When it comes to achieving your fitness goals, proper nutrition and exercise are essential. However, sometimes you may find yourself hitting a plateau or struggling to recover after intense workouts. This is where fitness supplements can play a crucial role in helping you boost your gains and optimise your performance. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the world of fitness supplements, including what they are, how they work, and which ones might be right for you.
Understanding Fitness Supplements
Fitness supplements are products that contain various nutrients, vitamins, minerals, herbs, or other compounds designed to support your fitness and health goals. They are not meant to replace a balanced diet but rather to complement it, filling in any nutritional gaps and addressing specific fitness-related needs. There are numerous types of fitness supplements available, many with their own unique benefits, as well as those which should probably be avoided.
Supplements You Should Consider Taking
Several fitness supplements have strong scientific evidence backing their effectiveness and safety for various fitness and health goals. These supplements can be valuable additions to your fitness regimen when used appropriately. Here are some of the main supplements that are backed by scientific evidence and that you should consider taking.
Protein supplements provide an additional source of protein to help support muscle growth, repair, and overall health. The most commonly consumed protein supplement is whey protein which contains all essential amino acids and is one of the highest quality sources of protein available. Whey protein is rapidly absorbed by the body, making it an excellent source of protein to support post-workout recovery. Along with whey protein, casein protein is derived from milk and is another very high quality protein source. However, casein protein is digested slowly, making it a good option for providing a sustained release of amino acids. It is often taken before bedtime to support overnight muscle recovery. There are also plant-based protein sources such as pea, rice, soy, hemp, and others which are suitable for vegetarians, vegans, or those with dairy allergies. Plant-based proteins have significantly improved in taste and quality over the years, with some sources now being comparable to whey and casein protein (Lynch et al., 2020).
Protein supplements come with numerous benefits including the support of muscle growth and recovery, they are a convenient method of hitting your protein targets, they allow for optimal timing of protein consumption both after a workout and throughout the day, and they can help with weight management and fat loss.
Creatine is a naturally occurring compound found in small amounts in certain foods and is also synthesised by the body. It plays a crucial role in the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the primary energy currency of cells. Creatine is stored in muscles and used during short bursts of high-intensity activities like weightlifting, sprinting, and jumping, making it a crucial energy source when training at the gym.
Creatine supplementation is well-known for its ability to improve short-term, high-intensity athletic performance. It does this by increasing the body’s phosphocreatine stores, which can then be rapidly converted into ATP, providing a quick source of energy for explosive movements. Some of the benefits of creatine supplementation include improved muscle strength, hypertrophy, anaerobic endurance, exercise recovery, and even brain function (Wu et al., 2022).
Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring amino acid that, when supplemented, can help to improve endurance and reduce muscle fatigue during high-intensity activities. Beta-alanine works by increasing the concentration of carnosine in muscles, which acts as a buffer, helping to neutralise the effects of lactic acid. By increasing carnosine levels in muscles, beta-alanine supplementation can delay the onset of muscle fatigue, allowing you to perform better during intense workouts. Supplementing with beta-alanine may offer several benefits including improved exercise performance, increased anaerobic endurance, reduced muscle fatigue, enhanced cardiovascular fitness, increased time to exhaustion, and even some possible antioxidant properties (Huerta Ojeda et al., 2020).
Pre-workout supplements are designed to enhance physical and mental performance during exercise, particularly in the gym. They typically come in the form of a powdered drink mix or a pill and are consumed shortly before a workout. These supplements contain various ingredients, including stimulants, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, with the goal of boosting energy, focus, and overall exercise performance.
Caffeine is a primary ingredient in pre-workout supplements which provides many benefits including increased alertness, reduced perceived effort, enhanced endurance, and the promotion of adrenaline release which prepares the body for physical exertion. Other common ingredients found in pre-workout supplements include nootropics which boost cognitive function, beta-alanine which increases endurance, creatine which increases muscle strength and power, and taurine which may help increase energy levels (Kaczka et al., 2020).
It’s worth noting that individual responses to pre-workouts and caffeine can vary, and there is an upper limit to the benefits. Excessive intake can lead to side effects like jitteriness, increased heart rate, anxiety, and digestive issues. It’s essential to find the right dosage for your body and goals, and if necessary to consult a healthcare professional or sports nutritionist for additional guidance before incorporating this into your routine.
Supplements to Approach with Caution
While many fitness supplements have established benefits supported by scientific evidence, some supplements lack substantial support and may not provide the claimed advantages. It’s essential to exercise caution when considering the use of supplements with limited scientific backing, as they may not only be ineffective but could also pose potential health risks. Here are some supplements with little supporting evidence that should be approached with caution or avoided.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) are a group of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They have been promoted as supplements to support muscle growth, reduce muscle soreness, and improve exercise performance. While BCAAs are not necessarily harmful, it is likely that for many people they are probably a waste of money. BCAAs are naturally present in many protein-rich foods, including meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, and plant-based sources like legumes, nuts, and grains. Most people who consume a balanced diet get an adequate amount of BCAAs through food alone. BCAAs are also present in protein supplements such as whey, casein, and plant-based protein supplements, and the full spectrum of essential amino acids contained within these supplements make them the superior option to BCAAs (Martinho et al., 2022).
