This post is dedicated to all of the true athletes out there…
…and since I believe all of us are true athletes at our core, this post is actually dedicated to everyone out there who seeks to improve their health, fitness, and/or athletic performance.
And since you’re here reading this today, I know you’re a serious athlete. I know you’re a committed athlete.
So with that said, I’m not going to sit here and try to hype you up about supplements or try to sell you any BS.
Fact is, most of supplements on the shelves today are worthless and do your body more harm than good.
The sports supplements (items claiming to increase performance, looks, and/or strength) market has become an international multi-million dollar business that preys on the desires of athletes to be the best as well as on the insecurities and weaknesses of the common man who simply wants to look and feel great.
Just about every fitness magazine you read these days is full of ads hyping up all of the latest “new formulas” of the popular protein powders, creatine, glutamine, branched chain amino acids (BCAA), and pre-workout mixes – and when word gets out that a particular supplement sucks or it gets discredited by research, another one comes along to take its place.
Many times it’s the same crappy supplement as before, only rebranded and repackaged to look like something more new, better, or “re-formulated”.
Sure, you may be skeptical of the new version at first (the last version you tried sucked ass), but the ads look killer and the marketing pitches kind of have you dying to see what “New Formula X Black” or whatever can do for you in the gym – so against your better judgment you hand over your hard earned $80 bucks or so and try it out.
I get it. I’ve been there. I’ve wasted tons of cash on useless supplements over the past 10 years.
In fact, my chronic supplement addiction 10 years back was the inspiration behind NO HydroMetho AndroMax Darkus Inner Rage Supplement Stack from The Chaz ‘I Wannabe A Fitness Model’ Parody Videos.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve even rushed to GNC literally 5 minutes after seeing an AD in my favorite fitness mag – and I’ve wasted tons of cash on everything from Nitric Oxide Supplements to CLA to the latest “Muscle Building” Powders.
Who hasn’t at least once?
I mean let’s face it. Shady supplement marketing is literally everywhere these days, and the smart guys behind the ads know exactly how to prey on your insecurities/weaknesses and get you to fork over your hard earned money on fantasy and empty promises.
“Build 27 Pounds of Raw Muscle Using Powder X”
“Lose 27 Pounds of Nasty Fat Using Pill Y”
Or if you are semi-intelligent they may hit you with something like this:
“Study reveals a 227% increase in max <insert lift here> using Stack Z”
Then they slap an image of a fitness model who’s in phenomenal shape on the ad to tease you as if to say “Sure bud, use a bottle of this stuff and you’ll look just like this…”
(many times the fitness model in the ad has never even used the product…)
What you have to keep in mind, however, is the fact that the process of substantiating the performance or physique enhancing benefits of using any of these muscle building or performance “miracles” is pretty much impossible.
Sure, some studies have suggested that ergogenic aids can have SOME positive effects on strength, fat loss, and performance under specific conditions – but in my opinion, the experimental evidence or efficacy of many of these supplements just isn’t substantial enough to say “yes this particular supplement works”.
So if most of the supplements out there aren’t proven to work how are marketers allowed to make outlandish claims regarding the effectiveness of these products?
In 1994 the United States passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which basically allows supplement manufacturers to make claims regarding the effects of their products on the structure/function of the body, as long as they do not claim to “diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent” a specific disease.
So as long as the label on “Supplement X” lists the active ingredients (and the full ingredient list is provided), the supplement manufacturer can pretty much make any sort of crazy claims about the product that they want regardless of whether they are valid or not.
Before you skip straight to the comments section and post “Study X” results “proving” that a certain supplement showed positive results let me just point out that many of the popular supplements out there HAVE actually demonstrated efficacy in the lab setting, but they haven’t really been proven to work in the real life sports setting (i.e. on the field, in practice and/or in games).
Regardless of the lack of substantiated “proof” of providing any real benefit…most serious athletes out there still use popular supplements like protein powder, creatine, glutamine, BCAA, HMB, etc because they are hoping they can increase athletic performance and/or build muscle and lose fat.
Most (if not all) of these types of supplements are all believed to work on some levels (in theory), but despite a ton of scientific evidence…uncertainty still exists regarding the safety and effectiveness of most sports performance supplements on the market right now.
Studies aside, most of the supplements you’ll find on the shelves these days are complete garbage (in my opinion) and they don’t have any performance increasing benefits at all. Based on my experience as a consumer, 99% of “muscle building” and “fat loss” and “performance enhancing” supplements out there are a complete scam and most of them even do more harm than good.
With that said, I’ve put together a list of supplements I feel may be of some benefit to athletes heading into 2014. I’ve added scientific evidence (from real studies) to back up most of the stuff I’m about to tell you, but I strongly encourage you to also do your own research after you finish this article. The supplements are listed in tiers (ranking from top to bottom).
TOP TIER SUPPLEMENTS FOR ATHLETES
GREENS POWDER – In my opinion, this unheralded supplement is arguably the most underused yet most important supplement you can add to your arsenal. Not only does supplementing with greens supplements help give you more energy and help you recover faster, but they also come loaded with a ton of helpful vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that will also help boost performance as well as strengthen your immune system.
Now, if you’re one of the few people out there who regularly eats at least 10 servings of fruits and veggies each day (which most of us aren’t), then taking a greens supplement is completely unnecessary. However, for the rest of us, it’s on my must use supplement list.
