This is the final chapter in my five-part guide on nutrition for fat loss and muscle growth. You can read the introduction (which gives important context) and download the full PDF version of the nutrition setup guide here.
Last Updated: 20th March, 2020
Supplements can benefit a good nutrition plan, but they cannot make up for a poor one.
Supplements are not needed to transform your physique and in many cases constitute an unnecessary expense.
Very few supplements have a robust base of evidence showing benefits to physique and performance. Those that do have a modest effect.
If I had a magic wand and could erase the effects that supplements have had on top-level drug-free physique competitors and powerlifters, I highly doubt there would be much of a visible physical difference and whether the world-records would be much different.
I know that may seem like a strong statement, but let it sink in if you’re coming to this chapter hoping for a cure to your physique and strength woes.
Sure, marketing messages (and even friends) will tell you endlessly how supplement X, Y, or Z is amazing, but this is just market forces + exaggeration + the placebo effect.
Even so, it is important to understand that a good part of the reason we’re bombarded with marketing messages about supplements with bold claims is an issue with the interpretation of scientific research. It explains why cold baths, antioxidant megadosing (usually via Vit. C, HMB), and all kinds of supplements have hit the scene hard and died a slow death. So bear with me a moment while I explain that.
Why We Have An Endless Supplement Hype Cycle
When a new supplement is studied, it is usually for the acute (short-term) effects. A supplement may increase the performance of a training session directly, or we may think it beneficial indirectly, via mechanisms impacting fat loss, muscle growth, or performance.
If acute research is consistently positive, then longer-term studies will be conducted to see whether it leads to a better outcome.
But just because something has an acute effect does not necessarily mean it will improve long-term training outcomes. This is the case, more often than not.
People desperately want supplements to work and supplement makers want any shred of evidence they can get to support their marketing messages. So new supplements hit the scene quickly, with spectacular hype, far before there is sufficient evidence to support them.
Unfortunately, once released, the rumor fairy is out there and has sprinkled her dirty little fairy dust, affecting people’s minds far and wide. This is tremendously difficult to clean up when subsequent studies show them to not have any real-world beneficial effects. And, it is often a very long time before demand drops and these supplements are removed from shelves.
Even high-end performance coaches are not immune to the pressure of the hype cycle if they want to claim to be “cutting-edge.” But anyone who has been in the game long enough should know better by having witnessed so many promising supplements come and go over the years.
Some Recent Examples of Supplements (or Recovery modalities) that Rode the Hype-Die Cycle
In 2009, D-Aspartic acid was shown to acutely increase testosterone levels to an impressive degree. It was quickly touted as a muscle builder, libido enhancer, and performance enhancer and the fitness community lapped it up. But subsequent studies from other labs found it to actually have a negative effect.
Antioxidants (usually vitamin C doses) have been shown to increase recovery by decreasing oxidative stress. However, while this means weekly training volume can be pushed higher, it decreases anabolic signaling which impacts muscle growth.
Ice and cold baths are a similar story, improving recovery between training sessions, but at the cost of training adaptations. Same again with NSAIDs like ibuprofen, and aspirin.
So, I would suggest you hold off on taking anything before there is long-term research from multiple different research labs showing benefit.
With this in mind, I’ll make recommendations of supplements that may be worth considering (and those that aren’t) in both the physique and performance, and health benefit categories.
The Best Supplements For Muscle Growth and Performance
I’m going to label the supplements as either A, C, or S.
- ‘A’ means always advisable.
- ‘C’ means conditionally relevant, less evidence to support it, or both.
- ‘S’ means a waste of money.
PROTEIN POWDER (A)
I don’t really think of protein powders as supplements, more powdered food. They are convenient, macro-friendly, and offer a low cost per gram when bought in bulk.
I recommend whey protein, as it has the highest quality amino acid profile. (If you are vegan or you don’t like whey, a 70:30 mix of pea and rice protein closely mimics the amino acid profile.)
There is a scam in the protein powder industry called “amino spiking.” This is where manufacturers dump cheap ingredients into their powders so that they can pass tests to claim a higher protein content than they truly have.
