Here is a question I’ve been getting recently and I figured others have the same question. It doesn’t matter which demographic or goal, everyone wants to know which supplement is best to help them accelerate their results.
The problem is that most of them don’t.
A “food first” approach
It’s important to start this topic off by clearly stating what supplements are and what they are not. Supplements are not quick fixes or substitutes for hard work. They do not give you that magic result and if they do give a quick fix, they are probably setting you up for failure later on. Supplements should serve to do exactly that, supplement your actual diet. My approach to anything nutrition related is “food first”. We always want to try for whole food (not to be confused with Whole Foods) before we start throwing in any powders, pills, or bars. Real food is going to be digested and absorbed to a greater capacity and offers a variety of things that we simply can’t get from any supplement. However, once we get a handle on that, we can start to incorporate a few tried and true things to our daily routines.
Before we go any further, answers these questions (Be honest):
- Are you able to eat at least three solid meals each day?
- Are you incorporating important things like vegetables and healthy sources of protein and fat on a daily basis?
- Have you spent some time trying to cook and prepare your own meals?
- Is the reason you are looking into supplements because you are swamped with a work/life schedule that doesn’t allow for planned snacks or meals throughout the day?
-If the answers to these questions are yes, we can move on.
–If you answered a few “no”, it’s time to take ownership over your health and success by learning how to make a few meals for yourself.
Knowledge is power, especially when dealing with what you put into your body. Almost anything a supplement can offer you will be found in a well-planned, well-prepared meal plan. So let’s get that handled first and then we can re-visit what you are missing in your routine.
Which supplements are effective? Which supplements are a waste of money?
I enjoy answering this question, but often don’t get a massively positive reaction when a client or athlete hears it. People ask that question hoping on the other side there is some product or supplement that they haven’t heard of. The fact is, the answer is probably something you’ve always known but didn’t want to do.
Setting a goal of being athletic again is not easy, and when you hit a wall it’s important to know that the basics will keep you going. The truth is, the real benefit of supplements come from their convenience and not their ability to be a magic bullet. For those working long hours and have families, being able to open up your desk drawer at 3pm and add 20 grams of protein to your daily total without taking much preparation or calories is huge. That is why all of the supplements I will recommend to anyone will add convenience more than benefit. No one supplement is necessarily better, it’s just about taking a look at what YOU are missing and adding it in the form of a supplement. So, without further adieu, here are my top three recommended supplements.
If you are following some type of muscle building or strength program, protein is a major macronutrient that aids in recovery and tissue repair. We want to get our protein from lean meats first, but when you’re in a pinch and can’t go heat up something it sure helps to throw a scoop of protein powder into water or milk and go. Not only do protein supplements offer us the recovery benefit, but they also help to keep us from starving in between meals. The time between breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner is when people start to get cranky and reach for snacks in search of energy and relief. We’ve covered which snacks are better in a previous article you can find here, and protein powder was one of them. This is an excellent supplement that has been heavily researched and found to be effective, unlike a lot of stuff the guy at GNC will try to sell you. Brands of protein are something you will have to research more of. I’m not going to recommend a specific brand, but it’s rather easy to find some top brands for a good price on the webs.
TIP-Avoid all the hoopla about the “window of gainz” after your workout and just eat real food post-workout if available. Use the protein powder in the form of a snack at a time where you really struggle to get protein and make your shake then. You can go with a smoothie for an actual meal replacement or just a quick 25 grams of protein in water.
The second supplement I would recommend is omega-3 fish oils. These fish oils contain two important components called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Not only have these been found to be helpful for people dealing with heart disease, but will add a good source of fat to those with lower fat diets. I’m by no means telling you to run out and grab fish oils right now. But, I am saying this has shown the ability to provide a benefit unlike a lot of supplements being marketed out there. I recommend first that you try to include types of fish like salmon or tuna two times a week. If, for some reason you can’t, omega 3’s are an option. Fat plays a major role in so many important bodily processes including protecting your brain, so don’t skimp on the fats because you think that helps you get to your goals faster.
TIP- This is a great supplement for people that just can’t do fishy. But, before you buy anything, check to make sure the fish oils have been highly purified. Fish can contain high amounts of mercury and metals, so it’s very important to check your product first. Only buy from verified sources. Next, look at the amount of EPA/DHA per serving. This another way to tell if the product is quality. Low values and no purified methods means to sling that thing like a burgundy burrito.
