To Supplement, or Not to Supplement

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 To supplement or not to supplement is probably a question as old as supplements themselves, and an important one to ask (especially when you consider how much they will cost you). Some people swear by them, others refuse to take them and most of us, well we heard *insert athletic friends name* uses protein powder so we should too right?

Did you know that drinking two scoops of this random, non-research based supplement will increase your muscle mass by 10kg in 6 months? And if you take this amazing mix of sugar and caffine before your workout you will increase strength and size with every workout? Did you also know that the word gulible has been taken out of the dictionary?

While I do exaggerate my sales pitch a bit for the sake of my amusement, it’s important to remember that supplement companies do use marketing to push you into buying their claims and as a result buying their products (trust me, I used to work in marketing). You must be thinking – why am I so mean toward supplement companies and does a single supplement out there work? Well, for one, because years of experience have taught me what they do in order to gain your undeserved trust, and secondly, yes, there are supplements on the market that can be beneficial to your goals, in fact I use some of them.

The Brave and the Bold

Let me clarify, the Brave refers to those supplements that can benefit your gains and the Bold are the ones that are struggling to retain their worth in the industry, constantly treading that fine line of effectiveness vs marketing. And marketing will almost always win.

In order to decide whether a supplement is worth it we need to examine each of the most common supplements individually and consider their benifit to your fitness goal. So without futher adieu, let’s seperate the bold from the brave.

The Knights of the Whey Protein

Has anyone ever tried not taking whey protein? Somehow we have all created this illussion in our minds that by not taking a protein powder we will not make any progress, that protein powder is somehow essential. I bet you too have given the automated ‘your missing out’ response when someone tells you they’re not taking protein powder. Shame on you.

But one day, you will (if you haven’t already) run into a absolute animal who does not supplement with protein. At this point you’ll start to question the unprotested protein myth, that everyone who worksout will benifit from a protein shake.

You see, it takes some time spent in training, and by that I mean years, a lot of trial and error, as well as a few tens of research papers read, in order to grasp the actual truth behind the majority of supplements out there. And the truth is, you most definitely don’t need them. And whey protein is no different.

I’m telling you about whey protein first not because it is the least effective, but because if you’re taking anything, this is it.

A few key reminders before we move on:

  • It’s a dietary supplement, not a magic potion
  • Everything you have in whey you can get through proper nutrition
  • There is no “anabolic” window you have to fit your protein in after working out, stop believing in myths
  • Taking protein directly after a workout is optimal, but the effect it has on muscle mass gain is insignificant
  • Research shows that taking in adequate amounts of protein throughout the entire day is what is important
  • If you’ve heard somewhere that you can only digest 30 or whatever grams of protein per intake, that is also a myth, you need to have a lot of protein in every meal
  • My meals have more than 60g of protein in them, there is no reason why yours shouldn’t too
  • You can absolutely reach your daily protein goals with real food
  • Protein rich diets have a positive effect on general wellbeing, health, bone strength and organ functions
  • Certain types of whey protein are more suited for hard-gainers, and some for fast gainers, I’ll show you how to choose

Very rarely will you see professional athletes supplementing with anything except a few shots a day of something you definitely don’t want to try – unless they are sponsored by a supplement company, in which case they’ll eat the container too. Even the natural strength or body builders who have been in the game for some time don’t use whey protein, why? Because their nutrition is on point, and they don’t need it.

It’s only natural to want gains as fast as possible, and more often than not you will find young novice lifters trying anything and everything the supplement industry throws in their faces, and it will probably work.

If you’re wondering why it works, it’s because a starting lifter’s body is so unaccustomed to the amount of stress he or she is putting it through, that anything they digest will benefit them and make them grow – their body is in shock and it’s trying to “save” itself in any way possible.

The problem every lifter starts off with is that they do not have a meal plan set up, and therefore think that supplementing with protein will help them reach their goals faster. Well let me tell you, goals require a strong and effective plan, not two scoops of powder a day.

On the other hand, can whey protein be beneficial? Yes, somewhat. Being a dietary supplement, protein powder will do nothing more but help you reach your daily requirements, if you’re on a tight schedule and are unable to eat the amount of food on a daily basis that you need to.

It is a wise choice to have your favorite protein container in the house, just in case you’re running late for work, or didn’t reach your daily intake before going to bed, heck, I have it too. And on that note, if you keep it in a dark and cool place, it can last you a very long time.

