Your Guide to Supplements – Part 2

Posted: January 4, 2012 in Guides, Supplements
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

If you haven’t read Part 1, start there.

Reminder that this will be a fluid list – I will add things I’ve left out and update as more information becomes available. 

Moving on – I’ve left you knowing that supplements are FAR lower on the list of priorities than things like your diet and workout program.  I’ve also let you with some knowledge of where to get your info and where NOT to get your info.  Now I’m going to give you what you probably were looking for in the first place: supplements that you CAN take.  I say can because I can never say you SHOULD take supplements, they simply are not needed.

I’m going to break this down by categories first.  I’m not going to talk specific products here, and only touch on particular ingredients.  Eventually, I will write individual articles on each category and link them here.


PROTEIN: Supplemental protein is the most basic and widely heard of category of dietary supplements.  While you do need to take precaution that a company is reputable enough to meet label claims, it is basically true that protein is protein.  It is always best to try to get all of your protein via diet, but I understand especially well as a college student that this can be both difficult and expensive.  For those times, you have supplemental protein.  Whey, casein, rice, etc. doesn’t matter.  The only one to avoid is soy.  This has been shown to have an estrogen increasing effect in men.  However, don’t worry about moderate soy intake in foods – just don’t make it a primary source of protein and you’ll have no issues.  The final word of advice on these is not to buy the hype that you must take protein immediately post-workout, before bed, or any other particular time.  As I told you in my diet article, there is no evidence that nutrient (protein is a nutrient) timing is of relevance to non-endurance athletes.  As long as you consider protein as a food source and try your best to consume all of your protein via whole foods, I can say that supplemental protein works without reservation.  Just try to find one that tastes good and you enjoy drinking.

CREATINE: Creatine is a supplement that works.  However, it is a very misunderstood supplement so let’s discuss that quickly.  For one, it is completely safe.  Those that associate it with liver/kidney issues are misunderstanding medical signs.  To ease your fears, I will try to explain this – creatine supplementation will increase creatinine (see the spelling difference) levels in your system.  For non-supplement users, raised creatinine levels can be a sign of a medical issue.  Raised creatinine is an effect of a medical condition, not the cause of it.  Therefore, the increase in creatinine from creatine use is harmless.

Moving on from that, creatine is the most studied dietary supplement, ever.  It definitely works and it has become very affordable.  You need to know that there are different kinds of creatine, though.  The most common and arguably best form is creatine monohydrate.  It is cheap, effective, and most proven.  There are other “designer creatines” that vary in their cost, effectiveness, and prevalence.  The one of these to avoid is Creatine Ethyl Ester (CEE) – this has been proven ineffective.  Why use something other than creatine monohydrate?  There is a possibility that some people are pre-disposed to be nonresponders to creatine, and some of these other forms may help non-responders in particular.  Likewise, some good “designer creatines” may help speed absorption.  If you must get a more expensive form, try these: magnesium creatine chelate (MCC) and/or creatine malate.

The last bit on creatine is usage: for creatine monohydrate, the basic guideline is 5 grams daily.  There is no loading phase and there is no need to cycle it.  You will reach saturation after about a month and there isn’t a way to accelerate this (more isn’t better).  Once you are saturated, it won’t take as much to stay saturated but nonetheless it may be simpler to keep going at 5 grams daily.

A warning – this is not steroids.  You will not get some huge 30 pound increase on your bench press in a month or get some notable physique change.  The main effect you should notice is an added rep or so in moderate rep sets (4-6 reps).

BETA-ALANINE: While creatine is the most studied ingredient, beta-alanine is coming in second.  Almost all research shows beta-alanine to be effective at increasing endurance (think the 8-12 rep range).  Of course, it’s clear that a few more reps will be constructive for getting stronger.  You can get beta-alanine in a pre-workout type of beverage, but it doesn’t matter what time of day that you take it.  It is also best if you take it in two different doses.  Research shows it’s effectiveness between 3.2-6.4 grams per day, taken in at least two separate doses.  You may experience tingling of the skin with beta-alanine, but this is harmless and goes away with more usage.  Splitting doses and taking with carbohydrates can help to further alleviate this effect.  As I warned you with creatine, this is not a miracle substance: it will also take several weeks to reach saturation and even at that time you won’t turn into Superman.  We’re talking a couple added reps at the end of high rep sets here.

