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Bodybuilding Digestive Enzymes: The Science, How to Choose the Best for Hardgainers, and More

Muscles make you look better, perform better, age better, and live longer, even if you don’t plan on being shredded. However, building muscles can be challenging for some, especially skinny or ectomorph men and women who have very high metabolism to begin with.

Fact checked by Nattha Wannissorn

The #1 mistake that keeps bodybuilders (here referring to anyone who wants to gain muscles for any purpose) from gaining muscles is not eating enough calories during bulking. The #2 mistake is not eating enough protein. And while there are equations that can calculate the starting point for calories or protein intake, the best measure is how your body responds. If you’re not gaining muscles, you must eat more, period. 

Our co-founder Wade T. Lightheart shared that the hardest part was getting all the food down when he was bulking up during university. And your digestive capacity becomes the limiting factor. It was so many calories he started to dread eating. In this article, we’ll talk about why and how to overcome this problem. 

couple of bodybuilders

Nutritional And Caloric Needs Skyrocket When Bodybuilding

Muscle building takes a lot of calories. This number of extra calories needed is different for everyone. Some people gain meaningful muscles at 500 – 1000 extra calories. At the same time, some skinny men with a high metabolism (termed “hard gainers”) may need 5,000 calories or more daily. Also, if you’re trying to push through your genetic limits for how much muscle you can carry, you’ll need even more food. This translates to eating a LOT of food every day. 

Protein provides amino acids, the key building blocks for your muscles. You also need carbs to fuel your workout and help you recover. Fats are more calorie-dense, make your food more palatable, and make it easier to reach your daily caloric goals. 

If you’re a hard gainer, you’ll need a lot of food and heavy meals to get all the necessary calories. Frequent snacking, calorie stacking, and pushing through your natural appetite can become a chore. You may also get gut discomforts like digestive irregularities and bloating, especially if you do dirty bulk (i.e., bulking with junk food). Many bodybuilders also experience digestive issues and poor inflammatory responses if they rely on a lot of whey and milk to get the necessary calories.

Gorging Leads To Bloating, Post-Meal Discomfort, And Poor Digestion

Bulking, by nature, pushes you past your natural digestive capacity. Your gut can’t catch up with making enough stomach acid and digestive enzymes to digest all the foods, causing digestive problems.

Digestive enzymes are proteins that help break down food into smaller units that your gut can absorb. For example, proteases will break protein down into amino acids. Your body can then use the amino acids to create muscles or other proteins.

If you don’t provide your gut with enough digestive support, it will take a long time to digest your food, making you miserable. Your gut may also not fully digest your food, especially proteins. 

Partial digestion can leave proteins, which tend to be more expensive than other macronutrients, to your gut bacteria or stool, not your muscles. A clinical trial in healthy men found that these men only absorbed 15 out of 50 grams of whey protein, excreting the rest as waste. Worse yet, gut bacteria fermentation of proteins can produce unhealthy metabolites and smelly gasses.

Thankfully, the good news is that you don’t have to struggle with poor digestive capacity during bulking.

female bodybuilder flexing biceps

Supplemental Digestive Enzymes Can Relieve Digestive Discomfort And Allow You To Eat More Food

Full-spectrum digestive enzymes like MassZymes can provide extra digestive enzymes, while HCL Breakthrough provides betaine HCL and enzymes that work best in acidic conditions. These can help support the digestive system and relieve the discomfort of eating a lot of food to get all the calories.

In a placebo-controlled, double-blind study of 16 healthy adults, the supplemental digestive enzyme group received 280mg of an acid-resistant lipase enzyme to be taken before a high-fat meal. These individuals had significantly fewer full stomachs after eating. The contents of the participants’ stomachs were assessed by electrogastrography (EGG) before, during, and after the meal. Participants also recorded self-assessed metrics of stomach fullness, bloating, and nausea. 

Supplemental Digestive Enzymes Can Improve Nutrient Rate Of Absorption

Even if you don’t feel any discomfort, supplementing with digestive enzymes and betaine HCL can benefit muscle building.

As mentioned earlier, hard gainers must consume an immense amount of food to gain muscle. To achieve these numbers, some determined bodybuilders even set alarms for middle-of-the-night feedings to eat cottage cheese at 2 am.

When optimizing muscle-building capacity, it is important to work smarter and not always harder (save the hard work for the sets and reps). 

This is where digestive enzymes can make a big difference. It’s not what you eat. It’s what you absorb that goes into your muscles.

41 healthy adult males (later split into two groups) ate a regimented diet for 16 days. As a baseline, they consumed 50g of whey protein following an overnight fast at the beginning of the study. Then, half of the members took 2.5g of a supplemental protease enzyme, while the other half consumed 5g of the same protease enzyme with the 50g whey protein meal. 

The group that took 5 grams of protease absorbed 127% more amino acids into their blood than the baseline. Therefore, protease supplementation significantly improved protein digestion and supplementation.

