How to Become an Expert at Choosing the Best Workout Supplements
As an emerging elite athlete, bodybuilder or weekend warrior, you’re constantly looking for ways to improve your game. You are hoping that you can find the best workout supplements possible to help you progress.
Maybe you can get a step faster, a few pounds heavier or lighter, jump a bit higher, or even make it through that third grueling workout of the day. And believe me—the sports supplements industry knows this
They take full advantage of your emotional investment in your sport and sell, sell, sell—often with little regard for the rules and regulations.
And yes, often their products work. But some of these things are definitely not good for you while others are completely fine.
In the world of elite sports, everyone is the best at what they do, and that extra 1% really does make a difference. However, the penalty for a positive drug test can ban you from competition for years, whether you meant to dope or not.
So how can one navigate this complicated minefield and keep from getting blown up? Here are some tips to help you do so:
A small note: supplement use in elite sport is something highly monitored and measured, and in no way should you take what I say here as permission to take something that could put you in jeopardy. This is meant to serve as an informative guide so you can better navigate the waters on your own. No matter who advises you, always, ALWAYS do your research, stay informed, and triple check with the authorities.
STEP ONE: Make sure you really do need workout supplements.
Sometimes the best workout supplements are not supplements at all. Nine times out of ten, we can receive the benefit of workout supplements from “real” food such as lean meats, fibrous vegetables, good fats, whole grains, etc.
Sure, supplements are easier. You don’t have to cook them, most of the time they’re flavorless, and they provide a quick fix of nutrition.
But trust me: your body wants real food, not chemicals. Assess your diet first and foremost to see if you can get what you’re looking for by changing the way you eat.
For example, if you’re feeling less energized, you may need to eat more carbs full of B-vitamins. If you’re not recovering well, make sure you’re getting a carb and protein drink immediately following training as well as enough good fats in your diet.
Don’t be fooled by the marketing (or the fact that your buddy Adam from class put on 10 lbs of muscle in a week by taking something you can’t even pronounce). Get your bloodwork done and consult with a doctor to see what you’re really lacking. Chances are, there’s a food for it.
And guess what? You’re not going to test positive for eating broccoli. (See the end of this article for a list of common issues and dietary fixes.)
STEP TWO: Read, know, and understand your sports guidelines supplement use.
If you’re an international or collegiate athlete, you’ve likely been through enough antidoping training that you could teach the class yourself.
But even aspiring Olympians and up and coming collegiate stars can never be too careful. If you’re on the cusp, are a recruit, or plan to play elite sports in the future, get educated now.
Check the prohibited list for WADA, CADP, USADA, NCAA, or whatever organization your sport falls under. Before you buy anything or ingest a supplement, read the label and check for any prohibited substances. There’s even an app for that. The best workout supplements are usually on lists like these for a reason. Check your prohibited lists!
Every sport is different, so be sure to double check with your governing body as well as the specific competition. The rules for a domestic friendly match might not be the same as the rules for a World Cup, and things are constantly changing. So, stay up to date.
Also, know whether or not you’re required to report your whereabouts to WADA, because just messing that up can cause big issues. (Oh yeah, and there’s an app for that too.)
STEP THREE: Only take something that is third party tested and certified.
By third party, I don’t mean your third friend. I mean a nationally recognized and accredited organization that specializes in testing substances AND has zero investment in the parent company of the supplement. Sometimes the supplement you’re taking doesn’t have anything prohibited in it, but it can be hard to guarantee that it wasn’t manufactured in the same place as something that IS prohibited. This scenario could result in cross contamination.
It’s the same reason they add the label “may contain traces of nuts” on items that have no nuts in them. If the item was manufactured at a peanut plant, it’s possible that traces of nuts could contaminate other products—which could kill someone with a severe nut allergy.
There is a company that solves this problem called the National Sanitation Foundation.
NSF International is a great third party organization that has an extensive list of Sports Supplements that are certified to be clean. If you’re looking to get protein, creatine, fish oil, etc., I’d start with that list and go from there.
STEP FOUR: Conquer The World by Eating Right
Look, I don’t mean to scare you away from supplements. They can definitely help, but only if you’re already doing everything else right.
The best workout supplements are just the icing on the cake. There’s no use in adding icing to a cake without an actual cake underneath it. Sure, the icing tastes good, but if you have to choose between an iced cake or just icing for your birthday party… chances are the whole cake will win.
That’s how it will be in competition—when it comes down to two athletes with equal skill, size, speed and strength, the athlete who has complete control of his or her diet will beat the one who just took a pill and hoped for the best.
Now, let’s get to the good stuff that can actually help the top 1% of you who are doing everything right (congrats for making it here, by the way).
The Best Workout Supplements That are Actually Effective
Athletes typically need more protein than your average Joe, and it can sometimes be difficult to get this through whole foods because of satiety.
- Whey protein is best, but you can also use beef protein, casein protein, rice protein, egg protein, or soy. An extra 20g during your snacks will do the trick.
Eating large quantities of fish increases your risk of consuming environmental pollutants, and it can also be a struggle because it makes you full. However, it is extremely important for recovery. To get more information where you can get fish oil and food containing healthy fats read Omega 3 Foods.
