Collagen is the popular beauty supplement used to maintain healthy hair, skin and nails that’s trending in fitness now too. But can it help with building stronger joints and muscles?
These days, advice on building muscle doesn’t just stop at the basics of strength training and eating a nutritious diet. From complicated sets and reps to obscure supplements (chlorophyll water, anyone?), the reported tips and tricks on supporting your body go above and beyond sleep, exercise, stretching and protein.
Collagen powder is becoming a cupboard staple among those who lift. You may already be familiar with the supplement, as it’s well known in the beauty world for its apparent benefits to skin. We asked the experts if this popular supplement can support your exercise routine too.
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What is collagen?
Collagen is a protein that is naturally found in the body, explains sports nutritionist Alice Clarke. “It’s found in things like muscles, ligaments and tendons – the things that hold us together – and also in our skin, which is why it’s a popular supplement in the beauty world,” she says.
We naturally have collagen in our body all of the time, as we do with other sources of protein. “Collagen is made from amino acids, in the same way as any other protein, only rather than chicken or whey, the specific chain is called collagen,” Alice adds. “Collagen supplements tend to come in the form of something called a peptide, which is essentially a small section of the protein.”
Can collagen build strength?
As collagen naturally occurs in our muscles and joints, it makes sense that topping up those supplies can help build a stronger body. Research shows that collagen can prevent the extent of sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass that happens with age, but because only 1-10% of collagen is found in muscles, most of collagen’s benefits are to do with joint health, explains Alice.
A 2016 analysis found that ingesting collagen can have a positive therapeutic effect on osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, with a potential increase in bone mineral density. “The majority of the research and efficacy data is in older people because, as we get older, our connective tissues start to wear down,” says Alice. “In those whose natural stores are declining, collagen can help to improve mobility, ease joint pain and even build some muscle mass.
“That can also be true if you’re an athlete, because you will be breaking down your tissues more quickly and putting your body under more stress, so you could do with topping up your collagen levels to protect bones, joints and muscles.”
Is collagen worth taking?
So, should the average exerciser be taking collagen supplements? “If you’re young, fit and healthy and your connective tissues are working as they should, it’s not harmful,” says Alice. However, if you already strengthen your muscles and joints by strength training a few times a week and eat a diet rich in protein, “it can just be a waste of money,” she says.
Even for those who are finding that they are experiencing joint pain, Alice doesn’t suggest relying on supplements to help. “I always recommend that people should get their intake of any nutrient from whole foods,” she says. “As collagen is a protein, you can get it from eating meat, fish and eggs. Vegetarians and vegans may struggle a little more to get their requirements, but you can get plant-based supplements of collagen if necessary.”
As with everything, joint pain or muscle weakness should be discussed with a practitioner before trying to add supplements into your lifestyle. “It makes sense that these supplements are being targeted to those looking to boost their performance and strength, but the clever marketing may not be true,” says Alice.
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).