While whole food nutrition is generally the best avenue for reaching your health and fitness goals, sometimes there are certain supplements that can help you along the way.
For decades, bodybuilders and athletes alike have been taking supplements to sculpt some massive muscles and increase their strength. Some have been proven effective, some not so effective, others are just downright dangerous.
Supplements are not meant to be magic pills, however, and can’t take the place of a sound workout routine and balanced diet.
But if you’re looking for a little bit of help to boost your efforts outside of a good diet, then taking supplements can potentially fill in some gaps and aid your progress if used appropriately.
What are supplements?
Supplements are products that are intended to supplement your health and nutrition.
In the fitness industry, they’re typically marketed as being able to improve your performance, help you build muscle, aid in or speed up the fat loss, and basically help you get whatever results you’re aiming for.
There are also health supplements that are intended to make up for micronutrient deficiencies such as a lack of certain vitamins and minerals in your diet.
For instance, if you’re not eating enough vegetables then there are “green powders” that you can add to your nutritional regimen that supposedly makes up for that lack of nutrition.
You can probably find a supplement for just about anything these days.
The supplement industry has been a ridiculously lucrative entity that just keeps growing. According to The Journal of Nutrition, Americans spent $32.5 billion on supplements in 2012, which was over 7% more in sales from 2011.
Based on current trends, the supplement industry is supposed to be worth about $194 billion by 2025. It’s an ever-expanding market, and with good reason.
We love the idea of magic pills that will decrease the amount of work we have to do to get the results we want. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works, regardless of the way advertisers may make it seem.
There are some legitimate supplements that can make a difference in your results, aid your performance, and enhance your health. You just have to know what you’re looking for and go in with a realistic idea of what you can actually expect to gain from using supplements.
Steroids vs supplements
Before we go any further, I think it’s important to note that steroids and supplements are not the same things. Steroids are actually produced by humans, naturally. There are different types of synthetic steroids that people can take for different purposes.
Sometimes doctors will prescribe corticosteroids, which help with decreasing inflammation, reduce swelling, and calm down an angry immune system.
The steroids that are often used in the fitness industry are synthetic anabolic steroids.
While we produce anabolic steroids ourselves (testosterone, estrogen, human growth hormone), the ones that have been popularized in the fitness industry are synthetic hormones that are usually taken with the intent to:
- Speed up muscle building
- Accelerate fat loss
- Increase strength
- Enhance performance
They are very different from taking health and dietary supplements or even fat burners and have been linked to potentially significant side-effects including higher rates of death and medical issues.
Are supplements necessary?
You do not have to take supplements to reach your goals or get results. They are not required, nor should they be relied on.Supplements are not meant to take the place of hard work, consistency, and determination. However, they can be helpful in achieving your goals if used appropriately.
As I mentioned before, there is no magic pill that will make you look great with little to no effort.
However, there are supplements that have been shown to have beneficial effects on your health and performance, which can consequently help you to get more pronounced and potentially faster results.
Best supplements for muscle gain
While having a particular nutrient deficiency may predispose you to get better results from certain supplements, there are also supplements that can be taken by almost anyone.
For those of us that love working out, here are some of the best workout supplements for bodybuilding.
These supplements can help you with strength gain, muscle growth, fat loss, have better recovery, enhance your cardio performance or give you an energy boost so that you can push yourself harder during your workouts.
Most people could probably stand to benefit from taking a daily multivitamin. Unless your nutritional intake is absolutely perfect, there’s a good chance that you may be missing out on some micronutrients.
Micronutrients are things like vitamins and minerals that are best absorbed from whole, fresh foods. It’s recommended that we get a certain amount of each of them every day for optimal health.
So, if you eat a lot of processed food, or don’t particularly like to eat all of your vegetables then you may be missing out.
Taking a multivitamin on a daily basis can help you to fill in some of the nutritional gaps that you may be missing in your meals.
For example, if you’re lactose intolerant and have a hard time-consuming dairy but you also don’t like dark leafy greens, then it can be difficult to get enough calcium and other micronutrients.
While eating a healthy diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and adequate protein from good sources may provide sufficient nutrition, a lot of us fall short and tend to not eat the healthiest of diets.
