Dietary supplementation tends to be one of the biggest black boxes in most athlete’s training programs. Anti-doping rules cloud the issues of what is “natural” and what isn’t, pharmaceutical-type labeling on herbal remedies and wild claims regarding performance enhancement or fat loss (rightly) turn most consumers into skeptics, and massive price tags on tubs of sugar with trace amounts of “popular” compounds give a warped sense of the cost of high performance.
So what out there IS effective? And more importantly, what is effective for WHOM? Certainly, a powerlifter and a marathon runner may not necessarily be looking for the same kind of supplement. Both would like to recover faster and push themselves harder, but what may help one may actually HINDER the other.
The objective of this basic review is to give a rundown of a few popular supplements- no brand names will be mentioned, but these ingredients are easy to find on the labels. Most importantly, each supplement will be assigned a rating on a given performance scale- they will be given a star rating on each of the following criteria:
Supplements will also be given an overall star rating given how effective they would be for the following sorts of athletes:
Hybrid Athlete/Team Athlete
Fat loss is fairly self-explanatory- a supplement ranking highly here directly aids in the loss of fat. Either the compound itself speeds the metabolism, or it assists in nutrient partitioning. Few athletes need to be TOO concerned with this parameter. Note that a low score here does not mean a supplement is not USEFUL while dieting, just that it does not aid the process in and of itself.
Anti-Catabolic essentially refers to the compound’s ability to prevent muscle loss or atrophy during exercise or dieting- both strength and endurance athletes may be interested in this, as strength athletes often find themselves in a position where they are looking to drop weight while maintaining muscle/strength, and endurance athletes should be concerned about excessive muscle loss during long duration exercise.
Muscle building ONLY refers to direct muscle building mechanisms. Anti-catabolics and compounds that improve focus or intensity may INDIRECTLY result in more lean mass gain, but that is not what this refers to. Only compounds that have DIRECT anabolic effects on skeletal muscle will score highly here.
Focus simply refers to mental focus- will this compound allow you to perform with greater intensity or “shake out the cobwebs”. This does not necessarily mean improved performance, simply that this supplement can potentially improve workout quality.
Energy is separate from focus- this specifically refers to allowing the body to produce and expend more energy before fatigue is reach.
Health is a more subjective category- A high score here may mean that a compound can directly BENEFIT your health. A moderate score (3 stars) would mean this compound is relatively neutral in this regard, while a low score (1 star) would mean this compound can NEGATIVELY impact your health.
Common Non-nutritive Supplements:
Fat loss *
Muscle building **
Strength Athlete *****
Endurance Athlete **
Hybrid Athlete/Team Athlete ****
Recreational Trainee **
Creatine is one of the best known, but quite frankly, most commonly misunderstood supplements on the market today. Creatine Phosphate (or phosphocreatine, also known as PCr) is a molecule that exists in nearly every cell in the body- its function is simple- donation of a phosphate group to ADP to re-form ATP (the universal energy currency in the body. Oral creatine supplementation increases the total pool of PCr in cells. Period, full stop. Increasing the level of PCr increases the total amount of immediately available energy to fuel muscle contraction, and therefore increases the total short term work capacity of a muscle. Practically speaking, this will marginally (empirically speaking, in the order of 10-15%) extend short term energy bursts, letting a strength athlete perform another repetition before failure, or a sprinter maintain peak energy levels for slightly longer before performance degradation.
There are a NUMBER of theorized additional advantages of oral creatine supplementation, but the majority of these are theoretical. (For example, there are theories about creatine supplementation leading to increased cell volume, which would indicate that the supplementation is stimulating other anabolic processes, but this is conjecture at this point.) Long story short- it lets you perform at maximum effort for slightly longer. This means you can train a bit harder, push out an extra rep (or slightly increase your max, since the additional short term energy will allow muscle motor units to contract for a bit longer, increasing the useful power peak), sprint a bit longer, recover just a bit faster… which is an advantage to nearly ALL athletes. Of course, this is useless if you don’t leverage it- creatine supplementation with no change in training effort or volume is a bit of a waste. Creatine itself won’t make you “huge”, it won’t cause cramps, it won’t cause water retention… there is simply no mechanism by which it can do ANY of these things, so don’t believe the hype. It also has no negative effects on hydration levels, kidney/liver enzymes, etc., so there’s quite frankly no reason NOT to take it.
One note- the TYPE of creatine does NOT matter. Monohydrate, ethyl ester, malate… these are all digested completely by the body. Note that, contrary to marketing materials, certain types do NOT cause more water retention than others- this is a myth. Some individuals find that monohydrate, if improperly stirred, can cause minor GI upset. This is usually alleviated by mixing the creatine in milk or almond milk thoroughly- these types of fluids take a bit longer to digest than pure water, giving the stomach more time to “blend” the monohydrate and ensure complete digestion before the solution hits the small intestine. “Loading” creatine is also not needed- for 99% of individuals, simply supplementing 1 teaspoon a day (at ANY time during the day) is more than sufficient to keep cellular levels high.
Vasodilators (e.g. arginine and its derivatives).