Here are a few benefits to using a Greens Supplement:
1. Helps alkalize and help neutralize acid production in the body that’s attributed to strenuous exercise and/or eating too much protein. Protein can increase acid production unless it’s eaten with a ton of fruits & veggies (alkaline foods).
2. Most of us don’t eat as many fruits & veggies as we need to recover properly and sustain health so a greens supplement can be a quick and easy way to help you get the nutrients you need. Keep in mind that a greens supplement is not a replacement for actual food. Nothing is as good for you as real food (raw fruits & veggies).
3. Many of the top greens supplements contain enzymes and probiotics to help improve digestion and gut health.
4. Most provide concentrated forms of organic/sea vegetables, disease-fighting fruits, and microalgae providing vitamins and minerals and a ton more beneficial nutrients which are thought to help detoxify the body, increase energy and boost immunity.
5. It’s a quick, easy, and cost-effective way to give your body the nutrients it needs from fruits and veggies.
There are a ton of greens supplements on the market, but not all of these products are created equal…and there isn’t a ton of peer-reviewed scientific research about the quality & effectiveness of these supplements. Nor is there a ton of evidence that they have a direct impact on athletic performance.
However, you should think of a greens supplement as a ‘nutritional insurance policy’ so you can make 100% sure you’re giving your body the vitamins/minerals/fuel/etc that it needs to function and perform at its peak – especially if you aren’t eating enough fruits and veggies on a regular basis.
Now, I don’t have a full list of recommended greens supplements to give you because I have only tried a few brands (most of which I hated). Currently, I’m using Athletic Greens because I like the quality and it doesn’t taste like grass or dirt like some of the other brands I’ve tried. (To be quite honest, Athletic Greens is the only greens supplement brand I’ve ever tried that DIDN’T taste like lawn mower grass residue).
I’ve actually puked from some of the brands out there…so try them at your own risk. Plus, Athletic Greens contains digestive enzymes & probiotics, which separates it from similar products on the market.
OMEGA-3 FATS - Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are made up of a group of three fats called ALA, DHA, and EPA. We need these essential fats for our bodies to work normally, but since our bodies cannot make them, we need to get them from food.
Omega-3 supplements have become popular over the years because research has shown that they may help reduce inflammation and lower the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and possibly stroke. New studies have also identified potential benefits for autoimmune disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus as well.
With all of the documented health benefits for Omega-3, researchers are now trying to determine whether they may also positively affect human sports performance.
A study in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism examined Omega-3 polyunsaturated Fatty acids in physical performance optimization. Here’s the abstract:
Increased muscle oxidative stress and inflammatory responses among athletes have been reported consistently. In addition, it is well known that exhaustive or unaccustomed exercise can lead to muscle fatigue, delayed-onset muscle soreness, and a decrement in performance. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) have been shown to decrease the production of inflammatory eicosanoids, cytokines, and reactive oxygen species; have immunomodulatory effects; and attenuate inflammatory diseases. While a number of studies have assessed the efficacy of omega-3 PUFA supplementation on red blood cell deformability, muscle damage, inflammation, and metabolism during exercise, only a few have evaluated the impact of omega-3 PUFA supplementation on exercise performance. It has been suggested that the ingestion of EPA and DHA of approximately 1-2 g/d, at a ratio of EPA to DHA of 2:1, may be beneficial in counteracting exercise-induced inflammation and for the overall athlete health. However, the human data are inconclusive as to whether omega-3 PUFA supplementation at this dosage is effective in attenuating the inflammatory and immunomodulatory response to exercise and improving exercise performance. Thus, attempts should be made to establish an optimal omega-3 fatty-acid dosage to maximize the risk-to-reward ratio of supplementation. It should be noted that high omega-3 PUFA consumption may lead to immunosuppression and prolong bleeding time. Future studies investigating the efficacy of omega-3 PUFA supplementation in exercise-trained individuals should consider using an exercise protocol of sufficient duration and intensity to produce a more robust oxidative and inflammatory response.
Now, there have only been a limited number of human studies done to examine the effects of Omega-3 supplementation on exercise performance so there isn’t a ton of data to work with, but for the purposes of this article I’ll simply reference the studies used in the study quoted above.
Study Example #1: Brilla and Landerholm (1990) examined the effects of fish-oil feeding and exercise training in 32 sedentary males. The subjects were supplemented with omega-3 PUFA (4 g/day) and exercised three times per week for 10 weeks. Both the omega-3 PUFA-supplemented exercised and nonexercised groups exhibited an increased aerobic ventilatory threshold compared with controls. Whereas exercise training resulted in an increased VO2max, fish-oil supplementation had no effect on VO2max.
Study Example #2: Raastad, Hostmark, & Stromme (1997) performed a study using well-trained soccer players, omega-3 PUFA (1.6 g/day EPA and 1.04 g/day DHA) had no effect on aerobic power or running performance when they followed their normal training regimens. However, the athletes displayed significantly lower triacylglycerol levels after supplementation. It has been hypothesized that this attenuation in plasma triacylglycerol levels is caused by decreased lipoprotein triacylglycerol secretion and inhibited triacylglycerol synthesis.
Study Example #3: Huffman, Altena, Mawhinney, and Thomas (2004) reported a trend for improvement in exercise time to volitional fatigue (after jogging for 75 min at 60% VO2max) after 4 g/day (300 mg EPA and 200 mg DHA) of fish oil administered over 4 weeks.
Study Example #4: Buckley, Burgess, Murphy, and Howe (2009) recently examined the effects of 5 weeks of omega-3 PUFA (0.36 g/day EPA and 1.56 g/day DHA) supplementation on endurance performance, recovery, and cardiovascular risk factors in elite Australian Rules football players. The data indicated that on the omega-3 PUFA-supplemented diet RBCs’ omega-3 PUFA content doubled from baseline and serum triglycerides and heart rate during submaximal exercise were reduced, but no improvement in endurance-exercise performance or recovery was observed. The authors concluded that omega-3 PUFA supplementation improved cardiovascular efficiency during submaximal exercise, which may assist with the sustained performance of submaximal exercise.
Study Example #5: Walser and Stebbins (2008) showed that 3 g/day EPA and 2 g/day DHA taken over 6 weeks enhanced stroke volume and cardiac output responses to moderate-intensity exercise and tended to augment systemic vascular resistance (in 9 of 12 healthy subjects). They speculated that these effects may be due to attenuation of sympathetically induced vasoconstriction and/or augmentation of vasodilatation in skeletal muscle during exercise, and thus the findings have implications for enhancing oxygen delivery during exercise and improving functional capacity. e
Study Example #6: Nieman, Henson, McAnulty, Jin, and Maxwell (2009) investigated the efficacy of 2.4 g (2 g/ day EPA and 0.4 g/day DHA) of fish-oil supplementation over 6 weeks on exercise performance, inflammation, and immune measures in 23 trained cyclists before and after a 3-day period of intense exercise. While a significant increase in plasma EPA and DHA was observed, no changes after 6 weeks of fish-oil supplementation were seen in inflammatory measures (IL-1ra, IL-6, and IL-8), immune measures (blood leukocytes, C-reactive protein, creatine kinase, salivary-IgA, and myeloperoxidase), or 10-km time-trial performance (~65% of maximum power output).
While the current data from human studies do not conclusively support the hypothesis that Omega-3 supplements provide any sports performance benefits (i.e. improving reaction time, increase cognitive ability during extreme heat/cold, lessening muscle damage, reducing inflammation, improving immune response to exercise, boosting metabolism during exercise, etc)…supplemental Omega-3 may not be COMPLETELY useless for serious athletes.
I believe when an athlete is healthy, that athlete will perform better on the field. Sure, there may not be a direct “performance benefit”, but there ARE benefits to be obtained here.
In fact, the following science supported health benefits should be enough reasons for every athlete to add Omega-3 to their arsenal:
Primary benefits of supplemental Omega-3 include:
- Cardiovascular benefits (lowering blood pressure, lowers triglyceride concentrations, improves endothelial function, etc).
- Promotes healthy joints and cartilage.
- Balances hormones to provide more energy.
- Improves mood.
- Stronger, healthier bones.
- Reduced risk of disease (cancer, diabetes, arthritis, cognitive decline, depression, etc).
I believe these health benefits alone are enough to make Omega-3 a valuable supplement to use for ALL athletes.
With that said, I know that the fish oil is the most popular form of Omega-3 supplements right now (and most of the studies have been done using fish oil), but I don’t believe fish oil is an ideal source of Omega-3 and fish oil could be doing your body more harm than good.
Yes, I know that there are well documented health benefits of fish oil based Omega-3 fats, but the risks of the SOURCE may make taking it not worth it.
You see, Omega-3 fats (plant and animal based) are extremely fragile and are VERY EASILY damaged by oxygen.
Plus, quite a few fish oil brands on the market right now have been shown to be contaminated with relatively large amounts of metals and toxic chemicals (i.e. lead cadmium, arsenic, chromium as well as other contaminants that are typically found in fish like mercury, pcp’s, pde’s, pcb’s, and dioxin).
Despite the contamination risk, my primary issue with fish oil is the big problem with OXIDATION, which can happen at any point during processing, or after you open the bottle after you purchase. (Many experts believe this oxidation may lead to the formation of unhealthy free radicals inside your body).
Now, I know that regardless of what I say here…some readers are still going to stay loyal to their trusty fish oil supplement and that’s totally fine. You can still find fish oil supplements out there that are high quality…you’re just going to pay a pretty penny to get your hands on them.
So if you’re going to go the fish oil route and don’t have a go-to brand yet, be sure to use the following tips to help you select a top brand.
Here are some tips for how to select a high quality fish oil:
1. Always pay top dollar. When it comes to fish oil, price is usually a good indicator of quality. Most of the top manufacturers out there refine the fish oil and remove as many of the toxins and metals as possible so you can expect to pay a premium price for these brands.
2. Buy the dark bottle and avoid fish oil in clear containers. As mentioned earlier, fish oil always runs the risk of going rancid. When light goes through the clear plastic bottle, the ultraviolet and fluorescent light oxidizes the oil, turning it rancid.
3. Buy smaller bottles. I know it can be tempting to buy the big bottle so you can stock up or save a few bucks by going large, but fish oil has a short shelf life so there’s a very good chance the big bottle will turn rancid before you even get through half of it.
4. Buy online & ship it overnight. I strongly recommend you buy directly from the manufacturer instead of buying off the grocery store shelf because you have no way of knowing how long the bottle has been sitting there before you buy it. Also, be sure to ship it overnight to ensure the product gets to you as quickly as possible and doesn’t sit in a storage room for an extended period of time.
5. Keep refrigerated. Even with high quality fish oils you have no way of knowing its level of stability and rancidity.
6. Buy glass bottles. Fish oil stored in plastic bottles tends to go rancid faster than fish oil stored in glass or polyethylene terephthalate bottles.
Now, if you’re like me and prefer to avoid all of the pain and frustration involved with selecting a non-toxic fish oil I strongly suggest you try krill oil as it a far better (and safer) omega-3 alternative.
Here are some of the benefits of taking Krill Oil instead of Fish Oil:
1. Krill Oil offers the same healthy fats (DHA and EPA) without the oxidation issue.
2. The risk of mercury contamination is much lower with krill as krill have a lower probability of accumulating toxins before harvest.
3. The Omega-3 structure of Krill Oil makes it much easier for your cells to absorb it, compared to Fish Oil. Fish Oil does have a higher ratio of Omega-3 fats, but Krill Oil is much more efficient so you don’t need to use as much of it. (Note: studies have suggested that Krill is absorbed 10 times better than Fish Oil.)
4. You don’t get the nasty fish burps or awful aftertaste with Krill Oil that you do with Fish Oil.
I believe Omega-3 (from krill) is a must use supplement, but before you rush out to buy a bottle of pills I recommend trying to get your Omega-3 from foods BEFORE you try taking it in supplemental form. Some of my favorite natural Omega-3 sources include: Salmon (wild not farmed), Tuna, Olive Oil, Walnuts, and dark green veggies (kale, collards, parsley, chard).
For more info on the health advantages of krill oil over fish oil, download and read THIS PDF.
DIGESTIVE ENZYMES – Digestive enzymes help your body break food down so it can be absorbed and used by every cell in your body.
If you have never focused on your digestive health before just know this: EVERYTHING begins with digestion…and I believe gut health is the most underrated yet single most important factor to your overall health and well-being.
Since 80% of your immune system is located in your digestive tract, improving gut health should be a MAJOR FOCAL POINT if you want to perform and function at your peak (especially as an athlete).
Everything from your ability to build muscle, lose fat, have energy, and fight off diseases all starts with a healthy digestive system. So if you have poor gut health (which usually begins with poor digestion) you will constantly feel run down and sick, you’ll feel tired and lethargic, your body will function at less efficient levels, and your risk of chronic disease increases significantly. This is not an ideal situation if you’re a serious athlete.
Unfortunately, most people have terrible digestive health these days due to poor food choices, stress, and a variety of other lifestyle/emotional factors – but if you address your digestive issues (with food and/or with enzyme supplementation), you’ll often quickly see a huge increase in performance both on and off the field.
If you’re still not convinced digestive enzyme supplementation can be beneficial to serious athletes, consider this…
There are eight primary digestive enzymes, each designed to help break down different types of food:
1. Protease: Helps digest protein.
2. Amylase: Helps digest carbs.
3. Lipase: Helps digest fats.
4. Cellulase: Helps break down fiber.
5. Sucrase: Helps digest sugars.
6. Lactase: Helps digest lactose in dairy products.
7. Maltase: Helps convert sugars from grains into glucose.
8. Phytase: Helps support overall digestion.
First, protease works on digesting proteins in the stomach, next the food passes into the small intestine where lipase starts to break down fats and amylase takes care of the carbs. Finally, the micronutrients get absorbed into your bloodstream for energy and muscle building via the villi in the gut wall.
Since 90% of your digestion and absorption happens in the small intestine…do you know what can happen if certain digestive enzymes are missing? Food won’t be broken down very well and you’ll experience digestive issues like constipation, cramping, bloating, heartburn, reflux, belching, farting, etc.
Plus you could end up with malabsorption issues, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, experience slow recovery times post-workout, and your immune system could become compromised. Again, not an ideal situation if you’re a serious athlete.
Honestly, there is no point to eating a ton of food (to try to build muscle) only to have a small percentage of it absorbed by the body…and have the rest used to cause either discomfort and/or disease.
So do yourself a favor and pick up a Digestive Enzyme supplement. I promise you’ll see a significant improvement in the gym, on the field, and with your health overall. I recommend all serious athletes take Digest Gold 1-3 times per day taken with larger meals.
Note: For more info on improving your digestion, read 10 Tips For Better Digestion.
PROBIOTICS – Probiotics are friendly bacteria that reside within the gastrointestinal tract that are essential for optimal digestion of food and absorption of nutrients. Like digestive enzymes, probiotics help replenish the good bacteria in your gut which is often destroyed by eating crappy food and using antibiotics.
These little guys make the conditions inside the bowel extremely inhospitable for bad bacteria, inhibit their growth, and make it easier for the good bacteria to grow. They also help your body produce vitamins, absorb minerals, and eliminate toxins.
I like to think of them as the gut police – they monitor and control all potential harmful microorganisms within the body. They also have the ability to influence systemic inflammation, glycemic control, oxidative stress, and possibly even mood. As an added bonus, they have also been known to combat the effects of environmental pollutants and various other toxins.
There are three primary types of probiotics: Lactobacillus acidophilus (the most well known out of the group), which protects the colon; Lactobacillus bifidus, which protects the small intestine; and last but not least, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, which travels through the entire digestive system and supports the efforts of the other two.
Since the human body contains roughly 100 trillion bacteria (and the exact function, importance, and interactions of all of these bacteria are currently unknown) finding conclusive research supporting probiotics and athletic performance is incredibly challenging.
However, in one study examining probiotics and athletic performance, researchers determined that:
Numerous health benefits have been attributed to probiotics, including effects on gastrointestinal tract function and diseases, immune function, hyperlipidemia, hypertension, and allergic conditions. A systematic review of the medical literature failed to identify any studies that directly investigated the potential ergogenic effects of probiotics on athletic performance. Two published articles suggest that probiotics may enhance the immune responses of fatigued athletes. In summary, although scientific evidence for an ergogenic effect of probiotics is lacking, probiotics may provide athletes with secondary health benefits that could positively affect athletic performance through enhanced recovery from fatigue, improved immune function, and maintenance of healthy gastrointestinal tract function.
With that said, the research does not show that probiotics have a DIRECT effect on athletic performance, however, the other health benefits gained from probiotic supplementation make them well worth taking. Plus, it’s helpful to use a combo of digestive enzymes and probiotics as they can work together synergistically to help improve gut health and maintain a healthy gastrointestinal tract.
I currently use RenewLife Ultimate Flora Probiotic (100 Billion), and take it once daily before bed.
SECOND TIER SUPPLEMENTS
CREATINE: Creatine is a naturally occurring amino acid that comes from the amino acids arginine, methionine and glycine. It’s made by the human body in the kidneys, pancreas, and liver, but it’s also found in meat and fish (it can also be made in the lab) – and it’s most commonly used for increasing muscle mass and improving athletic performance.
Note: About half of the creatine in our bodies is made from amino acids in the kidneys, pancreas, and liver. The other half comes from foods we eat. Wild game is arguably the best source of creatine followed by red meat and fish (tuna, salmon, and herring).
The majority of creatine is stored in skeletal muscle (as phosphocreatine), where it’s used for energy, with the remainder being found in the brain, heart, and testes. During high intensity exercise, the phosphocreatine gets converted into ATP which is a major source of energy within the human body.
Many competitive bodybuilders and athletes of all levels take creatine supplements to help them build lean muscle mass and enhance athletic performance, but quite a few human studies have shown that creatine does not improve athletic performance at all – nor does every person appear to respond the same way to creatine supplements or get any sort of positive benefit.
There is SOME science supporting the use of creatine during brief high-intensity activities like weightlifting or sprinting, but the results vary greatly by athlete. Also, there is still some uncertainty about who can benefit from creatine and at what dose. Age and genetics may play a role, but researchers aren’t 100% sure to what extent.
For example, studies have shown that people who have naturally high stores of creatine (I am one of these people) don’t get any sort of performance enhancing energy effects from taking creatine supplements.
On the flip side, people who have lower natural creatine levels tend to see better results from taking creatine supplements. The reason for this is due to the skeletal muscle “saturation point” as your muscles can only hold a certain amount of creatine. Once you reach this max level, supplementing with more creatine will probably do you more harm than good as the overflow of creatine may spill over into the body causing undesirable effects.
Note: I don’t use creatine supplements personally because every time I’ve had my levels checked they were 2-3 times higher than “normal” so I figured adding additional creatine would be silly on my part.
There have been numerous studies on creatine in the past 10 years which examined Isokinetic, Isometric, Resistance Exercise, High-Intensity Ergometer, and Sports Performance Protocols.
Most of these tests produced no significant differences or showed any statistically significant correlation between creatine supplementation and performance. Some studies did show increases in body mass, but there were no significant findings related to performance.
Of course there are quite a few studies out there which demonstrate positive effects of creatine, but there are just as many (if not more) studies which suggest the opposite. In my opinion, the data is inconclusive.
As with most inconclusive data regarding sports supplements I will typically put that supplement on my ‘it doesn’t really work’ list…and I won’t personally use it.
Sure, it may work for some people, but the data does not suggest that creatine supplementation will provide any enhancement benefits when it comes to athletic performance, strength, or endurance on a consistent basis. The data is just too iffy and there are too many variables/factors involved which only further complicates any type of conclusive analysis.
However, creatine supplementation does appear to be effective in enhancing repetitive short duration (30 seconds or less), high intensity movements (i.e. cycle ergometry; strength, torque and force production; and jump performance), but only in a laboratory setting and NOT in a real life human performance setting (i.e. live practice, real game, etc).
Here’s what you need to know about the effectiveness of creatine from a sports performance perspective:
1. Creatine is possibly effective at improving athletic performance during brief, high, intensity exercise.
2. Creatine is most likely ineffective at improving endurance or performance in an aerobic capacity (especially in elite athletes).
3. The performance enhancing effects of creatine appear to decrease as the athlete ages. Creatine does not appear to benefit athletes over 50. In studies, the best results were achieved in athletes ages 20-25.
4. Creatine has not been tested or determined to be safe or effective in athletes under age 19.
5. Creatine taken in high doses may cause kidney damage.
6. Most human studies on creatine have been done in the lab, not on people actually playing a sport in a real life situation.
7. Creatine studies conducted on animals and people have shown that creatine supplements can improve strength and increase lean muscle mass during short-duration, high-intensity exercises (i.e. weightlifting).
8. More evidence is needed to determine exactly who benefits the most from taking creatine and what the ideal dose should be.
With that said, I’m not going to fully write off creatine just yet and say it’s completely useless…but more research on the field (not just in the lab) is definitely needed before we can say for sure that it’s truly a great supplement. Plus, the safety of long-term supplementation also needs to be studied (specifically when it comes to large doses and/or quality of the brand).
Since I don’t personally use creatine I’m not going to list any brands here for you to buy, instead, I think you should start out by trying to increase your creatine intake naturally through diet before you rush out and buy any expensive pills or powders.
Since you can get roughly 70% of your daily creatine requirement (2-3 grams) by eating about 16 ounces of steak – I’d go the natural route on creatine first and see if you see any increases in strength, endurance, performance, etc simply by eating real food.
GLUTAMINE - Arguably one of the most popular supplements of all time, many people use glutamine to help them recover from strenuous exercise and/or gain a performance edge in the gym or on the field.
Theoretically, as glutamine is used at a high rate by various cells of the immune system, it is an essential element for these cells to function normally. However, prolonged intense exercise can cause chronic glutamine depletion, which may lead to immunosuppression in athletes who consistently partake in heavy training sessions. This can make an athlete at high risk for chronic colds and/or infections.
With that said, there is a big difference between theory and fact and scientific literature has not demonstrated glutamine to have a significant role as a sports performance supplement.
There is SOME evidence which suggests it may be helpful to support immune system function in an overtraining scenario (as suggested above) and perhaps even assist in the maintenance of lean muscle mass, but as I mentioned previously about creatine, more studies are needed in order to determine whether any of the clinical situations are applicable on the field of play or on the practice field.
On a non sports-performance related note: glutamine supplementation can help improve gut health as it restores gut barrier function and supports the healthy function of the intestinal lining.
I suggest using glutamine primarily to improve digestive health. By making incremental improvements in nutrient assimilation/absorption and immunity…the result is usually a healthier athlete…and healthy athletes typically perform better on the field than unhealthy athletes.
BRANCHED CHAIN AMINO ACIDS (BCAA): This is definitely one of the top 5 most popular sports supplements of all time, but do BCAA’s live up to the hype?
Branched chain amino acids (valine, leucine and isoleucine) are essential nutrients that the body obtains from proteins found in food (i.e. meat, legumes, dairy products).
They are often used to treat certain diseases (Lou Gehrig’s Disease, McArdle’s Disease, ALS, Chronic Hepatic Encephalopathy, Latent Hepatic Encephalopathy, Spinocerebellar Degeneration, and Muscle Wasting) – but many people also use them for athletic performance and/or physique enhancing purposes as well as BCAA’s are believed to help decrease exercise-induced muscle damage, regulate protein synthesis, and increase muscle recovery.
Without going into a long song and dance about the data, here’s what you need to know about the effectiveness of BCAA’s from a performance perspective:
1. BCAA’s are possibly effective at reducing muscle breakdown during exercise.
2. BCAA’s are most likely ineffective at enhancing exercise or athletic performance.
3. More evidence is needed to rate the effectiveness of BCAA’s for reducing fatigue, increasing energy, or improving concentration.
A study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness suggests that BCAA supplementation does not enhance athletic performance but affects muscle recovery and the immune system. Here’s the abstract:
“Since the 1980′s there has been high interest in branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) by sports nutrition scientists. The metabolism of BCAA is involved in some specific biochemical muscle processes and many studies have been carried out to understand whether sports performance can be enhanced by a BCAA supplementation. However, many of these researches have failed to confirm this hypothesis. Thus, in recent years investigators have changed their research target and focused on the effects of BCAA on the muscle protein matrix and the immune system. Data show that BCAA supplementation before and after exercise has beneficial effects for decreasing exercise-induced muscle damage and promoting muscle-protein synthesis. Muscle damage develops delayed onset muscle soreness: a syndrome that occurs 24-48 h after intensive physical activity that can inhibit athletic performance. Other recent works indicate that BCAA supplementation recovers peripheral blood mononuclear cell proliferation in response to mitogens after a long distance intense exercise, as well as plasma glutamine concentration. The BCAA also modifies the pattern of exercise-related cytokine production, leading to a diversion of the lymphocyte immune response towards a Th1 type. According to these findings, it is possible to consider the BCAA as a useful supplement for muscle recovery and immune regulation for sports events.”
As another example, a small double-blind study found that using a mixed amino acid reduced muscle soreness caused by endurance exercising of the arm.
First, the researchers had the test subjects take the amino acid 30 minutes prior to exercising, and they failed to find benefit. Next, they added a dose immediately after the subjects exercised and then two doses every day for the next four days (the additional doses produced the reduction in muscle soreness).
Note: some studies have also shown BCAAs to show some potential for reducing muscle damage after long distance running.
The research regarding the effectiveness of BCAA’s does not provide enough convincing evidence to suggest that they are effective at increasing endurance and strength performance, however, BCAA’s can still be a valuable supplement for every athlete to use simply due to the research backed muscle recovery and immune system boosting effects.
VITAMIN D - Vitamin D deficiency is a worldwide epidemic and there’s a ton of research out there that backs this up. Bone pain and muscle weakness are the primary symptoms of low Vitamin D but the deficiency is also believed to have significant long term health impacts as it is associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, and cancers of the bowel/colon.
For athletes, Vitamin D deficiency is thought to increase the risk of stress fracture injury and perhaps even make you more susceptible to muscle, ligament, and tendon injuries (however these claims are not 100% conclusive based on the evidence).
Recently, sports performance researchers have also hypothesized that inadequate Vitamin D levels may have potential impacts on athletic performance. In fact, Vitamin D has been proposed as a potentially performance LIMITING factor when in deficiency, and as performance ENHANCING when present in abundance.
Most of the data does support the theory that Vitamin D may play a major role in muscle structure and function – but there is limited evidence to support the claim that Vitamin D deficiency is performance limiting, or that maintenance of Vitamin D at supra-physiological levels will result in enhanced muscle development and performance.
