Supplements 101: What to Take, What to Avoid

Supplementation is an important part of any exercise/nutrition/fitness program. Proper supplementation can help you gain strength, size, speed, or muscle (depending on your goal), and it can also help you cut fat, too.

However, if not done right, supplementation is a waste of money (at the very least), and also potentially dangerous and damaging to the body.

Read on to find out which supplements you should take, which ones you should avoid, and which ones are a waste of money.

First off, the average person doesn’t have the same nutritional requirements or demands of a pro athlete. Just because you see an Olympic sprinter or a professional hockey player take something doesn’t mean that you should or need to. As I mentioned above, improper supplementation is (for a lot of people) a monumental waste of money.

I posed the supplement question to Andy O’Brien, who trains Matt Duchene, Sidney Crosby, and a number of other successful pro athletes. His response:

What supplements would you recommend for hockey players (assuming their diet is in order)? What is popular among the NHL guys?

Aside from the typical protein/carb combination post workout, I also recommend BCAA’s, Magnesium, L-Arginine, Beta Alanine, trace Minerals and a good fish oil.  Depending on the athlete’s needs, I also get a lot of use out of L-Tyrosine, L-Theanine, Acetyl L Carnitine, and Phosphatidylserine.

I’ll share some information on those supplements – and a few more – below.

The Essentials

Fish Oil

A simple search on Google Scholar will reveal a bevy of studies done on the benefits of fish oil/omega-3 supplementation. From my own personal experiences, when I don’t take fish oil supplements (two capsules daily), I am a bit more stiff and sore the day after workouts. That is good enough for me!

Technically, a fish oil supplement isn’t essential if you eat a lot of salmon, trout, and/or herring. But I’d wager that 99% of people outside of Scandinavia don’t get enough of the above in their daily diets. Fish oil also improves heart health, and may have a positive impact on the immune system, too.

Greens Supplement

Like fish oil, supplementing with a greens product isn’t “essential” in the true meaning of the word. However, I’d wager a significant majority of people don’t get nearly enough greens in their diet, and that is where supplementing can come in handy. Supplements are meant to do exactly that – “supplement” the regular diet. But in the case where the regular diet falls short, they can make up that difference.

It isn’t ideal, but if is often the best case situation. Here is more on why greens supplements are so important.

Vitamin D3

Vitamin D3 may be the most important supplement for most people. The health benefits are tremendous, and the majority of us are deficient in it. If you live in a sunny/tropical region of the world, you likely aren’t deficient (or as deficient) In Vitamin D3 as someone in a part of the world that doesn’t get as much sunlight (also known as Vancouver, Canada).

Vitamin D3 helps the body absorb and metabolize vitamins. It cuts cancer risk. It regulates the immune system. It does a ton of other great stuff, too. We have been told to consume between 500-1000 IU’s (international units) per day, but in places without much sunlight year-round, there are benefits to taking 2000+ IU’s per day (especially in the fall/winter months).

The Optionals

A Multi-Vitamin

Like greens supplements, a multi-vitamin is meant to cover the vitamins that your diet misses. If you are eating a balanced diet with a lot of fruit and vegetables, it is likely that you don’t need to take a multi-vitamin. And with multi-vitamins (like many other supplmement products), there are ton of options. And that creates white noise. It isn’t easy figuring out which one to take, as it feels like you need a pharmaceutical degree to read the back of some of the labels.

Here’s some more background info on what to look for in a multi vitamin.

Creatine

Creatine is really the only safe, effective, proven, and legal supplement on the market that delivers on its claims. Creatine will help you get stronger, bigger, faster, and it helps with recovery. It reduces inflammation, and helps you burn fat. There isn’t much it doesn’t do.

There is still a lot of misinformation about Creatine (no, it isn’t “water weight,” and no, it won’t make you bloated or fat -  your diet will).

Creatine also has a number of other benefits, which scientists are starting to discover.

And it isn’t just for guys, either.

Protein Powder

Protein is the building block of muscles.

There are a ton of ways to get protein – meat and fish are both great sources. Eggs/egg whites are, too. You don’t need protein powder, but its value comes from its convenience. It is a lot easier to scoop some powder into a shake after your workout than it is to cook up some chicken breasts while leaving the gym.

Don’t worry too much about “when” you take protein, just make sure you hit your goal for the day. For people looking to gain muscle, that could be as much as 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight. There are a ton of protein powders on the market – you want one that is high in protein relative to carbs/fats (provided your goal is to gain muscle but not at the expense of gaining body fat, too).

Tim Ferriss, author of the 4-Hour Body, recommends ingesting 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking up (if you are looking to burn fat). There are different types of protein – whey and casein are the two most popular. 

Here are some more benefits of protein powder from Charles Poloquin.

Zinc

You may not need to supplement with zinc, but it is good to know its benefits and uses in the body. Many people are zinc-deficient without really knowing it.

Magnesium

Like zinc, if you are deficient in magnesium, supplementation will help a lot.

BCAA

Branch Chained Amino Acids, or BCAA’s, are the building blocks of protein. If you eat a protein-rich diet, you are probably fine for BCAA levels. BCAA supplementation has a lot of benefits for people who work out fasted (without eating before), as it curbs hunger and slows the catabolic effect of exercise.

To Avoid

Pre Workout Energizers

Money wasters, for the most part. If you need ‘energy’ for a workout, go for a cup of coffee or green tea. Or maybe address the underlying issue (stress, lack of sleep, and so on).

Fat Loss Pills/Powders

People looking for a quick fix. Again, largely money wasters.

Creatine Mixes/Blends

Opt for a creatine monohydrate when you go to buy it (creatine alone, no other additives). Supplement companies will sometimes mix creatine in with other stuff and jack up the price. Know what you are buying.

Most Supplements

This is a general category, but a majority of supplements on the shelf are a waste of money. The supplement industry is booming, and because of that a ton of products are appearing without much benefit. If you have the time, I’d highly recommend watching the documentary Bigger, Faster, Stronger.

There isn’t a miracle powder or pill that will get you ripped/jacked/shredded/thin. It takes discipline, consistency (with both diet and training) and time. Enjoy the journey!