Your Guide to Supplements – Part 1

Posted: December 31, 2011 in Guides, Supplements
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Supplements are oh so exciting – the idea that we can outperform our natural capacity is very tempting.  Many are more tempted by the thought that perhaps we can get more by doing less via supplementation.  What experience tells is that supplements can work, but many do not.  I’ll tell you first hand that there is a seemingly infinite supply of supplements and just about all of them seem indispensable if you are to believe the label.  Let’s go ahead and break this down bit by bit.


If you haven’t read Everything You Need to Know About Your Diet or don’t at least have expert guidance from a dietician, you’re going to be spinning your wheels here.  Men’s Health, your family physician, or some guy with a six pack are not the sources to get accurate nutrition information.  There’s a reason in my posting “categories,” supplementation is a subheading of nutrition.  Supplements add to a solid diet.  Supplements are an addition.  Addition to what?  Your diet.  If your diet is worthless, then you’re adding to nothing and I think we all understand math here.  This is very repetitive because it’s very important: you’ll never know a good supplement from a bad one if you don’t have a nutritional base.

Moreover, make sure you’re on a solid weight lifting/training program.  In all likelihood, if you are going in there without a predetermined plan and more specifically a workout created by an experienced or professional weight lifter, you need to get on a workout program.  It’s highly unlikely you’re going to be able to periodize, balance, etc. right off the cuff in the gym.  Check out 5/3/1, Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, or just search around the workout program forum – there are plenty of good ideas.  Again, you can’t put your good nutrition to use if you aren’t working your body correctly.  If you’re doing a bogus workout, you’re not going to know if you’re getting an extra rep, extra 5 pounds, or a quicker recovery from your supplement.

If you’re a beginner, and I intend to make this blog very beginner-friendly, I would suggest spending several months at the least making sure you can conquer your diet and get used to a solid training program before starting to use supplements.  You should think of many of them as “plateau busters,” something to push you through once your results start to slow down.  If you never got results in the first place, that means your diet/workout is the issue and we need to start there.


You walk into a supplement store and look around.  On one hand, the possibilities seem almost endless – look at all the product available to help you reach your goals.  On the other hand, what is this stuff?  Every product wants to distinguish itself from others that use the same ingredient or just others in general.  You have nothing to rely on but what the “science” on the tub’s label, what the salesman in store says, or whatever that guy at the gym says is worthwhile.  I’m going to talk about each of these sources and why you need to make it your responsibility to decide what you put in your body and where you spend your hard-earned cash.

The label will probably mislead you more than anything.  You’re going to hear words like “anabolic” and then see percentage increases of strength or the number of pounds of fat you’ll lose.  Trust me, if the label claims were accurate, there would be a ton of ripped men and women walking around.  Instead, look at the people in the supplement store – a huge portion of the customers are simply those not willing to put in the work and are looking for a shortcut.  So how to make sense of labels?  First of all, all you care about is the “supplement facts” part of the label.  You want to know what it is that is supposedly making this stuff work – in the case of proteins, you want to know the nutrition and whether it is simply protein or a “gainer” loaded with extra calories.  If you aren’t familiar with the ingredient(s), don’t purchase the product.

And like I said, don’t ask the salesman, guy at the gym, etc. and just take their word for it to find out if something is good.  A person that doesn’t waste their money is a person that demands peer-reviewed scientific evidence that an ingredient is effective.  I don’t expect you to become a chemist, but at least learn what PubMed is and give an ingredients some searching there and perhaps google if necessary and see what you can gather.  Authorities like Alan Aragon, pogue, and others that you may find can become reliable sources to help you interpret when your understanding/time doesn’t allow.  I’ve found that there are forum members in this category too, but there are so many more that are just complete morons – seriously.

Labels will often contain information that seems to be scientific. It isn’t!  Straight up, just don’t take information from supplement labels.  You can’t always even trust what they tell you is in it, there have been big problems with spiked/underdosed supplements in the past.  This is getting less frequent though, and the FDA is cracking down.  Nonetheless, do a little homework on companies.  Look for GMP certification, though that isn’t foolproof either.  When it comes to supplement buying, sometimes you never know.  It can always help to ask for a COA from the company, if you’re skeptical.

A quick word about salesmen.  While most of what you hear about salesmen is in reference to a particular company, I find them to be bad at the same rate across companies.  For these purposes, I’ll paint with a broad brush.  Be skeptical of what any salesman tells you: these people are only as trained as you are (and honestly, less so).  Many stores also offer commission to employees at higher rates depending on brand, so they do have a competing interest.  Moreover, it is in their best interest to get as many supplements in your hands as possible.  I suggest that you not ask for any assistance from them if you must shop at stores (more on that later).

Finally, that guy at the gym.  Hey, he’s probably huge and lifting twice as much weight as you.  Maybe, he’s just got that six pack you’ve been looking for.  I’ll first quote pogue’s slightly dated (especially when it comes to multivitamins, but again more on that later) Beginner’s Guide to Supplements:

My friend takes Supplement XYZ that you have as not recommended and it works great for him. What’s the deal?

There are different quality supplements that can have varying amounts or quality of ingredients (even if it says so on the label). Some supplements may work for one person, due to the quality of the compound in the supplement, while it may not work for another because they used a different brand, or didn’t use a similar dosage. That person could also simply be experiencing a placebo effect. Also, there are some unscrupulous individuals who are either paid by the supplement company or given free supplements for a positive review, either online or in retail outlets. Do your own research and make up your own mind.

Emphasis Added by noexcusesstrength

Just realize that when someone thinks that something is working, it may not actually be doing anything.  Placebo is a powerful thing, even the most experienced lifters struggle with determining whether effects are real or just perceived.  Realize that some people may even want others to use the same supplements to validate the purchases they made – misery needs company, you know.  The fact that a guy has gotten stronger, bigger, leaner, or whatever else is not proof that his supplements are working (it’s not even proof that his routine is great, his nutrition is great, etc.).  You and likely the person in question do not know exactly what parts of your fitness lives are causing the results to happen.  A good routine and nutrition make gains happen, so don’t think just because you or someone got stronger that the supplementation protocol was good/responsible.

What supplements work?  Which ones don’t?  Read Part 2.


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