You’ve probably all witnessed that work colleague who has a thousand and one protein shakers, all with a slightly yellow tinge and weirdly musty smell to them, lids every where, little weird plastic grates and metal balls cluttering up their work desk and every cupboard in the kitchen. There is the temptation once you begin exercising more regularly to start taking every supplement under the sun. One supposedly boosts your performance, the other increases your deadlift exponentially and the latest one to come out enables you to wring every last drop of efficiency out of a session. There is a plethora of supplements out there, and it can be quite the minefield to navigate. Once again we recommend your diet providing the bulk of your requirements, it’s hard to trump real, single ingredient foods and we would always advocate fresh food over a liquid or tablet-fuelled diet. With that said there are some supplements worth taking and some that you should just not bother with. Here’s our low down on just a few of the most common ones:
Pre-workouts – The likes of NO Xplode, Jack3d and the like have proven to be hugely popular within the fitness industry, with many people swearing by them. The active ingredients in these products tends to be caffeine, Beta Alanine and A LOT of sugar. Caffeine, used in the right way, is a great pre-workout. Beta Alanine is the building block of carnosine, a molecule that helps buffer acid in muscles, increasing physical performance in the 60–240-second range. Beta-alanine can aid lean-mass gain and Carnosine appears to be an antioxidant and anti-aging compound. Again we like this. The sugar on the other hand we can do without and will only lead to a big crash in blood sugar levels later on.
Verdict – Save yourself, and your wallet, and ditch the pre-workout. If you need something to get yourself up before a big session opt for an espresso, and maybe a small shot of pure Beta Alanine.
Protein powders – There are two main paths of protein powders; vegan and whey protein. But before we start let’s be clear – PROTEIN POWDERS ARE NOT ESSENTIAL IN ANY WAY SHAPE OR FORM. The fitness industry likes to thread this story that without them you’ll waste away and you’ll never recover from your sessions. As I’ve said above we are perfectly capable of getting all of our protein requirements from our diet. Things like meats, fish, eggs, beans, pulses etc are all great sources. I personally have gone extended periods without protein powders in my diet and have felt no ill effects as long as the rest of my diet was tuned in. Where protein powders come in is mainly a convenience thing. When you’ve finally managed to squeeze in a pre-work gym session, but once you’ve eventually cooled down you’ve found yourself running late for work. That’s the ideal time for a shake, on the go, short of time, easy. It’s also a great way to top up your protein intake if you’ve got certain macro goals to hit, or if you’re dieting protein powders can be great at helping you feel satiated and full. If you’re on the whey protein wagon you now need to decide which type you’re going to go for. We recommend whey protein concentrate for a few reasons; firstly it’s less processed which is always a good thing. Secondly it’s been shown to have particular benefits to your immune system compared to other forms. Thirdly it generally mixes better and creates a thicker, creamier consistency compared to the other main form of whey, whey isolate (and tastes great if you’re cooking with it too). And finally it tends to be cheaper. Now this comes down to the fact that whey isolate has been shown to absorb quicker into the body than whey concentrate and therefore has been suggested to aid quicker recovery. Really this difference in absorption rates isn’t that huge and doesn’t have a huge impact on recovery rates, but the supplements industry still likes to price whey isolate higher for their own reasons!
Now if you’re on the vegan-protein powder wagon then equally there are a few things to look out for and consider. Often vegan protein can struggle to get what is called ‘a complete amino acid profile’, i.e. contain sufficient quantities of all of the 9 essential amino acids, which you want for building muscle and recovering. But it is possible; you just have to do a little research. Vegan powders that come from a mix of pea, rice and hemp are winners. The here
Verdict – If you’ve got a busy lifestyle, looking to add in some extra protein to your diet or want to whip up some protein-packed healthy treats then it might be worth investing in some good quality protein powder.
BCAA’s – Branch Chained Amino Acids (BCAA’s) have become a huge, huge industry. The BCAA’s are Leucine, Valine and isoleucine and are known to produce an anabolic (muscle building) effect. For years the argument went that by consuming BCAA’s during your session you were helping reduce the impact of muscle degradation (you naturally produce micro-tears in your muscles each time you work-out that need to be repaired) and at the same time you're feeding your muscles the building blocks it needs to synthesise new muscle. And then this paper came out which essentially said the whole theory is baloney and in actual fact “BCAAs decreased muscle protein synthesis as well as protein breakdown, meaning a decrease in muscle protein turnover…. We conclude that the claim that consumption of dietary BCAAs stimulates muscle protein synthesis or produces an anabolic response in human subjects is unwarranted.”
Verdict – Save your money, eat well post workout, get your recovery right and you’ll be just fine.
Creatine – The most tested supplement in the world and one that has been proven to enhance performance, especially for regular gym goers who workout a lot, powerlifters or those that participate in team sports. Creatine works by speeding up the re-synthesis of ATP, the compound that fuels much of our exercise. If you can create this quicker, and for longer, you can exercise at greater intensities and for sustained periods (within reason). It’s an awesome supplement for those that want to increase their power output and ensure they can give their all from start to finish of a session. Creatine monohydrate is the form you want to look for, it is the cheapest and does the job the best.
Verdict – A good investment if you are serious about your training.
I could go on for hours on all of the various supplements, but I’ll leave it there for now. If you’re ever unsure of what a supplement does or how, or if, it works then the website examine.com is a great resource for impartial, concise advice. There’s a world of supplements out there but the clue is in the name, they should supplement an already solid diet, not plug holes in a poor diet. Get your nutrition right first and then build out from there.