One of the very first questions I am usually asked by new clients is what supplement to take, and I don’t blame them.
The fitness industry is inundated with, funded, and marketed by massive companies that shill “new” supplement products every day. And with the amount of steroid-filled Instagram influencers and marketers increasing daily, the idea of looking a particular way seems easy enough if we just take the magic pill they’re selling and do their 6 week shred program. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, as the novice bodybuilders invariably find out.
Last Piece of the Puzzle
Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for sports nutrition. I take supplements, and I also have a supplement line with three products (as of this date), and I know how beneficial and important they can be for your overall nutrition and fitness regimen. That said, they are the last piece of the puzzle. It’s in their name – they should “supplement” your already healthy and active lifestyle. If your nutrition is dialed in, you’re getting proper sleep, and you are eating correctly with high-quality foods, research suggests that supplements can benefit you.
Below is the real nutrient pyramid – once you have the proper foundation, you can then climb the summit and partake:
Don’t Believe the Hype
If you’re not experienced with supplements, it can be a minefield. Walk into any GNC or Vitamin Shop and you’ll likely be questioned (harassed) as to what you would like to buy along with their “suggestions”. Remember, these stores often get commissions on selling particular brands or their own “home-grown” brand. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, they will try and plant the seed on what you need based on your goal. With so many different options and promising claims, it’s difficult to know what exactly we should take, when to take it, and if it will even work. Remember, if a supplement claims to do something that sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true. Run away. Forget the weight loss pills, anti-estrogens, HGH boosters, testosterone boosters, and quick fix gummies.
Stick to Proven and Tested
There are a small number of supplements that have been scientifically researched and field tested to show they work. The National Institute of Health and Examine are excellent resources for researching what you’re ingesting.
But Why Should You Take Them?
To benefit from vitamins and minerals, our bodies require a certain amount of them. Unfortunately, the overall nutrient quality in our food has lowered over time. Pollution, chemicals, pest control, and over-harvesting has left our foods with a lower quality nutrient mix than 50 years ago. Add in hard training effectively depleting your body of vitamins and minerals at a faster rate than a sedentary individual and your need for supplementation rises for optimal health. So which scientifically-backed supplements are recommended? Let’s take a look:
1. Vitamin D
You can be deficient in vitamin D producing sunlight depending on your work conditions or where you live. Vitamin D has been shown to improve mood, aid immune function, fight off cancers, burn body fat, and improve bone health. It also helps boost muscle strength and growth, mainly due to its potential to increase testosterone levels. It should be taken daily, with meals or a source of fat, like fish oil. The safe upper limit is 10,000 IU/day. For moderate supplementation, a 1,000-2,000 IU dose of vitamin D3 is sufficient to meet the needs of most of the population.
2. Omega 3 Fish Oil
Fish oil contains the essential omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which provide many health and performance benefits due to high anti-inflammatory properties. From a health perspective, these fatty acids appear to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. From a performance aspect, they can help prevent muscle breakdown, enhance joint healing, improve brain function, and achieve greater (and speedier) fat loss.
Effective dosages of combined EPA and DHA are from 250mg to 1000mg per day. For more dramatic and enhanced effects, dosages can be used up to 6g split throughout a day.
3. Green Tea (or Caffeinated Pre-Workout)
Green tea contains compounds called catechins, including EGCG, the primary active ingredient for its thermogenic properties. Green tea also contains caffeine, which boosts energy levels and provides further fat burning actions. It can also serve as an anti-oxidant and may help reduce certain cancers and provide other health benefits such as improved joint healing.
For maximum fat burning and metabolic capacity, a high dosage of 400-500mg EGCG will be required daily. A green tea extract is therefore recommended, as one cup of green tea will only provide approximately 50mg of EGCG equivalence. I prefer to take a pre-workout with green tea extract and around 250-350mg of caffeine about 30 minutes before a workout for energy and focus. If you partake in intermittent fasting, this (along with Whey Protein) is an excellent way to begin before working out.
Shoutout: If you’re looking for a non-caffeinated option, there are some out there. But I would also recommend a CLA and L-Carnitine combo to boost energy and work as a fat burner. Conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, is an essential fatty acid that occurs naturally in animal products. Multiple studies have confirmed that supplementation with CLA helps reduce body fat, prevent weight gain, and assists in preserving muscle. L-Carnitine has shown to have minor beneficial effects on blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, lipid profile, and inflammation. Overall, they are both useful in metabolic fat burning, but they’re no wonder drugs. Use them alongside your pre-workout or as an alternative.
