If you want to know once and for all which supplements actually work and which don’t, you want to read this guide.
I have good news for you.
The majority of the fancy-sounding pills and powders lining the shelves of GNC are not necessary for reaching your health and fitness goals.
The truth is most workout supplements are completely bogus and can’t deliver a fraction of the results they promise. They are, for a lack of better terms, worthless crap.
And if you want to develop a killer physique, with the six pack abs you’ve always dreamed about, you don’t necessarily need supplements.
That’s right– you can achieve everything you want with hard work in the gym and smart dieting.
But what if you want to see results faster? What if you want a little leg up when it comes to building the body you’ve always wanted?
That’s where a well-chosen regimen of workout supplements comes into play. Certain supplements will help you build muscle and get lean faster and stay healthy.
I put together this guide to show you which supplements are worth buying and using and why. Whether you’re a supplement junkie or skeptic, you’re going to find this guide extremely helpful. You’ll not only learn how to get the most supplement bang for your buck and goals, you’ll also learn how to avoid many of the industry scams and pitfalls.
So, let’s start with how to read between the supplement marketer’s lines so that you’ll never be taken advantage again when it comes to your health and fitness.
Separating Scientific Fact from Marketing Mumbo-Jumbo
As the founder of Muscle for Life and Legion Athletics, I’ve been living the health and fitness lifestyle for more than a decade. And in that time, I’ve become disgusted with the amount of hype, pseudoscience and outright lies that are used to push completely inferior products.
The truth is anybody can reach out to a manufacturer, throw together a “proprietary blend” of useless ingredients, slap a fancy label on a bottle, recruit a handful of steroid-fueled Instagram celebrities, and move a lot of product.
And with everyone claiming scientifically effective ingredients and dosages these days it’s impossible to know at first glance who’s lying and who’s not. Look a bit closer, though, and you can quickly find out…
Look at the ingredients.
When it comes to supplement ingredients, there are a few things you need to know:
- Supplement producers are notorious for stretching the truth. They love taking a ton of different ingredients and associating benefits with them that haven’t been reliably proven by scientific research.
- Even if a supplement does contain ingredients with scientifically proven benefits, there’s a very good chance the dosage used will be way too small to matter.
True clinically effective dosages are very expensive. So much so that it’s basically impossible to make an honest, high-quality supplement and sell it in a traditional retail environment because of the markup needed (8 to 10 times production cost).
- So what do supplement companies do, then? They use tiny, ineffective dosages of the good ingredients, use the “proprietary blend” to hide this fact from you, and then “pad” the product with cheap filler ingredients.
So the supplement market is glutted with junk products and all kinds of wild marketing claims that the supplements can’t ever hope to make good on.
And unfortunately in this space, a little BS goes a long way because of how badly people want to build muscle and lose fat. If they think there’s even a chance that a given supplement can help, they’ll want it. It’s just too easy to ride the cash tsunamis generated by “experts” like Dr. Oz and sell products that won’t do a thing to improve your fitness or boost muscle growth or fat loss.
Well, I don’t want you to be taken advantage of in this way. That’s why I put together this guide. I want you to know how to read ingredients labels and know which work and which don’t.
So, while it’s a lot to read, just know it’s time well spent. Once you’ve really grasped everything I’ve explained here, you’ll be a supplement scammer’s worst nightmare–incredulous, informed, and outspoken.
Be skeptical of the “science.”
You can persuade people of just about anything if you can back it up with scientific and/or historical legitimacy. Or at the least the apparency of either.
If you want easy evidence of this, just browse through workout magazines and check out some of the supplement advertisements. Phrases like “science-based,” “evidence-based,” and “clinically effective” will abound, and for good reason: they work. People don’t really know what such buzzwords mean or how to validate such claims but the connotations are enough to get readers driving to the closest GNC.
Unfortunately, however, the supplement industry is completely unregulated so anyone can fraudulently appeal to scientific research with almost no fear of consequences. And when there’s millions and millions of dollars on the line, you’d better believe supplement marketers are going to cut every corner they can.
They’ll keep doing it until they’re forced to stop, too. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to wait and see if the FDA is ever going to get serious about the supplement space. We, as consumers, hold more power than we think. Our dollars determine everything.
If we keep giving them to shady companies, we’re encouraging them to continue exploiting us. If we don’t, however–if we withhold our money and demand change–we give them two options: knock off the nonsense and toe the line or die.
One of my goals as an educator is to help supplement consumers make better purchasing decisions. A big part of that is being very skeptical of any claims about scientific proof of effectiveness. In fact, if you just assume supplement companies are guilty of deceit until proven innocent, you’ll be better off. Yes, it’s really that bad in this industry.
The first thing you need to know is there are quite a few variables to consider when judging the quality of scientific research. Just because a study was published in a peer-reviewed journal does not mean it was well designed or executed and does not mean it actually proved anything.
How was the study carried out?
Randomized controlled trials conducted with humans are the gold standard of supplement research. Animal studies are less valuable (as their results may not transfer to humans), and animal in vitro studies (in which experiments are performed on animal tissues alone) are even less so.
What was the study’s sample size?
Which would you trust more: a study whose conclusions were based on a test group of 5 or 35 people? The larger the sample size, the more likely it is that the experiment’s results can be replicated in others, including you.
Who funded the study?
Unfortunately, like political “windfalls,” scientific results can be bought. If a study was funded by people with vested interested in the outcome–a supplement company, for instance–be wary of the findings.
Was the study published in a peer-reviewed journal?
Peer review is a process whereby work is reviewed by peers of similar competence. Its purpose is to maintain quality standards, improve work, and provide credibility.
