Ultimate Beginners Guide to Supplements
Whey Protein Isolate, Pre-workouts, Creatine Monohydrate, Fat Burners, Thermogenics, BCAA’s, Glutamine … holy smokes.
The aim of this guide is to give you the lowdown on supplements; what works, what doesn’t, resources to help save you money.
I’ve actually written an article on supplements already, it was very short and sweet but a little ‘ehhhhhh’. So this guide will share a little more information for you and be your go-to reference on supplements for beginners.
I’ll start by stating that supplements play a very small role in the overall health and performance improvements in the gym.
Supplementation is the least important factor when it comes to overall nutrition.
The supplement industry is about as confusing as it profitable. With global sales in the billions per year and with more and more supplements entering the market – it’s no surprise majority of people have have f**kin clue what is going on.
Generally supplements can be broken into sub-categories:
- Protein Powder
- Pre-workout (before)
- Intra-workout (during the workout)
- Fat burners and thermogenics
- Cognitive and wellness supplements
- Meal replacements/weight loss supplements
- Vitamins and minerals
Go to any health food store or ‘nutrition’ store and you will see bottles, bags, tubs of various supplements with wild claims like ‘increase strength’ or ‘help strip fat’ or ‘improve cellular function through mitchondrial biogenesis’ (jokes I haven’t actually read that but it’s the type of shit I’d see no doubt).
See most supplement companies will throw a tonne of science jargon in order to make it sound like the product is life changing. Or they will mention things like ‘Studies show’ or ‘Research suggests’. Now I won’t dive into the deep end on the research behind most supplements (specifically the ingredients within most supplements) but most ‘claims’ or ‘evidence’ are pretty rubbish.
What actually works?
The reality is there is only a handful of ingredients/supplements that have been researched and shown beneficial for human consumption. We’ll go through them now:
Whey Protein Isolate (WPI)
- whey is a dairy by-product that contains basically all the essential amino acids necessary for muscle growth and repair. It is a supplement for protein. That is basically it. It’s suggested for consumption after a workout as it’s quickly absorbed. Being a dairy by-product it’s not suitable for vegans. Try soy-based or rice-based protein powders for alternatives. If you’re struggling to consume enough protein from your diet then a protein supplement like WPI would be beneficial.
- Naturally found in red meat, creatine is a chemical that assists in force production and is popular for those who participate in regular resistance training. It’s an odourless white powder (don’t snort it please) so it can be mixed into smoothies or just water. Take it daily with no side effects besides a little water weight in the first couple of days but in our experience – this settles down.
- We are all aware of this bad boy – famously found in coffee and tea, it has an effect on cognitive function (aka the brain). We all know it has an ability to improve alertness and energy levels, but it also improves our performance in resistance training. Don’t believe the hype around having ‘too much coffee’ is bad for your health – ‘healthy’ limits of caffeine consumption are reportedly around the 500-700mg per day. To put that into comparison, a regular flat white will have ~ 70mg of caffeine or a 400ml can of Zero Sugar Monster White (fave) has a whopping 180mg of goodness. Amount of caffeine required to have a performance benefit in the gym differs based on a few factors; body weight, age and tolerance to caffeine. I have seen reports of anywhere from ~150-200mg of caffeine. A double shot of coffee should do the trick.
- Okay this is omega-3/omega-6 rich oils found in fish. Beneficial towards both cognitive function, joint health and a few reported benefits with hormones. Don’t buy any random fish oil tub though. There are differences. Ideally you’re looking at the EPA/DHA concentration and are looking for the highest number you can find. 1500-2000mg is a nice range to look for. Basically this is telling you that it’s high in the essential omega-3 oils that most of us are low in.
- Any will do, seek out a reputable brand. Take daily to top up optimal levels of vitamins and minerals. Even if you eat vegetables and fruit daily – it’s a nice safe guard.
What about fat burners, pre-workouts etc Chris? Do they work?
Long story short – don’t waste your money.
Why? Because the ingredients that are within these supplements – majority are not tested and even though they contain many ingredients, the actual dosages of each ingredient is often very small.
If you have ever read a dietary supplement you might come across the term ‘propietary blend’. It might be in the format of:
“Try our new RAMPAGE PRE WORKOUT with our propietary blend of ingredients to help you improve focus, burn fat and acquire the greatest pump” – sound familiar?
By law companies must label all ingredients on its label, along with the amount of each ingredient. The exception to this is if it is labelled as a propietary blend – now the company doesn’t have to mention the amount of each ingredient but instead just the total. This is bad.
This means a supplement could literally have 0.000001 grams of a certain ingredient and mention it in its marketing material.
Companies are smart and use this to their advantage and will often find ingredients that have shown even the smallest trace of benefit in scientific testing, add it to their propietary blend and then market it within their product.
Example of this are supplements that include citrulline malate or l-arginine. Both ingredients have shown small benefit in scientific studies done on mice. Whilst not yet proven to benefit humans, it is suddenly included in propietary blends across dietary supplements. Dodgy, right?
Long story short; be careful about supplements with propietary blends.
When should I take supplements?
Without me going out of my scope of practice as a Personal Trainer (I am not a dietician to make recommendations), it is my strong suggestion that you delay on taking supplements.
If you’re eating well and training consistently – I would perhaps introduce supplements around the 12-18 month mark. My client Michael went 17 months before we added in a simple protein powder to his regime. His pre-workout was a black coffee (and still is).
If you’re new to the gym the reality is – your body will go through changes and improvements even with just a little exercise. Taking protein or creatine won’t cause a massive change. It will create a psychological ‘crutch’ however.
You start lifting weights, buy protein powder and work out consistently for a month. You then associate your progress with the fact that you’re taking a scoop of protein powder after every workout. No, you progressed because you lifted weights for a month.
I see this now with intermediate and experienced lifters who take pre-workout. “Chris I can’t have a good workout with pre-workout” or “man I ran out of (insert name of supplement) and now I’m low on energy and my workout is sh*t”. They’re now reliant on supplementation to provide them with a ‘feeling’ of working hard. This ‘feeling’ is essentially a placebo.
Reality is if you need a pre-workout to improve ‘energy’ levels – focus on your diet. Seriously.
Where can I get supplements from?
Buy online. I suggest Bulk Nutrients (Bulk Nutrients | Australian made sport supplements at the best prices) – they don’t spend 10’s of thousands on fancy packaging, they simply get the job done with good quality supplements. Australian company with fast 2 day shipping. (no affiliation with them – I just like their stuff).
Finally I’ll finish with my FAVOURITE resource for supplementation information.
Examine (www.examine.com) is an independent website for nutrition information. You can search up a supplement ingredient (like whey or creatine or beta-alanine) or a topic (fat burners, protein powder) and you’ll then be provided all the resources and information on that supplement. Everything is independently run so there is no bias or agenda. They provide easy break-downs on what works and what doesn’t.
Literally you could use this and save yourself $1000’s of dollars.
And finally – seek out a Registered Dietician (RD) for specific advice on supplementation and recommendations. Going off recommendations from your local supplement store – whose livelihood is based off your purchases – is risky and possibly very expensive.
Wrapping it all up
So there you have it. A relatively brief but thorough introduction into supplementation. At the end of the day they are exactly that, a supplement for your diet. Tick all the boxes for a well-rounded diet first before you go and invest in supplements.