Testosterone booster supplements are products marketed to increase the levels of testosterone in the body. While some individuals may seek to enhance their testosterone levels for various reasons, it’s important to note that the effectiveness and safety of many testosterone booster supplements are questionable. Common testosterone booster supplements include zinc, ashwagandha, fenugreek, DHEA, vitamin D, and many more. Whilst the scientific findings for some of these supplements is promising, many testosterone booster supplements lack robust evidence supporting their claims of significantly increasing testosterone levels, with the results from available studies often being mixed and inconclusive (Balasubramanian et al., 2019). Additionally, some testosterone booster supplements may carry health risks and side effects, including cardiovascular problems, liver toxicity, mood swings, aggression, and even a potential risk of dependency.
Fat burner supplements, also known as weight loss supplements, work by increasing an individual’s energy expenditure and blood pressure through the use of ingredients such as caffeine, which may eventually lead to weight loss over time. However, many fat burner supplements lack substantial scientific evidence to support their claims. While some ingredients may have a modest impact on weight loss, the overall effectiveness is often limited, especially when compared to lifestyle changes like diet and exercise (Clark et al., 2021). Furthermore, the safety of these supplements is a subject of concern, especially when taken in high doses or in combination with other stimulants. Possible side effects of fat burners include increased heart rate, high blood pressure, digestive issues, insomnia, jitteriness, and anxiety.
Glutamine is a non-essential amino acid, meaning that the body can produce it on its own, and it is also obtained through dietary sources. It plays several essential roles in the body, such as serving as a building block for proteins and supporting various physiological functions.
Glutamine is sometimes used as a dietary supplement, however it is likely that supplementing with glutamine may be a waste of money for several reasons. Firstly, glutamine is readily available in many protein-rich foods making supplementation largely unnecessary for individuals with a balanced diet. Additionally, the direct impact of glutamine on muscle growth is relatively modest compared to other amino acids, like leucine, found in complete protein sources. The effectiveness of glutamine supplements can also vary significantly from person to person, with some individuals experiencing minor benefits in terms of muscle recovery, while others notice no discernible difference. This inconsistency in response makes it difficult to predict who will benefit from supplementation. Moreover, the scientific evidence supporting the benefits of glutamine supplementation is mixed and less robust compared to other supplements or dietary strategies (Ahmadi et al., 2019).
Take Home Message
Fitness supplements can be valuable tools in your fitness journey, helping you to achieve your goals more efficiently. However, they should be viewed as supplements to a well-rounded diet and fitness program, not replacements. By understanding your specific needs and consulting with professionals, you can make informed choices and boost your gains while safeguarding your health and well-being. Always remember that a holistic approach to fitness, combining proper nutrition, exercise, and adequate rest, remains the foundation of long-term success.
Lynch, H.M., Buman, M.P., Dickinson, J.M., Ransdell, L.B., Johnston, C.S. and Wharton, C.M., 2020. No significant differences in muscle growth and strength development when consuming soy and whey protein supplements matched for leucine following a 12 week resistance training program in men and women: a randomized trial. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(11), p.3871.
Wu, S.H., Chen, K.L., Hsu, C., Chen, H.C., Chen, J.Y., Yu, S.Y. and Shiu, Y.J., 2022. Creatine supplementation for muscle growth: a scoping review of randomized clinical trials from 2012 to 2021. Nutrients, 14(6), p.1255.
Huerta Ojeda, A., Tapia Cerda, C., Poblete Salvatierra, M.F., Barahona-Fuentes, G. and Jorquera Aguilera, C., 2020. Effects of beta-alanine supplementation on physical performance in aerobic–anaerobic transition zones: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrients, 12(9), p.2490.
Kaczka, P., Batra, A., Kubicka, K., Maciejczyk, M., Rzeszutko-Bełzowska, A., Pezdan-Śliż, I., Michałowska-Sawczyn, M., Przydział, M., Płonka, A., Cięszczyk, P. and Humińska-Lisowska, K., 2020. Effects of pre-workout multi-ingredient supplement on anaerobic performance: randomized double-blind crossover study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(21), p.8262.
Martinho, D.V., Nobari, H., Faria, A., Field, A., Duarte, D. and Sarmento, H., 2022. Oral branched-chain amino acids supplementation in athletes: A systematic review. Nutrients, 14(19), p.4002.
Balasubramanian, A., Thirumavalavan, N., Srivatsav, A., Yu, J., Lipshultz, L.I. and Pastuszak, A.W., 2019. Testosterone imposters: An analysis of popular online testosterone boosting supplements. The journal of sexual medicine, 16(2), pp.203-212.
Clark, J.E. and Welch, S., 2021. Comparing effectiveness of fat burners and thermogenic supplements to diet and exercise for weight loss and cardiometabolic health: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition and health, 27(4), pp.445-459.
Ahmadi, A.R., Rayyani, E., Bahreini, M. and Mansoori, A., 2019. The effect of glutamine supplementation on athletic performance, body composition, and immune function: A systematic review and a meta-analysis of clinical trials. Clinical nutrition, 38(3), pp.1076-1091.