Like anything, peer review isn’t fail safe and peer-reviewed journals vary widely in general quality and reputation, but at least you know the research in these publications did pass a review.
Studies not published in peer-reviewed journals are often unpublished for a good reason: they’re bullshit. Be very skeptical of any claims that use such research as “evidence.”
What were the study’s conclusions?
This point is a natural progression from the previous because studies frequently pop up in peer-reviewed journals with downright ludicrous findings.
A good example is this study on the effectiveness of β-Hydroxy β-Methylbutyrate (HMB) as a muscle-building agent. According to this study, which, lasted for 12 weeks, subjects supplementing with HMB gained triple the amount of lean mass as those taking a placebo…lost over twice as much body fat…gained far more strength…and were significantly less sore from their workouts.
Basically, this study claims, HMB–a natural substance derived from the amino acid leucine–is about as effective as steroids.
Yeah…I don’t think so. What’s going on here, you wonder?
Well, like politics, let’s start by following the money. Who funded this study? Metabolic Technologies, who owns the patent on HMB. Is that conflict of interest I smell?
My point here isn’t to trash HMB or Metabolic Technologies–the molecule has legitimate uses and we’ve included in our pre-workout fat burner FORGE–but to instill in you a healthy skepticism of appeals to scientific research when selling supplements.
If a supplement sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If the majority of supplements worked half as well as their packages claimed, we’d all be shredded fitness models by now.
Alright, now that you’re a bit more “in the know” on how the supplement industry really ticks, let’s get to the meat of this guide: which supplements I recommend and which I don’t, and why.
Supplements That Work
Get ready…this list is a long one! But don’t worry–I’m not recommending you take every pill and powder mentioned here. At the end of the guide, I’m going to help you pick and choose based on your current goals and budget.
For now, however, let’s take an in-depth look at the many molecules out there that have been scientifically proven to be safe and effective. (And so you know, the lists are organized alphabetically for easy reference.)
People who are trying to lose weight often want some kind of appetite suppressant to keep themselves on track.
This compound is a precursor to the neurotransmitter hormone serotonin and has been scientifically proven to increase feelings of fullness when taken at meal times.
300 to 500 mg per day is enough to reap 5-HTPs benefits. Don’t use it if you’re taking SSRIs or other drugs for depression or cognitive performance, however, as this can lead to dangerous interactions.
Our fat burner PHOENIX contains a clinically effective dosage of 5-HTP as well as seven other ingredients scientifically proven to help you lose fat faster.
Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring amino acid that regulates the amount of the moecule carnosine that can be stored in the muscles.
When you supplement with it, intramuscular carnosine levels rise and several benefits are realized: a reduction in the fatigue associated with exercise, an improvement in anaerobic workout capacity, and an increase in potential workload, which can lead to an increase in lean mass.
Dosing information comes from a 23-study meta analysis published in the scientific journal, Nutrients. For best results, aim for a dose around 5 grams per day (clinically effective doses found by researchers ranged between 2.6 to 6.4 grams daily). Take whenever.
You should also know that our pre-workout supplement PULSE contains 4.8 grams of beta-alanine, along with 5 other ingredients proven to increase energy, strength, and endurance.
Betaine, also known by its scientific name trimethylglycine, is a compound that’s found in beets and other plants.
The mechanism of how it accomplishes this isn’t fully understood yet but there are several hypotheses being investigated. The one currently considered most correct relates to the “cellular swelling” effect of betaine, which protects cells from exercise-induced damage and thus improves performance.
Most studies suggest that a clinically effective dose of betaine ranges between 1.25 to 2.5 grams.
Betaine is another one of the ingredients you’ll find in our pre-workout drink PULSE. Every serving contains 2.5 grams to deliver maximum benefits.
Millions of people can’t shake the cobwebs without their morning cups of coffee but this powerful compound has a lot more going for it.
For best results, research has shown that caffeine is best delivered in a pill or powder format, though you must be careful to avoid building up a tolerance to it.
If you train fasted, take 3 to 6 mg caffeine per kg of body weight (start on the low end if you aren’t sure of your tolerance) about 15-20 minutes before training. If you aren’t training fasted, take the same dose 30-40 minutes before your workout.
Don’t take more than 6 mg per kg of body weight and preserve sensitivity by incorporating 1 to 2 low caffeine days (50% of your usual dose) and 1 no caffeine day into your weekly routine.
Carnitine is a compound created from the amino acids lysine and methionine. It helps in the generation of cellular energy and appears to increase the rate at which muscle tissue uses fat for energy rather than glycogen.
This is why carnitine is often sold as a weight loss supplement and in theory, it should help you burn more fat while exercising. Studies have shown differently though.
- Some evidence suggests carnitine can reduce fat and increase muscle in the elderly but such effects were not seen with overweight, pre-menopausal women.
- Animal research has also failed to demonstrate any weight loss benefits when combined with a calorie-restricted diet.
So, while carnitine may be a dud for weight loss purposes, it does have one well-established benefit: it improves muscle recovery.
Until we know more about how carnitine works with other compounds and processes in the body, skip this one for weight loss purposes.
For muscle recovery purposes, 1 to 2 grams of L-carnitine L-tartate is what you want. 5 grams of creatine will help as well, and you’ll find both in our post-workout recovery supplement RECHARGE.
Another pre-workout amino acid supplement you’ll want to get familiar with is citrulline.
For best results, try a dose between 6 to 8 grams per day (the range that has demonstrated significant benefits in clinical testing). Take whenever.
You’ll find 8 grams of citrulline in each serving of our pre-workout supplement PULSE.
Creatine is one of the only supplements on the market that’s actually proven to directly accelerate muscle growth.
