I asked for some ideas for blog posts, and the issue of supplements came up a couple of times. I realised we’ve only really touched on it before and never gone into any real detail. It’s a minefield – not only because of the sheer amount of stuff out there, but also the difficulties of having a reasonable conversation about it. Supplement companies often pay ambassadors to say they use X, when they don’t. This often leads to (usually newer) gym-goers aligning themselves wth one brand, dismissing all others and claiming one is better than another. Cue endless arguments!
Whey protein? What’s the truth? Well, yes, there’s a degree of variance in quality. There’s also a degree of variance in marketing. ‘Market leading’ brands often command ridiculous pricing of up to £40 per kilo for whey, for example. Pretty much the exact same product can be bought elsewhere for £16-17 per kilo. You’re often paying for your muscle hero/heroine to be on the tub, in the adverts and to appear at expos. I’d rather just pay for the whey!
Some companies do add more expensive ingredients to their products, and subsequently charge more. Do these additional ingredients make *that* much of a difference over and above decent training, decent diet and a bog-standard whey? In my opinion, no, they don’t. Not £20-30 a month’s worth of difference anyway. You’ll often find that ‘suitable for drug tested athletes’ stuff is more expensive – it has to be tested and manufactured more rigorously to avoid contamination with banned substances, and costs more as a result. It’s not worth saving a few quid for untested, if you compete in a sport that testing takes place, so it’s one of the times paying more is worth it.
Marketing is also responsible for selling you a ridiculous amount of other crap you don’t need. And for a high price.
Testosterone boosters for guys in their teens and 20s/30s? No need unless you know you’re deficient, and even then, talking to your GP would be more advisable than listening to your average muscle model on the subject. The effects, from studies I’ve seen, of taking legal test boosters are negligible at best. Illegal ones are another matter entirely, but we’re talking supplements here, not gear/steroids/PEDs.
Legal fat burners? Green tea, cayenne pepper, raspberry ketones? Come on, deep down you know it’s bullshit. If they worked, no-one would be overweight. You’d pop a few pills, knock back your Domino’s and have a six pack in a few weeks. There’s minor evidence to suggest they elevate the heart rate, but enough to notice fat loss? Hugely unlikely in anyone who isn’t already perfect with their diet and training, and already at a very lean body mass. Even then – £20/30 a month for a ‘maybe’ effect? No thanks.
Fish oils? The typical Western diet does lack in Omega 3s, and the vast majority of reputable sources suggest 2-3g of fish oils a day have a myriad of health benefits. There was a trend for mega-dosing (20-30g a day) a while back, but that seems to have been debunked. Quelle surprise, it seemed to start out in the supplement industry. Make your own mind up about that one!
A multi-vitamin? Again, opinion is divided on the value of this against a decent diet. But, they’re cheap, and they may plug a gap in your diet. Certainly not something to rely on, but given that overdosing on vitamins and minerals to that kind of degree is harmless, and the cost doesn’t break the bank, it’s probably a no-brainer. It’s not necessary to spend a fortune – a standard multi-vit will cover most bases.
Probiotics? These are a touch expensive, and I’m biased because I use them and notice a real difference when I take them. Your gut health has a big impact on energy levels, sleep patterns and skin/hair condition. Probiotics promote the growth of ‘healthy’ bacteria in the gut. Many people I’ve recommended them to have felt improvements. Placebo? Maybe. I’m sold on them, though.
Other supplements that are worth having:
A basic creatine powder. It’s cheap, has had endless studies carried out on it, and it works. It won’t make you huge or strong overnight, but it does help increase your work capacity over time and, dosed correctly, is safe as houses.
Taurine. Do you ever suffer from cramp? Other than ensuring you drink enough fluids and have enough salt in your diet, taurine is hugely effective at relaxing muscles and preventing cramp. It can help from day one, and many cramp sufferers I know have experienced relief from using it. I have muscle imbalances from injury, meaning one hamstring is prone to cramping – taurine really helps reduce the incidences of what can be horrific pain.
ZMA. The jury is definitely out on this one – it’s a recovery/sleep aid who’s fans will say is the best thing ever, and who’s detractors will say is an expensive placebo. I’m a fan; I like it, I think it helps the quality of my sleep. I think possibly that some people are non-responders, or don’t have a deficit of the compounds within it, so get no benefit. Bottom line: if your sleep patterns are just fine, probably don’t bother. If you struggle sleeping occasionally, try it.
Ultimately, supplements are supplements. They shouldn’t form the basis of your existence. You shouldn’t be worrying about going on holiday without your whey powder, or it being impossible to sleep without your ZMA.
Supplements don’t make THAT much difference; many people are obsessing over something that might make 5% difference, whilst ignoring that the 95% (diet, training, rest) are in woeful condition. Fix the 95% first (which often costs nothing) before throwing £100 a month at the 5% that might not make any difference anyway.
If you want to check out any supplement, this site is a fantastic, research based place to help you make educated decisions based on science, rather than guesswork. As far as I know, it’s a not-for-profit enterprise too.
I’ve not made any recommendations for where to buy, because I would like to remain impartial within this article and not guide people to any one particular company. Following my Twitter account will likely throw up some names I would avoid, and some names that are currently our preferred suppliers, if anyone is interested in who we use.