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What You Need to Know About Workout Supplements

I get a lot of questions from my readers about supplementation so I thought this would be a good time to put together a short post on workout supplements.

Q: Do I need to take any supplements after I work out?

Q: Should I take protein?

Q: Is Creatine safe?

Thousands of theories exist on the subject, some in favor of supplementation, others completely against it.

Here are my two cents…

Here’s the all too common answer:

“You don’t need supplements. You can get all of your essential nutrients from the foods you eat.”

If we lived in an ideal world, then this might be true. But as much as we’d like to think we eat right, we simply don’t provide our bodies with all the valuable nutrients it needs to repair and grow to its full potential.

dedicated four weeks to tracking my intake and found that, calorically, I was only consuming around 60% of what I thought I was.

Supplements were designed for those of us living in an imperfect world. A place where zero calorie sodas are considered “healthy”. A place where traffic jams at the McDonalds drive through are kind of normal.

There’s no denying it – we live in a world that craves convenience. If it takes time and effort, then forget about it. We already have so much on our plates that we only got some room left by the edges.

Do I need to take workout supplements?

Your body is a machine. It requires quality fuel in the right quantities at the right time. The body is in constant need of energy to rebuild tissues and run its numerous systems. Yet providing your muscles with the proper fuel is probably the most underestimated and ignored element of any workout routine.

Just for a second, think about what happens to your body when you go through an intense workout. Your muscle fibers are broken down. Your energy sources are depleted. This is the moment your body is craving for sufficient nutrients to re-build tissues. What happens when you don’t give the body the energy it wants (read: needs), it goes into a catabolic state – a state where your body starts to break down whatever it can find from fat stores and protein in your muscles to fuel itself. So instead of building your muscles to be bigger and stronger, you’re actually breaking your body down. You’re going backwards!!

What you need to do is get that body back into anabolic state. (Sorry, no steroids here) This is a naturally occurring state in the body that happens when you consume the necessary amount of quality energy (from protein and carbohydrates).

So can you keep your body in anabolic state with food alone? That’s for you to decide (but my guess would be no…and I’m usually pretty good at guessing stuff).

If you can provide your body with adequate fuel via food, then no you probably don’t need any supplementation. But if you’re like the rest of the world, and you simply don’t find this (financially) feasible, then supplements might be what you’ve been missing all this time.

What supplements should I take?

I can’t tell you what to take or what not to take. In fact, by law I’m required to tell you to consult with your doctor before trying any new supplement (and you should). So instead, I’ll tell you a little bit about the two major players and my experience (or lack of) with each.

1. Protein

This macronutrient is the most important muscle building (and muscle sustaining) element in your body. It’s the essential building block for muscle. Without going into the differences between essential and non-essential proteins, here’s what you need to understand: without sufficient protein intake, your muscles will not grow. They will not re-build to their maximum potential.

For this reason, I almost always recommend some sort of protein supplement. They come in various forms (powders, bars) but powders are the easiest to consume. I’ve tried dozens of variations and found Optimum Nutrition to be one of my favorites.

Remember that protein is not just for gaining muscle, but it’s also for sustaining muscle. So if you’ve been skipping out because you don’t want to “look like Arnold“, you’ve been making a big mistake. Most likely your body has been living in a catabolic world where muscle falls apart like Charlie Sheen’s career. Protein is vital.

When do I take my protein powder shake? I’ve changed up my schedule many times and have found this combination to work the best:

Directly before a workout. Research has shown that it takes your body anywhere from 45 to 60 minutes to absorb the protein. Since my workouts never last longer than this (and neither should yours), it works out quite well. Right after my workout, when my body is begging for nutrients, the protein is there and available. If I take my protein shake after the workout, my body has to wait another 45 minutes to get its fix. Why make it wait? That’s nowhere near efficient.

Before going to sleep. Think about it – your body goes through its longest fasting period over night and gets zero nutrient consumption. But it’s still rebuilding and repairing during this time period. It’s important to provide your body with the necessary nutrients over night.

2. Creatine

It’s important to understand that your body naturally creates Creatine in your muscles. It’s particularly used during anaerobic activities (high intensity activities causing your body to use stored energy because oxygen cannot be delivered in time). Taking a Creatine supplement will give you additional energy to keep pushing throughout your workout.

I have personally never used Creatine and I’ll tell you why in a second. I have, on the other hand, spoken to numerous friends who have used it religiously. Each of them had made substantial gains. Each of them also had the same substantial losses (when they stopped using it).

It’s ok to be skeptical. I mean the supplement world is a vast ocean of confusing products. Thousands upon thousands of supplements all promising to turn you into superman.

