Posted on June 04 2018
When you’re working out at the gym, especially if you are getting into weightlifting, you will rapidly become aware of all the supplements on offer that promise to get you better results, more quickly. We’re delving into the wonderful – and sometimes weird – world of supplements to see what’s worth it and what’s a bit of a fad.
These are essentially powdered protein from milk or plant sources. They can be enjoyed as a drink or in the form of a meal replacement bar. They offer a concentrated protein hit of a measured amount after training and can be taken at any time of year as part of a structured nutrition plan or to replace a meal when time is short. They’re usually flavoured and can be used in baking, too. We tried a non-flavoured protein powder as a post-workout drink once and it tasted like wet sand, so don’t be fooled into thinking they’re all as easy to drink as the bros in the bro room make it look.
Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are popular for use after high-intensity training and they are believed to help you recover faster, help reduce muscle soreness and help to grow lean muscle mass. Our bodies can't produce them, so the amino acids have to be ingested in food. BCAAs are naturally present in protein-rich food as well as some wholegrains and nuts, so supplements may not be necessary here, but they can help depleting energy levels during a workout.
This category comprises a huge array of powdered superfoods such as wheatgrass, spirulina and so forth. Super greens are packed with vitamins and nutrients and can provide a valuable extra health ‘shot’ to your diet, but you should always prioritise wholefoods first and then focus on supplements as exactly that – a helpful extra. Be warned though, some of these taste like swamp water (looking at you, spirulina), but if you disguise them among other food, like a smoothie, you should be fine.
This is an essential amino acid which is believed to help stimulate muscle growth, improve immunity and increase endurance. It's popular with bodybuilders and weightlifters because intense training can deplete the body's natural reserves. As a supplement, it may be worth trialling if you strength train intensively, although it is also present in protein foods.
Again popular with weightlifters and athletes, creatine is one of the most common supplements of all and is believed to help with muscle recovery, strength, endurance and speed. It can help to optimise lean muscle mass and burn fat, and it is found naturally in fish and meat. However, it can be taken as a supplement around training, with specific timing. If you are looking at advanced nutrition and training hard, this could be worth a try.
Magnesium or ZMA
This is an essential mineral that is lacking in most modern diets and is especially important for women. The ZMA combination helps to optimise recovery and should be taken with a meal in the evening. It's a useful supplement for women who are weightlifting.
How to Know Whether to Supplement
Should you really bother adding super powders or other diets to your workout or weightlifting regime? The answer really has to be maybe – it all depends on your individual needs. Everyone has their own goals, existing diet, time constraints and budget.
Remember that many supplements have a high markup on them, with little substance behind the fancy marketing – meanwhile making their manufacturers a healthy profit. Learn to read ingredients carefully to find out the origin, provenance and makeup of any product that you buy and also educate yourself on the pros and cons of any supplement before investing in one. Equally, check with your doctor if you are taking existing medication of any kind.
As a general rule, it’s good to focus on eating the best possible diet with maximum nutrition from wholefood sources and then add in careful supplements where needed.
Some supplements – those which help to ensure optimum levels of micronutrients required by the body – may be well worth trialling. Others – particularly those containing caffeine and more questionable ingredients – must be taken with care, advice and monitoring. Always buy from a reputable brand and never risk buying ‘rapid result’ tablets for fat burning or muscle growth from dubious internet sources, including overseas providers.
Remember that your health must be the priority and that you will achieve the vast majority of your desired results simply by training hard, eating well and getting the right amount of rest. Your supplements are your 5% extra that build on a 95% sound foundation!
For more help and advice on supplements and gym life, check out our blog.