Decades of scientific research has conclusively proven that supplementation with creatine…
- Boosts strength and muscle gain
- Increases anaerobic endurance
- Minimizes the muscle damage and soreness resulting from exercise
It was once thought that creatine may cause kidney damage in otherwise healthy individuals but this has been thoroughly debunked. People with pre-existing kidney damage, however, should avoid creatine supplementation.
Now, there are quite a few different types of creatine on the market, including creatine citrate, creatine ethyl ester, liquid creatine, creatine nitrate and others.
I discuss these different formulations in more detail here, but for now, what you need to know is that creatine monohydrate is what you want. It’s the cheapest option and performs just as well, and in some cases even better than, the fancier forms pushed in million-dollar ad campaigns.
Stick with creatine monohydrate (unless it bothers your stomach, in which case you should try a more water soluble form, such as micronized creatine, creatine citrate, creatine nitrate or creatine hydrochloride).
You can take creatine in one of two ways: you can “load” it or not.
Loading consists of taking about 20 grams per day for 5 to 7 days, following by a daily maintenance dosage of 5 grams. The benefit of loading is the creatine accumulates in your muscles faster and thus you feel its benefits faster.
If you’d rather not load, you can start with the clinically effective dosage of 5 grams per day.
There is 5 grams of creatine monohydrate in every serving of our post-workout recovery supplement RECHARGE.
If you love spicy Indian food, you’re doing more than pleasing your taste buds–you’re improving your health too!
Curcumin is the yellow pigment that gives the Indian spice turmeric its distinctive color, though you’ll find small amounts in ginger as well.
Research shows that curcumin confers a wide range of benefits. It reduces the risk of myriad types of disease including diabetes, allergies, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and other chronic illnesses. It’s also a powerful anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antifungal compound.
Curcumin does have a weakness, however: it isn’t well absorbed by the body. Fortunately, there’s a simple solution: pairing it with black pepper extract, which is high in a molecule known as piperine, dramatically improves absorption.
Clinically effective dosages of curumin range from 80 to 500 mg per day.
To add curcumin to your supplement regimen, look for a brand that includes at least 20 mg of piperine per 2 grams of curcumin.
This recommendation probably doesn’t surprise you.
Fish oil supplements are extremely popular among the fitness crowd because ensuring you get enough omega-3 fatty acids in your diet is very important for overall health.
This is why research has shown that supplementation with fish oil can….
If you eat several servings of fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and cod every week, you may not benefit from supplementation with fish oil. If you don’t, however, I highly recommend you include it in your daily supplement regimen.
For most people eating a normal, 2,000-calorie diet, 3.5-4.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day is ideal. 6.5 grams per day is the upper limit of recommended intake.
Note that I said 3.5 to 4.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day and not fish oil. This is because fish oil isn’t 100% omega-3 fatty acids.
You will need to check the nutrition facts panel to see how much EPA and DHA (two forms of omega-3 fatty acids) are in each serving of the oil and dose accordingly.
Green Tea Extract
Green tea extract, unsurprisingly, comes from green tea leaves, which contain substances known as “catechins.”
You could try to get these benefits from drinking green tea, but you’d have to drink gallons to equal what you can get in a few pills. Literally. And that’s why I choose supplementation. I love green tea but not that much.
Most research suggest taking between 400 to 600 mg of catechins per day for fat loss purposes. Start on the lower end of this range to assess tolerance and take with food or you may get nauseas.
If you’re like me and like to consolidate your supplementation as much as possible, you’ll be happy to hear every serving of our fat burner PHOENIX contains a clinically effective dosage of the catechin most associated with fat loss–epigallocatechin gallate or EGCG.
Forskolin is a molecule found in an Indian herb known as Coleus forskohlii and it has a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine for treating respiratory disorders.
This compound increases the amount of a molecule known as cAMP in blood plasma and intracellular spaces. An elevation of cAMP signals to the body that cells are low in energy and that it must make more ATP, a basic unit of cellular energy, and to do this the body taps into fat stores.
50 mg of forskolin is the dosage proven effective in clinical research, which is exactly what you’ll find in every serving of my science-based Legion Phoenix Fat Burner supplement.
Hesperidin is a substance abundant in citrus fruits that is best known for improving blood flow and reducing inflammation in blood vessels.
Research shows that hesperidin works synergistically with two other molecules found in citrus fruits–synephrine and naringin–to dramatically raise the basal metabolic rate and accelerate fat loss.
The clinically effective dosage of hesperidin, when used in conjunction with synephrine and naringin, is 100 mg. And, yes, you’ll find all three of these powerful molecules in our fat loss supplement PHOENIX.
β-Hydroxy β-Methylbutyrate (also known as HMB) is a substance formed when your body metabolizes the amino acid leucine, which is an amino acid that directly stimulates protein synthesis.
HMB is often sold as a muscle-building aid but the research purported to demonstrate these benefits is shaky at best, hindered most by design flaws. Thus, I’m skeptical of any claims about it increasing muscle growth.
There is one benefit of HMB that’s well established, however: it’s an extremely effective anti-catabolic agent.
That is, it’s very good at preventing muscle breakdown, which means you will recover faster from your workouts and experience less muscle soreness (and the free acid form shows the most promise in this regard).
(Its powerful anti-catabolic effects and non-existent insulin effects means you reap all the fat loss benefits of training fasted without any of the problems relating to muscle loss or insulin secretion.)
It’s also worth noting that HMB is superior to leucine in suppressing muscle breakdown because it’s more anti-catabolic than its “parent” amino acid.
