With any supplement, even vitamins, you need to ask these six questions:
- Does it provide benefit?
- Is it safe; now or in the longer term?
- What is the amount that works, the dose? (Never take more than the prescribed dose.)
- Does your supplement recommend that efficacious dose on the label?
- Can you trust the supplement company to always deliver that amount in its product?
- Can you trust the supplement company not to include unsafe or illegal additional products intentionally or unintentionally in the product?
Creatine is a naturally occurring compound found in muscle in large amounts. Creatine monohydrate is the supplement form and is a combination of the amino acids arginine, glycine and methionine. Creatine drives the important creatine phosphate energy pathway, which is important in high-intensity activity such as weight lifting.
Safety. At the recommended dose of 3 grams/day creatine seems safe to use over the long term in studies published so far. Isolated adverse effects are reported but these may be as a result of poor compliance with the recommended amount.
Expected results. Creatine can improve body bulk and training performance in high-intensity activities. Be aware that not everyone responds to creatine supplementation and 30 percent of users may not see any improvement. Women may not benefit as much as men. In weight training, increased strength, bulk and fat loss are reasonably consistent results.
How much. There are two ways of taking creatine:
- Rapid loading with 20 grams daily, divided into 4 doses for 5 days.
- Slow loading with 3 grams daily.
The daily maintenance dose for both is 3 grams/day. Unless you are in a hurry, don't rapid load.
Protein Powders – Whey, Casein, Soy, Egg
The above are complete proteins with all of the essential amino acids that the body cannot produce itself.
There is no scientific justification for weight trainers or bodybuilders consuming more than about 1 gram/pound bodyweight a day of protein (2 grams/kilogram/bodyweight/day). You can count your protein intake by using a food database such as at www.calorieking.com. Protein powder supplements may be useful in certain situations. Protein supplements in the form of shakes may be convenient for before and after workout sessions to maximize muscle rebuilding.
Different proteins, such as whey and casein, egg and soy have different absorption rates. Whether you should favor one over another for muscle building is still a subject of popular and scientific debate, although whey protein isolate, a more rapidly absorbed protein, has some support from various scientific studies.
Don’t waste your money on amino acid tablets or capsules; they contain too little of anything to be of benefit.
For protein powders, asses the value by checking out the quantity of protein listed on the label. Don’t be fooled by a host of other ingredients and fillers that don’t add value. Some carbohydrate is okay and may even be essential after a hard workout. Just make sure you get what you expect. Try to buy from reputable manufacturers who guarantee their products and make details available on the labels. Cheap supplements from unknown sources may be unreliable or even hazardous.
Low-fat milk powder is a reasonable source of whey and casein protein and for many people this makes an effective alternative to the more expensive protein powders. Taken with some carbohydrate after training, perhaps as a proprietary flavored milk, this is a simple and effective alternative.
Safety. No safety issues are expected with the ingestion of protein powders within reasonable limits. Excess protein consumption may not be safe for people with kidney disease.
Expected results. Combined with resistance training, sufficient protein consumption in conjunction with an appropriate diet can lead to increased muscle and reduced body fat. Eat plenty of low-fat protein foods, supplement with skim milk powder or good quality commercial powders if necessary, but don’t get too obsessive about different types for general bodybuilding and weight training.
How much. Less than 1 gram per pound of body weight each day total protein including meals. (2 grams/kilogram/bodyweight/day.) A supplement of 40 grams/day of whey protein with 8 grams of casein with weight training has performed better than other combinations (Kerswick 2006).
Multivitamin supplements may help you reach the recommended daily intakes for vitamins and minerals if you have a less than ideal diet, travel impairs your diet, or strenuous exercise increases requirements. I consider a multivitamin good insurance in these circumstances against possible deficiencies. Choose a reputable brand.
Don’t choose formulations with excessively high concentrations of particular vitamins or minerals. You should choose a good all-round supplement with a balanced formula.
Antioxidants in the diet protect against natural and synthetic chemical fragments called free radicals that are a part of daily living. Lifestyle challenges may increase your requirements for antioxidants. Vitamin C and E are the main antioxidants in the normal diet although many other plant nutrients contribute to this effect. Pollution, stress, smoking, strenuous exercise and illness may increase your requirements for antioxidant protection.
Supplementing with vitamins C and E may be useful in the following circumstances:
- If you begin weight training or exercise after being sedentary for a long time.
- If you suddenly increase the volume or intensity of training.
- If you move to altitude and continue training.
- In exceptionally hot weather and during acclimatization.
- If you train in very polluted environments.