The third and final supplement I recommend, especially for athletes, is creatine monohydrate. This supplement is a tried and true supplement that has been shown through research to improve maximal strength and power. Being athletic again really revolves around those two things. Creatine also has been shown to add muscle mass, increase muscle fiber size, and improve your resistance to fatigue. Essentially, it helps you grow to a greater degree because it delays fatigue further allowing you to train longer. This can mean an extra set or an extra rep at high intensities, which is important once you get to lifting heavier and heavier. Creatine has several forms being marketed and sold, but don’t worry about all the variations and stick with the monohydrate form. A common misconception with creatine is that you gain water weight or that it causes injury. Creatine is naturally occurring in foods, just like protein, so you eating meat would’ve caused problems long ago if that was the case. A “loading period” is also a topic of conversation, but has been shown to be unnecessary as long as you are consistent with taking it daily for around a months time.
TIP-I recommend you take creatine specifically in blocks of training that require high intensities or percentages of your maximum (>80% 1RM). If you are training at a low intensity or just doing a general exercise program, this is probably not worth buying. However, creatine could eventually be a part of your regimen once you build a solid foundation and can train at high weights. For now, stick to eating great and drinking tons of water.
The supplement industry is absolutely crushing it right now. Companies are literally starting out of their garage and selling their supplements within a short period of time at stores in your neighborhood. You have got to be extremely careful what you buy and where you buy it. Even stores like GNC or bodybuilding.com will sell products that are not necessarily verified and proven to help you. With the amount of money flowing into this industry, there is a ton of false claims and advertisement that you can find that magic bullet. Don’t buy into that. We both know that hard work and a patient, long-term approach is the way to go. We do not need a diet pill, we definitely don’t need something that has 15 ingredients we’ve never heard of claiming to give you a “rush you’ll never forget”. In order to avoid how much misinformation there is, I try to stick with what research is able to tell me and take a conservative approach to recommending anything.
Supplements that almost made the list:
This is one of the most widely used things on the planet. Starbucks is crushing life right now due to it and research is showing very positive results from it’s effect on workouts. However, I don’t really like athletes or clients getting caffeine from pre-workouts or energy drinks. Personally, I get my caffeine from coffee. I genuinely enjoy good coffee, so the caffeine is an added benefit to a drink I like. Energy drinks and pre-workouts can definitely give you a boost, but I can’t recommend them long-term to anyone. It also affects the brain like a drug and can cause withdrawal like symptoms for people consuming large amount for long periods of time that quit cold turkey. And what I don’t like in terms of athletes, is that they try to mask their fatigue by adding caffeine on top only delaying an inevitable crash.
This is the component of your pre-workout that gives you the itchy, tingly feeling. Beta-alanine is still not well known, with the itchy feeling still being attributed to caffeine or other components of a pre-workout. I remember in college, when a lot of research was being done on beta-alanine, that I took it individually and literally was itching my face and neck like Tyrone Biggums in the middle of a physics lecture. It was clearly more than I was supposed to have. The big draw to beta-alanine is it’s ability to buffer hydrogen ions that accumulate during tough exercise to allow you to delay fatigue. This allows for more reps at greater intensities and overall more training volume to be done. However, more recent research has people second guessing what we initially thought about this supplement. It’s a great reminder that unless your particular supplement has been shown benefits in research for longer than a few years, it could end up being a placebo. The verdict is still not out on beta-alanine and much more research needs to be done before it makes my list.
This a popular one that a clerk at a store is almost guaranteed to tell you will help you. However, research is still too muddy for me. Amino acids are just the broken down forms of proteins. So, in theory, they should have the same effects on the body as protein supplements. However, that is not the case. It seems that whey protein is more effective. Some research shows amino acids to have benefit, but again, I’m not ready to sell it to the people that depend on my advice. If you must, take these in times where you have no real food available. It’s better than nothing at all, so in those circumstances it can be helpful.
Understand that the supplement industry is mostly just marketing and advertisement. A lot of people don’t want to give the unsexy answer that most supplements are a waste of money. Almost everything you can find at a store, you could be getting from your nutrition at home. Don’t let someone sell you on something that isn’t that complicated. If you have metabolic issues like a deficiency then you need to speak with a professional about specific supplements to help.
Take Home Message
- Whey protein can be a convenient way to supplement your protein intake each day without adding tons of calories. It can also taste great.
- Omega 3 fish oils can help people that can’t do fish or gravitate towards lower fat diets. Be very careful and select only high purity grades.
- Being athletic means being strong and powerful. Creatine monohydrate has been shown to improve those components and therefore can be added to a block of training that focuses on lifting high intensities or concentrates on strength/power improvements.
- Supplements claiming quick fat loss, improved energy, joint health should probably be left alone. The supplement industry is centered around selling you with shiny labels and claims of greener pastures. You can definitely take anything and immediately feel better, but it’s highly likely it’s a placebo effect you bought for $29.99. Don’t let someone put a price on what you can achieve for free through hard work.
- Food first approach! We want to improve the food we put into our body first, then try to find where we fall short and supplement from there.