Since the data does show (in certain instances) that Vitamin D may improve athletic performance in vitamin D-deficient athletes, I strongly suggest all serious athletes get their levels checked and try to optimize their Vitamin D levels asap (use the sun if possible).
I use an app called D-Minder to help optimize my vitamin D levels naturally using the sun, however, some people who have severe deficiency (especially female athletes as women tend to be more deficient than males) may need prescription strength Vitamin D.
If you’re deficient (or think you may be) I suggest you talk to a doctor or pharmacist about having your Vitamin D levels measured regularly throughout the year. Be sure to also have them advise you on appropriate sunlight exposure and/or supplement use.
ASTAXANTHIN - Astaxanthin is a carotenoid which is thought to be the most powerful antioxidant in all of nature.
The antioxidants in Astaxanthin give it a wide array of health benefits, including: improving cardiovascular health, fighting cancer, stabilizing blood sugar, and boosting your immune system. Many experts believe it can also help athletes improve strength, endurance, workout performance, and recovery.
Strenuous exercise is believed to increase the presence of free radicals (naturally occurring substances that can cause tissue damage).
It’s been theorized that this free radical damage can cause muscle soreness and breakdown after intense exercise, however, some evidence has shown Astaxanthin (as well as a few other antioxidants) can help PREVENT this muscle damage and soreness.
Here are some of the notable “performance enhancing” benefits of Astaxanthin:
1. Attacks free radicals and protects your cells, organs and body tissues from oxidative damage.
2. Decreases inflammation and lactic acid in your muscles.
3. Improves vision and depth perception
4. Improves tolerance to the sun and reduces your risk of sunburn.
Salmon have a diet that’s incredibly high in Astaxanthin, and the Astaxanthin is what gives salmon the strength and endurance to swim up rivers and waterfalls for days on end without dying of exhaustion or cramping up like us humans do. The stuff helps fuel their muscles with a level of strength and endurance that’s almost second to none in the animal kingdom.
Note: Astaxanthin is also what gives Salmon their pink color.
So what does the research say about Astaxanthin?
A 2011 study on the effect of astaxanthin on cycling time trial performance revealed that the Astaxanthin group did show increases in power and endurance. Here’s the abstract:
We examined the effect of Astaxanthin (AST) on substrate metabolism and cycling time trial (TT) performance by randomly assigning 21 competitive cyclists to 28 d of encapsulated AST (4 mg/d) or placebo (PLA) supplementation. Testing included a VO2max test and on a separate day a 2 h constant intensity pre-exhaustion ride, after a 10 h fast, at 5% below VO2max stimulated onset of 4 mmol/L lactic acid followed 5 min later by a 20 km TT. Analysis included ANOVA and post-hoc testing. Data are Mean (SD) and (95% CI) when expressed as change (pre vs. post). Fourteen participants successfully completed the trial. Overall, we observed significant improvements in 20 km TT performance in the AST group (n=7; -121 s; 95% CI, -185, -53), but not the PLA (n=7; -19 s; 95% CI, -84, 45). The AST group was significantly different vs. PLA (P<0.05). The AST group significantly increased power output (20 W; 95% CI, 1, 38), while the PLA group did not (1.6 W; 95% CI, -17, 20). The mechanism of action for these improvements remains unclear, as we observed no treatment effects for carbohydrate and fat oxidation, or blood indices indicative of fuel mobilization. While AST significantly improved TT performance the mechanism of action explaining this effect remains obscure.
Other studies have suggested that Astaxanthin supplementation is effective for “improvement against bluntness of visual nerve acuity and for inhibition of lactic acid generation induced by the continuous muscular contracting activities.” You can check out that full study here.
There isn’t a ton of data regarding Astaxanthin and its effects on sports performance but I think that the results we have seen here so far are strong enough to give you a reason to test it out. I’ve been taking Nutrex Hawaii Astaxanthin (12 mg once a day) for about 4 months now and I’m pleased with the results.
SYSTEMIC ENZYMES - There isn’t a ton of scientific research out there just yet on systemic enzymes & athletic performance, but these are thought to be very helpful for fighting inflammation and improving recovery between workouts – two things that every athlete should be focused on improving.
There is also some evidence which suggests they may also be helpful when it comes to joint and tendon health, overall metabolic health, and healthy blood circulation.
I’ve never used systemic enzymes before, so I’m not going to write a ton about them in this post, but keep them on your radar as they could end up becoming one of the most valuable supplements for athletes to use in the near future. I plan to test them out myself at some point this year. I’ll update this post accordingly once I have better information and completed some user testing.
PROTEIN POWDER – This is arguably the most abused supplement on the market for the past 20 years. Honestly, none of us really need to be supplementing with tons of artificial protein powder multiple times per day, unless perhaps you don’t eat meat or have malabsorption issues.
If you’re a meat eater, you should be able to get most of the protein you need from eating normal meals throughout the day. However, similar to the greens supplement, there will be times that you need the convenience of a protein supplement or meal replacement.
Now, I’m not going to bash protein powder supplements too much because I do use them myself, but you’ve got to be really careful these days when selecting a brand.
Many of the top brands out there have been shown in testing to be significantly contaminated with heavy metal toxins such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury.
Also, most of the top protein powders out there are derived from pasteurized dairy from cows treated with hormones and processed using high heat and acid. Many also contain artificial sweeteners and other potentially harmful fillers and additives.
