Pomegranate Power

Get juiced! New research is hinting that pomegranate extract can make you stronger, faster and seriously ease muscle soreness for better gains in the gym.

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Abs aren’t the only things made in the kitchen. What you put into your body directly impacts your workout, whether you want to kill it in the weight room or finish the race without it finishing you — or even slip into your skinnier jeans. The right foods can give you more game in the gym and get you back in there sooner — and pomegranates are quickly making gains as the superfood to watch for the fit set.

Now, you’ve probably lumped the scarlet-hued fruit into the exotic fruit category, a deliciously high-maintenance piece of produce filled with an abundance of arils, the tart-tasting seeds suspended between pith. But pomegranates also might be the fitness remedy you’ve been looking for to reduce postworkout fatigue so you can hit it even harder the next day.

Granted, pomegranates already rock the healthy label. The seeds are a good source of immune-boosting vitamin C, bone-building vitamin K, and potassium for muscle strength and nerve function, plus they’re full of fiber (7 grams per cup), so popping them is a great way to fill up without filling out. Even more promising, they’re loaded with polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that help protect cells from damage and lower inflammation in the body — they have three times more antioxidants than red wine and green tea — and have been linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and cancer.

Ease Sore Muscles

But it’s the new research that’s pushing pomegranates into the performance category. Researchers at the University of Texas gave male lifters 500 milliliters of pomegranate juice for nine days. After five days, participants performed three sets of 20 reps of single-arm biceps extensions and six sets of 10 reps of single leg extensions. When researchers measured muscle recovery two to three days later, the pomegranate group recovered more strength in the upper body and less muscle soreness. (Although, it should be noted this study was funded by pomegranate juice manufacturers.)

There’s more: In a study by University of North Carolina researchers, runners were given pomegranate extract 30 minutes before an intermittent sprinting challenge. Researchers found that pomegranate extract positively impacted blood flow and exercise performance, and increased vessel diameter by 9.5 percent. “Blood flow is an important component of exercise and recovery: It helps oxygen-rich blood reach your muscles more quickly, and there are very few ingredients on the market that actually increase blood flow,” says Dr. Abbie E. Smith-Ryan, Ph.D., CSCS, FISSN, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science and co-author of the study. What’s more, participants reported feeling better and more invigorated.

In another study, CrossFit athletes were given a drink containing extracts of pomegranate, tart cherry, green tea and black tea before various workouts as well as a postworkout protein and carb supplement, and researchers found the supplement could enhance exercise efficiency and performance.

Boost Performance

“Pomegranate-extract supplementation could directly enhance performance, as a result of the high polyphenol content,” Smith-Ryan says, “but more specifically, it consistently shows an increase in blood flow, which could potentially mean better blood and nutrient delivery, and greater removal of metabolic byproducts from the muscle for enhanced recovery.”

Not that this should come as a huge surprise. Much like beetroot juice, pomegranate extract is rich in nitrates, inorganic compounds that are turned into nitric oxide in the body. During intense exercise, muscles use more oxygen. (That’s why you breathe heavier.) Nitric oxide may improve blood flow to the muscles, potentially helping them grow and recover faster. Where pomegranate trumps beetroot juice is in its polyphenol content. “It’s not just nitrates that increase blood flow but polyphenols, which can potentially help as an antioxidant and improve performance,” Smith-Ryan says.

So is pomegranate extract the supplement cure-all you’re looking for to boost muscle gains and decrease muscle soreness so you can get back to squatting, bench pressing and box jumping sooner? While the preliminary research hints that pomegranate extract helps give you more muscle-building bang for your efforts, so far the studies are small and not definitive. On the plus side, pomegranate extract is natural and tastes good, with no side effects, Smith-Ryan says. So while there’s no magic pill, you can bet that pomegranate’s going to start popping up in a lot more preworkout supplements.

5 Foods That Boost Performance

Put that burger and fries down and pick up one of these fitness-boosting foods. All speed up recovery so you can do it all over again tomorrow.

1. Salmon: This lean protein source — 22 grams per serving! — also serves up a hefty dose of omega-3 fatty acids to reduce inflammation and muscle fatigue.

2. Ginger: According to a Journal of Pain study, this potent anti-inflammatory eases exercise-induced muscle pain. This delicious ginger iced tea is a great postworkout drink. 

3. Banana: Go bananas. Research conducted at Appalachian State University’s Human Performance Laboratory in North Carolina found that endurance athletes performed just as well with half a banana and water as a sports drink. You can also try our banana citrus postworkout shake

4. Tart Cherry Juice: Drinking antioxidant-rich tart cherry juice is not only associated with reduced muscle soreness in runners, but it also can speed recovery after strength training.

5. Chocolate Milk: Chugging low-fat chocolate milk after a sweat sesh can help replenish tired muscles and aid exercise recovery in endurance athletes, says a study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism.