I have been in the fitness game for a while now, and since early on, I found nutrition fascinating. I would spend hours researching the best foods to build muscle, burn fat and enhance my performance, and it wasn’t long before I came across the extensive world of supplementation.
I will preface by saying that no single factor in fitness training receives so much attention yet delivers so little in return. Please don’t play the fool who chases magic pills, thinking they will compensate for lack of effort, a flawed training routine, or a poor diet, because supplements can benefit a good nutrition plan but cannot make up for a poor one.
Why Supplements Are Not Very Important
Many supplements have been extensively researched and shown to provide benefits, but even then, they are not required to improve your physique and, in many cases, constitute an unnecessary expense.
Let’s suppose I possessed a magic wand capable of undoing the impact of supplements on drug-free physique competitors and powerlifters at the highest level. In that case, I highly doubt there would be much of a visible difference and whether the world records would be much different.
While it might sound like a strong statement, take a moment to consider if you’re reading this article hoping to find a miraculous solution to your physique and strength concerns.
Undoubtedly, marketing tactics (and even recommendations from friends) will incessantly praise the wonders of supplement X, Y, or Z. Still; it’s a mix of market forces, exaggeration, and the placebo effect at play.
It’s crucial to recognise that the abundance of marketing messages promoting supplements with extravagant claims stems from a problem in interpreting scientific research. This leads to a rapid rise and eventual decline of trends like cold baths, intermittent fasting, and various supplements. Allow me to elaborate on this matter.
The perpetual supplement hype cycle explained.
When researchers study a new supplement, it often focuses on its short-term, acute effects. The supplement’s impact might be direct, enhancing performance during a training session, or indirect, affecting mechanisms related to fat loss, muscle growth, or overall performance.
If the acute research consistently shows promising results, it paves the way for conducting longer-term studies to investigate its effects further. However, merely having an acute effect does not guarantee an improvement in long-term training outcomes. More often than not, this is the case.
There is a strong desire for supplements to be effective, and manufacturers eagerly seek any evidence to support their marketing claims. As a result, new supplements often enter the market with superb hype long before sufficient evidence backs them.
This rush creates persistent myths that are challenging to erase when subsequent studies fail to demonstrate real-world benefits. Supplement makers selectively highlight research that suits their claims, leading to prolonged demand for these products and reluctance to remove them from shelves.
Even esteemed performance coaches are not immune to the pressures of the hype cycle if they wish to be perceived as “cutting-edge.” Nonetheless, individuals with significant experience in the field have likely observed numerous promising supplements emerge and fade away over the years. They should know better than to succumb to the hype easily.
With these factors in mind, I will recommend supplements worth considering regarding physique/performance and health benefits. Additionally, I will mention supplements that may not be as worthwhile.
The Best Supplements For Muscle Growth and Performance
Some supplements can play a supportive role in helping to achieve your fitness goals when used in conjunction with a balanced diet and a well-structured workout routine.
I will assign labels to the supplements as follows:
‘A’ – Always advisable.
‘C’ – Conditionally relevant with less supporting evidence, or both.
‘S’ – A waste of money.
Whey Protein (A)
I don’t categorise protein powders as traditional supplements; I see them as powdered food due to their convenience, macro-friendly nature, and cost-effectiveness when purchased in bulk.
I highly recommend whey protein for its superior amino acid profile. However, if you’re vegan or not fond of whey, a mix of 70% pea protein and 30% rice protein can closely mimic the amino acid profile.
Be wary of a scam in the protein powder industry known as “amino spiking,” where manufacturers add cheap ingredients to their powders to inflate the protein content on the label.
To ensure the quality of your protein powder, look for the following:
• Leucine content should be around 11% of the whey protein, resulting in approximately 2.75 g per 25 g of protein.
• BCAAs (Branched-Chain Amino Acids) should constitute about 25% of the whey protein, equating to around 6.25 g per 25 g of protein.
Recommended: Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Whey Protein
Creatine Monohydrate (A)
Creatine is a naturally occurring compound in the human body, derived from glycine, methionine, and arginine. It plays a crucial role in the phosphocreatine energy system, providing energy for approximately 10 seconds of intense activity. By supplementing with creatine, you can enhance your performance in strength and power-based exercises, leading to notable increases in strength, power, and muscle mass over time.
Among the myriad performance-enhancing supplements available, creatine is the most effective, with extensive research supporting its benefits. Creatine monohydrate is the most extensively tested, cost-effective, and efficient among its various forms. It is the most economical option as well.
The recommended dose is taking 3-5 g of creatine at any time. However, if you consume caffeine, particularly in the morning before training, taking creatine in the afternoon or evening can help minimize any potential interference.
And contrary to misconceptions, there is no need to cycle on and off creatine, and the notion of creatine causing hair loss has been thoroughly debunked.
Recommended: Optimum Nutrition Creatine Powder
Extensive research supports the effectiveness of caffeine in enhancing resistance-training performance, including improvements in strength and muscular endurance. However, long-term research remains lacking to confirm its benefits, so I give it a C rating.
Nevertheless, I believe that long-term studies will eventually demonstrate its advantages. Unlike other substances like NSAIDs, antioxidants, cold baths, or D-Aspartic acid, caffeine directly impacts performance by reducing perceptions of fatigue, among other benefits.
Caffeine is an affordable supplement with minimal downsides, as long as you do not take it in a way that impacts your sleep. Avoiding consumption in the late afternoon and evening is advisable for most individuals. At the same time, a minority of people who metabolise it slowly may need to reduce dosing or avoid it even earlier.
I recommend using a pre-workout supplement or purchasing caffeine in 200 mg tablets and taking 1.8–2.7 mg per pound of body weight (or 4-6 mg per kg) approximately 30 minutes before training.
Beta-alanine can be considered the muscular endurance version of creatine monohydrate. But instead of focusing on power, strength, and hypertrophy, it primarily benefits longer anaerobic performances lasting between 30 seconds to 10 minutes.
While this may sound promising, the performance-enhancing effect of beta-alanine is relatively tiny. If some of your training sets fall within the 30-second range or longer, it’s uncertain if the impact will be significant. Those engaging in activities with prolonged bursts of exertion, such as CrossFit athletes, may consider beta-alanine if it fits their budget.
If you try beta-alanine, a daily dosage of 3–4 g is recommended. However, I don’t find it necessary to include it in my supplement regimen.
BCAAS And EAAS (S)
If your daily protein intake is already sufficient, the likelihood of benefiting from BCAAs is low. On the other hand, if your protein intake falls short, the solution is to increase overall protein consumption rather than relying solely on EAAs (Essential Amino Acids) or BCAAs (Branched-Chain Amino Acids).
I believe a whey shake consumed before training in a fasted state proves to be more effective than using either EAAs or BCAAs as a supplement.
Verdict: A waste of money.
Herbal Testosterone Boosters (S)
Testosterone boosters are often considered a waste of money for several reasons.
Despite the bold marketing claims, there is limited evidence of their effectiveness. The research supporting their benefits is often little, inconclusive, or conducted on animals, making it challenging to justify their efficacy in humans.
Even when some testosterone boosters show minor increases in testosterone levels, these improvements may not translate into significant gains in muscle mass, strength, or athletic performance. The impact on physical performance may be minimal, especially for individuals with normal testosterone levels.
Instead of relying on testosterone boosters, focusing on maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which includes regular exercise, proper nutrition, adequate sleep, and stress management, is a more reliable and sustainable way to optimize testosterone levels and overall well-being.
Verdict: A waste of money.
Supplements Worth Considering for Health
Given that ‘General Health’ is outside the scope of my professional expertise, I will focus on just four supplements that show substantial evidence and are worth considering.
Before incorporating any supplement into your routine, I strongly advise getting blood work done to ensure you aren’t inadvertently consuming excessive micronutrients or neglecting any potential deficiencies.
I recommend referring to Examine.com, an exceptional and impartial resource for supplements not mentioned here. Be cautious of misinformation when searching for information elsewhere on the internet!
