How Health Supplements Work. There is no part of fitness with higher expectations and lower regulations. I’ve received so many supplement questions over my life as a trainer, my answers could fill a couple books.
Instead, I’ll spare you some time and condense the info to the important parts: what they are, how they work, how to use it, and my personal recommendations for which brand to use.
Here we will cover Protein, BCAAs (since they are so closely linked), Fish Oil, Pre-Workouts, and Multivitamins.
Disclaimer: If you don’t have sound nutrition habits, no supplement will save you. Nothing on this list is a magic pill for ditching the Dad-bod.
Also, keep in mind that the FDA doesn’t regulate ANY supplements. No one checks them for quality or even to make sure they contain the stuff listed on the label. Supplements are the freakin’ wild west of exercise nutrition.
That said, here are the health supplements I use and/or recommend. I’m sure the salesman at your local supp shop will disagree, but (except in specific situations) you don’t need anything but this list.
If your goal is fat loss, use any of this info in conjunction with my free Fat Loss Cheat Sheet for a two-pronged attack on body fat.
Here we go!
Protein is made up of amino acids. Protein supplements add aminos to the plasma pool of amino acids in your cells. Protein health supplements come in seemingly countless varieties, but are basically broken into two camps: whey proteins and plant proteins. There is also casein, which works much slower than regular protein. I’m not getting into casein in this article because it is not what you’d take by itself post-workout, and is usually a part of most protein blends anyway.
Whey protein is derived from dairy, so those who are vegan or have lactose issues should steer clear. Whey protein has the most protein per serving of any protein supplement. This is why most athletes and bodybuilders without dietary restrictions reach for the whey. There are two kinds of whey supplement: whey concentrate and whey isolate. The difference is how the protein is processed.
Whey concentrate is processed with high heat. Protein isn’t the only component that gets processed with this method. You’ll also get some fat and lactose this way. As a result, whey concentrate is only 50-60% protein by weight.
Whey isolate is more expensive because the process is more complicated. Without getting into the boring play-by-play, know that isolate is 90-95% protein by weight and doesn’t come with fat and lactose. Isolate is more pure than concentrate, and it’s reflected in the price tag.
Plant based protein can come from many sources, the most common being soy, rice, and pea protein. These are often processed the same way as whey concentrate and generally contain less protein and more carbs per serving than non-plant sources.
It is important to get enough protein to support physical activity, recover from said activity, build muscle, maintain a healthy body composition, carry out numerous cell functions, and stay generally healthy.
Bottom line, if you’re not getting enough protein (men - 1g per pound lean body mass, women - .75g per pound lean body mass) get a protein health supplement. Try to get as much of your protein from natural sources as possible, but when life gets busy a protein powder or bar can be a lifesaver.
Recommendation: For those without diet constrictions, I love DotFit protein. There are several kinds.
If you’re trying to lose weight check out my article, Fat loss Simplified http://cainperformancetraining.com/fat-loss-simplified/
If your trying to lose weight and or trying to supplement routinely low protein intake, I would lean toward Lean MR (higher carbs) or Whey Smooth (low carb). If you really want to bulk up, use the First String XXL (very high carb). Remember that post workout it’s important to replenish carbs and usually a 2:1 carb to protein ratio is best. Building size takes protein and carbs. So if you’re bulking, that ratio can go as high as 3:1, so don’t be shy with the First String.
My sinuses freak out when I get any kind of dairy in my system so I opt for the veggie proteins these days. Currently, I’m a big fan of Vega Sport. It has the highest protein content per scoop I’ve seen in plant protein health supplements and doesn’t taste like swamp water (many plant proteins do).
Branched Chain Amino Acids are amino acids that has a specific structure (an extra side chain with a carbon and 3 hydrogen atoms). Due to this special structure here are only 3 BCAAs: isoleucine, valine, and leucine (which is the most important one).
BCAAs may be the most important piece of the health supplements puzzle. They are responsible for protein synthesis, energy production, lowering lactate levels, increasing growth hormone circulation, regulating insulin responses, decreasing muscle damage, and improving recovery.
That’s a lot of work for 3 little BCAAs.
To keep BCAA levels high, it’s recommended that you take in 5g of BCAA per day. For athletes and those who partake in intense weight training (which I hope you do) that RDA can inflate to 12g depending on frequency/duration of activity and you bodyweight.
