In the beginning there was iron. And a treadmill or some other cardio torture, most likely. However you started your fitness journey, sooner or later you probably stumbled upon supplements, with grandeur promises of fitness, and many questions arise.
Am I missing out by not using them? Are they dangerous? If I should use any – which ones? And how do I use them?
It’s a complex field but in this article I’ll try and help you navigate it.
Supplements are just that – an addition to an already healthy diet. It shouldn’t replace anything but if used to boost your efforts, supplements can help you get a little extra out of your hard work.
In order to make it easier for you to choose between the many options there are, I’ve divided the supplements I would recommend into three tiers. The most important and biggest bang-for-the-buck first.
If you’re looking to boost your training, start with products from tier 1 and then proceed to 2 and 3 as your budget allows.
Tier 1 Supplements.
The two given supplements for anyone training hard are protein and creatine. I’d recommend them both to pretty much anyone. No matter if you’re a twentysomething rugby player or a retired grandmother – these will help your fitness efforts.
Protein can be found in most food, in various amounts. It’s the building block for lots of your body parts (muscles included!) and science is clear that an increased intake will help build more muscle (an effect with diminishing returns – see below for dosage).
However, protein is also used for energy. Thus, if you’re in caloric deficiency (cutting, dieting) you’ll want to increase you protein intake even further, so that after your body has used some protein for energy, there will be something left to maintain your muscle, create hormones, and generally repair your body.
My personal favorite protein supplement is Complete Vegan Blend™ (chocolate peanut!) but I also really like mixing unflavoured Pea and Rice protein in my smoothies.
Dosage: Aim for a total of 2 grams protein per kilo body weight, per day. A protein shake is normally about 30 grams.
Bonus: Your body breaks protein down into amino acids when you eat it. You can shortcut this process by ingesting amino acids directly, EAA (better) or BCAA (tastier).
Any time you move your body, it costs energy. This energy is drawn from a substance called ATP – it’s like battery fluid floating around in your muscles. Basically, when you’re out of ATP, you’re dead.
Luckily, your body constantly creates new ATP and it does so from three different sources: fat, glucose, and creatine phosphate. Fat takes the longest time to convert and creatine is the fastest.
With some extra creatine in your muscles, you’ll therefore be able to push a little harder and get a few extra reps. More creatine = more work = more gains.
As an extra benefit, creatine also makes you a tiny bit stronger.
There’s really no difference between the types of creatine supplements, so I recommend just going with the cheapest and best researched: creatine monohydrate.
Dosage: Mix 5 grams of creatine in a glass of water and drink. Take it every day, regardless of whether you train that day or not. There’s no need for a “loading phase”.
Here we find one health promoting (vitamin D) and one performance boosting (caffeine) supplement. They’re both quite cheap but still have some nice, significant effects.
The human body naturally creates vitamin D from cholesterol. Problem is, this process needs a sufficient amount of UV light from the sun. Unless you’re living near the equator, you most likely have nowhere near optimal levels of vitamin D.
Being deficient in vitamin D affects your testosterone levels but supplementing it can bring that back up to where you want it – to better muscle building levels.
Supplementing vitamin D has many other health benefits as well, such as boosting your immune system, promoting bone health, and even helping prevent cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis.
Dosage: Take 2,000IU of vitamin per day, together with food.
Caffeine can be found in coffee, tea, energy drinks, pre-workouts, and supplemental pills. No matter the source, it’s the same thing – a powerful stimulant.
You probably already know that drinking a cup of coffee will help you stay awake longer but did you know about its other beneficial effects?
Caffeine increases your anaerobic capacity and strength, pumps up your adrenaline, enhances your endurance, and helps you burn fat.
The effects are very tangible but as a habitual coffee drinker you’ll unfortunately only get the anti-sleep effects.
That’s why I personally cycle my coffee drinking and take a month off the java before competing, so that I can use caffeine just before the competition and get all of its effects.
Dosage: Take 5 mg per kg body weight, before your performance. That’s 250 g for a 50 kg woman and 400 g for a 80 kg male. One cup of coffee normally contains around 200 g of caffeine.
Finally, the luxury tier – two supplements that do have a small effect but cost a little more. Definitely check them out if your budget allows it but don’t sweat it if not!
This is an interesting supplement, because most people who take it do so wrongly and never get the real benefits.
One of the side effects of beta-alanine is a tingly sensation in your skin, like when your hands “wake up” after “falling asleep”. It’s an odd feeling but totally harmless.
Because of this, supplement companies put beta-alanine in their pre-workout drinks, so to make it feel like “it works” when you drink them. The only acute effects you’ll have from PWOs, however, are from their sugar and caffeine boost (see above).
Instead, beta-alanine, is something you take over a longer period of time, to build up a storage in your muscles.
When loaded up, beta-alanine will increase your anaerobic endurance, allowing you to press out another few reps. It also helps prevent fatigue, so that you can keep going longer.
This doesn’t make you stronger or more fit in itself but it lets you train harder, which in turn can make you stronger and fitter.
Dosage: Mix 4 grams in a glass of water and drink daily. Timing is not important. If the tingling sensation is uncomfortable, you can spread the intake out over the day.
In your body there are two separate processes, continuously working side by side against each other. One is muscle hypertrophy (growth) and the other is muscle atrophy (loss). Depending on which is greater at the moment, you’re either building or losing muscle over time.
Just after a hard workout, for example, you’ll have more atrophy than hypertrophy but this quickly changes as your body kicks into gear and starts building more muscle to adapt to the stress you just put it through.
HMB targets the atrophy process and tries to decrease it – anti-catabolism – thus putting you in an overall more positive muscle protein synthesis balance.
While the effect isn’t huge, HMB does seem to give you a small edge if you’re trying to build muscle.
Dosage: 2 grams per day, mixed in water.
Remember that supplements should never replace a good diet. Food contains so much more nutrition and has many more benefits than the singular, extracted components you’ll find in supplements.
Used correctly though, the right supplement can give you a little extra boost on top of your hard work.
About the Author
Tobias Sjösten is the founder of Athlegan.com, a blog about the rise of Veganism. Tobias shares his stories as he learns to create the strongest, fastest and healthiest version of himself possible.