Many keen gym-goers look for supplements to improve their workout performance, often intending to get stronger, lift heavier weights, and grow bigger muscles. However, when wading into the territory of supplements, it can become overwhelming very quickly. Vague and sometimes threatening products, with names that sound like UltraFlex MuscleFreak Pre-Workout Booster, are supposedly trying to help maximize your workout efforts but don’t clearly describe how. Many products have a long list of ingredients, with only a few having any proven efficacy. In rare instances, some untested products might contain substances banned from competition.
Sports supplements include a variety of foods and nutrients that are consumed, in addition to one’s regular diet, to achieve a specific performance benefit. The scope of supplements extends to enriched foods (e.g. foods with added vitamins or minerals), formulated foods (e.g. protein bars, electrolyte drinks), single nutrients or isolates (e.g. glucose gel, caffeine pill, whey protein), and multi-nutrient supplements (e.g. pre-workout powdered drink mix).
Supplements are especially beneficial for athletes at a competitive level but may provide benefits to athletes with much less experience. However, supplements cannot make up for the deficiencies of an inadequate fitness, nutrition or recovery program; each of these is crucial to success in fitness – supplements are not.
Before considering supplements, consider the following:
- Are you training hard enough or heavy enough to fatigue the muscle?
- Does your diet have enough protein, calories and nutritional value, or do you consume too much nutrient-poor ultra-processed foods?
- Does your body get adequate recovery by getting enough sleep and not pushing yourself too hard?
You can make significant gains in your training by first improving on each of the above topics. Once those are sorted, and you have a manageable fitness routine and a nutritionally complete diet, adding in some relevant supplements can be a smart move. These supplements can benefit those who are interested in developing lean muscle mass through resistance training.
The information summarized below is based on expert opinions, primarily from reports assembled for the International Olympics Committee and the International Society of Sports Nutrition. These groups concern themselves with sport performed at the highest levels and regularly release consensus statements on the current research regarding sports nutrition. The suggestions we share below are not exhaustive, and may not be right for you. You can read more about these supplement strategies and others in greater detail through the references linked at the bottom of this article.
Caffeine is a stimulant and a proven enhancer of physical performance. It can reduce fatigue, increase wakefulness, and maintain alertness through longer training sessions. It is most beneficial for long distance endurance training and team sports, but is also a favorite of many gym-goers. However, it is not appropriate when you are sleep deprived – that is not a suitable time to hit the gym.
The appropriate dose that seems to be most effective in trained athletes is 3-6 mg/kg of body weight. However, that dosage range is about 200-500 mg for most people. It is reasonably safe to consume up to 400-500 mg of caffeine per day, which, depending on its strength, is the equivalent amount of caffeine in 3-5 cups of coffee. Determining what amount of caffeine is best for you depends on your current caffeine consumption.
It is best to start with a dose that mimics your regular intake of caffeine and work up from there as you see fit. Caffeine in pill or powder form is more efficient than coffee and is available as over-the-counter supplements from a pharmacist or fitness shop. Be wary of so-called pre-workout supplements that contain many other ingredients in addition to caffeine. If you prefer, the caffeinated beverage of your choice will suffice.
The effects of caffeine peak around an hour after ingestion, so plan accordingly. Too much caffeine can come with unwanted side effects such as restlessness, insomnia, nausea and anxiety. Consuming caffeine should be avoided late in the day, as it can disturb your regular sleep schedule.
A world-renowned expert on muscle hypertrophy, Dr. Brad Schoenfeld, says “Creatine is the only supplement that has well-established benefits for directly building muscle.” That’s because creatine helps generate intracellular energy useful for short bursts of high-intensity physical activity. Creatine is a small molecule produced by our liver and kidneys that helps generate ATP. Creatine is naturally available in small amounts in animal products (fish, red meat and poultry). Additional intake of creatine through supplementation has proven to increase muscle creatine content, leading to lean muscle mass gains and improved measures of strength and power. However, creatine supplementation only provides benefits to training for strength and power, such as weight lifting and sprinting.
A simple protocol for creatine supplementation is to take a daily serving of 3-6 g every day for four weeks. This method allows the creatine levels in muscle to saturate gradually. Alternatively, you can start with a loading phase of 20 g/day for 5-7 days, and continue with a maintenance phase of 3-5 g/day. The loading phase saturates the muscle stores of creatine much more quickly.
Creatine is safe to consume for healthy adults. People who take creatine supplements can expect to experience an increase in body weight caused by water retention, and few users may experience some gastrointestinal distress. While humans naturally consume creatine from animal sources, creatine supplements are produced synthetically and are vegan friendly.
Protein supplements provide a convenient means to reach your total daily requirement of protein. Protein enhances the gains in lean body mass by providing amino acids for muscle protein synthesis, and by minimizing muscle protein breakdown. Many studies have shown that athletes require more protein than people who are sedentary, and protein consumption following resistance training is key to postexercise recovery.
Protein supplements are available as powders to mix into water or milk, ready-to-drink beverages and sports bars. These supplements are typically protein isolated from dairy (e.g. whey, casein) or plant sources (e.g. pea, soy). Protein supplements provide a convenient source of protein and can help meet increased nutrition demands. In addition to fitness supplement shops, protein supplements are increasingly available in grocery stores.
A single serving of a protein supplement should be 0.25-0.40 g per kg of bodyweight or roughly 20-30g of protein. It should be consumed immediately before, after or during a training session. However, a meal with a high-quality protein source (i.e. from whole, unprocessed foods) should be consumed up to two hours following exercise to maximize muscle protein synthesis.
Carbohydrate sources also fulfil the role as an exercise supplement. Carbs provide energy during heavy training (intra-workout) and support post-workout recovery, and in both scenarios contribute to the resupply of glycogen stores. Furthermore, carbohydrate intake helps maintain blood sugar levels during exercise and counters rising cortisol levels.
Carbohydrate supplements include sports drinks, sports bars or ready-to-mix powder preparations. These supplements often contain other nutrients, such as caffeine, protein or electrolytes. Of course, a supplement isn’t always necessary; a serving of fruit or fruit juice contains sugars that are quickly absorbed, and are not as processed as supplement alternatives. Include a carbohydrate snack or supplement with your next time you train with high intensity, whether it is strength training or endurance exercise.
- IOC Consensus Statement: Dietary Supplements and the High-Performance Athlete. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2018 Mar 1;28(2):104-125
- International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and performance. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2010; 7: 5.
- International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017; 14: 20.
- Dietary Protein for Training Adaptation and Body Composition Manipulation in Track and Field Athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab . 2019 Mar 1;29(2):165-174.
- Higher compared with lower dietary protein during an energy deficit combined with intense exercise promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss: a randomized trial. Am J Clin Nutr . 2016 Mar;103(3):738-46.
- A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. Br J Sports Med . 2018 Mar;52(6):376-384.
- Dietary Supplements for Health, Adaptation, and Recovery in Athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab . 2018 Mar 1;28(2):188-199.
- Evidence-Based Supplements for the Enhancement of Athletic Performance. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2018 Mar 1;28(2):178-187.
- International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017; 14: 33.
- Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institute of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements.
- International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr . 2017 Jun 13;14:18.