Dummies Guide to Supplements - The Secret Sauce?
All you need to do is step into any gym once to realise that training supplements have become omnipresent. Not only do you see people mixing and gulping down post workout shakes, BCAAs, pre-workouts and what not but in some cases spending more time discussing them rather than working out. It isn’t uncommon to hear a gym bro claim he got amazing results because of a particular supplement or a particular brand of supplement. Let me be the (not) first one to tell you that supplements are not a necessity, rather some supplements are a convenience and not all supplements are useful. Before you even start looking into supplements make sure you understand and get the basics right. Once you’ve done that, you can continue reading this post to get an understanding of what supplements are worthwhile considering. The guide below is structured in my descending order of importance.
Protein supplements are the most commonly used and widely recommended. Personally, I don’t even consider it to be a supplement. Be it whey protein, beef protein or the different kinds of plant based, vegan options such as pea or hemp proteins, a typical serving of a good protein supplement generally is around 120-130 calories and contains between 20-25 grams of quality protein and between 0-2 grams of carbohydrates and fats. With nutrition facts like that, it’s easy enough to understand why they are such a huge convenience and fit into any diet, however restricted on calories. Further it’s not always easy to consume the amount of protein you need to when you’re working out hard. This is when a quick protein shake can really help you hit your targets.
Whey protein is by far the most popular protein supplement and there are different kinds of whey proteins such as whey concentrate (WPC), whey isolate (WPI) and whey hydrolysate. If you want to know more about these and what to look for in a good whey protein, read this post.
Creatine Monohydrate, one of the most studied and cheapest supplements. Creatine is found naturally in meat (mainly beef), eggs etc and helps with a minor increase in power output. Meaning you might be able to push just that slightly heavier weight thereby increasing your performance. Most of the confusion around creatine is how to take it rather than it’s usefulness. Some people are proponents of creatine loading but most people, and I agree, would say this is definitely not needed.
The only thing you need to be wary of with creatine supplementation is to stay properly hydrated (which you should be doing anyway if you’re consuming higher protein) since creatine is known to draw water into your muscles.
While fish oil isn’t a training specific supplement but rather seen as a general health supplement these days, it is mostly consumed for Omega-3 fatty acids. It is shown to be good for heart and joint health and is especially recommended if you don’t consume enough fatty fish.
If you’ve not heard talk about vitamin D supplementation over the last few years, you must have been living under a rock (pun intended). Vitamin D is produced naturally by the body when exposed to the sun but most people are found not to have optimum levels of it. It is crucial in bone health as it affects the absorption of calcium and also affects mood and energy levels. You should definitely get yourself checked to see if your levels are within the optimum range.
Another supplement that is not needed if you have a well balanced diet comprising of varied whole foods. Most people view it as an insurance policy, just in case they aren’t getting all their micro-nutrients from whole foods. Further there is a lot of debate on the efficacy of synthetically produced multivitamins. There are mutivitamin supplements available that are made from whole foods and these might be a better option if you have access to them.
Branched Chain Amino Acids or BCAAs are those colourful, sweet smelling liquids that a lot of people at the gym sip on between sets. BCAAs comprise of the amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine generally in a 2:1:1 ratio. Hang on a minute! If protein is made up of amino acids and BCAAs are amino acids why do I need these if I’m taking adequate protein? Well, the uncompromising view would be, you don’t need them. However the nuanced view would consider that some research shows that BCAAs in general and leucine in particular can promote muscle protein synthesis and have muscle sparing properties. This is especially relevant if you’re training in a fasted state or if you’re in a caloric deficit. In conclusion, if you’re adequate protein and calories in your diet, don’t waste your money on BCAAs unless you have the money to spare and like sipping on something more exciting than water to keep hydrated.
Glutamine is a conditionally essential amino acid, meaning that in normal circumstances your body makes enough of it and you do not need to supplement with it. But if you’re doing prolonged exercise it can get depleted and supplementation can help. While there isn’t much research to show this beyond any reasonable doubt, I have noticed that supplementing with glutamine can help in reduction of delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS). Or it could just be a placebo, go figure.
Most pre-workouts contain a combination of caffeine, beta-alanine and citrulline malate among other things. If you really need a “pick me up” on a particular day to get you to the gym, just have a cup of coffee instead. This is what I do (black, no sugar of course) and of course hydrate.
EDIT: I’ve been looking into pre-workouts a little bit more for the “pump” aspect rather than for the “jolt” aspect. I will update my findings here once I’ve drawn some conclusions. Want to know what the “pump” is? Let me know in the comments and I’ll write a little note on it.
Almost all fat burners or thermogenics use either caffeine or green tea extract as their main ingredient amongst a cocktail of other ingredients. Some people claim they work and even if they do, it is only because they’re already doing the basics right. I have not used any and would not recommend them.
And that’s it. If you want additional information on any of these supplements or want to know what to look for in a good supplement, let me know and I’ll try to help you out.