling of pump every time you go to the gym. What’s more, exercise doesn’t only increase nitric oxide production in the short term but simply having bigger muscles will ensure your levels stay increased as your body recognizes the need to deliver more blood, nutrients and oxygen to them.