When it comes to sports supplements designed to help support your efforts in the gym, there are a truckload of options out there. Just pick up any bodybuilding magazine and you’ll see it choc full of ads promoting the next best thing to get you jacked, shredded and vascular. It can make your head spin. The evolution of the sports supplement industry has come a long way from the classic Tiger’s Milk bars, brewers yeast powder and desiccated liver tablets! There are some very effective products available today, with more coming out every month. As a personal trainer I’m fortunate to work with like minded individuals who are as dedicated as me towards getting results for themselves and their clients. That’s really the name of the game. In fact, it is part of our mantra at the gym; “results driven training!”
There are a ton of choices out there for all sports enhancing supplements. I hope this section will help distill some of the information to better serve you in choosing the right supplements for yourself. This section may not cover every sports enhancing supplement available, but it’s not meant to. As always, I prefer to take a more conservative approach and let hard work and dedication be my driving force for personal progress and lasting change. Above all, maintain integrity in all aspects of your life - which should filter down to the supplements you put into your body. Choose quality products from companies you can trust. Whenever possible choose those that maintain GMP (good manufacturing practices) standards and you will ensure the purest and highest potency per milligram available. I suggest you check out your local supplement shop and speak with a qualified professional working there. They can usually give you the inside track on what’s popular, what’s new and upcoming and useful feedback from their customers. Peruse the shelves, read labels, do your research and see what the different brands offer. So what better place to start than with my top 3 picks: whey protein powder, L-glutamine, and creatine.
THE SPORTS ENHANCING SUPPLEMENTS I TAKE
*Note: The following are sports enhancing supplements that I take or have taken and achieved good results with. My intent is not to prescribe any vitamins or supplementation to you, but simply to tell you what I’ve taken and why I take it.
The Main Players
The following supplements are those I use and cycle
There's nothing that absorbs as efficiently and quickly as a clean, cold-filtered, ion-exchanged whey protein isolate. Some proteins are fortified with digestive enzymes and have biological blends that ensure maximum absorption. Most of them are lactose free (lactose is a milk sugar that may give you an upset stomach), so if you’re lactose intolerant be sure to read the label on whichever whey protein you choose.
Things to look for include: 1) sugar content; if possible you want the sugar to be less than 5 gm's per serving, 2) carbohydrates; look for low carbs, 3) protein; you want the protein per serving to be about 20 gm's per scoop (or slightly higher), and 4) sweetener; many are sweetened with artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, or acesulfame potassium while others are sweetened with all natural stevia leaf or lohan. And be sure to see the serving size at the top of the label to see whether it's 1 scoop per serving or 2 scoops. If it is 2 scoops per serving, that's fine, just be aware of it from a cost perspective and how many servings the total container will give you.
I usually take 2 and sometimes 3 whey protein shakes daily. In my shake I mix 1 scoop of whey protein with water, but you can also use soy milk, skim milk, or juice...It's up to you. In my Muscle Chow book I have the 90% Shake recipe (a basic staple in my muscle building arsenal), the Nighttime Anabolic Elixir Shake recipe (to help keep you anabolic through the night), Muscle Juice recipe (packing nearly 800 calories for those hard-gainers) and a bunch more! I always try to take my protein shake along with carbs to help balance my system glycemically.
*If you're eating a decent amount of protein during the day (eggs, chicken, turkey, fish, lean meat, yogurt, cottage cheese, etc.), then you should limit the number of shakes to 1 or 2 per day.
Glutamine is one of the most important amino acids for those of us who are physically active and training hard, so recovery between workouts is extremely important. It is a highly abundant amino acid found in muscle cells, and upon extreme physical activity our systems use large amounts. Over 60% of the amino acids found in our muscle cells are L-glutamine. This is why supplementing with L-glutamine is a good idea, because you want to replenish your muscle cells with glutamine to promote healing and recovery—which in turn means growth and increased strength. Having a lack of glutamine in the body can actually begin to tear down muscle! It's also called the brain food because of its influence and conversion to other properties essential for mental function.
