Every single year, millions of people worldwide spend hundreds of millions of pounds on supplements. They may be for general health, illness prevention or cure, fat loss, muscle gain or athletic performance. With so much choice available it’s important to know what ACTUALLY works and what is nothing more than fancy snake oil in a shiny bottle.
Of course it’s important to mention that supplement’s are supplements. They exist to supplement a diet and lifestyle which should already be tailored towards a goal and therefore the actual effect you get, even from a well researched and proven product, is going to be minor. There is nothing you can buy over the counter which will dramatically and radically alter your results or the time it takes to get them, but there ARE some gems on the market which could give you an edge.
Supplements are a growing research topic and there are a few things, therefore, which I can say we more or less KNOW are going to help you in some way. Their mechanism of action and therefore efficacy are understood (at least partially). Then there are ‘grey area’ supplements – products which have some small amount of evidence behind them, or a good deal of empirical backing. I’m going to mention these because they ‘might be’ worth looking at and if you have the spare money it could be a worthwhile purchase.
In short, I feel comfortable recommending you try them, but I would never claim that I KNOW they are going to work.
First, I’ll cover what I know works and why you should use it. Remember, just because something works doesn’t mean it’s actually going to be of benefit to you, specifically, so it’s always important to look at it in context.
Supplements that work
I’m going to make this a sub-category of its own because this covers a great number of different things. These products exist to cover ‘holes’ in your nutrition in the most convenient way possible. You could get any benefits they carry from whole foods or other lifestyle interventions but this may be inconvenient or expensive enough that a large amount of people won’t do it successfully. If you have a small supplement budget, this is where you should spend it depending on your individual circumstances and needs.
1. Whey protein
Whey protein is one of two proteins found in milk (the other being casein) and is potentially the cheapest form of protein, gram for gram, available on the market today. It’s incredibly high in the BCAA Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine; a quality which means that on a scale of bioavailability (how useful it is to the body), it rates at 100-159 out of 100 meaning that using it to supplement a diet which is falling short on protein needs, or containing a lot of ‘incomplete’ proteins can help you reach your desired intake in a much more convenient fashion.
That said, almost all of whey protein’s benefits are benefits simply because of the fact that it’s protein, so if you wish to use whole food sources, please do so as you are likely to consume a higher level of micronutrients.
One heralded benefit of whey protein is that it is ‘fast digesting’ and therefore perfect for recovery, but this has never been shown to make it superior to whole foods post training. The only time I could make the claim that this quality is useful is if you were going to train on the morning and wished to consume protein before a workout when you only have limited time before getting to the gym.
2. Fish Oil
EPA and DHA are two fatty acids without which your body cannot function. By consuming adequate amounts, you reduce inflammation, improve insulin sensitivity, increase cognitive function, speed up muscle protein synthesis and a HUGE list of other benefits to boot. The vast majority of people would do well to get around 2-3 grams of the two combined every single day. This would work out at around 250g wild salmon daily, or 3-5 capsules of a quality fish oil.
While I love salmon as much as the next guy, budget and convenience will win for many people when it comes to fish.
To choose your fish oil, check the back of the tub for the nutrition information and look to get one which provides around 600-700mg of the two above acids per capsule. Cheaper products will have these in a far inferior ratio and you could find yourself eating 10-12 capsules!
Magnesium is a mineral that is depleted during intense exercise, so athletes require far more than the average sedentary person. Magnesium has a ton of benefits including testosterone regulation, sleep improvement, depression prevention, recovery from training and even abdominal fat loss – it is found in a huge variety of foods such as dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, yoghurt and even chocolate.
Unfortunately though, like I mentioned above, athletes require more magnesium than most folks because we use up our stores during intense training sessions, and a supplement is a cheap and convenient method of covering your bases, as despite our best efforts with magnesium enhancement from food, we don’t seem to be getting enough.
4. Vitamin D.
This is the big one. You know how you just feel better during the summer? More energy on holiday? And you even feel energised after using a tanning bed? That’s the magic of vitamin D3.
