Supplements 101

photo credit: Noodles and Beef via photopin cc
photo credit: Noodles and Beef via photopin cc

News? Hardly.
In the fitness industry, every man and his dog has their view on the worth or worthlessness of supplements and will gladly opine on such if given even a glimmer of opportunity.

Well, here’s mine. All gathered together in one neat and tidy place. And it shall henceforth serve as my standard response to every text, Facebook message and email on the matter.
At least, until new evidence shows me something different and gives cause to change my mind. You know, just to confuse you.

The thing is, any input of mine is really superfluous ever since the outstanding work done by the guys over at Examine.com has come to light.
These guys have pored over the research and assembled the most extensive, unbiased collection of data on nutritional and performance supplements in, like, ever.

So next time you see a purported expert singing the praises of another supplement and explaining how it’ll melt body fat, build rock hard muscle, increase your T levels 586% and patch up that hole in the ozone layer to boot, I strongly suggest you investigate into the legitimacy of said claims by heading over to Examine.com and giving it a once over.

Secondly, nothing I recommend will be from multi-level marketing (MLM) companies.
My disdain for such schemes is palpable. I don’t have any vested interests in my supplement recommendations. Mind you, if I one day happen across an outstanding supplement company who offer an affiliate program, by all means I’ll get involved. I’d love to have a company that I can instantly point anybody to and do so knowing that I haven’t sold my soul. Because if I do, you can be assured that it’ll be because I believe the products to be excellent quality, sell for a respectable price, and I’ll be using the supplements myself.

Among my many beefs with MLMs is their exorbitantly marked up prices due to the many middle men, the almost always inferior product quality due to opting for cheap alternatives such as soy proteins (and remember we don’t want any soy products) and their incessant, pestering marketing tactics that permeate my world in the fitness industry, especially online.

MLM peddler: “Hey person I’ve never met or spoken to before, just wondering what your thoughts are on Herbalife/JuicePlus/Isogenix/insert other MLM scam here?”

Me: Clicks on MLM peddler’s profile. Is greeted by photo of peddler hugging – yes, physically hugging – tubs of their chosen brand of scammy product. Deletes MLM peddler from my life.

MLM scam

Note: Obviously not everyone involved in MLMs are bad people, nor do they all use these sales tactics. I’m actually friends with several people involved who simply found benefit from the product and want to be able to provide it to others. And if they can make a little sumthin’ sumthin’ on the side while doing so, then more power to them (I’ve even been known to get sucked into a MLM plot or two, once upon a time. For about 30 seconds).
But unfortunately for these good examples, there are many who fit the mould I’ve described who have irreparably damaged the image of MLM products for me, and for many, many others.

Soooo, with that all cleared up…

No-brainers. Everyone, just take some of this:

  • Fish oil 

With a gazillion studies, give or take, showing or suggesting positive effects on everything from lowering blood triglyceride levels, decreasing inflammation and muscle soreness, improving skin and hair health, showing improvements in sufferers of depression….just take your damn fish oil!

Research can't confirm this is true, but it's probably true.
Research can’t confirm this is true, but it’s probably true.

As with anything, don’t skimp. The cheap stuff from the supermarket or stored out the front of the chemist in direct sunlight, contains the standard 180mg EPA and 120mg DHA content per 1000mg capsule and just won’t cut it.

In a high quality product, such as Nordic Naturals EPA that I am currently using, you’ll get an EPA content of 425mg and DHA of 100mg per 1000mg (525mg or 52.5% active content, or “purity”, as opposed to 30% in the cheap example). You’ll also get a more protective capsule that is less prone to oxidation, though still keep them in the fridge. Liquid fish oil works fine too.

How much? At least take a couple a day, and up it if you’re in heavy training or under higher than usual amounts of stress. As much as 1 capsule or 1ml per % of body fat has also been recommended. So, play around with it and figure out what works for you.

As I said, I use Nordic Naturals, and have used Metagenics EPA too. Both are solid.