To check the quality of your powder, look for the following:
- 11% of whey protein content should be leucine. So you should see ~2.75 g per 25 g of protein.
- 25% of whey protein should be BCAAs. So we should see ~6.25 g per 25 g of protein.
If these things are not listed, I would choose another brand. More in my article: How to Avoid Protein Powder Scams
CREATINE MONOHYDRATE (A)
Creatine is naturally produced in the human body from the amino acids glycine, methionine, and arginine, and is used in the phosphocreatine energy system which helps power the first ~10 seconds of activity. Supplemental creatine thus aids your ability to perform strength and power-based activities, and reliably results in increased strength, power, and muscle mass when used chronically.
Of all the supplements claiming to improve performance out there, creatine is one of only two with vast amounts of research showing benefits. Creatine monohydrate is the most tested, affordable, and effective of all the variants. It is also the cheapest.
Take 5 g per day, every day, at any time of day, but not with caffeine as there may be an interference-effect. So, if you train in the morning, I’d take your creatine in the afternoon or evening.
You do not need to cycle on and off creatine.
There is a ton of research behind its effectiveness for improving resistance-training performance, including strength and muscular endurance. However, there is still a lack of long-term research on whether this is beneficial, which is why I give it an A minus.
I think long-term studies will show this to be beneficial because, in contrast to the research on NSAIDs, antioxidants, cold baths, and D-Aspartic acid, caffeine directly affects performance because it works by reducing perceptions of fatigue (among other things.)
Caffeine is cheap and I don’t see any downsides as long as you do not take it in a way that it impacts your sleep. (Avoiding the late afternoon and evening is the best bet for the majority of people; a minority metabolize it more slowly and may need to reduce their dosing or avoid intake even earlier than this.
I buy it in 200 mg tabs. Take 1.8–2.7 mg/lb (4-6 mg/kg) approximately 60 minutes before training.
Note that pre-workout supplements are popular, but it is caffeine that drives 90% of the acute effects. Most use low doses of lesser proven supplements piggybacked with caffeine, so it’s better to just purchase caffeine on its own in my opinion.
Beta-alanine can be thought of as the muscular endurance version of creatine monohydrate. If you think of creatine for power, strength, and hypertrophy, think of beta-alanine for longer anaerobic performances of ~0.5–10 minutes.
This sounds great, but it only has a small performance-enhancing effect. Some of your training sets may be over 30 seconds long, but whether this will make a meaningful difference is hard to say. Those who do longer activity bursts (like Crossfit athletes, perhaps) might consider it if it’s in their budget.
For what it’s worth, I don’t bother taking it.
Citrulline may aid performance by increasing blood flow to working muscles through an increase in nitric oxide (a vasodilator), and by helping to clear ammonia (a marker of muscle fatigue).
I’m currently of the opinion that the evidence slightly leans in favor of its efficacy, as one of the studies showing null effects is under-dosed. Also, I’ve seen no indication of any potential harmful effect on performance, so if you have the budget, feel free to take it.
In studies showing an effect, 8 g is consumed ~60 minutes prior to training.
For what it’s worth, I don’t bother taking it.
BCAAS AND EAAS (C-)
If your daily protein intake is already high enough BCAAs are unlikely to benefit you. If your daily protein intake isn’t high enough, the answer is to take more protein, not just EAAs or BCAAs. A whey shake prior to training fasted is more effective than either EAAs or BCAAs in my opinion.
Verdict: A waste of money.
Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the body. It is non-essential, which means the body can produce it, we do not need to get it from our diet. It has been a popular supplement in the bodybuilding and fitness community but there is no evidence that supplementary glutamine improves body composition or performance.
At best, there is a theoretical argument that glutamine could possibly aid in gastrointestinal health among physique competitors during contest preparation, although this is speculative at best.
Verdict: A waste of money.
HMB — (S)
A metabolite of leucine, β-hydroxy-β-methylbutyrate (HMB), has been investigated for over two decades for improving resistance training performance and increasing lean body mass via a reduction in muscle protein breakdown.