But Creatine’s effectiveness has been scientifically documented and it has now become an accepted nutritional supplement. I’ve done enough research on the topic to know it’s a safe product. Millions have used it to drastically boost their performance.

But even with all the positive reviews and supporting scientific documents, there was always something holding me back.

The fact is, Creatine is still a fairly new product and, even though all current science points to it being a safe workout supplement, there are no long-term studies done. Creatine just hasn’t been around that long and therefore we just don’t know what kind of effects it can have on our health in the long run.

I want to enjoy all my years of life.

I want to look like this when I'm old.

So those are my thoughts on workout supplements.

I know supplementation in general has had a bad rep for some time. And it’s normal to not want to put something in your body that you’re not sure about – good for you.

But let me ask you one thing.

What was it keeping you from putting down that whopper from Burger King?

What made you put it in your mouth and flood your body with damaging chemicals?

Take a second to think about all of the junk food and processed food we consume on a daily basis. These foods were not designed to help your body function properly – in fact, their addictive nature and unhealthy properties keep you coming back for further damage.

Workout supplements such as protein shakes are designed to give you everything that your body needs to function and perform to its full potential. They’re designed to help build your body up, not break it down.

So do your research and make the decision for yourself. Just don’t let the big bad world of supplements scare you.

What are your thoughts on workout supplements? Do you use them? Are you scared of trying them? Share your stories and experiences in the comments below.

Alykhan - Fitness Breakout - April 20, 2011

Srdjan,

I use both protein powder (in shakes) and creatine, although I don’t use creatine year round. I only use it for about a month at a time when I’m working out aggresively with the intention of increasing mass. I think both of these are great supplements and I have found them to be very effective. Protein powder should be a staple for anyone serious about building and maintaining muscle without getting fat because it’s difficult to get sufficient protein from food sources alone while keeping your calories low enough to stay lean.

Alykhan

    Srdjan Popovic - April 21, 2011

    Alykhan, I really liked the last statement you made: it’s difficult to get sufficient protein from food sources alone while keeping your calories low enough to stay lean. I think this is a huge factor because supplements are designed to give your body what it needs while minimizing what it doesn’t need. It’s very difficult to do this with food (and very expensive).

    Just a question about your Creatine use – when you stop using it, how much of what you have gained do you keep? How do you feel when you stop using it?

Sam- Look Like An Athlete - April 20, 2011

I agree with you on the supplements you listed above. The funny thing is that if you walk in to a health and fitness store you will probably receive a pitch from the salesperson telling you that you need 3 or 4 supplements to either add muscle or lose weight.

Magazines will also put ad after ad telling you what you need RIGHT NOW to look your best when in reality you don’t need so much.

The first thing anyone must include in supplementation is a vitamin tailored to your specific needs, whether you are a man, woman, active, older, etc.

Second thing to consider if you are active is protein and I have also found Optimum Nutrition to give me the best results.

Creatine is also a good one to include especially for gaining strength and muscle but I have not taken it in several years simply because I did not like the constant trips to the bathroom- a side effect not everyone goes through.

All the other “supplements” are not supplements in the strict sense of the word but substances to give you an edge and some that really don’t work. In fact, a good multivitamin will give you the boost you need- like a natural increase in HGH.

Really enjoyed this article.

-Sam

    Srdjan Popovic - April 21, 2011

    Thanks for the comment, Sam.

    Supplementation is a BIG business. You can easily walk into any health and fitness or supplementation store and end up spending hundreds of dollars on hyped up products with hyped up promises. It’s always important to do your research and make informed decisions when it comes to supplementation.

    I stick with my protein shakes and my daily multivitamin. For now, I don’t think I need anything else. Someday I might experiment with Creatine just to experience it for myself, bathroom trips included:).

Dave - Not Your Average Fitness Tips - April 22, 2011

I’ve started supplementing a little more than I used to just to see if it makes any difference. I’ve used protein and creatine on and off throughout the years. Now I’ve added a multivitamin and krill oil. For the next 2-3 months I’m experimenting with BCAAs and the PAGG stack as well. I’ll do a full post on my blog to let you know if any of it really makes a difference.

    Srdjan Popovic - April 23, 2011

    That sounds very cool, Dave. I`m curious to see what kind of results you experience. What is the background on krill oil? What is it used for?

Evilcyber - April 24, 2011

The words “your body is a machine” in my opinion show a lot of disrespect for a living organism, especially for the one you yourself live in. The human body is not a machine and it is because of people treating it like one, as in”it has to perform”, where the problems start.

You can of course go and measure and time every nutrient you consume, but in my opinion that is making yourself a slave of your fitness endeavors and turning them into a travesty of what they should really be about: making your life more enjoayble.

