supplements 101: the basics to maximize gains & recovery
The information out there on supplements is a microcosm of the information about health and fitness – there’s way too much, it’s often wrong and contradictory, and it ultimately leads to complete confusion.
Fear not, I’m here to simplify the basics.
I’ve tried, studied, and researched supplements since I first became a personal trainer 18 years ago. I’m going to boil everything I’ve learned in that time down to a few simple nuggets in this one blog post. Hope it helps!
This article is pretty lengthy, so you may want to consume it in parts. Use this to quickly navigate.
PART 1 – THE CLIFFS NOTES
There is a lot of information here and I know your time is valuable. So, if you don’t have time to read it all, this section hits the highlights!
The Summary Chart
Each supplement does its own thing in its own way. Some of the supplements are an absolute must simply because you bust your butt in the gym and you need them to recover and maximize your gains. Other things are super helpful but only for certain goals (ex. strength building). Others, you might simply not need.
The Supplement Protocols
What supplements to take and when to take them is really based on your goals and training habits. In this 101 article, I’m keeping it very simple. I’ll outline 3 basic protocols and use before workout, after workout, and before bed time as your key time triggers.
#1 – Functional & Recovery Protocol
If you aren’t worried about having the absolute maximal training session possible or building substantially more strength, then the functional protocol is what I’d recommend. It’s the absolute basics to ensure you have enough fuel for a good workout and the nutrients you need to help your body recover, reduce soreness, and get you back in the gym the next day.
#2 – Performance Protocol
This protocol is for the folks that want to get the most out of their hour and see their WOD times improve. The key difference above functional is leveraging a little extra sugar and a dose of caffeine to maximize WOD intensity.
#3 – Performance & Strength Protocol
This protocol is the one I personally use. I want to continue to build strength and I want to get every ounce of intensity and benefit in my training. I add in a dose of creatine on top of my protein and pre wod before my workout and then switch my post WOD drink to recovery formula that also has some creatine and BCAAs.
Our new supplement partner
Honestly, I’m not comfortable educating folks on supplements without providing some sort of direction of where to go to find them. NOT ALL SUPPLEMENT COMPANIES ARE CREATED EQUAL!!
I literally can’t even name the amount of supplement companies I’ve tried over the years. Some have been really good experiences, some really bad, and some just in the middle. When I assess companies and their supplements, I evaluate on a few criteria:
- Time in business
- Overall feedback from people I know
- Performance – do I see/feel a difference?
- Side effects
- Value – Performance over price
For months, several gym owners I respect raved about how wonderful Driven Nutrition is for their members. I respect their opinions, so I setup an hour long call with the CEO of the company and hammered him with questions. I was really impressed with what I heard, so I then bought pretty much every product I talk about in this article and tried it all for 2 months.
Quite frankly, it checked every box for me, which is the only reason I’m comfortable telling you.
I actually haven’t trained as hard recently but my strength numbers are still climbing and I feel fully energized the days I do train. Honestly, it isn’t #1 on my taste list, but it is up there and it’s really good. More importantly, I never experienced any GI issues and never felt “weighed down” by my pre/intra WOD shake like I have in the past. And the clincher for me is all that performance comes at some of the best pricing in the market.
I actually used to use a basic protein supplement that cost me $70 each month. Driven’s Whey runs less than $40/month!
As with every supplement company I’ve ever worked with, the gym does get a small kick back from orders that we submit for our gym. Honestly, I pass a large part of that on to you guys to make things even more affordable. You’ll see that in the pricing.
how to order
We will have sheets on the front desk for you to fill out, but if you are an online person, click the button below. We will put in a big bulk order for the gym each month.
Part 2 – warnings and basic facts
Before you jump in and start throwing supplements down the hatch, I want you to be aware of 3 basic facts.
FACT 1: Focus on nutrition before supplements
Proper nutrition is the absolute fastest, most effective way to get results!
All the whey, creatine, and amino acids in the world will make very little difference if your diet is a disaster. It’s like modifying the aerodynamics of a car that doesn’t even have an engine. Get the engine working and then supplement that engine and car to make it run better.
FACT 2: Adding the right supplements as part of your nutrition plan can maximize the return on your work in the gym.
In general, supplements are designed to help with at least one of two things – providing energy or enhancing recovery.
If we have more energy to train we can have more effective training sessions. Better said, we can train with a higher intensity, which is critical when it comes to producing results.
If we can maximize and speed up our body’s recovery, it rebuilds itself more effectively and enables us to train harder with more frequency.
Much of this is done through proper nutrition and sleep, but the right supplements can build on top of those habits to help us get the most out of our hour!
Now for the scary but important stuff…
FACT 3: For the most part, the FDA does not regulate supplements (most supplements disclose this on the label).
This means a few things:
We need to think about safety.
Dietary supplements are considered safe until proven unsafe. They don’t go through the lengthy vetting and testing process that is required for pharmaceuticals.
This means company X can release a product that causes stomach ulcers, but the FDA won’t catch it and ban it until massive amounts of people get stomach ulcers. Scary huh?
In other words, I only use products that have been out for a while and carry a stellar track record. If a product doesn’t agree with me, I get rid of it immediately.
Effectiveness can vary among seemingly similar products.
Believe it or not, not all fish oil is created equal. In fact, some of the fish oil products out there can actually cause more harm than good because the quality of the oil is awful.
Because of loose regulation, companies aren’t required to disclose a ton about their ingredients. Additionally, supplement manufacturers have a long leash when it comes to claims and they are reeeeally good at legally promising you the world.
Once again, I look for products with a long, proven track record and then I test them myself and look for the data.
Take recommended dosages with a grain of salt – they come from the manufacturer.
There’s no FDA recommended dose for supplements, so the manufacturers “help us out” by making the recommendations themselves. Sometimes they are dead on and other times not so much.
Luckily, a ton of independent folks have done studies to determine dosing effectiveness and I will hit on some of those below.
Part 3 – supplement basics: what they do, are they for you, and how to dose
There are 100s of supplements out there, but we pulled out a basic 6 to get you started. For each one we will talk about what they do, how much to take, and if they are right for you.
Supplements #1 & #2 – Protein (Whey & Casein)
What does it do?
Protein is by far the most basic (and important) supplement. As we workout, our body breaks down muscle tissue and depletes the tissue of glycogen for fuel. Protein is the key ingredient needed to restore this glycogen and rebuild the muscle tissue bigger and better!
What are the different types?
There are several types of protein on the market, but the key ones I want to highlight are whey and casein.
Whey is a super common, milk based protein that digests fast. In other words, your body can quickly use this protein for recovery. As such, it is typically the protein of choice post workout.
Also derived from dairy, casein is known as a slower release protein that takes longer to digest. This attribute makes it the perfect bedtime supplement. Our body recovers the most as we sleep and it needs protein to fuel that recovery. However, since we are at rest with little energy expenditure our body needs just a little protein at a time across a long length of time. Casein provides that “time release” whereas whey would give more of an early burst all at once.
Should you take protein?
100%. Protein should be a part of every single athlete’s supplement protocol. Specifically post workout and before bedtime.
How much should you take?
Studies have shown that there are diminishing returns on protein after roughly 25g in a meal. In other words, a post workout shake with 25g will yield the same recovery results as one with 50g of protein. The only difference is the one with 50g may cause a little more fat storage due to unused calories.
Supplement #3 – Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
What do they do?
Protein is so good for muscle building because it contains amino acids. Amino acids are combined together by our bodies to repair and build muscle. This helps with muscle growth but also with muscle soreness. So obviously, amino acids are a must
BUT, do you need them as a separate supplement?
Many people would say yes, but I’d argue to save your money for one simple reason – most of the modern day protein supplements already have them! Check your protein nutrition label for them, especially for what’s considered the most important one – leucine.
If it’s in there you should be good. If not, then you definitely want to buy BCAAs.
How much should you have?
