Research Spotlight: Is rhodiola rosea supplementation a double-edged sword?

Research Spotlight articles share concise breakdowns of interesting studies. The study reviewed is "Effects of Short-Term Golden Root Extract (Rhodiola rosea) Supplementation on Resistance Exercise Performance" by Williams et al.
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Back in Volume 3 of MASS Research Review, I reviewed a study showing that rhodiola rosea (or “golden root extract”) increases power output during a series of maximal anaerobic cycling tests (three half-Wingate Tests). That was the first study examining the effects of rhodiola rosea on anaerobic exercise performance, and I noted that more work was needed in order to know if those results would extend to resistance training.

Fortunately, a recent study by the same research group addresses that very question. 10 resistance-trained males completed a double-blind randomized crossover trial investigating the effects of rhodiola rosea on bench press performance. The subjects reported an average of 8.7 years of training experience, and their average bench press 1RM was 114.2kg. Each subject completed the study protocol twice, consisting of three days of supplementation (1500mg of rhodiola rosea or a placebo per day, split into three daily doses) followed by a bench press testing session (with one final 500mg dose of rhodiola rosea or a placebo, consumed 30 minutes before the testing session). All subjects completed both arms of the study in a randomized, counterbalanced order. The testing session consisted of one set of two bench press reps at 75% of 1RM, performed with the intent of pressing the bar as explosively as possible, followed by three sets to failure (also with 75% of 1RM), with two minutes of rest between sets. A linear position transducer measured mean concentric velocity during the explosive set of two reps, and blood draws were completed pre-exercise and immediately post-exercise to assess blood lactate, plasma norepinephrine, and plasma epinephrine levels.

The lifters completed their explosive reps at a significantly faster mean concentric velocity in the rhodiola rosea condition, but interestingly, they completed significantly more reps during their three sets to failure in the placebo condition. Furthermore, blood lactate levels increased to a significantly greater extent pre- to post-training in the rhodiola condition, and resting norepinephrine levels were significantly greater in the rhodiola condition.

These findings actually match up well with those of the prior rhodiola rosea study we reviewed in MASS. The prior study found that rhodiola rosea increased power output during maximal cycling tests, but it also suggested that it may accelerate rates of fatigue. The fatigue index (a measure of how much cycling power drops off during Wingate tests) was slightly greater in the rhodiola condition than the control condition. I questioned that finding previously, suggesting that it may just reflect the greater initial power output observed in the rhodiola condition (e.g. if power output drops from 1100W to 500W, that would result in a greater fatigue index that dropping from 1000W to 490W, but your absolute power output would still be greater at all time points). However, the results of the present study add even more evidence that rhodiola rosea supplementation may have a “true” negative impact on acute fatigue resistance during anaerobic exercise. The lactate and norepinephrine findings suggest a possible mechanism as well – if rhodiola supplementation increases norepinephrine release, that could simultaneously improve power (and potentially force) output, while also accelerating fatigue due to an increased reliance on anaerobic metabolism. Thus, rhodiola rosea supplementation may be ergogenic in some circumstances (for workouts or competitions where maximal force and/or power output are of primary importance), but ergolytic in other circumstances (for workouts or competitions where strength endurance is a higher priority). However, this area of the literature is still in its infancy, so more research is needed to confirm these tentative conclusions.

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