Based on information from the Centers for Disease Control, over 70% of adults aren’t getting enough fruits and vegetables. This is largely demonstrated by the health statistics in America.
In a study that included a sample size of over 5000 Americans, less than 3% met the criteria for living a healthy lifestyle. The criteria consisted of following a healthy diet, maintaining body fat within a normal range, no smoking, and getting enough exercise.
When choosing a multivitamin, make sure you look at the contents and think about your individual needs.
There are some made just for men that include nutrients for prostate health and for healthy testosterone production.
There are other multivitamins just for women that provide nutrients that many women need for healthy hair, skin, and nails.
People over 50 have nutrient deficiencies that come with age, so there are multivitamins created just for them.
- Boost your immune system
- Age better/healthier
- Reduce heart disease
- Healthier hair and skin
- More energy
- Less stress and anxiety
Be sure to check out the multi-vitamins guide to learn more about it.
Whey protein is one of the most widely available, commonly taken, and most effective dietary supplements that you can take.
Whether you’re trying to build more muscle, get stronger, lose fat or recover better, it has been shown to be one of the most beneficial supplements that you can take to help you reach your goals.
There are a ton of different types of whey protein powder on the market, but they aren’t all created equal. Some are better than others based on a few factors:
- Where they’re sourced from
- Type of whey protein (concentrate, isolate, hydrolysate)
- Amount of protein per serving
Grass-fed whey is a more expensive option but seems to cause less digestive upset than other types. You may also want to check for heavy metal testing, as this has recently become a concern for many people.
If you’re spending money on a supplement that’s supposed to help your health then you’ll probably want to get the most out of it and avoid hindering your goals.
Aside from making sure that it’s a quality whey protein, you may also want to check the ingredients list to make sure that there aren’t a bunch of unnecessary ingredients like additives and fillers that are thrown in to take up room.
This can mean that there aren’t as many of the effective ingredients in the product.
Some of these additives can also cause digestive upset, contribute to gut inflammation, and prevent you from losing fat. A few examples include maltodextrin, artificial sweeteners, added sugars, sugar alcohols, thickeners, gums, and BPA.
The type of whey protein you choose will also make a difference in its absorption and how well you tolerate it.
For instance, whey protein isolate has the least amount of lactose and the most bioavailable or absorbable protein. It’s the purest form that you can get and should cause the least amount of digestive issues.
It’s recommended to supplement with whey protein powder after workouts to aid in performance and recovery.
Based on a 2018 study, the best amount of protein for healthy adults is 0.8g per kg of body weight a day. If your goal is to get the most out of your training then you should aim for 1 gram of protein per pound (or 2.2 grams per kilogram) of your body weight per day.
- Improves strength and maximal power
- Enhances recovery
- Helps you to build muscle
- Increases performance
To learn more about whey protein powders, be sure to check out this guide.
Be sure to check out the whey protein powder guide to learn more about it.
Creatine monohydrate is the most studied dietary supplement for fitness performance. It’s a popular and common supplement used for decades by people who want to get stronger and build more muscle.
According to the Journal of Current Sports Medicine Reports, a sports medicine publication for physicians, the most effective dose of creatine is 0.03g per kg of body weight per day.
The article specifies that it isn’t necessary to do a loading phase before supplementing. A loading phase is usually a period of 1-2 weeks of supplementation with a high dose in order to increase the concentration of creatine in your body.
In any case, if you’re a 160lb person, that means you’re about 72.5kg. So, at 0.03g per kg, you would need to supplement with a little over 2g per day (2.175g to be exact). This would essentially be a slightly rounded scoop. Most manufacturers recommend that you take 2-3g per day.
A 2018 study examined the effects of creatine monohydrate during a 4-week period when paired with a focused resistance training program that was done 3 times per week. After 6 days of loading, which is where the participants took 20g of creatine per day, they continued to only take 2g per day for the rest of the study.
The results showed that supplementing with creatine improves maximum strength and decreases muscle damage during training. Lessening the effect of damage to your muscles while increasing your performance has fantastic benefits.
This can lead to faster strength and muscle gain, plus better recovery because it allows your body to adapt rather than focusing on healing first.
