Workout supplements aren’t necessary, but the right ones can help you achieve your fitness goals.
If you’re familiar with my work, you know where I stand on workout supplements: most are a complete waste of money. They either do absolutely nothing or do so little that you don’t even notice a difference.
That said, some do have good scientific evidence of effectiveness and do noticeably impact your ability to lift, run, build muscle, and lose fat.
These are the workout supplements I use and recommend, and in this article, I’m going to discuss the ones I feel are most useful and why, as well as how to take them for maximum effectiveness.
Whey protein is a staple in most athletes’ diets for a good reason: it’s digested quickly, absorbed efficiently, and easy on the taste buds.
How to Take Whey Protein
You can take whey protein whenever you’d like. There’s no “wrong” way to take it, really, but you should keep two things in mind:
- I like to get the majority of my protein from whole food.
70-75% of my daily protein is from food, mainly because food is much more satiating and satisfying. (I don’t know of any research that indicates protein powder is less effective for building muscle or burning fat.)
- Protein powder can’t help you lose fat.
I often get asked which protein powder is best for losing weight and my answer is those things aren’t connected at all. Weight loss requires compliance to a proper meal plan, which can include a lot or a little protein powder.
Now, thanks to its rapid digestion and abundance of leucine, whey protein is a particularly effective form of pre-workout and post-workout protein. (The faster protein is digested and the more leucine it has, the more muscle growth it stimulates.)
You’re probably wondering how much you should take at once, so let’s talk about that.
According to one study, 20 grams of whey protein eaten as a post-workout meal stimulates maximum muscle protein synthesis. That is, eating more than 20 grams of whey protein after a workout will not increase muscle growth.
While that sounds neat and simple, it doesn’t apply to everyone equally. Protein metabolism and needs are affected by several things:
- How much muscle you have.
The more muscular you are, the more protein your body needs to maintain its lean mass, and the larger the “reservoir” it has for storing surplus amino acids.
- How physically active you are.
The more you exercise, the more protein your body needs.
- Your age.
As our bodies age, they need more protein to maintain lean mass. For example, research has shown that, in the elderly, 35 – 40 grams of post-workout protein stimulates more protein synthesis than 20 grams.
- Your hormonal profile.
Anabolic hormones like testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) stimulate muscle protein synthesis. If your body has high levels of these anabolic hormones, it will be able to make good use of higher amounts of protein than someone with lower levels.
On the other hand, elevated levels of cortisol reduces protein synthesis and accelerates the process whereby the body breaks down amino acids into glucose (gluconeogenesis), thereby reducing the amount available for tissue generation and repair. Some people have chronically elevated cortisol levels, and this impairs protein metabolism.
So, while 20 grams of protein might be enough to stimulate maximum protein synthesis under certain conditions, this won’t hold true for everyone.
Personally, I include between 30 and 50 grams of whey protein in both my pre- and post-workout meas, which is likely to stimulate maximum protein synthesis for the meals. (In case you’re wondering if the body can use that much protein all at once, check out my article on protein absorption.)
Which Type of Whey Protein is Best?
The three forms of whey protein sold are whey concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate.
Whey concentrate is the least processed form and cheapest to manufacture, and it contains some fat and lactose. Whey concentrates range from 35 – 80% protein by weight, depending on quality.
Whey isolate is a form of whey protein processed to remove the fat and lactose. Isolates are 90%+ protein by weight, and as they’re more expensive to manufacture than whey concentrate, they’re more expensive for consumers too.
Whey hydrolysate is a predigested form of whey protein that’s very easily absorbed by the body and free of allergenic substances found in milk products. Research also indicates that the hydrolysis process improves solubility and digestibility. Whey hydrolysate is the most expensive of the three options.
So which should you buy
Well, I’ve always used 100% pure whey protein isolate products because concentrates can bother my stomach (research has shown that approximately 70% of the world’s population can’t properly digest lactose, and I guess I’m one of them).