    Srdjan Popovic - April 24, 2011

    I appreciate your comment. But there are some things I guess I should clear up.

    There is nothing disrespectful about saying your body is a machine because, in the most technical sense, it is a machine. Your body requires food (fuel) to be able to perform its many functions. Eating better quality foods allows your body to perform better long term. Regularly consuming poor quality foods will break down your body faster and put you at higher risk of disease. I can guarantee you this will not make your life more enjoyable.

    In my opinion, the problem starts when you FORGET that your body runs like a machine – when you consume low quality foods that satisfy temporary desires but are terrible for long-term health.

    I’ve also never been an advocate of tracking and measuring nutrient consumption. It’s a poor lifestyle habit and, if done incorrectly, can do more bad than good. Having a general understanding of how various nutrients affect your body is not being a slave to your fitness endeavors – instead, it is about putting you in a position to be able to make better decisions for your body.

Alykhan - Fitness Breakout - April 27, 2011

Srdjan,

When I stop using creatine, I don’t notice a drop off in terms of what I am able to lift. I think strength gains have more to do with progressive workout structure. I feel fine when I stop using it. I use it primarily to help with visual enhancement when I’m getting ready for a vacation or event.

Alykhan

    Srdjan Popovic - April 28, 2011

    Thanks for clearing that up. I guess different people react differently to it. I’ve seen some huge drop offs (in both strength and size) when people stop using it. I’ve also seen others keep the majority of what they’ve gained even when they stop using it. I might have to try it for myself.

Dave - Not Your Average Fitness Tips - May 1, 2011

Krill oil supposedly has some minor fat loss benefits but it’s really used to improve cholesterol levels: http://www.getprograde.com/essential-fatty-acid.html

Mark's Fat Burning Food and Fitness Blog - May 22, 2011

Dear Srdjan,

I couldn’t agree more, the question concerning supplements really is one of terminology, isn’t it?

When you say supplements, what exactly do you mean?
Body building/fitness industry supplements? Because it’s true, they’re usually useless and even unhealthy.
But what about Magnesium?, D3? Omega3? Iodine?
Etc, etc … the list goes on.

There’s definitely supps and then there’s SUPPS, and as you pointed out: in a perfect environment MAYBE it’s OK to just eat healthy, if all you want is average performance.
But who said this is a perfect environment, and who said anything about average performance?

All my athletes are required to use certain base supps, simply because they put much higher demands on their systems than the average guy or gal.

If you train regularly and DO NOT supplement, you will actually get depleted in key micro nutrients, that’s for sure.
Having said that, even folks who never look at a dumbbell in their lives are generally depleted in magnesium and D3, as well as Iodine.

So supplements? You BETCHA, only it’s gotta be the right ones in the right amounts and at the right times, that’s really the main thing.

Keep it up the good work man, GREAT stuff !;-)

Mark

    Srdjan Popovic - May 23, 2011

    You bring up a very good point Mark. The word “supplement” can mean a whole list of things. This article was focused on bodybuilding supplements – the type of supplements marketing campaigns love to bombard us with. We’re definitely talking about SUPPS here :).

    But there is a whole other side to the supplement world that doesn’t get as much light of day. Supplementing with vitamins and minerals that you struggle to get through your diet is critically important for your body to function optimally, whether you train or not. We live in a world where processed foods, which are stripped of their valuable nutritional content, take up the most space in our fridges and pantries so our levels of key micro nutrients are most definitely depleted and, in this case, supplementation is ideal.

    Thanks for the comment – might lead to another supplementation post!

Toni - September 15, 2011

I think krill oil also helps you with the joints? I’m not sure I can’t remember if it was krill oil or if it was another supplement. I just switched from fish oil to krill oil. I think it works almost the same, except the fish oil gives you a really weird/bad aftertaste and smelly fish burps. Krill oil is also absorbed by the body more efficiently. I get mine here : http://krilloil.mercola.com/krill-oil.html

    Srdjan Popovic - September 15, 2011

    Hey Toni, thanks for the comment. I’ll admit that I’ve never tried krill oil but I do take fish oil capsules regularly. They are essentially very similar with some (highly debated) differences. Both are effective for releaving aches and pains (in joints). One of the reasons I chose to go with fish oil is because krill oil is much more expensive in terms of how much DHA you’re getting. The omega 3 essential fatty acids you get from these oils are DHA and EPA, with DHA considered the most important for your health. Krill oil just happens to be much lower in DHA content so you have to take more of it just to get the same amount of DHA as you would from fish oil.

    That’s pretty much all I look for. Thanks for your site reference.

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