If your body is too focused on healing, then this can lead to immune system depression, fatigue, and systemic inflammation which can prevent or slow the process of muscle and/or strength building, and fat loss.It’s important to remember that the benefits of creatine only come with exercise. Otherwise, you're just throwing your money away.
- Improves strength
- Builds muscle
- Aids recovery
- Gives you a pump
Be sure to check out the creatine guide to learn more about it.
BCAAs (branch-chain amino acids)
BCAAs (or branched-chain amino acids) have been popularized for their use as recovery aids during your workout and afterward.
BCAAs, also known as leucine, isoleucine, and valine, are 3 of the essential amino acids, which are precursors that help with protein synthesis. That’s really just a fancy way of saying “the building blocks of protein”.
Essential amino acids are important because we can’t produce them. So, we have to get them through food.
BCAAs are particularly important, however, if you’re trying to build muscle and perform better during your workouts. They’ve been shown to help with endurance activities, and reduce recovery time and muscle soreness post-workout.
There are certain people who may benefit more from supplementing with BCAAs. Generally, if you’re following a healthy diet and getting adequate amounts of protein from food then you may not notice as much of a benefit.
However, studies have indicated that vegans and vegetarians may benefit the most from BCAA supplementation because it’s more difficult to consume adequate protein and BCAAs on this type of diet.
BCAA supplements can also be great for hydrating and replenishing lost electrolytes during strenuous workouts. There are many applications for this particular supplement, so it may be worth looking into if you’re interested in the performance-enhancing benefits of BCAAs.
- Build muscle
- Decrease muscle soreness
- Help with energy
- Reduce fatigue
- Improve performance
- Helps with liver disease
Be sure to check out the BCAAs guide to learn more about it.
Fish oil, omega 3
Fish oil or Omega 3s may be one of the most beneficial supplements that you could be missing out on if you don’t regularly consume a diet high in healthy fats from fish and other omega 3-rich sources.
The main fatty acids that fish oils deliver are EPA and DHA, which have been linked to reduced inflammation, weight loss, hair and skin health, heart health, and brain health. Omega 3 supplementation has also been shown to potentially help with anxiety and depression.
Omega 3s can be particularly helpful if you’re trying to lose weight. This 2015 study demonstrated that when obese individuals supplemented with fish oil, in addition to following a more healthy lifestyle, they lost more belly fat.
Fish oils have also been shown to lower inflammation which can contribute to fat storage. Whenever you are overweight or not eating a balanced diet your body translates this as stress and produces an inflammatory response.
Much like a body that’s focused on recovering from the training that’s too intense, a body that is inflamed due to poor health from a lack of nutrition and/or activity will also prioritize healing.
When you’re trying to lose weight and improve your health, your body will respond much more effectively and rapidly if it’s not trying to fight inflammation and immense stress.
So, regardless of whether your goal is muscle building, weight loss, or performance enhancement, it’s important to note that reducing inflammation will help you to reach your goals and get results much faster.
- Reduce inflammation
- May help with depression
- Prevent Alzheimer’s
- Reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke
- Healthy hair and skin
- Weight loss
The majority of people I’ve spoken to over the years have either been huge fans of pre-workout or say that it’s not for them.
I’ve often found that the people who think it’s not for them may have had unpleasant experiences with this type of product in the past or are very sensitive to caffeine and don’t prefer this type of supplement.
Generally, the reason most people take pre-workout is to get them hyped and motivated to workout. But you can also find stimulant-free pre-workout products that will give you more of a pump and extra focus without any jitters or the risk of keeping you up at night.
Stimulant-free pre-workout products may also be more suitable for people who prefer to workout later in the day, maybe after work or after class.
However, if you like caffeine, wake up in the wee hours of the morning to do your workouts, and don’t have any stimulant sensitivities then pre-workout has the potential to take your workouts to the next level.
It can be especially hard to focus and push yourself to workout when you’re tired and low on energy. So, this is when a pre-workout can be the most beneficial.
As with most fitness supplements, not all pre-workouts are the same. So, you may want to take a look at the ingredients list to check for things that may irritate your digestive system.
