Taking supplements became sort of a prerequisite before you start working out or getting in shape. Unfortunately, the supplement industry has taken advantage of this and have introduced products for pretty much everything you can imagine, and most of them do not have much/any research to back that they actually do anything.
The dietary supplement market has grown to over 40 billion USD in North America, and is expected to rise in the coming years. This has lead to a lot of misinformation in terms of what products do and if they actually work.
Before we move on I want to stress the importance of a balanced diet, good training program, and proper recovery before spending hundreds of dollars on supplements. An example of how little supplements play a role in body composition improvement is in the Renaissance Periodization Diet Book 2.0, they have a pyramid that displays the importance of each factor when it comes to improving body composition. Keep in mind this is for body composition, not general health. While they are similar in many ways, there are some differences.
For example, if you are looking to lose body fat, but are always in a positive energy balance (consuming more energy than your body needs) then all of the supplements in the world would not be able to do anything to help you lose body fat (legal supplements that is).
On the flip side, if you are looking to put on muscle, but are constantly under eating, then all of the supplements in the world won’t be able to help you (once again, legal supplements that is).
To quote Renaissance Periodization “supplements are diet additives consumed on top of regular food intake, they are taken with the explicit intention of enhancing body composition, performance, or health, beyond what can be done with food.”
I am not against supplements, as they can be extremely beneficial, as we will go over in a little bit. However, I think it’s very important for others to be aware of how little they will affect our body composition and performance if our nutrition and training are off, before spending your hard earned money.
Here are the supplements that I have seen over and over again to be backed by research and seem to be well worth spending your money on.
Caffeine is a popular stimulant taken by many, mainly in the form of coffee, teas, energy drinks, and sodas. According to Iraki et al. (2019) caffeine has been shown to increase arousal, reduce pain and feelings of perceived exertion levels (you do not feel like you are working as hard as you really are), reduces fatigue, increases strength, and may increase power output.
There is also some research showing that caffeine intake may enhance cognitive function (concentration and alertness) under times of high stress or sleep deprivation (Goldstein et al. 2010). However, there is more research backing this for longer activities (endurance training), and there are mixed results on its effects on shorter duration high-intensity activities (lifting weights, sprinting).
-Increase alertness and focus
-Increase pain tolerance
-Increase endurance, strength, and repetition performance
How much to take?
3-6mg/kg (1.5mg/lb -3mg/lb) of caffeine seems to be the optimal dose for increasing performance, however anything more than about 9mg/kg (4mg/lb) does NOT increase performance anymore (Goldstein, 2010). So more is not better, when taking caffeine. Some side effects of too much caffeine are: anxiety, sleep disturbance, rapid heart rate, and addiction.
Since ingesting caffeine will have immediate effects on your body, it seems the best time to take caffeine for increasing performance is about 30-60 minutes before exercise. One caveat to caffeine is that it stays in your body for 3-9 hours (depending on the dose), so it may be wise to ingest as far away from sleep as possible to promote healthy sleep patterns (Iraki, 2019).
A few other important things to note on caffeine is that :
1.) the more you take in terms of frequency and dosing, the higher your tolerance for caffeine will be. According to Fisher and colleagues (1986) habitual high intake of caffeine will reduce its effects during prolonged exercise. Therefore, it might be wise to only use caffeine when needed so you do not build up a tolerance.
2.) If you are new to caffeine, it is probably in your best interest to start on the lower side of the dosing recommendations so you can see how your body tolerates caffeine.
It can dehydrate you.
Multiple studies have found that caffeine does NOT negatively affect sweat loss and fluid balance during exercise. (Falk et al. 1990, Wemple et al. 1997, Kovacs et al. 1998, Roti et al. 2006, Millard-Stafford et al. 2007, Del Coso et al. 2009). It is important to ensure you are in a hydrated state before training or competition to avoid negative effects on your performance.
If you are looking for a boost in your workout, consuming 3-6mg/kg (1.5mg/lb -3mg/lb) of caffeine 30-60 minutes prior to your workout a few times per week may increase performance in the subsequent workout. For example, a 150lb person would consume around 225-450 mg of caffeine pre workout.
