• In the realm of bodybuilding, the quest for the perfect supplement is never-ending. Athletes always look for that edge, from protein powders to creatine for weight loss and hypertrophy, to enhance their performance and physique. But what if the secret to enhanced muscle pumps and many health benefits was hiding in plain sight at your grocery store? Enter pure cocoa, a natural powerhouse that’s not just for your hot chocolate anymore. Recent research has begun to unveil its potential not just for general health but specifically in bodybuilding.

Study Summary:Cocoa Polyphenols and Berries are Great for Boosting Muscle Pumps

  • The study aimed to investigate the effects of red berries (5 grams daily), cocoa (2.5 grams daily), or a combination of both (7.5 grams daily) on cardiovascular health in older adults for 12 weeks.
  • The study found no significant differences between the groups at the beginning of the study.
  • The study found that consuming cocoa and red berries can benefit your heart. However, the group that ate cocoa had lower levels of TMAO (i.e., increased TMAO is associated with increased heart disease)in their blood, which is good for the heart.
  • Neither berries or cocoa increased nitric oxide levels.
  • The cocoa group also had higher levels of Flow Mediated Dilation (i.e., a measurement of vascular function that assesses the ability of blood vessels to dilate in response to increased blood flow.)  which is also good for their heart. On the other hand, a combination of red berry and cocoa consumption also had a greater improvement in heart health biomarkers than either alone.
  • The study also found that the combination of cocoa and red berries had a greater effect on heart health biomarkers than alone.

Cocoa Health Benefits: Not Just a Delicious Treat

Derived from the cacao bean, various cultures have consumed cocoa for centuries. While most associate it with sweet treats, bodybuilders should know the potent cocoa health benefits.

Cocoa beans are rich in antioxidants, particularly cocoa flavanols, which have been shown to have several health benefits. Flavanols are a type of polyphenol, plant compounds with antioxidant properties. Dietary polyphenols are effective in combatting the effects of aging, especially in preventing the decline of cognitive function and the development of cardiovascular disease (CVD).(Devi & Chamoli, 2020; Rangel-Huerta et al., 2015)

Epidemiological studies on flavanol-rich foods, such as tea, apples, red wine, and dark chocolate, have observed positive trends in the association between high consumption of these foods and reduced CVD risk. (Lewis et al., 2010)

muscle pumpsIn addition to antioxidants, cocoa beans are a good fiber, iron, magnesium, and zinc source. They also contain small amounts of caffeine and theobromine, which are stimulants that can help to improve mood and cognitive function.

Cocoa beans are also rich in fat, with about half of their weight consisting of fat. However, the fat in cocoa beans is primarily monounsaturated and saturated fat, which are considered healthier than trans fats and other types of saturated fat. While cocoa has many health benefits, consuming it in moderation is essential due to its calorie and fat content.

Beyond the Pump: The Health Benefits of Cocoa Flavanols

But the benefits of cocoa don’t stop at the gym doors. Incorporating cocoa into one’s diet can offer a range of cocoa health benefits:

Cardiovascular Health: Beyond the gym, cocoa has many health benefits, particularly for the heart. Cardiovascular diseases remain the leading cause of death globally. (Fraga et al., 2011) Cocoa flavanols have been shown to positively affect cardiovascular health by improving blood flow and reducing blood pressure.(Grassi et al., 2005) A 2016 meta-analysis found that cocoa flavanol intake in adults significantly improved cardiovascular biomarkers, such as fasting insulin, insulin resistance, triglycerides (TG), HDL-C, and c-reactive protein (CRP). (Lin et al., 2016)

Blood Pressure Regulation: High blood pressure is a known risk factor for several health issues, so keeping it in check is crucial. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that regular consumption of cocoa-rich products significantly reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure.(Taubert et al., 2007) This is crucial as high blood pressure is a significant risk factor for heart disease.

Gut Health and Microbiota Metabolism: The gut plays a pivotal role in overall health, and cocoa benefits gut microbiota.(Sorrenti et al., 2020)

Antioxidant Properties: Cocoa is rich in polyphenols and is known for its antioxidant properties. (Katz et al., 2011) Antioxidants combat free radicals in the body, reducing oxidative stress and potentially lowering the risk of various diseases.

Mental Health and Well-being: Beyond physical health, cocoa has also been linked to improved mood and mental well-being. A study from the University of Swinburne found that cocoa flavanols could improve mood and cognitive performance, making it not just a treat for the body but also for the mind. (Scholey et al., 2010)

Enhanced Muscle Pumps with Cocoa

One of the primary goals of bodybuilders during their workouts is to achieve that coveted muscle pump. This sensation, where muscles feel fuller and tighter, is not just for show. It indicates increased muscle blood flow, aiding nutrient delivery and waste removal. So, how does cocoa come into play?

Cocoa, Nitric Oxide, and Flow-Mediated Dilation: A Deep Dive

Cocoa and berries, with their high levels of flavonoids, have been found to improve nitric oxide production and flow-mediated dilation. Nitric oxide acts as a potent vasodilator, increasing blood flow and oxygen delivery to muscles during exercise. Flow-mediated dilation is a measure of blood vessel function and is closely linked to cardiovascular health. Supplementing with cocoa or berries may enhance muscle pumps, endurance, and recovery. Beetroot and citrulline are other natural compounds that can boost nitric oxide production and improve muscle performance. Further studies are needed to explore the long-term effects of cocoa and berries on muscle growth and overall athletic performance.

What is Nitric Oxide (NO)?

Nitric Oxide (NO) is a naturally produced gas in the body that helps dilate blood vessels, promoting better blood flow and oxygen delivery to muscles. Common supplements like L-arginine and L-citrulline have been reported to increased NO but the research remains inconclusive.

Improved blood flow can lead to better nutrient and oxygen delivery to the muscles, enhancing muscle pumps during workouts. This process is vital for increasing blood flow to tissues, including muscles, which can improve nutrient delivery and waste removal.

Nitric oxide is a molecule produced naturally by the body and is crucial in various physiological processes. One of its primary functions is vasodilation, the widening of blood vessels. Cocoa polyphenols, such as cocoa flavanols, have been shown to improve blood flow and vasodilation. (Andújar et al., 2012; Schroeter et al., 2006) However, there is some conflicting data in this regard; a 2011 study did not observe significant changes in NO concentrations in serum after consuming 75 g of dark chocolate.(Persson et al., 2011)

Muscle pumps Health benefits of cocoa Cocoa benefits Cocoa blood Evidence based muscle

Some scientific evidence in humans supports increased NO levels in serum after acute consumption of cocoa flavanols in healthy subjects. (Fisher et al., 2003) The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) stated, in a 2012 health claim, that 200 mg of cocoa flavanols per day might help maintain normal blood flow and endothelium-dependent vasodilation. (Products, 2012)

What is Flow-Mediated Dilation (FMD)?

FMD is a measure of vascular health. It assesses how well blood vessels can dilate in response to increased blood flow. A higher FMD indicates better vascular function and is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases.(Corretti et al., 2002)

Cocoa flavanols not only boost NO production but also improve FMD. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that individuals who consumed cocoa-rich beverages significantly improved FMD.(Balzer et al., 2008) This suggests that regular cocoa consumption can lead to better vascular health. Another study found that a high-flavanol cocoa extract (450 mg of flavanols) twice a day for two weeks significantly improved FMD values, decreased DBP in both population groups, and decreased SBP only in the elderly volunteers. (Heiss et al., 2015)

Red Berries Health Benefits vs. Cocoa: Food Fight

While cocoa has been the show’s star for muscle pumps, it’s essential not to overlook the potential benefits of red berries. Red berries, like strawberries, raspberries, and cranberries, are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. They have been linked to various health benefits, including improved heart health, reduced inflammation, and potential cancer-fighting properties.

The study consisted of three groups:

  • Group 1 consumed 5 g/day of red berries (RB) [The red berry supplement used in the study was a mixture of pure dried redcurrants, blackcurrants, raspberries, and blueberries. It contained 2079 mg of total polyphenols and 277.7 mg of total anthocyanins per 100 g of the product.],
  • Group 2 consumed 2.5 g/day of a polyphenol-rich cocoa powder (C) [The cocoa powder was from organic farming, had high polyphenol content, and was free of sugar, sweeteners, and emulsifiers. It contained 7899 mg of total polyphenols, 668 mg of theobromine, and 275 mg of caffeine per serving.], and
  • Group 3 was given 7.5 g/day of a mixture of cocoa and red berries (RB+C)

At the end of 12 weeks, the red berries and cocoa groups positively affected cardiovascular health. However, the cocoa powder group had higher FMD values than the red berries group. The study observed a significant reduction in TMAO levels in the blood after a 12-week intervention with 2.5 g/day of cocoa product. This suggests adding red berries and cocoa can result in better muscle pumps and blood flow.