As with many things in the supplement world, there is only a little research and a wide range of findings. You’ll see numbers ranging from 3g a day up to 20g. I find that if I stay within a few grams of the 10g mark, my muscle growth is just fine. I also eat protein every meal, so if you have trouble with that you may want to up your intake a bit.
Supplement #4 – Creatine
What does it do?
Studies have shown that creatine helps increase muscle mass, strength, and overall exercise performance. Without getting too technical, creatine is a natural substance found in your muscle cells. Your body uses it to create energy molecules called ATP to fuel your workout.
Believe it or not, creatine is one of the most studied and researched supplements with actual scientific data to prove benefits. While there are old wives’ tales about creatine causing cramping and liver issues, no study has ever proven ill effects.
Should you take it?
If you want to put on muscle and can psychologically handle the scale going up, then 100%. If building muscle/strength is not your goal and/or you know the scale going up will mess with your mind even if it’s good weight, then don’t do it.
I’m a big creatine user and it’s certainly one of the reasons I continue to hit strength PRs in my mid/late 30s. That being said, I carry an extra 10-15 lbs and have gone up in shirt and pant sizes because of the muscle growth.
Psychologically I’m ok with that, but not everyone is and that’s ok! If you aren’t just be honest with yourself and avoid creatine.
How much should you take?
There are a couple of schools of thoughts with creatine dosing.
One school of thought is to “cycle” it. You start the cycle with a load phase containing high amounts of creatine – roughly 20g a day for a week or so. You then back off to roughly 5 grams a day for the next several weeks. Some protocols even recommend you take a week off and then start the cycle over.
That was a very old school way of thinking, but honestly nothing has proven that works better than simply taking the same amount daily.
My recommendation is actually the opposite. Start with 3 grams a day for a week and then build up to as much as 10 grams a day. I’ve found that taking too much creatine too soon can go right through you, if ya catch my drift.
Supplement #5 – Caffeine (Pre-WOD)
What does it do?
Believe it or not caffeine is one of the best performance enhancing supplements out there. Studies have actually found caffeine can help with both your endurance and your strength. In fact, many sporting events/leagues conduct testing to keep their athlete below a certain limit amount of caffeine.
Here’s the catch – if you regularly consume caffeine, it limits the effects.
How much you ask? It’s unclear, but let’s just say if you are a 3 cups of coffee a day person, your pre-wod caffeine will do very little.
How much should you take?
Once again, there is no scientifically proven number and every person is different but it’s common belief that 100-120mg is the right dose. Take that about 30 minutes before workout time and let your inner animal loose!
Supplement #6 – Joint Supplements (Glucosamine & Chondroitin)
What does it do?
There are several supplements out there that are believed to help with joint pain. The two most common are Glucosamine & Chondroitin. You will often see these paired together because most studies show a statistically significant benefit improvement when the two work together vs. separately.
Glucosamine is a natural compound found in our cartilage. The supplement kind stems from shellfish and in some studies has shown to reduce joint damage and osteoarthritis. Essentially, this means less pain which can help us move in a fuller, better range of motion.
Chondroitin is also a natural substance in our connective tissues. Some studies have found it to prevent cartilage breakdown, reduce joint pain, increase mobility, and decrease need for pain meds. On the other hand, some studies have shown no effects.
Should I take it and if so how much?
Honestly, studies are completely split on this supplement and even when it does work it takes a while to kick in.
Personally, I feel way better on it. It took about 6 weeks before I felt the effects, but when I did it was noticeable.
Most of us at the gym aren’t in our twenties anymore so especially if you have any joint pain, I suggest giving it a try for 60 days. If you feel better, great. If you don’t, then don’t take it anymore!
In many of the studies about 1500mg of glucosamine and 150g of chondroitin were administered daily. That’s what I take and is actually what is in the dosing of the Supple Flex product carried by Driven Nutrition.
a Final Note
So that was a ton of information and really just the tip of the iceberg. Please ask questions and then simply try things to see what works for you.
As with most things in life, supplementation is a very individualized process that is best done by planning smartly, trying things out, and adjusting to yield the very best results. Let me know how I can help!