Due to the poor protein sources and processing methods…most protein powders on the market right now are basically useless from a health perspective.
Sure, these products may provide a protein source that can help you build muscle and/or burn fat…but at what cost?
Consuming a processed protein supplement 2 or 3 times per day that’s loaded with hormones passed on from the cow to you, artificial sweeteners, fillers, additives, and dangerous toxic metals cannot bode well for your health long-term.
I believe whey protein is a very important supplement to use for every athlete, but the protein MUST be minimally processed organic whey that comes from grass-fed, non-hormonally treated cows. This is the purest (and safest) stuff on the market.
With that said, I typically recommend Sun Warrior Protein to my veggie/vegan readers and Prograde Protein to my readers who eat meat. Prograde is a high quality protein powder that’s non-gmo and hormone free, sweetened with stevia, and doesn’t contain any artificial sweeteners. All Pro Science also makes a legit grass fed whey protein powder.
Note: Sun Warrior protein is rice based so keep in mind that plant proteins are harder to digest than animal proteins (lectins are very difficult to digest). So if the veggie protein messes up your stomach you may want to think about switching to whey.
USE AT YOUR OWN RISK
PRE-WORKOUTS – They’re hyped up and marketed to us as the quick and easy way to turn into an absolute beast in the gym in just a matter of minutes…
Just mix in 2 scoops of “Product X” in water and you’ll have the power to “increase performance” or “improve concentration” or “boost metabolism” and “crush any workout” – I’m sure you’ve heard all of this stuff before.
So do the powdered caffeine, taurine, and B vitamin mixes really live up to the hype?
Ok, first of all I have to admit, there’s nothing “better” to give you a great boost of energy before a workout than a solid pre-workout supplement. I’ve used a few of them before and to be quite honest…they do help you kick ass. Keep in mind, however, when I say “better” I don’t necessarily mean HEALTHIER.
I really don’t ever recommend using pre-workouts because they are usually loaded with a ton of artificial ingredients and vasodilators + central nervous system or cardiac stimulants (beta alanine, keto-glutarate, synthetic caffeine, and dimethylamylamine (DMAA) are common offenders).
Sure, this combo can “hype you up” before the gym and give you the sense of energy you need to turn into a “beast” in a matter of minutes…but various combinations of these ingredients can place a really heavy load on your blood pressure and heart.
Often containing SEVERAL potential toxic ingredients that are nearly unpronounceable – these unregulated cheap performance enhancing substances fall in my “use at your own risk” category. In fact, one of the most popular pre-workouts over the past few years (Craze) was found by researchers at Harvard a few months back to contain a “meth like ingredient”.
The ingredient the research team found during their testing was a substance called N,alpha-diethylphenylethylamine (N,a-DEPEA), which they said was structurally similar to methamphetamine. Their analysis listed the stimulant as “less potent than methamphetamine”, but “more potent than ephedra”, (which the FDA banned back in 2003). You can read the full study here.
In case you were unaware, the Craze pre-workout powder was named Bodybuilding.com’s 2012′s “New Supplement of the Year”, but the site pulled Craze out of its supplement store this past September until more tests could be done on the product to prove it’s safe. Craze was also removed from Bodybuilding.com’s list of nominees for the 2013 “Pre-Workout Supplement of the Year”.
Now I’m not telling you this to pick on Craze, I have no reason to believe those guys intentionally set out to hurt people. All I’m saying is that there are many unknown risks to taking supplements…ESPECIALLY pre-workout supplements.
Like I said earlier, the FDA does not need to approve supplements for safety and effectiveness BEFORE they are marketed to consumers…and supplements aren’t usually recalled until AFTER it has been found to be unsafe.
With that said, use caution when using pre-workout supplements – they are very risky to use based on the stress they place on your blood pressure and heart.
If you’re going to use one, wait until it has been on the market for at least a year so you don’t have to be a guinea pig. Wait to see what the reviews and complaints look like online and then check for scientific testing done on the product BEFORE trying it yourself. These pre-workout horror stories are becoming all too common and I fear they may only get worse.
In my opinion, pre-workout supplements are not a wise or healthy choice for anyone (not just serious athletes). I think that it’s smarter to address the underlying reasons why you’re dragging and lacking energy instead of popping a pill or pounding a powdered mix every day. In my experience, a lack of energy is usually due to a combo of lifestyle/emotional stress, poor food choices, and not getting enough sleep.
If you want a boost in energy (one that lasts for the long-term), here are a few tips:
1. Remove all negativity from your life and surround yourself with positive, forward thinking people.
2. Eliminate grains + sugar from your diet and increase your intake of omega-3 fats.
3. Eat healthier food more consistently and follow these 10 Tips to ensure success.
4. Drink more water and get more sleep. Aim for a gallon of water per day and at least 8 hours of sleep.
5. Avoid pre-workout supplements that have ingredients you can’t pronounce or happens to be the same color as a crayon. Stick to a cup of black, organic coffee or tea if you need a small energy boost.
As a serious athlete it’s your responsibility to carefully evaluate any ergogenic aid, herbal supplement, or performance enhancing supplement before you put it into your body.
Based on the information presented here, it appears the ‘best’ (and safest) supplements to take as a serious athlete are: Greens Powder, Omega-3, Probiotics, Digestive Enzymes; and to a lesser extent: Creatine, Glutamine, BCAA, Whey Protein, Asaxanthin, Vitamin D, and Systemic Enzymes. The top supplement to avoid is the pre-workout.</