Top 5 Supplements for Achieving Results
When I think about the current level of marketing BS that surrounds the supplement industry, I instantly think back to when I was 16 years old watching the second episode of South Park, where Cartman takes ‘Weight Gain 4000’ to try and impress Kathie Lee Gifford, who’s coming to town present him with an award. That classic line of ‘Beefcake. Beefcaaaaaaake’ is to me, symptomatic of the “Bro-science” you see in most gyms these days and the ease with which the false marketing claims of supplement industry can sucker you to buying what are essentially, worthless products.
Look around the shelves of your local health food shop, or scan various nutritional food websites and you’ll see a plethora of creatively titled supplements enticing your to part with your hard earned cash.
Whether it’s different varieties of protein, fat burners, BCAAs, creatine, weight gainers, or one of the many other types of supplement available, it can be incredibly confusing to know what to buy to support your training goals. After all, we don’t all have the time, or the inclination, to trawl through scientific studies and assess the bold claims that are often made.
The fact of the matter is that the supplement industry is largely unregulated, and as a result, the bold claims many supplement companies make are unsubstantiated. This adds another level of complexity to the equation, about knowing who, and who not to trust, when it comes to selecting products.
Thankfully, this appears like it might be starting to change. GNC, and a number of other supplement brands have had law suits filed against them in the last 18 months. GNC, one of the larger supplement companies in the industry, is being sued for knowingly selling products that were spiked with either unknown or illegal ingredients.
In January 2015, a class action complaint was filed against Muscle Pharm for deceptive label claims in relation to their Arnold Schwarzenegger weight gainer product. The company were accused of amino spiking the product, which essentially means that their claim of 40g of protein per serving was false. Adding Amino Acids, such as Taurine, Glycine, Glutamine, or Creatine into protein powders, increases the dietary protein values when tested. However, these amino acids are not nearly as effective as food based protein.
When tested, the REAL protein content of the Muscle Pharm weight gainer was a little over 19g, less than half the claim on the label. You can read a full article about it here.
In this article, I will look at 5 of the supplements I believe are truly worthwhile and will add value to your training and diet regime. It should be noted at this point that supplements should be exactly what the name suggests, supplementary to a balanced and calorie controlled diet. Supplements alone won’t bring you kilo after kilo of lean muscle, or strip away layers of fat.
You must first make sure that your training and diet is maximised to achieve your objectives. Without this, supplementation is worthless. Reaching your size and body fat goals has to be predicated on hard work and dedication. The answers are not in a bottle of pills with a fancy label.
Protein powder is the most commonly recognised supplement and is often the first on the shopping list. In recent years, protein powders have evolved significantly. You can now find endless variations, such as, whey concentrate, whey isolate, casein, pea, and soya.
Protein powders provide a convenient, easy to consume high protein source. Consuming the high amounts of protein needed to achieve muscle growth and fat loss can be difficult and expensive for the average person. I don’t know about you, but I never fancy tucking into a steak, 5 minutes after a workout. A good quality protein shake gives you that quick and easy hit of protein you need at various points in the day.
So which protein should you buy? For me, a good whey isolate is all you really need.
There are logical benefits of taking a casein protein in the evening or during the day for its slow release properties. A protein that mixes casein and whey to get a mix of fast and slow release proteins into your body also would have merit in some form of weight gainer or meal replacement product. However, those benefits are marginal and do not really outweigh the cost.
With the current debate around Amino Spiking, there are a few simple rules to follow to avoid falling into one of the many pitfalls:
- Avoid proteins that have added Amino Acids, such as Taurine, Glycine, Glutamine, and Creatine, unless there is a full disclosure of the Amino Acid profile on the label
- Proteins with Leucine (another Amino Acid) are ok, as Leucine has been proven to aid muscle growth and repair in scientific studies
- If the weight of one serving is significantly different to the protein content, this is a red flag and you should steer clear of this protein
- Avoid proteins that mention ‘Proprietary Blend’, ‘Glutamine Peptides’, etc. It’s a warning sign that you’re about to be fooled by something that simply sounds good
- Where possible, opt for a plain 100% Whey Isolate and control your own Creatine and BCAA intake with other products
Weightlifters, Bodybuilders, Scientists, and supplement companies have known it for decades. Creatine is an effective supplement to support muscle and strength gains. Creatine should be on any resistance athlete’s shopping list and, to me, is essential.
