October 2004: Bulking up With Pills and Powders

Building bulk with pills and powers; More teenage athletes are taking muscle-building supplements, but their safety and effectiveness are unproven
29 October 2004 – Toronto Star

By Morgan Campbell

Mike Montoya is too damn strong.

At 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds, Montoya, a student at Burlington’s Notre Dame Secondary School is far from the biggest player on his football team. But word in high school football circles is that, despite his average size, the 17-year-old is one of the most powerful players in Halton region.

And on a crisp Friday afternoon recently, a few players from Oakville’s Loyola Secondary found out the hard way.

Early in the game, Montoya squashed a Loyola defender in a collision that could be heard 50 metres away. Later, he took the ball and squirted toward the sideline, dragging four tacklers with him as he headed upfield. In the third quarter, Montoya was hit the instant he took the ball, but he shook off the larger player and broke away for another big gain.

Montoya wasn’t born that strong. He began weight training even before he reached high school, and once football season ends, he’ll pump iron five days a week, two hours per session.

But in addition to his hard work, Montoya credits much of his strength to the use of muscle-building dietary supplements like protein, and creatine, an amino acid derivative that reputedly improves strength and builds muscle. For Montoya and a growing number of other teenage athletes, the supplements are a safe, legal way to gain strength and muscle mass.

However, many trainers and nutritionists question the effectiveness and safety of certain products. Without studies on the long-term side effects of these supplements, and because some products contain unlisted ingredients that can cause positive drug tests, some experts wonder whether supplements really help teen athletes.

In the three-plus years since he began weight training, Montoya has built Popeye-sized forearms, redwood-sized thighs and an impressive set of statistics – he can bench press 340 pounds and squat 530.

After seeking advice from his older brother David, who is now on the football team at Wilfrid Laurier University, Montoya first dabbled in dietary supplements as a 14-year-old.

“You can see the difference,” Montoya says. “You can add two or three reps to every set. Week to week you can add five to 10 pounds to whatever you’re repping.”

Montoya studies supplements like a school subject and he won’t use a product without at least three weeks of Internet research and a lengthy consultation with his big brother. The products he has used so far are a pretty fair representation of what’s available.

When he resumes heavy weight training later this year – he scales back during football season – Montoya will take a protein supplement. These often come in the form of chocolate bars or milkshake-flavoured drinks, and they work by helping the body build and maintain muscle tissue. He’ll also take creatine which, in theory, makes you stronger by supplying energy to working muscles. It comes in various forms, but often is a tasteless powder.

To those main products Montoya will add a smattering of other substances – supplementary supplements. He says these pills, capsules and powders will boost the flow of nutrients to his muscles.

Unlike in the United States, where all dietary supplements fall under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration, supplements in Canada are regulated by a variety of government bodies, depending on their function. Some are regulated by Health Canada as “therapeutic aids,” others as “natural products.” Still others are the responsibility of the Canada Food Inspection Agency.

These products may have diverse forms and functions, but what they have in common is popularity. According to the website bodybuilding.com, the dietary supplement industry generated $19 billion in sales in the U.S. last year.

Last year, a study published by Michigan State University found that 48 per cent of U.S. high school football players surveyed had used some type of dietary supplement. About half of those athletes had used creatine, the study said.

Although a similar study involving teenage football players hasn’t yet been conducted in Canada, supplement use doesn’t seem quite as widespread here. However, anecdotal evidence from trainers and players indicates it may be on the rise.

Rick Jones, a certified personal trainer and nutrition and wellness adviser, had never heard of supplements back in the mid-1970s, when he played high school and college football in Montreal.

“We just trained and trained and trained,” says Jones, who now lives in Burlington.

These days, it seems, training alone isn’t enough. Young football players often post questions and advice about supplements on a message board at allcanada gridirion.com, a popular high school football website. Montoya says he’s one of about five players on his team who uses creatine. He says a similar number of players on his summer league team also use it.

He won’t speak for his teammates but Montoya is clear on his own reasons for using the supplement.

“It’s very important that I have the edge on everyone else,” says the Grade 12 student. “If I don’t have that edge, I’m not going to be able to go where I want to go.”

Where he wants to go is to the U.S. on a football scholarship, then to a pro career.

Take a look at National Football League rosters and it’s clear why aspiring pros like Montoya are so eager to gain weight and strength. A recent Sports Illustrated article points out that in 1984 the average weight of an offensive lineman for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers was 260 pounds. This season it’s 309 pounds, a 19 per cent increase over 20 years. Another story in the same issue celebrates the NFL’s strongest man, 6-foot-3, 335-pound Larry Allen, who can bench press 700 pounds and squat 900.

None of the players in Montoya’s league is as big or strong as Allen, but they’re impressionable, and the ballooning physiques of the pros send a clear message to players at lower levels of the sport: If you want to be the best, you better get big.

Matt Kudu has been there.

Today the 22-year-old Mississauga native is a 6-foot-3, 270-pound pro football prospect. He’s in his fourth year at Eastern Michigan University and a standout on the football team. But six years ago he was just like Montoya: an ambitious high schooler who pumped a lot of iron, eager to get big and get noticed by U.S. college scouts.

He started taking protein supplements as a 16-year-old, and later he graduated to creatine powder.

Once metabolized, creatine is converted in to a molecule called “phosphocreatine,” which provides fuel for explosive movements, like those you’d perform in a weight room or on a football field. Your liver and kidneys produce creatine naturally, and it’s present in meat products, but not in the quantities athletes often want. A creatine cycle usually starts with an athlete ingesting up to 20 grams a day for a week.

“That’s a lot of chicken breasts,” Jones says. “The only way to get (that much creatine) into your body is through supplements.”