Glutamine is best used throughout the day in smaller doses, rather than one big dose. The good news is that high-protein foods like chicken, fish, and beef boast the highest concentrations of glutamine, so you should be getting some via the foods you’re consuming on a daily basis. As a weight lifter and someone who is physically active, I supplement with 5 grams of glutamine both pre- and post-workout, and sometimes again before bed when I'm feeling sore.
When I was bodybuilding through the 1980's creatine would have dramatically changed the way we achieved results. Instead it has changed the world of fitness today. Creatine works! Since 1994 when Experimental Applied Sciences (EAS) brought it to mass market here in the US, it sparked a whole new outlook on sports nutrition and supplementation. Before that most people just took vitamins, protein, and other basic supplements with the hope that they would see some kind of results for their efforts. Today sports enhancing supplements show definitive results, and that is mainly due to creatine monohydrate. I recommend doing your research before taking a creatine product because most are laced with other supplemental ingredients which companies claim will give you better results than the next guy’s product.
Because it works so well creatine has been surrounded by controversy. Fortunately it has been thoroughly researched and has shown very little adverse effects. Creatine is an inter-cellular muscle volumizer (it fills the muscle cells with water), so it’s extremely important to drink H2O. The basic ratio for hydration that I recommend is half your body weight in ounces of pure water daily. The worst side effect I’ve read about was muscle cramping and muscle tearing from lack of hydration. Other side effects may include headaches, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. Some people cannot take creatine monohydrate for these reasons, but there are ester creatine products that are buffered and tend to cause less bloat and stomach upset. These creatine ester (CE) products haven’t been as heavily researched as the monohydrate version and I personally have not experienced as dramatic results in comparison to the original creatine monohydrate.
There have been different views on the consumption and dosage of creatine and mine is on the conservative side (as usual). I don't have the attitude that more is better. I like to see how little I can take while still achieving great results. First of all, I don't normally do a loading phase with creatine. The prescribed amount throughout the loading phase is 20 grams (or more) a day for a week, with a maintenance dose of 10 gm’s a day (or more) thereafter. I cut that in half, and only do 10 gm's a day for the first week and maintain that dosage throughout the cycle.
Some basic insight on the following supplements
NO (nitric oxide), AEE (L-arginine ethel ester) or AAKG (L-arginine alpha-ketogluterate) as well as some other names for NO have made their mark in sports enhancing supplementation. NO amplifies blood flow by dilating your blood vessels, thus allowing a surge of blood to flow through. This effect is supposed to enhance muscle contractile performance (power during exercise), increase nutrient uptake (more blood flow means more nutrient delivery), increase muscle mass, prevent muscle breakdown, improve recovery time (both post-workout and between sets), and is supposed to give you a long lasting pump throughout the day.
Just like creatine, NO products are widely available from every major sports supplement company out there. Gaspari, BSN, Optimum Nutrition, ABB, MHP, Dymatize, EAS, Muscle Tech…you name it. In fact, may of the sports enhancing products add both creatine and nitric oxide to their formulas for a solid 1-2 punch. The goal is to fill the muscle cell with water and then flood between the cells with blood for ridiculous pumps. As with any of these supplements be sure to read the entire label for ingredients and dosing, read the warnings, understand what you’re taking and make an educated decision as to whether or not it’s for you.
Whether you go for the RTD (ready-to-drink) bottles or the powder drink mix, these workout energizers pack a powerful punch that will drive you into the gym with fire coursing through your veins. I’ve used them over the years with great results. Most pre-workout energy drinks will have a dose of nitric oxide to help give you a pump throughout your workout, plus other ingredients like citrulline to enhance the effects of arginine, beta-alanine to help improve muscular endurance, plus creatine and caffeine. They’ve become so popular that you can find the RTD energy drinks at any quick mart, gas station or supermarket. As with any of these stimulant drinks (powdered or RTD) make sure you read the label for warnings and serving size dosage because they are much more powerful than just hitting Starbuck’s for a cup of java!
The big deal about casein proteins is that they are absorbed slowly in the stomach. This gives you a sustained release of amino acids of muscle building protein rather than the much faster absorbing type proteins like whey, egg, or soy for example. It's for this reason that bodybuilders and the like might consume a shake of casein based protein before bedtime. It may also be used during the day if you’re not going to be eating for several hours.
