Creatine. Check. Arginine. Check. Protein powder. Check. Enzymes. Che . . . wait, what was that last one?

You may not think of them as you compile your supplement shopping list, but enzyme products can be a smart choice for packing on muscle mass. Traditionally, enzymes are known as a digestive aid, but studies have shown that they also play an important role in recovery from high-intensity training, making them a prime addition to a bodybuilding nutritional program.

ENZYME EDUCATION | Enzymes are proteins that act as catalysts in the body, enabling metabolic processes to occur at lightning speed. Before the protein and carbohydrates we eat can be used for muscle growth, stored enzymes must be released from the digestive system. Three main classes of enzymes break down foods: amylases break down carbohydrates, lipases break down fats and proteases break down proteins. Although these enzymes are naturally produced and stored in our bodies, they can also be obtained from certain foods and dietary supplements. Bodybuilders and hardgainers looking to pack on mass can use enzyme supplements to help their digestive systems handle the large amounts of calories they need to consume; the enzymes help utilize more food so those nutrients can be put to use for muscle building.

Since bodybuilders are more concerned with protein intake than most other athletes, it would make sense that proteases are the most important types of enzymes for our consideration. A recent study confirmed the benefits of protease enzymes, as it demonstrated that a specialized blend of enzymes added to a whey protein drink dramatically increased blood levels of amino acids over drinking whey protein alone. Essentially, more of the whey protein was digested and absorbed when the enzyme supplement was included with the drink, allowing more of the amino acids from the whey protein to enter the circulation and be available to the muscles.

IN THE BLOOD | Proteases allow more amino acids to be absorbed, and the enzymes themselves can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Research shows that they survive the acidity of the stomach without being destroyed and are absorbed by the intestines; once protease enzymes make their way into the circulation, they take on a whole new role for promoting muscle growth.

Scientists began discovering the beneficial effects of protease supplements as early as the 1960s. Proteases were originally used to help athletes recover from injuries after studies showed they could help speed the healing time for sprains, strains and fractures. They’re believed to work by decreasing the production of molecules that cause inflammation while increasing levels of anti-inflammatory substances. Excessive inflammation can delay muscle recovery and therefore slow down muscle building — by limiting the amount of inflammation that occurs after an injury, the regeneration process can begin sooner. It is also possible that proteases speed recovery through their role in increasing amino acid absorption, which would provide more available aminos for rebuilding damaged muscles and joints.

Given the knowledge that protease supplements can decrease inflammation and speed healing, researchers from Elon University in North Carolina decided to test the effects of protease supplements on recovery from an intense workout. Male subjects ran downhill on a treadmill for 30 minutes; running downhill for an extended period of time can lead to significant levels of muscle damage and inflammation, comparable to performing the negative portions of reps during weight training. For the following three days, the men returned to the lab to have their leg strength and power measured. The results? Subjects who were given protease enzymes were able to maintain power and strength in their hamstrings to a greater degree than subjects taking placebos. Since the hamstrings would be most damaged by downhill running, it makes sense that protease enzymes would have their greatest impact in this muscle group. The researchers also measured pain and soreness with a dolorimeter, a device that applies pressure to the muscles. As expected, the subjects taking the enzyme preparation were less sore than the placebo group. This means that protease supplements may not only aid recovery from an injury, but they may also help muscles recover from intense weight training.

SHOPPING TIPS | Choose a formula that contains some or all of the following enzymes: trypsin, chymotrypsin, pepsin, pancreatic enzymes, bromelain and papain. Bromelain can also be obtained from fresh pineapple; papain from fresh papaya. Some supplements include amylases and lipases — a bonus, since they can help you digest more carbohydrates and fats.

Manufacturers also sell protein powders that include protease enzymes. Look for protein powders that list Aminogen on the label; this is a patented mix of protease enzymes added to many protein powder products. DOSAGE | Supplementing with 200-500 milligrams of protease enzymes before and after workouts will assist in keeping inflammation levels in check, increase the amount of protein you absorb from your pre- and postworkout meals (such as protein shakes), help your muscles recover more quickly, and may reduce the muscle pain you experience one or two days after a training session.