If dairy bothers your stomach at all or gives you any symptoms of indigestion, I recommend you stick with 100% whey protein isolate too. I also like that a good whey isolate product has very little carbs and fat, which means more calories we can “spend” on yummier foods. 🙂
If, however, you do fine with lactose and you don’t mind the extra carbs and fats that come with a whey concentrate, you can save a bit of money going that way.
Creatine is one of the best workout supplements you can take. Period.
It’s probably the most studied molecule in all of sports nutrition, and decades of research has conclusively proven it can help you build muscle and improve strength, improve anaerobic endurance, and reduce muscle damage and soreness from exercise.
You may have heard that it’s bad for your kidneys, but these claims have been categorically and repeatedly disproven. People with kidney disease are not advised to supplement with creatine, but in healthy subjects, creatine supplementation has been shown to have no harmful side effects, in both short- or long-term usage.
How to Take Creatine
The most common method of creatine supplementation found in the literature is a “loading” period of 20 grams per day for 5 to 7 days, followed by a maintenance dosage of 5 grams per day.
You don’t have to load creatine if you’re just starting with supplementation (you can just start with 5 grams per day), but loading does cause the creatine to accumulate faster in the muscles and thus causes the benefits to “kick in” faster.
Now, the whole point of taking creatine is to increase the amount stored in the muscles, and we’ve known for quite some time that co-ingesting creatine with carbohydrates increases creatine accumulation in the muscles (mainly due to the elevation in insulin levels, which acts to drive more nutrients into the muscle cells).
As this effect is mainly a result of elevated insulin levels, the same effects can be achieved with less carbohydrates but protein as well. In fact, this study demonstrated that 50 grams of protein and carbohydrates was equally effective as 100 grams of carbohydrates in augmenting muscular creatine accumulation.
So, based on this research, you should take creatine with a good sized meal to maximize its effects.
Furthermore, there’s research that indicates that creatine taken after a workout is more effective than creatine taken before one, which is why I take my creatine with my post-workout meal consisting of about 50 grams of protein and 75 to 125 grams of carbs.
Do You Have to Cycle Creatine?
No, there’s no scientific evidence that long-term creatine usage is harmful, so no, there’s no reason to cycle on and off it. It’s not a steroid.
Does Caffeine Interfere with Creatine’s Effects?
One study demonstrated evidence that ingesting caffeine with creatine monohydrate decreases muscular force production when compared to ingesting just creatine monohydrate alone, but this isn’t enough evidence to close the case.
Especially considering the fact that this study demonstrated that caffeine and creatine monohydrate taken together were more effective than just creatine monohydrate in improving the performance of high-intensity interval cardio. These results were seen in this study as well.
Considering the evidence, I like to “play it safe” and take my creatine and caffeine separately, not together like what you find in most pre-workout drinks.
Does Creatine Make You Bloated?
This used to be a problem but in the last decade or so, processing has improved greatly and it’s really a non-issue now.
It’s unlikely that you’ll notice any difference in subcutaneous water retention when you take creatine, even if you’re quite lean.
Should You Take Creatine While Dieting For Fat Loss?
Creatine works equally well when you’re in a calorie deficit, which means you’ll retain more strength and thus lean mass.
Which Form of Creatine is Best?
There are many forms of creatine available, and monohydrate is the best. I explain why here.
Casein is one of the two forms of protein found in dairy (whey being the other).
It’s a popular type of supplement in the world of bodybuilding because it’s digested slower than whey (it causes a smaller spike in amino acids in the blood, but a steadier release over the course of several hours).
There’s an ongoing debate about whether supplementing with whey is better than casein for building muscle or vice versa, but here’s what we’re pretty certain about:
- Due to its rapid digestion and abundance of leucine, a 30-40 gram serving of whey is probably your best choice for post-workout protein.
- Due to its slow release of amino acids, casein is a great all-around protein supplement.
While it may or may not be as optimal as whey for post-workout protein (the jury is still out on this), there is a growing body of evidence indicating that, when supplementing with powders, a slow-burning protein is the best overall choice for building muscle.
- Casein is a good protein to have before you go to bed, which can help with muscle recovery.