PRE-WORKOUT STIMULANTS:  One of the most popular categories of supplementation is the pre-workout drink.  The main reason that casual users find these to be effective is the stimulant content of these drinks.  It is definitely true that caffeine has energy, cognitive, and performance benefits.  The newly popular 1,3 dimethyamylamine (DMAA, geranamine, geranium oil/extract) is similarly effective and can have some benefits for those that are used to caffeine usage.  However, there are side effects and tolerance concerns that motivate me not to recommend DMAA.  Likewise, rumor has it that DMAA will soon be banned.  Nonetheless, I can tell you that caffeine works.  I will say that most pre-workout drinks sold in stores are a bunch of junk with caffeine sprinkled on top – but the caffeine is something you can feel.  If you are not informed on common pre-workout ingredients, I suggest you take a caffeine tablet or a cup of coffee for now if you must have something.  There will be more information coming later in this article and in a separate one (click here!) that should help you choose your pre-workouts more effectively.

JOINT SUPPLEMENTS: If you have joint issues, start with Glucosamine, Chondroitin, and MSM.  There are many products that combine the three, including a popular multivitamin.  Another ingredient you’ll want to look for is called cissus.  Also, fish oil may help your joint health (but more on that in a minute).  These are simple and relatively cost effective supplements that can make a real difference in the way you feel, especially as you age.  Also, these can make for excellent prevention (though not foolproof).

FISH OIL (EPA/DHA): First, when you hear about fish oil, we’re talking about the Omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA.  The rest of the fat and Omega 3 content in your fish oil supplement is unneeded.  This is important because you will have to look at the label to know how much EPA and DHA there is vs. the total fish oil content.  Research suggests your best dose will be between 2000-3000mg combined EPA and DHA, so you will likely have to take more caplets than the label suggests.  You also need to factor this in when you calculate the cost effectiveness of your fish oil.

So what does it do?  As mentioned before, it does have joint health benefits. It also is known to have some muscle enhancing/anti-inflammatory effects.  More importantly, it has noted heart and brain health benefits that are very important in the long term.  These Omega 3’s are a big part of a healthy diet but are largely absent in American cuisine.


MULTIVITAMINS: This is a can of worms and has warranted its own article for more discussion.  Studies on your run of the mill, one-a-day, Centrum-esque multivitamins have shown them to be ineffective for the most part.  It seems pretty clear that cheap multivitamins that don’t source well (more on that in the multivitamin article) do NOT work though.  If you’re shopping at Wal-Mart for your multi, just save your money.  However, there is research on some individual vitamin and mineral forms that suggest some of them should work.  The main issue here is that you’re not supposed to “feel” a multivitamin, even if it is working.  Also, we’re not generally deficient to a dangerous extent very often in any particular vitamin/mineral.  Finally, there is just not enough conclusive research either way for me to say definitively that they are worth it.

FAT BURNERS: This is the most tantalizing category for people and I hesitate to even give it the “maybe” status.  A more accurate description would be “doesn’t work as described.”  It’s hard to paint with a broad brush, but most fat burners are stimulant-based.  With the ban of ephedrine and the side effects common to many other stimulants, almost all fat burners feature caffeine as the key ingredient.  The truth is that there is some usefulness to caffeine and a few other stimulants.  For one, there is “thermogenic” effect that will cause a marginal increase in metabolism.  You would literally feel warmer using this type of thing.  Also, some will experience a notable decrease in appetite when using stimulants.  There’s no doubt why that would be useful when dieting.  However, there’s no evidence of any direct fat burning property for fat burners.  Two more things: 1. Fat burners don’t make up for a poor diet – you will only drop fat when in a caloric deficit.  and 2. Stimulants act as a diuretic, so a higher than normal dose of stimulants can cause you to lose upwards of 5 pounds of water.  So don’t fall for the miracle drug because you lost a few pounds of water.

BCAAs: Branched Chain Amino Acids have become very popular in the industry.  BCAAs are very important physiologically.  The real question is whether you need to supplement them directly or if your protein consumption is enough.  There are a ton of people using BCAA products swearing that they enhance recovery and endurance.  However, there isn’t any sound research that tells us that supplemental BCAAs are useful for these functions.  The research out there has been riddled with conflicts of interest.  I invite you to read this link for more discussion on this controversial topic.

