Legal disclaimer - consult your physician before taking any nutritional supplement. This guide is intended for informational purposes only and is not medical advice.
Before I dig in, I want to make one thing clear.
Supplements are called supplements for a reason. They SUPPLEMENT good diet and training.
They will NOT overcome a bad diet.
They will NOT overcome inconsistent or inefficient training.
They will NOT make up for bad sleep habits.
Before you spend a dime on supplements, get your diet and training dialed in.
Ok, I said I wanted to make one thing clear, but I have another point.
Supplements are also called supplements because they are not necessary.
There are plenty of people who have gotten jacked and strong as hell with nothing more than solid nutrition and years of hard work in the gym.
There are a lot of supplements out there that have little to zero research backing their use.
That being said - there are some supplements with proven benefits, backed by research - not just anecdotal evidence from That Dude at the gym - that WILL enhance your results, assuming you have your nutrition, training, and sleep under control.
Let’s dig in a bit on the supplements worth your money.
Is there anything special about protein powder that makes it better than eating “real” food?
Are protein powders any worse than real food?
Protein powder is convenient. You can quickly throw together a shake or smoothie and get 25 - 50 g of quality protein into your body in a few minutes. As discussed in the Nutrition section, slamming down a protein shake after your workout isn’t required - but it’s a great way to ensure you get adequate nutrition after your workout. Consider it an insurance policy - if shit happens after training that delays you getting a full meal in, you’re covered.
Creatine is one of the most well-researched and effective supplements available.
Creatine is naturally produced in your body. Creatine stores high-energy phosphate groups which release energy to aid cellular function during periods of stress. The net effect - increased strength, decreased fatigue, and weight gain (via both lean mass and water retention).
If you’re engaged in strength training, you want to take creatine. Creatine is cheap. Creatine is safe. Creatine is effective.
Stick with creatine monohydrate. It’s the cheapest, and no other version has been proven to be any more effective. The only reason to consider something like micronized creatine or creatine citrate: if you experience significant stomach cramping with monohydrate. Micronized creatine and creatine citrate are more water-soluble forms of creatine, and are less likely to form insoluble precipitates in your stomach. For most people, though, this isn’t an issue. Be sure to drink at least 100 oz (3 litres) of water daily while taking creatine and you’ll be fine.
You don’t need to cycle creatine. You don’t need to “load” creatine. No, it won’t damage your kidneys or cause cancer. I think I covered all the FAQ’s there.
How to use: Take 5g of creatine per day, with protein/carbohydrates, as food will enhance creatine uptake.
“Does it matter when I take creatine?”
This is a contentious subject. I’m not going to go into the details for both sides. The important takeaway is to just take 5g per day, every day. Pre-workout, post-workout, with breakfast...whatever, just take it.
As the name implies, a pre-workout supplement is something you take...pre-workout.
Mistakenly, many people think the only point of a pre-workout is to hype you up or “give” you energy for your workout. Which is understandable, given how most of them are marketed.
But, depending on the ingredients, pre-workouts are effective at reducing fatigue, increasing endurance, reducing muscle soreness, increasing strength/power output, improving mental focus, and, yes, getting you hyped to lift some plates.
When selecting a pre-workout, you want to look for
- L-Citrulline, at least 6,000 mg
- Beta Alanine, at least 3,000 mg
- L-Tyrosine, NOT N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine, or NALT for short. NALT is mostly excreted in the kidneys unchanged and is never actually converted to L-Tyrosine. Don’t waste your money on supplements that claim this form is more effective because it is “more water soluble”.
- Alpha-GPC (alpha glycerophosphocholine), at 600 mg
What about creatine?
It depends. If you’re taking a high-stimulant pre-workout (featuring 200+ mg caffeine) that also features creatines, you could end up spending more time in the bathroom than in the weight room. The combo of high-dose caffeine + creatine could wreck havoc on your GI track.
That’s why I prefer keeping my creatine separate and taking it with my post-workout meal.
I also prefer a creatine-free pre-workout because I cut creatine during summer months, but still want to use a quality pre-workout. I’m someone who gains 4-5 lbs of water weight from creatine - if your body reacts differently, this may not be an issue for you. As always, YMMV and find what works for you!
How to use: this will vary based on your preworkout. Typically, it is dosed 30 - 45 minutes prior to working out. Try not to eat too close to using your preworkout - too much food in your stomach may blunt absorption of your pre-workout and delay/blunt its effects.
Vitamin D is vital for a wide variety of functions. It improves cognition, may help boost your testosterone levels, helps with bone health and immunity, and improves your overall well-being.
Unless you live at the equator, you aren’t getting optimal levels of Vitamin D.
Notice I said optimal. That’s an important distinction. Most people are not deficient in Vitamin D - but that doesn’t mean you have optimal levels for performance and mood.
In the United States, the FDA sets what is known as a recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for certain nutrients, such as Vitamin D. The RDA for a nutrient is set a level which a person needs to ingest to prevent deficiency. It is NOT a level set for optimal performance.
The RDA for vitamin D is set at 400 - 800 IU, but we’re aiming to just prevent deficiency here. We want to walk around at our best.
