Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a fun little chemical that should be on the mind of anyone interested in exercise. Over the course of the last few years it seems to be coming more into the consciousness of the average gym-goer. A plethora of supplements dedicated to its production, synthesis, storage, and activity are now common, where years ago they barely existed at all. And this is probably for good reason. ATP is one of the major players in the human body when it comes to energy.
If you haven’t read Tom Kelso’s article on the energy systems of the body, take the time to check it out. It provides an awesome overview of how your body makes and uses ATP for energy. Anyone looking to understand how exercise is actually accomplished by the body will benefit greatly.
ATP and its metabolites (what it breaks down into) have some other interesting effects in the body as well. A recent study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition is among the first studies attempting to test the effects ATP has outside your cells. Among the most significant known effects are increased blood flow, vasodilation (opening up your blood vessels), and even suppression of pain. The problem is, the body tightly controls how much ATP is outside of your cells, so the researchers decided to test if supplemental ATP would boost these other effects.
Now, the study was funded in part by a company that produces ATP supplements, so let’s put that out there right up front. Interestingly, there were no improvements in short-term exercise, indicating that supplemental ATP doesn’t seem to increase the ATP inside your cells much. Compare this to creatine supplementation, which does make a difference in your 6–12 rep sets (and beyond). However, researchers did find that supplemental ATP tended to improve muscular endurance toward the end of the lengthy sets. This would indicate at least a little boost to recovery and endurance mechanisms like increased blood flow. Probably the reason for a less than huge improvement to strength and endurance is because ATP breaks down rapidly outside of your cells. It degrades into adenosine which has some of the same blood-flow promoting effects and could theoretically account for the improvement in performance all by itself. And while the blood and cellular chemistries between the people taking ATP and those on placebo were significantly different, they weren’t clinically relevant. Meaning, the differences didn’t seem to have much to do with improved athleticism.
Is supplemental ATP worth it? There does seem to be some benefit to taking the supplement, there is no doubt about it, but the jury is still out on how much to take, when and how to take it, and so on. Even worse, it may be that taking the metabolites of ATP is more useful anyway. Add on the fact that ATP ain’t cheap, and for now I’ll get my blood flow boosts from good, old-fashioned cardio, and maintaining the right body temperature by drinking nice cold water while I exercise.
John A Rathmacher, et al., “Adenosine-5′-triphosphate (ATP) supplementation improves low peak muscle torque and torque fatigue during repeated high intensity exercise sets,” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 9,48, (2012)
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