Vitamin D3 is a powerful secosteroid with almost innumerable benefits to athletes including hormone production, increased mood and focus, improved strength gains and improved body composition. While it is technically possible to get it through dietary and lifestyle management, the main source is the sun and unless you live in a more tropical climate, it is almost guaranteed that you will be deficient for some part of the year. Not good.
To cover myself and my clients, I recommend a dose of around 3,000iu per day at least during the darker months, or year round for those who don’t get outside much. This moderate dose seems to give the maximum results without breaking the bank or having any deleterious side effects – quick note – Vitamin D is fat soluble so it should be taken with food, ideally in an oil capsule.
Electrolytes are minerals which carry an electric charge, examples being sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium and hydrogen phosphate. We require a precise balance of intra and extra cellular electrolytes (essentially stored and in our blood) in order to regulate nerve and muscle function along with hydration – insufficient electrolyte intake can lead to cramps, weakness and difficulty in getting adequately hydrated.
This system is kept under tight control by our kidneys and various hormones but acute overhydration and acute or chronic dehydration create a situation which cannot be fixed internally with a great deal of ease.
For people who train for extended periods or simply sweat a lot, it’s generally a good idea to supplement with an electrolyte powder or gel during sessions lasting over an hour. These products are specifically designed blends in the correct balance to replenish what you will sweat out during your workout. This cna improve hydration status and increase post-exercise recovery.
If you are training for a long time and consuming only ‘naked water’ with no elextrolytes added you risk diluting your body’s stores and eventually struggling to become adequately hydrated at all. Left unchecked this can lead to serious illness and even death in extreme cases, so it’s not to be taken lightly.
Away from training I recommend a large amount of green leafy vegetables to ensure you get a good amount of minerals, but also to salt your food. Athletes and people who typically eat healthily consume very low levels of sodium which is a prime constituent of table salt, which can cause problems. Active and otherwise healthy people have nothing to be concerned about when it comes to a moderate to high salt intake, and eating salt will only cause water retention or bloat if you suddenly consume an unusually (for you) high amount. Chronic and steady high intakes are harmless and in individuals who exercise regularly potentially very beneficial.
Then, as mentioned, a supplement during a training session can be helpful.
6. Carb Powders
With the dawn of the low-carb era, carb powders and gels have fallen out of favour. Similarly because sugar is now being vilified, people tend to opt for more expensive starch-based carbs over the cheaper sugar forms in the hopes that it will be more beneficial for health.
First, carbs in general are the primary fuel for any anaerobic activity, and also a useful fuel for long-duration aerobic activity. When an athlete ‘hits a wall’ or ‘bonks’ they have depleted their glycogen stores severely (you can only store 400 grams or so, a little more if you glycogen deplete then overcompensate pre-run) and will struggle to maintain any kind of performance. In fact, because the brain requires carbohydrates, specifically glucose, to function optimally when an athlete isn’t in ketosis (Which I’m not going to talk about here. Suffice it to say I don’t typically recommend ketosis to athletes looking to maximise performance) it can even cause hallucinations or blackouts.
In the case of an activity done for maximising performance (not weight loss, that’s a different kettle of fish) I recommend 50g carbs per hour after the first hour in order to maintain glycogen stores and avoid ‘the wall’. During an event your digestion is impaired because bloodflow is being redirected to working muscles and not the gut, and this means that whatever you consume needs to be as easy as possible for your body to use, keeping it liquid just makes that a whole lot easier.
The other situation where I recommend a carb drink is in the event of an athlete competing or performing twice in quick succession, such as a Crossfit athlete at a throwdown or a decathlete. For these athletes rapid glycogen replenishment is essential in order to keep their performance going strong throughout a long day, and in this case the same rule applies to the one above. Supplements here are a far more effective method than eating a wholefood meal which contains fibre and fats to slow down digestion, and they also typically contain electrolytes which are beneficial as mentioned above.
But which carb powder to pick?
Like I said, in recent years there are a lot of expensive carb powders being made available for athletes who wish to have ‘the best of the best’. Vitargo and more recently, highly branched cyclic dextrins have been produced which claim to keep insulin stores down through virtue of not being sugars, but when studied this is simply not true (1). These powders have fast gastric-emptying (leaving the stomach) rates and therefore by necessity increase insulin levels (not that this really matters much in exercisers, but that’s for another article).
