Over the course of my 15-year career, one question inevitably comes up with every client: “Should I be using supplements and if so, which ones?” It’s not an uncommon question – we are bombarded with images of physical perfection, quick fixes and weight-loss tools each and every day. It’s hard to decipher the truth in all the marketing and advertising, and decide which supplements are worthwhile and appropriate for an individual client. In this article I will discuss several different categories of supplements, their intended use and whether or not they would benefit the general population as a whole. As a disclaimer, I always inform my clients that most, if not all of the supplements available for purchase are NOT regulated by the FDA, can make false claims about their validity, and have not been tested for interaction with other supplements or prescribed medications. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative to discuss supplementation with your primary care physician. As a trainer I can safely give basic supplementation advice, but I would never direct a client to take a specific product without the consent of their doctor.
One of the biggest supplement categories today is weight-loss products. These products can come in pills, drinks and many other forms but their general premise is to suppress the appetite. This is usually achieved with stimulants or other appetite suppressants. I tend to sway clients away from anything that tends to suppress their appetite – clients should improve their metabolism by increasing lean muscle mass, and eating clean, and healthy meals regularly. This is much more effective for weight loss than a pill that provides a false sense of increased metabolism through appetite suppression. When we stop fueling our body, our metabolism slows down and long-term weight loss becomes much more difficult. Generally people who take weight-loss products end up skipping one or more meals, which can result in severe under-eating or even lead to over-consumption (in the form of extreme hunger) after a day of no eating. Remember that time you went all day without eating, made it home just in time to lose all your inhibitions, and wallow in an entire pizza out of sheer starvation? That certainly isn’t going to help you lose weight. Many of these products make outrageous claims and show even more outrageous before-and-after pictures of their “customers” in an attempt to market their product right into your gym bag. My advice with fat burners and weight-loss tools is to skip them and focus directly on increasing your metabolism through a balanced diet, resistance training, and high intensity interval training.
Next on the list, we have “pre-workout” products. I’ve been around long enough to watch the lifespan of many pre-workout products: they hit the stores, only to be yanked off the shelves as a result of customer injury, illegal ingredients, or other safety issues. Pre-workouts are almost always stimulants. These can come in many forms and include (but are not limited to) caffeine, vitamin B-12, guarana, ginseng, ephedrine, and yohimbine. If a client is interested in using a pre-workout for a jolt of energy, I insist that they speak with their physician first. Many people react to stimulants differently, and certain over-the-counter and prescription medications can react to these products. If a client has heart issues or hypertension, I can assure you that a physician would not recommend taking any kind of stimulants on a regular basis. Pre-workout drinks often contain ingredients that accentuate the “pump” during a workout. These are generally achieved by vasodilators such as Arginine and Niacin, which open up the blood vessels in the body and allow for greater blood flow. This floods the freshly worked muscle with excess blood, resulting in a temporary “pumped” feeling that is often associated with a successful workout. Many people may find vasodilation uncomfortable as it can lead to blushing, itching, and a burning or tingling sensation on the skin. I’ve had pre-workout drinks that have left my lips tingly, which was rather unpleasant. Pre-workouts can be effective for increasing energy and stamina during a workout, and I approach each client on a case-by-case study after they have discussed it with their doctor. If a client has been cleared to take a pre-workout supplement I advise them to use a partial serving the first time to see how they react. Look for signs of discomfort, jitters, and monitor your mental focus and overall wellbeing during a workout – after becoming comfortable with a partial serving, move on to a full serving. I would also recommend they take rest days from using the product as well.
Nevertheless, one product that I almost always stand by is protein. Protein is best consumed immediately after a workout to begin the repair and recovery process. Some clients find it hard to eat a solid meal immediately after a workout, so a protein shake is a great way to get in a quick 25-50 grams of protein. Protein comes in many forms and flavors – vegetarians can choose from an assortment of plant-based proteins such as hemp and soybean. Whey and casein protein are both milk-based proteins and are my general recommendation for people who can tolerate milk-based products. Egg protein is also an option. If you’re looking for organic or natural powders, there are companies that offer protein powders with all natural ingredients and contain no artificial sweeteners. There is no specific brand or type of protein that I recommend to clients: choose based on personal taste and preference. Generally, I recommend a post-workout protein shake that contains 25+ grams of protein, or as a snack when you don’t have time to sit down and eat.