4. ZMA (Zinc, Magnesium, and Vitamin B6)
This combination of zinc, magnesium, and B6 has shown to improve hormone levels, aid in muscle recovery, sleep, and strength. For harder training individuals, a higher dosage of 25-45mg daily is ideal, otherwise, if no training is taking place then 5-10mg is likely sufficient. For magnesium, a daily dosage of 200-450mg is ideal.
Some multi-vitamin brands will have these ingredients within them. Though it is recommended to take a specific ZMA combination, if your multi-vitamin has adequate amounts of magnesium and zinc, the multi-vitamin can be taken in place of a ZMA option.
5. Vitamin K
Research has uncovered many roles for this vitamin in the body. There are two main types of vitamin K – K1 (phylloquinone) and K2 (menaquinone). What is currently known is that vitamin K plays a critical role in enabling specific enzymes in the body to function. Some of these enzymes help form blood-clotting factors, and some are important for fixing calcium in bones. These roles appear to be performed by K1. A particular type of K2 is known as MK-4, which has recently been shown to increase testosterone production.
Look for vitamin K supplements that provide both K1 and K2. While most use a form of K2 known as MK-7, your best bet is to use a form that includes MK-4 to maximize testosterone production. Take 100-1,000mcg of vitamin K1 and vitamin K2.
6. Whey Protein
Whey is an effective protein for increasing muscle protein synthesis, the process in muscle cells that results in muscle growth. There are numerous reasons why whey is so effective, such as its high content of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and its ability to boost blood flow to muscles. However, the most important characteristic of whey is its rapid rate of digestion. Whey protein is one of the fastest-digesting protein sources that you can get. It also makes achieving a high protein diet very easy.
Typical recommendations are 20-40g first ting in the morning, 30-60 minutes before workouts, within 30-60 minutes after workouts, and between meals as needed. If you’re taking a pre-workout supplement 30 minutes before your workout, take the protein 30 minutes after (aka right at the beginning of your workout) in order to feel less bloating and time to allow each supplement to work in your system.
There are three forms of whey: concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. Concentrate is the least processed of the three, which makes it cheaper to produce. Depending on quality, concentrates can range from 35-80% protein. Isolate is the form where the lactose and fat is removed. Therefore, isolates are typically 90% protein by weight and thus more expensive. Hydrolysate is the most expensive of the three due to it being a predigested form of protein that’s absorbed quickly by the body and free of milk allergens.
So which one do you buy? Check the ingredient label and choose the one with a combination of concentrate and isolate, or concentrate and hydrolysate. If these ingredients are listed first, it’s typically good quality. Never buy a protein that doesn’t have these ingredients listed first, and never buy a protein that has any form of maltodextrin (a filler). Check the protein content too! If a scoop is 50 grams of protein, but there is only 25 grams of protein per serving, check what the other 25 grams are. They are probably filler ingredients.
With regards to athletic performance, creatine has continually proved itself to be one of the most effective and safe nutritional supplements to increase strength, muscle mass, and performance. Benefits include: increased muscle mass and strength, increased performance, enhanced glycogen synthesis, increased work capacity, and enhanced recovery.
A dosage of 3-5g per day of creatine monohydrate in powder form is recommended. Typically, most powders are unflavored and don’t taste good alone, so I recommend you pour it into your pre-workout drink or BCAA’s for best results. Some take it with their whey protein, but I’ve found the creatine mixes harshly with the whey flavor and makes it taste bad. I’d opt for putting it into a typically “fruitier” flavored drink like pre-workout or BCAA’s.
Branched Chain Amino Acids can promote muscle protein synthesis and increase muscle growth overtime. They are considered to be essential for those seeking increased recovery times and energy before, during, and after a workout. Benefits include: decrease of muscle fatigue, increased performance, enhanced glycogen synthesis, increased work capacity, and enhanced recovery.
A dosage of 20g per day of combined BCAA’s in power form is recommended in a balanced ratio of leucine and isoleucine.
Before you buy one, make sure you need it. You should be training hard (at least 5x a week weight training) or training fasted otherwise whey protein and adequate nutrition will be more than enough for your amino needs. If you are training hard and often, then go ahead. If you use whey protein before your workout, it’s suggested you use BCAA’s as a post-workout recovery drink so that you don’t double-dose your amino intake.
In short, nutrition is key. Supplements come after you have become proficient in tracking your caloric intake and nutrient density, not before or in place of doing these things. You can make great strides in your workout programs without supplements, but if you have the cash and want to optimize/tweak your performance slightly, then the above supplements listed are recommended.