HBCD’s and vitargo, in fact, have slightly faster gastric emptying rates than other carbohydrates and that is why they are recommended so highly during training, but the actual difference is minimal. I recommend people use either dextrose, maltodextrin or a mixture of the two if they choose in order to keep the cost down and still get the same result. The only time I’d say to go for a ‘fancy’ carb powder is if you suffer some kind of gastric upset, in which case the faster digesting carbs may be of some benefit to you.
For anyone else, you should be able to consume more than enough carbohydrates through your regular diet.
Creatine is a protein, meaning it’s made of amino acids (Long chains of molecules that from the basis of living things). It’s found in meats and fish in small amounts, but can be supplemented in far higher doses than one would realistically ever get through your diet, and at this dose can have huge benefits to the athlete, as well as to those just looking to be healthy because it helps with ATP cycling (2) and cold potentially improve other markers of health.
Creatine is absorbed and stored in muscle cells as Creatine Phosphate which also carries molecules of water with it. This gives the benefit of muscular hydration and ‘fullness’ which makes you look better (don’t worry, the water doesn’t go under your skin and make you look bloated), helps prevent cramps and actually makes your muscles respond better to nutrients). The real interesting thing is to do with the phosphate bond, though.
Your body needs fuel, and we can get it through many sources – although the main one is carbohydrates consumed through our diet. These carbs are converted into glucose and stored as glycogen in muscle cells for later use. Likewise fatty acids can be stored in adipose tissue or intra muscular triglyceride stores for use, but eventually BEFORE actual use all energy gets turned into the body’s fuel ‘currency’ called adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
As the name suggests, ATP is formed when one molecule of adenosine binds to three phosphate molecules. When a unit of ATP is used in the body, it loses one phosphate bonding and becomes useless ADP (Adenosine diphosphate). This Phosphate bond needs to be replaced before it can be used again.
In steps creatine phosphate.
By holding a phosphate bond in the muscle cell, it is far more readily available for ADP re-synthesis, effectively increasing the amount of work you are capable of doing. This could add a few extra press-ups, an extra sprint, or make you recover faster between rounds of exercise, indirectly improving your results!
The final benefit to energy production is much simpler to explain – creatine can actually be used as a fuel source itself, meaning that supplementation can increase the amount of fuel you have to play with.
Add to this that creatine has been shown to improve carb tolerance and even potentially help reduce risk of degenerative brain diseases, it’s well worth the small investment. A dose of 3-5g per day is more than sufficient, and a bag of the most effective kind of creatine, creatine monohydrate, will cost you around £10 and last for months.
You don’t need to cycle or ‘load’ creatine (It was once suggested that you had to take loads for a week to ‘load’ the muscle but this has been disproven) and you can take it at any time of day to benefit as the effect accumulates over time rather than being an acute ergogen (an ergogen or ergogenic aid simply improves performance). Of course, if you DO wish to load it, a dose of 20g per day for a week will ‘saturate’ your muscles faster, giving you the total benefit earlier.
Caffeine is the world’s most used drug, and can be massively beneficial to both performance and fat loss. Research suggests that caffeine can improve power output (3), reduce perceived effort with a given workload (4) and increase alertness, drive and focus. This means you are in the zone, able to train harder, and you’ll even feel like it’s easier.
Couple this with the fact that habitual coffee drinkers show an increased calorie burn throughout the day and I can imagine you are sold!
A dose of around 3-9 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight is shown to be highly effective at aiding sports performance, so this is a good place to start.
BUT THERE IS A DRAWBACK
Caffeine isn’t all roses. Caffeine increases your stress hormone levels, can interfere with blood pressure and heart rate and can interrupt the sleep which is vital for both health and brainpower as well as fat loss and muscle gains.
It also has a long half life of over 6 hours (Meaning that if you took 200mg at 12pm, come 6pm there would still be 100mg in your system, then come 12am there would be 50, and so on) so it’s deleterious effects hang around for a long time.
