A long time ago, in a gym far, far away, someone made the statement, “Man, you don’t need supplements, just eat a good diet and you get everything you need to be jacked”.
Saying you don’t “need” supplements to get jacked is kind of like saying you don’t “need” to deadlift to get strong.
Sure, you might be able to do it. But if you ignore a tool that can help your training, then you are leaving a lot of gains on the table.
Now, the world of supplements can be a bit of a quagmire. It is hard to know exactly what supplements work, how they work, when to take them, etc.
When it comes to building muscle and getting more out of your training, there are 5 supplements that most people would benefit from.
Creatine supplementation appears to be the most effective legal nutritional supplement currently available for getting you jacked (i.e. enhancing your training and lean body mass). Long story short, creatine works by improving your body’s capacity to produce ATP during short, intense training.1
The research surrounding the ergogenic effect of creatine supplementation is pretty mind-blowing. There are easily over 500 peer-reviewed papers on the topic and approximately 70% of the research has reported an increase in exercise capacity.2,3,4
In both the short term and long-term, creatine supplementation appears to enhance the overall quality of training. This often leads to a 5 to 15% greater gains in strength and performance.
If you are trying to get bigger, faster, and stronger, but you’re not taking creatine, you are missing out on some serious gains.
Muscle fatigue kills your training.
Remember the last time you were doing weighted dips and you hit the wall and just couldn’t hammer out another rep even if your life depended on it? Beta-Alanine may help you get that extra rep in as it has been shown to reduce muscular fatigue and increase work capacity.
Several studies on beta-alanine have that supplementation can increase your work capacity by a few reps when training in moderate rep ranges (8-15).5,6,7 That means more dips for you!
As a result of being able train harder and longer, beta-alanine is effective for muscle hypertrophy, greater fat loss, and improved recovery between sets. Just think about it, if you can train harder and longer you accumulate more volume. More volume = more muscle. Training harder and longer also creates a larger calorie deficit, leading to greater fat loss.
There is also evidence that beta alanine can augment fat loss. However, the most likely reason for this is not due to beta-alanine directly, but the fact that it increases work capacity.8
Beta alanine is also often marketed as a pre-workout ingredient. It is likely marketed that way because the feeling that beta alanine can give you in high doses (the itchy face) makes it seem efficacious. Don’t let the marketing itchy face and “I’m flying feeling” hype cloud your science. It isn’t really a pre-workout.
Beta-alanine works through bioaccumulation in the muscles. Like creatine, it really doesn’t and probably shouldn’t be taken right before training. In fact, some evidence indicates that taking it with a meal is best9.
Our first two supplements, beta-alanine and creatine, are often stacked together and have been shown to be an excellent combination for individuals looking to increase performance in their anaerobic training. They both work through different mechanisms to increase work capacity, so you might think about taking them together.
The typical dose for beta-alanine is 2-5g/ day. Similar to creatine, it is not dependent upon timing, so it can be consumed at any point during the day, but again taking it with a meal appears to be a bit more effective.
Caffeine is currently the best pre-workout supplements for increasing energy, focus, and training capacity. Not only that, caffeine is also capable of increasing aerobic capacity and improving sustained power output.
Several studies have shown that caffeine pre-workout can increase power output 10, 11, 12. However, it appears to not be related to improvements in 1 repetition maximums, but in sustaining power, meaning your 5x3 or 5x5 sets, are likely to improve when taking caffeine.
There have been documented increases in aerobic capacity from caffeine supplementation 13, 14, 15. This could actually be a bad thing. It means you will probably have the physical energy to spend a few more minutes on that torturous stair master.
Scientists think the increased aerobic capacity is due to the increased free fatty acid (FFA) release; however, they aren’t really sure about that. It is likely more of a mental thing than.
Caffeine is often touted to be a good “fat burner”. Sadly the science on this suggests it’s not really that great at burning extra fat. Most of the fat that is released from fat cells by caffeine dosing is just recylced16. So caffeine probably won’t directly increase fat loss. But like beta-alanine, it may increase your training capacity, making increased fat-loss a byproduct.
Dosing of caffeine is highly variable. Your genetics and habitual use of caffeine play a large role in how much is needed to elicit an effect. The more you consume on a daily basis, the more you will need to consume in order to see any training benefit.
