There are so many supplements on the market, it's easy to get overwhelmed. Supplement production is a 17 billion dollar industry, and manufacturers do what they can to convince us, gym rats (and the folks who go to the gym once a year to renew the membership too) to buy as many of their products as possible and believe that the magic powder / liquid / pill will make us swole, lean, and energized all at the same time. What's even worse is - every once in a while as new research comes out, effectiveness claims turn out to have been blown out of proportion. Whoops.
Let me start with the seemingly obvious:
Until your nutrition and training is on point (which means you are hitting your macros and performance/physique goals), SUPPLEMENTATION IS A WASTE OF MONEY THAT WILL ONLY CREATE EXPENSIVE PEE.
That means, if you don't count macros and work out with moderate intensity or higher less than 3-4 times a week, consider focusing on that first for a few weeks (yeah, belly fat you've been accumulating over the past 20 years won't melt overnight), and if that's not cutting it, investing into a supplement or two.
Think about supplement like sneakers - no matter how many pairs you buy, until you start running, nothing aint gonna happen.
If you have and health issues or under the age of 18 please consult a doctor before taking any supplements.
Now, that we've gotten that out of the way, let's start with some info in the order of decreasing importance.
aka Creatine Monohydrate is one of the most well-researched supps to date without major side effects (after vitamins and minerals, to be discussed in a separate article). Increases performance during high intensity high power short exercise bouts (sprinting, resistance training close to maximum capacity), decreases muscle soreness and post-workout fatigue.
I personally prefer powdered version of all supplements cause it's cheaper, and I can mix them in different proportions depending on my training routine and just add a scoop of the mix into the preworkout instead of opening 10 different jars... However, if you travel a lot, keep in mind that TSA officers are not huge fans of unnamed zip lock bags with white powder in your carry on...
Last time I was traveling to a friend's wedding, I had a zip lock bag of protein and a preworkout (also white powder) in the backpack to eat after the plane hoping the security would not care. While going through security, the TSA officer looks inside my backpack, then at me and goes "you can't bring guns on the plane". I'm startled: "I don't have any gu... what guns!?" *points at my shoulders* "THOSE guns!" I was wearing a racer back... For once, TSA officer's joke was funny..
Back to supps. I like Bulk Supplements, NAKED and NOW brands. NOW is good for traveling because they usually do pills, however look out for serving amount. Sometimes $ per pill would be low, but one serving is 2, or even 4 pills. By the way, when you're buying supplements, stop looking at servings. All you care about is grams of the product. So either research how much you need to take a day, post / pre work out, or follow your coach's instructions. Bulk Supplements and NAKED are cheaper per serving if you're taking 3-5 g/day.
We consume Branch Chain Amino Acids, or leucine, iso-leucine and valine with such whole foods as proteins (beef, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, soy), beans and legumes (lima, chick peas, lentils), nuts (brazil, almonds, cashews), as well as some grains (whole wheat, brown rice). The problem is - their ratio in whole foods is usually not ideal for muscle growth. Plus after you've eaten one of the foods above, stomach needs to be given some time to digest the protein + fat / fiber (read = steak aint preworkout). If you supplement with BCAAs between meals, they absorb quickly and decrease muscle catabolism.
Super important for us, early risers who love morning runs or lifts on an empty stomach. If you've been asleep for 8 hours and don't have any food in the system, your body's preferred energy source will NOT BE JUST FAT. It will be some combination of fat and lean muscle tissue depending on how lean you are. Taking BCAAs before the fasted workout will decrease the amount of muscle your body is breaking down for energy.
I'm affiliated with JustStrong, and love their BCAAs and Pre-workout (that has your main supplements in the right proportions and tastes pretty dang good too). Good news is - you only need to buy ONE product instead of 5, so you save space and headache trying to figure out the right cocktail of stuff. Use code TOTALBODYLAB10 for 10% off your purchase.
Another amino acid we can get from whole foods. Claims are that it can decrease muscle soreness, prevent muscle catabolism and even boost immune system function (namely, protect from airborne diseases). Recent studies have been inconclusive. I will say though that I take glutamine throughout the entire winter and typically don't get sick. Surprisingly, haven't gotten even a slight cold during competition prep either. Right after the last show, I've decided to give my liver a break and stopped taking glutamine and a couple other sports supplements - got a cold a week later. Coincidence? Who knows...
For years it has been believed that L-Carnitine can help your body "use fat as a fuel source" during training. Later research has proven these claims inconclusive. The majority of fitness professionals still recommend taking it because it has no proven side effects, and one'd rather be safe than sorry. There are also claims that L-Carnitine increases energy throughout the workout and prevents mechanical muscle damage. I've noticed a difference, but not sure if that's because of the supplement or the sugar in the liquid formula I like). Plus placebo may be kicking in.
Fun fact: Tempeh (fermented soy beans) is naturally high in L-Carnitine
Liquid L-Carnitine formulas (Now Foods and iSatori are the best bang for your buck) - make preworkout taste like a treat, however consider the fact that they do have 3-5 g sugar added per serving. Stick with Acetyl formulation of L-Carnitine for the best absorption and effectiveness. Nutricost is a good brand for pill and powder versions.
Another amino acid naturally occurring in meat and fish. Hope you're catching the trend here: these are not some wild science experiment, they are NATURALLY OCCURING, extracted from whole foods like sugar or oil... Ok?
Great and well-researched supplement, especially for bodybuilders or anyone else who likes high volume lifting (volume = sets x reps x weight). Beta alanine has a positive effect on muscles performing a heavy resistance exercise bout longer than 60 seconds (burnouts, drop sets and reverse pyramid sets to failure). Great supplement if you're working out for hypertrophy (muscle size) vs. strength/power. I've used Bulk Supplements (powder), and NutriCost (powder).
This non-essential amino acid present in naturally present in watermelon and is claimed to decrease muscle fatigue and soreness. L-citrulline improves blood oxygen uptake, providing increase in performance in HIIT sessions.
Good ol' caffeine has been proven to increase athletic performance and mental fatigue, especially during long endurance events! The catch is - the major performance increase is seen in non-users. So, if you've got an important athletic event coming up, try to cut out caffeine for 2 weeks preceding the event and add it a day or two before. Tea or coffee are the best (and tastiest) ways to take caffeine in, even though it's available in pill form also. Your heart would thank you for avoiding concentrated pill forms though.
Fun fact: you can overdose on caffeine and die. For that, a 135 lb female (me) would have to drink 33 cups of coffee... or take 9.2 grams of caffeine tablets. Given most tablets are 200 mg, that's still a lot of tablets, but my point is, it is less than a tea spoon by weight... So, not impossible. Stick with coffee and green/ white/ oolong tea.
Steer Clear of
- HGH (human growth hormone)
- Anabolic / Androgenic Steroids
- Tribulis terestris
- Fat burners
When to take supplements
Most of the products above are designed to increase your performance while working out or recovery post exercise. Liquid or powder forms absorb faster, so I would recommend taking half of the amount 15 minutes before the workout and putting the rest into your water bottle to sip on throughout the workout. BCAAs are effective post workout too, or in between meals, especially if you have long breaks (5+ hours) without food to prevent muscle catabolism (breakdown).
If a supplement sounds "too good to be true", it probably is. There is a reason FDA tests them for safety ONLY. Not efficacy... Any particular supplement, or a combo can MAYBE increase your performance and/or recovery by a couple per cent (1%-5%). It's up to you to decide whether that amount is worth the money and trouble. If you're a competitive athlete, it very well might be. If you're a parent working 9-5 who just wants to stay fit and healthy, it probably isn't. From personal experience, I can attest that despite the claims and research, I've noticed NO SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE while going months with and without using sports supplementation.
Best "supplements" are whole foods & encouraging workout buddies :)
Not to make this article too long, I've covered only the most popular supplements. Please comment below if you have questions about any other supps or stuff I've missed.