Episode 142 – Can Ashwagandha Help Muscle Growth?

Key Topics Covered

ashwaghanda powder and root.

Ashwagandha is in a bit of a weird space. It is often considered “alternative medicine” because of its history. But something worth considering is that the definition of alternative medicine is:  “any practice that aims to achieve the healing effects of medicine, but which lacks biological plausibility and is untested, untestable or proven ineffective”.

What if something that was alternative medicine eventually had a significant amount of research supporting its benefits? 

Ashwagandha isn’t at a point where it holds up to that level of scrutiny. But it is worth looking at it through that lens, rather than completely writing it off.

Why Would We Think It Would Lead to Muscle Growth?

  • We could look at this from a theoretical perspective, research or anecdotes.
Ashwagandha and muscular person in the gym.

Study 1 – ‘Crazy Bench Press Study’

  • 8 week study involving 600mg Ashwagandha per day vs placebo.
  • Placebo group gained 26kg on their bench. Ashwagandha group gained 46kg.
  • The Ashwagandha group had less soreness, more muscle growth, lost more body fat and also had an increase in testosterone.

Obviously, this is too good to be true. But it also surely makes you curious to look at it more.

Study 2 – Squat and Bench Press Study

  • Similar conditions as the previous study.
  • Squat increased by 19kg in the ashwagandha group vs 10kg in the placebo group.
  • Bench press increased 12kg vs 8kg.
  • These numbers look slightly more realistic, particularly when factoring in that they were untrained lifters.

Theoretical Perspectives

  • Every study that has been done on ashwagandha so far has found a reduction in stress.
  • Research looking at sleep has found improvements in sleep.
  • Research looking at testosterone has found improvements in testosterone in men, with no change in women.
  • Looking at this, even without a direct mechanism, it wouldn’t be absurd to think that the reductions in stress levels explain all of these changes. And that all of this also improves muscle growth.

Overall Research on Muscle Growth

  • While the 2 studies on strength sound promising, they are cherry-picked a bit since they seem the most impressive.
  • A systematic review from 2021 looking at all the research on strength and muscle growth found that 1) Ashwagandha DID consistently improve these things in research, but 2) The effect size was a lot smaller than those studies made it look.
  • Whilst there may be a positive impact on muscle growth, we can’t be sure about that just yet.

Interpreting the Research

  • When looking at the research, it’s probably wise to exclude the bench press study. The results seem too good to be true and even the strength increase from the placebo group was a lot greater than what you would expect.
  • Outside of that, the research still looks positive
  • But in general, I’m a bit cautious of Ashwagandha research. There is not a massive sample, and it also seems a bit less tightly controlled in a lot of aspects than other things we often talk about.
  • I’m not at a point where I recommend it to everybody who lifts. But if somebody clearly has a lot of stress in their life, I often do bring it up at some stage.

Potential Downsides

Ashwagandha Supplement

  • Side effects seem rare.
  • In high dosages, gastrointestinal symptoms can occur. 
  • Some people are concerned about theoretical issues without basis yet.
    • Example: I’ve seen people suggest that those with autoimmune conditions shouldn’t take it because it improves immune function, which could be dangerous. But that involves multiple stretches of logic without evidence yet.

‘Downregulating Emotions?’

  • Some people report ashwagandha making them feel emotionless or like a zombie. Other people have backed this up with theoretical reasoning around mechanisms.
  • This is difficult to interpret. These outcomes haven’t been found when it is compared to placebo. But I’m also not going to say that it’s solely placebo causing those things either. 
  • It’s worth considering that these individuals may just be unsure of what being relaxed feels like.
  • Overall we don’t really have a strong opinion there. 
  • Fr most people, downsides and side effects are rare.

Dosage & How to Take

  • Research uses dosages between 200mg and 1000mg. 
  • The standard dosage I recommend is 600mg split over 2x across the day.
  • That said, the research isn’t really at a point where we can clarify what the optimal dosage is yet.

Summary 

Overall, ashwagandha is going to be an interesting space to watch. Not only from a muscle-building perspective but also from its outcomes in stress and anxiety which can lead to many other downstream effects.

Relevant Blogs / Resources

Podcast:

Episode 65 – Ashwagandha | Ideal Nutrition 

Blog Posts:

Ashwagandha for Health and Performance | Ideal Nutrition 

Studies