The focus of this article will be on the supplements I take. You might call them bodybuilding supplements, weightlifting supplements, gym supplements, or something of the sort. Regardless, there are so many supplements out there that it can be tough to know what's real and what's a money grab. My hope is that this article will clear the air so that you can reach peak performance without getting scammed.
Which Supplements Should I Take?
Before I answer this question, consider what the word "supplement" actually means. Merriam Webster defines supplement as, "Something that completes or makes an addition." When it comes to gaining muscle, supplements are completing or adding to what you consume in a day. They're supplementing your diet. The reason I make this clarification is because some supplements aren't necessarily a need, as will be discussed. Additionally, if your diet is complete garbage, then supplements won't do a whole lot for you. Now, to answer the question, I usually stick with protein powder, creatine monohydrate, a pre-workout, and a multivitamin. Could I take more? Sure. Do I need to? Not really.
Do I Need to Take Protein Powder?
Perhaps the most common supplement among weightlifters and strength athletes is protein powder, but do you actually need it? The simple answer is no. There's no magic in protein powder. It should be viewed as a supplement to your diet. If you're not eating enough protein in a day, then protein powder can be used to complete your recommended protein intake. With that said, protein powder is pretty cheap and a great tool. This leads to another basic question:
How Much Protein Should I Take?
I answer this question more fully in my article on IIFYM; however, I'll summarize the main points here. For women, multiply your bodyweight by 0.6 to 0.8. That's how many grams of protein per day you should aim for. For men, you'll want closer to a gram per pound of bodyweight everyday. The ratios have to do with a number of factors, such as your proportion of lean body mass, hence why men need a higher amount than women. I try to hit 0.8 times my bodyweight at a minimum, making anything else a bonus. As I mention in the other article, you don't gain much by ingesting more protein unless you take performance-enhancing drugs.
What's the Best Type of Protein Powder?
Whey protein is generally considered the "best" type of protein powder. Whey protein is a milk-based product and has a few key advantages. As I often do, I'll quote Dr. Layne Norton, "Whey has probably the best profile in terms of bioavailability and leucine content, and there is strong evidence that leucine is the only amino acid that can independently stimulate protein synthesis." This is a main reason why whey is the most popular protein powder.
Casein is another milk-based protein powder. Supplement companies generally try to sell the line that it has a slower absorption rate, making it better in certain wheys (excuse my terrible pun). Generally speaking, whey is a better choice for muscle growth, but some point to the satiating effects of casein. Plant-based proteins, such as from wheat and soy, are also on the market. They might be an option for vegans or others with dietary restrictions. These proteins don't have as good of amino acid profiles, so they're likely not as good in terms of building muscle if taken in the same amounts.
Which Creatine Should I Take?
There are several types of creatine on the market, but I always recommend the tried and true creatine monohydrate. This article by Nick Coker compares creatine monohydrate, buffered creatine: kre-alkalyn, creatine hydrochloride (HCL), and creatine nitrate. In short, creatine monohydrate has been widely used for years, has been studied extensively, and shows verifiable benefits. While the other forms of creatine have benefits, there's little evidence to suggest that they're superior to creatine monohydrate. In this case, I advocate for keeping it simple.
What is Creatine?
This is a simple question that all lifters face at one point or another. They may wonder it themselves or be asked by their suspicious parents. Rest assured, creatine is not remotely close to a steroid in any way. Creatine, like many other supplements, is a combination of amino acids. It's naturally occurring in certain types of meat, and is extraordinarily safe to take.
What Does Creatine Do?
The way I describe the purpose of creatine is that it hydrates muscle cells. While not a full description, this usually helps people understand right away why it's useful for athletes who want to gain muscle. Creatine will help you build muscle strength and size. There's also evidence that it improves brain performance and bone mineral density.
How to Creatine Load
First, do you need to load creatine? Not necessarily. The idea of loading creatine stems from the fact that the benefits of creatine take time to come into play. You can go the standard route by taking 5g of creatine per day, with results occurring up to 4 weeks later (this time varies by individual, and can be shorter). If you load creatine, the general recommendation is to take about 20g each day for about a week, then switch to the usual 5g dose.
What's the Best Pre-Workout?
As you might expect, this answer is subjective. If your goal is to run a marathon, you're going to leverage different products than somebody who's about to attempt a max deadlift. Your caffeine tolerance will also play a role in which pre-workout may or may not be effective. A trick I use to better manage my tolerance is to take less pre-workout on lighter days and more on heavier days. With that said, there are a few things I look for when choosing a pre-workout.
Some companies will hide their ingredients in the infamous "proprietary blend" bucket. This helps them protect their formulas, but can be incredibly frustrating for consumers. While not always done in a nefarious way, hiding the specific amounts of important ingredients is a detriment to customers. In many cases, these blends allow companies to save on ingredient costs by adding fillers. Does the label have a specific line for caffeine anhydrous, for example, or does it feature a "caffeine blend?"
Best Pre-Workout Ingredients
In addition to proprietary blends, supplement companies will save on costs by providing less than a clinical dose of certain ingredients. Citrulline malate (2:1 ratio) is perhaps my favorite pre-workout ingredient. Unfortunately, it's regularly provided in small doses given its cost. You'll be lucky to find 6g (a minimal dose) in any given pre-workout. 8g is a preferred dosage. Another common ingredient is beta alanine, which is usually provided in an acceptable 3.2g dose. Other ingredients I look for are caffeine (obviously) and electrolytes.
Do BCAAs Work?
Do branched-chain amino acids work? It depends how you define "work." In terms of making it easier to build muscle, not really. BCAAs are most often credited with reducing soreness and improving recovery, but you don't need them. I haven't taken BCAAs in years, but wanted to include them in this supplement list because I've used them in the past.
If it fits your micros? This section is important to touch on briefly because a lot of people overdo their vitamin intake, especially in the lifting community. For perspective, I take a daily multivitamin for men and sometimes additional vitamin D3 if I've been inside a lot. That's it. Slamming a ton of extra vitamins usually does more harm than good, so don't be stupid. You'll get the vast majority of what you need through your food and a normal multivitamin.
I recently became an affiliate of Bulk Supplements, meaning you can save 5% on your order by using the code: WORM5. This is another way to support me if you're interested. Bulk Supplements offers a number of individual ingredients in bulk. I love them for my creatine monohydrate and citrulline malate. They also offer unflavored whey protein isolate that you can mix into your flavored protein, a shake, or another powder like Nestlé Nesquik. You can explore all of their product offerings here.