How much. 500 milligrams of vitamin C and vitamin E daily is the most that is required and this dose is unlikely to cause adverse health or fitness effects. Consider regular antioxidants if you train in a particularly polluted environment on a regular basis. A multi-vitamin a day may be all that is required to provide that extra reassurance.
Women who train hard and reach low body fat levels, say under 10 percent, may be at risk of losing their periods as a result of hormonal disruption to estrogen production. Exercise-induced estrogen declines can result in bone loss in a way similar to that which occurs at the menopause.
Loss of periods from athletic training is not uncommon but does require that you see a doctor, or better still, a sports physician and sports nutritionist to assess what is required to address the problem. Calcium supplements may be a part of the solution if bone health is likely to be affected. However, if disordered eating is a contributing factor, a more comprehensive training and nutrition program may be necessary. Those great abs you see on some women may be ‘to die for’ but they mean very low body fat. Often they have the genetics to produce that outcome. Don’t injure yourself trying to achieve something that may not be possible without health damage.
Zinc and Magnesium
Zinc is important for the production of the male hormone testosterone and in building the immune system. Magnesium is an essential component of the nervous system and in the maintenance of heart health. Both have a range of important biochemical function.
Zinc and magnesium are often marketed to bodybuilders in combination in a supplement called ZMA. This is supposed to increase testosterone and thus improve muscle building. These two minerals are very important components of a balanced diet and some people may be deficient if they do not consume adequate amounts in the diet. Magnesium is in nuts, whole seeds, grains and green vegetables. Zinc is in whole grains, seeds, nuts and particularly meat and oysters.
After years of research no evidence exists to show that either mineral offers bodybuilding or athletic performance enhancement in excess of the recommended dietary requirements. In other words, if you eat well for these minerals, you won’t need supplements nor will supplements help your performance.
Because deficiencies are common enough, a small supplementation such as that found in a multi-vitamin could ensure your needs are met in circumstances where diet is inadequate.
Safety. Zinc can be slightly toxic in excess and zinc can also affect absorption of copper. I see no reason to exceed 20 mg/day in supplements of zinc.
Iron is the mineral in the body essential for the production of hemoglobin, a blood protein that transports oxygen in the body. It is easy to see how important iron is for people who exercise.
Iron deficiency can occur for the following reasons:
- Poor compliance with optimum vegetarian diets or other eating patterns that do not include substitutions for red meat, chicken and fish with bioavailable iron foods.
- People with increased requirements – women, athletes, adolescents, athletes training in hot temperatures or altitude.
- Other factors including gastrointestinal bleeding due to ulcers, NSAID drugs, surgery, nosebleeds, certain high-impact and contact sports.
The Australian Institute of Sport in it’s supplement program says:
"There is now evidence that supplementation of female athletes, who are not anemic but who have serum ferritin levels less than 16 or 20 ng/ml, may cause improvements in some performance related parameters."
Safety. Iron overload may cause a disease called hemochromatosis in some susceptible people. Iron supplements should only be prescribed by a doctor, and for athletes or those who train heavily, a sports physician in conjunction with a sports dietitian may be preferable. Be sure to take care with this because iron supplements should not be taken casually. Iron supplements may cause constipation and gastric upset in some people.
How much. This needs to be determined by a sports physician or a doctor with some experience of sport-related iron requirements, particularly for women.
Electrolyte and Carbohydrate Replacement Drinks
Electrolytes derive mainly from minerals in the diet and they maintain fluid balance and assist the nervous system to perform muscle contractions. The heart is your most active muscle and electrolytes are intimately involved in the pumping action of the heart. Electrolytes are sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium and chloride, bicarbonate, phosphate, sulfate. Exercisers are particularly dependent on sodium and potassium balance.
Carbohydrates are important for fueling exercise, including vigorous weight training, and in post-exercise energy replacement nutrition. Carbohydrates, mostly sugars, are formulated in sports drinks with electrolytes such as sodium chloride and potassium and sometimes magnesium.
Sports drinks like Gatorade usually contain about 6-8 percent carbohydrate, sodium chloride (salt) and potassium. Sports drinks can be useful in weight training where sessions proceed beyond an hour of high-intensity exercise or at the end of such sessions where rapid replacement of muscle glucose is good practice.
Caffeine is the naturally occurring alkaloid and stimulant in coffee, tea, cocoa, gurana, cola and other plant product beverages. A strong cup of brewed coffee will give you about 100 milligrams of caffeine, instant coffee around 80 milligrams, often less, and tea down around the 40 milligrams. It varies from product to product and how you prepare the drink.