Myths about kidney damage and increases in body fat are unfounded and should be ignored. Creatine is an amino acid that is found in foods (mainly meat), but to obtain the clinically effective dose of 5g per day can make it costly and impractical to obtain through diet alone. Creatine powders are inexpensive and convenient to add to your post-workout shake.
Creatine increases the body’s ability produce energy, quickly. If we think about this in the weight training environment, the benefits are clear. Having the energy to grind out 2, 3, or 4 more reps on any given exercise or being able to handle more weight, increases strength and ultimately promotes muscle growth.
So how does creatine work? There are many studies on the internet that will go into the finer details of the process on a molecular level, but I’ll keep it simple. Creatine works by enabling your body to pull more water into more muscle cells, which increases protein synthesis. This does result in increased water retention and weight, but this should be seen as a good thing as your muscles will be fuller and stronger for your training sessions. It should be noted that taking creatine without doing any form of training will have no benefit other than to make you gain weight. You need to hit the gym and make use of the energy gains.
Over the last few years, Creatine supplementation has gone past the simple powders that required a loading phase for a number of days. These days, creatine loading is a thing of the past, but this evolution has brought with it more products and variety than ever before, which has created a bit of a creatine minefield.
Creatine products now range from a simple Creatine Monohydrate to liquids and Creatine Ethyl Ester (otherwise known as CEE). CEE is cited by supplement companies as being more effective at getting creatine into your bloodstream and muscle cells by not allowing it to be broken down in the gut. Studies have actually shown that CEE and liquid forms of creatine are unstable and breakdown in the bloodstream. So, while the marketing blurb appears to be enticing, it’s best to avoid them, save your money, and stick to the simple monohydrate powder.
Pre-workouts are a supplement that have much debate surrounding them. Are they worth it? Do you need them? Can you just have a shed load of caffeine and get the same effect?
The sad truth is that like many other supplements on the market, companies churn out crap products, laden with cheap stimulants, and scrimp on the key ingredients that have some real benefit. This leaves the supplement companies with a cheap to produce product with a high profit margin. Unfortunately, as consumers, all we’re left with is a product that’s fairly worthless, with an effectiveness that could be surpassed with a few cheap caffeine pills.
Here are a few things to watch out for when trying to spot a poor quality pre-workout drink:
- Long lists of ingredients designed to make the ingredient label look impressive
- High volumes of caffeine and cheap carb powders like maltodextrin. This give you a ‘wired’ feeling before you train, making you think the product is effective, but it’s actually an expensive way to go about it
- Labels that say ‘proprietary blend’. This is basically a way of hiding the full ingredient list and the amounts of each ingredient the product contains
Listed below are the key ingredients that are proven to be effective in pre-workout drinks. I’ve also included their clinically effective doses. Look out for these on the ingredients list of any product you are thinking of buying. If they’re not listed, move on and look elsewhere.
- Betaine (2-3g): Found in foods such as beetroot, Beatine has been found to increase muscle endurance and strength. In my cycling days, I drank beetroot juice before races to improve endurance. Many professional sportsmen and women have supported the benefit claims through scientific testing
- Beta Alanine (4-5g): This is a naturally occurring amino acid that reduces fatigue caused by exercise and provides additional strength and power in short burst forms of exercise, such as weight training.
