Supplementing with CLA, HMB, ZMA and ALA
By Simon Jurkiw

Do you know your ALA from your ABC? Do you know the difference between ZMA and HMB? A majority of bodybuilders are familiar with the staples of whey protein, creatine and essential fat, but can often be left confused when faced with countless acronyms. After all, three letters doesn’t give you a great insight into what benefits that supplement has.

The aim of this article is to take a few of the more popular supplement acronyms and help you decide if they have any place in your supplement arsenal.

What does it stand for? Conjugated Linoleic Acid

What is it? It is a collective name for a group of modified forms of linoleic acid. Simply, it is a form of linoleic acid, which is more commonly known as an essential fatty acid (omega 6).

CLA is naturally occurring in meat and dairy products, and normal dietary intake is around 150-200mg per day. A bodybuilder’s intake may be a little higher due to the quantities of meat/dairy ingested.

Supplemental CLA is often derived from sunflower oil. Tonalin is considered by many to be a high quality form of CLA and is derived from safflower oil. Tonalin is considered to be high quality due to the ratio of active isomers it contains (see below).

What is it meant to do? Primarily, CLA is meant to improve body composition; both reducing body-fat and increasing lean body mass. A majority of people will think of CLA as a fat loss supplement.

Does it work? Initial research on CLA was very promising. CLA was consistently shown to increase lean body mass, reduce fat mass and increase fat oxidation. However, these initial studies were all on animals. Initial research on humans wasn’t as positive; many studies finding little or no benefit from CLA supplementation. Possible reasons for this could be linked to dose, type of CLA (CLA has different isomers), or that CLA doesn’t work.

Recent human research has been a lot more promising, with several studies showing a benefit of CLA supplementation. These studies often used slightly higher quantities of CLA (5-6g day), with more active isomers (Cis-9, Trans 11; Trans 10, Cis-12). A recent study by Cornish et al (2009) showed that 6g CLA, whey and creatine were more effective at increasing bench press, leg press and lean tissue mass than whey and creatine.

Quantity and timing? 3-6g per day (more likely 6g for bodybuilders) divided throughout the day.

What does it stand for? Beta-Hydroxy-Beta-Methylbutyrate

What is it? HMB is an amino acid that is a metabolite of the branched chain amino acid leucine. Small quantities are produced within the body.

What is it meant to do? HMB is utilised to reduce catabolism (muscle breakdown). As a result increases in lean body mass, improvements in recovery and increases in strength are expected.

Does it work? The research on HMB seems to be very positive. A meta-analysis by Nissen et al (2003) concluded that HMB was an effective sport supplement that has been shown to “improve strength and lean muscle gain ... to work as an anticatabolic to spare muscle protein and speed recovery” (Antonio et al, 2008). Interestingly, research by Jowko (2001) showed a synergistic effect when HMB was combined with creatine. As many bodybuilders utilise creatine, this could make HMB an even more worthwhile addition.

The main criticism of research on HMB would be that many studies are on untrained subjects, rather than bodybuilders. Overall though, the research is positive and there is good theory behind why it would benefit a bodybuilder – particularly during periods of intense training and/or dieting.

Quantity and timing? 3g per day in a divided dose. Aim to have 1g immediately post-training. In the supplement market, be aware that some companies sell HMB in 250mg, some 500mg and others 1g capsules. A product containing lots of capsules doesn’t necessarily provide better value.

What does it stand for? Zinc Magnesium Aspartate

What is it? A ZMA formula, not surprisingly, contains zinc and magnesium. Vitamin B6 is also included.

What is it meant to do? Users expect an increase in testosterone levels, as well as increases in IGF-1 levels. Anecdotally, many users report a better quality of sleep.

Does it work? The research on ZMA is mixed. The situation is the opposite to CLA, where the recent research is more promising; with ZMA the original research is promising and the more recent research isn’t.

The initial research from Brilla and Conte (2000) demonstrated “the efficacy of a zinc-magnesium preparation (ZMA) on muscle attributes and selected hormones in strength-trained, competitive athletes.” Many people will point to the fact that Victor Conte was involved in the research and had a commercial interest in the formula. Conte is also synonymous with THG, which draws many people to question the research.

The theory behind ZMA is that many people are deficient in zinc – some studies suggest as much as 75% of the western world’s population. A relevant question would be, do bodybuilders fall into this group? It may be that ZMA is beneficial for those that are deficient in Zinc.

As mentioned previously, many users report a better quality of sleep. This is probably due to the magnesium in the formula. There is no research to back this up though.

Quantity and timing?
Different manufacturers have different serving sizes. A ZMA formula should contain 30mg zinc, 450mg magnesium and 11mg Vitamin B6. It is best taken before bed. There is some research that suggest ZMA is best taken on an empty stomach, citing the theory that calcium may impair zinc absorption.

What does it stand for? Alpha lipoic acid (some people will think of alpha-lactalbumin, a fraction of whey when ALA is mentioned).

What is it? A non-essential nutrient produced by humans, which has an array of functions.

What is it meant to do? ALA can be used as an antioxidant, but the main reason it is used by bodybuilders is to improve the function of insulin (insulin mimicker), particularly post-exercise when taken with carbohydrate. Some creatine formulas use ALA for its insulin-mimicking properties.

Does it work? There isn’t a huge amount of research on ALA use in a trained population. A majority is on diabetic subjects. Research by Burke (2003) showed that adding ALA to sucrose and creatine increased creatine uptake beyond and above just using sucrose.

The research on ALA as an antioxidant is stronger; an antioxidant helps to neutralise free radicals and protect against damage. For bodybuilders who train at a high intensity or with a high frequency antioxidants are beneficial. Foods that are high in Vitamin C and E (amongst many others) have antioxidant properties.

Quantity and timing? Quantities vary from 50mg-1000mg depending on the desired benefit. For the insulin-mimicking benefits, consume ALA with glucose/creatine post-training.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of acronyms, but details some of the more common ones. Hopefully it has provided some information to make choosing appropriate supplements a little easier.


Antonio J, Kalman D, Stout JR, Greenwood M, Willoughby DS, Haff GG. (2008) Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements, Humana Press.

Brilla LR, Conte V. (2000) Effects of a novel zinc magnesium formulation on hormones and strength. Journal of Exercise Physiology Online, 3,4.

Burke DG et al (2003) Effect of alpha lipoic acid combined with creatine monohydrate on human skeletal muscle creatine and phosphagen concentration. Internal Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 13, 294-302.

Cornish SM, Candow DG, Jantz NT, Chilibeck PD, Little JP, Forbes S, Abeysekara S, Zello GA. (2009) Conjugated linoleic acid combined with creatine monohydrate and whey protein supplementation during strength training. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 19, 79-96.

Jowko E et al (2001). Creatine and beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate additively increase lean body mass and strength during a weight training program. Nutrition, 17, 558-566.

Nissen SL, Sharp RL. (2003) Effect of dietary supplements on lean mass and strength gains with resistance exercise: a Meta analysis. Journal of Applied Physiology, 94, 651-659.