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Is Ashwagandha an Effective Supplement for Building Muscle?

Is Ashwagandha an Effective Supplement for Building Muscle?

If you stay up-to-date on the most popular fitness supplements, you may have come across ashwagandha. Ashwagandha is an herb that has been used in Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India, for thousands of years. More recently, it has gained traction in the fitness world as a popular ingredient in muscle-building supplements.

Is ashwagandha an effective supplement for building muscle and supporting physical performance? Let's find out.

What is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha is an herb (Withania somnifera) that is native to India. It is considered an adaptogen, which is simply a natural substance that helps the body “adapt” to stress and return to its resting state. In other words, adaptogens help restore homeostasis.

For example, when we experience different types of stress, our bodies release a hormone called cortisol. Elevated cortisol is linked a whole host of negative health outcomes. This is where adaptogens come in. In essence, an adaptogen would help lower cortisol and bring it back to normal levels. The reported benefits of ashwagandha are attributed to some of the major chemical compounds found in the herb which include withanolides (steroid-like compounds), alkaloids, saponins, and tannins, amongst others.[1]

Traditionally, the reported benefits of ashwagandha supplementation are extensive, including serving as an aphrodisiac, diuretic, and thermogenic agent, which is used for improving energy levels, reducing stress, and enhancing cognitive function. Rodent and cell culture studies[1][2] suggest that ashwagandha may provide a wide range of health benefits, however there is currently a lack of direct evidence in humans to confirm many of these effects.

How can Ashwagandha be beneficial for building muscle?

There are different mechanisms by which ashwagandha has been speculated to potentially help with building muscle. Those include: boosting testosterone levels, reducing muscle damage and inflammation, stimulating muscle protein synthesis, and reducing cortisol levels. Let’s address each of these independently.

The effects of ashwagandha on testosterone

It is suggested that ashwagandha supplementation may help improve testosterone concentrations in both men and women. Animal studies show that ashwagandha extract can induce testicular development and spermatogenesis (the process of producing sperm) in rats[3], and increase GnRH in mice.[4] GnRH is a hormone that stimulates testosterone production.

Human studies have also shown that ashwagandha can improve sexual function in women[5], may play a role in erectile dysfunction, and might improve hormone levels in infertile men.[6]

Overall, there is definitely data supporting the fact that ashwagandha influences both male and female reproductive function to some extent.

With regard to testosterone specifically, a 2018 systematic review[7] found that ashwagandha supplementation is associated with a ~17% increase in testosterone in men with fertility issues.

Sounds promising, right?

Not so fast. The studies in this review were all in oligospermic men. This means they had low sperm count, which is associated with low testosterone. So we can't assume that ashwagandha would have the same effect in men with healthy testosterone levels. Furthermore, only one of the studies included in the systematic review was a randomized clinical trial, which is the gold standard for evaluating the effects of a supplement.

There currently isn’t any research demonstrating that ashwagandha has testosterone boosting effects in healthy men. Furthermore, there’s data showing that if testosterone levels are within the normal range, slightly higher or lower levels do not predict a person’s ability to grow muscle.[8] This means that even someone on the lower end of the normal testosterone range may respond better to resistance training than someone on the higher end of the normal testosterone range.

Overall, we don’t really know if ashwagandha has any affect on testosterone concentrations in healthy males and, even if it did, as long as you're already in the healthy normal range, increasing your testosterone levels slightly to the higher end of that range probably won't have much of an effect on muscle growth.

The effects of ashwagandha on muscle recovery

Another potential benefit of ashwagandha is speeding up muscle recovery following exercise, which theoretically should allow you to train harder more frequently and thus, make better gains. The benefits of ashwagandha on muscle recovery are mainly attributed to its active compounds which have antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties. There isn’t a ton of data on the effects of ashwagandha and muscle recovery, but let’s review some of the available research.

A 2018 resistance training study[9] compared the effects of ashwagandha extract supplementation on perceived soreness and recovery compared to placebo. Participants consumed either 500 mg/day of Sensoril (an aqueous extract of ashwagandha) or placebo for 12 weeks and underwent a standardized resistance training protocol. The results showed that ashwagandha supplementation did significantly improve perceived recovery scores, which placebo did not, and placebo resulted in significant increases in perceived soreness, which ashwagandha did not. Overall, this study indicates that there may be some small self-reported recovery benefits of supplementing with ashwagandha, even though the improvements were not statistically better than in the placebo group. Sometimes these things happen. Perhaps the study duration was not long enough, the sample size wasn’t large enough to detect meaningful differences between groups, the researchers didn't take enough measurements at various time points, or the training itself wasn’t intense enough. We’ll never really know, but these are just some potential speculations.

