The Controversial History of ZMA

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One of the unquestioned staples of bodybuilding supplementation, ZMA is often up there with creatine and protein in terms of popularity. Rumoured to increase testosterone, muscle mass and your chance of bizarre dreams, ZMA is promoted as a cheap and effective supplement for the average gym goer.

In my own brief training experience, it’s something I’ve used on a regular basis not because of its observable benefits, but because people talk about it so damn much. So my own conformity aside, it’s important to note that ZMA’s history and effectiveness is far more suspect than we might consider. That’s putting it mildly.

What is ZMA?

ZMA is a patented formulation, containing zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6. Coming in a range of different dosages for each vitamin and mineral, the supplement came to the fore in the early to mid 1990s as something of a wonder supplement.

For anyone interested, the original formula which was developed by Victor Conte, whom we’ll get on to, contained 30mg of monomethionine and aspartate, 450mg of magnesium aspartate and 10.5mg of vitamin B6

Said to increase testosterone and by proxy, one’s muscle mass, it was marketed as a safe supplement whose effectiveness was unparalleled. The marketing itself was genius. Simply take these pills before bed and hey presto, you’d sleep better and continue killing it in the gym.

Who invented it?

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Victor Conte, a man best known to the sport’s industry as one of the most high profile drug busts of the mid-2000s. This, as will become clear, is deeply connected to ZMA…but we’ll get there! Before the drug bust came Victor Conte, the musician turned scientist. In an interview with Bodybuilding.com in 2009, Conte discussed his somewhat unconventional journey into nutritional supplements

In 1983, at the age of 33, I realized that it was impossible to raise children and be a touring musician. So, I began to look for another way to provide for my family. My cousin introduced me to one of his college roommates who was operating a laboratory in Santa Barbara, California. They were using a high-tech instrument called an ICP (inductively coupled plasma) spectrometer

My first career was as a professional musician. In the 1970’s, I played bass with the R & B funk band Tower of Power. In the early 1980’s I also worked with jazz legend Herbie Hancock. During my fifteen-year music career, I recorded seventeen albums and/or CD’s, many of which are still available today.

This quarter of a million dollar machine could simultaneously analyze a sample for up to 40 elements in parts per billion. The labs primary use of the machine at the time was analyzing wear oil from jet engines. Based upon the concentration of metals in the oil, they could determine when to replace engine parts to avoid in-flight failure.

However, the lab owner also knew that the technology was starting to be used for blood and urine analysis. After learning I was a track athlete in college, he called and suggested I set up a company and pioneer the use of the ICP to enhance athletic performance. He also sent several research abstracts from the Eastern Bloc involving mineral and trace element assessment of elite athletes.

I became intrigued by the idea and in March of 1984, I founded BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative). By late 1988, I was able to purchase the instrument from him and moved it from Santa Barbara up to the Bay Area. In early 1989, I established my own clinical research laboratory

From then on, Conte set about establishing a multi-million dollar business that would eventually see him rub shoulders with some of the best athletes America had to offer. In 1999, Conte’s firm began mass marketing and distributing the first iteration of ZMA supplements. That very same year Conte began distributing illegal steroids. Unsurprisingly, the two worlds met rather quickly.

Better Than Steroids? 

The initial ZMA campaigns were unequivocal, many athletes were deficient in Zinc or Magnesium, this product would address this. The result? Better rested athletes, with heightened testosterone levels. What’s more, these claims had scientific backing or it seemed.

In a highly engaging book called Game of Shadows, the authors highlighted the spurious nature of Conte’s claims:

The shadiness surrounding ZMA’s initial clinical trial was a sign of things to come. From 1999 to 2001, a series of high profile athletes, including but not limited to Marion Jones, Barry Bonds and Bill Romanowski, began touting the supposed wonder supplement ZMA. The problem? These very same athletes were going to Conte for their illegal doping programmes as well. So not only were the initial trials fixed from the beginning, the subsequent endorsement campaigns were spurious too.

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Bonds even had the gaul to claim that Conte's exercise and supplement regime alone, of which ZMA played a large part, was responsible for his incredible 2001 season in the MLS. When the BALCO drugs scandal broke in 2005, the athletes and Contes’ reputation was damaged. ZMA’s not so much.

This leads us to ask how effective is it really?

Does ZMA Work?

Yes and no appears to be the case.

If you’re deficient in Zinc, then it may help bring you up to the optimal level for your body. If you’re already there, ZMA appears to be worthless.

According to Examine.com, ZMA may increase testosterone levels in men deficient in Zinc, there is no evidence to suggest this occurs in men with no deficiency. For Ergo-Log.com, the conclusions were much the same. Bearing in mind that zinc and magnesium can be found in red meats, nuts and leafy greens, it’s likely that the majority of the lifting population who don’t eat complete crap most likely have adequate dietary intakes. I suspect we’ve been fooled into thinking ZMA is needed more than it is.

As a final point, I’d like to ask if any readers have any experience with ZMA past lucid dreams? Has it increased your testosterone or muscle mass? Let us know in the comments below.

As always…Happy Lifting!

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