How to take: 1000 - 2000 IU per day will be sufficient for most people, with a maximum of 5,000 IU daily. Be sure to take vitamin D with a meal - it is a fat-soluble vitamin, meaning it is best absorbed with fat.
Fish oil is a catch-all term used to describe two types of omega-3 fatty acids: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are primarily found in fish - hence the term “fish oil”.
Consuming adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids is important for keeping our ratio of omega 3’s to omega-6 fatty acids in balance.
Fish oil helps combat inflammation, improves cognition, reduces stress, and improves overall well-being.
How to take: 250 mg of combined EPA and DHA is the minimum dose for general health. This can be obtained from food sources, but if you’re like me and don’t consistently eat fish, you’ll want to supplement.
To really reap the benefits of fish oil, shoot for a dosage between 2,000 mg and 4,000 mg combined EPA/DHA daily. On days you eat fish, cut back on your fish oil supplementation.
To minimize “fish oil burps” (which I’ve never had a problem with, but some people do), take your fish oil with a meal or freeze the capsules before consuming.
Caution: fish oil can reduce blood clotting. Extra caution should be used if you’re taking a blood thinner, such as aspirin, clopidogrel (Plavix), Xarelto, Pradaxa, Eliquis, or Coumadin. Fish oil may also increase your cholesterol levels (although VERY slightly), so keep this in mind if you’ve been diagnosed with high cholesterol or it runs in your family.
A Note on Caffeine
Caffeine is the most widely-used drug on the planet. It’d be a safe wager that 99% of you reading have “used” (it feels weird writing that) caffeine at some point.
As you are probably aware, caffeine is a powerful stimulant, causing alertness and wakefulness.
There are some other beneficial, and somewhat less known, effects: caffeine also helps burn fat, increases power output, and improves mood (ok, maybe you did know about that last one).
Here’s the thing about those effects that no one seems to talk about: most of caffeine’s effects are subject to tolerance and may not occur in people chronically using caffeine.
Strength benefits? Goes away with tolerance.
Fat burning? Goes away with tolerance.
Any habitual coffee drinker could tell you this. At some point, you stop feeling any “extra” benefit from caffeine - you’re consuming to stop yourself from feeling worse. What was once a “heightened” feeling is now your baseline.
Want a better performance-enhancing compound that, to this point, hasn’t shown any propensity for tolerance? Alpha-GPC at 600 mg. Thank me later.
“What supplements should I avoid?”
Underdosed pre-workout supplements
Many pre-workouts are nothing more than expensive, artificially-flavored caffeine powder with some hype marketing thrown on the bottle.
Most supplement companies cut costs by underdosing key ingredients, like L-citrulline - which is expensive and bitter in taste.
Before you purchase that pre-workout, check the label and put it back down if you notice any of the following:
- Less than 6,000 mg of L-Citrulline. Don’t fall for the trick of underdosing citrulline while adding in similar agents like arginine or ornithine. You want 6,000 mg of citrulline. It is the best agent amongst the three.
- Less than 2,000 mg Beta Alanine. You want a minimum of 2,000 mg. Proven doses for improving performance range from 2,000 mg - 5,000 mg.
- N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine (NALT) instead of plain old L-Tyrosine/Tyrosine. NALT is mostly excreted in the kidneys unchanged and is never actually converted to L-Tyrosine. Don’t waste your money on supplements that claim this form is more effective because it is “more water soluble”.
These are cheap carbohydrates that will make you bloat, make you shit, and make you fat.
Stick to real food and protein powder as your meal replacement.
“Which supplements haven’t been proven, or need more evidence to support spending my money on?”
Glutamine is often billed as a muscle-building compound, which is true - IF you’ve suffered from severe physical trauma (like a fire) or have a disease in which muscle-wasting occurs (such as AIDS).
Glutamine has not been proven to help build muscle in healthy individuals.
Unless you are a vegan or have a low protein intake, there isn’t enough evidence to recommend using glutamine at this time.
Betaine is promoted as a performance-enhancing compound, specifically, it is purported to increase power output when taken as 1.25 g twice daily. Most pre-workouts which include betaine include a single 2.5 g dose.
Current evidence is inconclusive on betaine. Some studies show a minor increase in power output and workout volume, while in other studies, betaine is no better than placebo.
A huge red flag: the studies which have found benefit with betaine supplementation were all associated with a producer of betaine.
Furthermore, the benefits to exercise, however minimal and even if they do exist, may not matter at all. The mechanism by which betaine is purported to have beneficial effects on physical performance is also a mechanism of action of creatine. The only study evaluating a combination of betaine + creatine found no additive effects compared to creatine alone.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
BCAAs are likely unnecessary as long as you are ingesting 1.0 - 1.5 grams of protein per kg bodyweight.
The anti-fatigue effects shown in some BCAA studies likely only apply to untrained or lightly-trained persons, not advanced athletes.
Do you need to take supplements to get strong and get big?
No. They will never replace hard training, proper nutrition, quality sleep, and managing stress.But, if you have the money, and want to push beyond average, the supplements recommended here WILL improve your performance.