My suggestions with caffeine are and always will be to use it but use the minimal effective dose as infrequently as you can. A single coffee in the morning before training, or a coffee in the morning then another lower dose of caffeine pre workout in the evening.
9. Beta Alanine
Beta Alanine is another amino acid which we can get in small amounts from food: Chicken and turkey being examples, but when we supplement it we are able to ingest huge amounts more than we ordinarily would.
Beta alanine is a precursor to carnosine which is stored in the muscles. It’s stored there because it is vital for preserving muscle PH levels.
As mentioned in the section on creatine, activity such as running, sprinting or lifting uses stores of ATP and this results in ADP and one other thing – lactic acid. Lactic acid was once thought to be a bad thing which causes muscle fatigue, but this is not actually true(5). Whilst it is true that lactic acid production increases along with training intensity and duration, the same can be said about heart rate – but it is correlation and nothing more.
Lactic acid quickly dissociates into lactate and hydrogen ions which carry a positive electrical charge. Lactate itself is actually a fuel source which your body can use to perform exercise. The H+ ions, however, remain in the muscle and lower the pH to create an acidic environment and cause ‘the burn’. Carnosine effectively buffers this acid buildup, converting it to C02 and allowing it to be exhaled.
This effect isn’t just acute or ‘per set’, either. During a workout H+ ions build up slowly (especially true for long distance events) and beta alanine can help mediate this. This means that you might get a few extra reps per set, but you might also get a few extra sets per workout!
BA is typically dosed in the 3-6g rep range, with a gradual buildup occurring over 5-10 weeks before you experience the full benefit. Because of this long ‘loading phase’ I generally recommend you use beta alanine year round.
As a final note, acute bolus dosing of BA can result in a mildly unpleasant tingling feeling called parasthesia. This can be mediated by splitting your dose up over 2-3 servings during the day with food for the best absorption rates.
Stuff That Might Work
Leucine is an essential amino acid which is vital for the activation of muscle protein synthesis (6). The dose required to gain the optimal effect is around the 3gram range in any given meal which translates to around 180-240g of various meats, or 27g of protein from a whey protein powder (which is different to 27g of whey, incidentally).
For a lot of vegetarian protein sources, getting this 3g dose is very difficult or at least impractical. These foods are considered ‘incomplete protein sources’ for the most part due to the fact that they are low in one or more of the essential amino acids needed by the human body. Added to this is the simple fact that some people just don’t want to eat that much meat per meal One way to mediate this is to supplement meals which are low in ‘complete proteins’ with leucine.
This falls under the ‘stuff which might work’ category because there has been a large amount of hype surrounding leucine in recent years with people taking it in between meals whereby you can actually negatively affect protein synthesis by preventing ‘peaks and troughs’ throughout the day which are actually beneficial, or alongside meals that contain enough protein already and therefore wasting money. Leucine is a useful supplement but it has very specific applications.
Adaptogens, as the name suggests, help our body to adapt to stressors by mediating the physical and chemical effects thereof. Stressors include training, dieting, daily work and family stress and anything else which causes increases in stress hormones or puts your body in a ‘fight or flight’ mode. They also show potential for improving mood and concentration as well as increasing the beneficial effects of stimulants without increasing the dose you use, and therefore incurring further side effects.
Common adaptogens are Rhodiola Rosea or Ashwagandha but there are a large number of them available today; largely herbs and extracts common in Ayurveda medicine. Interestingly, although they all share the same purported benefits, when studied their potential mechanisms for action do not necessarily all line up.
Most research done on adaptogens is located in old Soviet journals which are very difficult to acquire or translate well enough to analyse the methods and results thoroughly, and there isn’t a lot of modern human trial data to go on, and therefore I cannot say with certainty that they work.
That said, there is a reasonable amount of data to suggest that Rhodiola potentially improves mood and that it alongside Holy Basil, Schisandra chinensis and Tribulus terrestris can reduce the effects of chronic stress and even boost libido. Because of this I recommend them for use during heavy training cycles or during periods where sleep is necessarily reduced to allow for study/work which is unavoidable in the short term.
