When it comes to getting that extra edge in your training, or getting in some essential nutrients that you are otherwise lacking in your normal, balanced diet, some may be tempted to take supplements to enhance their performances in a safe manner, or fill any gaps in their diet.
The first thing that comes to mind when you type in the word “supplements” into the google search engine, is the staggering amount of information and different brands that are out there, making choosing the right supplement for you or trying to get some valuable info, much harder than it should be.
In this article, you can read and learn everything you should know about the principal workout enhancing supplements like protein, creatine, or health supplements such as fish oils and antioxidants that are available.
Everything is backed by studies and/or graphs that you can check out for yourself. So if you are thinking about taking supplements, read on, and you’ll find out everything you need to know on what role each supplement plays, how it works, and what benefits they carry.
What are supplements ?
A dietary supplements is a product made to supplement your diet under the form of pills, powder, or liquid, to fill any gaps you would otherwise have in your normal diet. They provide you with nutrients that have been extracted from natural food sources, or made artificially, and sometimes combine them.
Some common supplements you may already have heard of are multi-vitamins, fish oils, fibers, amino acids, protein, and more. Whilst they are usually not essential nor detrimental to your health, using them to supplement an already balanced diet, have a proven beneficial biological effect.
The ingredients in the supplements are extracted from a range of sources, the principal ones being animal, and plant. It is illegal in the United States for supplement manufacturers to claim that their products will prevent or cure any sort of disease, and are required by the Food and Drug Administration to label their products with a clear disclaimer stating “has not evaluated the claim and that the dietary supplement product is not intended to “diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease”.
The FDA also prohibits and monitors the sale of supplement ingredients that are identified as unsafe for the user, and/or not respecting the standardized good manufacturing practices.
The supplement industry has an expected estimated value of USD 278.02 billion by the year 2024, with the Vitamin supplements market alone making a revenue of more than USD 50 billion in 2015.
Among other factors, the principal reasons for these high numbers are linked to a high adoption rate of fast foods along with a sedentary lifestyle resulting in an increase of various disorders and obesity related problems. To counter this, individuals turn to dietary supplements mixed with or as an alternative to prescribed drugs.
A rising application of dietary supplements as an aid to sports performance, muscular development and joint preservation has also had a strong impact on the total value of the supplement industry. Around 50% of the American adult population consumes dietary supplements.
How do they work ?
While diet is key to providing your body with all the essential vitamins, minerals, as well as the right amount of protein and calories for your sports related goals, supplements can provide you with the nutrients needed to fill in the gap of what you are missing out on at the end of the day.
If you are already doing your best to consume healthy and balanced, nutrient dense foods, and are still deficient in some areas, supplements may be right for you. The important thing to note is that they cannot replace a healthy, balanced diet, and should not be used towards that purpose.
The different types of supplements – analyzed
Workout performance and recovery/muscle building
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are composed of three essential amino acids: isoleucine, leucine and valine. They are commonly used as supplements to enhance muscle growth, as well as your performance during your workout.
As the three amino acids Isoleucine, Leucine & Valine cannot be synthesized by the body, they must be obtained through a regular diet, or with supplementation. Two of the main components BCAAs promote are muscle maintenance via an Anti-Catabolic effect, and enhanced protein synthesis.
[box title=”” bg_color=”#87d64f” align=”center”]superior muscle mass retention[/box]
Various studies have shown that bcaas can effectively be used to help prevent muscle loss during caloric deficits. A 2016 study by Wesley D.D, et al, “In a single-blind, matched group design: branched-chain amino acid supplementation and resistance training maintains lean body mass during a caloric restricted diet“, concluded that results show that BCAA supplementation in trained individuals performing resistance training while on a hypo-caloric diet can maintain lean mass and preserve skeletal muscle performance while losing fat mass.
In the graph below you can see that mixing a carbohydrate, generic protein plus supplementary Leucine (CHO+PRO+leu) resulted in a higher insulinotropic effect than carbohydrate and protein alone. This goes to show that BCAAs potentiate insulin release through different mechanisms to achieve an effect that is above and beyond the capacity of a generic protein rich supplement.