You can often find products that are in powder or liquid form, flavored and flavorless, as well as free of dyes and colors.
Some pre-workout powders can be really heavy on sodium, while others pack a punch with their grams of added sugar per serving. Whatever you choose will generally come down to your goals and sensitivities to specific ingredients.
And it of course never hurts to do your own research to make sure you understand what you’re getting when you invest in a product.
- Often includes other helpful supplements for fat burning and muscle building
- Great source of energy, usually from caffeine
- Helps with endurance
- Can increase power
- Aids in strength gains
- Helps with weight loss
Be sure to check out the pre-workout supplements guide to learn more about it.
Best supplements for bulking
Building muscle, gaining mass or bulking is generally a pretty gradual process that takes some patience. However, based on your body type and metabolism it may be a little more difficult for some than it is for others.
Either way, whether you’re a hard-gainer (someone who struggles to put on weight and gain size) or just looking to build some more muscle there are a couple of products that can be particularly helpful during a bulking phase.
Weight and mass gainers
Weight gainers, which are also known as mass gainers, are protein powders that are high in calories and often used by people who want to build more muscle.
Whereas most protein powders have a pretty similar range of calories, mass gainers can have up to 10 times the amount. This type of product typically has between 700 and up to 2000 calories per recommended serving.
They also tend to have a cup-sized scoop in order to deliver these humongous servings. Serving size will often be about 2-3 of those giant scoops. It’s recommended to mix it with milk to further increase the calories, carbs and protein content.
It isn’t uncommon to experience a bit of digestive upset when first trying to use this type of product. It’s a huge amount of calories and can make you feel really full.
Some tips for helping the digestibility is to drink a full serving size over the course of the day by separating it into thirds and having a smaller shake in between meals.
You can also take probiotics, usually one pill per day, to aid in the absorption and digestibility of the protein.
Before even trying a weight gainer, it’s important to make sure you’re eating enough food so that you’re getting proper nutrition and fueling your body.A weight gainer or mass gainer is supposed to supplement a bulking diet with extra calories. They aren’t intended to make up the majority of your calories for the day.
This is why it’s suggested to eat at least 3 meals a day, and snacks if you can fit them in as well. Then use a weight gainer to increase your daily or weekly caloric intake.
A good rule of thumb that seems to work well for people is to have a shake after workouts to help with recovery and protein synthesis and then before bed to continue feeding your muscles as you sleep.
Weight gainers are typically higher in carbohydrates and protein, a combination that’s been shown to be exceptionally helpful in building muscle and gaining overall mass.
- A convenient way to increase your calories
- Build muscle
- Gain size
- Increase your weight
- Helps with recovery
Be sure to check out the weight and mass gainers guide to learn more about it.
Casein protein is the slowest digesting protein made from milk. Since it’s digested at a much slower rate than other proteins, people often like to take it before going to bed in order to supply their muscles with a steady release of protein as they sleep.
The main components that make up milk are casein, whey protein, and non-protein nitrogens, with casein accounting for about 80% of the protein content.
Casein is more resistant to digestion than whey protein, which is why whey protein is digested more quickly.
For this reason, it may be more beneficial to take whey protein right after working out, and then consume casein protein right before bed to take advantage of its time-release protein.
When you’re sleeping, your body is essentially fasting because you aren’t taking in any calories for an extended time. This is where casein can help by preventing muscle breakdown through its time-release protein absorption.
Studies indicate that having some protein before bed can help with post-workout recovery and stimulate muscle synthesis to help you build muscle while you’re sleeping.If you’re trying to put on muscle, then feeding your muscles, promoting growth and preventing breakdown should be your priorities.
There are some other studies that show casein as being superior to whey protein for muscle building and fat loss.
In this study, police officers were given either whey protein or casein protein, put onto a high-calorie diet, and did resistance training. After 12 weeks, the group that took casein protein was stronger, had more muscle and lost more fat.
If you’re planning to go through a bulking phase in an effort to put on weight and gain more muscle mass then casein may be a valuable product to complement good nutrition and a caloric surplus.
- Promotes muscle growth
- Helps with recovery
- Slow digesting with time-release protein
- Increases strength
- Aids fat loss
- May boost the immune system
Be sure to check out the casein protein guide to learn more about it.
