When I work with personal training clients, one of the questions I am asked most often is “Should I take supplement XYZ?”. To answer some of these questions once and for all, I would like to use this series of posts to go through all the major types of supplements and give my recommendations.
For each supplement type, I will give a brief description of what it is and what it does, whether it has been proven to work or not, if there are any common side effects, and my opinion on if it’s worth using or not.
I am not a bodybuilder, so my recommendations are based on what I think “normal” people, who train to be healthy, gain muscle, lose fat, etc. need. It’s basically a guide to what I would (and do) use myself. For bodybuilders who want to push their training and bodies to the absolute limit, I can recommend reading some of the supplement guides on Bodybuilding.com.
No matter what supplements you take, ALWAYS follow the directions on the product label. Just because something is marketed as “safe” and “natural”, doesn’t mean you can’t take too much of it and potentially overdose.
Let’s get started with the three supplements I get asked about most often.
Protein is the building block for muscles and ligaments and is essential for muscle growth. When you work out (lift weights), you actually damage your muscle fibers slightly. After your workout, your body starts repairing the damaged muscle fibers by fusing them together. This process is what makes your muscles both larger and stronger. To complete this process, your body needs protein. This is why anyone who lifts weights as part of their workout routine should make sure to eat enough protein (you can learn about how much protein to eat in this post).
Optimally, you would get all the protein you need from natural foods like egg whites, chicken, lean beef, and fish, but it can often be hard (and expensive) to get enough protein without also getting too much fat and carbs, so protein powders are a great supplement. Right after a workout, when you need protein the most, it’s also easier to just have a quick protein shake than it is to eat a real meal.
The most common protein powders are based on whey (milk protein), a very fast digested protein that is perfect for right after your workout. Whey protein also tends to taste better than soy, casein or egg protein. Because all the milk sugars have been removed, whey protein is ok to use for people who are lactose intolerant. You can also get plant-based proteins, but I have never tried them.
Who can benefit from protein supplements: Everyone who works out and lifts weights.
Are there any side effects: Not with normal use. If you eat VERY large amounts of protein, it can harm your kidneys, but that shouldn’t be a concern for others than bodybuilders.
If you are trying to lose weight, the idea of taking a pill that will accelerate your weight loss is of course appealing.
Fat burners generally work by either increasing your metabolism or suppressing your appetite (or both). They usually contain an active ingredient like ephedrine, caffeine, capsaicin (the stuff that gives chilies their burn) or another organic compound that raises body temperature and provides a quick boost of energy.
Research has shown that most fat burners do have an effect, but that it’s very limited. By temporarily increasing your metabolism, the fat burners will help you burn more calories for 1-2 hours, but since they don’t have any effect on your base metabolism, the effect wears off quickly.
The problem with fat burners is that they can have a lot of unwanted side effects. Even relatively safe chemicals like caffeine will increase your heart rate and blood pressure to potentially unsafe levels when taken in large quantities, and a lot of the other ingredients can have serious allergic effects on some people.
Fat burners also have a nasty reputation for containing ingredients not listed on the packaging, like mild steroids (which do work as fat burners but are banned by the FDA because they are known to be harmful to your long-term health).
Who can benefit from fat burners: I don’t recommend fat burners to anyone. The small fat burning effect is not worth the potential side effects
Are there any side effects: Yes. Quite a lot, depending on what’s in the fat burner.
What brand do you recommend: None
Creatine is a nitrogenous organic acid produced in the liver that helps supply energy to cells all over the body. Athletes often take creatine because it increases the body’s ability to produce energy quickly, thereby increasing athletic performance.
Creatine doesn’t in itself make you lose weight or gain muscle, but because it enables you to work out harder (do one more rep or lift a little heavier), it’s effective as a muscle building supplement. Some studies also show that creatine may have a positive effect on memory and even help with depression.
Creatine is one of the few supplements that has been around for a long time and has been thoroughly studied. It’s generally regarded as safe and effective, and not prohibited by any of the major sports associations.
Who can benefit from creatine: Athletes and people trying to gain muscle or improve their sports performance.
Are there any side effects: Very few. The only known side effect is that some people can get mild stomach issues from creatine.
What brand do you recommend: I use Bodytec’s unflavored creatine powder in my workout protein shakes.
I hope you liked this quick overview of some of the most common workout supplements. In Part 2, I review BCAA’s, glutamine and pre-workouts (energy boosters).