bodybuilding and sodium

Posted 4 months ago

Bodybuilding and sodium

In the past few years, bodybuilders have started paying closer attention to their electrolyte balance, with a specific focus on sodium. This has come as coaches have increased their physiology knowledge and have incorporated sodium manipulation into a show day peak week protocol, to help achieve a desired look on stage.

Whilst this has widely been accepted by the bodybuilding community, many people are still a bit confused about why they should be adding pink salt into their meals or adding in electrolytes into their intra-workout mix. Therefore, the aim of this article is to explain some of the rationale behind these protocols, and discuss the importance of fluids, electrolytes, and sodium in the context of bodybuilding.

What are electrolytes?

Electrolyte is a term used for particles that carry a positive or negative charge, and in nutrition, the term refers to the essential minerals found in your blood, sweat, and urine. These minerals are involved in many metabolic processes throughout the body including: muscle function, maintaining acid-base balance, and hydration. Essential electrolytes include sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and bicarbonate.

Whilst they are all equally important, this article will only focus on sodium and its role and function in the body. Why are we solely focusing on sodium? The short answer is that bodybuilders, on average, will simply need to have a higher intake of sodium relative to untrained individuals, and it is an easy variable to manipulate and understand. Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of why.

What does sodium do?

First things first: sodium is essential for the proper functioning of our nervous system. Your brain sends electrical signals through your nerve cells to communicate with the cells throughout your body. These signals are called nerve impulses. These are generated by changes to the electrical charge of the cells, and these changes occur by the movement of sodium into the cell (neuron). This then allows the signal to be passed along the neural chain and the electrical message to reach its intended target in the body.

A great example that illustrates this for bodybuilders is our ability to contract muscle. For most of us, it’s a thoughtless process – you could probably curl your biceps right now without having to actively think about it too much. But what you might not know is that your brain, as you do that, is sending signals to your biceps to tell it to contract. And guess what? Sodium plays a key role in facilitating that process. The key here is that the more muscle we have, the more fibres we’ll need to contract, and as such, the more signals the brain will need to deliver to get a full contraction. In short, greater levels of muscularity require higher levels of sodium to get the job done and send the accurate signal from your brain to your muscle for a contraction.

As such, the first reason for ensuring you are taking in enough sodium throughout the day, as a bodybuilder, is to ensure that you are supporting your nervous system functioning, and for optimal muscle contraction. If there isn’t enough sodium, there will not be as strong a muscle contraction as there could be, it’s as simple as that.

Secondly, sodium plays a crucial role in hydration and maintaining fluid balance in cells, which it does through the Sodium-Potassium pump. In the simplest way possible, our bodily cells use sodium and potassium molecules to regulate how much fluid enters and exits them, to achieve homeostasis or balance. When our electrolytes are appropriately balanced (the right ratio of sodium to potassium, inside and outside the cell) water is regulated at the right levels inside and outside of each cell. However, when we have electrolyte imbalances, problems start to arise. One of the most common ones is cramping, which occurs due to a lack of sodium in the body. This is seen quite frequently in bodybuilders, so I’d suggest you check your sodium intake if you experience muscle cramps frequently. The sodium-potassium pump also regulates our bodies pH, which is our bodies acid or alkaline levels. If this becomes imbalanced, you’ll become unwell.

Furthermore, our sodium intake will influence our kidney’s function, to the extent it dictates how much water to excrete or hold onto in urine. If our kidneys are healthy and functioning well, any extra sodium that we won’t need will be excreted out. One rule of thumb I tend to say to clients is that where sodium goes, water flows. Therefore, if we have increased our sodium intake then we will stimulate the body to hold onto a little more fluid, and we will see this specifically as an increase in blood volume. This increased blood volume will simply help move glucose, amino acids, and other nutrients throughout your body. By increasing blood volume levels, sodium helps in the delivery of the nutrients to working muscles whilst you train and throughout the day as they recover. Sodium will also slightly increase systolic blood pressure. This increase will support a quicker delivery of nutrients to working muscle groups, alongside the increased blood volume.

Think of what we know so far, more muscle = greater need for sodium for nerve impulses to tell our muscles to contract. More sodium increases blood volume, blood pressure and delivers more nutrients to our working muscle aiding performance and recovery. From a bodybuilding perspective you could say that having more sodium in our diet supports maintaining muscular fullness, which is crucial, especially in the later stages of contest prep.

Fluids

Sodium stimulates thirst and prompts you to drink more fluids. In doing so, it’s helping your kidneys maintain proper electrolyte levels but also contributing to maintain blood volume levels whilst you exercise. As bodybuilders, we definitely sweat more than the Average Joe. Moreover, if you are in competition prep, then you’ll undoubtedly be engaging in considerably high amounts of cardio on top of your training. Alternatively, you could be at the peak of your off season, live in a warm climate and simply sweat a lot throughout the day, out with your training.

Therefore, because of sweating so much, you’ll lose both water and sodium, which will need to be replaced. As a rule of thumb, I always suggest that bodybuilders need roughly 1g of sodium per 15-20kg of bodyweight. However, determining both sodium and fluid needs can also be done by looking at the colour of your urine. If the colour is pale, or a lemon shade of yellow, it means you’re well hydrated and are getting enough sodium. If it’s clear, you’re more than likely consuming a little too much water and might need to up your sodium intake. Alternatively, if it is dark and resembles cider, it’ll mean you need more fluids.

The best thing to do is to set some targets to hit, and then adapt from what you see, and how you feel. Of course, the further you get into prep, then the greater the need will be for both sodium and fluids, as you’ll be sweating more; in saying that, I do tend to keep sodium on the higher end of the spectrum from the start of a prep and then manipulate fluid intake. One thing you need to bear in mind is that as you prep, and hunger increases, you’ll naturally drink more to try and ‘fill’ yourself up, so it makes sense to do it this way.

Peaking

Going into shows, sodium, alongside fluid intake, is something we can manipulate to help get a desired look. As you are in the loading stages of peak week, you must maintain adequate sodium intake for the reasons you have read above. However, once you get to the drying out stage, you could look at reducing sodium intake ever so slightly as you manipulate fluid intake. Remember the old saying ‘where sodium goes, water flows’ and you’ll get the idea. You could also ramp it up in the hours before stage, to increase systolic blood pressure and overall vascularity. However, I must stress that it must never be cut out completely; otherwise, you’ll risk running flat, cramping, and not being able to get a pump pre stage. Of course, these are things you don’t want on show day, so if you are unsure on what do so, either leave it alone or consult with someone who knows what they are talking about.

In summary, adding sodium to our diet as bodybuilders is essential. This will support our nervous system, muscle contractions, nutrient delivery, and maintain fluid balance. By supplementing it, we see an increase in performance and recovery. Our daily needs are also greater due to the increased amount of muscle mass we hold, and how much we sweat given our training intensity and output, which increases if we are dieting. This can be worked out by setting targets and adapting to the feedback you receive. Lastly you could also play around with sodium in the lead up to a show but if you are unsure on what you are doing then I would not advise you change it.

Vaughan Wilson Bsc Hons

References:

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/electrolytes

https://www.muscleandfitness.com/flexonline/flex-nutrition/8-things-bodybuilders-need-to-know-about-sodium/

https://www.bodybuilding.com/content/avoiding-salt-make-it-part-of-your-nutrition-plan.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1lEDajGNJQ

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