BCAA health supplements are used during and after workouts to replenish BCAAs oxidized during activity. As a general rule of thumb, supplementation should be roughly 5g per hour of exercise. Training in a fasted state or skipping meals after training can result in a net protein loss without appropriate BCAA supplementation. BCAAs can also be taken 2-4 hours throughout the day to help maintain blood sugar levels on low calorie days.
Recommendation: I use MyProtein BCAAs. They taste good and you get about a zillion servings per container. Again, DotFit makes a great product called AminoBoost. The main thing to look for is a MUCH higher amount of leucine, since that is the one that does the lion’s share of the work.
Fish oil is one of the most shockingly important health supplements. The modern diet has a ridiculously high level of omega-6 fatty acids, and a lack of omega-3s. The ratio of these two fatty acids in incredibly important to your health all the way down to a cellular level. Having too much omega-6s can cause inflammation and insulin resistance (which can lead to obesity). Omega-6 fatty acids are found in vegetable oils, eggs, nuts, seeds, and nut/seed derived oils.
The combination of omega-6 fatty acids and the high content of saturated fat in the modern diet lead to rigid cell membranes (which are a lipid bilayer) making it difficult for neurochemicals to get in and out of cells. The addition on unsaturated fats (which include omega-3s) make those cell walls much more flexible.
Omega-3s improve cardiovascular function, nervous system function, brain development, immune health, mood, and body composition. Omega-3s fatty acids are made of EPA, DHA, and APA (which has to be converted to EPA and DHA for use). To tell whether a fish oil supplement is quality, check the ratio of EPA to DHA. A good fish oil has a 1.5:1 EPA to DHA ratio.
If you eat a plant based diet, switch your omega-3s with an algae health supplement.
All this information can be found during cholesterol testing. Ask your doctor to give you think information after your next physical that includes blood work.
Recommendation: Any fish oil supplement that has a 1.5:1 EPA to DHA ratio. Keep your fish oil refrigerated to avoid oxidation (bad) before the expiration date. I use the generic bottle from Costco. I’ve also like the Super Omega-3 from DotFit and have heard great things about the Omega-3 from Genuine Health.
If your goal with these supplements is fat loss, check out my free Fat Loss Cheat Sheet for a head start on your goals.
I’ve seen some batshit crazy stories about creatine health supplements. My all-time favorite was in High School when I heard a rumor that a kid from another school took a bunch of creatine and started growing extra bones. I’ve heard heard it described as a steroid and a chemical stimulant. All of that is total garbage. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In the last 15 years of study there have been zero negative side effects when the product was used as recommended (or even in the ballpark). In fact, Vitamin C has more negative potential side-effects from overuse than creatine. Extreme overuse of creatine has resulted in some liver/kidney issues in some cases. Keep in mind, that is also a result of taking too much of any vitamin or mineral. No amount of creatine affects your hormones, and it is definitely not a steroid.
Creatine is produced naturally in the liver, kidneys, and pancreas at a rate of 1 or 2 g per day. It can also be found in red meat.
Creatine provides energy for your Creatine-Phosphate System (also called the Phosphagen System). This is your primary energy source for power movements and provides energy for 1-12 seconds, as in maximum contraction of muscles for speed or power.
To sum up the science: The Phosphagen System runs on adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which is an adenosine molecule attached to 3 phosphate molecules. Breaking one of the bonds to a phosphate molecule creates energy, and leaves adenosine diphosphate (ADP - adenosine with 2 phosphates). Creatine floats around with a phosphate molecule attached to it. This is why creatine is sometimes referred to as Phosphocreatine (PCr). Creatine gives its phosphate to ADP making it ATP once more, and it can be used for energy again.
Creatine is usually used in cycles, with a week long loading phase where the athlete takes 2000mg per day, then backs off to 750-1000mg. Precision Nutrition recommends taking in 3-5g of creatine per day, including the 2g you produce on your own. Though, some recent research has shown positive effects with as little as 200mg per day and no loading phase. Research has shown that health supplements with creatine helps increase the intramuscular creatine pool.
There are two types of creatine health supplements. Creatine Monohydrate is the most common form of a creatine health supplement. Monohydrate has a low absorption rate (some as low as 3% over a 90 minute period) because its pH makes for poor solubility during digestion. Creatine HCl is the other form of creatine supplement and has already been engineered to have a more acidic pH to aid in solubility and higher absorption rates.