Clinically effective dosages of HMB range between 2 and 3 grams, which is what you’ll find in each serving of our pre-workout fat burner FORGE along with yohimbine to accelerate fat loss and CDP-choline to improve focus.
Multivitamins are chancy.
Many on the market are so poorly formulated and manufactured that they’re at best a harmless waste of money and and at worst detrimental to your health.
The two most common problems with multivitamins are as follows:
- They contain vitamins and minerals you don’t need to be supplementing.
Take calcium in “sport multivitamins,” for example. Studies have shown that people who don’t eat much dairy or vegetables tend to be deficient (as do older adults), but athletes get more than enough from diet alone due to their high-protein intake (one scoop of whey powder has about 60% of your calcium RDA).
- They often contain super-doses of vitamins and minerals, which can be harmful to your health.
For example, a common form of vitamin A in multivitamins is retinol. This was once thought to be safe but research shows that daily supplementation of retinol, especially in high amounts, can harm the liver.
Vitamin E has a similar story. It was long added to vitamin supplements in high doses under the premise that if some antioxidants are good, more must be better. Well, scientists now suspect that 400 IU or more vitamin E per day increases the risk of all-cause mortality.
The long story short is many multivitamin supplements are simply crammed with all kinds and amounts of ingredients with the purpose of creating impressive looking labels, not healthful products.
All that doesn’t mean you should shun all multivitamins though. You just need to make an educated decision and ensure the product you do choose is based on sound science and reasoning.
I couldn’t find a multivitamin for athletes that really impressed me so I decided to make one myself. I wanted to go beyond just plugging holes in the diet, too–I wanted to create a product that improves health, increases mental and physical performance, and reduces stress.
The result is my TRIUMPH multivitamin. Peruse its formulation and you’ll quickly see why people are calling it the best multivitamin ever made. There’s truly nothing else like it on the market today.
Like hesperidin, naringin comes from citrus fruit and helps mobilize stored fat by increasing levels of the hormone adiponectin and activating the PPARα receptor.
Research shows that when combined with hesperidin and synephrine, which we’ll talk about shortly, basal metabolic rate is accelerated.
The clinically effective dosage of naringin, when used in conjunction with synephrine and hesperidin, is 600 mg. And that’s exactly what’s in our fat loss supplement PHOENIX.
Protein powder is the #1 bestselling bodybuilding supplement on the market today and for good reason.
Research shows that a high-protein diet is optimal for maximizing muscle growth and protein powder is an extremely convenient way to hit daily requirements.
There are many types of protein powders, however, Which is best?
The most popular protein powder is whey, and for good reasons.
It gives you a lot of protein per serving, it’s relatively cheap, it tastes good, and it’s high in the amino acid leucine, which directly stimulates protein synthesis.
If you’re interested in picking up a whey protein, make sure to check out our 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate supplement, WHEY+.
Like whey, casein is a milk-derived protein. The curds that form as milk coagulates are casein.
Casein protein is digested slower than whey, which means the spike in amino acids is smaller but lasts for a longer period of time.
It’s unclear if whey or casein are better for building muscle, but here’s what most experts agree on:
- Whey is rapidly digested and abundant in leucine, making it the likely best choice for pre- and post-workout supplementation.
- Casein’s slow digestion makes it a great all-around protein supplement, and while whey may be slightly better for post-workout use, casein is equally good for general supplementation.
Casein is also a good choice for pre-sleep supplementation as this can help improve muscle recovery.
Egg protein powder is a great alternative to dairy-based products.
- It has basically no fat and carbohydrate, which is great for meal planning.
If your stomach doesn’t do well with whey or casein, or if you don’t want to use them for any other reason, try egg protein. You won’t be disappointed.
Soy protein is tricky.
There’s no question that it’s a high-quality source of protein but there’s quite a bit of controversy over how it can affect hormones, especially in men.
Scientists are still looking into why this is, but one promising line of research has found that some people have high levels of a certain type of intestinal bacteria that interacts with chemicals in soy to produce an estrogen-like compound called equol.
That said, we don’t have a definitive answer yet on the feminizing effects of soy and until we do, I recommend you just choose another source of protein. (And that advice goes for both men and women.)
Other Plant-Based Protein Powders
The three most popular plant-based protein powders are rice, hemp, and pea.
These are often criticized as “incomplete” proteins lacking certain vital amino acids but this is misleading.
All protein found in plants is “complete”–it contains all the same amino acids as animal proteins. That said, plant proteins don’t contain the same levels of amino acids as animal proteins, and this is hugely important.
For example, the amino acid most directly responsible for stimulating muscle growth is leucine. Just about all forms of animal protein are rich in leucine whereas many forms of plant protein are not. This is why research shows that the former can be better than the latter for building muscle.
That said, that doesn’t mean that vegans and people that simply prefer plant proteins are doomed to being small and frail. It just means they have to choose wisely.
Here’s what it boils down to:
- Rice protein is a great choice.
In fact, research shows it’s about as good as whey for building muscle because it’s well absorbed by the body and rich in amino acids, including leucine.
Its biological value is about as good as rice’s and it has a high amount of leucine.
- The combination of rice and pea protein works especially well.
That’s why it’s often called the “vegan’s whey.”
- Hemp protein is a poor choice.
Hemp is nutritious but is only 30 to 50% protein by weight, which means it also comes with a lot of additional calories. The protein it does contain also isn’t very well absorbed by the body.
As you can see, you have quite a few options when looking for the best protein powder for you. I like whey and egg most but feel free to try several of the options given here and see what your body does best with.
You should also know how much protein to eat every day because that will affect how much you’ll want to supplement.
A review of the existing body of research on the protein needs of athletes shows that an intake of about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight is ideal. In the case of the extremely overweight and obese, this can be reduce to 1 gram per pound of lean mass.
