Don’t waste your money or time.
The inconvenient truth is that the vast majority of sports nutrition supplements are nothing more than low quality, overpriced, high-calorie powders. The marketing departments at whey protein companies and muscle magazines are extremely adept at convincing innocent but gullible gym-goers across the land that with a few workouts a week and a few magical powders, they’ll achieve a cover model look in record time. If only that were so…
Most supplements simply don’t work.
I promise, I’ve tried a lot of them: from weight gainers to pre-workouts, and Testosterone-boosters to thermogenics. Most commonly, the best you can hope for is that the potion you’re ingesting is not in fact dangerous and goes down without making you feel ill. The bottom line is that the scientific literature behind the vast majority of fat-loss and muscle-building supplements is thin to non-existent. Raspberry ketones? Mere puffery. Green tea extract? Sparse. ZMA? Rather disappointing. It’s sad. I’d love to get behind the notion that there were a quick-fix, a cheat, a short-cut, but it’s harder than you think to find the combination of safe + effective (see final paragraph). So don’t waste your money or time, here’s a list of key gym supplements that actually work.
Try these instead:
Non-fasted workout: have you eaten in the last 8+ hours? Congratulations! You’re doing a non-fasted workout. The following supplements are actually worth your hard-earned dollar:
- Creatine Monohydrate– Well studied and the most evidentially promising, creatine is naturally occurring in the body and in certain foods. However, supplemental creatine has been shown to increase strength gains, lean mass, anaerobic capacity, and even cognition. It’s safe, healthy, and cheap, so you really have nothing to lose. Go for a high purity powder or pills from a trusted brand (see Whey Protein section below). Take as advised, typically a 7-day loading phase of 20g/day, followed by 2-5g or more ongoingly thereafter.
- Whey protein– Not appreciably better than whole food proteins in terms of nutrition, but useful on the go. There’s a significant body of evidence behind whey protein being useful in maintaining or adding lean mass, increasing power output, and decreasing fat mass. Take as described, typically 1-2 scoops of around 30g each, serving 20g protein/scoop. In terms of brands, you can’t beat Bulk Powders (use referral: BG135725) and MyProtein (use referral: MP16214663) on value. You can get a slightly better quality product from Optimum Nutrition or Bio-synergy. Finally, PhD Nutrition makes some innovative and effective products, but since expanding they appear to have compromised a touch on quality.
Fasted workout: do you often work out in the mornings? Whether it’s cardio or strength training, fasted workouts are intense, so take these for support:
- BCAAs – Branched Chain Amino Acids – these will have a minimal to non-existent impact on your fast, but still exert muscle sparing and anti-fatigue effects. It’s pointless taking supplemental BCAAs if you’ve eaten some protein recently though. Use as described, typically 5 – 15g.
- Salts/electrolytes/bouillon (broth) – put a tiny pinch of high-quality sea salt into a small glass of water take some electrolyte powder or effervescent tablet, or even have a quick cup of broth with half a teaspoon of bouillon powder. When you wake up slightly dehydrated, salty fluids will allow your blood pressure to rise as it should in the morning, giving your muscles and nerves the osmotic potential they need to work properly. Ideally, make your own bone broth. If not, settle for the highest quality brand you can find locally.
An important caveat
Put simply, your body is an infinitely complex bag of biochemical reactions. As such, anything you ingest that has a measurable effect on how you feel or look must have a drastic influence over a part of key chain of reactions somewhere. Virtually no drug or supplement is free from side-effects, and generally, the more drastic any effect, the more drastic all effects. Projecting this logic forward, if you find a supplement that genuinely helps you lose body fat, God knows what other side-effects if has inside you. If you’re lucky, you’ll notice these. But it might be too late by the time you notice your kidneys are failing, or that your liver is shot. There are very effective, documented compounds that shed body fat: steroid hormones, nicotine, the ECA stack, DNP, etc. but unless you have a death wish, I don’t recommend any of them. Supplement safely, and live to tell your grand or great-grandchildren.
Tweaks: Performance enhancement toolkit.
From entirely optional performance boosters to supplements for common nutritional deficiencies, use this list correctly and you’ll break through any plateaus in your progress:
- Caffeine – often included by default in pre-workout supplements because it’s so damn effective, caffeine not only sensitises neurones providing cognitive benefits, but it also noticeably improves physical strength and endurance. Some people are particularly sensitive, so exercise caution if you’re new to using higher doses or taking caffeine pills like ProPlus. You do develop tolerance, so to maintain sensitivity it’s best to cycle off all caffeine for at least 24 hours at least once every few weeks (avoid coffee, tea, even chocolate, which contains molecularly similar theobromine). Another caveat is that it is possible and not entirely uncommon to overdose, hence the reputed energy drink deaths in children. If not from a natural source like coffee or tea, stick to the suggested dose, which is typically under 300mg/day, roughly equivalent to 2 double espressos.
- Beta-alanine – again a common ingredient in pre-workout supplements, there’s very strong evidence to show that Beta-alanine enhances muscular endurance, power output and VO2 max, allowing you to squeeze out an additional few reps. Take as described or at 2-5g/day.
- Vitamin D – populations in cooler, less equatorial regions like Northern Europe are commonly deficient in Vitamin D. Deficiencies are particularly acute during the Winter months, where the low aspect of the sun prevents you from generating the vitamin naturally even on a bright sunny day. Supplement roughly 1000IU/10kg body weight/day, i.e. a 70kg male could take around 5000-7000IU/day during Winter. During the summer, if you get a fair amount of sun you can reduce the dose to almost nothing.
- Fish/Krill oil – the vast majority of modern Westerners eat too few anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids compared to their inflammatory cousins, the omega 6s. An ideal ratio is thought to be 1-4, but if you eat a lot of junk food and not much fresh fish then you might be eating at 1-30 or more. Correct this and you’ll vastly reduce chronic, low-level inflammation, leading to improved cognitive performance, enhanced muscle hypertrophy and better bloodwork, amongst many other effects. It’s one of the most recommended and well-received supplements going. Quality is a really thorny issue, as bad oils can cause more problems than they solve, so don’t penny pinch. Prefer smaller doses from expensive brands over large doses from cheaper suppliers. Jarrow Krill oil is a recommendation.
- Magnesium – another common Western deficiency, given modern farming practices, soil depletion, and that grains are a poor source. More than essential, magnesium is involved in over 300 enzymatic processes, particularly those related to cellular energy production. Good sources include leafy greens and raw nuts, but how much of those do you truly consume? Magnesium is well-tolerated and hard to overdose, so supplement around 500mg/day, preferably in the evenings as it acts as a sedative.
- Iodine – needed for proper thyroid function thus metabolism, but also enhances immune function and is neuroprotective. Iodine deficiency is so widespread that it is commonly mixed with table salt to increase intake iodised salt. Seaweed and seafood are particularly good sources, so unless you eat those regularly, take 1mg/day in the form of kelp powder or as potassium iodide. Equally, a good quality multivitamin should include a viable form of iodine.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one on the Internet. Always seek independent medical advice before taking any supplements you are unsure of.