Workout Supplements, or nah?
Updated: Jul 19, 2019
Walk into any GNC or health food store and you're likely to be confronted with an overwhelming choice of workout supplements. With labels featuring super-lean models claiming to increase muscle size, burn fat, or unlimited energy, it can be confusing to decide which ones are worth the hype.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates dietary supplements under different standards than conventional food and drugs. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) requires that manufacturers do not sell "misbranded or adulterated"
products. This means it is solely the responsibility of the supplement companies themselves to ensure their products do not contain inferior ingredients or impurities and are safe to consume. The FDA can only take action against a company that mislabels or adulterates their product after it has gone to market.
According to this statement from FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, there is an awareness that the DSHEA should be updated to account for the rapidly growing supplement market. However, this would require bipartisan Congressional support. Considering the close ties of supplement manufacturers to politicians, I doubt this will happen any time soon.
As it stands now, supplements are still considered safe until proven otherwise (often after they have been sold). It is up to the consumer to do their research when it comes to the ingredients on the label.
Many companies sell workout supplements that are proprietary blends of multiple ingredients. Often, a single ingredient has been extensively studied, while the others are less well-researched. This makes it more difficult to determine the safety and efficacy of multi-ingredient products. According to the National Institute of Health, "Manufacturers and sellers of dietary supplements for exercise and athletic performance rarely fund or conduct scientific research on their proprietary products of a caliber that reputable biomedical journals require for publication." That is why supplements like deer antler velvet (yes, really) are being marketed and sold as strength boosters.
With these issues in mind, there are some supplements that do have evidence to support they offer training benefits. Keep in mind:
1. Supplements only offer marginal benefit. There is no substitute for a consistent training routine, well-rounded diet, and adequate sleep + recovery time.
2. This list does not include supplements used to treat or prevent nutrient deficiencies. I will post another blog about this topic soon!
This one is obvious but worth mentioning. Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, muscles, and heart by binding to adenosine receptors on cells. It reduces perceived pain and exertion, and fatigue. It also creates a glycogen sparing effect during endurance exercises by mobilizing fatty acids as a source of energy.
Studies show increased strength, power and endurance in athletes who consume between 2-6mg/kg of caffeine within an hour of exercises (for a 154 lb. person, this is between 210-420mg). However, some people do not respond well to it, and their performance will suffer. Consuming more than 500 g/day increases the likelihood of nausea, vomiting, anxiety, and sleep disturbance.
Since your body can become accustomed to chronic high doses of caffeine, try to limit your intake to heavy training days for best results.
One of the most extensively researched supplements, creatine monohydrate is used widely by athletes and gym-goers. Creatine helps to replenish phosphocreatine stores, which supplies our muscles with energy during short-burst activities. Our bodies naturally create creatine from amino acids. Creatine is also found in meat and fish. It is primarily stored in skeletal and cardiac muscle.
The effectiveness of creatine depends on the athlete's current diet and training. Since vegetarians do not consume creatine, they can get more benefit than a meat-eater. However, it has been shown that even meat eaters can benefit from supplementation. A typical dose is 3-6g daily, and is not recommended for endurance athletes. It can also lead to weight gain since it increases water retention.
Nitrate converts to nitric oxide (NO) gas in our bodies. No penetrates blood vessels in working muscles as oxygen levels are depleted. The increased blood flow helps to increase oxygen and nutrient delivery. Some studies show improvements in performance amongst endurance athletes (cyclists, swimmers, rowers, and runners).
Sources of nitrates include beets, arugula, celery, lettuce, kale, spinach, collards, Swiss chard, and bok choy. These foods provide more than 250 mg nitrates per 3.5 oz (100 g) serving. Between 300-500 mg is recommended to see performance benefits, which can continue for up to 24 hours after consumption.
Beta-alanine helps our muscles to synthesize carnosine. Carnosine serves as a pH buffer during high intensity exercise when our bodies utilize anaerobic glycolysis for energy. This helps to resist fatigue. Beta-alanine and carnosine are both found in meat. However, beta-alanine is only found in small amounts and carnosine gets broken down into individual amino acids when ingested.
Supplementing with beta-alanine has been found to increase carnosine levels by up to 80%. However, after a 9 week follow up, one study performed on physically active but untrained adult men found a large variability in carnosine concentrations from 2% to 69% after consuming 4.8g/day for 5-6 weeks.
The official recommendation of the International Society of Sports Nutrition is to consume 4-6 grams of beta-alanine per day for a minimum of 4 weeks to improve performance in exercises lasting 1-4 minutes. Dividing into smaller doses of 2g or less can help to prevent paresthesia (tingling).
With that being said...
With most supplements, studies show mixed results depending on the population, training level, diet and study conditions (real world conditions v. a lab). The best way to see progress is to consume a varied diet with adequate calories to support your workouts.
Interested in how you can improve your diet to reach your fitness goals? Looking to take your training to the next level, or don't know where to start? Simply email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to request your free consultation!