As a post-workout shake it's still best to go with the faster absorbing whey isolate. Because of this you may want to have a few different protein powders stocked in your cabinet; like a container of casein protein, a couple different flavors of whey protein, and possibly a weight gainer protein. It's an investment that you will use right down to the last scoop.
Because I receive a lot of emails from guys asking me about gaining size and weight without adding a lot of fat, I'll often suggest they check out some of the gainer type proteins on the market. Some offer a mix of creatine, glutamine, complex carbs, along with a blend of proteins and other added co-factors. That’s what makes these cost-effective, because they offer blanket coverage of several sport enhancing supplements all rolled up into one single comprehensive formula.
Boosting your total daily caloric intake along with a solid training regimen can help you gain the size and the weight you might be looking for. For the "hard-gainer," this can be a very important part of your training regimen. Weight gainer shakes can pack a whopping 600 extra calories in one shake. Add some fruit, a scoop of oatmeal, a spoonful of peanut butter, and you've got an anabolic load that can reach close to 1,000 calories! Some of these protein products already pack calories over 1,000, so those added ingredients can boost your calories to monstrous levels. One thing to keep in mind when shopping for a weight gainer shake is to notice the serving size. Most will require as many as 4 scoops to achieve the calories listed on the front of the label.
RTD & MRP PROTEIN SHAKES
RTD (ready to drink) bottles and cans are easy and convenient; just pop-open and go. When I’m in a pinch I will grab one on the fly. You can easily find RTD drinks in grocery stores, gas stations, at airports and quick grab-n-go quick marts.
MRP (meal replacement drink packets) come in individual envelopes filled with powered protein and nutrients. They are good for people who are looking to: 1) gain weight by adding extra calories in a simple and convenient way, 2) to substitute a meal in order to lose weight, 3) to replenish lost nutrients and calories from intense training, 4) or to have as a meal due to a busy schedule. There are a variety of MRP drinks from reputable companies out there and they have tons of great flavors and some are loaded with vitamins and minerals too.
RTD & MRP shakes can be a good alternative to an unhealthy meal and they’re convenient. You’re better off to have one of these rather than going without food for long stretches in the day as they help avoid catabolic muscle breakdown.
There are tons of protein bars on the market. Some are loaded with protein, some have moderate to low in carbs, and most unfortunately contain moderate to high amounts of fat. Many of the bars on the market still have unhealthy hydrogenated oils, plus they’re high in saturated fat, contain a lot of sugar, sodium and preservatives. I've tried a ton of bars over the years and they are super tasty with flavors like caramel almond chocolate chunk or cookies and cream fudge delight. Just read labels and watch the overall calories, the amount of fat, saturated fat, and the protein to carb ratio.
My take is this: Eating a protein rich meal is my first choice. If I can't do that, then mixing a whey protein shake with water is my next choice. But if neither is possible, then a protein bar is the final alternative.
Usually the only time I have a protein bar is if I'm in a pinch and it’s time for my next meal (or if I’m really in the mood for one). Protein bars are great for people on the go, who just don't have the time to stop and grab lunch, but don't be one of those guys who eat a protein bar on the way to lunch. They are really meant to eat as a meal replacement. Bars also come in snack size too, which can make for a good snack in between meals if you don’t feel like eating something like an apple, yogurt, or some nuts. Check out the South Beach Diet protein bars, Larabar, Kashi Go Lean Roll bars and Luna bars as snack sized bars for example.
Conjugated Linoleic Acid
CLA is a naturally occurring fatty acid that has been extensively researched for its ability to maintain lean muscle mass while promoting weight loss. Scientific controlled studies show that CLA inhibits fat storage by stimulating the breakdown of triglycerides and increasing energy production through beta-oxidation in cellular mitochondria. Okay, throw all of that medical jargon out the window and let’s just say that this stuff is said to help you get lean while maintaining lean muscle mass.
