Supplements are a hotly debated field: on one hand you have the supplement industry trying to sell as many of their products to unwary customers all over the world as they can. On the other hand you have people rejecting any form of supplementation, almost considering it “unnatural”, believing you just have to eat healthy to get everything you need. As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Because of this, I want you to show which supplements I consider (almost) mandatory.
I do not even consider protein powder to be a true supplement as I mostly use casein, which is essentially just dried low-fat quark/curd. But I also know people who give you the “oh my god, he is taking steroids”-look when you tell them you use protein supplements.
First of all, they are completely harmless. All of them. Some are made from milk or other dairy (by-)products, some of soy, rice or other plants. There is even beef protein and egg protein. All of them are “only” protein, so there is nothing to be scared of.
Supplements manufacturers often try to sell new types of protein powders with the claim that those new products are easier digested and enter your metabolism faster. Which is true, but the faster the aminoacids enter your bloodstream, the faster they are used up. Muscle needs quite a long time to grow, so a fast and short peak of aminoacids might even be worse than a slower digested protein.
Therefore my top choice is the simplest form (usually the cheapest) of casein, as it is slowly digested and has a great protein quality. If you are vegan, I would advise against pure soy protein powder because of the high amount of anti nutrients and a one sided aminoacid profile. Instead go for a mixed protein with rice and pea protein.
I use protein powder only if I need to. For example if a have a meal that has not enough protein in it, I will make myself a simple “dessert” of a scoop of casein, some kefir/water and a fruit. If I am tracking macros and at the end of the day I am missing some protein, I usually will make myself a similar protein dessert. Protein powders are there to supplement an already healthy diet, so focus on building a healthy diet first. If your diet is crap, just adding protein powder to it, won’t help you much.
This vitamin is important for strength trainees, because it is necessary for optimal bone strength, mineral metabolism, immune function, neuromuscular functioning and testosterone synthesis. So yes, your vitamin D level influences strength development.
Since virtually the entire population in first world countries is deprived of sunlight and there is very little vitamin D in food, this means almost everyone benefits from supplementation.
Since vitamin D is fat soluble, it is best to consume it with a meal with fats in it to make sure all of it is absorbed. Dosage is usually recommended by manufacturers and there is little to worry about overdosing, as excess amounts of vitamin D are destroyed by your body.
If you want to boost your vitamin D with real foods, go for (beef) liver, fatty fish, cheese and egg yolks. I take a supplement almost daily, especially in the winter. If I eat liver or fatty fish or I was in the sun a lot (a rare occasion), I just skip the supplement for a day or two.
An easy and tasty way of getting lots of vitamin D is my liver pate recipe. Check it out, even if you usually don’t like liver, this will make you a believer.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a vital component of the diet. Not only are omega-3s incredibly important for health, omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to aid muscle growth and fat loss, in part via the signal-to-noise effects on inflammation as well as directly acting on protein balance.
Unfortunately omega-3s are not very easy to consume unless your diet features fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, sardine, anchovy and fatty tuna (the key word is “fatty” here. Unless you live in Japan, most tuna you can buy is quite lean) on a regular basis. General advice is to consume ~3 g of omega-3 per day.
Supplementation is a little tricky because you need to buy good quality products: look for at least 3g of combined DHA and EPA; other forms of omega-3 such as linoleic acid (ALA, present in some nuts and seeds) are almost useless for our body. Most fish oil supplements are oxidized and they typically only contain a fraction of the omega-3 on the label anyway. You can take this supplement whenever you want, but I usually take it with a meal. If you are vegetarian, the only viable supplementation is algae omega-3.
My favorite source of omega-3 is a nice, fat slab of salmon. Fried on the skin side in a pan until the skin is crispy like pork crackling and the middle is still pink. Absolute heaven! But sadly this is an expensive treat, and most of the time I go with smoked mackerel and herrings in brine, which are also tasty and very affordable.
Creatine is a nitrogen-containing organic molecule, which is naturally produced in vertebrates. It helps recycle ATP, your bodys energy carrier, extending the time in which muscles can generate force.
Supplementation increases the body’s creatine storage level by up to ~50% and thereby buffers against fatigue during high intensity exercise by providing the body with the means to rapidly continue producing energy. Creatine is the most effective legal performance enhancing supplement, yet most people aren’t overly impressed with it. It’s effect isn’t huge, but it is still the best you can get legally. Think “one more rep possible” and not “I’ll turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger overnight”.
Creatine’s effectiveness depends on how well the person responds to it. Its effect depends mainly on how much creatine the person naturally stores, with some people not absorbing any additional creatine into their muscles at all. So yes, it could mean that you are a non-responder. But creatine is so cheap, it has virtually no disadvantage or cost of trying it out.
Creatine uptake can be improved by insulin, so consuming creatine with carbs and/or protein can increase the benefits and turn a nonresponder into a responder. It also tends to alleviate most side effects, like nausea and cramping. For this reason, creatine is actually more effective when consumed after your workout than before it. I still like to take mine in the morning because it is easier for me to remember.
5g of creatine per day is a dosage that should safely maximize creatine storage in almost everyone. If you forget to take your creatine one day, you can simply add it to the next dose.
Contrary to what most manufacturers want you to believe, the cheapest version, creatine monohydrate, is the preferable creatine form, because that is already almost 100% bioavailable. If you have troubles digesting creatine monohydrate in powdered form, you can use pills or capsules, but be aware that creatine capsules have up to 35% lower bioavailability than dissolved powder. Therefore you might have to up your dosage accordingly.
There are countless other supplements out there and I’m not saying everything else is useless, but those four will yield the most benefits to cost ratio and are scientifically proven to work.
But the mind is a powerful weapon in your arsenal. If you truly believe that that one supplement will help you, go for it and have a try. Maybe you get a nice placebo effect and trick yourself into better gains. Just be mindful about it, don’t overdo anything and buy good quality products from reknown brands.
Also don’t forget that supplements can only help you if you are already doing everything else right. If your training and diet are lacking, no supplement will help you! Get your basics right first before tweaking details.
What supplements do you use and what is your experience with it? I am looking forward to read about it in the comment section below: I may consider writing an extra blog post if there is a supplement you want to know more about it!