Different types of protein supplements – concentrate, isolate and hydrolysate.

Oh, goody, you’ll get the one that has the most percent of protein in a scoop, right? Wrong, sit down.

The differences between protein filtration methods will determine which protein has more amino acids per serving, which will have less fat and more lean protein resources, to put it simply, but also it will determine the speed in which protein is digested and moves through your body and various processes in order to reach your muscles. A faster-digesting protein compound will not mean that you will get said protein into your muscles faster, it will simply mean that, depending on your metabolism, you will either pee the majority of it out or not.

Whey concentrate has 70-85% of protein per scoop, isolate has 85-93% and hydrolysate 93-98%, and you have to be smart regarding which one you opt for.

An individual with a faster metabolism, like an ectomorph will be wise to use whey concentrate or whey isolate, while an individual with a slow metabolism can use hydrolysate. A hard gainer will actually benefit more from the calorie-denser concentrate or isolate (usually powders come in mixtures, which is the best choice), using all of the sugars and fats that the hydrolysate doesn’t have. A fast gainer will be better off with a mixture of isolate and hydrolysate as it’s scarce in fats and carbs, so you don’t have to worry about excess calories.

Moving on!

The Giants of the Creatine Mountains

So many tales have been told about creatine, Dostoyevsky would be proud. But why is it always regarded as a form of supplementation more than a form of a healthy, real food diet? Because even though creatine is found in lean meats like red meat and fish like salmon and tuna, it is virtually impossible to reach your daily requirements through eating alone.

As a reference, 400 grams of red meat contains 5g of creatine, which is maintenance level intake. But if you want to benefit from creatine you will need something like 5-10g a day, which is more than 800g of beef a day. If you were a lion, that would be too little, if you’re a human, and I assume you are, that is impossible to eat every day. And it would eventually kill you. Therefore, the need arises for creatine supplementation.

First of all, creatine is very healthy. So eat your meat, and then pop a pill too for an extra punch.

It provides health and strength benefits for the body, mostly neuro-protective and cardio-protective, and as a molecule naturally produced in the body, it stores phosphocreatine (high-energy phosphate groups) which helps in strength increase during high stress intervals – workouts, and it also helps the bones, brain, liver and muscles.

A few key things to keep in mind:

  • It is a supplement that is taken up to 15g a day, don’t overdo it
  • There is no need to have “loading ” periods, that is a marketing strategy and a myth
  • Ten grams of creatine a day is more than enough
  • Creatine monohydrate is its cheapest and most effective form
  • Kre-Alkalyn is another form of creatine that is proving to be more effective
  • Creatine supplements cause water retention, use them wisely, water mass is not muscle mass
  • You need intense hydration when taking creatine

Creatine is one of the rare supplements that prove their worth in lifting, aiding moderately in strength when taken properly, but has little to no effect in lean muscle mass building. Instead, muscle mass is confused with heightened water retention, which is not the same. One common misconception about creatine is that it’s a borderline steroid, when that is simply not true. While creatine will help you with strength and overall weight, it will not determine whether you’ll be competing on stage or working in your dad’s lawnmower shop for the rest of your life.

Many powerlifters don’t take any supplements and they move weights that would be heavy for guys like you and me even in zero gravity, let alone, well, on Earth.

If you do opt for supplementing with creatine, just know that 5g a day is roughly enough for the first year, after which you will slowly increase the dosage to 10g, in order to maintain muscle mass and reap the benefits of your increasingly stressful lifting sessions.

You can supplement with creatine indefinitely, but bear in mind that once you go off creatine, you are most likely to experience a drop in strength and overall weight as the creatine level in the blood returns to its baseline.

For a healthy 70kg male with no exceptional muscle mass, 2g of creatine a day is enough for maintenance, while for you and me, or for what we want to become, that amount is insufficient.

Lastly, I want to mention Kre-Alkalyn. This is a buffed form of creatine encompassing a variety of supplements in its mixture – creatine, glutamine, maltodextrin and some BCAAs. It promises to be more effective for athletes as it doesn’t cause water retention and provides more power output. Concrete studies are yet to confirm or dispute these claims, but customers around the world are starting to swear by it.