  • Vitamin D

So, basically, we’re pretty much all deficient in D. Probably because most of us are desk jockeys who never see sunlight.
Or if you’re like me, stuck inside a gym all day (not that I’m complaining in the slightest).
Or because we’ve been fear mongered into lathering chemically-laden sunscreens all over us at any hint of sunlight. Especially for any fellow albinos.
Or because we’ve evolved from our cave-dwelling ancestors and legged it quite the hike away from the equator (I’ve heard that if you live further above or below around 30 degrees latitude north or south respectively, that it’ll pretty much be impossible to get enough D year round from sunlight alone. Or something like that. I’m not going to look it up again. You look it up.)

Whatever the reason, the fact is you probably need to supplement. Go get your levels tested, and that will probably just confirm that you’re deficient. Though it will show you just how deficient you are and you can calibrate your dosage accordingly.
2000IUD tends to be the standard recommended dosage, but this level has escalated rapidly over the last few years in light of new research. Anything up to 5000IUD seems to be popular and safe, and while there’s been many anecdotal reports of positive effects from super-dosing – as in 60,000IUD/day – short term (and no, it wasn’t from Poliquin…) I’ll leave such lofty advice for the pros.

One important note, get your D in liquid form, not capsules. D is a fat soluble vitamin, so the nutty concoction contained in the liquid form provides the necessary fats to ensure your D is readily absorbed.

I use Bioceuticals. It seems to be good. A tiny bottle will set you back about $25 and will last you ages, like six months ages.

D is the supplement of the decade and all the cool kids are on it. Plus, D deficiency is implicated in many cancer cases. CANCER! That shit’s serious people.

But really, take some of this, too:

  • Creatine

The most heavily researched sports supplement ever is absolutely safe!
Let’s put that one to bed first, as some people still believe that supplementing with creatine will make your kidneys explode. But, these are probably the same people that think that soy is a health food (it’s really not) that saturated fat will make your heart explode (it really won’t) and that carbs are the devil and shouldn’t be eaten before bed (Stop it. Just stop.)

Creatine may help you improve strength and eek out an extra rep or two and build some extra muscle. Now, we’re still talking about maybe a one or two percenter here guys. Supplementing with a bit of creatine isn’t going to suddenly make you Hulk out like the ads inside muscle magazines would have you believe. But gaining quality muscle is no easy task, so if something that is so affordable, so safe, and so clearly backed by research actually works, I say get all over it.

Creatine: We wish.
Creatine: We wish.

But there’s more.

Not only will creatine help on the performance and appearance side of the equation, but research indicates a host of neurological health benefits too. That is, it’s good for the brain.
Creatine has been shown to improve alertness and cognitive function, decrease depression, and it is suggested that creatine may also play a role in improving Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, though more research is needed.

Get creatine monohydrate. Nothing else. The micronized version might be better if you suffer any digestive distress.
Take 5g each day – you can just add it to your post-workout shake – and you’re all good.

  • Whey protein

No, you don’t need protein powder.
No, your brand of protein powder won’t make or break your gains.
But everything is easier with a protein powder.
Whether a middle-aged fat loss client or a young athlete training to add size, I encourage all my clients to get a quality whey protein isolate (WPI) to bring with them to their training sessions and slam it down mixed with water immediately after. That way I’m comfortable knowing that a big portion of their post-workout (PWO) nutrition is taken care of.
While it’s not absolutely vital to get the requisite protein into our system immediately after training as per the long-touted “anabolic window” theory (we can relax, as we’ve probably got much more time than we once thought to get our next protein meal in) I prefer just to tick that box right away and feel comfortable knowing that piece of the nutrition puzzle has at least been taken care of.

A WPI supplement can also be particularly useful for females who are typically more prone than men to falling short on their protein requirements, which I usually recommend be set at around 2g per kilogram of bodyweight per day.
So if for some absurd reason you don’t want to get in multiple servings of delicious dead animal flesh each day, a WPI supp becomes that much more advantageous.

