If ever there were a modern snake oil industry, workout supplements would be it.
If you take your workout and nutrition advice from “prestigious” websites like bodybuilding.com, you’d be forgiven for thinking that in order to get a stellar physique, you need to rely on the countless bottles of pills (that are conveniently for sale on their website).
Here’s the reality – a strong, lean, athletic body is made in the kitchen and the gym.
Not from pills and powders with ingredients you can’t even pronounce.
With that said, there are supplements out there that can help you achieve your goals…but the key word is help. At the end of the day, if you want a body you can be proud of, you need to do the work.
So, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get into the details. The following is my definitive guide to supplements. By the end of this article, you’ll be able to separate fact from bullshit, and you’ll have an understanding of what works, what might work, and what is LITERALLY not worth the packaging it’s sold in.
Let’s start this list off with the bad. There are some supplements being sold right now that are so terrible that there’s absolutely no debate to be had – they’re worthless, and you shouldn’t spend your money on them.
These are some of the most popular (and profitable) items on the fitness market today. And for good reason. Nothing moves product quite like preying on a man’s sense of masculinity – and nothing screams masculinity more than your testosterone levels.
Unfortunately for testosterone boosters, these are also probably the biggest scam on the market today.
Here’s the deal with testosterone. Yes, testosterone is important. REALLY important. Not only is it the hormone responsible for giving you most of your masculine features, but it’s also critical for building lean muscle mass.
We’ll talk about the possibility of raising testosterone more once we get to our article on diet, but for now, here’s what you need to know – if you’re a relatively young guy (35 and under), there are steps you can take to raise your levels within the normal range (important distinction).
However, once you start to hit your 40’s, it gets tougher and tougher. And unfortunately, there’s not a single pill at GNC that’s been shown to raise testosterone levels. Diet and exercise will be the keys to maintaining your levels.
Sorry, but it has also been shown that regular drinking of only a couple of drinks several times per week can lower your testosterone by over 15%. So reduce your drinking and you will start to see some big changes fast.
Growth Hormone Boosters
These are almost as bad as testosterone boosters. Growth hormone (or GH) is a peptide hormone that drives cell reproduction and stimulates growth. Secreted by the pituitary gland, it’s one of the key components in building new muscle and regulating bone density.
Real synthesized GH is illegal without a prescription, so you will not be getting that at the local GNC or Walmart. As for evidence that you can raise your growth hormone levels from a supplement…well, there is none.
And yes, that includes the infamous “elk antler spray” that was popular for a while.
There are “fat burners” which have been shown to have some effect on your ability to lose weight (which we’ll talk about in the next section).
But when I say diet pills, I’m talking about the variety that typically show up as some type of magic “herbal formula”.
A great example of this is the “garcenia cambogia” supplement that was popularized a few years ago (by a popular TV doctor who shall remain nameless). As it turns out, garcenia cambogia, a tropical fruit from Southeast Asia, didn’t hold up to scrutiny on a single test of its efficacy for weight loss.
In layman’s terms…it’s garbage, along with many of the other over-hyped magic in a bottle you will see out there.
“Gray Area” Supplements
Now that we’ve got a few of the more ridiculous supplements out of the way, let’s take a second to talk about some supplements that MIGHT help you.
These have been shown to be somewhat effective, but either a.) aren’t nearly as powerful as they claim, or b.) should only really be used in specific situations.
Despite the scaminess of a pill promising weight loss, some of the fat burners on the market today can actually help you lose weight. Most of the ones that work essentially use caffeine and other stimulants to increase thermogenesis and help your body burn slightly more calories at rest.
There are two big issues with fat burners. The first issue is the fact that their fat burning potential is greatly exaggerated. We’re talking a couple hundred calories per week, tops (and most of these effects can be had with good old caffeine).
The second issue is the health concern. As you may have guessed, bombarding your body with a heavy cocktail of stimulants every day isn’t exactly the best way to go about things.
Beta-alanine is a nonessential amino acid that is produced naturally by the body. When taken in supplement form, it combines with histidine to produce carnosine, a dipeptide that helps counteract lactic acid in the muscles.
