Supplements 101 – Everything You Need To Know!
Written By Rich Maait
One of the first questions people ask when they decide to commit to a new exercise program is “what kind of protein and other supplements to I need to buy?”. The supplement industry has well and truly boomed over the last twenty years, in fact, the global dietary supplements market size is projected to reach USD 194.63 billion by 2025, according to a May 2019 report by Grand View Research, Inc. This is due to a massive increase in health awareness among consumers of all age groups across the world as well as a substantial surge in the number of gyms and health clubs (particularly in countries where ten years ago it was hard to even find a gym).
With all this has obviously come an exponential increase in the amount of supplement marketing we see, especially via social media. Many supplement companies base their entire business model on influencer marketing, which is one of many reasons why I believe that there has never been a worse time to be a consumer in the health and fitness industry. While there is so much more choice, so much confusion has been created and so much misleading information is out there due to people who aren’t really qualified to make recommendations on anything health-related getting paid large sums of money to spruik about products via their large social media accounts.
This isn’t to say that everyone posting about supplements on Instagram is a charlatan, but I would be wary of hype created around certain brands and products from your favourite fitness influencer. As someone who has personally known people who own supplement brands, I can confidently say there are very few people in that industry whose primary goal is to help others, most of them are out to make big money and make it fast.
The myth that when you begin resistance training you need to immediately make sure you have protein powder on your kitchen bench is one that had been perpetuated long before the advent of social media. When I first purchased a gym membership 12 years ago, I immediately made my way to my local supplement store and sought the advice of the gym behind the counter and walked out with a tub of whey protein. Back then, if your goal was to gain muscle or just get in better shape, everyone was talking about the “anabolic window” and it was a term used in magazines, supplement marketing and amongst gym bros regularly. Basically, it referred to a window in time directly after a workout where your body would absorb protein better and if you didn’t have a fast-digesting source protein in that window then you were definitely missing out on some quality gains, Bro.
Turns out, the anabolic window was a load of rubbish. While some people claimed it was half an hour and some insisted it was an hour, what we know now is that your body is actually just as “anabolic” 24 hours after a workout as it is when you finish it.
So is protein powder useless? Absolutely not. I use regularly for not only myself but most of my clients whether they are elite athletes or just starting out. It’s important to note that it is definitely not essential and if you choose to undergo resistance training and not use a protein powder then you’re absolutely not missing out on anything. If it’s convenient, which it pretty much always is, and you have the monetary and caloric budget for it, then it certainly has its place. For me personally, I use it in phases where my calories are high to fill the gaps in my nutrition, however when I am “dieting down” and my calories are lower, I tend to take it out and use a more satiating whole food source.
One interesting trend that I have noticed lately in the vast catacombs of Instagram are influencers essentially ‘going the other way’, telling people to avoid wasting their money on supplements. One of the ones I see most commonly is an attack on BCAA’s (Branch Chain Amino Acids) and how much of a waste of money they are. Once again, we have a case of people who aren’t really qualified to give that kind of advice, giving it on social media. While BCAA’s are not an essential addition to any exercise program, there are some great benefits to using them, particularly for the more advanced training population.
Supplementing is not a blanket approach. When I am recommending a specific supplement to a client, I am doing it for a reason, and there are only a few specific ones that I recommend most people use. What I do want to do in this article is to break down the ones that I most commonly prescribe.
The supplements that I recommend most people use are the ones that I consider necessary to support optimal overall health and support regular biological function while engaging in a resistance training program. These supplements can have an even more important role in today’s world as we have seen a huge worldwide increase in environmental stresses and decreased natural food quality. What we are looking for are supplements that assist in recovery, help with an increase in performance and promote overall quality of life. However, supplements are still a support, rather than a replacement, for a good diet and well designed and executed training program.
Supplements Necessary for Optimal Health:
When we look at most people’s diet, there are more often than not several important vitamins and minerals missing. It’s all well and good to say that we can get these from eating a balanced, whole-food rich diet, however I have found that with over 95% of the population, including elite athletes (especially in the physique space that I work in a lot in) are missing several key ones. A good quality multivitamin is an easy way to pick up some of that slack. As I said, it acts a support, not a replacement. Nutrients from food are the major key.
