Supplements are a massive, billion-dollar industry that’s constantly growing. And for good reason - supplements can help push you past plateaus in your workouts, as well as keep you focused and alert when you’re having an off day.
The thing is… there’s so much out there! There are so many brands, so many flavors, so many types, so many sizes, and so many recommendations. How can you tell what’s right, what’s wrong, and what’s straight up BS when it comes to supplements?
That’s what I’m here for. I’ll help you cut through all the nonsense floating around out there on supplements and get you set up with recommendations on what’s really worth pursuing and what you should avoid at all costs.
Because, let’s be real here - there are some supplements out there that you really should avoid.
So Much Variety
For starters, let’s run down the list of the most notable fitness-related supplement categories:
- Protein: Usually taken in the form of a powder, used often in shakes, smoothies or bars, protein will help your muscles recover faster post-workout.
- Branch chain amino acids (BCAAs): Specific amino acids, often taken in capsule form (sometimes as a powder), that are used to provide focus and prevent muscle breakdown during exercise.
- Beta-alanine: Another amino acid that helps reduce exercise-induced fatigue and improves your capacity for anaerobic exercise.
- Creatine monohydrate: Typically taken in powder form and used to help produce ATP (your muscles’ energy source).
- Glutamine: A common amino acid that transforms glucose into energy (generally taken in powder form).
- Human growth hormone (HGH): Most often used medicinally with a purpose of helping to offset aging (comes in many forms).
If you know a bit about supplements, it should be clear to you that one of these things is not like the others.
It’s human growth hormone. HGH has important medicinal uses, but its place as a casual workout/fitness supplement is definitely not advisable. There are simply too many potential side effects that come along with HGH supplements when there’s no medical need for them, including an increased risk of:
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- High blood pressure
- In some instances, cancer
Part of the reason for all of these negative side-effects is that non-medically prescribed HGH supplements aren’t regulated, so you don’t really know what you’re taking. And I don’t know about you, but I’ll take my supplements cancer-free, please and thank you.
As for the other supplements on my earlier list, they all serve different, yet important, purposes. Protein powders are great for your post-workout nutrition, as protein is an essential ingredient for rebuilding your sore muscles in recovery. As mentioned in my article on pre- and post-workout nutrition, start with a daily protein intake of 0.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight and increase up to 1.2-1.5 grams as needed, based on your personal physiology and exercise objectives.
BCAAs, on the other hand, are commonly taken pre-workout, as they help promote focus and alertness, and also help prevent the breakdown of muscles. Amino acid supplements have been studied extensively in their effectiveness as pre-workout supplements, and the results consistently show a positive impact in terms of the long-term strength gains associated with being able to lift more.
The other amino acid on our list, beta-alanine, has been extensively studied in more than 23 exercise tests and discovered to reduce exercise-induced fatigue by limiting the amount of the dipeptide carnosine that’s stored in the muscles. It’s best taken as a pre-workout supplement, with clinically effective doses ranging from 2.6 to 6.4 grams a day.
Next up comes creatine monohydrate, a supplement that’s been the subject of lots of debate in the fitness industry. In supplement form, it’s been shown to have some undesirable side effects, such as muscle cramping and irregular heartbeats. The way I see it, if there’s one thing you need during a workout, it’s a reliable heartbeat!
There’s also the argument made that, since you naturally produce small amounts of creatine and get it from your diet if you eat meat and fish, that supplementation is unnecessary (making your risks of the side effects described above unnecessary as well).
On the flip side, the side effects of creatine are less severe than those attributed to many other supplements, and it’s worth noting that these side effects haven’t yet been proven to be a direct result of taking supplemental creatine. At the same time, rigorous scientific studies suggest that the compound can be used effectively to build muscle, improve anaerobic endurance and reduce soreness from exercise.
Clearly, no one knows for certain, so maybe just put supplemental creatine on the back-burner for now. Unless you have kidney disease (in that case, stay away!). For all other users, there’s minimal risk associated with a loading period of 20 grams per day for 5-7 days and a maintenance dose of 5 grams a day after that. Give it a try if you’re interested, but discontinue usage if you experience side effects that outweigh the supplement’s benefits.
Finally, glutamine rounds out my list of main fitness supplements as a great post-workout complement to your protein powder. Your body’s natural glutamine stores are depleted from intense workouts, and research has shown glutamine supplements have beneficial effects post-workout when it comes to dealing with the stress of regular, prolonged exercise and boosting your immune system.
So basically, you can recover from your workout more efficiently while fighting off sickness. How’s that for Double Awesomeness?
That covers the general types of supplements you’ll want to use or avoid, but how do you know whether or not individual products are safe? How do you know they’re healthy? Tackling this tricky territory requires an informed approach.
My Protein Shake Has What in it?
I mentioned earlier that HGH supplements are unregulated, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that no fitness supplement is regulated by the FDA or other governmental body.
Hmmm… Sounds sketchy, right?
What this means is that you have to do your own “regulating.” And the biggest thing you need to watch out for are certain ingredients, usually called “filler ingredients.” Why? Because, well, they’re just taking up space - and they aren’t doing your body any favors in the process.
Here are the major things to watch out for on the ingredients list of any supplement:
- Hydrogenated oils: Look out for any oils labeled “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated.” These highly processed oils contribute to a number of heart problems, encourage strokes, block absorption of essential fatty acids, and mess with your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar. Definitely not something you want floating around in your protein shake.
- Magnesium stearate: Magnesium stearate ends up in your supplements because it makes the ingredients easier to process through manufacturing equipment. Yup, even though “magnesium” is in the name, it has no nutrition value at all, and regular consumption of it has been shown to line your intestines with a film that can block your ability to absorb nutrients. Seems a bit counterintuitive to have something like that in a nutrition supplement, am I right?
- Titanium dioxide: Titanium dioxide is a pigment used in many cosmetic products, but it’s been officially classified a “Group 2B Carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). So basically, it’s officially been cited as a cancer risk. That’s a pretty clear warning sign to avoid if you see it on the ingredients list of your supplements.
Most of these filler ingredients end up in your supplements simply because they make processing easier and cheaper - not because they add nutritional value to your supplements. Protect yourself. While you don’t need to go whole-hog “100% natural” to benefit from proper supplementation, it is important to know what you’re putting into your body and why.
Know Who to Trust
I’ve covered the main ingredient warning signs (which you should take as bright flashing lights that scream “Run!”), but what about other signs that show a supplement’s quality?
Just because the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements doesn’t mean there aren’t others willing to tackle the job for them. In fact, there are a number of third-party supplement certification organizations. These organizations allow supplement producers to run their product through a number of tests that look for harmful ingredients - including fillers, like the big three I talked about above - as well as investigating the overall nutritional quality of the product.
If a supplement passes the test, they get a seal for their product packaging to show who they’re certified by. There are a number of these companies, but some of the most trustworthy are:
Check out any of their websites to see a full run-down of their testing process (like this quick rundown of Informed Choice’s program).
Navigating the Supplement Waters
Designing the right supplement routine can be a daunting task, but following these basic principles should help guide your way. Remember, you’ve only got one body - it’s up to you to do your due diligence to be sure you’re treating it properly. Always check ingredients lists, and keep an eye out for seals of approval from trusted nutrition supplement certifiers. Your health and your performance are worth it.
What supplements do you use before, during and after your workouts? Share your favorites in the comments below!