[box title=”” bg_color=”#87d64f” align=”center”]Enhanced Muscular Hypertrophy[/box]
It is a well proven fact that BCAAs have a strong role in the increase of muscle mass. Amino acids function to serve as a foundation upon which all proteins will work to build muscle mass. Leucine especially, has been proven to influence muscle hypertrophy directly.
In the graph below you can see how the Fraction Synthetic Rate (FSR) – an indication of the rate of protein synthesis, increases with supplementary Leucine.
The studies are clear; Leucine being one of the most important components of BCAAs, in muscle synthesis and prevention of muscle loss, it is critical to pair it with Isoleucine and Valine to maximize results.
Creatine is a key fuel source for high intensity activities like sprints, weightlifting, explosive jumping movements like plyometrics. It will however not help you with anything endurance related such as swimming, running, or rowing.
Your body naturally stores creatine and other natural fuel sources in your muscles in very small amounts. Using creatine as a supplement will give you the extra power needed for those last few reps.
[box title=”” bg_color=”#87d64f” align=”center”]Helps to increase muscle mass[/box]
As seen in this 1985 study by Steven L, et al “Effect of dietary supplements on lean mass and strength gains with resistance exercise: a meta-analysis.“; there are few better supplements when it comes to adding muscle mass and improving muscle performance, taking in account the subject is combining it with sufficient training and a proper diet.
Creatine contributes directly to hormonal changes, alterations in the muscle cell, as well as other muscle enhancing alterations within the body.
After a study analyzing over 2050 studies done on sport supplementation, we can see in the graph below that by supplementing with creatine more than doubled the mount of muscle gained per week, compared to training without using creatine.
[box title=”” bg_color=”#87d64f” align=”center”]Increase in muscle fiber size[/box]
A 1999 study by Volek JS, et al “Performance and muscle fiber adaptations to creatine supplementation and heavy resistance training“; determined that not only creatine augments the water content of muscles, but it also increases the size of individual muscle fibers, when combined with training.
The graph below illustrates the study’s findings by showing an increase of up to 300% of both slow twitch and fast twitch, muscle fiber size. Overall, total body mass gain was doubled, and 1 reps maxes on the bench press and squat benefited from 8% more increase than with training alone.
[box title=”” bg_color=”#87d64f” align=”center”]Increased strength[/box]
As demonstrated in a 1995 study by Earnest CP, et al”The effect of creatine monohydrate ingestion on anaerobic power indices, muscular strength and body composition.“; creatine positively alters certain biological processes that permit strength development, as well as promoting the production of ATP, your source of energy for short, high intensity sports like weightlifting.
The graph above illustrates the study’s findings, showing a large increase in a given strength exercise (bench press), after supplementing their weight training with creatine. As the amount of weight one can lift on the bench press directly correlates with chest size, we can see how creatine plays an important role in mass and strength gains.
Pre workouts are designed to enhance your focus, boost your energy levels, and therefore help you to increase your training volume and intensity in order to get more from each workout session. You will feel bigger pumps, but more importantly fully energized, and able to do more every single time.
This 2016 study, featured in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition; “The effect of acute pre-workout supplementation on power and strength performance“, shows significant differences in both peak and mean anaerobic power, with group A athletes using a pre workout supplement, compared to group B athletes using a placebo.
Pre workouts are continuously rising in popularity among recreational and athletic groups, who are both seeking to improve their performance. An estimated 70% of young adults use at least one nutritional supplement, 30% being pre workout supplements and/or energy drinks. This places pre workouts supplements just behind multivitamins, in terms of popularity.
[box title=”” bg_color=”#87d64f” align=”center”]Usual contents of pre workout supplements[/box]
- Caffeine: Boosts energy, focus, fat burning and performance.
- Creatine: Increases strength, power and muscle size.
- Beta-alanine: Delays muscle fatigue.
- L-arginine: For nitric oxide production.
- Protein: Increases muscle-building effects.
- Taurine: Fights oxidative stress.
- Tyrosine: Improves focus and physical performance.
As you can see from the content list above, pre workouts are quite a complete supplement. They give a strong mental edge, get you warmed up, feeling good, and allow you to approach your training session with the right mindset and intensity.
Probably the first thing that comes to most people’s mind when you mention the word supplement, protein comes in many different forms, and is a critically essential component of muscle building. Protein supplements are frequently consumed by athletes of all levels to increase their muscle mass, strength, physical performance, and recovery.
