We’re all familiar with that guy in the gym–the one who spends as much time posing and admiring his physique in the mirror as he does lifting weights. He knows that the “pump” he achieves while training is ephemeral, merely a function of temporarily increased blood flow, and not the instant addition of true muscle mass.


Yet, that does not stop him from admiring himself and those enormous biceps. In speaking to one such bodybuilder, I discovered that he ingests nitric oxide immediately prior to lifting, and he is convinced that seeing the pump encourages him to keep training with maximum effort.

As a “hard-gainer”, I have come to a place of understanding with my body that growth is going to take time. Time under tension, overload, variation and periodization. All the tried-and-true aspects of bodybuilding. So far it has been working with great success; and yet I have always wondered if there might indeed be something to this nitric oxide trend that seems to be sweeping the bodybuilding world. Could there actually be a benefit other than a significant yet fleeting pump?

As it turns out, nitric oxide is responsible for facilitating a number of important pathways in the human body. Its presence is essential to proper functioning of the cardiovascular, immune and nervous systems. Nitric oxide aids in vasodilation and helps to protect against heart disease and strokes. As a neurotransmitter, this chemical helps send impulses between nerve cells. Macrophages in the immune system produce nitric oxide, helping the body destroy foreign invaders, thereby warding off infections. It also helps to increase blood flow to certain organs as well as to the body’s extremities. While all of these systems are indeed vital for optimal health, how does this directly affect our bodybuilder?

Research has indicated that the increased blood flow that accompanies the ingestion of nitric oxide can actually augment an athlete’s strength and endurance over time. In addition, it can aid in the removal of exercise-induced lactic acid accumulation, thereby reducing fatigue and recovery time. However, the story does not end there.

Nitric oxide is actually an end product of the joint activity of two amino acids, L-arginine and L-citrulline. Inside the cells of the human body, L-arginine directly creates nitric oxide and L-citrulline. L-Citrulline is then recycled back into L-arginine, creating even more nitric oxide. An enzyme called nitric oxide synthase is required to convert L-arginine to L-citrulline as well as for the inverse process. This enzyme needs to function optimally in order for nitric oxide production to continue. During an intense bodybuilding session, L-arginine levels rapidly become depleted, thus altering the entire production loop. By supplementing with a nitric oxide compound, which usually contains both L-arginine and L-citrulline, this loop can be strengthened, allowing for better workouts and that highly coveted “pump”.

Having been enlightened as to the benefits of nitric oxide, I still could not justify adding one more supplement to my laundry list of natural vitamins. As it turns out, there are other ways to encourage the production of nitric oxide in the body. It’s amino acid precursors, L-arginine and L-citrulline, can be found in many of the foods we already enjoy. Watermelon, legumes and nuts boast high levels of these amino acids. Protein-rich foods such as chicken, beef and dairy products are also excellent sources of L-arginine. The polyphenols present in dark chocolate have been found to increase levels of nitric acid in research studies. Antioxidants, abundantly present in fruits and other sources of Vitamin C, can help prevent the breakdown or oxidation of nitric acid once it has been produced. Similarly, foods rich in Vitamin E, such as wheat germ, olive oil and sunflower seeds, also confer protective antioxidant properties.

Nitric oxide only remains stable in the body for a few seconds; therefore, the more antioxidant protection we can provide, the greater benefits we will be able to derive.

For the culinary elite among us, certain spices have been shown to facilitate increases in nitric acid production. A recent study from The Third Medical University in China revealed that foods such as cayenne and jalapeno peppers contain a compound called capsaicin which, when ingested, activates a receptor found in the lining of blood vessels. This activation process leads to an increase in the production of nitric oxide.

Effective bodybuilding has always been a combined effort of activity in the gym plus prudent measures in the kitchen. Armed with the knowledge that nitric oxide production can easily be facilitated by giving some extra thought to meal planning, achieving that “pump” during your next workout just became easier to swallow!


1. http://www.livestrong.com/article/465685-list-of-foods-high-in-nitric-oxide/


3. http://www.nutritionexpress.com/showarticle.aspx?articleid=286

4. http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200502/nitric-oxide-the-new-hero-human-biology

5. Dirk Taubert, MD, PhD; Renate Roesen, PhD; Clara Lehmann, MD; Norma Jung, MD; Edgar Schömig, MD “Effects of Low Habitual Cocoa Intake on Blood Pressure and Bioactive Nitric Oxide – A Randomized controlled Trial”. JAMA. 2007; 298(1):49-60. doi:10.1001/jama.298.1.49.

6. Dachun Yang, Zhidan Luo, Shuangtao Ma, Wing Tak Wong, Liqun Ma, Jian Zhong, Hongbo He, Zhigang Zhao, Tingbing Cao, Zhencheng Yan, Daoyan Liu, William J. Arendshorst, Yu Huang, Martin Tepel, Zhiming Zhu “Activation of TRPV1 by Dietary Capsaicin Improves Endothelium-Dependent Vasorelaxation and Prevents Hypertension”. Cell Metabolism, Volume 12, Issue 2, 130-141, 4 August 2010

About the Author

Cathleen Kronemer is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for 22 years. Look for her on www.WorldPhysique.com.

She welcomes your feedback and your comments!


These resources are for the purpose of personal trainer growth and development through Continuing Education which advances the knowledge of fitness professionals. This article is written for NFPT Certified Personal Trainers to receive Continuing Education Credit (CEC). Please contact NFPT at 800.729.6378 or info@nfpt.com with questions or for more information.