You’re showing up to the gym consistently, you’re putting in the work and pushing yourself, but you don’t feel like you are seeing the results that you should.
Sounds familiar? I’ve been there too, believe me.
This is usually when people start looking for other solutions, including adding a host of supplements to their daily routine. But really, are supplements the way to improve your health and performance in the gym?
Believe it or not, studies show that 40% of Americans take some sort of supplement each day, and there is no real reason to believe it is any different in Canada. In other words, you’re not alone if you’ve thought supplements might help you get fitter and/or healthier.
First off, let’s talk about some commonly recommended supplements for athletes; then let’s clarify what to look for when picking a supplement.
DISCLAIMER: See your doctor if you are considering supplements as a way to alleviate or “fix” a health issue!
The Nutritional Coaching Institute considers the following essential for athletes, assuming they don’t have any medical conditions:
Fish oil, whether in liquid or gel cap form, helps rebalance the omega 6:omega 3 ratio, therefore reducing inflammation. Vegans can take flax oil or algae-derived supplements, but keep in mind that the conversion of ALA (found in vegan sources of omega 3) into EPA and DHA (the fatty acids that the body utilizes) can be problematic.
Dosage varies, but keep in mind that it’s not the sheer volume of fish oil you are ingesting that matters, but rather its concentration in EPA and DHA (check the bottle). A good place to start is shooting for 0.25g of EPA/DHA (combined) for every 10lbs of bodyweight.
Vitamin D is naturally found in very few foods, and while it is true that the body can produce it when exposed to sunlight (sans sunscreen), the amount of sun required is difficult to get for most people (especially in winter).
Be mindful of dosage with vitamin D, as it is fat soluble, which means that the body will not simply excrete it if you consume it in excess.
I won’t bore you with the details, but given that magnesium is a coenzyme for more than 300 processes in the body AND that almost 70% of Americans are deficient in it (again, no reason to assume that Canadians are significantly different), it’s safe to say that we should probably supplement with it.
Now the kicker is that there are 8 different kinds of magnesium, but Steph Gaudreau breaks it down very clearly for you.
Possibly the best-known of all, vitamin C is used for a host of processes in the body, from immune system function to iron absorption and wound healing, to name a few.
Unlike vitamin D which we just talked about, vitamin C is water soluble, meaning that it is virtually impossible to overdo it (though high doses might cause some GI distress)
On top of these, here are a few more commonly used supplements:
We are of the opinion that real food is more satisfying and generally preferable to protein powders, but in a bind they certainly can come in handy. For example, if you are training hard and are short on time to get a proper meal in after your training, then a scoop of protein will tie you over until you can properly refuel.
Creatine monohydrate is said to be the most researched supplement. To put it simply, creatine allows your body to produce more ATP, which is the cell’s key energy source. In other words, taking creatine could enable you to increase your total workload or volume in a training session, which in the longer term would lead to muscle growth. Note that the effects are not immediate, but take place over time.
Branched chain amino acid
Branched chain amino acids (BCAA) are the building blocks of protein; as such, they are essential to building muscle mass. They are especially important if you are in a calorie deficit (read: if you are dieting), as valine and isoleucine (two BCAAs) can convert to glucose for immediate energy during training. If you are trying to train in a somewhat depleted state, you can understand how attractive that might be. Moreover, leucine, possibly the most important of branch chain amino acids, is a key player in muscle protein synthesis, aka your body’s process of rebuilding its muscle fibers after they have been damaged in training.
We obviously could have talked about a dozen other compounds as well, but we ain’t got all day! Please seek professional opinion if you have any questions, and do your research!
Speaking of research, let’s turn to a list of 5 elements to look for when picking a supplement.
What is the dosage?
When it comes to vitamins, choose on that provides less than 100% of the recommended daily value per serving.
Is the supplement third-party tested?
The supplement industry is unfortunately still more or less the wild West, so beware of obscure companies, and make sure the supplements are third-party tested. This will ensure that you are actually paying for - and taking - what you think you are, so that you don’t compromise your health or your wallet.
Is the certification legit?
If attributes like GMO-free, organic, etc. matter to you, then make sure your supplements have the certifications to back up those claims. To do so they need to display the appropriate logos, like (in the States) USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, gluten free, or Certified B Corporation.
Beware of proprietary blends
Companies often patent their blends of ingredients, which means that they don’t have to divulge the quantities of each compound. This could mean that you are getting a sub-optimal dose of the active ingredient you are after, combined with a lot of fillers.
Read the labels
Don’t just scan the label for the active ingredients you are after, but pay attention to the other stuff, too - the colouring, sweeteners, fillers, coatings and other junk. While some are necessary to make the product palatable (if you’ve ever tried to drink unflavoured BCAA powder in water, you know what I mean), others are only necessary to increase the manufacturer’s profit margins. Just be on the lookout, and do your research!
Lastly, Be Brain Fit put together a list of warning signs when choosing a new supplement company. An informed consumer is a smart consumer, right?
Now that we’ve looked at what supplements could be benefiting you, and how to choose them, let’s go back to basics, and decide whether you should even be considering supplementing in the first place.
You see, 2 principles I live by in life include:
Don’t waste your hard-earned money.
When it comes to health, fitness and supplements, let’s apply both of those principles and see under what circumstances taking supplements is really the most effective way to meet your needs.
To this end, I’ve put together a nifty decision tree to guide you along the way - you can download it by heading to my website. Let me know what you think!
Have you taken supplements? Or what are you taking right now