Typically, if you work out, you will lose about 2g of creatine daily, and supplementing with it is not a bad idea, it’s not expensive and can have some health benefits, but use it wisely, and don’t become hooked on it.

If you want my honest opinion, use it if you’re preparing for a show, other times, just lift and eat a lot.

The Hero of the Supplement Story, Glutamine

L-Glutamine, to be exact. This is a non-essential amino-acid (raised to essential level in cases of extreme immune system failure or glutamine deprivation) found to comprise more than 60% of your skeletal muscle, and while that fact alone might make you instantly run for the wallet, keep in mind that no significant studies have shown the correlation between supplementing with glutamine and muscle hypertrophy. But it is good for your health, recovery, and anti-catabolism which are not the same as anabolism.

Glutamine is boosted around the fitness industry as the one supplement that will give you endurance, prevent muscle breakdown and enhance muscle-protein synthesis, and for a good reason – it’s not false. When talking about muscle gain, studies have shown that Glutamine alone as no effect on muscle hypertrophy, and even when paired with creatine and BCAAs, it has shown no greater effect.

A few facts:

  • Glutamine is a naturally occurring amino acid found in meat, eggs and dairy products
  • It is to be taken throughout the day, rather than once daily
  • Contrary to popular bro science, 10-15g is not enough to experience any greater anabolic or health benefits
  • In order to experience any Glutamine benefits to a higher degree, 30-40g a day is necessary
  • If you’re not suffering from a variety of illnesses, health symptoms or conditions and if your immune system if strong, there is no real need to take excess amounts
  • Supplement with glutamine in order to boost your overall health and endurance
  • There is no need to take it year-round, take it during flu season and you should be fine

Mainly, L-Glutamine should be used as a general health supplement, as it has been found to be very effective with intestinal and immune system health. And if you’re wondering if you’re getting enough of it, chances are you already eat it in abundance. I’m going to assume you’re not lactose intolerant, not a vegan or a vegetarian, and that you have a well-balanced bodybuilding diet – eating meat, eggs, vegetables, fats, and in regards to L-Glutamine especially, milk, yogurt, cheeses and dairy products in general. If however you do have any of the aforementioned conditions, you could benifit by supplementing with glutamine.

Branched Chain Amino Acids are the Squires

You don’t need him, but it’s cool to be seen having one. Too much voice has been given to fitness celebrities around the world, promoting everything and anything as essential when the truth tells another story. And while there are supplements that benefit us, BCAAs are sadly not one of them – not to say that they have an adverse effect, but simply put, the researches show that there is absolutely no effect of supplementing with amino acids on strength or hypertrophy, whether during short or long exercise intervals. You simply get enough of them through your diet.

BCAAs are a compound of three essential amino acids – Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine – found in absolutely any protein source and supplementation is completely unnecessary as you as a lifter already have an protein-rich diet.

Some key facts:

  • Essential amino acids play a key role in muscle protein synthesis
  • They are found in every protein source
  • You are eating enough of them
  • If you have a low protein daily intake, supplementing would be required
  • BCAAs are taken during exercise, in order to delay fatigue
  • This has no effect on consistent athletes, only on untrained individuals
  • You will achieve the same effect with drinking water or eating a banana

You could supplement with BCAAs if you are on a strict fast period, or have a condition preventing you from eating protein rich foods, otherwise, there is no greater effect on muscle hypertrophy, strength gain or other health benefits, for a generally healthy individual.

This is the part where marketing comes in. We are led to believe that all of the supplements are extremely beneficial to whatever our goal is, whether they are muscle hypertrophy or strapping a firecracker to your car and reaching the Moon, and we are all buying it at some point in our lives – the fitness industry is clever that way.

While these basic supplements have their place on your shelf, they are not to be taken as a necessity but as an aid. Do you need them? Absolutely not. Will they help you in some way? They could. The important thing to remember is that if you’re not adhering to the the three principles of bodybuilding that will keep you growing forever you cannot expect to see any significant results, no matter where your goal may lie.

Now go lift!

If you like what you’ve just read, and are ready for the next step, you should set your goals and expectations by reading how big do you really want to get? 

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About Author

Nikola has a bachelor's degree in management, branding, marketing and copywriting. He is a master with words and a warrior with the iron, the dumbbell kind. A lifelong fitness enthusiast, bodybuilder and competitive power lifter, he enjoys nothing more than teaching good form and lifting technique.

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