To Supplement or Not To Supplement
Jul 19, 2022
It’s likely that at some point in your fitness journey you’ve stumbled upon an article, video, or individual preaching about the benefits of supplements. Supplements can boost physical performance or recovery when used well, but they can be expensive and hard to understand. In this blog we will try to simplify some of the most common types of supplements so that you can decide if they’re right for you.
Popularized by 1980s bodybuilding magazines, whey protein is a staple in the supplement cabinets of performance athletes and weightlifters alike. One of whey protein’s biggest draws is its simplicity. Whey is just a byproduct of cheese production wherein enzymes separate the curd and whey of milk. The most commonly sold types of whey protein are whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, and hydrolyzed whey protein isolate. Whey protein concentrate is a filtered form of the whey byproduct previously mentioned. It’s typically 70-80% protein but still contains lactose, other sugars, and fat. Whey protein isolate is an ultra filtered version of whey concentrate. The extra filtration removes more of the lactose, other sugars, and fat which makes the protein concentration higher (around 90%). Hydrolyzed whey protein is whey protein isolate that has had its proteins broken down into their amino acid components. The result is a protein that is digested and absorbed much more quickly.
The value of whey protein comes from its ability to aid in reaching protein needs. Everyone, but especially those who exercise, should aim to get enough protein to repair damaged cells and build new cells. Active individuals should get between .6 and 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body fat (a 150 lb individual would need between 90 and 180 grams) per day. For overweight or obese individuals, 1 gram of protein per centimeter of height may be a better estimation of protein needs.
BCAA stands for branch chain amino acid. All of the proteins in our body, from muscle to hormones and enzymes, are chains of these amino acid components. The body can use food to make many of the 20 different amino acids. Nine of them, coined essential amino acids, are only obtainable through food, however. BCAAS can be beneficial because not all foods have all amino acids in them. Supplementing BCAAs helps to ensure that your body can make all the proteins it needs to recover from exercise. Additionally, because the body will actually break down muscle proteins to use as energy during intense exercise, having available amino acids in the form of BCAAs in your system can increase muscle preservation, especially during intense exercise.
Among the BCAAs are standout powerful amino acids like Leucine that interact with anabolic pathways to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (new muscle growth). One study found the difference in growth was as much as 22% between those who used BCAAs and those who did not. However, this study only compares individuals supplementing BCAAs with those supplementing with a placebo. Supplementing BCAAs alone was found to be only half as effective at stimulating muscle protein synthesis as supplementing both whey protein and BCAAs. Notably, meats, fish, dairy, and eggs are complete proteins meaning they all contain every essential amino acid. Those who already have a diet high in animal based proteins may only experience marginal benefits from supplementing BCAAs.
Pre-workout is a blanket term for what are typically powdered stimulants designed to increase exercise productivity. Pre-workouts will often contain caffeine, creatine, nitric oxide boosters, and other stimulants that have varying levels of efficacy.
Caffeine is one of the most studied substances in the world. As such, its benefits for exercise are well known. In one meta-analysis, caffeine was found to improve “aerobic endurance, muscle strength, muscle endurance, power, jumping performance and exercise speed.” In addition to improving focus and suppressing tiredness, caffeine works by increasing blood flow and circulating epinephrine, a hormone that plays a huge role in muscle contraction. Notably, caffeine seems to have a greater effect on aerobic exercise (extended cardio) when compared to anaerobic exercise (weight lifting or sprints). Caffeine is effective in doses of 30mg (1 cup of green tea) and greater. An average pre-workout will contain 5-10 times this amount. Because caffeine has a half-life of 6 hours and can interrupt sleep (a very important factor in exercise recovery), consuming too much caffeine too late in the day can be counterproductive.
Creatine is another very studied supplement. It can be found within pre-workouts or on its own. Creatine works as an energy source in the body, not dissimilar to carbohydrates, proteins, or fats. It works in tandem with the body's phosphagen energy system which breaks down creatine phosphate stored in muscle and uses it for energy. The phosphagen system is utilized in short duration explosive movements. As a result, supplementing creatine can increase strength during high intensity anaerobic exercises (weightlifting or sprinting). Increasing the load placed on the muscle can lead to increased muscle size and strength. Supplementing creatine takes 2 week to begin to show effects and can increase the body's creatine stores 0-40%. Notably, some individuals do not respond to creatine supplementation. Creatine supplementation typically involves a “loading” period of a week of consuming 20g per day split into 4-5 doses followed by a maintenance level of 5 grams per day.
Nitric Oxide Boosters (Pump Products)
If you look at the ingredients label of a pre workout you’ll likely see either L-citrulline or Citrulline Malate. Citrulline is a non-essential amino acid that increases blood flow to muscle by increasing nitric oxide production. Nitric oxide is already naturally elevated during exercise as it plays an important role in energy cellular metabolism. A meta analysis on the effects of nitric oxide boosters found a reduced RPE (rate of perceived exertion) during exercise, as well as reduced soreness both 24 and 48 hours later. These are both likely due in part to the muscles' increased ability to flush metabolic waste products. Effective dosage of L-citrulline is 6000-8000 mg 1 hour before exercise.
Beta alanine is another non-essential amino acid found very commonly in pre workouts. It’s infamous for the “itchy” side effect that some people experience when using it. Beta alanine works by increasing carnosine, a naturally occurring molecule in the body that helps to reduce fatigue during high intensity exercise. While many pre-workouts containing beta alanine promise its inclusion will increase muscle strength and endurance, the research is not as convincing. A meta analysis of the effects of beta alanine found that it “may increase the amount of time an athlete can sustain high intensity exercise before becoming exhausted”. One study did show that 2000m rowers lasted 13% longer before exhaustion, but in a study of 400m sprinters, there was no significant decrease in sprint time. Thus, beta alanine may be moderately effective at increasing time to fatigue of endurance athletes but is unlikely to be effective for highly anaerobic exercise like sprints or weightlifting. Additionally, beta alanine can be hard to dose as standard doses are not established and it may take weeks to dose.
There is a lot of information to take into consideration here, but the bottom line is that you should feel free to supplement if you want to. While some supplements show marginal to no results, some supplements are proven to help. It all really depends on your person and your goals. When possible, it’s always best to get your nutrients from real food. When not possible or effective, supplementation is passable.