Protein (Whey and Casein)
There are two types of protein supplements, they are whey and casein.
Whey protein is a naturally occurring protein found in milk. It is one of the fastest digesting protein sources and one of the highest quality sources studied. Since it is fast digesting it is a good option post workout or during workout. There are three types of whey protein sold on the market, they are concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. Concentrate is the least pure of the three, however still very effective and the most cost effective. Isolate is usually better on the G.I. tract and high purity. Lastly, hydrolysate is great for those who are very sensitive to dairy, however the price is much higher than the first two mentioned above. Therefore, if you have no digestion issues from whey concentrate then that is your best bet since it is the most cost effective and still very effective.
Casein is the other main protein found in milk. It is the opposite of whey in that it takes much longer to digest. This can be useful in times when you may go long periods of time without food. Sleep would be a good example of this.
Which one should you take?
As long as protein intake is adequate for the day there does not seem to be any evidence to prioritize whey or casein. In saying that, if you want the protein to be digested/absorbed quickly then consuming whey over casein would be a good choice. Times that would warrant quick digestion/absorption of protein would be
- Intra workout.
- Post workout, if you did not consume protein 1-3 hours before your workout.
- Post workout, if you have another training session that day or within a few hours.
However, finding a supplement that contains both casein and whey seems to be a safe bet for most.
When is protein supplementation useful?
While it is always a good idea to consume your dietary protein from whole food sources, it may be a wise idea for those who have trouble hitting their protein levels to supplement with protein to ensure adequate levels of quality protein, especially those who participate in high volumes of training and for those who are looking to minimize calorie intake.
According to Jager and colleagues (2017) combining a hypercaloric diet (calorie surplus) with proper resistance training, protein supplementation may promote an increase in skeletal muscle and lean body mass.
It also has been shown that combining a hypocaloric diet (calorie deficit) with proper resistance training, that an increase in daily intake of protein can promote greater losses of fat mass and greater improvements in body composition. Therefore, protein supplementation may be very useful to ensure adequate protein levels while on a fat loss diet to maintain lean body mass.
The 30 minute post workout “anabolic window”
In a 2013 paper Aragon and Schoenfeld looked at the importance of the post workout “anabolic window”. What they found is that as long as you have a meal with at least a moderate amount of protein 1-2 hours before training, then the need for protein is lower immediately post workout (just make sure you eat within 1-3 hours post workout). On the other hand, if you haven’t consumed protein for an extended period (for example 3 plus hours) then there should be a greater importance placed on consuming protein sooner rather than later post workout.
One more caveat to this, if you are training multiple times per day, then it becomes more important to consume protein sooner rather than later post workout. In this particular situation a whey protein shake may be a good idea to consume right after training.
Focus first on consuming protein through whole food sources, if protein intake is still low, then using a protein supplement that is blended with whey/casein can be a great way to ensure adequate protein levels, while minimizing calories. If protein needs to be absorbed quickly then whey protein seems to be a good choice, if protein does not need to be absorbed quickly then either a casein shake or blend of casein/whey would be a good choice.
Creatine is found in skeletal muscle and cardiac muscle, where it acts as an energy source for the body, mainly during short-duration/high-intensity activity such as weight lifting, sprinting, jumping etc. It is considered a non-essential nutrient because the body can produce it on its own. It can also be obtained through the diet, it is most abundant in red meats, poultry, and fish.
Creatine MONOHYDRATE is the most widely studied supplement with an overall consensus that it increases muscle mass and strength in adolescents, younger adults, and older adults. It’s important to note that monohydrate is the type of creatine that has been well studied, there may be benefits of other types of creatine, but monohydrate seems to be the superior option. It is also the most cost effective.
Creatine supplementation also has been shown to enhance recovery, increase injury prevention, enhanced rehabilitation from injury, and enhanced tolerance to exercising in the heat (Kreider et al. 2017).
Essentially, supplementing with creatine allows you to do more reps per set, which over time can lead to an increase in muscle mass and strength. For example, without creatine supplementation you could get 10 reps, whereas with creatine supplementation you could get 12 reps in a set. If we are doing multiple sets, then over time this can make a significant difference.
