Most fish oil studies that show great results involve old people, but a new one shows dramatic effects on young, resistance-trained athletes.
It’s well known that when old people combine resistance training with fish oil, they build muscle and get stronger. That’s all well and good, but you could probably feed old people some pickles for a few weeks and, as long as they combined it with weight training, they’d experience some positive effects on body comp, health, or performance.
Many old folks just don’t eat that well, supplement so well, or exercise so well, so any positive, consistent change in their diet (polyphenols from pickles?) – combined with resistance training – could easily affect several health parameters.
That’s why those of us who are fans of fish oil have been hungry for more studies that show what it can do for resistance-trained people who still have most of their teeth and don’t wear absorbent underwear with tear-away seams. Now, thanks to Jeffrey Heileson of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, we’ve got one and it’s a goodie. Here’s the main takeaway from their study:
Fish oil, when combined with resistance training, led to double the strength gains against placebo, in addition to showing favorable effects on muscle hypertrophy.
Heileson and his colleagues recruited 12 men and 16 women between the ages of 18 and 40 for a randomized, single-blind, parallel-group study. None were regular consumers of fish oil, but all were resistance trained (defined as going to the gym at least twice a week for at least 6 months).
The researchers, based on what’s known about how fish oil phospholipids are incorporated into skeletal muscle, chose to give the participants in the fish oil supplementation (FOS) group at least 3.0 combined grams of EPA and DHA every day for 10 weeks (to account for possible missed doses, they opted to play it safe and up the daily prescribed dosage to 3.85 grams).
Both the FOS group and the placebo group were also required to participate in a 10-week full-body resistance training program that involved training on 3 non-consecutive days each week.
The program consisted of 7 exercises per session of 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps. The exercises chosen were as follows: barbell back squat, leg press, leg extension/leg curl, barbell bench press, shoulder press, seated cable row, and wide grip lat pulldown. Initial training loads were based on 70% of the subjects’ baseline 1RMs and were adjusted based on their ability to hit momentary concentric failure between 8-12 reps.
As far as their diets, they were asked to keep their dietary habits as consistent as possible (while submitting food logs throughout the study) with one exception: They were asked to consume at least 1.0 grams per kilogram of protein, although the actual amount of protein – as indicated by their food logs – ended up being 1.2 grams per kilogram.
Lastly, the researchers conducted all the requisite pre- and post-measurements on the subjects, including body comp and upper and lower body strengths.
After 10 weeks, the FOS group gained more muscle than the control group, but it wasn’t a whole lot (about 0.6 kilograms more than the non-fish oil users). Despite showing these marginal gains in lean body mass, the FOS group improved their absolute 1RM in the bench press by 4.7 kilograms (8%); their relative 1RM in the bench press by 10.3%; and their relative 1RM squat by 11.4%.
(In statistics, relative change means the percentage of change from the original number, while the absolute change is the difference between the original number and the new one. They may sound the same, but relative changes on small numbers often look big, too big, while absolute changes on small numbers often look too small, so it’s best to look at both numbers to get a realistic picture of what happened.)
But let’s dock our fishing boat to the dock of everyday language: The FOS group increased their maximal strength by almost 2 times that of the subjects in the placebo group.
So, yes, the study found that taking a little over 3 grams of fish oil a day while performing a resistance-training program led to significant gains in bench press and squat strength while showing only a modest increase in muscle protein synthesis.
This came as a pretty big surprise to the researchers because a few other studies on the effects of fish oil on resistance-trained adults led to MPS increases ranging from around 50% to 100%. That doesn’t mean they entirely discounted the notion that the FOS group’s dramatic increase in strength wasn’t at least remotely related to increases in fiber cross-sectional area, courtesy of increased MPS.
Still, they correctly reasoned that there are other factors that influence hypertrophy other than increases in MPS, namely, fiber type distribution and enhanced neuromuscular activation. And, indeed, they did seem to lean towards another explanation for the increases in strength:
“…it remains plausible that FOS and its subsequent skeletal muscle phospholipid incorporation upregulates muscle protein synthetic machinery.”
In human-speak, they speculated that fish oil made the machinery of muscle cells run more smoothly, sort of like adding STP to your car’s fuel.
They also suspected that this improvement of muscle machinery might have more to do with the DHA component (fish oil has two primary omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA) of the fish oil than the EPA component, as DHA is the primary fatty acid involved in neuromuscular control.
Still, the researchers were loath to make any definitive statements as to the mechanism behind the strength increases seen in the study, reasoning thusly:
“Unlike targeted pharmaceutical interventions, the complex and often unspecified action of LC n-3 PUFAs – especially the notable divergent actions of EPA and DHA – on human physiology can make identification of an underlying mechanism challenging. Nevertheless, the convergence of multiple known contributors, including MPS, muscle quality characteristics, and neuromuscular control, likely contributed to our findings.”
If you read this article with a scintilla of focus, you noted that the dosage of fish oil Heileson’s group used was a little over 3 grams. That means you’d have to swallow approximately 10 of Costco’s Kirkland Signature Fish Oil capsules to duplicate the protocol used in their study. You might as well pour milk over them and eat them with a spoon while watching cartoons.
Contrast that, please, with Biotest’s fish oil product, Flameout. Each serving has a combined 3,080 mg. of EPA and DHA – a little over 3 grams – because we calculated out a long time ago that this was the optimal dose for performance and health. (Granted, a serving size is 4 capsules, but that’s like, a lot less, than 10 capsules.)
Not only that, but unlike nearly every other fish oil on the market, Flameout is biased towards DHA instead of EPA (i.e., it contains more of the former than the latter). This correlates nicely with the researchers’ observation that DHA was the main effector in neuromuscular control, hence the strength gains seen by the subjects in their study.
And, if you’ll allow me to beat the Flameout drum a little more, it also has processing standards that most other products can’t compete with:
Flameout is a blend of fish oils from anchovy, sardine, Atlantic menhaden, skipjack tuna, yellowfin tuna, and Alaskan Pollack, purified by molecular distillation and stringently tested for PCBs, dioxins, mercury, and other heavy metal contaminants.
Flameout incorporates a self-emulsifying delivery system to make the product virtually odorless and better absorbed so that it doesn’t result in a fishy aftertaste or “fish burps.”
So yeah, it’s a quality product, but let’s get back to what fish oil does – its superpowers. We know from a boatload of other studies that we could check off improved recovery (Corder, et al., 2016; Dilorenzo et al., 2014; Jouriss et al., 2011; and Lembke et al., 2014), improved muscle protein synthesis (McGlory et al., 2014; Smith et al., 2011), increased endurance (Cole, et al., 2014), and now, courtesy of Heileson’s study, dramatically improved strength.
It’s clear that it deserves to be a part of every athlete’s supplement arsenal.
- Philpott JD et al. Applications of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation for sport performance. Res Sports Med. Apr-Jun 2019;27(2):219-237. PubMed.