Best supplements for cutting
On the opposite end of the spectrum from bulking, you can also use supplements to assist you in losing weight, leaning out or cutting. When you’re cutting, you generally want to be in at least a slight caloric deficit where you’re taking in fewer calories than you need.
However, this isn’t the only way to cut or get leaner. You can also increase your activity through strength training and high-intensity workouts.
Regardless of the method you choose to promote a leaner physique, lose weight or undertake a cutting phase, there are two supplements that have proven to be beneficial in this process.
Fat burners come in 2 forms: stimulant and stimulant-free. If you’re someone with high blood pressure, caffeine sensitivity, or other health concerns then you may want to check with your physician prior to supplementing with a fat burner.
The stimulant-free versions are usually made with herbs that encourage cleaner energy and help your metabolism to function faster, while also giving you a bit of appetite suppression.
Your metabolism or metabolic rate is the number of calories your body burns on a daily basis. So, if you’re trying to lose fat then increasing your metabolism (calories you burn daily) is one of the most effective ways to achieve this goal.
The stimulant versions of fat burners tend to be a bit more aggressive and often have caffeine and sometimes other stimulants as well.
The purpose of fat burners is to give you more energy, ramp up your metabolism, make you sweat more, and help you push harder during your workouts.
Often, when you’re in a calorie deficit (eating fewer calories than you need to maintain your body weight), you can experience dips in your energy which can make it difficult to work out or even get through your day without feeling like a zombie.
Some people take fat burners to help them with more energy while they’re eating less. While other people like to take fat burners to help them feel less hungry and to approach their workouts with the same intensity as before they started eating in a caloric deficit.
There are fat burners that have a thermogenic component. These will often work by increasing your core temperature, boosting your metabolism and making you sweat more.
If this is the type of fat burner that you choose to take, then you may want to ensure you’re staying hydrating since you’ll be losing extra fluid through increased perspiration.
- More energy
- Appetite suppression
- Sweat more
- Boost your metabolism
L-carnitine is another supplement that has been studied a lot and has been shown to have tons of benefits in relation to a more efficient metabolism, fat-burning, and increasing performance.
It works by moving fatty acids into your mitochondria, which are the little powerhouses that act like engines inside of your cells. Your mitochondria then use this fat as fuel to give you more energy and help you to burn excess fat.
In addition to being a great tool for fat loss, l-carnitine has some other beneficial properties as well, including boosting brain health, increased energy production, and anti-aging benefits.
Studies have shown that supplementing with l-carnitine in combination with aerobic exercise can increase your levels of nitric oxide, which is important for building muscle. While building muscle won’t necessarily make you bulky, it will help to speed up your metabolism so that you burn more calories at rest.
This is something that you’ll probably want to aim for if you’re trying to lose fat because your metabolism will allow your body to burn more calories without even trying.
L-carnitine is also great for enhancing your post-workout recovery. Prioritizing optimal recovery after your workouts can have significant effects on your
- Future performance
- The time it takes for your muscles to heal
- Health benefits from exercise
- Physiological adaptations from training
Adaptations to exercise include getting stronger and building muscle, which helps to boost your metabolism and increase fat loss.
- Great for your brain health
- Fat loss
- Improve recovery after working out
- Healthy aging
- More energy
Be sure to check out the l-carnitine guide to learn more about it.
Supplements vs food
While supplements can be great for giving you a boost to reach your goals, the most beneficial thing you can do for your health and to get lasting results is to focus on your nutrition.
Prioritizing a diet that’s mostly made up of whole foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and good sources of protein will go a long way in fortifying your health.
A healthy body will generally respond better to exercise and dieting, provided there aren’t any other underlying health concerns.
It’s important to note that while supplements can help you to reach your goals in some cases, they are only meant to supplement a balanced diet.
If you aim to eat less ultra-processed foods and get your nutrition from meals made from foods that have been minimally processed or not processed at all, then you’ll find that fat loss and muscle building are that much easier to achieve.
Relying solely on supplements can hinder your health and fitness goals, and ultimately keep you from getting the lasting results that you may be after.