Is HMB about to be the biggest supplement you’ve never heard of?

A new study published this week in the European Journal of Applied Physiology has pointed to HMB as being hugely beneficial in lean muscle growth, with subjects putting on upwards of 5kg of lean muscle over a 12 week period. This was placed alongside a placebo group, whose respective gains were minimal.

HMB, or beta-Hydroxy beta-methylbutyric acid (try saying that three times fast), is a component of leucine, an amino acid frequently encountered in another popular supplement, BCAAs. Whilst the human body synthesises a small amount, studies have previously shown a beneficial effect with regards to muscle gain and in maintenance of muscle tissue too if taken in higher doses.

However, none have laid such wild claims as the latest study. All participants were initially tested for their one-rep maxes on various lifts, as well as their peak power output. Body composition was also measured. All participants were men, who had previously trained with weights.

Over the following 12 weeks a resistance training programme was set up, basically involving 3 workouts per week, and one group was supplemented with 3g of HMB per day (taken at 3 intervals), whilst the placebo group went without.

After the 12 week programme, participants were again assessed. Their lifts had shot up by about 18%, whilst the placebo group saw increases of only 6%. They lost body fat and increased muscle mass. In addition, their level of ‘perceived recovery’ (a subjective measure of feeling recovered from the workout) was much better than the placebo group.

So, should we all be rushing out to buy HMB immediately? Probably not. This is an initial study, and these findings should be treated as such. It needs to be applied on a much larger scale. This is most obvious in the number of subjects used – 24 people. This is an incredibly small sample size and thus even minor errors are going to be magnified, making this study difficult to generalise to the wider athletic community.

Perhaps even more worrying is the little sentence under the Conflict of Interest area of the study. It’s funding comes from Metabolic Technologies Inc. – a supplier of HMB supplements. And three of the contributors to the study are on the payroll for MTI.

Without further evidence, it is difficult to recommend HMB from this study alone. It's cheap though, so try it for yourself.

Without further evidence, it is difficult to recommend HMB from this study alone. It's cheap though, so try it for yourself.

This has not been the first time the benefits of HMB have been potentially exaggerated. Many of the initial studies on its benefits were performed by Steve Nissen – the very same guy who initially discovered HMB and patented it. Many studies that have been performed from more, shall we say, objective sources have found minor benefits from HMB but nothing to write home about.

Where does this leave us then? A great resource for sifting through the truths and the exaggerated truths of HMB is Examine, who have a clear and concise page on HMB. As always though it often comes down to the simple question: does it work for you? HMB is a relatively cheap supplement and giving it an initial go will cost you a few bucks. Not all manufacturers list theirs as vegan, but there are some out there. Perhaps it's worth giving it a try.