by Robert Maxwell
UPDATED 27OCT2018 - Since I first posted the following article, many readers have asked me for supplement recommendations. Some have even argued at length with me about certain supplements, maintaining that something I left off the list you're about to read made a huge difference for them, and should be included here. They're welcome to their views, but mine are formed by two things: research and experience. The fact is, most muscle and strength "building" supplements are useless or nearly so. And yes, that includes BCAA's (branch chain amino acids). There are plenty of lifters who swear about and down that BCAA's do them a world of good, but the science simply doesn't support this view. The reason I bring up BCAA's is that they continue to be the supplement most vehemently defended by gym goers, despite plenty of compelling research that dispels the idea of their usefulness. Here's an article from BuiltwithScience.com explaining the BCAA issue in details, and linking to several very informative studies. Now, back to the main topic of this article – supplements in general.
If you're interested in lifting weights and getting strong, you've probably heard about nutrition supplements. Big lifting websites like bodybuilding.com are full of advice on which supplements to buy (and online stores to sell them to you), and their lists are usually long and confusing. Whey protein isolate, creatine, BCAA's, Pre-workout, fat burners, and weight gainer are some of the most commonly recommended products. To the guy new to training, these huge lists of strange sounding substances can be overwhelming. Why so many? Do they even work? Will I sacrifice my results if I don't use them? And that particularly painful question: Why are they so expensive? In this post I'm going to tackle all these questions, and leave you with a clear picture of what supplements are, how they work and which ones actually make a difference for guys who lift.
The idea behind supplements is simple. Proper nutrition is vital for successful strength training and muscle growth, and sometimes eating regular food isn't enough. The body's need for massive doses of protein and carbs to build strength and muscle can make eating enough of the right sort of food a real chore. There's only so many chicken breasts a man can stomach before he starts flipping tables. Supplements are designed to pick up the slack in your diet, helping you hit the right amount of nutrients to keep improving your body. But not all supplements are created equal. In my experience the vast majority are completely useless. That said, there are a few supplements I take regularly myself, and have found helpful in my strength and fitness journey. Keep reading for my very short list of supplements that really work.
1. Protein Powder
If you could choose only one supplement for building strength and muscle, it ought to be protein powder. Whey protein is the most common and effective kind. It's made from the liquid left over when milk is curdled into cheese – a perfectly natural substance. Building muscle is at least as much about what you eat as what you lift, and a big part of that food needs to be protein, since it's the building block of muscle. About 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day is what a man should have if he's lifting heavy. Unless you're very small, that's a heck of a lot of protein. Enough that it would be difficult to get it all through regular food. A shake made from 25 or 50 grams of protein powder mixed with water or milk is a quick and convenient way to give your body a shot of the high quality protein it needs to grow after a workout. Make sure you choose a reputable brand before buying. There's a lot of low quality powders out there, some with questionable things mixed in. The good stuff isn't cheap, and is usually sold only 5 pounds at a time, so consider buying in bulk if money is an issue or if you'll be taking the stuff regularly. I buy my protein powder 45 pounds at a time from canadianprotein.com, and save at least $150 to $200 compared to the cost of the same amount from a typical supplement shop or online store.
Creatine is a naturally occurring substance found in your cells, and also in some foods like beef and salmon. I won't get into the chemistry, but here's the short version. Creatine helps your body produce more energy, allowing you to train better. In practice, supplementing creatine might give you a few more reps in the gym before you reach muscular failure. One teaspoon a day (or about 5 grams) is usually more than enough, and taking 20 or 30 grams daily like some bodybuilders have been known to do is just stupid. I've trained for long periods without taking supplemental creatine, and found that my training didn't really suffer, although I was probably still getting lots of the stuff through the meat in my diet. If you want to give yourself every possible advantage in the gym, taking creatine is a good idea.
3. Flax Oil
This is the point where guys who already train and use supplements might get confused. Flax oil isn't a supplement normally associated with gaining strength and muscle. But it can certainly help with these goals, and the reason boils down to healthy joints. Taking flax oil daily has tons of benefits: a healthier heart, increased brain function, better mood, and more energy just to name a few. But the feature that's most helpful for guys who lift heavy is that it decreases inflammation and supports joint health. When you're regularly loading up your hips, knees, and elbows with heavy barbells, a body that isn't prone to inflamed joints is vital. Flax oil won't save you from injury if you're overtraining or training stupidly, but it will certainly give your joints a boost in the gym.
So there you have it. The three supplements I use, and the only ones I've found make a noticeable difference in my training. Plenty of people will probably disagree, and insist that there are more products active trainees should take for best results. I haven't found that to be true. Bottom line: all the supplements in the world won't help if you're not training hard and eating in a way that supports that training. It's easy to put too much emphasis on supplements. The truth is you should only take them when you're doing everything else right with your training and nutrition. Otherwise you're just wasting your money.