With the exception of plyometrics, I don’t think there’s any other topic in training that is more widely misunderstood than supplementation. I get asked frequently what the best thing is to take to become a world champion or reach some other lofty goal, and my answer never makes anyone happy.
If your habits don’t match your goals, you need to adjust them until they do. Let’s look at a few things before we get down to what works and what doesn’t. We’ll call this the ‘big pyramid’.
1. Nutrition is the underlying base for all supplementation. Remember, these are dietary supplements; things to add into or onto your diet to make you perform better. They are not diet replacements.
2. No matter how hard you work, at the pointy end of the field, you cannot out-train poor diet choices.
3. If basic nutrition being in place is the base layer for our performance pyramid, then the next layer is training. No use having the world’s cleanest diet and then training like a fool.
4. Above that layer is lifestyle. If you eat great and train like a champion, you still won’t get far if you’re burning the candle at both ends, out drinking all night or snorting powder up your nose. Get a minimum of eight hours sleep every night, quit hanging out with your party-hard friends and realise that if performance is your goal, then your life needs to reflect it.
5. At the very tip of this pyramid are supplements. While they may make some difference, if you really want to see your money put to good use then you need to have all the preceding layers strongly in place. Only then will your supplements really make a difference.
I see so many people, usually kids, who are fooled by marketing hype and spend so much on supplements it makes my head hurt. And yet, they’re out drinking every night, sleeping a few hours and eating a pile of junk every day. You’re simply not going to be able to beat me when you’re relying on the very tip of your pyramid as your base and I’m using the entire thing!
Even within this final level of supplementation there are more levels, as follows:
1Multivitamin – Sadly, the quality of fresh food has gone downhill over the last few decades, so even if you are eating a well-balanced diet with many different fruits and vegetables, you may still need to supplement just to cover all your bases. I currently take a multivitamin in the morning, and zinc and vitamin B at night. Over a few weeks since starting this regime I’ve noticed a huge difference in body composition, although some of that could be due to ensuring I get eight hours sleep at night.
2On the level just above a basic multivitamin is fish oil. If you’re not taking this, start now. There are so many studies on the benefits of this stuff that it just blows my mind people aren’t using it more.
3Along with fish oil, I also take vitamin D. The reasons are simple: we simply don’t get outside enough, and there are many positives from increasing your vitamin D intake. If you’ve ticked all the boxes to get to here, then let’s look at some of the more common powders and what works, and what doesn’t.
High-quality whey protein isolate comes in a wide variety of more or less tasty options. Whey is the most common protein type available because of its fast-acting nature — once ingested it gets to the muscles quickly post-workout when it is most needed.
The other major type of protein found these days is casein. Casein is also derived from dairy, so while it’s slower acting than whey, it can still lead to the same issues for lactose-intolerant folk, and it’s not uncommon that people report feeling bloated when using protein powders.
Research is showing that post-exercise may actually be too late if using a protein powder for muscle gaining or recovery purposes. The window for optimal use, based on absorption rates, actually starts about the time you begin your training, so many are now suggesting that you sip your protein shake throughout your entire workout.
Personally, I think protein shakes are largely a waste of time unless you’re trying to go up a weight class. I’ve found with my clients that eating protein-rich foods always leads to better results in terms of lean tissue, as well as how the client feels, than drinking protein shakes. Many with lactose issues are surprised by how much even this small serve of dairy can affect them and often report much improved sleep after ceasing use (and sleep is the single most anabolic thing you can ever put in your body).
Branched-chain amino acids are all the rage these days, although they too are not new. I can remember watching bodybuilders shovel them in when I was still in school and training at a big bodybuilding gym in the late ’80s.
Protein is made up of many amino acids and three of these, the so-called branched-chain aminos, are found in large quantities in muscle. These three — leucine, isoleucine and valine — account for as much as 35 per cent of the amino acids found in muscle.
The theory goes that because we know intense training can break down muscle tissue, it makes sense to supplement with BCAAs to improve muscle recovery post-training. But there are more and more benefits coming to be known about these proteins and new research is showing that BCAA use can also delay the onset of fatigue during intense training.
This, for me, is a much better place to spend your supplement money than on standard protein powders. If a protein powder is a shotgun shell aimed at your recovery, BCAAs are a laser-guided missile that hones in directly on what you need and have the added benefit of delaying exhaustion during training. For best results, put these in plain water and sip during and post workout.
Glutamine has often been heralded as a wonder supplement but likely the only people it’s wonderful for are the supplement companies! While having a role in protein synthesis and helping to perform a host of other functions, there is no single study that can prove that intense exercise depletes glutamine levels to the point where they would need to be supplemented. In my opinion, save your money.
I have mixed feelings about creatine. Having been on the scene when it first became well known due to its use by a certain English sprinter (who was subsequently banned for steroid use), I’ve always wondered, how much were his results actually influenced by creatine, and how much by the steroids?
The idea behind creatine supplementation is that the free creatine can be used to help replenish ATP stores after maximal, short-duration efforts. However, like with glutamine, there are no conclusive studies to show that it actually works. In certain people, especially those who take extra vitamin C, the use of creatine can also be, let’s just say, explosive.
My biggest problem with creatine is that users will often get a slight increase in weight due to water retention. I’ve usually got my guys so close to competition weight that any slight change like that could potentially turn them into the lightest guy in the next weight class — not a good place to be as a fighter. As well, the results seem to fade rapidly. I imagine, like with most things, that there is a pre-determined ceiling within the body for creatine and in the short-term supplementation may increase performance, but once the body recognises the concentration of extra creatine, it will break it down and excrete it. Again, save your money for something more useful, such as high-quality fresh foods.
For the most part, sports drinks are nothing but well-marketed sugar water. Sessions lasting less than two hours need zero extra carbohydrate to get through, regardless of intensity, provided that your diet is in order. A better solution is to make sure to follow the Ten Habits previously explained in this column [see Blitz Vol. 26 No. 6] and have a good post-training meal of protein and carbohydrate.
The bottom line is this: supplements are the last thing to worry about when looking at your diet, not the first. Even when you hit the Ten Habits and have your eating sorted, the most you will likely need are some fish oil and a multivitamin. Take the money you saved and pay for a good strength coach to write you a well-thought-out training program!
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