Supplements are maybe the sexiest topic in the fitness world. Pretty packaging, edgy marketing tactics, and the promise that you'll be perfectly sculpted out of muscle and braun. It’s also one of the first things we think about when wanting to get in shape. What supplements should I start taking?
Slow down there, boss. After all, these are supplements which, by definition, are meant to complete or enhance something else. Supplements are there to get that extra margin of results because you are already putting in the physical work and eating great.
There are all kinds of flashy products offering huge promises out there. In my opinion, there are only 5 supplements that really matter for avid exercisers and athletes. Here they are in order of importance:
- Brained-chain amino acids (BCAA)
- Fish Oil
You should be getting the majority of your protein intake from real food. We want the complete proteins from animals and animal products. Things like lean meats, eggs and milk (if you can digest it well).
Protein powders come into play for convenience, such as mixing a shake right after a workout. I’m not going to get into much nutrition talk in this article, but refer to our blog on 3 Simple Tips to Stay Lean and Strong for some basics.
Look for a protein powder that has minimal ingredients (like 5 or less) and is made up of primarily whey, casein, or egg white for my dairy-free friends. Other sources will be less bio-available, meaning you won’t absorb them as well as the aforementioned sources.
For a more effective post-workout shake, combine that protein with a carbohydrate source such as dextrose powder or even just a ripe banana.
Branched-chain amino acids are found in foods that contain protein and make up about 35% of all muscle tissue. These essential acids improve muscle-protein synthesis. Some benefits would include reduced breakdown of muscle tissue, reduced soreness from intense resistance exercise, and improved energy to push through demanding workouts. They can also aid in fat loss and help in building/maintaining lean muscle mass.
I like to sip on some BCAAs before and/or during my workout. These can also be helpful if you have a gap in your day where you aren’t eating much. Keep a flow of BCAAs going! They are inexpensive and easy to drink. Just beware, if they are unflavored you may want to add a little sports drink powder or something that tastes decent!
Fish oil provides Omega-3 fatty acids. Since most of us probably don’t consume enough fish/seafood, these are a good way keep up. A few of the key benefits of taking highly-concentrated fish oil supplements include improved brain function, reduced mental stress, and reduction of inflammation in the body.
I find that when my joints are aching, fish oil makes a big difference. Make sure you find fish oil that is concentrated. The EPA/DHA content should be at least 65% of the pill volume, if not more.
The first 3 supplements are almost a requirement if you are training hard. Creatine mono-hydrate is one that I strongly believe in, but it is kind of an “extra bonus.” Creatine is arguably one of the most studied supplements on the market. Oddly enough, it may be the most widely misunderstood by the general public.
The good news is that most creatine supplements offered (either pill or powder) are just pure creatine. It’s cheap, easy to find and it doesn’t have a bunch of other ingredients added.
Your body naturally creates and uses creatine when you place stress on your muscle tissues, but you can only produce so much. By supplementing with creatine, you supply the body with more to use. The result is the ability to work a little more in the gym. It could be a few extra reps, an extra set, all of which add up over time to greater strength gains and capacity.
Don’t get into loading creatine and cycling like a bodybuilder. Just add a serving to your protein shake whenever you can. See if it makes a difference for you in getting stronger.
Remember when I talked about how sexy supplements can be? Pre-workout seems to be the sexiest. It tastes good, makes you feel like the Hulk, and is marketed perfectly. This is last on my list because it’s not crucial to your success. It should be a backup plan for days when you didn’t get the right foods in before a workout.
Again, try to find something that doesn’t have a ridiculous amount of ingredients and always test out small doses first. Pre-workout is going to be most effective for lifting sessions, especially if they are going to take over an hour to complete. It gives you the drive and mental focus to stay on task. It may also have some benefits such as improved grip strength.
If you are going to do something like a metcon that will really spike your heart rate, you may not want to get jacked up on C4 first! Everybody responds differently to these, so start slow and mess with timing it differently.
In summary, supplements can be a really helpful tool to fill gaps in your nutrition or add to an already great routine. Start slow with one or two things at a time. Otherwise, you may not know if it is making a difference in how you feel and recover.
-Taylor Race, co-owner of St. Pete Strength & Conditioning