Muscle pumps Health benefits of cocoa Cocoa benefits Cocoa blood Evidence based muscle

So, which is better for muscle pumps? The answer might be both. As the study highlighted, combining cocoa and red berries had a synergistic effect, leading to even better results than consuming either alone.

How to Choose a Good Cocoa Product at the Grocery Store

Choosing a cocoa product at the grocery store can be overwhelming, given the variety of options available. However, if consumers know what to look for, they can make healthier and more satisfying choices. Here’s a guide on how to choose a cocoa product:

Check the Ingredients List:

Cocoa Content: Look for products with a high percentage of cocoa. Dark chocolates with higher cocoa percentages (70% and above) generally have more cocoa flavanols, which are the beneficial compounds in cocoa.

Minimal Additives: Opt for products with fewer ingredients. Avoid those with added artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives.

Sugar Content: Check the amount of sugar. Cocoa products with less sugar are generally healthier. Remember, the higher the cocoa content, the lower the sugar content will typically be.

Type of Cocoa:

Natural Cocoa vs. Dutch-Processed (or Alkalized) Cocoa: Natural cocoa is acidic and has a strong, bitter flavor. Dutch-processed cocoa has been treated to neutralize its acids, giving it a milder flavor but potentially reducing its cocoa flavanol content. If you’re looking for the health benefits of cocoa flavanols, natural cocoa might be a better choice. 

Origin and Ethical Considerations:

Fair Trade: Look for the Fair Trade logo. This ensures that the farmers who grew the cocoa were paid fairly and that sustainable farming practices were used.

Organic: Organic cocoa products are grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.

Single Origin: Some chocolates are labeled with their country or region of origin, which can indicate a unique flavor profile and quality.

 Avoid Fillers and Unnecessary Fats: Be wary of products that list vegetable oils, artificial flavorings, or other fillers. These can dilute the cocoa content and its potential benefits.

Cocoa Flavanol Content: Some products might specify their cocoa flavanol content on the packaging. This can be a useful metric for consuming cocoa for its health benefits.


To conclude, incorporating cocoa and berries into your diet can positively impact muscle pumps. Both cocoa and berries are rich in antioxidants and offer numerous health benefits. With its high levels of polyphenols and cocoa flavanols, Cocoa can enhance blood flow, muscle contraction, and circulation. Conversely, Berries aid in muscle recovery and provide essential nutrients like zinc and magnesium. Adding cocoa and berries to your pre-workout routine may improve performance. However, consulting with a healthcare professional before making any major dietary changes is always advisable.


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Balzer, J., Rassaf, T., Heiss, C., Kleinbongard, P., Lauer, T., Merx, M., Heussen, N., Gross, H. B., Keen, C. L., Schroeter, H., & Kelm, M. (2008). Sustained benefits in vascular function through flavanol-containing cocoa in medicated diabetic patients a double-masked, randomized, controlled trial. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 51(22), 2141-2149. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2008.01.059

Corretti, M. C., Anderson, T. J., Benjamin, E. J., Celermajer, D., Charbonneau, F., Creager, M. A., Deanfield, J., Drexler, H., Gerhard-Herman, M., Herrington, D., Vallance, P., Vita, J., & Vogel, R. (2002). Guidelines for the ultrasound assessment of endothelial-dependent flow-mediated vasodilation of the brachial artery: A report of the International Brachial Artery Reactivity Task Force. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 39(2), 257-265. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/S0735-1097(01)01746-6

Devi, S. A., & Chamoli, A. (2020). Polyphenols as an Effective Therapeutic Intervention Against Cognitive Decline During Normal and Pathological Brain Aging. Adv Exp Med Biol, 1260, 159-174. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-42667-5_7


Fisher, N. D., Hughes, M., Gerhard-Herman, M., & Hollenberg, N. K. (2003). Flavanol-rich cocoa induces nitric-oxide-dependent vasodilation in healthy humans. Journal of Hypertension, 21(12), 2281-2286. https://journals.lww.com/jhypertension/fulltext/2003/12000/flavanol_rich_cocoa_induces_nitric_oxide_dependent.16.aspx

Fraga, C. G., Litterio, M. C., Prince, P. D., Calabró, V., Piotrkowski, B., & Galleano, M. (2011). Cocoa flavanols: effects on vascular nitric oxide and blood pressure. J Clin Biochem Nutr, 48(1), 63-67. https://doi.org/10.3164/jcbn.11-010FR


