If you want to take your exercise and fitness routine to the next level, you’ve probably considered supplements. In this article, I will examine which supplements have scientific evidence to support their effectiveness. From pre-workout boosters to post-workout recovery aids, we will explore the degree of their benefits to help you decide which, if any, supplements may be right for you.
Essential Considerations Before Taking Supplements
Although supplements can be an incredible strategy to maximize fitness results, these critical factors must be considered first.
- A shotgun approach to taking supplements is not recommended. In addition to being expensive, overconsumption of unnecessary supplements can increase the risk of side effects. Examine your goals and strategically decide on appropriate supplements for you.
- Supplements should be used in conjunction with a comprehensive nutrition plan. You should NOT use supplements in an attempt to make up for a poor diet. For optimal performance and recovery, it’s vital to get essential nutrients from whole foods as much as possible.
- There is no substitute for a consistent exercise routine. When it comes to your well-being, the value of exercise far outweighs the benefits of taking supplements. If you decide to use supplements, view them as a way to support and enhance exercise, not as a replacement.
- Some supplements are not well tolerated by everyone. Additionally, they may not react well in combination with certain medications. Consult with a healthcare professional if you have any health risks or concerns.
To best appreciate the supportive role of supplements for fitness, it’s helpful to break them down into categories. Some supplements are used before workout sessions to enhance endurance and performance. Others are taken after exercise sessions to replenish and restore your body, facilitating muscle repair and growth.
The following three categories will help you better understand each supplement’s benefits.
- Performance-enhancing supplements used to maximize workouts
- Post-workout supplements to promote recovery
- Supplements for general health and support
For convenience, we’ll use these categories when reviewing each supplement. But first, a word on multi-ingredient pre-workout supplements (MIPS) and energy drinks.
Pre-Workout Supplements And Energy Drinks
Most people who use pre-workout supplements or energy drinks do so for their perceived ability to energize and stimulate. Multi-ingredient pre-workout supplements (MIPS) are technically their own category. However, I’ve chosen NOT to use them as a category due to the lack of evidence supporting the effectiveness of many of their ingredients and timing of use.
Some ingredients commonly found in MIPS and energy drinks do have scientific backing, for example, Creatine and Beta-alanine. However, their value is not in taking them immediately before exercise. These supplements work best by taking them consistently, and timing is less relevant.
The KEY ingredient that can help maximize effort by reducing perceived exertion right before a workout is caffeine. MIPS and energy drinks are an easy way to get caffeine; however, they’re also incredibly overpriced. You could purchase a four-month supply of caffeine anhydrous on Amazon for the same price as two energy drinks.
The most significant upside to using MIPS or energy drinks is the psychological impact. There can be tremendous value in having a pre-workout ritual for motivation. Consuming a perceived “special drink” can psyche some people up, creating a readied mindset more prepared for effort.
Performance Enhancing Supplements
The following ingredients are commonly found in pre-workout drinks and supplements. Although they’re advertised for their performance-enhancing abilities. Only caffeine has a relatively immediate effect. The rest of these supplements must be taken consistently for several weeks before experiencing the desired results. Also, keep in mind that the results are usually modest compared to the exaggerated claims made by the supplement industry.
Caffeine’s ability to delay the onset of fatigue and reduce perceived effort can make exercise sessions feel less taxing for some. Caffeine works as a central nervous system stimulant by blocking the effects of adenosine, a neurotransmitter that relaxes the brain, making you feel tired.
Aerobic endurance is the type of exercise with the most benefits from caffeine use. It gives a slight edge during fast-paced (cardio) exercises, allowing some people to maintain a higher level of intensity just a little longer. Caffeine also helps some people push through an extra repetition or two when using light to moderate weights. However, no evidence supports that caffeine can improve force production, i.e., overall strength, meaning caffeine does NOT make you stronger.
A few considerations regarding caffeine use for exercise:
- People metabolize and respond to caffeine quite differently. The minor benefits may not be worth the side effects for some people. Common side effects are anxiety, headaches, elevated blood pressure, and diarrhea.
- Caffeine may lose some of its stamina-boosting abilities over time with frequent use. Periodically taking 4-7 days off from caffeine can help reset your tolerance.
- Dosages greatly depend on body size and tolerance. At the lower end, 100 mg would be considered very safe. More intense users often ingest upwards of 600 mg in a day. The average dose in most energy supplements is around 200-300 mg.
Creatine is one of the most utilized and researched performance-boosting supplements on the market. Substantial evidence supports using creatine to improve strength and endurance during high-intensity exercises in short bursts, i.e., strength training and weightlifting. Creatine supplementation is not helpful with purely aerobic (cardio) exercises.
