Can This Supplement Make Your Biceps 9 Times Bigger?
We’re all adults here. We understand that most businesses make money by selling products to customers. To get the attention of those customers, they often stretch the truth by either exaggerating a problem you may have (“the heartbreak of psoriasis”), exaggerating the power of their product to solve your problem (“instant relief”), or some combination. It’s called “marketing.” We all know why it exists, and have at least a general idea of how it works. Most of us, I think, grant marketers what I call first-level bullshit: hyperbole, harmless exaggerations, praise from satisfied customers w...
We’re all adults here. We understand that most businesses make money by selling products to customers. To get the attention of those customers, they often stretch the truth by either exaggerating a problem you may have (“the heartbreak of psoriasis”), exaggerating the power of their product to solve your problem (“instant relief”), or some combination.
It’s called “marketing.” We all know why it exists, and have at least a general idea of how it works. Most of us, I think, grant marketers what I call first-level bullshit: hyperbole, harmless exaggerations, praise from satisfied customers who are rarely identified in a way that would allow one of us to contact them and ask if the claims are true. Celebrity endorsements may be the best example of first-level bullshit, as we have no way to know if they actually use the product. I don’t think I’m especially cynical when I assume they don’t.
Second-level bullshit is when someone presents himself or a product with demonstrably false claims.
I’ll give you an example: I used to work with a guy who was awarded an honorary degree from a small, private college. The degree was a doctor of letters (Litt.D.), and at first he presented it as such. He was a nice guy, and good at what he did. But if you met him, the last thing you’d guess is that he earned a doctorate in literary studies.
Apparently, he understood the disconnect as well, which is why he started marketing himself as having a Ph.D. When I called him on it, he explained that he’d been told his honorary degree was the equivalent of a Ph.D., so he thought he was entitled to use that in his marketing materials, and even to refer to himself as “Dr. GuyIusedtoknow.” As if “doctor” is now his first name.
To get to third-level bullshit, you have to know you’re lying, have absolutely no justification for those lies, and do it brazenly, for no purpose beyond deceiving customers and making money.
Which brings me to the ad above, which you may have seen on one of your favorite sites if you’re pegged as a lifter by those mysterious algorithms that control ad placement.
So what are these “super isomers” that boost muscle growth?
The link takes you to a sales page for a product called C9-T11. That’s a specific form (or “super isomer”) of a fat called CLA, for conjugated linoleic acid. CLA occurs naturally in beef and dairy products, with more found in grass-fed cattle.
It first got attention as a potential cancer-fighter in animal studies. But that’s not why supplement companies find it interesting. By the mid-1990s researchers began to look into CLA for its effects on body composition—specifically, whether it can help lifters build muscle, lose fat, or perhaps achieve both at the same time. Rodent studies suggested it might.
One of those investigators was Lonnie Lowery, Ph.D., who’s currently an assistant professor at the University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio. Back then he was a graduate student at Kent State University. Here’s how the supplement ad characterized his research:
“What nonsense,” Lowery wrote in an email, after I showed him the screen shot. “I did one study on CLA that showed some effects on strength and simplified body-composition measures.” He presented those results at the American College of Sports Medicine conference in 1998. As for how his data support a claim of nine-fold increases in biceps mass (not to mention the medical degree that he immaculately achieved), “I have no idea what on earth is going on.”
I emailed the company, identified as ANR LLC in the ad, to ask why they used Lowery’s name to make this claim. They didn’t answer my question, but the next time I went to the site, I saw they’d removed Lowery’s name and replaced it with a citation of his study:
But it’s still a Bizarro World version of his research—or any research on CLA.
According to musclemorphosis.com, my go-to source for supplement information, there’s no reason to think CLA is particularly effective for any goal. A lot of high-quality research has resulted in very few results, which is why examine.com writer Kurtis Frank describes it as “overhyped and uneventful molecule(s).”
The (s) reminds us there are lots of different CLA molecules (at least 28, if Wikipedia can be trusted). The two most often used in research are t10, c12, which is thought to be most effective for preventing fat gain, and c9, t11, which is thought to have more potential to add muscle. CLA supplements used in studies like Lowery’s typically are a mix of the two. So when Lowery’s study showed a small increase in muscle mass among inexperienced lifters, without an increase in fat, it’s possible his subjects benefited from the effects of two different molecules, working through two separate processes.
But even the most optimistic researcher wouldn’t describe the small gains in muscle mass as “9-fold” or “600%” of anything. Unless we’re talking about the brass of the marketers making those claims.
Lou Schuler is the coauthor of musclemorphosis.com.