Recommendations: Really any Creatine Monohydrate is going to work just fine. Again, I like the DotFit products. There is a powder and caplet version. Which one you use is personal preference. PEScience has a good set of creatine monohydrate products too.
For Creatine HCl supplements, I’ve been using Con-Cret HCl which is an insanely soluble powder. Seriously, if I put it in a cup and turn the sink on full blast, I don’t even have to stir it.
Pre-Workout Health Supplements
Pre-workout health supplements are the most subjective ones on the list. Picking the one for you will depend on what kind of feeling you want before you hit the gym. Personally, I like to feel tingly and wired - like if I don’t lift I won’t sleep for a week. Some folks like a milder buzz that improves focus and keeps their energy consistent for an hour. You have to experiment with brands to find the right fit for you.
That being said, there are several common ingredients to pre-workouts. The first being caffeine. It’ll be within the first 5 ingredients. Every. Single. Time. You will usually see taurine, creatine, beta-alanine, and niacin (with is Vitamin B3 and is responsible for the tingling feeling when it kicks in), and usually an amino acid blend.
Pre-workouts are non-essential. Most folks would do fine do have a cup of coffee and some BCAAs. However, if you like pre-workouts (I sure do) there’s nothing wrong with using them.
Temporary psycho intensity is cool, just don’t replace actual motivation with a caffeine rush. Remember your reason for pursuing your goals. Don’t intentionally get jacked up on caffeine and have no choice but to work it off.
Recommendation: I have used Jack3d, MyPre (from MyProtein), and Pump Fuel Insanity with great results. You may want something less intense, so shop around and see what you like. If you don’t like the jittery, tingly feeling like your spidey-sense is going off - find a pre-workout without Niacin (B3).
I don’t like most veggies. I eat them because they are good for me and that is it. So I use multivitamin health supplements to make sure my distaste for leafy green things doesn’t keep me from getting the nutrients I need.
I’m not alone. The modern diet falls short again with micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Folks just don’t eat enough veggies to accommodate their daily micronutrient needs. The tricky part is, each person has different vitamin deficiencies based on their diet, lifestyle (example: I live in Seattle where there is no sun, so I don’t get much Vitamin D organically), and through genetic factors that can affect absorption of micronutrients.
There are 2 kinds of vitamin: water soluble and fat soluble. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are the fat soluble variety. If you’re on a low fat diet, you may have trouble absorbing these vitamins.
Vitamins work mostly as coenzymes for carrying out cell functions. While vitamins can technically be synthesized in the body, the process can’t keep up with our daily need for vitamins.
So you gotta eat ‘em.
Most multivitamins also contain a mineral blend. Minerals are broken into 2 camps as well: macrominerals (daily need greater than 100mg) and microminerals (daily need less than 15mg).
Don’t let the macro/micro prefix fool you. All of these minerals are important, you just need different quantities of them. There are 5 macrominerals: calcium, phosphorous, and the electrolytes (sodium chloride, magnesium, and potassium). There are 9 microminerals - the most recognizable are iron and zinc.
Deficiencies in any vitamins and minerals can lead to a vast array of serious health concerns, ranging from increased likelihood of diseases to uncomfortable symptoms like weakness, fatigue, anemia, depression, and everything inbetween.
This doesn’t mean go nuts and start popping multivitamins like candy. There are also toxicity (too much) levels to micronutrients with equally (and sometimes more) dangerous outcomes.
Everything in moderation.
If you would like a more personalized form of my recommendations and want to take the next steps to better yourself sighn up for my online coaching program today http://cainperformancetraining.com/online-coaching/
Recommendation: Again, I like the DotFit brand Active MV. Thorne and Genuine Health brand multivitamins are also good.
There you have it: the only 6 health supplements worth your money. There are some situations where specific needs require additional supplementation. However, for the average person this is plenty and you probably don’t even need all 6 of these.
If your goal with these health supplements is fat loss, check out my free Fat Loss Cheat Sheet bundle that’ll help you get a jumpstart on your fat loss journey.
If you have any questions regarding the supps on this list, or are a science geek (like me) and would like more in depth info, don’t be shy! Hit me up on Facebook or Instagram and ask as many questions as you want.
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