Spirulina is a non-toxic, blue-green algae that is often used as a source of vegan protein and B12. It’s rich in a chemical known as phycocyanobilin, which mimics a chemical in the body that has strong anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory effects
The only caveat is some people are allergic to spirulina. If your face swells, your skin reddens or you experience diarrhea after taking spirulina, discontinue its use immediately.
Most studies on the supplement involve a dose of 1 to 3 grams per day, though additional benefits may be had up to a maximum dose of 10 grams per day.
Specifically, synephrine helps you lose fat faster in three ways:
- It increases lipolysis activity and basal metabolic rate.
- It blocks the activity of certain types of fat cell receptors that block fat mobilization.
- It increases the thermic effect of food.
Furthermore, synephrine works synergistically with caffeine and with two other chemicals found in the bitter orange (and discussed earlier in this article), naringin and hesperidin.
Clinically effective dosages of synephrine range from 25 to 50 mg. We’ve included 50 mg in each serving of PHOENIX, our caffeine-free fat burner.
Theanine is an amino acid found primarily in tea and research shows it confers several health benefits, including…
- Stress reduction
- Enhanced nitric oxide production (which improves blood flow)
- Improved focus, alertness, mood and memory.
The bottom line is if you like caffeine, you’re going to love theanine. It adds a whole new dimension to the world’s most popular drug.
Clinically effective dosages of theanine range from 100 to 250 mg, depending on the amount of caffeine it’s combined with (a ratio of 1:1 is best).
Theanine is one of the unique ingredients you’ll find in our pre-workout supplement PULSE, and it’s dosed 1:1 to caffeine for maximal benefits.
For decades vitamin D was known as the “bone vitamin,” but research shows it’s far more important to overall health that was once believed.
Studies also show that a large percentage of Americans have inadequate levels of vitamin D. According to research conducted by scientists from Harvard University, a whopping 64% of Americans have insufficient levels of vitamin D and 39% are deficient.
Two of the reasons why low vitamin D levels is so prevalent is the body can’t produce enough to maintain healthy levels and it’s hard to come by in foods (with cod liver oil being the best food source, and when’s the last time you met someone that includes that in their daily regimen?).
The most feasible ways to ensure you maintain healthy vitamin D levels are to expose yourself to sunlight and/or supplementation.
Exposure to sunlight causes a chemical reaction with a form of cholesterol that results in vitamin D. If you expose at least 25% of your skin to 3 to 6 minutes of Miami, FL sun, your body can produce upward of 400 IU of vitamin D. The reaction occurs slower in sunlight with lower amounts of UV-B radiation, which is why vitamin D deficiencies can become more pronounced during the winter.
For most of us that can’t take midday tanning breaks or want to do everything we can to preserve youthful skin, supplementation is the more feasible option.
Thanks to the tireless research of Dr. Michael Holick, we now know that 2,000 IU of vitamin D per day is the minimum needed to maintain vitamin D sufficiency in most people (30 ng/mL). Dr. Holick’s research indicates that optimal vitamin D levels are between 50 and 80 ng/mL, however, which would call for a daily intake closer to 5,000 IU.
My general recommendation is to start supplementation at 2,000 IU per day and then get blood tested after a month to assess 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels (the usable form of vitamin D your body creates). Based on the results, adjust intake up or down to bring your levels to the desired 50 to 80 ng/mL range.
One of the downsides to many multivitamin supplements is too little vitamin D (most contain anywhere from 100 to 1,000IU).
We chose to include 2,000 IU in each serving of our high-performance multivitamin TRIUMPH to meet everyone’s basic needs and allow for additional supplementation if necessary.
Yohimbine is a substance derived from the Pausinystalia yohimbe plant. It’s an effective fat loss aid but the science of how it works is a bit complicated.
Fat cells have two types of receptors for adrenaline and noradrenaline (also known as catecholamines): “alpha″ and “beta″ receptors.
This is the physiological explanation for the “stubborn fat” phenomenon and the reason why it’s so hard to lose those last few pounds in your lower abs (most guys) or hips and thighs (most girls). The fat cells in these areas of your body are high in alpha and low in beta receptors.
Research shows that yohimbine blocks the activity of alpha receptors. This enables your body to reduce fat stores faster, and it’s particularly useful as you get leaner and are battling with stubborn fat holdouts.
Yohimbine’s benefits don’t stop with fat loss, either. Research shows that it also improves exercise performance and it’s particularly effective at fighting off physical fatigue and increasing time to exhaustion.
Clinically effective dosages of yohimbine range from 0.1 to 0.2 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.
That said, there are two catches in terms of using yohimbine for fat loss.
Normal doses have been shown to raise blood pressure so if you have high blood pressure, it’s best to leave yohimbine out of your supplementation regimen. Even if your blood pressure is normal, don’t overdo it with yohimbine because excessively high doses can have some very negative side effects.
The other catch is that yohimbine must be taken in a fasted state to work effectively. If it is taken during or after a meal, the insulin spike that occurs after eating totally negates the beneficial effects of this supplement.
You can buy yohimbine by itself or you can get more bang for your buck and pick up our pre-workout fat burner FORGE, which also contains HMB to help preserve muscle and CDP-choline to improve mental focus while you train.
Zinc is a mineral that is used in the creation of enzymes, proteins, and cells. It’s also involved in processes the release of vitamin A from the liver and in many immune system functions.
Zinc supplementation is prevalent in the bodybuilding world because a deficiency can reduce testosterone levels. That doesn’t mean zinc is a “testosterone booster,” though. It just means you should ensure you’re getting enough (and for more reasons than just supporting health testosterone production).
