The fitness world is full of a lot of gimmicks and promises because, let’s face it, working out is hard work, and if there’s one thing human history has shown us, it’s that humans love a good shortcut. The truth is, there’s no real replacement for good old-fashioned hard work. When it comes to fitness, “hard work” means getting into the gym, banging weights around, laying down miles, not eating trash, and making the effort to cut fat and make gains.
That said, it’s not all bullshit. Our granddaddies (and mammies) got their strength from eating good and lifting big, but you bet your ass if they had the science and technology we have today, they’d have explored the world of supplements, too.
But in a space occupied heavily by nonsense wonder drugs and placebos, how are you supposed to tell the difference between useful supplements and nonsense? It’s difficult, to be honest, but the trick is to not buy into the magic pills or simple “programs” that make it seem like you won’t have to work hard to get the results you want. Look for the products that aren’t trying to sell you something that sounds too good to be true. In the fitness world – and every other world – if it sounds too good to be true, it likely is.
I’m not going to turn this into a brand-loyal buying guide for all the best supplements. At the end of the day, there’re literally thousands of options out there for you to consider, and there’s no point in me muddying up your water with my own opinions. Instead, we’re going to explore a couple tried-and-true supplements whose effectiveness you can bet your bottom dollar on.
So, without further ado, here are seven workout supplements that actually work:
When it comes to the whole “magic pill” aspect of workout supplements, creatine is about as close as it gets without being a load of bullshit. Creatine is a naturally occurring nitrogenous organic acid that occurs in all of us. In its synthesized form, creatine is a performance-enhancing substance that helps boost the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which helps in muscle repair and growth under stress.
Essentially, creatine gives bursts of energy and helps with muscle repair during your workout, to help you run a little faster, put up one or two more reps, and push your muscles to perform their best. People have conducted literally hundreds of clinical studies on the stuff, and while results definitely vary from person to person and study to study, the facts are clear: this stuff works.
It comes in a lot of forms; powder, liquid, solids, etc. It’s also found in smaller doses in things like meat, fish, and eggs, but it’s obviously better and more useful in a concentrated powder.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
BCAAs are awesome because they don’t just help you during your workout, but also after. In fact, they shine brightest in the post-workout stages. BCAAs are a mix of three vital amino acids – leucine, isoleucine and valine – that are essential to muscle repair and recovery. Their whole job is to help your muscles recover faster after a hard workout, which means you spend less days off from being sore and feeling beat to shit, and more time in the gym putting up the heavy stuff.
It even goes a lot deeper than that. Aside from helping muscles repair themselves, these amino acids also help provide much-needed energy in the gym, but also curb the production of certain hormones that actually work against your body’s attempts to build muscles – most notably, cortisol.
The trick about BCAAs is that you really have to remember to keep taking them throughout the day. Literally, you have to be eating these things in the morning, at night, before, during and after your workout, etc., in order to get the best results from them. Luckily, BCAA powders aren’t necessarily that pricey, so keeping them in your diet won’t be too hard on your wallet.
I don’t really understand why, but it seems the more people I talk to about fish oil and its benefits, the more people I encounter who don’t really see it as necessary. The truth is, fish oil isn’t snake oil, and its benefits are absolutely real.
Fish oil contains a super high amount of Omega 3 oils, which is a natural anti-inflammatory that can really mean the difference between running a mile or being able to lay down five. It will help ease joint and muscle soreness, and is vital to the recovery process.
Hell, even if you’re not in the gym or training for that half marathon you’ve been eyeing up, fish oil is excellent for your lungs, blood circulation and heart health.
The largest issue people have is finding a reputable brand that isn’t cut with a bunch of other useless ingredients, but they’re definitely out there. Any way you slice it, this stuff is critical to your workout regimen.
Glutamine is another amino acid that’s produced naturally by the body, and can be drawn out of muscles during intensely stressful situations. Workouts are stressful. On the whole, glutamine helps maintain muscle mass. So, if your glutamine levels are depleting during a stressful workout, and glutamine is essential to muscle mass, it’s absolutely vital that you get as much glutamine back into you’re your body as possible following a workout.