Fat loss *
Muscle building **
Strength Athlete *
Endurance Athlete *
Hybrid Athlete/Team Athlete *
Recreational Trainee **
Chances are, a number of popular pre-workout supplements contain various vasodilation compounds. These sound tempting at first- arginine itself was made popular years ago due to interesting links found between arginine infusion and increased growth hormone release. Of course, this came with two major caveats- increased growth hormone isn’t necessarily clinically significant (i.e. it may not be enough of an increase, or last long enough, to have any noticeable effect), and even then, this was only when a large quantity of arginine was infused intravenously. The amounts required orally would be 5-8 times higher than what is found in a typical pre-workout, and would likely cause instant nausea.
What are left is the vasodilation effect of arginine. First of all, vasodilation sounds appealing- more peripheral blood flow would seem to be a good thing, with working muscles receiving more oxygen and nutrients. However, is systemic vasodilation in any way related to significantly more blood flow to the target muscles? Certainly systemic vasodilation seems a bit of an oxymoron- there are only x liters of blood in the body, and you can’t make more blood go EVERYWHERE. So is systemic vasodilation possible or effective? A few studies show in untrained athletes, yes, there is a slight benefit in extending time to exhaustion. In trained athletes? Possibly as well. Of course, oral arginine has almost no effect on vasodilation in dosages less than 30 grams… injected intravenously. Take that for what it’s worth.
One final word- there’s some interesting evidence to suggest a lactic acid “buffering” effect from small amounts of arginine, which may make it an interesting compound for certain types of endurance athletes. There’s still not enough data to wholeheartedly recommend it, though.
Pre-Workouts (Jack3d, NO-Xplode, etc.)
Fat loss ***
Anti-Catabolic * (** – see below)
Muscle building **
Strength Athlete ***
Endurance Athlete * (*** – see below)
Hybrid Athlete/Team Athlete **
Recreational Trainee ***
Though a number of these formulas also fall into the above category, there are a lot of questions regarding what makes a good pre-workout (beyond vasodilation formulas). Generally speaking, these will contain caffeine, a cocktail of other stimulants (such as 1, 4 DMAA, ephedra alkaloids, quercetin, etc.), and a whole bunch of useless herbs with rather snazzy sounding names and the label “proprietary blend”, which is supple-speak for “We can’t tell you how little of each ingredients this contains, because then you’d know how worthless it is”.
Are these any good? They’ll certainly improve focus, if you can handle the jittery feeling that many of these give, but they won’t appreciably improve performance directly. For endurance athletes, they can actually be quite detrimental- they can throw off the individual’s pacing, but since they do not provide any actual increase in energy substrates, may wind up causing early fatigue (due to the athlete coming too fast out of the chute). Bottom line- too many ingredients here to discuss individually (with a few exceptions in the next paragraph). Buyer beware- these things result in short term performance improvements, but should NOT be relied on on a regular basis. Getting to the point where you RELY on stimulants to perform at optimum level is a negative, as competition day schedules can be less than conducive to the timing of these often short-lasting compounds. An athlete is better served saving these for special circumstances, and practicing various focusing techniques to perform at their peak when needed.
Beta alanine and citrulline are two ingredients worth mentioning here, however- both of these compounds actually have some interesting data backing their usage. Beta alanine (5 grams a day) has been linked to improved repeated sprint performance and decreased muscular fatigue, as well as shows promise in minimizing muscle loss while dieting. In the case of citrulline, 6 grams a day seems to be the effective dosage in reducing fatigue sensation and increasing the contribution of oxidative pathways to ATP production (i.e. improved aerobic performance). Note that the studies conducted thus far have either been hindered by a relatively small sample size (for beta alanine), or limited to relatively untrained individuals (citrulline). For supplements containing these compounds, the star rating improves to a 3 for endurance athletes, and a 2 for anti-catabolic properties. Speaking from personal experience, this author had great success using a supplement containing Beta Alanine (along with creatine and HMB) when training for both strength and endurance events. Despite 20-25 hours of cardio per week, no lean muscle was lost and poundage did not decrease on any major lifts. (Full disclosure- this supplement, marketed as Results by At Large Nutrition, was provided for free as a trial during one season’s training. No monetary compensation was received, nor was continued supply contingent on any positive review. This experiment was also conducted in conjunction with a routine designed to increase both strength and endurance simultaneously).
Generally speaking, if an individual wishes to select a pre-workout, simply know that the most effective ingredients will be caffeine, guarana (simply more caffeine), ephedrine or its various alkaloids, and certain natural forms of aspirin or anti-inflammatory. There is no proven performance increase from ginseng, green tea, geranium extracts, capsicum, etc. For the two ingredients listed in the previous paragraph, make absolutely CERTAIN that at least the noted dosages above are included in each serving!
Part 3 of this series will examine several popular products on the market directly.
Common Nutritive Supplements:
Fat loss ****
Muscle building ****
Strength Athlete ****
Endurance Athlete ****
Hybrid Athlete/Team Athlete ****
Recreational Trainee ****
Not truly a supplement, in all reality. Protein powder is simply repackaged food, and should be treated as such in a diet. Is it worth the money? Honestly, given the variety of powders out there and the number of low priced online retailers, very often protein powders offer more protein per dollar than many whole food sources, and certainly win in convenience.