30 mg of zinc per day is plenty for general maintenance. You can buy zinc as a standalone supplement or you can take a good sport multivitamin like TRIUMPH, which contains 30 mg per serving.
If you suspect you have a significant zinc deficiency, you can test your levels at home. Here’s how to do it:
- Purchase a good quality liquid zinc supplement and place it in the refrigerator until it’s cooled down.
- Take it out of the fridge and place on the counter to sit for two hours at room temperature.
- While you’re waiting, refrain from eating, drinking anything other than water or smoking for an hour.
- At the two-hour mark, swirl a sip of zinc (5-10 mL) around your mouth for 10 seconds.
As you swirl the zinc around your mouth, determine which of the following scenarios suits you best:
- You notice an immediate and unpleasantly strong dry, metallic taste.
This indicates that no zinc deficiency is present. No additional supplementation is needed so continue your normal dietary and supplementation regimen. You may want to retest every so often to ensure a deficiency hasn’t developed.
- You notice an immediate slight dry, metallic taste that gets worse over the 10 second period.
This indicates a minor zinc deficiency. Supplement with about 50 mg of a high-quality zinc every day, and retest after a week to determine whether or not the deficiency has resolved itself.
- The zinc starts off tasting like water but, within the 10 seconds of the test, begins tasting dry or metallic.
This indicates a moderate zinc deficiency that should be remedied with a 100 mg supplement each day. Retest after a week to confirm an improvement.
- The zinc tastes like plain water for all 10 seconds of the test.
This indicates a severe zinc deficiency. Begin supplementing with 150 mg of zinc every day and retest regularly until the deficiency is resolved.
Supplements to Avoid
Alright! We’ve covered a lot of ground but we’re not done.
Next up are the popular supplements to avoid, which, not surprisingly, include some of the most best selling “fat burners” and “muscle builders” ever created.
If you’re wondering how supplements like acai berry, garcinia cambogia, and green coffee bean extract can sell tens of millions of bottles despite being completely ineffective, you can thank popular TV personalities, health and fitness “experts,” and deep-pocketed marketers.
Just a few of these heavy-hitting “authorities” jumping on board of a new “wonder pill” can spark a veritable consumer craze overnight. Then comes the maelstrom of thousands of minutes of air time and hundreds of thousands of words written in blogs, books, and magazines, and voila, bottles are moving as quickly as manufacturers can churn them out.
Fortunately, the offending supplements are usually harmless to your health but are wastes of money nonetheless.
I hope this section of the article saves you not only money but also the frustration of pinning false hopes on supplements that simply can’t deliver the goods.
Oprah and Dr. Oz made acai berry a superstar in 2009 and shady supplement marketers pounced on the opportunity to make easy millions. And oh how they did, one impossible-to-cancel automatic rebill sale at a time.
Although the acai craze has died down somewhat in recent years, it’s still a top seller in the world of weight loss supplements.
Let’s get right to the point here and quote the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine:
“There is no definitive scientific evidence based on studies in humans to support the use of acai berry for any health-related purpose.
“No independent studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals that substantiate claims that acai supplements alone promote rapid weight loss. Researchers who investigated the safety profile of an acai-fortified juice in animals observed that there were no body weight changes in rats given the juice compared with controls.”
Acai berry may have value as a healthy food but it isn’t going to help you lose weight.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
Every gym has at least a few hardcore bodybuilder types that carry a jug of pink liquid with them at all times.
No, it’s not steroids, it’s BCAAs–one of the most popular…and overrated…supplements out there.
They’re extremely popular because they’re extremely easy to sell.
There’s plenty of research to cite that shows this combination of the amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine helps improve immune function, diminishes fatigue, minimizes exercise-induced muscle damage, and enhances post-workout muscle growth.
They’re extremely overrated because the bulk of the research used to sell them is misinterpreted and misleading.
You see, the truth is the studies’ findings just aren’t practical to the average physically active person following a sensible workout routine and high-protein diet.
Furthermore, you can give your body all the branched-chain amino acids it needs to recover and build muscle through food alone. In fact, there’s research that indicates this is more effective than supplementation.
That said, an argument could be made for the value of BCAA supplementation with athletes training several hours per day, but for the rest of us, it’s way more sizzle than steak.
There is one situation where BCAA supplementation makes sense, however, and that’s with fasted training.
Fasted training is more commonly thought of as “training on an empty stomach,” but this is a bit of a misconception.
Fasted training means exercising while in a “fasted” state, which has to do with insulin levels, not how empty or full your stomach feels. Specifically, your body is in a fasted state when it is no longer absorbing nutrients from your last meal and insulin levels are at a low “baseline” level.
You see, when you eat food, your pancreas releases insulin into your blood and its job is to shuttle nutrients into cells. While this is happening, your body is in a “postprandial” or “fed” state, and this can last for anywhere from an hour to 6+ hours depending on meal size and composition.
While there’s nothing wrong with training in a fed state, the hormones and signaling molecules related to fat burning work best in a fasted state. Furthermore, certain supplements that aid in fat loss like caffeine, yohimbine, and synephrine are maximally effective when taken before fasted exercise.
The bottom line is while fasted training isn’t necessary for losing fat, it can speed up the process (and especially when combined with proper supplementation).
That said, it does have one key drawback: accelerated muscle loss. That is, your body breaks down muscle more muscle proteins than when training in a fed state.
This brings us back to BCAAs: the amino acid leucine suppresses muscle breakdown, which makes it useful for preserving muscle while training in a fasted state. It also impacts insulin far less than food, including something as simple as a scoop of whey protein, which would elevate insulin levels enough to break the fasted state.