- 2 – 3 g of omega-3 rich fish oils per day should be good, and maybe more during high training periods.
This is critical to post exercise recovery from high-intensity sessions or games. The faster you recover, the better you become.
- Do 2:1 or 3:1 carb to protein ratio (skim milk is a good choice here).
Recommendation: BioSteel Advanced Recovery Formula – 3lbs (3lb, Chocolate)
If you participate in any kind of repeated high intensity training (like most team sports, especially rugby, soccer, hockey, etc. as well as cycling, wrestling, middle distance running, and more), you’re going to accumulate lots of hydrogen ions in your muscles (acidity) during exercise.
Your body does its job naturally to move this out of the cells, but sometimes it can’t keep up with how awesome you are. This is where beta alanine supplementation can come in handy. It can help buffer those ions out of the muscle cells so you don’t feel as fatigued and can keep up the high-intensity work for longer.
- Usually, you have to take these a few times per day for a couple of weeks to let it build up in your system.
Recommendation: Thorne Research Beta Alanine NSF Certified
It does the same thing as beta alanine essentially, but can be cheaper and doesn’t require a “dosing” stage.
- Take sodium bicarbonate (Baking Soda) with water about an hour before high-intensity training to reap it’s benefits.
Recommendation: Arm & Hammer Baking Soda – 16 oz
Branch Chain Amino Acids:
Short for branched chain amino acids, these can be used to replenish energy, help restore glucose levels, fatty acid, muscle tissue, aid immune function, and more.
Basically, they help you recover from the intense stress of training.
- Take during/immediately after a workout.
Recommendation: True Athlete BCAA 4:1:1 6.35 oz Powder
Greens are high in antioxidants, full of vitamins and minerals, and help maintain your alkalinity to balance training/diet acidity. Greens supplements are also a great option to get your “veggies” when traveling, as it can be difficult to pack asparagus, cabbage, and an entire pumpkin in your suitcase.
Recommendation: Genuine Health Greens+ Original
Taking one is sort of a fail safe for deficiencies. This is where getting your blood work checked would come in handy. A multivitamin doesn’t replace vitamins from real foods fills gaps if you’re traveling or otherwise struggling to get enough nutrients.
It helps regenerate ATP (energy) during quick, powerful movements, such as heavy lifting or short sprinting. Creatine requires a loading phase, so be careful with the amount you take. There’s no need to go more than
- 5g per day to get benefits.
Recommendation:Thorne Research – Creatine – NSF Certified for Sport – 16 oz
A crucial part of good recovery is falling and stay asleep, which is what melatonin helps with.
- Take 13 mg of melatonin before sleep to help, but note it may cause drowsiness in the morning.
Some Common Issues and Dietary Fixes:
- Vitamin D
- Whole grains
- Mixed nuts
- Black beans
- Cottage cheese
- Egg yolk
Lack of Energy:
- Vitamin A,
- Vitamin B2
- Vitamin B3
- Vitamin B5
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B7
- Vitamin B9
- Vitamin B12… really all the B vitamins.
- Green leafy veggies
- Peanut butter
- Sunflower seeds
- Red/yellow peppers
Want to see what more reasons to be eating these foods? Check out this Vegetable Nutrients Chart.
What You Have: High difficulty/acidity buffering out acids during exercise
Eat: Baking soda. Yep. Or make your diet more alkaline.
What Type: Trouble falling/staying asleep, changing time zones
Eat: Tart cherry juice and avoid blue light before bedtime. TCJ has naturally occurring melatonin (and great antioxidants) to help your body’s natural production when circadian rhythms are off.
Additionally, making your environment as dark as possible when it’s time to sleep naturally triggers the pineal gland to produce this hormone.
Need to Put on Mass:
Need: More calories from
- Lean meats
- Healthy fats
- Whole grains
- Whole milk
- Lean beef
- Brown rice
- Full fat cottage cheese
- Mixed nuts
Looking to Maintain/Lose Body Fat:
What You Need: Better calorie management.
Eat: More filling, calorie dense foods such as
- Fibrous fruits and vegetables
- Lean meats
- Lots of water
Precision Nutrition Guidelines for Gaining/Maintaining/Lossing Mass:
What You Need: To learn your
- Body type
- Caloric needs
- Macronutrient needs
From Precision Nutrition:
Heavy Training Days
- Weight gain calories/day: 20-22 times body weight
- Maintenance calories/day: 16-18 times body weight
- Weight loss calories/day: 14-16 times body weight
Light Training Days
- Weight gain calories/day: 18-20 times body weight
- Maintenance calories/day: 14-16 times body weight
- Weight loss calories/day: 12-14 times body weight
- Ectomorphs (naturally thin with skinny limbs): 25% protein, 55% carbohydrate, 20% fat
- Mesomorphs (naturally muscular/athletic): 30% protein, 40% carbohydrate, 30% fat
- Endomorphs (naturally broad and thick): 35% protein, 25% carbohydrate, 40% fat
I hope you have a better understanding of sports supplement usage at this point. Get your food figured out then take a look at high quality supplementation to give yourself that last little bit of benefit. If you liked this article please share or send me a comment. The more feedback we get, the more we can improve for you!