Take a walk into your local GNC and have a look around, or thumb through any of the 50 fitness magazines that are littering the shelves at your local bookstore, and the sheer number of supplements currently on the market is astounding. Not only that, but many of them are all promising some pretty impressive results. How many times have you seen some colorful, snazzy ad with a shirtless, shredded-to-the-gills bodybuilder promising that if you use Super-Mega-Pump-Volumizer-Cuts-Xplode twice a day, you’ll look just like them? Or some company whose name might rhyme with Hustletech promising that their creatine delivers 1027.99821% better results than the competition?
The reality is, 99.99% (how’s that for an awesome percentage?) of the supplements on store shelves today flat-out don’t work. Either companies make promises that they can’t back up, or they use low-quality, over- or under-dosed ingredients, or they use forms of an ingredient that don’t actually work to keep costs down. Sometimes all of the above.
In reality, no supplement can replace hard work (or the lack thereof). The best scientific advances can’t beat a solid training program and good training partners. However, there are a few things that can fill specific needs in the body that are left by a physically challenging training program.
1) Multi-vitamin. While a multi isn’t going to make the difference in whether you look like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Steve Urkel, it is essential for anybody involved in a fitness program. First, it acts as nutritional insurance, making sure that your body has an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals that tend to be depleted by the body during strenuous exercise. Secondly, it is nearly impossible to get a sufficient supply of nutrients from food alone. With overfarming and genetically modified crops fast becoming the norm, the soil is not as rich as it once was. In fact, it’s been estimated that while the nutrition labels on food may have been accurate 30 years ago, it’s likely that the vitamin content is actually about 50-70% lower than what’s posted on the label.
2) Fish oil. Fish oil is one of those supplements that a lot of people have, but never remember to take. Or, if they do take it, the dose is well below the minimum effective dose and so you may as well not be taking it at all. Which is too bad, because fish oil has a host of benefits, not the least of which includes making it easier to burn off stubborn bodyfat.
There are two different types of omega 3’s in fish oil – EPA and DHA, each serving different purposes. DHA’s biggest benefit is increased mental acuity and enhanced mental function. It is recommended that women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant supplement with a fish oil high in DHA because it helps with the development of the fetus’ brain, and studies have shown a correlation between increased IQ and DHA supplementation. High doses of DHA are also used as part of a treatment for ADD and ADHD because of its ability to increase mental focus.
EPA, on the other hand, is often used to treat inflammation in everything from muscle tissue to the circulatory system. High doses may help prevent or reduce risk of cardiovascular diseases, and can also help speed up recovery from training sessions or even from bruises, strains and pulls.
But the number one (for most people) benefit to fish oil is its ability to increase fat metabolism by turning off lipogenic genes (which promote fat storage) and turning on lipolytic genes (which promote fat burning). But in order to get any benefit from supplementation, the dosage needs to be rather high – up to 1 or 1.5 grams of fish oil per percent of bodyfat. So somebody with 20% bodyfat should be taking 20-30 grams of fish oil per day. Most capsules are about 1 gram each, and most liquid fish oils are 5 grams per teaspoon or 15 grams per tablespoon. Spread your doses out each day to as many as possible, ideally some at each meal.
3. Whey protein. I have a little bit of a love/hate relationship with protein powders. On one hand, it serves a very useful purpose – helping people fit in an extra 20-60 grams of protein per day when it’s not convenient to get it from whole food. On the other hand, the supplement industry has made whey protein out to be some magical, fantastic fairy dust that’s “guaranteed to add 60 pounds to your bench press and 11.7562 pounds of muscle in just 90 seconds.” Understand this – most supplement advertising is bullshit. Correction: ALL supplement advertising is bullshit. But just because the ads suck doesn’t mean whey protein doesn’t have something to bring to the table.
The reality is, most people don’t have the time to eat 6-7 solid food meals a day, every day. So, instead of missing meals or reaching for fast food or some garbage from a vending machine, powdered protein can be a convenient alternative. Not only that, but there are times where you want your protein to get into your system very, very quickly, and whole food protein breaks down too slowly.
For example, EVERYBODY should use some sort of liquid protein immediately after finishing their training to get amino acids to the muscles and kickstart recovery. Whole food doesn’t cut it because it digests too slowly. Whey protein breaks down much faster and helps drop post-workout cortisol. Skinny guys who have a hard time gaining weight should also have 20-40 grams of whey protein in water first thing upon waking, 20-30 minutes before having their regular breakfast. Again, it drops cortisol and takes you out of a catabolic (muscle-burning) state.
There you have it. 3 supplements that can work wonders for enhancing your training and nutritional efforts. You won’t see them promoted by a 250lb, ripped-to-the-bone bodybuilder in a slick magazine ad, but you’ll definitely get your money’s worth.