As long as you’re doing the right things, supplements can give a boost to the benefits you receive. But how do you differentiate between the useful and the useless?
I’m going to be reviewing the following popular supplements based on evidence that they do what they say they do:
For more details on micronutrient timing (including expanded information on Omega-3s which are discussed below) and supplements in regards to performance, check out "Best Time to Take Vitamins".
This is the big one, and one of the most popular. Protein, to me, is more of a meal replacement than an actual supplement. It just provides more protein if you’re having trouble reaching your intake goals.
The most successful strength and power athletes consume at least 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. It is difficult to reach this level through food sources alone, which is where supplementation makes the most sense.
Protein supplementation has been shown to increase muscle growth and performance if done in accordance with training. Research has also shown that it is most effective when consumed immediately before or after training. (5)
Take it if you’re having trouble reaching your protein goals consistently with food alone. It can help you build muscle more effectively if done with training. Just don’t have the powder instead of whole-food sources. Think of it as a supplement to what you already have.
The creatine-phosphate system is the first energy system to ramp up when we do an activity. It’s important for powerful bursts of energy for up to 15 seconds.
Creatine occurs naturally in the body and we get more from protein-rich foods. Supplementation has been shown to increase the levels of creatine in the body and thereby increase the potential for high-intensity performance. (4)
Creatine doesn’t lead to increased muscle growth and strength on its own. Rather, it allows one to train harder, thereby resulting in bigger gains. There are also studies that show creatine supplementation plays a role in injury prevention, enhancing rehabilitation, and tolerating heavy loads. (4)
However, some people don’t respond as well to creatine as others. These people are referred to as “non-responders”. It’s best just to give it a shot and see what it can do for you.
It is also typical to have a loading phase in which you take large amounts upfront to store large amounts in your body. This is largely unnecessary and can cause gastrointestinal discomfort. (4) It’s just as effective to take 1 scoop per day shortly after or before training.
It can help you train harder at higher intensities, thereby receiving bigger gains. Some respond better to it than others. If you’re not taxing the creatine-phosphate system (by training at high-intensities), then it’s not worth it for you.
Fish oils contain some of the healthiest fats around, Omega-3s. But eating fish often doesn’t provide enough to meet your needs.
These omega-3s help prevent arthritis, psychological disorders, gastrointestinal problems, and cardiovascular disease. (8)
Thus many recommend taking fish oil supplements in order to get roughly 3000 milligrams daily.
This is the closest you’ll get to a slam-dunk in terms of benefits. Nearly anyone can benefit from supplementation, but like anything, check your current levels of intake and adjust appropriately.
There seems to be a million different pre-workouts out in the market, each with a different blend of ingredients. They all aim to get you pumped up for your workout in order to train harder and reap bigger benefits. (In a similar way that creatine does)
Pre-workouts tend to contain blends of caffeine, creatine, beta-alanine, and nitric oxide, all of which augment performance at least initially. Long-term results are not clear, as certain substances give a dulled effect when taken consistently, such as caffeine. (3)
They do appear to be safe although there have been many inaccuracies found with the exact amounts of ingredients in certain blends. Athletes are often wary of taking them for fear of ingesting banned substances not labeled.
It generally can help in the short term, mostly by augmenting your ability to workout harder. Choose trusted brands that accurately disclose what’s in them.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) refers to three amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
BCAA’s promote protein synthesis and muscle growth over time. (6) They are important to have on a daily basis, but we generally already get enough of them from protein-rich foods. Supplementation is therefore unnecessary for people that ingest enough protein.
There is insufficient evidence to support the notion that it’s worth taking before, during, or after a workout to assist in decreasing muscle breakdown and increasing muscle growth. (6) (which is often what it’s taken for)
Some report a stimulatory effect with BCAA’s but without research, a placebo effect is a likely cause. (6)
If you eat complete protein sources, you don’t need BCAA’s in any way. Even if you are deficient, you’re better off just eating more whole-food protein.
Caffeine is a stimulant, thereby increasing metabolism and energy output. It has been shown to increase maximal strength, power, and endurance during exercise. It also increases mental alertness and wakefulness. (1)
As a stimulant, it increases blood pressure, so those with high blood pressure should stay away. (1)
In many studies, the caffeine was taken in the form of a pill or capsule, but drinking it in coffee has been shown to have similar effects, depending on the dosage. (1)
However, habitual caffeine consumption increases tolerance to it, thereby decreasing its effects. (7) Breaks from caffeine can bring your tolerance back down again.
It can definitely increase performance in many ways. Having it too often will make it less effective and those with high blood pressure should be wary of taking it.
Weight loss pills and “fat burners” tend to work by doing one of a few things (2):
- Reduce appetite, making you feel more full so that you eat fewer calories
- Reduce absorption of nutrients like fat, making you take in fewer calories
- Increase fat burning, making you burn more calories
I’m going to review the top 3 ingredients that claim to do just this.
Originally popularized on the Dr. Oz show, this ingredient supposedly inhibits a fat producing enzyme, thereby decreasing fat storage.
But there is insufficient evidence to show that it actually does anything. Some studies have shown modest weight loss, but most effects are so small that you wouldn’t even notice. (2)
It contains a handful of ingredients aimed at weight-loss including caffeine and plant extracts, but there are barely any studies on Hydroxycut's effectiveness. (2) So as of now, until more research is done, no conclusions can be made.
Here it is again. Caffeine is one of the most popular fat burners out there because of its stimulating properties discussed prior. While it can boost metabolism in the short term, you can develop a tolerance where it loses its effectiveness. (2)
Nobody has found a pill that can do what exercise and healthy eating can. If fat loss is your goal, stick to the tried and true methods.
To sum up:
Protein and creatine can support healthy muscle and strength development
Fish oil is beneficial for nearly everyone
Pre-workouts and caffeine can give you a little boost in your workouts
BCAA’s and fat burners are largely unproven so far
One important point to finish on is that a healthy lifestyle consisting of exercise and proper eating is the number 1 priority. Supplements can give you a boost here and there, but they are by no means necessary, especially for the average person.
To your good health,
Getting started can be a tough thing to do, and the main reason is that people don’t know where to start.
That’s where I come in.
Regardless of whether you live in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) and can do in-person coaching with me or you live anywhere else in the world and can do online coaching, I can put a plan in place to help you get to where you need to be.
Girgic, J., Mikulic, P., Schoenfeld, B., Bishop, D., Pedisic, Z. (2019) The influence of caffeine supplementation on resistance exercise: a review. Sports Medicine. 49(1):17-30.
Gunnars, K. (2017). 12 Popular Weight Loss Pills and Supplements Reviewed. Healthline.com <healthline.com/nutrition/12-weight-loss-pills-reviewed#section2> Accessed February 6th 2019.
Harty, P., Zabriskie, H., Erickson, J., Molling, P., Kersick, C., Jagim, A. (2018). Multi-Ingredient pre-workout supplements, safety implications, and performance outcomes: a brief review. J Int Soc Sport Nutr. 15:41.
Kreider, R., Kalman, D., Antonio, J., Ziegenfuss, T., Wildman, R., Collins, R., Candow, D., Kleiner, S., Almada, A., Lopez, H. (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 14:18.
Pasiakos, S., McLellan, T., Lieberman, H. (2015). The effects of protein supplements on muscle mass, strength, and aerobic and anaerobic power in healthy adults: A systematic review. Sports Medicine. 45(1):111-131.
Patel, K. (2018). Branched Chain Amino Acids. Examine.com. <examine.com/supplements/branched-chain-amino-acids/> Accessed February 6th 2019.
Patel, K. (2018). Caffeine. Examine.com. <examine.com/supplements/caffeine/> Accessed February 6th 2019.
Siscovick, D., Barringer, T., Fretts, A., Wu, J., Lichtenstein, A., Costello, R., Kris-Etherton, P., Jacobson, T., Engler, M., Alger, H., Appel, L., Mozaffarian, D. (2017). Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (fish oil) supplementation and the prevention of clinical cardiovascular disease. Circulation. 135(15).