A 2015 study by Pasiakos SM, et al, named “The effects of protein supplements on muscle mass, strength, and aerobic and anaerobic power in healthy adults: a systematic review.“, had as an objective to test and provide a comprehensive analysis of various pieces of scientific literature stating that protein supplements accelerate gains in muscle mass and strength resulting in improvements in aerobic and anaerobic power.
Their conclusion was that not only did protein supplementation increases muscle mass and performance, but that it has to be combined with the adequate training stimulus for it to work (e.g., frequency, volume, duration), as well as a consistent dietary intake corresponding to the subject’s weight.
To build muscle and strength, the recommended amount is around 0.68-1g per 1 lb bodyweight of protein each day.
Mass gainers are an effective supplement only if you cannot get enough calories from your regular diet. They will provide you with protein, carbohydrates, sometimes fats, but essentially a lot of calories for you to reach your daily calorie goals, in order to facilitate your muscle and strength gain. Make sure you are training sufficiently as you are taking this supplement though, to avoid putting on extra fat.
Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins are essential to your body’s growth and proper functioning. In total, there are 13 vitamins; vitamins A, C, D, E, K, as well as the vitamins B (B6, B12, Folate, Biotin, Pantothenic acid, Niacin, Riboflavin, and Thiamine.
Each vitamin has it’s own specific jobs. If you are at a lack of certain vitamins, health problems can form (keep reading for examples). Having a balanced diet with a variety of nutrient dense foods is the primary and most efficient way of obtaining your daily dose of vitamins.
In some cases however, vitamin supplements can be a great way of obtaining whatever vitamin you are not already getting in sufficient amounts.
Some essential vitamins that can be supplemented:
It’s job: To maintain a healthy vision and prevent blindness, as well as support bone and tooth growth. Your immune system will benefit from vitamin A in it’s reproductive process. Organs such as your heart, lungs, kidney and more need vitamin A in order to function properly.
While vitamin A deficiency is uncommon, it’s still highly important to have enough of it, as groups of people with low vitamin A levels such as premature infants and people suffering from cystic fibrosis, are at risk for eye conditions such as Xerophthalmia, which can lead to blindness.
It’s job: Vitamin B12 is important in your body’s cell reproduction process, as well as for maintaining a healthy nerve function. It breaks down fatty amino acids which can help to lower the risk of heart disease.
Symptoms from a deficiency in Vitamin B12 include fatigue or weakness, pale or jaundiced skin, loss of appetite, mouth ulcers, Anemia, and more. Certain neurological conditions such as Dementia and depression can also be a consequence.
It’s job: Vitamin C promotes a healthy immune system and helps to prevent infections. You need it to aid the body in it’s Iron absorption, an important part of the oxygenation process of your body through your blood cells.
A known health problem caused by the lack of Vitamin C is Scurvy. During the 18th century, disease killed more British sailors than enemy action. It was mainly by scurvy that George Anson, in his celebrated voyage of 1740–1744, lost nearly two-thirds of his crew (1,300 out of 2,000) within the first 10 months of the voyage.
The Royal Navy enlisted 184,899 sailors during the Seven Years’ War; 133,708 of these were “missing” or died from disease, and scurvy was the leading cause.
Essential minerals also play an important role in helping your body to function properly. Minerals such as Iodine and Fluoride will only be needed in small quantities, whereas as other minerals such as Potassium, Calcium, and Magnesium, are required in much larger amounts, which can be obtained mostly through a balanced diet, as well as supplemented if needed.
Essential minerals are sometimes divided up into major minerals (macro-minerals) and trace minerals (micro-minerals). These two groups of minerals are equally important, but trace minerals are needed in smaller amounts than major minerals. The amounts needed in the body are not an indication of their importance.
Some essential minerals that can be supplemented:
It’s job: Calcium is an important mineral that can be obtained through various dark green leafy vegetables, brown and white bread (in the UK, law dictates that calcium be added to white and brown flour), dried fruits like raisins and apricots, and more.
A highly controversial topic is the role of milk as a healthy long term calcium source, as it has been linked in numerous studies to an increased risk of ovarian and prostate cancer, as well as osteoporosis. Vitamin D has been proven to aid the body in calcium absorption.
