Since the dawn of athletics, humans have been looking for every advantage possible to enhance performance. From the ancient belief of harnessing Herculean traits through the consumption of animal organs to the controversial steroid usage of today, this desire has changed little over the last 2.5 millennia.
Fortunately, modern nutritional science has improved considerably since the bygone popularity of wheat germ oil, chalky protein powders and desiccated liver tablets. It is certainly still easy to get lost between fact and fiction but there are many legitimate supplements that are supported by scientific evidence. You just have to look deep enough through the murky, yet eloquently layered bullshit when surrounded by the “bro-science” at the local supplement store.
The following is a list of nutrition supplements that should be on the radar of every individual interested in maximizing strength for both health and performance. Milk, meat and coffee have long been a lifter’s best friend, and they should be your friends too, but there will be a point when moving beyond the basics will be required. These products are listed in descending order of utility based on academic evidence, practical application and price.
Whey Protein Powder
Who: Those who are not consuming enough protein via diet alone (aka most of you).
Benefits: It is no secret that adequate dietary protein is necessary to repair and remodel damaged muscle tissue, increase lean body mass, and increase strength. Active individuals require more dietary protein than those who are sedentary, and in terms of bioavailability and leucine content, whey protein has the greatest profile amongst all food.[1,2]
Dosage: 20g of whey contains about 3g of the amino acid leucine. Leucine is the amino acid most effective at building muscle in terms of the signaling of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and 3–4g per meal will maximize this process.[1–3] Contrary to popular “bro-lief”, anything consumed above this threshold WILL be digested and utilized, yet only as fuel or for futile metabolic reactions. It is also important to note that a relationship between high protein diets and kidney damage is unfounded in healthy individuals.[4–6]
Timing: There is a 3–5 hour period that must pass between doses in order to yield consecutive bouts of MPS.[1,2] Additional protein consumed earlier will not contribute to MPS.
Additional Notes: Unless you really enjoy the flavor, never spend more than $10/lb on a whey protein powder. Whey protein isolate (WPI) is more expensive and is only necessary for those who have gastrointestinal issues with whey protein concentrate (WPC). Beta lactalbumin is the amino acid fraction found in WPC that is responsible for this sensitivity but is also a highly concentrated source of leucine for those who are not allergic. In addition, the older you are, the less sensitive you are to protein and thus the more you will need to consume.[7–10]
Who: Everyone, including your grandmother.
Benefits: Creatine monohydrate supplementation increases creatine phosphate and creatine kinase in the muscles to produce energy for the phosphocreatine bioenergetic pathway. In short, this provides more energy (ATP) for the skeletal muscles during movements that require high force and power production. This contributes to increased training volume tolerance, strength, and intramuscular hydration for anabolism. In addition, there is data suggesting an increase in the number of nuclei in a muscle cell, which would increase the amount of protein that can be synthesized by the muscle itself. Neurological and cognitive functions have also been shown to improve with creatine ingestion, notably during sleep deprivation and natural impairment from aging. This has sparked ongoing trials that research the effects of creatine ingestion on neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Cerebral Palsy.
Dosage: Take 3–5g/day, everyday. There is no need to “load” it. The muscle cells will saturate sufficiently over time.
Timing: Timing is not as important as consistency but some of you will experience gastrointestinal distress after consumption. To avoid an unpleasant interruption to your training, begin taking this post-training or at any other less risky time of day. Better safe than sorry…
Additional Notes: The other sexy and expensive forms of creatine are a complete waste of money. Creatine monohydrate is significantly cheaper and the only form that has exceptional academic support. There really isn’t a valid excuse to avoid it.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA)
Who: Everyone interested in increased lean body mass and strength.
Benefits: A good BCAA supplement contains a healthy dose of leucine in addition to multiple other beneficial amino acids. These free-form amino acids enter the blood stream rapidly and are metabolized directly at the site of skeletal muscle and not by the small intestine or liver. The low calorie content makes BCAAs valuable for weight loss as well.
Dosage/Timing: On training days, consume 5–10g of BCAAs both before and after training as well as 4–5g between meals. On non-training days, only the latter applies. Each serving should be consumed at least 1.5 hours after eating in order to reap the benefits of an additional MPS cycle between each meal.[1,2,15]
Additional Notes: It is important to ingest BCAAs rather quickly in comparison to sipping on them over an extended duration. This will shuttle the substantial amount of substrate needed to initiate MPS. Many of the better products additionally include the amino acid citrulline malate, which may also stimulate MPS and help reduce fatigue.
