If you're an avid fitness buff, you probably have read the popular men's
muscle journals in order to gain an edge in your training. Along with the decent (and sometimes fluffy) workout advice, these magazines bombard you with layouts from advertisers hawking a seemingly endless array of powders, formulas, tablets, and other bodybuilding supplements meant to increase your muscle mass and decimate unwanted fat. The nutritional-supplement industry keeps churning out the "latest and greatest" products, and people keep on buying them by the wallet-walloping basketful.
So with all of the supplement marketing mania, how do you decide which supplements are effective, which are safe, and which are just plain bad for you? Is that talkative jacked guy at Gold's Gym a key source of information? Do five pages of glossy ads spur us to buy the latest pill?
The answer? Before you buy an ingest a supplement, you need to know the hard, basic science behind it. You should you only take supplements that have been successfully and positively reviewed through the rigors of scientific inquiry. Why? Because if you don't you're putting yourself at risk. The supplements market is not as regulated as the drug industry, allowing less scrupulous manufacturers to make claims about their products that may be based in faulty science.
To help get you started, we took at look at the best supplements—those supplements that have proven benefits and no major side effects—some borderline supplements, and some bad supplements that you should not be taking.
The most important thing you need to know about supplements is that you shouldn't even start asking about them until you have covered your basics: designing and implementing an intense but smart strength-training and cardio routine; utilizing a sports nutrition strategy that includes a base of lean protein, mixed with a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and essential fatty acids; and ensuring that you get plenty of rest and recovery time to prevent muscle damage and injury.
In general, most exercise scientists and nutritionists will recommend whole food choices over a sports supplement. However, if their client is determined to add something beyond food to bulk up or to get lean, then these experts will most likely promote the supplements that have been widely studied and reviewed in human performance labs. The following four are among the best and most tested supplements on the market:
- Multivitamin: Taking a daily multivitamin is one of the easiest and most beneficial things you can do to exact an immediate impact on your health. Dr. Andrew Weil, MD, the renowned holistic medicine expert, is often quoted as saying that multivitamins are so important that the government should provide one to every youngster in America, in order to fight against disease and combat nutrient deficiencies early in life. Modern farming practices have reduced the nutrient and mineral levels in the soil, and thus lowered the levels humans consume, making a multivitamin even more important. Choose a well-respected manufacturer and always take a multivitamin with a meal to avoid an upset stomach.
- Flax-seed oil: "Flaxseed oil, rich in alpha-linolenic (ALA), the essential omega-3 fatty acid, and phytochemicals, makes a good addition to a healthful diet," says H.K. Jones, a registered dietitian and nutrition professional based in Washington, DC. "Research suggests ALA helps reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer." The body also converts omega-3 fatty acids into hormone-like substances called prostaglandins, which play a prominent role in reducing inflammation such as the joint inflammation caused by sports injuries. Choose a flax-seed supplement that has high lignan content (usually found in a dark glass bottle) from the refrigerator section of your grocer or heath food store. Pills are not as potent, and the heating process used to generate the pill may affect their properties. Consume one to two tablespoons per day, as salad dressing, in protein shakes, or in oatmeal.
- Glutamine: L-Glutamine (commonly called glutamine) is the most abundant amino acid in the blood stream, and is responsible for several important biochemical reactions. The study Glutamine physiology, biochemistry, and nutrition in critical illness showed how glutamine plays a particularly prominent role in the body's immune response, because it is the primary metabolic fuel for the body's immune system cells (1). It also reduces the risk of infection in endurance athletes who may be overtraining, according to Rowbottom, et al, in a study published in the journal Sports Medicine (2). Glutamine has been shown to be an important amino acid for recovery following intense workouts. Supplement formulators have acknowledged this attribute and created formulas that combine creatine, glutamine, and other co-factors into one post-workout recovery formula. Supplement doses can range from two grams to 15 grams per day, depending on body weight, exercise intensity, age, and nutrition. As with all supplements, consult your doctor before taking glutamine.
