While oft-touted as a protein supplement simply for skin and hair health, collagen is capable of a whole lot more. When it comes to building a stronger, leaner body, collagen should be used alongside whey protein and valued as a veritable protein staple.
When most people think 'protein powder', their mind will turn to whey protein or vegan alternatives like pea protein. Few will consider collagen, a source of protein made from connective tissue which has been largely relegated to the beauty industry due to its potential usefulness in supporting healthy skin and hair. What isn't often discussed is its capacity for support of strong bones, joints, and even muscle, and particularly support of active connective tissue which confers contractile strength in its own right.
One trial involving the supplementation of athletes with collagen peptides (hydrolysed beef collagen) found that supplementation with 15g of collagen per day increases fat-free mass significantly more than placebo when paired with 3 times weekly training for 12 weeks. Where fat-free mass increased to 101.01% of the initial mass in the placebo group, it increased to 102.85% in the collagen supplemented group, for almost 3x the mass change. Importantly, where body fat mass increased in the placebo group, it did not in the collagen supplemented group. Squat strength in the placebo group saw a 113.44% increase over the trial period, compared with a 118.58% increase in the collagen supplemented group for a 1.38x advantage of collagen over placebo for squat strength gains. These results were in groups who were taking more than double the daily allowance of protein already, at about 2g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, so the fact that any difference was seen at all for the comparatively small addition of collagen (only an extra 0.2g per kg of body weight per day) is a testament to how potent it is.
Collagen is perfectly suitable as a protein supplement for muscle hypertrophy, as a study involving supplementation with 15g per day demonstrated upregulation of 221 different proteins involved in muscle contractile fibre production (compared with only 44 in the placebo group). Another study found that collagen supplementation in elderly men was particularly useful in improving fat free body mass and muscle strength, and another in elderly women found it applicable to preservation of lean body mass. However, collagen's amino-acid profile isn't exactly geared towards muscle fibre production compared with protein sources such as whey and pea protein. Whey and pea protein are rich in muscular hypertrophy-signalling amino acids like leucine (roughly 9%) and glutamine/glutamate (roughly 15%), compared with collagen which only contains about 3% and 8% of these amino acids respectively (still enough to support muscle growth, but to a lesser extent). Collagen is instead enriched with amino acids like glycine (roughly 33%) and proline (about 13%). While these aminos aren't as important in muscle hypertrophy, they are essential for the maintenance of the body's own collagenous tissues.
Muscle fibres are surrounded and permeated by connective tissue known as fascia, which is integral to the transmission and distribution of mechanical force within the muscle. Just as muscle adapts to excess load experienced during training, so too does connective tissue, including fascia. Exercise results in heightened collagen turnover as the tissue restructures to become more resistant to strain, which is as vitally important to strength as muscle contractility. Fascia doesn't simply sit there idly though, research has demonstrated that fascia is able to actively contract and alter its stiffness, greatly influencing musculoskeletal dynamics and regulating coordination, load capacity and strength. Collagen supplementation has been demonstrated to improve the structure and function of fascia, as well as tendons and ligaments, overall augmenting both passive and active contractile tissue.
Along with increasing muscle and connective tissue size and strength, 20g/day collagen supplementation is also able to reduce Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and improve recovery of strength 48 hours after training, via enhancement of the remodeling rate of damaged extracellular matrix in muscle and connective tissue. Recent research suggests that delayed onset muscle soreness is in fact not soreness of muscle fibres at all, but soreness of the deep fascia in muscle which is damaged due to excessive loading. It has been argued that 'DOMS' should be relabeled as 'DOSS' (Delayed Onset Soft-tissue Stiffness) and treated with interventions such as collagen peptide supplementation. Collagen has also been demonstrated to assist with repair of joints and suppression of joint pain and improve bone mineral density.
Importantly, research has suggested that total glycine availability to average humans each day is around 6g (3g from food, 3g made by the body), where the amount required to sustain a healthy metabolism, healing processes and connective tissue is around 16g per day (for a 70kg human). This equates to the addition of 30g of collagen (one of the most enriched sources of glycine in the diet) per day. This effect is enhanced when glycine is taken in conjunction with proline and lysine (also present in collagen). The agricultural industry has already begun supplementing livestock with foods enriched with glycine to protect their connective tissues including their bones and joints against disease, and it's probably time humans do as well.
Collagen shouldn't be seen as a replacement for classical protein sources such as whey or pea protein concentrates/isolates, as its deficiency in muscle hypertrophy-supporting amino acids such as leucine makes it less useful in improving muscle fibre protein synthesis by comparison. Nonetheless, collagen's uniquely potent enhancement of force-mediating connective tissue strength and adaptability to training makes it essential as a companion to these proteins in a well-balanced athletic diet to support maximal strength and lean mass gains. But for people who aren't looking to maximise raw muscle mass gain, and instead to support a strong, lean, young and healthy body phenotype, collagen would be the protein of choice over whey.
We carry very affordable collagen peptides fortified with leucine, and while that makes us a biased party, we always endeavor to seek the truth and sell products that really work, backed by the latest research and current evidence.