Sports supplements: the good, the bad and the ugly
While you’ve been working on your gains, so has the sports supplements and nutrition industry. Some estimate it will be a US$30 billion business before this decade is over. Now that’s an impressive pump!
At Centr, we take a “real food first” approach to getting the nutrition needed to build muscle and power through your workouts. We’re also big fans of protein powder – in smoothies and snacks – as a convenient way to get the nutrition you need without chowing down non-stop.
But what about performance and result-enhancing supplements that aren’t protein? You know, the ones with weird names and big claims that the buffed-up bros at your gym won’t stop talking about (not the ones on the banned-substances list.) Suddenly, it seems like everyone is crazy about creatine.
What is a supplement?
If you chew on vitamin C tablets when you’re feeling run down, pop a multivitamin every morning, or add protein powder to your post-workout shakes, you’re taking a supplement. In basic terms, a supplement is anything manufactured to support or enhance your diet.
Like the fine print on the label you probably didn’t read, we have a word of caution to offer: supplements should not replace a balanced diet. If your diet is poor, you can take supplements until you rattle like a pill bottle, but you’re not going to perform at your best and get the results you want.
However, when your training and nutritional intake are top-notch and you’re looking for that extra edge, could certain supplements help to take you further? Possibly.
How are sports supplements different from regular supplements?
Sports supplements are dietary additions that claim to improve sports performance or aid hypertrophy (muscle growth).
Before we dive in and explore which of the most popular sports supplements are worth your muscle-building bucks, it’s important to point out that you should always talk to your doctor or sports dietician before incorporating anything new into your diet.
What are they? Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for good heart, brain, and eye function.
What do they do? As far as your strength training, omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties that may aid recovery and reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS.) Plus, there is research that suggests omega-3s can improve muscle activation and reduce fatigue.
Should I take a supplement? While there are plenty of omega-3 supplements on the market, you’re better off going for whole-food sources like fish (salmon, trout, sardines), eggs, walnuts, chia seeds, and plant oils (e.g. flaxseed, canola.)
Get your daily hit of Omega-3s with our Baked Salmon & Sweet Potato Salad.
What are they? There are 20 amino acids in muscle protein, 9 of which are essential amino acids or EAAs (which cannot be produced by your body, so must be part of your diet.) Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a group of 3 of these EAAs – leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
What do they do? For decades, manufacturers of supplemental BCAAs have claimed that they are the key to maximizing your anabolic state (when your body is resting and repairing) and stimulating muscle protein synthesis (the process of building muscle mass.)
Should I take a supplement? While BCAAs play a key role in muscle protein synthesis, you actually need all 9 EAAs present to achieve significant muscle gain. As one study put it, "a dietary supplement of BCAAs alone cannot support an increased rate of muscle protein synthesis." In fact, an over-reliance on BCAAs has been reported to reduce muscle protein synthesis. So you’re better off making sure your diet includes a good variety of meat, eggs, dairy, tofu, nuts, and cheese – all common sources of EAAs.
If you’re vegan, your protein powder is likely to be high in BCAAs, so you shouldn’t need an additional supplement.
What is it? While your body produces this member of the amino acid family itself, beta-alanine can also be sourced from food such as chicken and fish.
What does it do? Beta-alanine can help to improve exercise performance and endurance by buffering the acidity in your muscles which would cause fatigue and a drop in performance.
Should I take a supplement? It has been found that beta-alanine supplementation can improve exercise capacity (and thus your outcomes) by –0.37 to 10.49%, with an average of 2.85%. So results are variable, and on average not huge. However, if you participate in high-intensity sports (such as rowing, competitive swimming, or cycling) or do a lot of exercise requiring repeated high-intensity efforts (that includes strength training) a beta-alanine supplement may be of benefit.
Many nutrients sold in the form of supplements are readily available in natural whole foods.
What is it? Collagen is a protein and a big player in your body. It’s in your skin, bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, organs – giving you structure and holding you together.
What does it do? Collagen used to be the secret ingredient in your mother’s anti-wrinkle cream. Now it’s in the fitness game with claims it can reduce joint pain and heal tendon injuries.
Should I take a supplement? The International Olympic Committee declared a possible correlation between increased collagen and "decreased pain". However, it added that “functional benefits, recovery from injury, and effects in elite athletes are not known”. If you do give collagen a go, take it with vitamin C, which boosts collagen synthesis.
The best natural source of collagen is a bone broth soup. If that doesn’t sound particularly appealing, you’ll be relieved to know collagen supplements are low risk – so while they may or may not help, they probably won’t hurt.
What is it? Creatine is an organic compound that is naturally occurring (your body produces it after eating proteins), and found mostly in your muscles.
What does it do? Creatine allows adenosine triphosphate (molecules that fuel your body) to be replenished. Basically, more creatine means more energy to tackle your workouts. So when you do a box jump or press a barbell above your head, it’s creatine power driving your muscles on. Lifters take it to boost performance, endurance, and possibly recovery.