Creatine enhances energy production by increasing the formation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecule that fuels muscles during short bursts of intense exercises. Although creatine works well for most adults trying to increase strength, it’s especially valuable for vegetarians since its natural source is in meat and fish. Additionally, many studies have shown the benefits of creatine in older adults when combined with strength resistance training.
Suggested dosing is variable; however, consuming 2-5 grams daily is standard. Some research indicates a loading phase of closer to 20 grams for the first week for faster results. Mixing in warm water helps allow creatine to fully dissolve. Consumers used to believe that creatine needed to be taken before working out. However, that myth has been debunked. Timing matters less than taking it consistently, as it takes 2 to 4 weeks before the effects of creatine are noticed. Drinking plenty of water and staying hydrated while taking creatine is highly recommended.
Creatine is considered safe for most people when used at recommended doses. It is one of the most thoroughly researched supplements in terms of safety and efficacy. A potential drawback for some people is that it may temporarily increase muscle size by hydrating cells within the muscles. There have been some anecdotal reports of gastrointestinal problems and muscle cramping, more so during the loading phase. However, controlled studies have been unable to document any concerning side effects.
Beta-alanine is known for its ability to help buffer the lactic acid build-up that occurs during high-intensity exercise. By reducing the accumulation of lactic acid, beta-alanine can delay fatigue and improve exercise capacity. However, its effects are most dramatic during intense exercises between 1 and 4 minutes.
Beta-alanine is recommended for high-intensity interval training (HIIT) because of its effects during intense exercise between 1 and 4 minutes. It helps increase training volume and reduces fatigue when training with intensity within that 1 to 4-minute range. However, it does not make you stronger and doesn’t bring any benefits with exercising beyond 4 minutes, such as aerobic conditioning or sustained cardio.
Like creatine, Beta-alanine must also be taken daily for at least 2 to 4 weeks before benefits are noticed. Dosing varies between individuals and their goals. However, 4 to 6 grams daily is the standard recommendation.
Beta-alanine supplementation currently appears to be safe in healthy populations at recommended doses. The most common side effect is paraesthesia (tingling), but studies indicate this can be attenuated by using divided lower doses or a sustained-release formula.
Nitric Oxide (NO) Related Supplements
Nitric oxide is a vasodilator that tells blood vessels to relax, a crucial step for encouraging blood flow. Supplements such as L-arginine and L-citrulline have been studied to investigate their ability to increase nitric oxide in the body.
Some, but not all, fitness enthusiasts see NO boosters as a shortcut to greater strength and bigger muscles. The idea is that anything that boosts blood flow to the muscles will also boost performance and results. However, the scientific evidence regarding L-arginine and L-citrulline does not support the dramatic claims made by supplement companies. While some studies demonstrate modest benefits in exercise performance, others did not find any positive effect.
A consistent exercise routine, especially cardiovascular exercises, naturally improves nitric oxide and enhances circulation. This is probably why NO supplements have little effect on individuals who exercise regularly. However, the promising studies involve those new to fitness or over 50. NO supplements may improve tolerance to exercise in untrained and or older populations.
It’s recommended to take L-arginine and L-citrulline 30-60 minutes before exercise. However, consistent daily intake might be more critical than specific timing relative to workouts. Always follow the dosing instructions provided by the manufacturer of the particular supplement, as formulations can vary in terms of concentration and additional ingredients.
Post-Workout Supplements To Promote Recovery And Repair
Post-workout supplements are essential for anyone looking to maximize their exercise results and aid recovery. These supplements, ranging from protein powders to branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), are designed to replenish the body, support muscle repair, and reduce recovery time after intense workouts. Keep in mind that, similar to exercise itself, consistency is key.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA)
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, making them vital for several biological processes, including muscle growth. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a group of three essential amino acids unique for their role in muscle protein synthesis, which is crucial for muscle repair and growth.
Supplementing with BCAA is popular among some athletes and bodybuilders due to their potential to promote muscle recovery and reduce muscle soreness. However, there is debate regarding their effectiveness due to mixed results from scientific studies. The benefits of BCAAs are more likely to be noticeable in individuals with low dietary protein intake or those doing fasted training (exercising on an empty stomach).
The timing of Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA) supplementation can depend on your specific fitness goals, overall diet, and the nature of your workouts. Consuming BCAAs before a workout can give your muscles immediate access to these amino acids. This can be beneficial if you exercise before eating, e.g., first thing in the morning. After exercise, BCAA can help repair and rebuild muscle tissues and possibly reduce muscle soreness.
It’s worth emphasizing that for individuals who are already meeting their protein needs, additional BCAA supplementation may not yield additional advantages. Dietary sources of BCAA include dairy proteins, eggs, meat, chicken, fish, and legumes. Also, if you take a protein supplement, you’re likely getting sufficient essential amino acids already.