Research shows that 3 to 5 grams of leucine 10 to 15 minutes before fasted exercise gets the job done. Most BCAA supplements contain leucine, isoleucine, and valine ratios of 2:1:1 or 3:1:1, so you’d need to take about 10 grams to get enough leucine.
Now, BCAAs “get the job done” but I’ve always disliked two things about them:
- You’re paying for three amino acids but leucine is the only one that is truly useful. You can buy pure leucine instead but it tastes really bad.
- Having to take ~10 grams before each fasted training session means you burn through bottles fairly quickly. The expense adds up.
The reality is BCAAs just don’t deliver much bang for your buck. Fortunately, however, there’s a molecule that does BCAA’s job even better: β-Hydroxy β-Methylbutyrate (also known as HMB).
HMB is one of the chemicals that leucine breaks down into in the body and research shows it’s an extremely effective anti-catabolic agent. In fact, it’s about 20 times more anti-catabolic than its parent amino acid leucine.
This makes HMB ideal for use with fasted training because it’s not only extremely anti-catabolic and thus able to negate muscle breakdown but it also has no effect on insulin levels, which means it can’t break your fasted state.
You can buy HMB on its own and take 2 to 3 grams before training, but you can also find it in our pre-workout fat burner FORGE, which was created specifically to accelerate fat loss and preserve muscle while training in a fasted state.
Chitosan is a compound derived from chitin, which is obtained from shellfish shells.
It’s sold as a weight loss aid because preliminary research indicated it can block the absorption of dietary fats and thus reduce overall calorie intake.
Further research proved it ineffective, though. In 2008, scientists from the University of Auckland reviewed 15 clinical weight loss trials of chitosan and concluded the following:
“Results obtained from high quality trials indicate that the effect of chitosan on body weight is minimal and unlikely to be of clinical significance.”
Stick with the researchers here and not the marketers. Save your money for better use elsewhere.
Conjugated linoleic acid is a type of unsaturated fatty acid found meats, poultry, dairy and eggs (and grass-fed varieties contain the most).
CLA is an extremely popular weight loss supplement because research shows that it can activate a signaling receptor related to fat burning called PPAR.
The bottom line is CLA just isn’t worth the money.
Deer Velvet Antler
Deer velvet antler is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for various preventative health purposes, but it it has recently burst into the bodybuilding scene as an anabolic hormone booster.
Well, forget what Ray Lewis says. Research shows that deer velvet antler…
- Won’t improve your testosterone levels
- Won’t increase your levels of growth hormone
- Won’t help you build muscle or increase strength
It’s high time this supplement faded into obscurity.
7-oxodehydroepiandrosterone, or 7-keto DHEA (which is a brand, not a technical name, actually), is a byproduct of a chemical your body produces called dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA.
7-keto is sold as a weight loss aid and isn’t without evidence to back it up. Research shows that it can counteract the metabolic slowdown associated with calorie restriction and increase fat loss over time.
That said, there’s a problem: there’s only a small amount of human research available on 7-keto and the studies that demonstrate its weight loss effects are dubious due to funding sources (companies that sell the products for weight loss).
7-keto DHEA is promising but unproven.
If you don’t mind spending money on something that may or may not help you lose weight faster, you can add 7-keto to your weight loss regimen. If you’d prefer to spend your money on sure bets, pass on it.
Garcinia cambogia is a small, sour fruit also called tamarind and often used in cooking.
It’s currently the hottest weight loss supplement on the market thanks to high-profile snake oil peddlers like Dr. Oz.
Like many bullshit supplements, garcinia cambogia’s rise as a diet supplement began with rat research that showed it can reduce weight gain during periods of overfeeding.
The problem is the results of animal research can’t be directly extrapolated to humans. Such research is for exploring possibilities and uncovering potential avenues of discovery, but rats respond very differently to molecules that affect the metabolism than humans.
And garcinia cambogia is a perfect example of this. It’s great for helping rats get lean but not so great for helping humans.
A recently meta-analysis of 12 clinical weight loss trials of garcinia cambogia found the following:
- Three of the studies demonstrated reductions of fat mass compared to a placebo and the average effects were very small. These studies had small samples sizes as well, which reduces the certainty of any findings, and the absolute best result was an additional weight loss of about 3 pounds over a 12-week period.
- Two studies, including the largest and highest-quality study reviewed, found no difference in weight loss between the groups supplementing with garcinia cambogia and a placebo.
- The remaining studies were too poorly designed and/or executed to merit consideration.
Garcinia cambogia reminds me of CLA. It probably won’t do anything for you and if it does, the effects will be so minimal that you probably won’t even notice it.
Green Coffee Extract
Like garcinia cambogia, green coffee extract is widely touted as one of the key “go-to” weight loss supplements on the market today.
The supplement is, of course, an extract derived from green coffee beans, which contain high amounts of a compound called chlorogenic acid.
The problem, however, is the scarce amount of human research available and the dubious nature of the studies we do we have.
A recent systematic review and meta-analysis of the five human weight loss trials eligible for review found a “high risk of bias” in each due to funding sources (companies that produce green coffee bean extract supplements).
Hmm…could there be a conflict of interest here?
The bottom line is while green coffee extract may assist in weight loss when taken in large enough doses (at least 400 to 800 mg chlorogenic acid daily), we just don’t know yet. Better research is needed.
In my opinion, there are too many other supplements that can significantly and reliably increase fat loss to spend money on an unproven newcomer like green coffee extract.
Open any fitness magazine and you’re going to see at least a handful of advertisements for human growth hormone (HGH) boosters. And do you know what those supplements are going to do for you?
