Most people take some form of supplementation whether it’s a multivitamin, protein powder or probiotic. The supplement industry itself is huge, in fact it produces over $30 billion in revenue annually. It’s safe to say that we not only dabble with this but that most of us rely on this as part of the everyday nutritional regiment. There are always tons of new products and new companies emerging and offering something that’s either never been available before or something that’s an improved version of it. This can make it very challenging to figure out what you should be taking, especially if you are very active and in my case, prepping for an upcoming contest. Let’s take a look at the essentials, the stuff that you may not necessarily need and the stuff that are basically a waste of money.
Protein powder is one of the most common and most widely used. There are so many different types out there from whey and casein (milk derived), soy, green pea, brown rice, hemp, plant based blends, and beef (yes, protein powder derived from actual beef) just to name a few. Protein powder is great to help you build/maintain muscle and is a great option for a snack when you have a super busy day and may not have time to sit and chow down. Most fitness and nutrition plans recommend having some form of protein powder included each day, typically as part of a pre and/or post workout meal. For these meals opt for a faster digesting powder such as whey (if you choose to consume dairy) or either a plant based blend, brown rice or green pea. Casein and hemp are more slow digesting so save these for night time optional snack before bed. With any protein powder be sure to always check the ingredients for any kind of added fillers or sugar and read the label as well to be sure the carb and fat content isn’t more than a few grams per scoop. There are a lot of fancy brand named and expensive products out there, so I would suggest that you go with what’s affordable and what tastes good to you; keep in mind that just because it carries a hefty price tag doesn’t make it any better for you than a generic or store brand. If you are going with a plant based protein, I strongly suggest that you choose one that contains at least 25 grams of protein per scoop, that is either a blend (making it a complete protein) or green pea (which is high in BCAAs – I’ll get to why this is important in a moment) and that is soy free. The reason why I suggest soy free is mostly for those who consume soy regularly (as I do) so that you’re not getting too much protein from the same source. The blend I always use is the LeanFit plant based powder from Costco and the green pea protein from Now Sports; they are both very reasonably priced compared to other brands and blend really well without any grainy or weird aftertaste. Based on my current regiment for my contest prep, I’ll have about two to three scoops of powder on workout days. I could easily substitute these with tofu, tempeh, seitan or beans, but because the volume of food that I have to consume each day is so high, this just makes it far more convenient while still being nutritionally beneficial.
The next supplement we’ll look at is vitamins. For the longest time I was anti-vitamin; my logic being that I already consume tons of veggies so I don’t need to add more vitamins that my body probably won’t absorb anyway. Keep in mind that for the most part your body will only absorb as much of a vitamin as it needs and it will discard the rest with the exception of vitamin D which can be stored in your liver, so don’t take more than what your doctor recommends. I thought I was so smart in not spending money on vitamins, unfortunately what I didn’t think of was the fact that the more active you are the more your body will be depleted of certain nutrients including vitamins and minerals. So last year during my 12 week fitness challenge it took me a while to realize that the reason I was so exhausted all the time was probably because I wasn’t supplementing right. I started taking a mutli for active women and I also decided to add magnesium citrate since I had some symptoms of a deficiency (trouble sleeping, brittle nails, etc.). Once I did, I started feeling better and I noticed some good changes.
Next up are the other types of powdered supplements. BCAAs (branched chain amino acids) consist of leucine which aids in muscle protein synthesis, isoleucine which can cause a glucose uptake into the body’s cells and valine. This supplement is great for anyone who is working towards fat loss or is on a cutting diet as these regiments tend to cause muscle loss along with fat loss. As a person becomes lean while continuing to workout hard and keep a strict diet, this can cause decreased overall energy and depleted glycogen stores, so BCAAs can help to alleviate some of that by helping the body hold on to that hard earned muscle while still being able to drop fat as well. Another amazing attribute to this supplement is that it can reduce the amount of tryptophan (which makes you feel sleepy) that enters the brain during your workout making it feel a little less intense and a little more doable. BCAAs can be overpriced so do your research, and just be aware that this has a pretty weird and almost bitter taste to it. I go with the unflavored powder from Allmax Nutrition and my coach suggests 1 5g scoop in the morning, 1 5g scoop during workouts and 1 5 g scoop after weightlifting. Again, this is to stop the breakdown of muscle so if you are working out hard and working out with weights (which I hope you are!) consider adding this to your go-to supplement list. Another powder supplement that I’ve started using is glutamine. Glutamine is an amino acid that aids in the post-workout recovery process by contributing to protein synthesis and it is also used by the white blood cells which can help give a small boost to the immune system. I only started using this during the last few weeks as my coach suggested that I take a 5g scoop in the morning only if I feel sore or if my body feels tired. For the first 6 week phase of my prep, I had no problem with excess soreness so I didn’t need it, but since I started phase 2 three weeks ago, I’ve felt sore and tired almost each day so I started adding a scoop in the morning (5g of powder from Allmax Nutrition). It definitely has been helping and I do feel the difference, but if you are not in contest prep or cutting or lifting heavy for the majority of your workouts, then you can probably skip this one.