- Citrulline Malate (8g): Improves muscle endurance and recovery. Supporting the reduction in muscle soreness, post exercise
- Theanine (350mg): Improves alertness and focus and
Caffeine is also an effective ingredient for alertness, fat loss, muscle endurance, and strength. I would recommend looking for a product without caffeine in it, however. This is so that the amount of caffeine taken throughout the day can be effectively regulated (no more than 6mg per kg of bodyweight). Caffeine pills offer you the option of flexing the level of caffeine you take prior to a workout. If I’m training later in the evening, I prefer to minimise caffeine intake, so having it separate to my pre-workout provides this flexibility. It’s by no means an essential point, but worth considering.
Walk into any gym around the world and you’re guaranteed to find lifters guzzling down litre after litre of luminous coloured liquids as they rest between sets. It’s highly likely that those drinks are a cocktail of BCAAs. Ask any one of them why they take them, and they’ll extoll a number of benefits like:
- Improved immune function
- Reduced fatigue
- Decreased muscle breakdown while training
- Increased post-exercise muscle growth
BCAA’s are three essential amino acids, Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. These cannot be produced by the body on its own. They need to be assimilated from your daily food intake.
Various studies into BCAA supplementation are cited by many companies as evidence for their claims of advanced muscle growth and repair. However, when looking into the detail of the more high profile studies often referred to, their applicability to bodybuilders and resistance training athletes is questionable to say the least. Trials were conducted on 150 lbs athletes that were eating less than 80g of protein per day, around half of the recommended protein intake for someone trying to increase muscle and reduce muscle breakdown. These athletes undoubtedly saw increases in muscle growth and a reduction in muscle breakdown, but these benefits would have been significantly more pronounced on a high protein diet alone, without the need for BCAA supplementation.
Therefore, having the right diet and macro breakdown is a far more effective and enjoyable way of getting your Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine intake. Foods such as meat, eggs, and other dairy products are a good source of these amino acids. Maintaining a high protein diet (0.8g - 1.2g of protein per pound of body weight) minimises the need of extensive BCAA supplementation for resistance trained athletes.
BCAA products really come into their own, when training in a fasted state. A ‘fasted state’ is most commonly assumed to be first thing in the morning before breakfast. This is true, but a fasted state can also occur at other points during the day when your insulin levels are low. Supplementation with BCAAs should therefore be considered at these times to prevent muscle breakdown when training.
Leucine is the most effective of the ingredients in most BCAA products. Isoleucine and Valine aren’t anything to get excited about and pretty much have no effect. Supplements typically have a ratio of 2 to 3 parts Leucine to Isoleucine and Valine. This means you’re often paying for 3 ingredients, when only one of them is worthwhile taking.
Add to that the fact a clinically effective dose of Leucine is around 2g-5g, and you can find that you will get through quite a lot of BCAA pills and powders when training 5-7 days per week, using the clinically effective doses.
I would recommend purchasing Leucine powder on its own and adding it to a protein drink, or do your research and find a BCAA product that is both clinically and cost effective.
HMB, or to use it’s full name ß-Hydroxy ß-Methylbutyrate, is a supplement I personally use in place of BCAAs. Studies have previously shown that use of HMB in resistance trained athletes has an anti-catabolic effect, reducing muscle damage when taken prior to exercise. As mentioned above, this is particularly beneficial when training in a fasted state.
HMB isn’t the most well-known supplement on the market and is probably overlooked because it doesn’t have the over-hyped marketing of a BCAA product and is far more cost effective. The average serving of HMB is approximately 4p-5p. Compare this to the average price of a serving of a BCAA product (when using clinically effective doses) of around 75p - £1 and you can see why certain companies are keen to put their promotional efforts behind their BCAA supplements.
The bottom line is that HMB is a low cost, effective anti-catabolic supplement for those training in a fasted state and is one that is always on my supplement list.
Essential supplements to support your training goals:
- Whey Isolate Protein
- Creatine Monohydrate
- Pre-workout containing Beta Alanine, Citrulline Malate, Betaine, Theanine
- HMB if training in a fasted state
- Leucine or BCAA (if it contains clinically effective doses)