Caffeine supplementation has been shown to benefit some endurance athletes like marathoners taken before an event or training. Originally this was though to be related to energy availability, but more recently research has suggested that it may be more to do with delaying a condition called ‘central fatigue’, where the brain does not pass signals to the working muscles efficiently, which results in a general tiredness. Caffeine may slow or prevent this from occurring.
Although caffeine has also helped in higher intensity training such as shorter track events, its benefits for weight training are not well established and similar stimulants such as ephedra are sometimes used. The safety of ephedra is under review. Even so, ‘central fatigue’ is an issue long debated in the weight training community, so caffeine could well be a useful ergogenic aid for weight lifters. The strategy would be to include caffeine in a pre-workout drink or supplement.
Safety. In general health terms, most medical opinion is that up to three cups of coffee a day are not harmful, and may even have some benefits, although some people respond to the stimulant properties with more problems than others. Heart palpitations and restlessness are experienced by some caffeine drinkers. In pregnancy, one or two cups each day are thought to be without harm for the fetus.
How much. The amount used by athletes has been in the range 3-6 milligrams/kilogram body weight (or about 1.5-3 grams/pound body weight). For a 180 pound (82 kilo) person, that’s around 300-400 milligrams caffeine average. That’s quite a bit of caffeine, so in my view, a couple of cups of coffee or equivalent taken before a session should be enough to get you going. Some coffee houses sell double shots in big mugs with around 300 milligrams in one cup.
Contrary to the sound of the name, glucosamine is not a glucose replacement drink but a naturally occurring compound that has received publicity and wide support as a supplement for the relief of arthritis pain and possible prevention of further joint damage. Glucosamine has been popular with sports people of all types, including weight trainers, particularly for knee arthritis and pain.
While some evidence exists that glucosamine works to relieve pain, the latest evaluation by medical experts suggests that it does not work as well as once thought. Here is what the prestigious Cochrane Library Report had to say:
It was shown in a previous Cochrane review that glucosamine taken for 6 weeks decreases pain and improves function (physical ability) in people with osteoarthritis. When compared to the previous review, this review which analyzes newer studies and more high quality studies, shows there is "platinum" level evidence that pain does not improve as much when taking glucosamine for 2 to 3 months. Depending on the scale used to measure function (physical ability), function may not improve at all or as much.
Glucosamine seems to be safe to use.
Glutamine, HMB and Beta-alanine
Glutamine and beta-alanine are amino acids and HMB, beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate, is a byproduct of leucine, another amino acid. Promoting individual amino acids, the building blocks of protein, to enhance performance in the strength sports has been a particular focus of supplement manufacturers over the years. To date, the evidence for any advantage has been mixed and mostly unimpressive.
Glutamine has not really lived up to its early hype as an immune system protector and muscle enhancer. It’s probably not going to provide protection of the immune system in heavy exercisers beyond what can be achieved by ensuring adequate carbohydrate intake, which also protects immunity. Anabolic benefits from glutamine alone have not been proven. I wouldn’t spend money on this one.
supplementation is claimed to build muscle size and strength and promote fat loss in conjunction with a strength program. Studies of HMB have shown some benefit to strength athletes in building muscle bulk but the benefits are relatively small and the cost of HMB is high. The effective dose seems to be 3 grams/day divided into 1 gram three times a day. Probably not worth taking.
Beta-alanine is the new guy on the block and has not been evaluated sufficiently in my view. It may provide some advantage in high intensity sports like weight training but it’s much too early to know that it does. Some early studies are flawed. Save your money or try creatine instead.
Other Amino Acids
Arginine, and leucine, valine and isoleucine, the branched-chain amino acids, are also promoted and sold as beneficial supplements for strength trainers and athletes. As individual products there is no evidence of benefit beyond their role in complete proteins. Leucine may be worth watching for possible benefit with further evaluation.
Summing Up Supplements
If you are a ranked athlete, don't put anything in your mouth that could fail you in drug testing. For amateurs, don't believe every thing you read in the muscle mags or on the internet. Much independent testing is required to verify the value and safety of supplements.
Maughan RJ, King DS, Lea T. Dietary supplements. J Sports Sci. 2004 Jan;22(1):95-113.
Kreider RB. Dietary supplements and the promotion of muscle growth with resistance exercise. Sports Med. 1999 Feb;27(2):97-110.
Kerksick CM, Rasmussen CJ, Lancaster SL, et al. The effects of protein and amino acid supplementation on performance and training adaptations during ten weeks of resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2006 Aug;20(3):643-53.
Update of Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2001;(1):CD002946. Glucosamine therapy for treating osteoarthritis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2005 Apr 18;(2):CD002946.
AIS Sports Nutrition - AIS Sports Supplement Program 2007. www.ais.org.au/nutrition/Supplements.asp