Who: Those looking to improve performance late into sets and can afford more than whey, creatine and BCAAs.
Benefits: Carnosine is a molecule made up of both beta-alanine and histidine. Possible antioxidant properties aside, carnosine simply helps ward off fatigue by acting as an intracellular pH buffer. The beauty is that high protein diets already have an excess of histidine so the supplementation of beta-alanine provides the missing link. This is just as effective as taking carnosine, yet much easier on the wallet. Data also suggests an increase in volume tolerance when supplementing with beta alanine. In short, this can potentially add a couple reps to your work sets.
Dosage: Three daily divided doses of 2g each is recommended for maximizing absorption and effectiveness.
Timing: On training days, shoot for 2g before and after your workout plus an additional 2g at breakfast or dinner. On non-training days, split it up however you would like.
Additional Notes: Do not be alarmed if you experience a “tingly” sensation” across your face or other areas of the body after consuming beta-alanine. Although this is not a necessary sign of effectiveness, there are not any serious side effects and the sensation will subside. Note that it takes 4–6 weeks for beta-alanine to elevate current levels and if cessation occurs, these levels will remain peaked for an additional 4–6 weeks.
Who: Anyone who would like to more thoroughly enjoy life.
Benefits: Caffeine can enhance concentration and alertness during periods of sustained exhaustive training and sleep deprivation. In addition, it has been shown to decrease reliance on stored glycogen and may increase the use of free fatty acids for fuel. Improvements in performance during sustained endurance-based activity and high-intensity exercise are widely documented but the effect on power and strength still needs further research to be conclusive. Caffeine also increases the release of endorphins that decrease pain perception.
Dosage: 3–6mg/kg of bodyweight has been proven to be most effective and there are no further benefits beyond 9mg/kg. I recommend beginning at 2–3mg/kg of bodyweight and titrating up as needed. Individual responses will vary and there is nothing worse than deadlifting while your heart feels like it is going to jump out of your chest.
Timing: 15–30 minutes prior to training.
Additional Notes: Although coffee still provides benefit, caffeine seems to have a greater effect on performance when consumed in the anhydrous state of a pill or powder. There also is no evidence that supports the theory of caffeine causing dehydration.
Beta-Hydroxy beta-methylbutyric acid (HMB)
Who: Anyone who needs to add lean body mass.
Benefits: HMB functions as an intermediate of leucine metabolism and if you have been paying attention, leucine is a potent signaler of MPS. The caveat is that HMB doesn’t work very well alone so the addition of BCAAs (leucine) allows it to increase MPS rates to supraphysiological levels even in the absence of calories. This would likely help prevent muscle loss during calorie restriction. HMB also speeds recovery from high intensity resistance training leading to greater tolerance of increased training frequency.[16,17]
Timing: Split the dosage into 3 servings each day. 2g both pre- and post- training and 2g at dinner works well. On non-training days, allocate the 3 servings however you would like.
Additional Notes: This is a great addition for those who are more physique focused.
Betaine Anhydrous/Trimethylglycine (TMG)
Who: All of you who are looking to experiment for a performance and body composition advantage and have extra cash lying around.
Benefits: Betaine anhydrous mediates antioxidant dependent processes that seem to drive MPS by combating free radicals at the cellular level.[19–22]
Dosage/Timing: 1–1.5g both pre and post training.
Additional Notes: Further research is necessary but current academic and anecdotal evidence is promising.
Nutrition supplementation is a worthwhile addition to barbell training, intelligent programming, manageable stress and ample sleep. There are many popular supplements like Vitamin D-3, Fish Oil and Glucosomine/Chondroitin that were purposely not included here due to lack of convincing evidence. After you have the basics covered with whey and creatine, I recommend introducing one new supplement at a time. All of these products are safe, relatively cheap, and effective when consumed in tandem with one another, but individual results won’t always be productive so avoid going ape shit. Track some data for 4–6 weeks (subjective, intensity, volume, tonnage, body composition etc.) and decide for yourself if the supplement is worth further investment. Once you patiently work your way down the list, you’ll have a better understanding of the advantages or disadvantages of each and you won’t be stuck wondering which is providing “the shits” versus which is providing sexual desirability.
Thank you to Dr. Jordan Feigenbaum and others for the contributions and assistance with editing.
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