So many people get roped in by fancy advertisements and out-landish claims made by some supplement companies and end up spending a lot of money on supplements that are going to do very little for them? Why are they going to do very little? Well often the supplement companies may be advertising that their product does a lot more than it actually does which is sometimes the case. However just as often it is the fault of the consumer. What I mean by this is that often a person new to the supplement world will see something like a testosterone booster or fat burner and become convinced that all they have to do is buy it, take the tablets and they’ll wake up Jay Cutler the next day. The problem is that many people who buy these products will have a poor quality diet and training programme in place meaning you’re not really giving the product a chance to do its job because you aren’t giving it a favourable environment to work in. You have to first be in general good health before you can aim to become “super healthy”.
To try and save you the disappointment of getting poor results from a product and also save you some money I’ve come up with what I like to call the “Supplement Pyramid”. The idea of this is that in my opinion you shouldn’t invest in any supplement that’s on a certain level (Level 3 for example) before you’ve got everything from the below levels in place (In this case, you’ve got Levels 2 and 3 covered).
Level 1 – DIET
Yes, I know it’s not a supplement but so many people reject their diet and then spend hundreds of pounds on supplements and wonder why they don’t do the job. Remember supplements are there to SUPPLEMENT (hence the name) an already healthy and balanced diet. Make sure you’re hitting your basic protein, carb and healthy fat requirements as well as overall calories (depending on your goal of course). As a general rule, high GI carbs only really need to be consumed first thing in the morning and after exercise, to aid recovery. Other than this stick to good, low GI sources such as brown rice/pasta, sweet potato and oats etc. Use quality protein sources such as chicken breast, lean beef (less than 15% fat), fish and protein powders. Most people lack healthy fats in their diet, this can be rectified through eating nuts or oily fish fairly regularly or simply putting 15g of ground flaxseed in a protein shake. Don’t forget about your salad and vegetables either! They are full of micronutrients and vitamins to aid general well-being and they also increase the feeling of sanity (great when dieting!). You should also be well hydrated and that doesn’t mean drinking water around and during your workout, I mean all day. Aim for 3 litres or more a day.
Level 2 – Multi-Vitamins, EFA supplements and Basic Protein powders
Right so once you’ve got your diet sorted you can start looking at basic supplementation. Very active people have a considerably higher need for vitamins and minerals and it may be difficult to cover all of your needs through diet alone. You should still rely on trying to cover all of your needs through a healthy, varied diet but a good multi-vitamin is a great safety net to have in case there is something you’re missing. Any good quality, basic A-Z should be fine, remember a body can’t grow or perform anywhere near its best if it’s not healthy.
Essential fats are called that for a reason. They play a very important role in the body (maintaining cell membranes for example) and they are also a great source of energy. It can be very difficult to get all of your essential fats from diet alone without supplementation which is why I would highly recommend getting an EFA supplement. Using a high quality oil blend to supplement your healthy fat intake will help cover all bases.
Your next port of call should be a good quality protein powder. Athletes, or very active people also have a much higher protein requirement than sedentary people, with bodybuilders and powerlifters having the highest requirements of all. Bodybuilders and powerlifters should be aiming for about 1.5g of protein per lb of bodyweight although this can be higher or lower depending on the individual. Although you should be getting the majority of your protein from whole foods there are times when your body requires protein quickly in which case whole foods take too long to digest, it can also sometimes be very difficult to get enough protein from diet alone if on a very high protein diet. A whey protein supplement will get amino acids into your bloodstream much quicker than whole food and kick-start your recovery post-workout or quickly refuel your muscles after a night of starvation. Try to use a whey protein that is as low in fats as possible to optimise absorption speed and look for products with higher amounts of whey isolate, hydrolysed whey or whey peptides, as these are the fastest absorbing varieties.
Level 3 – Specialised Protein Powders, Amino Acids, BCAAs and Creatine
Once you’ve covered all of your basic supplements you can, begin to invest in more specialised products that should push your progress on a bit more (providing you’re still covering all of the previous points!!). The main reason I’m including the supplements in this section that I am is because all of them have had scientific studies performed on their use and have all been proven to have benefits when used by athletes in the appropriate manner. Another reason is that I have used them all personally and felt/seen the benefit that they offer when used correctly in conjunction with a good training programme and diet.
First I want to look at “specialised” protein powders. What I mean by “specialised” is that they are more than your basic whey protein supplement, they are usually made with a specific use in mind such as post-workout recovery or for taking at night time.
1 – Protein blends/Time-release proteins: These are made from a variety of different protein sources all with differing digestion rates. The idea of this is that it gives your body protein straight away as well as drip-feeding it over several hours so you’re never going without. These will usually include whey protein (fast digestion), egg albumen (medium digestion) and maybe casein (slow digestion) but this can vary. These are best used as a meal replacement but they would also suffice for your pre-workout shake or before bed shake if money is tight. In my opinion Gaspari’s Myofusion is the best example of these.
2 – Whey Isolate/Hydrolysed Whey: These are designed to be taken post-workout to get protein into your system as quickly as possible. Whey isolate has been filtered and processed further to remove carbs and fats so it can be digested quicker. Hydrolysed whey has already been partly digested into smaller fragments to allow it to be absorbed with minimal digestion. These products are more expensive due to the larger processing costs; they are very useful for post-workout and for breakfast. Optimum Nutrition’s Platinum Hydrowheyand Reflex’s Native Microwhey are good examples of these products.