The creatine information page at bodybuilding.com says the supplement has no adverse effects. Their position might be different if they had seen Kudu in August of 2000, in the throes of his first ever full-body cramp.

Using creatine and playing football in the summer heat, Kudu had felt knots in his muscles before, but nothing like this. In the locker room, minutes after his summer-league team won a provincial championship, Kudu sat down and bent forward to cut athletic tape from his ankles.

The muscles in his hand locked. Then his thighs. Then his hamstrings. Soon every muscle in his upper body tensed in a giant, continuous contraction, and Kudu couldn’t stop it.

“That was the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life,” Kudu recalls. “I didn’t stop cramping for two or three hours after that. I’m not saying it’s all because of creatine, but I feel it had some impact.” The heat might have played a role as well, he thinks.

Trainers and nutrition experts confirm Kudu’s gut feeling about the creatine.

Kelly Ann Erdman is a staff dietitian with the Canadian Sport Centre in Calgary. She works with aspiring Olympic athletes aged 16 to about 22. She advises them not to use creatine and she meets very few athletes who do it on their own. The reason, she says, is that the potential gain isn’t worth the risk.

Both Erdman and Jones acknowledge that muscles appear larger after a few weeks of creatine use, but it’s largely an illusion, they say. Your muscles aren’t growing that much. They’re just holding a lot more water.

“Muscle cramping can be an issue from the water retention,” Erdman says.

And Jones says the initial strength gains that come with creatine will level off. In the long run”you look stronger, but you’re not necessarily stronger.”

Also, Jones cites a dearth of solid, objective research on the long-term side effects of creatine supplements. The creatine section on bodybuilding.com features three pages of information and 11 pages of creatine products for sale.

“I’ve seen conflicting reports,” Jones says. “We produce (creatine) ourselves, but is synthetic creatine healthy? I’m not convinced.”

Neither are the people who run Kudu’s team. In the mid-1990s, a few years after creatine hit the market, it was normal for big-time U.S. college football teams to supply their players with the supplement. Now, Kudu says, only about 10 players on his squad use it. He says any player who wants to take a supplement must first clear it with the team’s training staff, then sign a waiver.

Several members of the Mississauga Ice Dogs of the Ontario Hockey League say their team doesn’t oversee supplement use the way Kudu’s does. But they point out that other authority figures, like personal trainers, steer them away from creatine and toward protein supplements.

Defenceman Kyle Quincey felt pressured to add muscle mass four years ago, when he first graduated to the OHL. The 19-year-old says he’s been feeling that pressure again, now that pro hockey is just around the corner. Though he prefers to get his protein from diet – he conducts an interview while eating pineapples and cottage cheese – he has used protein powder for about four years.

“Guys at the gym were doing it,” says Quincey, who was chosen by Detroit in the 2003 draft. “I heard it was going to help me get bigger and stronger.”

Goaltender David Shantz used a product called “Muscle Milk” for four months leading up to this season. It was recommended to him by trainers from the Florida Panthers, the NHL team that selected him in last June’s draft.

“You notice that you’re stronger when you’re pushing and skating,” Shantz said when asked if the supplement was effective. “Fatigue is a minimal factor. Conditioning is such a huge part of the game that it’s mandatory to take (supplements).”

For Jones, protein supplements are a sensible step. He says they’re proven to help athletes build muscle without harmful side effects if used correctly, and in conjunction with a solid training program. “(Protein) has been around so long that we would know about any long-term side effects by now if there were any.”

Erdman says ingesting large amounts of protein can be harmful to people with existing kidney problems, but for everyone else, she says, the products are safe.

“There have been studies of (healthy) people taking huge amounts and their kidneys are just fine,” Erdman says.

Jones has two sons , one who played football at Acadia University and another who hopes to play university ball next year. He wouldn’t let either one of them touch creatine, but he has encouraged both to use protein supplements.

As the game against Loyola wore on, Montoya continued to run strongly while tacklers melted away like snowflakes. A group of teenagers on the sideline began to talk about him. After the game they’d congratulate him, but right now they snicker behind his back and speculate that the secret to Montoya’s strength isn’t supplements, but another substance that begins with “s.”


Montoya is a little discouraged when people stigmatize him as a steroid user, pointing out that he won’t even take a supplement unless it’s safe, effective and available over the counter. The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, an Ottawa-based governing body that oversees doping control, publishes a 46-page guide to banned substances. Montoya has read it several times and says he abides by every letter.

But several high-profile incidents in recent years have blurred the line between helpful, healthy supplements and banned substances.

In 1998, Mark McGwire set what was then a Major League Baseball record by hitting 70 home runs. Along the way it was revealed that he was taking a hormone supplement called androstenedione, which was legal at the time but has since been outlawed by Major League Baseball.

U.S. shot putter C.J. Hunter was sent home from the 2000 Summer Olympics after testing positive for the steroid nandrolone. He denied taking the drug and blamed his positive test on a tainted iron supplement.

Star U.S. sprinter Torri Edwards was kept out of the Olympics in Athens this year after testing positive for a banned stimulant. She blamed it on a glucose supplement she bought in Martinique.

In 2003, Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler died of heatstroke. A coroner ruled that the banned stimulant ephedra, taken in a dietary supplement, contributed to Bechler’s death.

Kudu, who isn’t taking any supplements currently, cautions younger athletes not to depend on them.

“You want to build up your natural strength as much as you can,” he says. “Truthfully, I don’t even know if it made any difference. The strength and size will come. The things you get from supplements you can pretty much get from food. (Supplements) did help. How much? Not that much, but it did help.”

Copyright ©2004 Toronto Star

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