- Creatine: Creatine is the most widely studied and marketed nutritional supplement and is unique because it plays a direct role in energy transformation and exchange within the body. Creatine works within the phosphagen energy system, which involves intense bouts of all-out muscular contractions lasting between five and 10 seconds. Creatine provides a phosphate group (PC) to help regenerate ATP, the primary chemical constituent for further muscle contractions. Athletes who participate in strength and power sports (football, weight training, sprinting, hockey, and so on) will benefit from measured use of creatine. It must be taken with increased levels of water and electrolytes. Dosage recommendations vary, but most experts agree that creatine should be cycled properly, with one week loading phase (eight grams to 16 grams per day), three weeks maintenance (four grams to eight grams per day), followed by one to four weeks off.
Probably 20 percent of the supplements sold in a health food stores are stellar; another 20 percent are okay, but with some caveats; and the remaining 60 percent are downright crap. This next section addresses borderline supplements that have proven benefit but that we still can't recommend.
- Ephedrine: When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration planned to ban the use of ephedrine, the hard-core bodybuilding community was up in arms. Ephedrine has been used safely by many asthmatics to help open bronchial passageways, by truckers and students to help promote alertness, and by athletes to help energize workouts and speed fat loss. The people that have safely and successfully taken this supplement have cycled it, used a baseline dosage, kept fluid levels high, made sure not to add additional stimulants, and sought medical clearance prior to initiating its use. Problems arise when people use ephedrine with other diet products, diuretics, and stimulants; are involved in an extreme weight-loss plan; or have a pre-existing heart condition. It's effective, but its potential for stroke and heart complications outweigh its use for most people, so we can't recommend it. No matter what, if you do consider taking ephedrine, consult with a doctor first or you're putting your life at risk; many people who have a pre-existing heart condition don't know it.
- Single amino acid products (other than glutamine): Your body needs a variety of the essential and non-essential amino acids, and supplement shelves are stocked with just about every single amino acid combination possible. These supplements may not be dangerous, but it's easier and better for you to get these amino acids from a broad spectrum of protein sources including lean meats, dairy, poultry, fish, soy, and the like. Why use a supplement when you can get all of these amino acids from the real deal—whole, unprocessed foods? If you do supplement your amino acid intake, a more cost-effective way to increase protein intake is in the form of whey protein isolate, as opposed to buying individual amino formulas.
The supplements listed below are some of the most popular supplements on the market today, primarily because they pray on the same impulses as dangerous fad diets and illegal steroids—the desire for a short cut to get quick results. They not only don't work; they're also bad for your health.
- Carb blockers: C Block! Carb Cutter! Carb Intercept! You see them everywhere—carb blockers sell because they are based on the misguided belief that carbohydrates make us fat. This is a foolish assumption; carbohydrates are necessary for myriad functions in the body. People become fat because they over-consume calories, usually in low-nutrient form, and lead inactive lives. The science behind carb blockers is sketchy, and the side effect profile is daunting: bloating, gas, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Sounds like a lot less fun than a balanced diet and exercise, doesn't it?
- Anything claiming to increase testosterone: Mark McGwire's record breaking homerun season in 1998 created an explosion in sales of androstendione, a metabolite of DHEA that serves as a direct precursor in the bio-synthesis of testosterone, according to supplement researcher Richard Kreider (4). Users pronounced that the supplement increased stamina and endurance, enhanced performance (including sexual), and led to increased strength and faster muscle mass gains. As with all testosterone products, the side effect profile looks bleak and can include some or all of the following: gland enlargement, water retention, impotence, acne, balding, gynecomastia, and lower self-production of testosterone. Unless otherwise advised by your doctor, testosterone can be managed through a sound diet, proper exercise, stress reduction, and ample rest.
- Souba WW. Glutamine physiology, biochemistry, and nutrition in critical illness. Austin, TX: R.G. Landes Co.; 1992.
- Rowbottom DG, Keast D, Morton AR. The emerging role of glutamine as an indicator of exercise stress and overtraining. Sports Med 1996;21:80-97.
- Keider, R. Vanderbilt University, Health Psychology Department.