A Daily Multivitamin & Mineral (A)
Using multivitamins seems safe, and long-term users may experience some protective health benefits.
When taken to address specific deficiencies, multivitamins can have a significant impact:
- Zinc deficiencies can negatively affect metabolism.
- Iron deficiencies can impair strength.
- Calcium deficiencies can harm bone health.
A standard one-a-day multivitamin is worth considering. However, be cautious of huge multivitamin packs. If you have to consume multiple pills, it’s likely overdosed, which could lead to adverse effects.
Essential Fatty Acids (EPA and DHA), Commonly Found In Fish Oil (C)
To reap the majority of health benefits supported by research (such as reducing depression symptoms, lowering the risk of cardiac death, decreasing blood pressure, and reducing waist circumference), a daily intake of 1–2 g of combined EPA and DHA is recommended.
If fish consumption or fish oil supplements are not your preference, you can obtain EPA and DHA from an algae supplement. Algae is the source of EPA and DHA for fish and can serve as a direct alternative for getting these essential fatty acids.
However, please exercise caution when selecting supplements, as their quality can vary significantly. The label may not always indicate the actual content of combined EPA and DHA. Like 100 g of protein powder is not entirely protein, 1 g of fish oil does not necessarily equate to 1 g of combined EPA and DHA. Therefore, carefully choose a reputable product to ensure you get the right quantities.
Vitamin D (A)
Severe Vitamin D deficiency can lead to osteoporosis and contribute to the risk of cancer, hypertension, and various autoimmune diseases. Correcting this deficiency can enhance immune function and reduce the likelihood of illnesses, though its direct impact on resistance training benefits remains unclear.
When lacking sun exposure, obtaining Vitamin D through dietary sources becomes crucial for health and performance. While getting more sun exposure is an option, most people can get the vitamin D they need from foods and supplements. This approach gives you the vitamin D you need without increasing your risk for skin cancer.
D2 vs D3
The most easily absorbed form is Vitamin D3; A daily dose of 4000 IU of vitamin D3 for two weeks was observed to be 1.7 times more effective in raising D levels than 4000 IU of vitamin D2. (Source)
Vitamin D3 is the “natural” form produced by your skin when exposed to UV-A and UV-B.
Greens Powders (C)
It’s no secret that most individuals do not consume sufficient vegetables.
Greens powders are supplements crafted from greens, vegetables, seaweed, probiotics, digestive enzymes, and other ingredients. They have the potential to enhance immunity and reduce the risk of chronic diseases. However, the long-term effects of these supplements are still under investigation.
When combined with a healthy diet and lifestyle, greens powders’ nutrients and plant compounds can contribute to overall well-being. For instance, they are rich in vitamins A and C, which support immune function. Probiotics added to greens powders may also aid immune function and digestive health. However, the benefits of plant-based digestive enzymes are uncertain. Research on greens powders has been conducted in a few small studies, but the outcomes may vary based on the brand and formulation of the supplement.
It is important to note that these studies are typically funded by the manufacturers of the products, which introduces a potential bias. Therefore, maintaining a healthy level of scepticism is advisable.
It is important to remember that while supplements can be valuable tools to enhance your fitness journey, they are not a substitute for a well-rounded and balanced diet. A diverse and nutritious diet remains the foundation of good health and optimal fitness.
Always avoid selecting supplements that use a “proprietary blend” to obscure the precise amounts of individual ingredients. This deceptive practice often creates the illusion of a unique product, enabling manufacturers to under-dose the costly and beneficial ingredients, ultimately boosting their profits. It’s essential to be cautious of such tactics and opt for products with transparent ingredient labelling.
And before incorporating new supplements into your routine, I recommend seeking guidance from a qualified healthcare professional or a registered dietitian, particularly if you have any pre-existing health conditions or specific concerns about your well-being.
And if you want to learn more, I strongly advise using the Supplement Goals Reference Guide from Examine.com for your supplement research needs. Examine also publishes a Research Digest I’m subscribed to. Although there’s not much new or exciting under the sun, it’s good to know when it appears.
Thank you for taking the time to read. Feel free to post any questions in the comments section.