The reason that beta-alanine is on the “gray area” list isn’t that it doesn’t work – it does. In fact, it works really well, and there’s been a lot of research showing that it’s effective.
The issue is who it works for. Most of the research on beta-alanine shows that it’s effective for reducing fatigue in the 60-240 second mark of continuous exercise.
Which is great..if you’re an MMA fighter. Or a CrossFitter. But if you’re reading this as a guy who just wants to get in shape, lean up and build some muscle, beta-alanine may turn out to just be a waste of money.
Even a high volume routine (like circuit training) with very high reps most likely won’t last more than 60 seconds per set. The “per set” part is the crucial distinction since the same fatigue-reducing benefits don’t seem to apply when you’re constantly stopping and starting your activity (like you do during weight training).
Having said that, if you do participate in some kind of athletic endeavour outside the gym, beta-alanine may be worth considering for your particular sport. I am a fan of the JYM products and also of getting as many of my supplements in one product if possible. It just saves time and reduces the number of fillers I am ingesting. My go-to pre-workout supplement is the JYM Pre-Workout because it also has the Creatine and BCAAs that I take.
Supplements That Are Worth The Money
Now let’s get to the good stuff. The following is a list of supplements that actually work. They’re effective, safe (if taken responsibly and in moderation), and affordable.
There’s no question about it – eating a good, high protein diet is one of the best things you can do for yourself.
Fortunately for you, if you don’t particularly like eating tons of protein, a good supplement can help.
And no, there’s nothing magical about it – drinking a shake is really no different than eating a chicken breast in terms of the amount of protein you get. But at the end of the day, these powders are affordable, convenient, and actually taste pretty decent.
In terms of what kind of protein to go with, I’ll make it simple for you, you should choose either casein or whey. Casein tends to be a bit thicker (and more filling) while whey is a bit lighter. I specifically like to get some of my vegetable superfoods in with my protien as well. It helps me ensure I am getting enough fiber and micronutrients at the same time I am getting my desired protein. I like the INVIGOR8 – Superfood Shake / Meal Replacement.
Choose any flavor your heart desires.
Creatine is one of the most studied supplements in all of sports science. It’s an amino acid that is produced by the body and is naturally occurring in protein-rich foods such as beef and chicken.
Creatine’s main job is to convert adenosine diphosphate (ATD) into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is responsible for powering your muscle contractions.
Research conducted over the last few decades has indicated that supplementing with creatine can help by increasing muscular endurance and workload in the gym.
Oh yeah, and it’s dirt cheap. I personally choose the JYM Pre-Workout because it also has the Beta-Alanine and BCAAs I want to take. But if you are a purist, I like this particular
One of the reasons protein is so important is because of a little something called amino acids. These are the building blocks of muscle and are released into the body when protein is broken down.
There are two different types of amino acids – non-essential (they can be produced by the body) and essential (they must be taken in through food).
There are nine essential amino acids. Of these nine, there are three in particular – leucine, isoleucine, and valine – that makeup what are called the “branched-chain amino acids” (or “BCAA’s).
Taking BCAA’s in supplement form has been shown to have a number of benefits, including reduced fatigue during workouts, improved protein synthesis (the process that leads to muscle growth) and better muscle retention while dieting.
Once again, I recommend you go with the JYM Pre-Workout if you are going to go down this road.
The last supplement you may want to consider is MCT oil (or “medium-chain triglyceride” oil). Medium-chain triglycerides are a type of fatty acid that are typically found abundantly in coconut oil (and are one of the things that give coconut oil its health benefits).
And as it turns out, MCT’s actually live up to a lot of the hype. The potential health benefits include improved cognition, digestion and satiation (i.e. they make you feel full).
While not mandatory, they are definitely worth considering. I personally like the Zen Wise Natural Coconut MCT Oil. And if you are into the whole Keto thing, Zenwise also offers a drink mix that has the BHB and MCT oils both and you can find that here.
Remember, supplements can definitely be a big help – but they’re a small part of the equation.
At the end of the day, 90% of your results are going to come down to training and diet. Hit the gym, smash the weights, and pay attention to what you put in your mouth…then start filling your shopping cart with powders and pills.