Nutrition is number 1, always. Without a solid base of food, supplements are useless.
That being said, there’s no reason we can’t add some supplements into our diet to add a few percentage points of progress to our nutrition and performance.
While there are literally hundreds of supplements and nutritional powders, pills and additives, we don’t actually need all that many. Many companies will be quick to tell you the advantages of adding certain micronutrients to your life, without letting you know that you’re probably already getting enough through a varied diet.
Others, we could do with getting a little more of to buff up our bodies.
1. WHEY PROTEIN
Protein makes up the building blocks of our muscles, letting us get strong and perform well and, with the right stimulus - get massive. While it’s not a performance enhancing supplement, whey protein helps out with the recovery side of things, rebuilding and improving the muscles that get blasted by our training sessions, and prevents the breakdown of muscle tissue when we’re not using it.
While we can get lots of protein in our diet, it can take a long time to break down and digest, making us feel fuller for longer - in turn making it harder to eat more food if we’re trying to put on weight. By drinking it in the form of a shake, it doesn’t take so long to break down and we’ve just added 20-30g of protein to our day without impacting other meals. For the fat cut side of things, more protein means we’re not losing any muscle tissue while dieting - improving our ratio of lean muscle vs fatty tissue to make us look more athletic (or shredded if you’ve been busy building muscle).
While there are a few different protein options out there, whey protein gives you the most benefits for the smallest price. It’s basically the same as casein (both are byproducts in the cheese making process), but casein takes longer to digest - taking several hours to be completely digested, whereas whey only takes about an hour to be completely digested. This can make casein a good option for a pre-bedtime shake, to prevent muscle breakdown while we’re sleeping, but whey is superior for getting into the muscles and getting to work quickly.
The majority of whey proteins also come complete with all the essential amino acids we need for growth (think branched chain amino acids, glutamine and leucine etc) - meaning we don’t need to take extra BCAA supplementation (more BCAA’s has very little bonus effect - once our body has enough it doesn’t have much use for the extra ones thrown on top). Some also contain creatine (number 2 on this list), which has great performance enhancing attributes.
When it comes to whey protein, there are a few different options: isolate, concentrate, and complete. Whey isolate is a more pure protein, containing less fat and less lactose than concentrate and complete, but it can be a little more expensive due to the extra fine filtering it goes through to purify it. Concentrate gives you the protein basically as it is, not too filtered and in a much more natural state - but this does mean it will contain more fat. Isolate will yield about 90% protein, and concentrate about 80% - the rest being some fat and carbs from the milk. Both will contain a solid range of BCAA’s, the only difference is in the protein and fat content. The way to get the best of both worlds is to find a complete whey protein, or one that has a mixture of isolate and concentrate. This gives us the benefits of both, while being a little easier on the bank balance than whey isolate.
Unfortunately, as whey is made from milk it may not be suitable for some vegetarians, vegans and the lactose intolerant. If you’re lactose intolerant, the whey isolate varieties are the best bet as they’ll have a lower concentration of lactose in them, and there are some companies that do an ultra fine or hydro isolate so that the lactose presence is largely eliminated.
For strict vegans and vegetarians, there are other protein powder options, although they may be a little more expensive depending on your preference. Look out for: pea protein, rice protein (I didn’t believe it was a thing, but they’ve found a way), egg protein, mixed protein powder (uses a variety of plant and bean sources for a complete protein profile), hemp protein and soy protein.
Cheap, tasteless, and can enhance your strength by about 8% more than training alone. If you’re not getting any creatine in your diet, this is a must have for performance. While 8% might not seem like a lot, if you add it up over a long period of time it makes a big difference.
More than a performance enhancer, adding creatine to your diet can also increase your muscle mass. Granted, this is through the extra water that tags along with creatine into the cells of your muscles, but mass is mass. Hypothetically, the extra mass inside the cells can trigger muscle hypertrophy by activating certain growth factors (for example, satellite cell proliferation, ERK6 and PKBa) and help to inhibit myostatin, which stops your muscles growing too big (meaning less speed limits, wooooooOOO!!).
If you’re worried that it’ll affect your health - creatine is one of the most rigorously tested supplements on the market. So far the research has shown only 2 potential issues: 1. IF you have kidney disease or kidney problems, high doses of creatine can be harmful (however, if you have kidney problems high doses of anything are likely to give you trouble as the kidneys struggle to filter everything out), and 2. IF you’re a guy, and IF you have the genes for male pattern baldness, creatine supplementation COULD speed up the process. There’s only been one study to show a link so far, so while it’s not an absolute truth it is a possible risk to consider if baldness runs in your family.
When taking creatine, there are often recommendations to include loading phases or cycle how much you take, but these are usually unnecessary. As long as you’re adding 5g of creatine to your day, you’ll have more than enough to reap the rewards. Any more than 5g doesn’t have much of an effect, so we’d just be wasting our power powder. Interestingly, if you have a lot of red meat in your diet you might already be getting all the creatine you need from the meat. The only way to tell is to add some creatine to your diet, and if you find it’s not doing much then you’re probably getting enough as it is.
If you don’t eat meat then don’t worry - the majority of creatine supplements are synthetically created, without animals coming anywhere near the process. If you take it in capsule form they may contain gelatin, but that just needs a quick label check to confirm.
NOTE: creatine absorbs and carries water along with it into the muscle cells, even though it’s not a huuuuge amount, it is still something to consider if you’re prepping for a specific event/occasion. If you’re cutting fat, then it’s easier just to drop the creatine and pick up where you left off once you’re happy with the fat cutting results.
3. TWO SCOOPS OF STFU AND TRAIN
We have all the tools we need to train in our heart, mind and limbs. Instead of a physical supplement, this last one is a mental one we have on us at all times - we just need to call upon two essential ingredients to help us power through a tough session.
First scoop: HEART
Why are you going to train? What is your long term goal? Why do you want this?
You’re a badass, it doesn’t matter what supplements you do or don’t take - you’re going to go out there and crush the workout, no questions asked. All you need is to know why you’re doing what you’re doing, go forth and DO IT. Access your drive, and dominate the day. No amount of caffeine or fancy chemicals are going to make you get up, put one foot in front of the other and get to training - it’s all down to you. Stop waiting for the right moment, relying on “feeling motivated” or a pre workout buzz to get you out there, it all starts and ends in your own mind. Supplements and motivation can help and get us psyched up - but nothing on this earth is going to do the real work for you, besides you. Remember that.
For tips on how to move past motivation and access your drive, take a peek at my post “Motivation is So Last Year”.
Second scoop: MIND
What are you doing today? How is it helping you reach your long term goal? If it’s not helping you reach your goal, do you really need it in there? What about other options, have you got a goal for the workout (hit legs, work on speed, just get the body moving) or a specific plan (flat bench 3x5, deadlifts 3x8, lunges 4x12, etc)?
While an exact workout plan is great, we know exactly what we’re going in to do, remember to have options in mind just in case training doesn’t go to plan. This could be for a few reasons, like we’re not as well recovered so each warm up rep is a grinder, the equipment is broken or unavailable, we find we’ve picked up a niggle or small injury - each could impact our plan somehow. By having other options, or working to a goal, we can be sure to have a great workout whether it goes to plan or not.
If you’re struggling for ideas, check out my post “Never Have A Bad Workout Again” for tips on how to turn a naff session around.
Rawson ES, Volek JS. 2003. Effects of creatine supplementation and resistance training on muscle strength and weightlifting performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Nov. 17(4). pp822-831. [online]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14636102 [Accessed 24/1/2019].