The only research showing benefits to HMB supplementation was funded by a company that sells it, and the data have been called into serious question in three separate letters to the editor — for transparency, my co-author Eric was among the 17 authors of one of these letters.
Verdict: A waste of money.
Avoid Proprietary Blends
Make sure you never choose a supplement that hides the exact amount of individual ingredients listed by calling it a “proprietary blend.” This is a common trick used to make people believe a product is special, where it just allows them to under-dose the expensive ingredients (which usually means the beneficial ones) to boost profits.
Supplements Worth Considering for Health
As “general health” is outside the scope of my professional capacity, I will purposefully limit myself to three specific supplements that have an abundance of evidence that I think are worth considering.
Before taking anything, I would recommend getting blood work done to ensure you aren’t potentially providing micronutrients in excess or neglecting an unknown deficiency.
For anything you are interested in that is not listed, check out Examine.com, which is an excellent and unbiased resource on supplements. Beware the bullshit on the internet when you search for things elsewhere!
A Daily Multivitamin & Mineral (A)
Multivitamin use appears safe and may give a small protective health benefit to long-term users.
If taking one corrects a deficiency, it could have a significant impact:
- Zinc deficiencies can negatively impact your metabolism
- Iron deficiencies can negatively impact strength
- Calcium deficiencies can negatively impact bone health
A regular one-a-day multivitamin is worth considering but avoid the types of multivitamins that come in giant bags. If you’re having to swallow down multiple pills, it’s probably overdosed, which could have negative consequences.
Essential Fatty Acids (EPA and DHA), Commonly Found In Fish Oil (C)
The range of 1–2 g of combined EPA and DHA covers the bases for achieving the vast majority of health benefits shown in research (reducing symptoms of depression, decreases the risk of cardiac death, decreases blood pressure, and decreases in waist circumference).
If you don’t eat fish or don’t like taking fish oil, you can also get EPA and DHA from an algae supplement, which is what the fish eat that gives them the EPA and DHA that we are looking for.
Just be careful when choosing your supplement as some are much lower quality than others. Just as 100 g of protein powder is not 100% protein, 1 g of fish oil is not 1 g of combined EPA and DHA and the quantities vary wildly.
Vitamin D3 (C)
If sun exposure is lacking, dietary sources of Vitamin D become increasingly important for health (and performance).
Severe deficiency can cause osteoporosis, and can be a contributing risk factor for cancer, hypertension, and a number of autoimmune diseases. Correcting a deficiency may improve immune function and reduce your chance of illness, but it’s unclear as to whether vitamin D directly benefits resistance training.
Vitamin D3 is the form best absorbed by the body and recommendations for insufficient athletes are between 20-80 IU/kg taken daily.
You could also just try to get some more sun, but unfortunately, sunlight through a window doesn’t provide you with vitamin D. Beware that during winter months, depending on your climate, Vitamin D dosing strategies may need to change or cease altogether.
Summary of Supplement Guidelines
New supplements come along all the time, and as you can see, exceptionally few have stood the test of time.
If there’s something you have heard of for performance that isn’t mentioned here, consider my exclusion of it as a silent hat tip to it not being effective.
Table of Performance and Health Supplements And Their Doses
|Beneficial||Conditionally beneficial||Don’t Bother|
|Whey Protein||✅ 25 g ~30 min. before fasted training|
|Creatine Monohydrate||✅ 5 g/day|
|Caffeine||✅ 200–600 mg ~60 min. before training|
|Beta-Alanine||3–4 g/day. (Unlikely to benefit powerlifters or bodybuilders.)|
|Citrulline-Malate||8 g ~60 min. before training.|
|BCAAs & EAAs||❌|
|Multivitamins||✅ A regular one-a-day multi.|
|EPA & DHA||1–2 g combined (Unnecessary if eating fatty fish 2x/week+)|
|Vitamin D3||9–36 IU/lb (20–80 IU/kg) is the typical daily dose if 25(OH)D < 75 nmol/L (30 ng/ml).|
Thank you for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments.