Fitness Supplements - What to Use and When to Use Them

Authored by Chris Whalen

We live in an age today that has advanced to the point in which we can access information on almost any topic and find literally thousands of sources to learn from. Unfortunately much of the information in the health and fitness sphere is misconstrued and presented in a way to sell products. There are many products now on the shelves at nutrition stores and lining the walls at gyms that claim to enhance performance, improve recovery, and accelerate results. Let me save you some time, most of these claims are false. Read below to understand why.

What are Supplements?

Nutritional/fitness supplements are pills, powders, drinks, and anything else that may be added to your diet that should improve some aspect of your fitness. Many supplements claim to help with recovery, many claim to accelerate fat loss, and most of these do not actually have the effect that their marketing claims. I know what you’re thinking, “but if they don’t work, then why does everyone buy them?” the answer to this question lies in the nature of humanity and in the clever marketing of companies. Human nature encourages us to find the quickest and most efficient solution to our problems. When a product we see daily says that it will speed up the effect of what we are looking for, it only makes sense that it would attract our attention. The other piece of the puzzle is in the marketing strategies that these supplement companies use. They very intelligently acknowledge human natures tendencies towards efficiency, the effect of role models and idols in inspiration, and the emotional value of achieving your goal. Influencer marketing is a strategy in which businesses pay “influencers” to market products and in fitness this usually means saying that they use these products and they have some incredible effects. Because it is someone we look up to and we have developed an emotional attachment to it creates validity in our minds that the products must work.

Unfortunately these companies are more focused on making money and hitting quarterly projections than they are on the results you see. Some of these supplements do show, in certain studies, a potential connection between the supplement they use and the desired effect. These studies can be misread very easily, and also misconstrued to fit the thesis of what they are stating. There are supplements that have an effect, but in every case you should try to get the nutrient needs you have for your goals through eating whole natural foods. You can’t beat the natural effects of Mother Nature on your health. With better health, you will have better results. That being said, the supplements that should be okay, and should have a positive effect on your results are as follows:

 Protein Powders

 Caffeine

 Creatine Monohydrate

These products have all been tested extensively in studies and have been shown to have positive effects on timeliness of results and effectiveness of exercise.However they are not needed in the levels that are advertised. Starting with…

Protein Powder

Many companies advertise studies that recommend a high protein diet that consists of 1.5g/lb of bodyweight or more per day increases the ability of your body to build muscle and burn fat. This is false for the general population. In studies that have this conclusion, the population tested is important to scrutinize. These studies commonly use a participants who have severely been protein deficient as in the case of a lot of vegans, in the case of eating disorders, or in the case of starvation. These populations aren’t reflective of the majority of the population, and thus the results don’t apply to most people. We should not be fooled into drawing conclusions from these narrowed populations to the general public. The efficacious dose of protein intake lies somewhere between 0.7g – 1g per pound of body weight in resistance-trained individuals. The benefit of protein powder comes from ease of ingestion especially in someone like myself who is eating upwards of 200g of protein per day. In a lot of cases people use their protein shake to curb their sweet tooth cravings. While they do benefit recovery, you should always prioritize your whole food intake first and supplement as needed.

Caffeine

Everyone’s favorite and most addicting supplement. The pre- workout drinks and energy drinks on the market have doses of sometimes as high as 350-400mg of caffeine per serving. The amount of caffeine needed to create a significantly significant exercise effect is high dependent on the individual’s body weight, with the research indicated that 4-6g/kg of BW is optimal for performance enhancement. This means that no pre-set amount of caffeine will have a predictable impact on lipolysis, fat reduction, or on performance. Some studies have shown that lower doses of caffeine have similar benefits to high dose caffeine intake (5-13mg/kg bm). Low doses of caffeine also report less of the negative side effects of high caffeine doses. Although the higher intake levels of caffeine have many more studies backing their effect on performance, pain tolerance, and neurological “awareness”, I would for sure recommend smaller doses to start, and to cycle them in and out of your routine. The other part of the problem with caffeine doesn’t come from a lack of performance, but from a lack of recovery. It is commonly unknown that caffeine has a half-life in your body somewhere in the range of 5-7 hours. This means that caffeine, on average, is still present in half the amount consumed 6 hours or so after consumption. So, if you are like most individuals who workout after work, and you’re consuming a pre-workout drink with 300 mg of caffeine at 6pm, then that means at 12am (midnight) you still have around 150mg circulating in your body (which is more than the average cup of coffee!). Caffeine can prevent you from getting the restful sleep you need to recover from your workout and when done consistently, this can cause you to plateau and even in some cases slow or stop your progress altogether. The example I provided above stipulates that there is no caffeine ingested at any other point in the day. Now add this up; a consistent lack of sleep and recovery, plus more workouts and more pre-workout, plus more lack of sleep…you will eventually start feeling like you need caffeine before work. When you need caffeine before work it only adds to the total amount circulating in your body later in the day. Be mindful about how much caffeine you intake as well as when you are taking it. I recommend not drinking caffeine after 1pm for most of my clients.

You can get almost anything in supplement form - from protein to greens.

You can get almost anything in supplement form - from protein to greens.

Creatine

Creatine is a supplement that has been tested probably more than any other supplement on the market. Time and time again it has shown that it can increase athletic performance, increase energy available for your workouts, help with stamina and strength and has even been shown to have a neuro-protective quality. Creatine is a naturally occurring substance that is present in red meat and fish. People who are vegetarian and vegan have actually been shown to improve their IQ if they supplement with creatine in their diet. This supplement has often been debated to have health concerns, however in my research I have seen that it should not. Some people may experience quicker hair loss, or if they are predisposed to things like kidney disease or abnormalities should check with a doctor before supplementing (Mayo Clinic). The benefit of creatine on performance comes from the way we digest it. As we digest creatine it is turned into phosphocreatine, which is stored in the muscles to increase the readily available energy. When creatine and caffeine are combined it can have an affect on the caffeine that increases its efficacy. Keep in mind that when creatine, caffeine, and ephedra are combined it increases the risk factor for having a stroke. DO NOT COMBINE THESE THREE.

The rest of the products that you see on the shelves will have almost no effect on your results if any at all. Fat burners have become a big market push lately and most of these products are just filled with more caffeine and thermogenic stimulants that make you sweat. The effectiveness they claim to have comes from the reduction in the amount of water you have stored and readily available in your body. When you sweat it out, it’s no longer available. The amount of calories you burn because of this is really negligible. Again we come across stimulants being put into fat burners, and when combined with a pre-workout and a morning coffee can just continue adding to the amount of stimulants that are constantly circulating in your body. This will eventually lead to slowed, stalled, or regressed progress. These are largely not needed by most people. Some bodybuilders swear by them, but much more research needs to be done into why it may make a difference to them.

A newer addition to the market is BCAA’s aka Branch Chain Amino Acids. These amino acids are also unnecessary. The most basic building block to protein molecules are amino acids. When you eat a sufficient amount of protein, these amino acids are present in the foods you’re eating. Supplementing with them will not do much for you. Part of the craze with these supplements has come from the prevalence in the bodybuilding world. These competitors usually drink amino acid supplements during the day and during workouts because they contain little to no calories and have a good flavor to them. When you’re dieting for a bodybuilding show you can’t indulge on sweets, and this helps satisfy the want for indulgence. The population that has shown benefit from amino acid supplementation is extreme endurance athletes. Unless you are looking for a tasty low calorie drink, or you are training and/or competing in endurance events I would say these are largely unnecessary. The way these powders are sweetened is with artificial sweeteners. The ingestion of artificial sweeteners and processed foods has been shown in studies to increase the average amount of calories someone eats daily by 500+. In one week this equates to an entire pound of body fat. I suggest lemon water or something along those lines if you want a tasty drink for your workout or throughout the day to help you drink more water.

The only other supplements I would recommend taking involve meeting with a doctor or using some sort of at home test. I would recommend going to a doctor’s office and getting a general checkup with blood tests. If you get your blood tested you can get a breakdown of what nutrients and vitamins you may be deficient in. This is the best way to see what vitamins you should be taking. A general multivitamin may not be the proper one for you and your specific internal environment at this point. This is the most optimal way to figure out what other supplements may be necessary for you to be in optimal health.

I hope through this article you learned what supplements may help you in your fitness, but also that supplements are not at all necessary. These are all tools that can be used to supplement your diet, aka add to where you may need extra. However, nothing can quite make up for whole food intake and meeting your nutrient requirements with whole foods. Try to find fully organic supplements when necessary.

David SkolnikComment