Thus, adding a digestive enzyme like protease, even when no digestive distress is present, can boost your protein absorption and, thus, your gains. 

male bodybuilder shirtless sitting on a bench looking sad

Boosting Protein Assimilation In Vegans And Vegetarians

If you want to build muscle on a plant-based diet, it’s possible, but you’ve got some challenges to overcome, including:

  • Plant-based proteins are harder to digest
  • Plants come with antinutrients and gut irritants such as lectins and phytates, which inhibit your digestive enzymes.
  • Plant-based proteins tend to be incomplete, so you need to combine them properly.
  • Plant-based proteins come with carbs (rice and beans) or fats (such as seeds), making macronutrient planning more challenging. 

To maximize muscle mass (such as for a competition), the common recommendation is to eat about 1 gram of protein per pound (or 2.2 grams/kilograms) of body weight. This is very hard on a plant-based diet unless you want to have it mostly as protein powders. 

Wade personally found that he doesn’t need to eat that much protein to get jacked enough to compete in Mr. Universe. With the right digestive enzymes, such as MassZymes, he was a 3x Canadian Natural Bodybuilding champion and Mr. Universe competitor on 80g of protein/day as a vegan. Most of his competitors consumed well over 200 g of mixed protein/day– that’s 2-3 times what Wade needed.

With its high protease content, Masszymes allowed Wade to work smarter, not harder, with his overall calorie and protein intake. Anything is possible; you need the right tool for the job.

Systemic Proteases Improve Muscle Recovery And Soreness

Bodybuilding requires hypertrophy training, which involves tearing down muscles to trigger muscle growth. 

If you want to grow many muscles, it will be five or more long and grueling training sessions every week. For athletes and gym rats, your ability to recover from each training session will limit your progress. The good news is that supplemental systemic proteases can speed up recovery and improve gains from your workouts.

Systemic proteases are plant-based proteases that, when taken on an empty stomach, can get absorbed into your bloodstream and support exercise recovery. These include papain and bromelain.

In a placebo-controlled and double-blind study, 15 healthy, highly trained male competitive cyclists received either a placebo or 1,000mg of bromelain over six days of competition. The protease enzyme group reported significantly less fatigue than the placebo group and maintained higher blood testosterone levels by day 4.

Another placebo-controlled study of 20 healthy male runners assessed muscle soreness and fatigue after intense exercise over four days. The 10 participants that received 325 mg of an enzyme blend before meals showed greater retention of contractile performance and less muscle soreness the day of exercise and up to 2 days after. These enzymes include papain, bromelain, and other digestive enzymes. Individuals taking the enzyme blend may show more training-related gains than those who do not. 

Therefore, supplemental digestive and systemic enzymes may improve exercise recovery and gains from each training session. 

Vibrant Overall Gut Health For Optimal Nutrition For Bodybuilders

To maximize your muscle-building results, you must consider your entire digestive system. These include chewing thoroughly and supporting your stomach acid and gut flora. 

Stomach Acid, First Round Of Food Digestion

Your stomach acid, or HCL, breaks down the chemical connections in food, making them accessible to your digestive enzymes. After breaking down these chemical bonds, HCL activates your stomach proteases (pepsin and rennin). As we age, our body produces less. 

Low or insufficient stomach acid accounts for most post-meal discomfort. Your stomach needs to be acidic enough to empty its content into the small intestine, so low stomach acid or having too much food will make you feel heavy. 

HCL Breakthrough is our plant-based Betaine HCL blend that includes enzymes that work well in acidic conditions. That way, you support both stomach acidity and stomach digestion. 

woman bodybuilding on a black background

Importance Of Healthy Gut Bacteria: Enter Prebiotics And Probiotics

Health-conscious bodybuilders know the importance of probiotics and a healthy gut. You might not realize that each strain of bacteria in your gut also has a favorite food (i.e., specific fibers). These bacteria need fibers to thrive. This is why fiber is critical in the diet and why bodybuilders must take care to include fiber throughout the day, not just protein shakes. 

Without a source of healthy fiber, these key healthy bacteria strains won’t survive very long, allowing less friendly bacteria strains to flourish. This is one of the reasons all BiOptimizers probiotics come with some prebiotics in them. 

Probiotics like P3-OM can also support your digestion by producing proteases. It also produces postbiotics that inhibit unfriendly bacteria that can thrive with some dirty bulk foods. This allows P3-OM to support your gut’s regularity and smooth digestion even though you’re eating tons of food. 

The Best Digestive Enzymes For Bodybuilding: BiOptimizers’ Digestive Health Stack

Muscle building and maintenance is a marathon, not a sprint. Try to make it as easy on yourself as possible by getting the most out of every bite as efficiently as possible and optimizing your digestive tract to be ready for nutrients once they arrive. 

There are many ways to do this. One of the easier routes is to consider the digestive ‘trifecta’ made by bodybuilders, for bodybuilders: the Digestive Health Stack from BiOptimizers. Inspired by serious bodybuilders, formulated by specialists, and supported by leading-edge enzyme sciences research. This stack includes:

MassZymes, a classic plant-based digestive blend, contains many full-spectrum proteases. They work across all different pH, even with suboptimal acidity. It also contains high concentrations of other enzymes to break down bloat-inducing foods and anti-nutrients. 
You can’t get the best protein digestion with insufficient stomach acid. HCL Breakthrough can help support this. Lastly, P3-OM is our powerful proteolytic bacteria that can help keep your gut flora healthy and your digestion smooth.

BIOptimize your digestion
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