Creatine has been gaining notable popularity since it became available for purchase in the 1990s. Creatine is a combination of the three amino acids arginine, glycine and methionine. This supplement enables the body to workout harder and longer, by increasing its ATP (Adenine Tri-Phosphate) stores, by being the body’s first choice of energy used up when performing anaerobic exercises and by hydrating the body’s cells which leads to greater protein synthesis. Creatine is the one supplement that can have a genuine and direct impact on muscle growth, so it is definitely recommended for physique athletes especially those looking to compete. There have been some concerns about long term side effects, however studies have shown that there are none. In the short term, it can cause some minor bloating so it is usually suggested that for bodybuilders, the week of the competition (aka peak week) it may be a good idea to stop taking it. I suggest that you go with Creatine Monohydrate; there are other version available, but their effectiveness hasn’t fully been proven yet. Start with a small dosage in the beginning to let your body adapt first and then gradually increase it only if need be. When taking creatine, increase your daily fluid intake as this supplement may cause some dehydration and also avoid taking it with coffee or any kind of caffeine as it may negate its effectiveness. For myself, I take 1 capsule per day in the morning of Creatine Monohydrate (750mg – half the recommended dose) called Purple K by Fusion Bodybuilding and it’s the right amount for me; I’m building muscle without hitting a plateau so there is no need for me to take anymore. It is available in powdered form and in a gel capsule.
Pre-workouts are also widely used by fitness enthusiasts and competitors. These supplements contain a mix of ingredients that can increase blood flow, heart rate and mental focus in the hopes of giving an energy boost to help you get through an intense gym session. Most pre-workouts contain caffeine, beta-alanine, arginine and a mix of vitamins and minerals. The drawback with pre-workouts is that they can contain very high amounts of caffeine, so if you are a heavy coffee drinker proceed with caution. Be very careful with the dosage and timing, start with a small amount about 15 to 30 minutes before starting your workout and keep in mind that the higher the dosage you take for the long term, the less effective and potent it will be. Basically, your body will get used to it and you won’t get the same pre-workout benefits over the long haul. When you first start taking this, it will most likely make you feel very wired, very fast, which is basically what happened to me. I miscalculated my timing after only a few days of taking this and I wound up getting crazy eyes and breaking out into a sweat about half way through my bus ride home from work. Needless to say, I learned my lesson and now I pay more attention to the timing; I only take it 15 minutes before I start my workout which is usually enough time to walk down from my office to the gym and change into my workout gear. It is a good idea to change the pre-workout that you are using every once in a while so that your body doesn’t get used to it. Right now I’m taking 1 capsule of Magnum Rocket Science before cardio on my lunch hour and then another before my weightlifting right after work, but in a few days I’ll be switching to Cellucor C4. This supplement is great, but unnecessary; a cup of coffee or tea will also work well so if it’s not in your budget and/or if you are not in contest prep, you can skip this one.
Finally we come to fat burners. Back in the day, diet pills were all the rage: Finally, a miracle pill that can help you lose weight without having to do anything! Now we (hopefully) know better. Fat burners can help with fat loss by potentially giving a boost to the metabolism, but are only completely effective when combined with a sound nutritional plan and intense workout regiment. These supplements typically contain a mix of capsaicin, green tea extract, green coffee bean extract, raspberry ketones and others. Fat burners should not be taken year round as your body will adapt and it will lose its potency, so it’s only best to take this for a few weeks at a time which in my case will mean the month prior to my competition. Try to stick with the smallest dosage once per day and take it with a tall glass of water as it can cause some serious heart burn. The fat burner that I have used before and will use for my contest pre is Ripped Freak by PharmaFreak, 1 capsule in the morning per day.
I could go on and on for days discussing all of the different supplements out there, but for now I’ll leave it at this. Most supplements really aren’t needed so long as you are eating a well-balanced diet, but if you are very physically active or an athlete, that’s usually when you should consider starting with the basics to fill in any gaps that you may have. Before taking anything whatsoever, talk to your doctor and get your bloodwork done to check for any deficiencies; always follow your doctor’s orders to a T. Supplements can be a great help during contest prep, but they can be easily overused so be careful not to take too much of anything or rely too heavily on one thing to give you an edge over the competition. My prep is still going well and thankfully my schedule has calmed down a bit, making it easier to get through the tough gym sessions without feeling totally spent, I am only using supplements according to my coach’s recommendations. I’m still seeing great changes week by week and each day I’m getting closer to my goal. In six months I’ll be on stage and I know that I’ll be ready.
Start It, Finish It