Easy, right? Well, not quite. The problem is that, organically, glutamine is found in things like nuts, fish, red meat, beans and other intensely fatty foods. Since it’s not really advisable to run home and grill up a steak every time you step foot in the gym, a good glutamine supplement does all the heavy lifting you need to get your glutamine levels back up, without flooding you with a bunch of unnecessary fat and calories.
The more glutamine you get back in your body, and the faster you get it there, the more muscle you keep on. Period.
Whey Protein Powder
Protein powders are some of the most difficult supplements to discuss because everybody – seriously fucking everybody – has an opinion about them. There are literally hundreds of different brands, and every Instagram fitness model with over a thousand followers raves about this or that revolutionary brand.
The fact is, different protein powders serve different purposes. There are some out there that are very lean and are only for people trying to stay lean while building lean muscle. There are some that contain massive amounts of calories and more grams of protein because they’re engineered for people who are trying to bulk and get Hulk-like. I won’t sit here and make a personal recommendation, but I will say that when you’re looking for a good protein powder, look to make sure it’s whey protein. Whey protein is one of the most tried and true supplements because it contains a higher level of Leucine (remember that amino acid from the BCAAs?), which you now know is directly responsible for muscle protein synthesis (AKA growth).
As a base line, look for something that’s lower in calories, has very few ingredients, and is high in whey protein (anything in the 25 gram+ range per serving), and you won’t go wrong. Stay away from the sweet shit with sugar and all the other added nonsense.
Another common misconception is that people think only one protein shake a day – directly following a workout – is all you need. If you’re trying to build lean muscle, it’s perfectly acceptable to drink two, even three shakes a day. A lot of it depends on your bodyweight (the general rule of thumb is one gram of protein for every pound of lean bodyweight you’re working with), but also depends on your diet and workout routine. The most important thing to keep in mind is that protein shakes are supplemental to your daily intake. Your primary source of protein should come from actual food.
Probably the least well-known supplement on this list, beta-alanine is another natural amino acid that helps to drastically reduce muscle fatigue by boosting your body’s level of carnosine. Carnosine works in your body to prevent the build up of acids, thereby reducing muscle strain, fatigue and corrosion.
The problem is, your body only has so much carnosine, and it can only produce as much carnosine as you have beta-alanine. So, by taking concentrated amounts of beta-alanine, you’re allowing your body extra room to produce more carnosine, and therefore more resistance against fatigue.
The other problem with beta-alanine is that, like BCAAs, you really have to stay on top of your shit. Research from a team at Texas A&M noted that taking 800mg of beta-alanine a day helped boost carnosine levels by 66 percent. The only problem is that you have to take that dosage upwards of four times a day. It can get overwhelming, to say the least.
But if you stick to it and make sure you’re ingesting the appropriate dosage, the results are undeniable.
You’re confused right now, because for as long as you’ve been dieting and working out, people have told you that carbs are the enemy. If all you’re worried about is cutting fat and losing weight, that might be true. But if you’re trying to pack on muscle and keep burning fat long after the workout is over, you should be ingesting simple carbohydrates twice a day: once as soon as you wake up, and once right after a workout.
The rationale there is that once your workout is over, your body’s glycogen and glucose levels are completely trashed. Once that happens, your body secretes that cortisol stuff I talked about above, and begins eating away at all that valuable muscle you just spent time and energy making. Ingesting simple carbs (sugars) helps raise your body’s glucose level, prevents cortisol from being secreted, and helps save that muscle tissue you’re working so hard to pack on.
Carbohydrates in the form of supplements helps cut out all the extra crap that you’d normally get from ingesting it in food. You could eat a bunch of simple carbs in different foods, but having a supplement helps regulate your carb intake perfectly, giving you everything you need to keep that muscle where it belongs.