There are several types of calcium supplements, including Calcium citrate and calcium carbonate, which are also usually the least expensive.
It’s job: Sodium is another mineral that’s essential for life. Whilst it’s important to have sufficient quantities of Sodium in your diet, too much of it can be bad for you, causing issues such as an increased blood pressure, and increased risk of heart disease.
In most people’s diets, sodium can be obtained through salt, and is also naturally found in a lot of foods, either naturally, or added through processing. Sodium regulates the body fluids and plays a keep role in normal nerve and muscle function.
It’s job: Iron plays a critical role in the transportation of oxygen around the body, through your red blood cells, as well as other specific processes within the cell that fabricate the required energy for the body to function properly.
Some symptoms and health issues resulting from a lack of Iron include fatigue, weakness, dizziness, inflammation of the tongue, and more. Vitamin C can aid in your body’s absorption of Iron.
In the last decade omega-3 fish oil supplements have greatly increased in popularity due to the link between the latter and it’s associated benefits such as a lower blood pressure, a reduced amount of triglycerides (High levels of triglycerides can lead to coronary artery disease, heart disease, and stroke), a reduced development of plaque in the arteries, a lower risk of heart attacks and strokes, among other proven benefits. In fish oil you will find two principle omega-3 acids; docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
It is recommended by the American Heart association that individuals consume fish at least twice a week (with an emphasis on fatty, cold-water fish). Among the highest recommended types of fish are Tuna, Herring, and Salmon. If you do not have enough fish in your diet, or dislike it completely, supplementation is a good way of getting in sufficient omega-3s.
- Soluble fiber: Can dissolve into water to form a gel-like texture. They can help to lower blood cholesterol as well as prevent diabetes and heart disease. You can find soluble fibers in peas, oats, beans, apples, citrus fruits, carrots, barley and more.
- Insoluble fiber: This is the type of fiber that aids the movement of material through your digestive system. Highly recommended for anyone struggling with constipation or irregular stools. Common sources of insoluble fiber include potatoes and cauliflower, beans and vegetables, wheat bran, whole-wheat flour, and more.
You will often find ideal quantities of both types of fibers in plant-based foods. These include oatmeal and beans. To fully benefit from the nutrient content and get the ultimate dose of fiber for you, consume a varying quantity of fiber dense foods.
Fiber supplements are an efficient way of getting in any extra fiber you can’t get from your daily meals. Fiber dense foods usually make one feel full rather quickly, so eating a lot of these different fiber sources is a good way to prevent overeating, and possibly, lose weight.
Your body’s aging process is influenced by molecules called free radicals. These same free radicals also contribute to certain diseases like diabetes and cancer. A way of limiting or halting the damage cause by free radicals is to consume Antioxidants.
Consuming antioxidant rich foods should be you principal source of antioxidants. You can find antioxidants in nuts, seeds, legumes and vegetable. Antioxidant supplements again, will help bridge gaps in your diet but should never be abused of.
Should you take supplements?
Is your overall diet on point?
If your everyday diet already gives you all the nutrients your body requires then there is little need for supplements, except perhaps pre workouts, and creatine (because their contents mostly cannot be obtained in sufficient quantities through food alone).
Monitor yourself frequently (according to what your goals are), and modify your diet accordingly. If you are doing everything you can with you standard diet and are still not reaching your dietary goals, supplementation is a viable option.
Is your training on point?
As shown above in the various quoted studies and charts, certain supplements provide your workouts and overall performance with a genuine boost. If you are looking into supplementation to help you reach peak performances in your training, or just have more energy and/or strength, supplements like creatine, BCAAs, pre workouts, and more, are effective, safe products.
You training of course also depends on you, don’t think that because you are taking supplements, you will reach your goals in a month, and all your personal records will blow through the roof. What you do in your training is on you, and so are the results you get from it. Supplements can help you get through you training, as well as get more from it, but they cannot do the work for you.
Do supplements really work? – Conclusion
This guide has gone over what supplements are, as well as how they work to improve any holes in your diet.
We have analyzed different supplements like, multivitamins, fish oils, fibers, and fitness supplements like creatine, protein, branched chain amino acids among others. We have also mentioned why and when you should take supplements, depending on which supplements you intend to take, and what your goals for taking it are.
Now that you have read this guide, comment below; which supplements do you take, and why?