Most fish oil studies showing good effects have involved older adults, but a new fish oil study shows significant effects in young resistance-trained athletes.
Older adults have been known to build muscle and grow stronger when they combine resistance training with fish oil. That’s all well and good, but you can give older adults kimchi for a few weeks and they’ll have some positive effect on body compensation, health, or performance, as long as they combine it with weight training.
A lot of older people just don’t eat well, supplement well, and exercise poorly, so any positive, sustained change in their diet (polyphenols from kimchi? ) – combined with resistance training – can easily affect several health parameters.
That’s why those of us who love fish oil have been dying for more research showing what fish oil does for resistance-trained people who still have most of their teeth and aren’t wearing absorbent underwear with ripped seams. Now, thanks to Jeffrey Heileson at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, we’ve got one, and it’s a good thing. Here are the key takeaways from their research:
Fish oil combined with resistance training, in addition to showing beneficial effects on muscle hypertrophy, doubled strength compared to placebo.
Heileson and colleagues recruited 12 men and 16 women, aged 18 to 40, for a randomized, single-blind, parallel-group study. None regularly consumed fish oil, but all underwent resistance training (defined as going to the gym at least twice a week for at least 6 months).
The researchers chose to give participants in the fish oil supplement (FOS) group at least 3.0 grams of EPA and DHA Taken daily for 10 weeks (in consideration of possible missed doses, they chose to play it safe and increase the prescribed daily dose to 3.85 grams).
The FOS and placebo groups also participated in a 10-week whole-body resistance training program with 3 non-consecutive days per week.
The program consists of 7 exercises per session, 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps. Selected exercises are as follows: barbell squats, leg presses, leg extensions/leg curls, barbell bench presses, shoulder presses, seated rows, and wide-grip lat pulldowns. The initial training load was based on 70% of the subjects’ baseline 1RM and adjusted for their ability to achieve transient concentric failure between 8-12 repetitions.
As far as their diet was concerned, they were asked to keep their eating habits as consistent as possible (while submitting food records throughout the study) with one exception: they were asked to consume at least 1.0 g of protein per kg of protein, although actual Intake was protein – as indicated in their food records – and ended up being 1.2 grams per kilogram.
Finally, the researchers took all the necessary before and after measurements on the subjects, including body compensation and upper and lower body strength.
After 10 weeks, the FOS group had gained more muscle than the control group, but not by much (about 0.6 kg more than the non-fish oil users). Despite these marginal gains in lean body mass, the FOS group improved their absolute 1RM in the bench press by 4.7 kg (8%); their relative 1RM in the bench press increased by 10.3%; and their relative 1RM in the squat 11.4%.
(In statistics, relative change is the percentage change from the original number, while absolute change is the difference between the original number and the new number. It may sound the same, but relative changes on decimals often look large, too big , although the absolute change for small numbers often looks too small, so it’s best to look at both numbers to get a real sense of what’s going on.)
But let’s put our fishing boats on the docks of everyday language: the FOS group increased their maximal strength by almost 2-fold compared to the placebo group.
So, yes, the study found that consuming just over 3 grams of fish oil per day during a resistance training program significantly improved bench press and squat strength with only a modest increase in muscle protein synthesis.
This came as a very big surprise to the researchers, as several other studies of the effects of fish oil in resistance-trained adults resulted in increases in MPS of approximately 50% to 100%. This does not mean that they completely dismiss the notion that the significant increase in strength in the FOS group was at least not remotely related to an increase in fiber cross-sectional area, thanks to the increase in MPS.
Nonetheless, they correctly infer that other factors besides the increase in MPS affect hypertrophy, namely fiber type distribution and enhanced neuromuscular activation. And, in fact, they do seem to favor an alternative explanation for the increased intensity:
“…FOS and its subsequent incorporation into skeletal muscle phospholipids remains a plausible mechanism for upregulating muscle protein synthesis.”
In human terms, they speculate that fish oil makes the machinery of muscle cells run more smoothly, sort of like adding STP to your car fuel.
They also suspect that improvements in this muscle mechanism may have more to do with DHA composition (Fish oil has two main omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA.) Fish oil contains more EPA than DHA because DHA is the main fatty acid involved in neuromuscular control.
Still, the researchers are reluctant to make any definitive statements about the mechanisms behind the increased strength seen in the study, hence the reasoning:
“Unlike targeted pharmacological interventions, the complex and often unspecified effects of LC n-3 PUFAs—in particular, the markedly different effects of EPA and DHA—on human physiology may make the underlying mechanisms Identification was challenging. Nonetheless, the confluence of multiple known factors, including MPS, muscle mass characteristics, and neuromuscular control, likely contributed to our discovery.”
If you read the article carefully, you’ll notice that Heileson’s group used slightly more than 3 grams of fish oil. That means you’d have to swallow about 10 capsules of Costco’s Kirkland’s signature fish oil to replicate the regimen used in their study. You might as well pour milk over it and eat it with a spoon while watching cartoons.
Please compare with Biotest’s fish oil products, flameout®. Contains 3,080 mg per serving. EPA and DHA – just over 3 grams – because we calculated long ago that this is the optimal dose for performance and health. (Admittedly, the serving size is 4 capsules, but that’s a lot less than 10 capsules.)
Not only that, but unlike almost every other fish oil on the market, Flameout® favors DHA over EPA (i.e. it contains more of the former than the latter). This fits well with the researchers’ observation that DHA is a major effector of neuromuscular control, and thus the strength gains seen by subjects in their study.
And, if you’ll allow me to beat the Flameout® a little further, it also has a standard of handling that most other products can’t compete with:
Flameout® is a blend of fish oils from anchovies, sardines, Atlantic herring, skipjack tuna, yellowfin tuna and Alaskan pollack, purified by molecular distillation and rigorously tested for PCBs, dioxins, mercury and other heavy metal contaminants .
Flameout® incorporates a self-emulsifying delivery system that makes the product virtually odorless and better absorbed so there is no fishy taste or ‘burp’.
Yes, it’s a premium product, but let’s get back to what fish oil does – its superpowers. We know from numerous other studies that we can examine improved recovery (Corder et al., 2016; Dilorenzo et al., 2014; Jouriss et al., 2011; Lembke et al., 2014), improved muscle protein synthesis ( McGlory et al., 2014; Smith et al., 2011), increased endurance (Cole et al., 2014), and now, thanks to Heileson’s research, significantly improved strength.
Clearly, it deserves to be part of every athlete’s supplement arsenal.
- Philpot JD et al. Use of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in athletic performance. Res. Sports Medicine. 2019 April-June;27(2):219-237. PubMed.