I have to admit, I wasn't sold on CLA when it first began its popularity on the supplement market. At the time a vitamin rep gave me a few bottles to try and I did without much results. The truth is that I never gave it a fair shake because I only took it for a couple weeks, didn’t see any change and decided to scrap it. A couple years passed and I decided to give CLA another go. This time I stayed on it for six weeks and found decent benefits, especially because I was already dieting to get ready for a shoot. I found that CLA worked best after I was already dialed in and just needed to refine down to that last percent of leanness. I don’t believe it will help you lose 15% body fat, drop 25 pounds and get shredded without also ramping up your diet efforts.
CLA comes in soft gels similar to that of fish oil capsules. I take what the bottle recommends, which is 1 soft gel (1,000 mg's) three times a day with food. Most people reported that they started to see results in two to four weeks, so be patient.
The ZMA stack stands for a combination of natural supplements (zinc, magnesium, and B-6) that work specifically together to enhance athletic performance by increasing testosterone levels. Research has shown that a lack of these nutrients in your body can lead to lower testosterone levels and studies show that trained athletes are consistently deficient in these three nutrients. Therefore it makes sense that increasing your body's natural production of testosterone will also increase strength, stamina, induce muscle growth, and promote faster recovery between workouts. ZMA has also been said to help improve restful sleep patterns, so it should be taken at night before bed. The key when taking these three nutrients is understanding that they work synergistically together in very specific amounts (30 mg’s of zinc, 450 mg’s of magnesium, and 11 mg’s of B-6), which is what you’ll find in the average ZMA formulation.
There are a lot of different companies that offer ZMA either by itself or in combinations of other sport enhancing supplements. ZMA is natural and safe for both men and women.
I've tried several brands of fat burners, but have never really used any of them long enough to reap the benefits of getting leaner beyond what a solid diet can achieve. I have seen people get decent results from them, with most experiencing a curb in their appetite. This is due to the thermogenic stimulant ingredients they contain; most notably caffeine and herbs that mimic caffeine like effects. There are stimulant-free fat burners available as well, but I don’t know the effectiveness of them. Some people take fat burners to lose weight and get lean, others use them to get a boost before hitting the gym, and some use them to grab quick energy and focus during the day.
While some people have gotten great results from fat burners, they can also create anxiety, high blood pressure, elevated heart rate, irritability, and nervousness. Just be sure to read the entire label, including the warnings and dosage.
PROHORMONES & TESTOSTERONE BOOSTERS
Prohormones use chemical “andro” compounds that convert directly into testosterone within the body at different percentages depending on which andro, or variation thereof, that you take. Androstenedione and androstenediol are the most popular, but there are many other prohormone compounds under different (hard to pronounce and ever-changing) names. I’ve heard that they are always changing the names and chemical compounds by a couple atoms to try and stay one step ahead of the FDA. I suppose it is for this reason that so many are cycled on and off the market each year.
Testosterone boosters are supplements that include herbs to stimulate your body’s own natural production of testosterone. Most of them include the herb tribulus terrestris because it has been widely used for years as a testosterone enhancer. Other natural ingredients you may find in testosterone boosters are avena sativa (oat straw), eurycoma longifolia (a root) or horny goat weed.
When taking any of these testosterone enhancing supplements you’ve got to be aware of the possible side effects caused from aromatization. Aromitization just means the conversion of hormones into estrogens in the body. This can create such side effects in men as gynecomastia (production of breast tissue), hair loss due to the conversion into DHT, enlargement of the prostate, acne, and more. Most of the newer versions of prohormones and testosterone boosters on the market today offer less aromatizing side effects by including anti-aromatizing compounds like chrysin, indole-3-carbinol, and 6-OXO.
Before you consider taking a prohormone or testosterone booster be sure to do your research. Talk with a qualified professional, speak with others that have tried them and decide whether or not it’s for you. Remember that products like this often come with both good and not so good results, so make an educated decision before taking them.
There you have it, an overview of some of the supplements that I take and some of what's available on the market. I always encourage you to read up on nutrition before you go taking things that you’re not sure about. Build a relationship with the nutritionists at your local health food store, browse the vitamin shelves, read labels and ask questions. It may take a few months before you see benefits, so have patience before making assumptions about whether something does or doesn’t work. All the best in health!