There are many other supplements out there that have solutions to specific needs. Glutamine is touted to help with muscle recovery. Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) help deliver essential amino acids into the body that help prevent muscle protein breakdown and can help assist in recovery time. Creatine is used as a supplement to increase creatine stores in the muscles. In theory this helps you maintain your workout by preventing fatigue and increasing ATP stores in your muscles – your main energy source during heavy resistance training. If you’re interested in using any of these, again, talk to your doctor, and do your research. I use BCAAs and Glutamine in my nutritional plan but choose not to use creatine. Each individual client will need to make educated choices based on what is right for their body and their needs.
Our final supplement is the proverbial elephant in the room and tends to be quite controversial. However, it also tends to be misused and abused in the fitness community quite often, so I feel that it is important to discuss. Anabolic steroids, commonly referred to as “roids”, “steroids,” or “juice” is a performance-enhancing drug that many clients are curious about. It’s often regarded as the fast track to physical perfection, but there is a lot more to steroids than meets the eye. As a bodybuilder who has competed numerous times, it would be misleading to tell people that I have been “natural” my entire life. Anyone going on-stage in a bodybuilding competition that isn’t labeled as a “natural show” is almost guaranteed to have used anabolic steroids at some point in their life. Anyone that tells you otherwise is lying. That being said, steroids are never something I would recommend to a client. Most of the people who approach me about doing steroids have little to no information about what they are injecting into their bodies, are obtaining their supply from unknown sources that could be mislabeled, incorrectly dosed, fake or dangerous, and have no idea the impact and side effects that can come with doing a steroid cycle.
Steroids are strong hormones that can mess up your body’s natural hormone levels, which can be dangerous and detrimental to your workouts in the long run. Steroids come in many shapes and sizes, but they are all pretty much derivatives of testosterone in some chemical form or another. Testosterone is the building block of muscle growth, and supplementing your body with it can increase muscle size faster than a natural method. However, testosterone and over-supplementation can lead to insomnia, hair loss, acne, and emotional outbursts stereotypically referred to as “roid rage.” These are all serious pros and cons to evaluate before deciding if that is really the path you want to take. Generally speaking, clients who are looking to add some muscle, tone up, or strive for general well-being don’t need the potential risks that are associated with steroid supplementation. As with all supplements, I would recommend a trip to a primary care physician to discuss the needs vs. risks of testosterone supplementation. Men in particular see a dramatic decrease in testosterone levels as they age. Often, supplementation is required to maintain normal, healthy testosterone levels, to keep libido and energy high, and to prevent depression or a general malaise often associated with low testosterone levels. This is something that should be determined and monitored by a qualified physician. If you decide to supplement your body with anabolic steroids, it is imperative that you tell your doctor exactly what you are taking, so that they can monitor your health through blood tests for liver and kidney function, as well as estrogen, testosterone, lipid, and hemoglobin levels. These are all VERY important in maintaining a healthy and functioning body. Remember, honesty is always the best policy with your doctor. Although women tend not to inquire about anabolic supplementation as often as men, many women deal with the same drop in hormone levels as they age and seek out HRT or hormone replacement therapy as an alternative. This is, again, a decision that needs to be discussed with a healthcare professional. At the end of the day steroids may seem like the easy way out but I do NOT recommend that clients use them for their performance-enhancing properties. Focus on being realistic and formulate an educated and definitive plan to achieving your physique goals.
As with most things in life, if it sounds to good to be true, it most likely is. Don’t bog down your daily life with trying to decipher the good, bad and the ugly about all of these products. In most cases I recommend little to no supplementation for clients, but if you are going to use a product, make sure you do your research, so you can make smart choices and educated decisions.