Another resistance training study of healthy young men[10] tested the effects of ashwagandha on blood biomarkers of muscle damage and recovery by looking at concentrations of creatine kinase. Creatine kinase (CK) is an enzyme found in our muscles. When muscles are damage following exercise, CK is released into the bloodstream. Therefore, higher CK concentrations are indicative of greater muscle damage. Participants consumed either 600 mg of ashwagandha per day or a placebo supplement and underwent 8 weeks of resistance training. The results showed that supplementing with ashwagandha significantly reduced CK concentrations 24 hours after exercise compared to the placebo group, which is indicative of improvements in muscle recovery.

Lastly, a 2021 meta-analysis[11] assessed the effects of ashwagandha supplementation on overall fatigue and recovery. Over 400 participants were included in this analysis (203 consumed ashwagandha vs. 200 in placebo). The results indicated that ashwagandha had a significantly better effect on overall fatigue and excercise recovery compared to placebo. One downside to this analysis is that the markers of fatigue and recovery were all bunched together (physical health component of the quality of life test, time to exhaustion, perceived recovery status scale, superoxide dismutase and sleep efficiency) instead of assessed individually. And some of these markers are not necessarily applicable to resistance training outcomes.

Nonetheless, the overarching evidence definitely suggests that ashwagandha supplementation may help reduce muscle damage and improve exercise recovery. The degree to which this occurs, specifically for markers that are relevant to resistance training like soreness, fatigue, performance recovery are not fully known yet, but the data are promising. There will likely be more research elucidating it’s benefits in the coming years since ashwagandha is such a popular sports supplement.

The effects of ashwagandha on stress reduction

Another potential benefit of ashwagandha for building muscle is its ability to modulate stress. Cortisol is the main hormone released by the adrenals in response to stress. While cortisol released as a result of exercise is a normal process that promotes recovery and adaptation from exercise, chronically elevated levels of cortisol inhibit our ability to build muscle. There are a couple of mechanisms by which cortisol inhibits our ability to build muscle, but essentially, elevated cortisol levels inhibit the activation of mTOR, which as some of you may know, is the main protein involved in activating muscle protein synthesis, the process by which we build new muscle.

Ashwagandha has been shown to have cortisol-reducing effects, which could be beneficial for building muscle. A study published in 2019 found that supplementing with 240mg of ashwagandha per day resulted in reduced serum cortisol concentrations in healthy adults compared to placebo over 60 days[12]. Similarly, another study published in 2017 showed that supplementing with 300mg per day of ashwagandha over 8 weeks resulted in reduced serum cholesterol concentrations compared to placebo.[13]

While there are data showing that ashwagandha may help regulate cortisol levels, none of these studies are in active, healthy, adults who regularly undergo resistance training, so it’s difficult to make conclusions about it’s effects on stress reduction in the context of exercise. Theoretically, ashwagandha may have stress-reducing effects that could be beneficial for exercise performance, recovery, and muscle growth. Nonetheless, further research is definitely needed to fully understand the effects of ashwagandha on stress and cortisol in the context of exercise, but the existing data suggests that it may be a promising supplement for those looking to optimize their exercise outcomes.

The effects of ashwagandha on strength and hypertrophy

Ok, now to the only topic we all care about… strength and muscle building!

All jokes aside, it’s important to look at the actual outcomes that we care about. While there are data showing that ashwagandha may positively affect different variables like testosterone concentrations, recovery, and stress, none of it means anything if the data don’t show that it leads to greater muscle growth and strength gains. There isn't much research on this topic yet, but we do have two clinical trials to-date directly investigating the effects of ashwagandha on muscle size and strength following resistance training.

The first study was one of the studies that we cited earlier looking at exercise recovery.[10] Participants supplemented with 300mg of ashwagandha extract twice daily for 8 weeks (600mg/day) or placebo. The participants performed 3 full body resistance training sessions per week which were progressively overloaded in volume and intensity over the eight weeks. The results showed that the participants supplementing with ashwagandha significantly increased their strength in both the bench press and the leg extension compared to placebo. Furthermore, they also had significantly greater muscle growth in the arms and chest.

Overall, this study shows that ashwagandha is helpful for both strength and muscle hypertrophy. However, the subjects of this study were primarily new lifters, so it's possible that some of the results can be attributed to "newbie gains".

Thankfully, the second study investigating the effects of ashwagandha on muscle growth and strength used active individuals who had training experience.[9] The participants performed resistance training 4x per week (2 upper body sessions and 2 lower body sessions) and similarly, volume and intensity were gradually increased throughout the 12-week duration of the study. The results of this study indicated that ashwagandha supplementation significantly increased strength in the squat and bench press compared to placebo. However, ashwagandha supplementation did not result in greater improvements in muscle growth. That’s interesting, because we would assume that improvements in strength would also result in better muscle growth. It’s possible, given that these participants were “trained” individuals, it would require a longer period of time to see hypertrophy benefits of supplementation, since trained individuals gain muscle at a much slower rate than new lifters.