3 – Casein powders: Casein protein is a very slow digesting protein, making it a perfect pre-bed choice to keep your muscles receiving amino acids well into the night and keep you out of catabolism for as long as possible. Optimum Nutrition’s 100% Gold Standard Casein is a great tasting, good quality example of this.
Another option are Amino acid supplements. Amino acids are what protein gets broken down into in your body and what is actually used by your body for all sorts of roles including recovery. Taking amino acids is technically better than protein because many of the amino acids from the food we eat are lost during the digestion process, whereas amino acids can be directly absorbed without digestion meaning they are a lot more efficient and extremely fast absorbing. Taking 10g of amino acids can be as effective as consuming 40g of protein. This benefit doesn’t come without cost however, due to the large amount of processing required these supplements are often expensive. There are two main types of amino acids supplements. EAA supplements contain the essential amino acids that need to be obtained through diet as your body can’t make them from other amino acids. BCAA’s on the other hand contain the 3 branched chain amino acids; leucine, iso-leucine and valine, which also happen to be 3 of the EAA’s. Supplementing with amino acids helps keep the body in a positive nitrogen balance either during exercise or between meals to keep you anabolic for as much of the day as possible. It’s important to not take amino acids within 60 or maybe even 90 minutes as other protein sources. This is because the amino acids will compete with the other protein sources for absorption sites and the signalling benefits of the amino acids will be wasted. If you want to start taking amino acids I’d recommend taking them during your workouts, maybe around 20-30g, and then if you can afford to take more then try taking 10g in between meals 2 or 3 times a day (ensuring it’s about 90minutes after the last time you ate).
Next I want to talk about creatine. Creatine is one of the first sources of energy your muscles go to during high intensity work (creatine-phosphate cycle) such as that performed during weightlifting. Normally there is only enough creatine stored in our muscles for a few seconds of activity at a time (Creatine stores are replenished during rest). However, we can “super-saturate” our muscles with creatine by supplementing with it, giving our muscles a larger energy source readily available during brief, high intensity exercise, meaning increased strength and endurance. Regular creatine monohydrate can usually be just as effective as other fancier (and more highly priced) creatines when used correctly. The more expensive forms usually claim to simply increase absorption rates (Creatine quite often will pass straight through us without being absorbed). However, you can achieve very good absorption rates using creatine monohydrate properly. Take it in small doses, no more than a few grams, spaced out throughout the day. Always take it with a meal or shake containing a good amount of carbs, and also fat if possible, this slows down the speed which it will pass through your stomach meaning more can be absorbed. If you have a post-workout shake with carbs it is good to take some then to replenish stores and because your body is readily absorbing more nutrients at this time. There are many opinions on how to take creatine but I would recommend performing a loading phase in which you take 10g for the first 10-14 days (spaced out in several doses throughout the day) and then move to a maintenance dose of 5g per day. It is usually recommended by manufacturers to take a break from creatine after a certain number of weeks, this is normally a pre-caution to allow your body to re-gain it’s natural levels, but then you can start the cycle again straight away.
Level 4 – Testosterone booster and Fat burners
These supplements really should be the icing on the cake to your supplement stack. These should only be bought when everything else in place otherwise their effects will be severely diminished and you will have wasted your money. For example, some people will buy a fat burner because they think it will remove that unwanted fat, but often they will not even be in a calorie deficit and have a poor exercise routine meaning there will be no fat loss and it will leave them very unhappy.
Fat burners are usually a cocktail of stimulant and thermogenic substances. The idea of them is usually to raise your metabolism slightly, meaning you’ll burn more calories throughout the day. This is helpful when people are approaching low body fat levels and need to be able to get in to a calorie deficit without cutting out any more food as that may force their body in to “starvation mode”, in which it will lower metabolism and hold on to fat as it thinks it is starving. Fat burners will usually also provide an energy boost through stimulants like caffeine to help you get through the day (and also your workouts) when calories are low. A fat burner should only really be considered when your down to the last few stubborn pounds of fat that refuse to go away. Before you splash out on a fat burner have your diet and exercise programme checked out, it may just be a case of making a few tweaks to kick start fat loss.
Natural testosterone boosters are usually a mix of ingredients including herbs that claim to increase the synthesis of testosterone in your body. The effects of increased testosterone can include increased strength and protein synthesis, improved mood, energy and raised libido. Firstly, unless you’re in your late 20’s or older then a test booster will do very little as your natural test levels will likely be high anyway. Before you invest in one of these make sure your getting enough healthy fats in your diet (which your body uses to synthesize testosterone) and also make sure you’re getting enough sleep and rest, because lack of sleep/rest will seriously impede gains. If you’re doing everything right but your gains have stopped then a testosterone booster could get you back on track and get you some good gains. Through personal experience I would recommend Anabolic Design’s Granite Mass Stack, I used this product for 8 weeks and put on 12lbs but also decreased my body fat during this time!
I hope this article can act as a guide for everyone who is new to the supplement industry and is a bit lost. Hopefully by reading this you can make more informed decisions about which products to invest in and will save you from wasting your money and get you the results you desire!