Should I take a supplement? Creatine is well-researched and has consistently been shown to have ergogenic benefits. However, it can interact with medications and should not be used if you have a kidney disorder, so check with your doctor or sports dietician before you head to the store. It also doesn’t work at all for around 30 percent of people (non-responders), so keep in mind that you may be one of them.
What is it? Magnesium is a mineral involved in a huge number of body processes – everything from nervous system regulation to energy creation and muscle movement. Some people don’t get enough magnesium from their diets.
What does it do? Magnesium supplementation is often suggested to reduce muscle cramps or soreness. Studies have also indicated that taking magnesium supplements "may improve performance parameters in both aerobic (cardio) and anaerobic (e.g. weight lifting, plyo, HIIT) exercises” – however more research is needed to confirm these benefits.
Should I take a supplement? As mentioned, many of us don’t get the recommended amount of magnesium. But before you try a supplement, try to increase your magnesium intake from natural sources like yogurt, leafy greens, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
What is it? Ashwagandha is a herb traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine (an ancient Indian alternative medicine) to alleviate anxiety and boost mental clarity and energy levels.
What does it do? As far as your muscle-building journey, ashwagandha may have benefits for muscle mass and endurance. One study had male subjects take 300mg of ashwagandha twice daily which resulted in "significant increases in muscle mass and strength". Another study of elite cyclists indicated that it "improved the cardiorespiratory endurance of the elite athletes."
Should I take a supplement? Ashwagandha is under-researched. While initial findings for its exercise and sporting applications are positive, its long-term effects are not known. Large doses can cause gastrointestinal upset and certain people (such as pregnant women) should not take it, so definitely consult your doctor before you try it.
What is it? Maca is a highly nutritious root vegetable found in Peru, where it’s been used for thousands of years by indigenous people as food, for flavor, and as medicine for diverse ailments including impotence and infertility.
What does it do? Although there hasn’t been a huge amount of research into maca, small human studies suggest it is an effective energizer, boosting oxygen consumption and performance, and can improve endurance performance. Mind you, it’s not an instant energy hit – these studies showed results after 60 and 14 days of use, respectively.
Should I take a supplement? Maca is generally considered safe (unless you have thyroid problems) and is widely available. Most popular in powder form, it has an earthy, caramel-ish taste so makes a good addition to smoothies.
What is it? Technically this should be called trimethylglycine (TMG), but it was the first of multiple betaines discovered, so the old name has largely stuck. An amino acid derivative found in wheat, spinach, and beets, it teams up with other compounds to help the body carry out essential processes.
What does it do? The buzz around betaine as a bodybuilding supplement is that it can boost performance and enhance body composition (by fueling the process of muscle protein synthesis.) However, results have been mixed. One study of young men found it had a positive impact on strength and power performance, but a similar study of young women found that while it may reduce fat mass and improve work capacity, it did not improve strength or power.
Should I take a supplement? The jury is very much out on this one, so hold off.
Always take a close look at what you’re putting in your body.
What are they? There are a whole lot of products that claim to boost testosterone levels (often marketed to older men as a sex drive fix), but many are lying.
What do they do? Testosterone plays a key role in muscle mass – you might consider it your body’s in-house anabolic steroid. But it’s not as simple as ‘more testosterone equals faster muscle growth’.
Should I take a supplement? No! While low levels of testosterone (it drops with age) can lead to low energy/fatigue, increased body fat, and decreased strength, commercial testosterone boosters offer very few rewards and a whole lot of risks. If you are worried about your testosterone levels, talk to a doctor.
Deer antler velvet
What is it? Another traditional medicine, used throughout Asia. It comes from the fuzz on deer antlers which contains IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor-1) – similar to human growth hormone. As a supplement, it’s most popularly sold in spray form.
What does it do? The idea is that deer antlers grow fast, so ingesting the stuff that makes the antlers grow must help with muscle regeneration, right? Weeeeeelllll….
Should I take a supplement? If you’re a professional athlete, you most definitely should not – it’s on the prohibited substances list. The first many heard of deer antler velvet was when Baltimore Ravens NFL player Ray Lewis was accused of using it (he denied it.) There is no scientific evidence that it works, and we doubt the deer enjoy the process of collecting it, so steer clear.
Pre-workout mixes & blends
What is it? The ‘multivitamin’ of strength training supplements, pre-workouts contain a mix of some of the different supplements we’ve just run you through in this list – plus sugar, flavoring, and caffeine.
What does it do? Pre-workouts claim to give you the energy you need to power through a workout and make every rep count.
Should I take a supplement? Research is limited, and ingredients vary widely, so it’s hard to give general advice on pre-workouts. That said, you’re better off taking a specific supplement than a blend of dubious quality. And given the main energy-boosting ingredient in most pre-workouts is caffeine, why not just have a black coffee before your workout?
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