When to take/how much:
The most cost effective and studied form of creatine is MONOHYDRATE. Once again, other forms of creatine are more expensive and have not been shown to be superior to monohydrate.
Unlike caffeine, where you immediately notice the effects, you must saturate your creatine stores in order to see the performance benefits. According to Kreider et al. (2017) in a normal diet that contains 1-2g of creatine per day, creatine stores are about 60-80% saturated. Those who have a diet low in foods such as meat or fish, may be on the lower end of the muscle creatine stores, therefore they will see more of a benefit from supplementing with creatine than someone who already has high creatine stores due to a diet that is higher in fish and meat.
Staying consistent with your creatine supplementation is going to be extremely important to reap the benefits. For example, if you only take creatine for a few days, you will not saturate your creatine stores to levels where you will notice an increase in performance, it will take about 28 days to do this (Hultman et al. 1996).
So how much should you take to increase your creatine levels? 3-5g/day increases and maintains creatine stores in the body (Kreider et al. 2017).
When to take? As of right now there is no particular time that has been shown to be superior over another as to when to take creatine monohydrate. Therefore, take it whenever fits your schedule best and ensures you stay consistent with supplementation.
If you hear about creatine in the mainstream media you would think it has numerous side effects to it, however this could not be further from the truth. There have been 1,000s of studies done on creatine supplementation since the 1990s and none have found any adverse health risks at the recommended doses. The only potential side effect mentioned is potential weight gain, but this is in the form of water weight.
Some common myths of creatine in the media from anecdotal experiences are:
All of these have been disputed in numerous well-controlled clinical studies showing that creatine supplementation may actually reduce the incidence of these anecdotal reported side effects (Kreider et al. 2003, Greenwood et al. 2003, Greenwood et al. 2003, Greenwood et al. 2000, Watson et al. 2006).
Creatine monohydrate supplementation can increase muscle mass and strength, and may improve injury recovery/prevention and improve cognitive function. Consume 3-5g/day anytime throughout the day that best fits your schedule.
Multivitamin supplements contain a combination of vitamins and minerals, Most multivitamins are once daily products that contain all/most of the vitamins and minerals. Most of these products are close to the recommended amounts (National Institutes of Health 2016). Higher potency multivitamins usually come in packs of two or more pills to take multiple times per day, if you have a mostly balanced diet, then the once daily products are just fine.
Who may benefit:
According to the RP Diet Book 2.0, if your diet is balanced in lean proteins, veggies, fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats, then most nutrient needs will be met through your diet.
So in times when healthy eating may not be possible it can be a good idea to consume a multivitamin to ensure nutrient needs are met.
Another time when supplementing with a multivitamin may be a good idea is when you are dieting for fat loss. Since calorie intake will be lower in these times, you may be missing out on essential nutrients, especially if your diet is low in whole foods such as veggies and fruits. Whereas when you are consuming more food in a maintenance diet or weight gain diet, you are more likely to hit your recommended nutrient intakes since more food is being consumed.
When to take:
According to ConsumerLabs, the best time to take a multivitamin is during a meal (preferably a meal high in fats to help absorb vitamins) and during a time that you are least likely to skip it. So consume it with any meal that ensures you take it consistently.
Multivitamins can be a useful supplement if your diet is low in whole foods such as lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, veggies, and healthy fats. They can also be useful during times of energy restriction (fat loss phase) to ensure you consume recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of supplements, there may be other ones out there that can help you. However, these are the ones I have seen over and over again that have the most research and backing on and that I feel confident recommending others spend their hard earned money on. Most supplements out on the market do not have much research behind them or that shows they actually are beneficial for body composition or performance, so just be aware.
Once again I want to stress that nothing beats good training, nutrition, and recovery. These 3 things should be the most important factors by a long shot when it comes to improving your body composition or performance, if these are not in check, then you are going to be spinning your wheels for quite some time.
If you do have any questions or concerns about certain supplements I did not go over, I recommend checking out examine.com as they have unbiased, science based information on all things supplements.
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