BCAA’s are generally safe and well tolerated at standard doses of 10-20 grams per day. They may interfere with some medications used to treat Parkinson’s disease and might have additive effects with some medicines used to treat type 2 diabetes.
The evidence surrounding protein supplementation to enhance muscle mass and performance is very supportive for people who consistently engage in resistance exercises. Supplementing with protein, especially after a strength training session, helps boost muscle repair and growth. These supplements have proven effective in decreasing overall protein breakdown throughout the body and promoting the synthesis of muscle proteins after workouts.
While it is possible for physically active individuals to obtain their daily protein requirements through the consumption of whole foods, supplementation is a practical way of ensuring intake of adequate protein quality and quantity, while minimizing caloric intake. It’s noteworthy that protein supplementation seems to have some advantage when greater protein intakes from both dietary and supplemental sources are achieved.
Recommended daily protein intake depends on body type, age, sex, and activity levels. For example, naturally leaner body types tend to require a different ratio of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats compared to larger body types. Working with a nutritionist would be recommended to find your own specific numbers. Also, protein calculators can help give you more specific ranges to shoot for.
Basic protein intake recommendations are 1-2 grams of protein/kg body weight/day for more active individuals. Now, let’s make sense of that in pounds. Remember, these are rough estimates; personal variations must be considered. A 150-pound person would require around 100 grams/day, and a 200-pound person would need about 135 grams/day. For optimal results, protein doses should be evenly distributed throughout the day every 3–4 hours.
When shopping for protein, consider rapidly digested proteins that contain high proportions of essential amino acids (EAAs) or branched-chain amino acids (BCAA). Whey protein is a popular choice for its high protein content and rapid absorption rate. Another option for those seeking a plant-based alternative is “pea protein isolate,” which is also highly purified and free from common additives.
Supplements For General Health And Support
In addition to taking supplements to enhance performance or recovery, supplements for general health and support should also be considered. The most typical indication would be supplementing with a vitamin or mineral you’re deficient in or do not naturally get through diet alone.
It’s tempting to want to take a shotgun approach by using a multivitamin. However, no clear evidence supports the use of multivitamins for longevity or vitality. Also, many multivitamins use either too much or too little of specific vitamins or minerals. Finally, multivitamins typically use lesser absorbed and lower quality forms of specific vitamins.
For optimal results, consider your personal needs and strategically use what you’re deficient in or do not get adequate amounts of in your diet. Here are some examples. However, keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive list. These are some common deficiencies and supplements used for overall health and wellness.
Vitamin D plays a significant role in bone health and supports the immune, brain, and nervous systems. It is often called the “sunshine vitamin” because the body produces vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. People who live in northern latitudes, wear clothing that covers most of their skin, or spend a lot of time indoors may benefit from supplementing with vitamin D. Other groups at risk for low vitamin D are older adults, those with dark skin, and people with obesity. For general supplementation, 600 IU of vitamin D3 is often recommended. It’s important to note that excessive Vitamin D intake can be harmful. Therefore, it’s recommended to consult a healthcare provider before starting any supplement regimen, especially for high doses of Vitamin D.
Magnesium, an essential mineral, is vital for over 300 enzymatic reactions in the body, including muscle and nerve function, blood sugar, and blood pressure regulation. While severe magnesium deficiencies are rare, many people may not get enough magnesium in their diet to function optimally. Benefits of magnesium supplementation include improved sleep, muscle soreness relief, mental health support, stronger bones, and heart health. Although magnesium supplements can correct a deficiency, getting it through diet is recommended when possible. Good dietary sources of magnesium include nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, beans, whole grains, and avocados. A final consideration is the many forms of magnesium supplements available. Although similar, each form comes with its unique benefits and bioavailability. Magnesium glycinate, malate, lactate, and threonate are good options for being well absorbed. However, check with a healthcare professional to get help determining which might be best for you.
Fish oil supplements are known for their rich content of omega-3 fatty acids, which offers a wide range of health benefits. Evidence is very supportive of omega-3 being naturally anti-inflammatory, helping to reduce symptoms of arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. Additionally, omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for mental health. Studies suggest they can improve mood and cognitive function. Supplementing with fish oils may also improve heart health, as they can reduce the likelihood of heart disease by lowering triglyceride levels and blood pressure. If you’re not eating fatty fish such as salmon at least twice weekly, you may consider supplementing with Omega-3.
Vitamin B Complex
While most people are not deficient in vitamin B, some research suggests that additional B vitamins may be beneficial. B vitamin complexes are often hailed for their potential to boost energy levels and overall well-being. Scientific studies indicate that these vitamins play a crucial role in maintaining good health by supporting the nervous system and aiding in producing energy from food. Specific B vitamins may slow the decline in memory and cognition, lower cholesterol, and lessen nerve pain.