If you’re new to bodybuilding or just want to gain an edge during your workouts, then supplementation is a no-brainer. With so many to choose from, it’s easy to become paralyzed by all the types, doses, companies, and, not to mention, promises. What’s a newbie to do?
It’s time to learn the basics. Here’s an uncomplicated beginner’s guide to what you need to get started. After a while you may experiment with others or simply stick to the ones listed here. But wherever your training journey takes you, rest assured that these make up the foundation of any healthy supplement plan.
First, some wise words of advice. The term supplement is roughly defined as “in addition to” not “in place of.” You should adhere to a balanced, healthy diet with ample supplies of protein, complex carbohydrate and fiber, and healthy fats. Without a solid, real food foundation in place, all the supplementation in the world won’t get you to your goals any faster. Eat first, then supplement.
Related: Meal Prep: The Ultimate Step by Step Guide (Plus Recipes!)
1. Whey Protein
For the past decade or two, whey protein has established itself as the cornerstone to any supplement plan. Chock full of amino acids, it’s especially plentiful of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine and valine. The BCAAs are vital in the protein synthesis process required to build new muscle tissue – especially leucine.
Used as a staple for pre and post workout nutrition, whey protein is a fast acting protein which is absorbed quickly due to its high filtration processing and small molecular make-up. It’s readily available to starving muscle cells when taken after a hard training session.
When and How Much?
The prime times to use whey protein powder are post workout and at other times when getting in a whole food meal proves difficult – such as after work and prior to your workout. Another critical time is for those who train first thing in the morning and don’t want any amount of solid food in their stomach for a lengthy digestion. Whey, with its fast digestion, fits that criterion quite nicely.
For most gym-goers, a single dose post workout could include anywhere from 20 to 30 grams per serving. If you are a heavier trainer who weighs north of 200 pounds, a slightly higher amount may be needed such as 40 grams.
The research on this wonder supplement continues to grow. No longer a freshman, creatine has affixed itself as the real deal. Supplement manufacturers have been scrambling for years to develop the “next creatine” but are still champing at the bit in the lab. Found as a naturally occurring substance in foods such as fish and steak, creatine works by helping to replenish adenosine triphosphate (ATP) stores during bouts of intense training.
It does this by “superhydrating” muscle cells full of fluid so other processes can take place as well like protein synthesis. This, in turn, will increase the rate of recovery between and during workouts. Initially, the bodyweight gained is mostly water, but over time your body will build new muscle easier and faster.
When and How Much?
There are two schools of thought regarding how much creatine to take. Originally, when it was new to the market, it was thought that you needed to load for five or so days in order for it to completely saturate your muscle tissue. This led to fast water weight gain and a positive sense of accomplishment.
Related: Should You Take Creatine Pre or Post Workout?
However, some experienced stomach pains and other gastrointestinal (GI) tract issues due to the amount taken daily. As time went on and more research was done, and it is now recommended that starting with a maintenance dose yields the same end results.1 Go with 3 to 5 grams pre and post workout for best results.
3. Fish Oil
Fish oil may not seem like a “sexy” choice for a supplement, but its benefits are long-term and vital to a healthy body. High in the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), fish oil is not necessarily an acutely effective supplement. Its main benefit has been found in reducing inflammation in the body.
So what, you say? Inflammation has been shown to be the instigator of myriad health problems including heart disease. For training purposes, inflammation can prevent the body from properly utilizing macro and micronutrients and hinder performance and recovery from training.
When and How Much?
With fish oil, taking in more isn’t a good thing as too much can lead to a higher risk of stroke. A moderate supplementation plan is the best route since you are using it more as a preventative measure versus an acute performance supplement. 2 to 3 grams per day is the normal recommended amount taken with a meal. Other forms of healthy oil, like krill oil, are available as well if you find fish oil gives you an unwanted aftertaste.
Another “boring” but necessary supplement is the tried and true multivitamin/mineral. Although recent research has blasted its efficacy, the benefits of getting certain amounts of these vital micronutrients prove essential for optimal health.2 These nutrients are necessary for countless bodily processes and overall balance. For example, zinc is used in tissue (muscle) repair and magnesium helps the body get appropriate rest.
Why wouldn’t you want a little insurance since no one’s diet is perfect day-in and day-out?
When and How Much?
A simple name brand multivitamin/mineral supplement will do just fine. One with 100% of most vitamins and minerals listed is your best bet. Mega-doses don’t do much in the way of getting any healthier.
Remember, you’re using a multi as insurance to supplement your current whole-food diet which should be full of plenty of lean protein, vegetables, fruits, complex carbs, and healthy fats. It shouldn’t be viewed as a crutch for getting in those same nutrients in pill form. Take your dose at night so you can give your body the rest and time it needs to repair the damage from the day.
5. Vitamin D3
Finally, vitamin D3 completes our list of must-have supplements. Again, I’ve talked a lot about the importance of preventative health and how it affects your efforts in the gym, so it should be of no surprise that vitamin D is a must-have.
As our population becomes more advanced we spend more time indoors. This lessens our exposure to the sun and consequently decreases our natural levels of vitamin D.
Deficiencies can complicate our health and make us more prone to a weakened immune system, low bone density, higher risks of cancer, and hypertension. Since the sun spurs our bodies to produce more vitamin D, never exposing ourselves to the sun (for brief periods) can have detrimental effects.
When and How Much?
Although mega doses are rarely recommended by health professionals, vitamin D deserves a more thorough look due to the mounting research.3 Since deficiency is a factor with most working individuals, most will recommend 2000 IU to 4000 IU per day.
Since calcium is known to be an absorption hog (it prevents other supplements from absorbing in the intestines) it’s wise to take this all-important vitamin in the morning which is plenty of time from when you take a multivitamin/mineral. Additionally, vitamin D in the form of D3 is more advantageous due to its better utilization by the body than other forms.
- Terjung RL, et al. American College of Sports Medicine roundtable. The physiological and health effects of oral creatine supplementation. Med Sci Sports Exerc. (2000)
- Vitamin supplementation on the risk of venous thrombosis: results from the MEGA case-control study. Vučković BA, van Rein N, Cannegieter SC, Rosendaal FR, Lijfering WM. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Mar;101(3):606-12.
- Controversy and consensus regarding vitamin D: Recent methodological changes and the risks and benefits of vitamin D supplementation. Glendenning P, Inderjeeth CA. Crit Rev Clin Lab Sci. 2015 Sep 17:1-16.
What are your must-have supplements?
The coaches at my gym recommend me to take creatine only 30 minutes before the a workout session. They say it gives you a boost, as caffeine does. Therefore, they think it has not much use after a workout. Would you agree?
Currently there is data on both sides of the argument (pre vs. post) to support the viewpoint. However, at the end of the day, any supposed "benefits" from either argument is likely small at most. The most important take home point is to ensure that you're taking 3-5g every single day. No need to go through a loading phase. No need to stress timing. Just be consistent.
Thank you. One follow On question. Being consistent entails that I should take 3-5 g even in rest days?
Yes, you should be consistent even on your rest days.