Look for a high purity product, i.e. above 85%.That is, per 100g of your chosen product, at least 85g of that should actually be protein. In the perfect world, you’d get a grass-fed whey, too.

I currently get my protein here.

  • Magnesium 

A key electrolyte, magnesium is a bit of a tricky one and, being truthful, I probably don’t know enough about it to really make many recommendations here.
The thing with magnesium is that it tends to make a lot of other stuff in the body work better, and yet a lot of people are deficient in it. This deficiency can largely be attributed to a diet a lacking in vegetables and fruits, although a prevailing theory is that most soil today is so heavily depleted in vital nutrients that even those eating what should, in theory, be ample veggies and fruit, are still coming up short in magnesium and other key minerals.
So, supplementation seems to be a good idea. My advice to clients on magnesium is to get levels tested and then to see my preferred naturopath to deal with the finer details.

 For especially hard training athletes, maybe add in some of this:

  • Waxy-Maize Starch or Dextrose

It’s just a carbohydrate source. That’s all. A cheap, easy to slam down carb source. There’s nothing special happening here.
Personally, I tend to prefer consuming the bulk of my carbohydrate through real food, because carbs tend to come in all the most delicious foods.
Pizza cheat meal? Yes indeed.

However, for some hard training young athletes who really need to pack in the carbs and calories to both support their training and to put on size, getting in the requisite quantity through actual food can be uncomfortable for some who just aren’t accustomed to eating huge meals frequently.

If your carb loading efforts end like this, then a waxy-maize starch or dextrose supplement may be for you.
If your carb loading efforts end like this, then a waxy-maize starch or dextrose supplement may be for you.

So while some chicken and white rice might be the preferred meal for an athlete to get in their protein requirements and top up their muscle glycogen stores for the next training session, the fact is sometimes they simply can’t stomach it (especially if performing multiple training sessions in one day).
Thus, a shake consisting of a big scoop of WPI and a couple of scoops of waxy-maize starch mixed with water might be more beneficial. Even if it tastes like chalk.

And just for shits and giggles, take some of this:

  • ZMA

Short for “Zinc, magnesium and aspartate” ZMA is most commonly placed in the recovery category of supplements, and more specifically is often used as a sleep aid. This is what I’ve used it for. And, though the research supporting this is weak, my experience, combined with many other anecdotal reports all point to the fact that ZMA can induce a freak show of dreams!
Pop a couple of caps before bed and, while the zinc and magnesium content are sure to do some good stuff for your body too, I’m really in it for what the synergistic effect of the whole supplement will do for my mind: deep, intense, life-like and bizarre dreams run at about a 50% hit rate for me.
Good times.

  • Beta-Alanine

A modified amino acid that is shown to improve muscular endurance, which in turn could have positive implications for performance, fat loss and mass gain, albeit on a fairly minor level.
The really cool thing about beta-alanine however, is the oft-occurring paraesthesia – a tingling – that follows shortly after ingestion, or what I like to call the “beta-alanine buzz”.
Basically, it’s what I imagine it’s like to be a crack addict on a comedown.
Experiment as you wish.

  • Pre-workout

This is a catchall term for a number of supplements on the market that are designed to get you hyped up before a training session.
I’m quite sure that none of them are good for you. Many of them don’t even work. Some of them make you feel worse.
I distinctly recall several years ago, in moment of weakness, I purchased a tub of BSN’s famed NO Xplode product.

What a steaming pile of crap that was!

This is a product that was supposed to get me all jacked up and pumped to throw some iron around. The result?
I felt like my heart was going to beat out of my chest, that I was going to throw up, and that I was going to shit my pants. All at once.
Awesome.

I tried it two or three more times, all with the same result. I ended up giving away the nearly  full tub that had cost me about $90.