OTC SLEEP AIDS: A relatively popular area of supplementation are sleep enhancers.  There are a few that help induce sleep, and many others help with staying asleep.  I say these “might” work for several reasons: some in this category don’t work at all, some will work for some people, and there is also a strong potential for placebo.  For instance, the most popular (and ubiquitous) ingredient in this category is melatonin.  This is only useful for people who have hormonal imbalances.  However, many people take it and since they have peace of mind that they will sleep well, they do in fact sleep well and swear by it.  Another popular sleep aid is ZMA, and this can be effective for some people.  Some others have very averse reactions.  GABA is another ingredient that helps many but causes poor reactions in others.   There are many ingredients in this category and most of the best products use a variety of several to reach the best effect.  In the near future, I will review some to give you more ideas as to specific products.

PROBIOTICS: Probiotics are becoming widely available and are starting to gain interest in fitness circles, especially given the type of diets common to those trying to get high amounts of protein, fiber, etc.  Probiotics are bacteria that aid in digestion, many of which are already present or ought to be present in our digestive tract.  Due to bad luck, diet, or antibiotic use, many of us may be deficient in some of these bacteria.  Supplementary probiotics are surmised to survive the digestive process and form colonies, then performing their function.  The “maybe” part of this is that there are many strains and ways (like methods of encapsulation) to get probiotics and it’s difficult to examine each one.  The research that is out there is mixed.  At their best, you should flatulate less, have more regular and comfortable bowel movements, and absorb nutrients more efficiently.  The rub here, like multivitamins, is that the effects may be extremely subtle if you are not dealing with extreme flatulence or digestive discomfort.


This list is potentially endless, so I’ll only cover some of the most misused supplements to help you save your money.

GLUTAMINE:  Glutamine is an amino acid that makes up a huge portion of all your skeletal muscle.  On the surface, that alone makes one think that you must need it if you’d like to build more of that muscle.  This logic has caused glutamine to be one of the very most popular supplements available, purporting to be a key muscle builder.  Unfortunately, it has been proven rather conclusively that for a non-endurance athlete consuming a protein-rich diet, glutamine supplementation will not increase strength, build muscle, or aid recovery.  It can support the immune and digestive systems, however, so it wouldn’t be the worst thing to help you through sickness.  Otherwise (unless you are a distance runner/biker), glutamine does not work!

ARGININE: Arginine is the prince to glutamine’s king.  Arginine is yet another amino acid that is supposed to aid in strength and increase pumps.  This is the ingredient that gave rise to the “nitric oxide” phenomenon.  This is another substance that it makes sense that it would do what we hope it does, but it just doesn’t.  Orally ingested arginine is effectively useless and is possibly even detrimental.  It has been proven to be a very effective placebo, however.  There are lots of people buying arginine and believing their workouts have improved.  The only usefulness of arginine is in products that also have nitrates (but that’s a different story).

HGH SUPPLEMENTS:  There are a bundle of supplements out there that purport to raise growth hormone levels.  These are completely ineffective.  The best ones are in fact sleep aids, as it is true that a deeper sleep will result in higher growth hormone release.  Most are just complete bunk, though.  Real growth hormone enhancement costs thousands of dollars and is given by medical doctors.

A reminder: this is not an endorsement of the use of any of these supplements. If you want a guide on supplement use, look ahead for Part 3.

  1. I have been taking Glutamine for quite a few months now and I have done a lot of research on it – most of which is quite convincing, however, I have never felt as though it has done anything for me (and creatine for that matter) but your article has got me thinking…if glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in our body, then why on earth would we need to take it as a supplement?! Ive been wanting to go back to the au naturel way of doing things, but I always think “if supplements don’t realllyyyy work then if I take them, what do I have to lose?!”

    • I’ve been through the same thing – I spent a boatload on different supplements and found that even when I quit using just about everything I still had great results as long as my diet was in check and my workout program was solid. Since that realization, my wallet is very happy. I’m going to write about my supplement recommendations (which starts with a resounding “NOTHING!”) soon.

      I do admit, though, supplementation can make things more fun/interesting.

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