Overall, the current data are limited. That being said, the data that do exist suggest that supplementing with ashwagandha can be effective for increasing strength and muscle size, albeit, its effects on strength seem to be more conclusive than its effects on muscle size.

Should you take Ashwagandha?

To conclude, there are a TON of claims out there about the potential benefits of ashwagandha. The studies reviewed in this article explore the potential benefits of ashwagandha as a supplement for muscle growth and exercise performance. Overall, the current research suggests that ashwagandha may have positive effects on muscle strength, endurance, and recovery, as well as reducing exercise-induced muscle damage and inflammation. While the data is indeed promising, we need more research to make conclusive statements.

That being said, ashwagandha does show promise as a helpful supplement for those looking to maximize their athletic performance and squeeze every ounce of benefit from their training.

 

Outwork Nutrition Recovery

Outwork Nutrition Recovery

Outwork Recovery contains ashwagandha, creatine, and other evidence-based ingredients to help you recover from hard training and build more muscle. 💪 

LEARN MORE

 

References

1. Paul, Subhabrata et al. “Withania somnifera (L.) Dunal (Ashwagandha): A comprehensive review on ethnopharmacology, pharmacotherapeutics, biomedicinal and toxicological aspects.” Biomedicine & pharmacotherapy = Biomedecine & pharmacotherapie vol. 143 (2021): 112175. doi:10.1016/j.biopha.2021.112175

2. Mandlik Ingawale, Deepa S, and Ajay G Namdeo. “Pharmacological evaluation of Ashwagandha highlighting its healthcare claims, safety, and toxicity aspects.” Journal of dietary supplements vol. 18,2 (2021): 183-226. doi:10.1080/19390211.2020.1741484

3. Abdel-Magied, E M et al. “The effect of aqueous extracts of Cynomorium coccineum and Withania somnifera on testicular development in immature Wistar rats.” Journal of ethnopharmacology vol. 75,1 (2001): 1-4. doi:10.1016/s0378-8741(00)00348-2

4. Rahmati, Batool et al. “Effect of Withania somnifera (L.) Dunal on Sex Hormone and Gonadotropin Levels in Addicted Male Rats.” International journal of fertility & sterility vol. 10,2 (2016): 239-44. doi:10.22074/ijfs.2016.4915

5. Dongre, Swati et al. “Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) Root Extract in Improving Sexual Function in Women: A Pilot Study.” BioMed research international vol. 2015 (2015): 284154. doi:10.1155/2015/284154

6. Ambiye, Vijay R et al. “Clinical Evaluation of the Spermatogenic Activity of the Root Extract of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in Oligospermic Males: A Pilot Study.” Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM vol. 2013 (2013): 571420. doi:10.1155/2013/571420

7. Durg, Sharanbasappa et al. “Withania somnifera (Indian ginseng) in male infertility: An evidence-based systematic review and meta-analysis.” Phytomedicine : international journal of phytotherapy and phytopharmacology vol. 50 (2018): 247-256. doi:10.1016/j.phymed.2017.11.011

8. Morton, Robert W et al. “Muscle Androgen Receptor Content but Not Systemic Hormones Is Associated With Resistance Training-Induced Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy in Healthy, Young Men.” Frontiers in physiology vol. 9 1373. 9 Oct. 2018, doi:10.3389/fphys.2018.01373

9. Ziegenfuss, Tim N et al. “Effects of an Aqueous Extract of Withania somnifera on Strength Training Adaptations and Recovery: The STAR Trial.” Nutrients vol. 10,11 1807. 20 Nov. 2018, doi:10.3390/nu10111807

10. Wankhede, Sachin et al. “Examining the effect of Withania somnifera supplementation on muscle strength and recovery: a randomized controlled trial.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition vol. 12 43. 25 Nov. 2015, doi:10.1186/s12970-015-0104-9

11. Bonilla, Diego A et al. “Effects of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) on Physical Performance: Systematic Review and Bayesian Meta-Analysis.” Journal of functional morphology and kinesiology vol. 6,1 20. 11 Feb. 2021, doi:10.3390/jfmk6010020

12. Lopresti, Adrian L et al. “An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study.” Medicine vol. 98,37 (2019): e17186. doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000017186

13. Choudhary, Dnyanraj et al. “Body Weight Management in Adults Under Chronic Stress Through Treatment With Ashwagandha Root Extract: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial.” Journal of evidence-based complementary & alternative medicine vol. 22,1 (2017): 96-106. doi:10.1177/2156587216641830

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