If you’re like me and your stomach can only take so much dairy and dairy derivatives like whey and casein, you can use egg protein instead of casein because it’s also digested slowly (even slower than casein, actually).
Branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs for short, are a group of three essential amino acids (amino acids that your body must get from your diet):
Leucine is the star of the trio, as it directly stimulates protein synthesis via the activation of an enzyme responsible for cell growth known as the mammalian target of rapamycin, ormTOR.
Isoleucine is number two on the list, as it improves glucose metabolism and increases muscular uptake.
Valine is a distant third as it doesn’t seem to do much of anything when compared to leucine and isoleucine.
You find high amounts of these amino acids in quality proteins such as meat, eggs and dairy products, with whey protein isolate being particularly high.
How to Take BCAAs
For the reasons I discuss here, BCAAs are one of the most overrated supplements you can buy. So long as you eat enough protein every day, and have some before a workout, you don’t need to supplement with BCAAs.
That said, BCAAs do have a good use, and that’s for mitigating the increased muscle breakdown that occurs with fasted training.
Fasted training is an effective way to speed up fat loss–and the loss of stubborn fat, in particular–but it does come with that “price” of accelerated breakdown of the muscles. Well, the leucine in BCAAs counter-acts that.
10 grams of BCAAs, which provides 3 to 5 grams of leucine, is enough to achieve this effect without raising dramatically increasing insulin levels, which would effectively “break” the fasted state.
Green tea extract is a weight loss supplement made from green tea leaves.
It’s rich in antioxidants known as catechins, which are responsible for many of tea’s health benefits, and which have been proven to help with weight loss. Research has also shown that catechins can help reduce abdominal fat, in particular.
Catechins accelerate fat loss by blocking an enzyme that degrades catecholamines, which are chemicals the body produces that trigger the use of fat for energy.
How to Take Green Tea Extract
If you look at the dosages proven effective in clinical studies, you’ll see that 400 – 600 mg of catechins per day is the normal range.
Each pill of the product I recommend contains about 150 mg of catechins so I take 4 per day both when I’m cutting and maintaining. (I take green tea extract when I’m maintaining simply because it helps prevent fat storage and promotes a generally leaner physique.)
When you take green tea extract doesn’t really matter. Research has shown that absorption is faster when pills are taken in a fasted state, but plasma catechin levels remain elevated for several hours after ingestion, whether fed or fasted.
Personally, I train fasted when cutting, and I have 300 mg of catechins (2 pills) about 15 minutes before training, and another 300 mg a couple hours before I do cardio later in the day.
You should also know that nausea is common if you take green tea extract on an empty stomach. If I take more than 200 – 300 mg catechins on an empty stomach, I get quite nauseous.
Caffeine helps you lose fat by simply increasing your body’s daily energy expenditure.
As weight loss boils down to energy consumed vs. energy expended, caffeine helps you maintain a calorie deficit.
How to Take Caffeine
If you want to reap its workout-related benefits, you want to take caffeine before your workout. I take mine about 15 minutes before and it kicks in by the time I’m into my first warm-up set or two.
You can get your caffeine from a beverage like coffee, but interestingly enough, research has shown that the pure form you find in most pills and powders (caffeine anhydrous) is actually more effective for improving performance.
In terms of amount, research shows that 3 to 6 mg per kg of body weight is optimal for maximizing performance benefits while also minimizing side effects.
Furthermore, in order to maximize caffeine’s effectiveness, you want to prevent your body from building up too much of a tolerance. The best way to do this is to limit intake, of course. Here’s what I recommend:
- Before training, supplement with 3 – 6 mg caffeine per kg of body weight.
If you’re not sure of your caffeine sensitivity, start with 3 mg/kg and work up from there.
- Keep your daily intake at or below 6 mg per kg of body weight.
Don’t have 6 mg/kg before training and then drink a couple of coffees throughout the day.
- Do 1 – 2 low-caffeine days per week, and 1 no-caffeine day per week. A low day should be half your normal intake, and a no day means less than 50 mg of caffeine (you can have a cup or two of tea, but no coffee, caffeine pills, etc.).