HMB: Is this supplement worth the money?

Question:
As a result of reading a recent fitness article, I have decided to take the supplement HMB. The directions say to take 12 capsules a day with meals. Do I need to take this supplement on days I’m not weight training? What amount should I take to receive the anti-catabolic benefits? I noticed that other brands have differenet instructions on dosage.

In the late 1990’s HMB was hyped in the magazines as one of the hottest muscle building supplements to hit the bodybuilding and fitness scene.There were even some studies that looked promising. Although it looked good on paper, most people who tried it found that it didn’t live up to the claims, so it lost a lot of popularity points. Nevertheless, HMB still sells to this day and we continue to hear about new studies from time to time. Has anything changed or is HMB still a question mark at best.

Answer:
Before you ask about what days to take this supplement and what dosages to take it in, you may want to look further into whether this is a research-supported and real-world-results-supported product and whether it is cost effective in the first place. Opinions and research are mixed.

HMB, which is short for B-hydroxy-B-methylbutyrate, is a metabolite (by-product) of the branched chain amino acid Leucine. HMB is not a drug – it is produced naturally by the human body and it can be found in small amounts in foods such as catfish, grapefruit and alfalfa.

The theory supporting HMB usage is that taking it on workout days reduces the breakdown of muscle tissue that occurs after training (it’s “anti-catabolic.”) This in turn, it is hypothesized, enhances muscle mass and strength gains.

HMB was a hot item back in the late 1990’s, primarily because EAS founder Bill Phillips wrote so much about it in Muscle Media magazine. Phillips was such an enthusiastic supporter of HMB that he devoted 10 pages to the subject in his 1997 sports supplement review book (Phillips also sold the supplement).

In his book, Phillips quotes a study that was published in the reputable Journal of Applied Physiology (November 1996, Volume 81 (#5): 2095-2104). The study concluded, “Supplementation with either 1.5 or 3.0 grams of HMB per day can partly prevent exercise-induced proteolysis and/or muscle damage and result in larger gains in muscle function associated with resistance training.”

Before accepting the conclusion of this single (and oft-quoted) study as proof of HMB’s effectiveness, I would suggest that you go look up this study for yourself – but don’t go to Pub Med and look at the abstract, go the library or the Journal of Applied physiology webpage where the full text article is published. Here is the link: (just type in the volume and page #’s where it says “By Citation:”)
www.jap.org/search.dtl

You don’t need to read the whole study – it’s pretty boring scientific stuff. What you might want to look at are the sponsors of the study. If you look carefully, you will notice that one of the sponsors of the study is a major supplement company that nearly everyone has heard of (this company happens to sell HMB products).

If you care to do some even more exhaustive investigation, you will find that the researcher who conducted the study happens to own the patent on HMB and his company is also mentioned in the sponsor list.

If you haven’t seen the writing on the wall yet, let me spell it out for you: This is what you call bias.

It’s not out of the question that those with a vested interest in a product could (1) hire a “rent-a-scientist”, (2) influence or manipulate the design or outcome of a study, or (3) be sure that if a study didn’t confirm the efficacy of a particular product, that the findings never see the light of day.

Now, having said all this, is it possible that HMB really could have some benefit? Well, anything is possible and some of the research is interesting. Supplements like creatine have a lot of research support, so I don’t think any intelligent person would be wise to completely write off any natural and legal product with some initial promising research without looking into the subject more closely.

On the other hand, unless you do in fact dig deeper into the subject for yourself, then you shouldn’t blindly accept the results of a single study at face value. Once you’ve done your homework, then you should decide for yourself whether it’s worth it based on the result your own conclusions.

Personally, I like to see human (not animal) studies that have been performed by independent third parties, with a decent enough sample of appropriate subjects (ie, trained, etc), published in peer-reviewd journals and then repeated by other researchers before I begin to take a supplement seriously. Then, I like to hear a lot of positive feedback from users on top of that.

Since this 1996 study that created all the hype about HMB, there have been other studies done on HMB. Some showed positive results for HMB. Some showed zero results. One recent study by Kreider, et al (1999) showed that 6 grams of HMB per day for 28 days did nothing to reduce the catabolic effect of weight training in experienced male subjects. (By the way, most of the newer studies that are quoted in recent HMB ads were not published in peer reviewed scientific journals, they were only abstracts.)

There have been some newer studies in the past several years, but none of them were conducted over a significant length of time with well-trained human subjects. Also, many of the more recent studies examined the effect of HMB when combined with other supplements such as creatine, glutamine and or other amino acids. The results of these studies still doesn’t show whether HMB is effective by itself.

One last thing: You asked about dosages. In most of the studies that showed positive results, the benefits were dose-dependent. The 1996 Journal of Applied Physiology study looked at doses of 1.5 grams to 3.0 grams and showed better results with 3.0 grams. Later studies showed better results with 6 grams per day than 3 grams per day. HMB is not cheap, so even if you believe you might benefit from HMB supplementation, you have to ask yourself if the product is cost-effective. To confound things even more, the optimal dose simply isn’t known. Some studies showed that 6 grams was less effective than 3 grams, but I’ve heard other people claim that HMB isn’t effective until you take 12 grams a day. At that point, the cost would be enough to make the payment for a pretty nice new car!

Basically, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of HMB. There’s still no conclusive, scientific proof that HMB works in humans. Most people I’ve talked to who have tried HMB seem to have been disappointed with the results. Personally, I am still doubtful that HMB is worth the investment.

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