Moral of the story: Don’t buy NO (nitric oxide) products.
I’ve since learned that this is a fairly common experience, and that they do virtually nothing for you anyway.
So that’s one pre-workout to avoid.

On the other hand, there are some pre-workouts which, while still probably terrible for your health, will actually do what they’re supposed to do.

First there was the infamous products that contained DMAA, such as Jack3d.
DMAA is now banned. That happened mostly because it was found in the system of a marathoner who sadly died in a race right before the finish line. And probably also because it was discovered that a few rambunctious teenagers were selling it to use like a drug at clubs and raves.
Either way, for better or for worse, DMAA is gone.

Now, there are still plenty of pre-workout supplement “stacks” on the market and some of them will actually give you a bit of kick. Most are some sort of combination of caffeine, beta-alanine, creatine, citrulline malate, and a constantly changing experiment of various other “extracts”.

The issue? These things probably aren’t doing your adrenals any favours.
With “adrenal fatigue” being the latest buzz phrase in natural health circles, and “sympathetic dominance” the equivalent term in fitness circles, the common theme is that we’re all probably a little over-stressed. We could all benefit from just chilling out a bit and taking a few deep breaths from time to time.

So supplementing with a fairly potent stimulant in order to perform a stressful activity in an even more stressful manner, probably isn’t the smartest idea from a health standpoint.
Also, look at why someone would want to take a pre-workout to begin with: Because they’re tired? Because they’re feeling burnt-out, lethargic, unmotivated? These factors are all the more reason to probably just lay off that training session, and to not go and get all hopped up on stimulants in order to plough on through.
Plus, there tends to be an adaptive tolerance. The more and more often you take it, the more you need to get the same effect.
Starting to see the problem here?

So, I personally don’t recommend pre-workout supplements to anyone from a health or really even a training benefit standpoint.

BUT, I’m also a big proponent of doing whatever the hell you feel like with your own body, as I don’t believe we were designed to live our lives wrapped in cotton wool.
So if you really want to try some out to give you a bit of kick through your next heavy session, then I’m not going to stop you.
However, just to reiterate, I do highly recommend avoiding any NO products.
I have used the pre-workout mix from Bulk Nutrients and it definitely had some effect. I’ve also used a product from Ultimate Nutrition called Horse Power. Despite the corny, stereotypical name, it had me buzzing around the weight room like a hummingbird on meth.

5 minutes after taking a pre-workout...
5 minutes after taking a pre-workout…

So on pre-workout supplements, I really don’t have much more than my n=1 and a handful of anecdotes, because frankly I’ve never recommended them to clients, and most likely never will.
And despite my occasional dabble with them, I still think these supplements are all pretty stupid. It’s just that I am prone to regular bouts of stupidity.

If something goes wrong, don’t come crying back to me

Take any of my advice on all of the above with a grain of salt and at your own risk, better judgement, and application of common sense. Better yet, seek out an appropriate medical professional first.

We all know that any nutrition or performance supplementation is a distant second in importance behind sound diet, intelligent training and proper recovery protocols.
Yet there’s still hundreds of different supplements on the market, and hundreds of different brands of each all jostling for a slice of the multi-billion dollar supplement industry pie.
I’ve listed just nine (of which only five or six were actually serious) and suggested a couple of brands for each. Hopefully that helps you hack your way through the extraneous to find the worthwhile pin in a mostly worthless haystack.

Thoughts, questions, anything I missed? Feel free to drop a comment below.
And of course, liking and sharing this article will naturally help you jump the queue in your wait for karmic justice to start paying out. 

3 thoughts on “Supplements 101”

  1. Informative and well rounded post. I’m gonna chime in on the pre-workout section:

    A ‘natural’ alternative and great mental placebo, is beet juice.

    Other than looking like you just drank the blood of your enemy, the beets carry great vaso-dilating properties, meaning they widen your blood vessels, carrying more oxygen and nutrients to your muscles.

    You’ll definitely notice a bigger ‘pump’, if you’re into that kind of stuff.

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