There's a saying: if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I'd like you to keep this saying in mind the next time you see an advertisement for a supplement.
"Burn fat fast!"
"Trim your waist in no time!"
"Clinically proven to add an inch to your arms!"
The list goes on and on, but it's all bull**** honestly.
Ponder for a moment about how people in ancient times built muscle. Zeus and Poseidon weren't real gods, but their statues were based on real people.
Imagine living in a time period thousands of years ago with none of the amenities we have today, but more specifically, no supplements. Back then people simply achieved their physiques through hard work, rest, and eating real food.
If you've followed me for a while, you know I'm not crazy about supplements. Most of the products out there are nothing more than a waste of your money. In this post, however, I'd like to be a bit more specific and drill into why some supplements suck and how to substitute those products with more natural alternatives.
Preworkout supplements are probably the most popular ones out there. Unfortunately though, they're also quite overrated. Some are loaded with uncommon ingredients that have frustrating side effects (diarrhea, muscle cramps, headaches, etc.) and others are just glorified caffeine powders.
The few preworkout supplements that work might also be a bit too much. Some of the added ingredients in these preworkouts are sketchy at best; if you take a powder that's making your heart beat twice as fast, that's definitely not ideal for your health. Better results in the gym aren't worth it if you suddenly develop high blood pressure from a supplement.
Heart rate aside, preworkout powders can lead to other nasty side effects as well. You might suffer from muscle cramps and twitches, which would only impede your workout. Furthermore, these products might leave you with stomach aches or diarrhea.
Consuming foods naturally high in caffeine is your best bet for a solid preworkout. Coffee, for exmaple, is one of the healthiest things you can drink so long as you have it in moderate doses. I personally have 1 cup (roughly 150 mg) every morning of the week. I've personally found caffeine each morning to be helpful in both my workouts and my morning routine. I lift more efficiently, shower more quickly, and just feel more awake in general once the caffeine is in my system.
If coffee isn't your thing, tea can have a similar effect since it's naturally loaded with caffeine. Just be sure to use a brand that is relatively high in the substance such as black tea.
I used to HATE taking this one. I bought various flavors for BCAAs and all of them tasted disgusting. Flavor aside, it turns out these actually don't do anything for you. The purpose of these amino acids is to prevent muscle breakdown during your workout; by preventing muscle damage, you'd be able to achieve more reps per set and feel more energized throughout the workout.
Theoretically that sounds great, but here's the catch: muscle damage is a main pathway to hypertrophy. Every time that you complete a repetition you're breaking down your muscle fibers; the damage is very small, but the body reacts to the overall muscle damage from the workout by recvoering and, if you're bulking properly, building new muscle in its place to overcompensate.
So really, BCAAs are just making your job harder. By not taking BCAAs, my workouts are much more efficient; while people on BCAAs might need 3 sets per exercise to induce a certain level of muscle damage, I could probably reach that same muscle breakdown in just 2 sets instead.
Yep, the best alternative for BCAAs is to simply not consume any form of amino acid or protein before your workouts. I'm a huge fan of doing my workouts on an empty stomach, save for some coffee and water. As I explained, there's no benefit to prevent muscle damage since that's a main factor for hypertrophy in the first place.
3) Whey Protein Powder
Next to preworkout, protein powder is possibly the most popular supplement out there. The logic seems simple at first: muscle fibers are made up of proteins, so the more protein you eat, the more muscle you build. Unfortunately, it's a bit more complicated than that. Despite what some people claim, you don't need very much protein to build muscle. As long as you're filling your diet with protein rich foods, I doubt you'd even need protein powder.
Alternative: Protein Bars
Protein bars are one of the most convenient supplements out there. I usually have 2 of them in the afternoon and they prevent me from getting hungry until it's close to dinner time. Furthermore, many protein bars out there (such as Quest's products) are primarily made from whey isolate, the same substance comprising whey protein powders.
I get as much protein from non-processed food as I can, but these come in handy since I eat nearly 3,000 calories on my rest days. Plus they tend to be more nutritious than you'd expect; the chocolate protein bars often have quite a bit of magnesium, which is one of the vital and under-consumed minerals in the average American diet.
4) Fat Burner
Fat burners are overhyped, even by their very name. Truthfully, there's no food or ingredient that will directly burn off your body fat if you consume it. Instead what most fat burners aim to achieve is increasing your metabolism; by burning more energy each day, you will gradually lose body fat. Fat burners have many of the same flaws that preworkout supplements have, however.
Gonna give coffee and tea another shout-out here. Caffeine is fantastic for speeding up your metabolism and increasing the amount of energy you burn throughout the day, particularly if you consume it first thing in the morning.
Yeah, you read that correctly. My attitude toward this supplement has done a 180 lately. I used to think this supplement was phenomenal; it's relatively cheap and literally inflates your muscles with a few pounds of water, usually enhancing your strength in the process. I'm also convinced Hollywood actors take 20 to 30 grams of this stuff each day while filming just to add 15 lbs of water to their muscles so that they look huge on screen (take a look at Chris Hemsworth in Thor movies compared to his beach pictures: he looks a good 20 lbs lighter).
The unfortunate truth, however, is that even low doses of this supplement (3 to 5 grams a day) actually put a great deal of stress on your kidneys, specifically on your body's levels of creatinine. The normal levels for an adult are anywhere from 0.60 to 1.35; mine were at 1.56 according to a recent blood test. In fact, even the blood test before that (from 9 months ago) showed that my levels were at 1.53; I wish the former doctor that I went to had told me that back then, but it is what it is.
Why was I so taken aback by this? Because I'm not even 25 and live a healthy lifestyle. Nothing should be appearing as a concern in my bloodwork.
Alternative: Quality Protein
Consuming high quality protein in your diet is, to me, the best alternative out there for creatine. It's true that some foods do in fact contain creatine, but you'd have to eat a lot of them (a few pounds of steak or fish each day) to ingest 3 to 5 grams of creatine. As I've mentioned above, however, you really don't need this substance in your system; all it did was put my kidneys at risk.
Instead of worrying about creatine, focus on ingesting high quality protein. Chick peas, eggs, milk, and lean grass-fed beef are some of the best foods filled with protein and other nutrients. I eat 4 eggs everyday, and the same bloodwork that I mentioned above pointed out I have very low and healthy levels of cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol is not bad like some people make it out to be, so be sure to have 3 or 4 eggs each day to satiate you and fill you with excellent protein.
I hope these tips were helpful! Ultimately, the best way to see if a supplement works is by adding it to your diet while everything else (training and sleep included) remains constant. If you notice a substantial improvement, then the supplement is working. Ultimately, make sure you go for your annual physical and have blood work done with your doctor; this is the only reason I was able to identify that creatine just wasn't for me.