Does quality matter? Yes and no. To be sure, there are horrendous-tasting, chalky powders out there that seem to resist dissolving no matter what you subject them to, (and taste like ground up aspirin,) but in terms of the whey versus casein versus pea etc. debate, this all matters much less than many like to argue.
To clarify a few terms, you may hear things like “biological value” or “protein efficiency ratio” thrown around to justify to usage of one protein type over another. To quickly summarize what these mean, Biological Value (BV) measures how much absorbed protein actually gets incorporated into the body versus excreted, but does not measure absorption or digestability. Protein Efficiency Ratio (PER) measures weight gain of an individual relative to protein intake, but does not directly measure absorption, net incorporation, etc. Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) is an attempt to reconcile these various other measurements and come up with a single score that relates a particular protein (and its amino acid profile) against what is actually needed by the body (on average).
So what is the value of all these? Nearly zero, assuming you do not get all your protein from one source. For example, gelatin, considered a “garbage protein” according to most of these scores (PDCAAS of 0), is nevertheless extremely high in glycine, and contains significant amounts of lysine, so certainly does provide its own amino acids. If eaten in conjunction with foods high in tryptophan (which gelatin lacks), the overall amino acid profile ingested could be just fine to support growth in the body. So why so many types of protein? Good question. Short answer- because we like variety. Certain individuals may dislike the taste or consistency of soy or pea protein, or believe the lactose in whey protein supplements (of which there is effectively none, in reality) causes GI upset. Bottom line- they’re all quite interchangeable. Focus less on the protein type/PER/BV/PDCAAS, unless it’s your ONLY source of protein, and more on getting a sufficient amount in.
And don’t worry about speed of digestion- the only individuals who REALLY need to be concerned about getting in quickly-digested proteins are endurance athletes and contest-prepping bodybuilders (since these individuals tend to engage in intense activity while the GI system is compromised, in the case of the former, or on an empty stomach, in the case of the latter). These individuals may wish to consider supplementation with BCAAs, if they’re truly concerned about catabolism.
The overall score- quite high across the board. After all, no human being can survive without protein. The only reason that protein powder does not score 5’s across the board is that it replaces protein sources that may be higher in essential vitamins and minerals.
Branched Chain Amino Acids
Fat loss **
Muscle building **
Strength Athlete **
Endurance Athlete *****
Hybrid Athlete/Team Athlete ****
Recreational Trainee *
BCAAs are interesting as they are (as noted by the scoring) nearly “essential” for some athletes, but utterly useless for others… and typically the target market for these supplements are precisely those who do not need them!
The branched chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) are notable in that they are not only essential amino acids (cannot be synthesized by the body), but also together comprise over 1/3 of the amino acids in muscle tissue. Under periods of stress (high activity level, trauma, malnutrition), branched chain amino acids are consumed by the body at an elevated rate, which not only catabolizes muscle tissue (as this is the biggest reservoir of these molecules), but makes it harder for the body to recover as levels are depleted. (Numerous mechanisms for this, so to spare the dear readers this can be addressed later, by request).
On top of this, there is some evidence that high levels of BCAAs alone can trigger muscle growth (or prevent muscle catabolism) via certain pathways (again, can be addressed later), though there is little clinical data showing any significant increase in muscle mass in trained athletes through BCAA supplementation.
So, promising compounds, multiple beneficial sounding effects, why not? Well, BCAAs are also the most common amino acid found in most popular protein sources (Egg, whey, soy, etc.), which means a protein shake likely contains more BCAAs per serving than a handful of BCAA tablets or a scoop of BCAA powder. For strength athletes, bodybuilders, recreational trainees, and the like, who more often than not are NOT engaged in hugely catabolic exercise, and/or can refuel with high protein whole food shortly after or before exercise, BCAAs are nearly completely redundant, and quite frankly a waste of money. A glass of milk (12 ounces) contains 750mg of leucine, 300mg of isoleucine, and 300mg of valine. Add a scoop of whey protein, and the breakdown becomes roughly 4000/2000/2000, or more than you’d get in two servings of most BCAAs.
For endurance athletes, however, and many team sport athletes (who may be engaged in long training runs or rides, long practices, etc., and may not have an easy time taking in large amounts of high protein whole food before, during, and after activity), BCAAs can be tremendously useful. A few scoops of BCAA powder in a sports drink or in one’s camelback is NEVER a bad thing, and can help stave off catabolism and speed recovery. For these individuals, BCAAs are highly recommended- certainly a whey protein shake with milk is not something many cyclists could stomach halfway up a long climb, and not something a football player wants in his stomach if he gets tackled hard in the midsection. For these individuals, there’s no real reason NOT to supplement with BCAAs, provided they fit into the athlete’s budget.
Part 2 will follow shortly, and will contain information on Prohormones, HMB, various sports drinks, electrolyte supplements, and anything else that any readers may wish to know (send us a note through the Contact Us page, or leave a Facebook message below!)