Absolutely nothing. One for one. Without question.
The HGH boosters you’ll find on the market today usually contain a mixture of amino acids and herbs with the occasional oddball “toss-ins.” The long story short is many of these ingredients have no effect on growth hormone production and those that do aren’t powerful enough to confer any real benefits.
Take, for example, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). Research shows that supplementing with this compound increases post-exercise growth hormone levels but this transient increase will do nothing in the way of improving health or muscle growth, which are the two primary benefits promised by such growth hormone supplements.
There’s more to consider as well.
- Research supports the well-known fact among chemically enhanced bodybuilders that growth hormone alone doesn’t help you build more muscle–it must be combined with large amounts of anabolic steroids to have this effect.
If directly injecting the hormone every day doesn’t help you build more muscle and strength what could a natural supplement that can, at best, slightly increase daily production possibly do?
- Research shows that fluctuations of anabolic hormones within natural levels has little-to-no effect on muscle growth.
Someone with a middling anabolic hormone profile can do more or less as well in the gym as someone with a superb one. So there’s no need to waste money chasing minor increases in testosterone, growth hormone, or IGF-1.
Hoodia gordonii is a small, cactus-like plant that’s famous for its use by South African bushmen as an appetite suppressant.
That makes for an interesting sales story and next thing you know, the weight loss market was flooded with everything from hoodia-themed capsules to protein shakes, teas, and more.
Well, the problem with this supplement is research shows that it can reduce appetite, it requires high, potentially toxic doses that can also cause serious side effects.
The hoodia gordonii plant is also heavily regulated by the government, which raises concerns about what you’re actually buying.
All in all I feel hoodia use comes with too much risk for too little reward. 5-HTP is a much better choice for appetite control.
Like garcinia cambogia, the marketing hype over raspberry ketones began with a few animal studies that suggest this compound, which gives raspberries their distinctive smell, prevents weight gain by increasing the oxidation of fat.
The studies sound promising…until you look at a few details:
- One of the studies was conducted in vitro, meaning that parts of the living rats were removed so that the effects of the raspberry ketones could be studied in isolation.
Living animals are complicated organisms. What works in vitro in the lab may not translate to live, in vivo, settings.
- The one in vivo rat study that demonstrated reduced weight gain used a dose that was 4,761 times higher than the average human intake.
I don’t care how committed you are to losing fat–nobody can consume 20 grams of raspberry ketones per pound of bodyweight per day.
So far, one human study on raspberry ketone supplementation has demonstrated weight loss benefits but we can’t know for sure if it actually did anything–it was paired with molecules known to accelerate fat loss including caffeine and citrus aurantium (a natural source of synephrine).
The bottom line is raspberry ketones just look like a dud when it comes to weight loss in humans.
Tribulus terrestris is an herb that, besides sounding like something out of Star Trek, is commonly sold as a testosterone and libido booster.
If a company is trying to sell you tribulus terrestris to increase anabolic hormone levels, run in the other direction and never look back because if they’re willing to lie about that, who knows what else they’re up to…
ZMA doesn’t fully deserve to be in the list of supplements to avoid but, given how it’s marketed–as a hormone booster and muscle builder–I chose to put it here and explain myself.
You see, if you’re deficient in zinc, ZMA, a combination of zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6, can raise your testosterone levels. If your zinc levels are normal, however, research shows that ZMA won’t affect your hormone levels.
Thus regular supplementation with zinc is prudent but there’s no need to pay a premium for ZMA products instead of just picking up the mineral itself or a good multivitamin that contains an adequate dosage.
Magnesium is another worthwhile supplement as research shows 68% of American adults eat below the recommended daily intake but you’ll save money by buying it as a standalone mineral or choosing a good multivitamin.
How to Take Supplements for Maximum Effectiveness
You now know which supplements are and aren’t worth taking and what the proper dosages are, but you’re probably wondering how to build a supplementation regimen that will help you achieve your goals.
While I’d love to be able to offer personalized advice to every person reading this, there just isn’t time. Circumstances and needs vary and fully addressing the subject of optimal supplementation would require a book, not a blog article.
Well, until I write that book, I can share with you a handful of articles I’ve written on supplementation for various goals, including my own supplementation routines.
Check them out at the links below:
The Bottom Line on Workout Supplements
The health and fitness supplement industry has worked hard to earn its piss poor reputation as, in the famous words of Ben Kenobi, a wretched hive of scum and villainy.
- GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart have been happily selling you “herbals” comprised of powdered rice, asparagus, and houseplants.
- Driven Sports was secretly giving people a taste of the ultimate pre-workout stimulant: meth. (And the CEO of this racket was previously busted for selling illegal steroids and weight loss drugs.)
- USPlabs’ fat loss product OxyElite Pro was embroiled in a liver failure fiasco. Their pre-workout Jack3d contained a dangerous stimulant called DMAA. Oh and their CEO was also kinda into steroids.
The unfortunate truth is if you have money to spend on supplements, you need to get educated if you don’t want to get ripped off. And that’s why I wrote this article.
Incidentally, that’s also a big part of what drove me to create my own line of workout supplements. I had complained for many years about the sorry state of supplements and eventually decided to do something about it and create a line of supplements whose ingredients are backed by high-quality, peer-reviewed scientific literature and are included at true clinically-effective doses, and that are free of unnecessary fillers, dyes or artificial sweeteners, and other chemical junk.
So, as you now know, supplementation isn’t as important as many people would like you to believe. Proper diet and training are infinitely more important in building the body of your dreams.
That said, the right supplements can help and you’ll be able to learn about them in this guide, which I will continue to update with more and more supplements and information. So bookmark it and check back regularly!