Additionally, there appears to be a “saturation” limit where you only receive an anti-fatigue benefit and no additional effects from higher levels of caffeine intake. Don’t go too high, as too much caffeine actually can kill you (don’t worry about it you 3 pots of coffee a day drinkers, the amount you have to drink is almost physically impossible).
4. Whey Protein
There is an extensive body of research surrounding the efficacy of whey protein supplementation in increasing strength and muscle mass. There is a substantial amount of evidence suggesting that whey protein helps to increase both strength and muscle mass.
Interestingly, the things that make up whey protein seem to increase the cell signaling pathways, specifically mTOR, responsible for muscle protein synthesis and muscle hypertrophy. It is believed that this in large part due to high concentrations of leucine present in whey protein.
Whey protein is an excellent source of a wide range of amino acids and additional nutrients that are beneficial to health. Whey protein has been shown to increase lean body mass in conjunction with resistance training, bolster glutathione status, have immunomodulatory effects and improve gut health.
If you have access to a good whey protein and struggle hitting your daily protein needs, you definitely should think about supplementing with whey protein.
To most of us vitamins aren’t a sexy supplement to take. They either a) remind you of the Flinstone ones you took as a kid or b) some hippy new-age stuff that has nothing to do with getting jacked. Well, it turns out you might want to actually give vitamins and minerals a second chance, especially if you train hard.
ZMA is a supplement that contains the micronutrients Zinc, Magnesium, and Vitamin B.
Zinc is excreted in our sweat, making athletes more susceptible to zinc deficiency.17 Also, unless you are chewing on your zinc plated barbell, it is likely you are aren’t getting much zinc in your diet which makes ZMA a go to supplement for many hard-charging athletes.
Want to keep your testosterone levels from crashing when you are training hard or cutting? Well it turns out that supplementing with zinc during periods of high-training volumes and/or caloric deficits can prevent reductions in testosterone in men18,19.
Not only does zinc affect testosterone, it also can affect the other important “T” hormone, your thyroid. Supplementing with zinc in athletes has been shown to prevent loses in both T4 and the more bioactive T318,20. Why is this important? Well, the thyroid hormone can kind of be considered the gas pedal to your metabolism. Having robust thyroid function is critical to maximizing your training.
While magnesium has a lot of benefits, the most well known in popular press is that it can help some people with sleep issues. Taking magnesium was able to improve sleep quality and reduce sleeping cortisol levels in people who had less than desirable sleep21. In another study, taking magnesium improved sleep quality in people who were magnesium deficient22.
- Energetics of human muscle: Exercise-induced ATP depletion
- Effects of creatine supplementation on performance and training adaptations.
- Effect of creatine supplementation on body composition and performance: a meta-analysis.
- Creatine supplementation with specific view to exercise/sports performance: an update
- Important role of muscle carnosine in rowing performance.
- Short-duration beta-alanine supplementation increases training volume and reduces subjective feelings of fatigue in college football players.
- Effects of 28 days of beta-alanine and creatine supplementation on muscle carnosine, body composition and exercise performance in recreationally active females
- Effects of β-alanine supplementation on performance and body composition in collegiate wrestlers and football players.
- Meal and Beta-Alanine Coingestion Enhances Muscle Carnosine Loading.
- Effects of caffeine on prolonged intermittent-sprint ability in team-sport athletes.
- Effect of two doses of caffeine on muscular function during isokinetic exercise..
- Dose response effects of a caffeine-containing energy drink on muscle performance: a repeated measures design.
- The influence of a CYP1A2 polymorphism on the ergogenic effects of caffeine.
- Effect of ambient temperature on caffeine ergogenicity during endurance exercise.
- The effects of different doses of caffeine on endurance cycling time trial performance.
- Metabolic effects of caffeine in humans: lipid oxidation or futile cycling
- Effects of aerobic exercise and training on the trace minerals chromium, zinc and copper.
- Effect of fatiguing bicycle exercise on thyroid hormone and testosterone levels in sedentary males supplemented with oral zinc.
- Effect of zinc administration on plasma testosterone, dihydrotestosterone, and sperm count.
- The effect of exhaustion exercise on thyroid hormones and testosterone levels of elite athletes receiving oral zinc.
- Oral Mg(2+) supplementation reverses age-related neuroendocrine and sleep EEG changes in humans.
- Magnesium supplementation improves indicators of low magnesium status and inflammatory stress in adults older than 51 years with poor quality sleep.