Do You Believe in Magic?
The number one thing people ask me about in regards to working out is “how do I get rid of the fat from <pick an area of the body>” – the answer to that one is easy: Eat better and do cardio! The second most common question is “What supplements will make me get huge, lose fat, or get stronger.” This one is a little bit harder to answer – because the real answer is “food, consistency, and hard work” but no one wants to hear that! I get it – I really do. I used to jump on all of the supplement bandwagons whenever they rolled by because I just KNEW there was some secret out there that the people in the fitness magazines knew that I didn’t know. Every new supplement that comes out promises AMAZING RESULTS and INSTANT fat loss while gaining MASSIVE strength and at the same time making your manhood grow 3 inches and making women’s breasts a full cup size larger. The advertisements are usually flashy, they feature athletes in amazing shape that got that way long before they used the supplement they are promoting, and they throw in all sorts of pseudo-scientific terminology that makes it sound like you’ve missed some new development in sports medicine… and it works! Like I said, I fell for it so many times that I’m almost embarrassed to talk about it! When creatine first came out I was right on that bandwagon with the version AST was pushing that smelled like old urine and was mostly B vitamins, when HMB came out I jumped right on that bandwagon, all the crap that MuscleTech pushes – yup I wasted many paychecks on that. You know what happened? NOT MUCH!
Here is the thing – there are no “magic” supplements out there that you can pick up at the local health food store that will suddenly make dramatic changes in your body composition or your appearance. There will NEVER be a supplement out there that replaces the need to work hard in the gym and also in the kitchen to get the results that you are looking for – sorry to break it to you. There are no shortcuts. “What about steroids?” you may be thinking – well to start with you can’t get steroids at the health food store (contrary to what the idiots that believe creatine and protein powder are steroids tell you) and they are also not a magical potion. Let me just get that right out in the open – “performance enhancing drugs” do not turn you into a super athlete. They “enhance” the abilities you already have and make it easier to gain muscle/lose fat – but you still have to work hard in the gym and the kitchen.
Am I saying all supplements are useless? No, definitely not. What I am saying is that you will not find something you can substitute for hard work. You also will get more out of the supplements that do work if you first get your diet and training locked in – whether you are trying to gain muscle, lose fat, or both. Once you have a solid diet and a solid training program you can truly assess if a supplement works for you or not. If you are inconsistent in those areas, even a “magic” supplement may not be able to help you if it did exist!
So what supplements are worth spending your money on? I’ll give you guys my list of things that I think are worth the money – I’m sure there are other things out there that are worthwhile, but I prefer things to meet 2 requirements: 1) Not expensive and 2) Supported by research. With that said here are my top 3 recommendations:
1) Creatine Monohydrate. I don’t think you can find a single sports supplement that has been more researched in the last 20 years than creatine monohydrate. To really simplify how it works – creatine provides more fuel to your muscle cells’ quick energy system to improve your performance in explosive or power movements. That includes weight lifting and sprints in cycling/running. Creatine also pulls more water into your muscle cells – which is why a lot of people gain a few pounds when they start taking creatine. It hasn’t magically made them gain muscle, just makes them store more intracellular water in their muscles. That never happened for me personally – but I know of people that have gained as much as 10lbs just from taking creatine. I recommend 5g per day for the average lifter – you can split that between before and after your workouts if you want to… just keep in mind that it is water soluable so any extra you take will just make your pee more expensive. As far as side effects – some people have problems stomach bloating and “GI distress”, but those are the only REAL side effects. Some imaginary side effects include dehydration, muscle cramps, and heat exhaustion – these are not caused by the creatine but it gets blamed by parents of kids that get sick because they refuse to blame their kids for being morons and not drinking enough water.
2) Beta-Alanine. Beta-alanine is relatively new to the scene – within the last 3-5 years it started to gain popularity, and now most pre-workout supplements contain some of it. There has been a fair amount of research that backs up the effectiveness of beta-alanine and its use to improve muscular strength and delay time to fatigue. Beta-alanine (again to simplify) works by increasing something called carnosine in your muscle cells that helps to keep the cell in the proper pH range for contraction during exercise. I realize that simplification wasn’t so simple – lets just say that your muscle cells have a certain range where they operate the best, beta-alanine makes it so they stay in that range longer which lets you get more reps before the pH changes to much. I mentioned that a lot of pre-workout supplements have a massive dose of b-a in them, sadly this is a misguided attempt to jump onto the newest bandwagon because beta-alanine doesn’t work like that. You need to take it in doses divided throughout the day for an extended period for it to build up to a level that gives an effect… for me this usually works out to ¼ Tsp taken 4-6x per day for a week before there is a noticeable difference – but the difference IS DEFINITELY noticeable. What are the side effects? There is only one – and if you have taken a pre-workout supplement that contains it you are familiar with it: Skin tingling! If you take a large dose (more than 1-1.5g) at one time you will feel your skin crawling for the next 5-10 minutes – it isn’t harmful, and by the same token it isn’t doing anything useful either despite what the pre-workout products claim.
3) Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs). There is a fair amount of research out there to back up the use of BCAAs in people that train, and they are not that expensive. What are they? Amino acids are the basically the building blocks of proteins, some can be synthesized by the body (non-essential) and some cannot (essential) – typically when you buy supplements that are labeled as BCAAs you are buying a mix of the essential amino acids. What do they do for you? They do quite a bit according to various studies: They improve muscle protein synthesis – which can lead to building more muscle mass – specifically high concentrations (a 4:1 ratio) of Leucine (one of the essential amino acids) has been shown to improve it by nearly 150%. They also help promote fat loss – again it seems that Leucine is the key according to the studies. They have even been shown in some studies to have an anti-aging effect! So for some of us that is reason enough to add them to the list.
Those would be my top 3 recommendations if you want supplements that actually do something. Keep in mind that if your diet is crap and your workouts are inconsistent these won’t make much difference for you and you should probably just mail me your money instead of buying supplements with it.
Are there other useful supplements? Sure, but these are the ones I’m going to tell you about today!