On a personal note – I do use them myself and recommend them to clients who have been dieting hard for a long time or are in an overtrained state, almost invariably to good results.
12. Citrulline Malate
CitMal is another dietary amino acid. When supplemented, its role is to speed up the ammonia recycling process associated with fatigue and increase nitric oxide concentrations. Because of this it is thought to reduce fatigue and improve endurance in both aerobic and anaerobic activity alongside boosting recovery rates.
Users report an increased ‘pump’ which of course increases anabolism to some degree because of cellular swelling (7) and also a reduction in DOMS. Unfortunately there are only two studies to date which back up the ergogenic properties of CitMal and therefore I cannot conclusively say that it works.
Again, though, I use it personally and feel a great benefit, so I will recommend it today. Dosing is 6-8 grams (for endurance and strength training respectively) according to the two studies available (8,9) and due to its acute effects, it should be taken around an hour pre workout with or without food.
13. Transdermal Minerals
Transdermal means ‘through the skin’ and some minerals may be able to be absorbed in this manner to increase your body’s serum levels without needing to digest them through the gut. I’m going to focus on Magnesium and Zinc here, but there may be significantly more minerals which can be used this way.
Your skin is a semi permeable membrane which can selectively absorb various things via your pores in a manner similar to osmosis – things which are highly concentrated cross over a barrier into an area of low concentration in order to ‘even things out’. They then cross into your capillaries and enter the bloodstream where they are used as needed. This is how creams and patches work and we can potentially exploit it for mineral supplementation.
Minerals such as magnesium and zinc, as mentioned above are needed for hundreds of different functions in the body, one of which is in the mechanism to create a muscle contraction. Simply, without these two you cannot contract your muscles as effectively as you might want to, which has obvious drawbacks to athletes. Oral supplementation of magnesium and zinc is an excellent way to increase total serum levels of these minerals (although some magnesium forms have terrible gut absorption rates and a large dose can cause diarrhoea) but this of course requires passage through the digestive process and then distribution to numerous places in the body.
If you’ve just performed a bench press workout, you might not want the bulk of these minerals to end up in your legs.
Another issue is that absorption is slow, and (similar to carbs) if an athlete is to perform multiple times per day then acute recovery needs to be on point, and this is where a Transdermal method can help.
By applying these products to the affected area (or indeed bolus dosing by soaking in a bath), you can effectively improve magnesium status directly and improve recovery.
Now, unfortunately this is currently theoretical with no solid research backing, but Epsom salt baths have been considered beneficial for hundreds of years and empirical evidence surrounding magnesium oils and sprays is building up at a rate which cannot be ignored.
For this reason, although I cannot definitively say ‘it works’, I do recommend Transdermal supplementation to those who are interested to try it.
Takii H, Kometani T, Nishimura T, Kuriki T, and Fushiki T (2010). A Sports Drink Based on Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin Generates Few Gastrointestinal Disorders in Untrained Men during Bicycle Exercise. Food Science and Technology Research
JD Branch (2003). Effect of creatine supplementation on body composition and performance: A meta-analysis. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism:198-226
JH Williams, JF Signorile, SW Barnes and TW Henrich (1988). Caffeine, maximal power output and fatigue. British Journal of Sports Medicine
M. Doherty and P.M Smith (2004). Effects of caffeine ingestion on rating of perceived exertion during and after exercise: a meta-analysis. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports.
Norton and Wilson (2009). Optimal Protein intake to Maximise Muscle Protein Synthesis. University of Illinois.
Brad Schoenfeld (2010). The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and their Application to Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research
Perez-Guisado, J and Jakeman PM. (2010). Citrulline malate enhances athletic anaerobic performance and relieves muscle soreness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research
JA López-Cabral, A Rivera-Cisneros, H Rodríguez-Camacho, JM Sánchez-González, I Serna-Sánchez, M Trejo-Trejo (2012). Modification of fatigue indicators using citrulline malate for high performance endurance athletes. Rev Latinoamer Patol Clin, Vol. 59, Núm. 4, pp 194-201