García-Cordero, J., Martinez, A., Blanco-Valverde, C., Pino, A., Puertas-Martín, V., San Román, R., & de Pascual-Teresa, S. (2023). Regular Consumption of Cocoa and Red Berries as a Strategy to Improve Cardiovascular Biomarkers via Modulation of Microbiota Metabolism in Healthy Aging Adults. Nutrients15(10), 2299. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15102299

Grassi, D., Necozione, S., Lippi, C., Croce, G., Valeri, L., Pasqualetti, P., Desideri, G., Blumberg, J. B., & Ferri, C. (2005). Cocoa reduces blood pressure and insulin resistance and improves endothelium-dependent vasodilation in hypertensives. Hypertension, 46(2), 398-405. https://doi.org/10.1161/01.Hyp.0000174990.46027.70

Heiss, C., Sansone, R., Karimi, H., Krabbe, M., Schuler, D., Rodriguez-Mateos, A., Kraemer, T., Cortese-Krott, M. M., Kuhnle, G. G. C., Spencer, J. P. E., Schroeter, H., Merx, M. W., Kelm, M., & for the Flaviola Consortium, E. U. t. F. P. (2015). Impact of cocoa flavanol intake on age-dependent vascular stiffness in healthy men: a randomized, controlled, double-masked trial. AGE, 37(3), 56. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11357-015-9794-9

Katz, D. L., Doughty, K., & Ali, A. (2011). Cocoa and chocolate in human health and disease. Antioxid Redox Signal, 15(10), 2779-2811. https://doi.org/10.1089/ars.2010.3697

Lewis, J. R., Prince, R. L., Zhu, K., Devine, A., Thompson, P. L., & Hodgson, J. M. (2010). Habitual Chocolate Intake and Vascular Disease: A Prospective Study of Clinical Outcomes in Older Women. Archives of Internal Medicine, 170(20), 1857-1858. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinternmed.2010.396


Lin, X., Zhang, I., Li, A., Manson, J. E., Sesso, H. D., Wang, L., & Liu, S. (2016). Cocoa Flavanol Intake and Biomarkers for Cardiometabolic Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials1234. The Journal of Nutrition, 146(11), 2325-2333. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.116.237644

Persson, I. A.-L., Persson, K., Hägg, S., & Andersson, R. G. G. (2011). Effects of Cocoa Extract and Dark Chocolate on Angiotensin-converting Enzyme and Nitric Oxide in Human Endothelial Cells and Healthy Volunteers–A Nutrigenomics Perspective. Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology, 57(1), 44-50. https://doi.org/10.1097/FJC.0b013e3181fe62e3

Products, N. (2012). Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of a health claim related to cocoa flavanols and maintenance of normal endothelium-dependent vasodilation pursuant to Article 13(5) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006. EFSA Journal, 10. https://doi.org/10.2903/j.efsa.2012.2809


Rangel-Huerta, O. D., Pastor-Villaescusa, B., Aguilera, C. M., & Gil, A. (2015). A Systematic Review of the Efficacy of Bioactive Compounds in Cardiovascular Disease: Phenolic Compounds. Nutrients, 7(7), 5177-5216.

Scholey, A. B., French, S. J., Morris, P. J., Kennedy, D. O., Milne, A. L., & Haskell, C. F. (2010). Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in acute improvements in mood and cognitive performance during sustained mental effort. J Psychopharmacol, 24(10), 1505-1514. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881109106923

Schroeter, H., Heiss, C., Balzer, J., Kleinbongard, P., Keen, C. L., Hollenberg, N. K., Sies, H., Kwik-Uribe, C., Schmitz, H. H., & Kelm, M. (2006). (-)-Epicatechin mediates beneficial effects of flavanol-rich cocoa on vascular function in humans. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 103(4), 1024-1029. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0510168103

Sorrenti, V., Ali, S., Mancin, L., Davinelli, S., Paoli, A., & Scapagnini, G. (2020). Cocoa Polyphenols and Gut Microbiota Interplay: Bioavailability, Prebiotic Effect, and Impact on Human Health. Nutrients, 12(7). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12071908

Taubert, D., Roesen, R., Lehmann, C., Jung, N., & Schömig, E. (2007). Effects of low habitual cocoa intake on blood pressure and bioactive nitric oxide: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA, 298(1), 49-60. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.298.1.49

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