Greens supplements have evolved a lot of recent history. As mentioned above, a balanced diet rich in whole foods with lots of green vegetables is critical, however, most of the top brands of greens powders out there are packing quite a punch these days, offering vitamins and minerals derived from several fruits and vegetables that are most likely missing from your diet.
Fish Oil (EPA/DHA)
There are several evidence-based reasons why we should place a focus on having a healthy amount of Omega-3 Fatty Acids including heart health, inflammatory issues and better quality of life. As with the first two supplements in this list, it certainly is possible to obtain these levels through a well-balanced diet, however, I found this to never be the case with all the people that I have worked with so once again, a fish oil (there are also other options such as Krill or Cod Liver oil, as well as some new Vegan options from some forward-thinking supplement companies) are a great way to support that.
Taurine has actually been referred to as ‘a wonder molecule’ by scientists who have studied it. There are several benefits that include it promoting cardiovascular health, electrolyte balance, immune system function, and insulin sensitivity. One of the greatest roles Taurine plays in our bodies is that it plays a major role in neurotransmitter regulation, helping to calm and stabilize your mind. This can be a massive help when you’re training hard as the sympathetic nervous system can be overly active after sessions which can cause a host of issues.
About the only time I recommend that clients do NOT supplement Vitamin D3 is if they live an environment that is always sunny and they are out in the sun quite frequently. Looking at blood work, vitamin D3 is one thing that is generally low with most people. Given how important it is for general health and feeling of wellbeing (studies have correlated low levels of D3 to mental health issues) it’s a no-brainer for me as a recommendation.
Much like everything on this list, magnesium is a mineral that we very commonly notice deficiencies in and it is one that also has several benefits to several systems in the human body. It assists the creation of ATP (Adenosine triphosphate – essentially your body’s ‘energy currency’), Protein Formation, Muscle Movements, and Nervous System Regulation (these last two make it even more important to the training population). Not only does it boost performance, but it aids in recovery too. The form I most often recommend is Chelated Magnesium Glycinate.
Activated B Vitamins
B Vitamins have a tremendous impact on our energy levels and brain function. Symptoms of low levels of B Vitamins can be quite harsh, especially when you feel how fatigued low levels can make you. I often recommend that people get Vitamin B-12 Intramuscular injections from their doctor if their energy levels are low and we don’t have blood work to pinpoint the reason why (obviously having concrete evidence of the source of the issue is far better, however, this is not always doable). A quality ‘activated’ B Vitamin Complex can be a real game-changer for a lot of people.
Supplements Specifically for Training:
There are a few of the above supplements that also play a role in peri-workout nutrition. For example, an Activated B-complex can be a good option pre-training to support energy production and mental focus. One of my go-to post-workout supplements is Taurine, as it has a calming effect on the central nervous system, which has several benefits like facilitating electrolyte balance, aiding in glucose sensitivity and improved digestion of a post-workout shake or meal.
It is important to note that when we discuss supplementing around a workout there are several factors to consider, such as the type of training (see my other article on different training stimuli) and the needs of the individual based on their nutrition, lifestyle and even their dominant neurotransmitter type. Working with a coach who understands these factors and supplementing for them is a great way to fast track your progress.
Glutamine can play numerous critical roles when consumed around training. If carbohydrates are low, large doses of glutamine can aid in glycogen replenishment in the absence of glucose. It also helps the kidneys buffer acid. This can be helpful in phases where there is a lot of lactate or metabolic waste being produced during training and taking small doses of it intra-workout does not detract from the metabolic benefits of lactic acid production. Post-workout glutamine and dosing before bed can aid in recovery as well as have a positive effect on the gut lining.
Glycine functions as a growth hormone secretagogue. This means that it supports and enhances the production of GH. For this use, glycine can be used after a workout to promote the body’s natural GH production. Glycine in its pure form is a cheap supplement that tastes sweet (almost like white sugar) so it is an easy addition to any post-workout drink.
Tyrosine can be beneficial pre-workout to improve focus and neurological drive. It has the benefits of both increasing the production of dopamine as well as playing a role in thyroid hormone production (which can be beneficial if fat loss is the goal).
Creatine is widely known as the most studied workout supplement of all time. It is a substance that is found naturally in muscle cells that assist in the production of energy during intense exercise. Creatine is a combination of three different amino acids: glycine, arginine, and methionine. There are several benefits outside of ATP production it also aids in strength gains and recovery. It is hands down the number one supplement I recommend to people who are performing any kind of resistance training.