Colin’s list here is basically my list. I also add glutamine to my post-workout shake. When research came out a few years ago showing that glutamine didn’t do much for recovery or muscle gain, I stopped taking it. Over the next few months, I caught every little bug the students brought into my classroom, which was weird since I hadn’t been getting sick since I started lifting. Put glatamine back and my resistance went back up. Sure, it’s anecdotal, not scientific, but it works for this teacher, so I’m throwing it out there. Research everything yourself before taking anything.
When Tammy reached out to me to write an article on some of the supplements that could be useful, it’s not that I didn’t want to write it. But I’m always a little apprehensive to talk about supplements especially when it comes to the general weight loss community. See for most people, when it comes time to try and get in shape, they tend to look for ways to get results almost in the exact opposite order they should. It’s not uncommon at all for “what supplements should I be taking?” to be the first question out of someone’s mouth when they get started.
The truth is supplements have very little to do with losing the weight and keeping it off. In fact when it comes to nutrition it’s probably the LAST question you should be asking. It doesn’t mean there aren’t any supplements out there that can be of use, but we’re talking about the last 5% here. There are no pills, powders, potions or wraps that will get you where you want to be. So before I get into some of the supplements I DO find to have some benefit. I would like to take a moment to discuss what I consider to the order of importance when it comes to your diet (largely influenced by Eric Helms’ e-book “The Nutrition Pyramid.”) So with that being said, when it comes to your diet here is what you should prioritize in exact order:
3. Macronutrients (protein being the most important of the three)
5. Meal Frequency/Timing
Do you see where supplements fall on the list? Unfortunately, when people get into this stuff the majority of them take this list and flip it upside down. They want to what supplements to take, what exact foods they should eat (there are no magic foods,) when and how frequently to eat, etc. While it’s not that these things make NO difference at all, they are very minor and you can quite honestly get great results just focusing on the top 3 of the above list.
You don’t want to sacrifice something higher on the list for something lower. Don’t worry about what supplements to take if you have no clue how many calories you’re eating. It’s a waste of time to worry about how many times a day to eat if you have no clue how much you’re eating. Most importantly it doesn’t matter what you’re doing if it’s not something you can adhere to and sustain in the long-term. (This is why so few people lose the weight and keep it off, but we’ve talked about this before. How “optimal” something is means nothing if you can’t keep doing it.
So again, unless you have the bigger things down I wouldn’t personally bother worrying about what supplements could be beneficial, don’t major in the minor. Remember, supplements are supposed to supplement your diet, not be the focus of it. But with that said, if you’ve gotten more experienced, your diet is in check, you’ve been consistent with your training, and you want to potentially take things to the next level? Well then maybe there are a few supplements you may want to consider. So without further ado, let’s talk about some potentially beneficial supplements:
1. Whey Protein
I always hesitate to put whey protein on a supplement list because personally I don’t consider it a supplement, I consider it food. When it comes to your macronutrient breakdown getting your protein in is without question the most important. Protein is not only primarily responsible for building/maintaining muscle mass but it’s also very satiating (helps you feel full, especially important in a deficit) and is by far the most thermogenic of the 3 macros. Your body burns about 25-30% of the calories from protein just processing it, whereas it’s about 7% for carbs and 3% for fat. (1) So whey protein can be beneficial because it can make it easier to hit the higher amount of protein typically recommended (around 1 gram per pound of lean body mass, depending on several factors.) It doesn’t mean whey protein is magic or even necessary, it’s just convenient and cost effective.
2. Creatine Monohydrate
Creatine monohydrate is probably the most studied supplement on the planet and easily has the most research supporting it’s benefits. Creatine works by allowing you to train harder and longer. It does so by increasing your body’s ATP stores. (2) Your body’s first source of energy when lifting is creatine phosphate. By supplementing with creatine you give your body more creatine phosphate stores and like that you have more energy for your anaerobic workouts. Creatine also allows the muscle cells to hold more water. So not only does it benefit energy and strength, but it gives the appearance of a larger muscle. It’s worth noting you may see some slight weight gain when you start supplementing with creatine, but this is due to increased water retention in your muscle cells and has nothing to do with fat.
When you take creatine doesn’t appear to matter as it’s a stored energy so whenever you’ll remember to take it daily is the “best” time to take it. There also does’t appear to be any benefit of taking other forms of creatine (for instance creatine ethyl ester) over creatine monohydrate as they are more expensive and no more effective. (3) Taking between 3-5 grams of creatine daily would be suggested for most. Some people recommend a “loading” phase where you take more creatine the first week, but this will not saturate your muscle cells “better” only faster but with a higher likelihood of bloating as a side effect.
3. Fish Oil
Supplementing with EPA and DHA has been suggested to potentially increase heart health, reduce inflammation, improve exercise recovery, lower blood pressure and even support muscle-protein synthesis. (4, 5, 6) Make sure you are taking 2-4 grams of combined EPA/DHA daily to get the most out of it’s benefits.
This one is more of a “cover the bases” kind of supplement. Taking a multi-vitamin can help cover any nutrient deficiency gaps you may have from your diet and/or genetics with what appears to be minimal risk of negative side effects. (7) Honestly one of the best things you can supplement with is anything you are deficient in and of course that will vary person to person. However, unless you’re going to get blood work done to find out what that is, a multi-vitamin can at least potentially aid. You don’t need anything with crazy high 1000% of everything pills (in fact those would likely be the ones that could harm you) but just seeking something with around 100% of most vitamins and minerals is a good place to start. There are also specific vitamins for certain age/gender populations as you may be more likely to be deficient in certain vitamins in those instances.
So that’s it, pretty short list huh? Now I’m not saying there aren’t any other supplements that show benefits are there actually are plenty more that can be beneficial in certain instances, but for the general population this list is what I typically recommend. Even then, as previously mentioned, if you don’t have the higher priority stuff down, thinking about what supplements to take is a pretty big waste of your time (and money.)
With that said, however, if you do have any questions about any supplements. Just drop a comment below and I’d be happy to give my opinion on it.
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Colin DeWaay holds a personal training certification with the National Academy of Sports Medicine. He the owner of Colin DeWaay Training LLC, an online strength and nutrition consulting business that fully customizes training and nutrition programs for those interested in general fitness all the way up to advanced powerlifting programs. He specializes in helping people with a history of yoyo dieting create a more sustainable healthy lifestyle, improving metabolism through reverse dieting if necessary, and helping make binges a thing of the past by creating a healthy relationship with food utilizing flexible dieting. His goal is not to produce quick results, but to help produce realistic, sustainable results that last.
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