What Supplements Should I Take? – 5 Supplements That Actually Work
Most lifters have asked the question, “what supplements should I take?” at some point. I mean, if you train, it’s hard to get away from talk about pills, powders and bars; the supplement industry is booming!
Booming with bullshit and products that do nothing but burn a hole in your pocket. With that said, there are a select few supplements that may be worth your while and can enhance your training.
The trouble is you must dig through mountains of absurd claims, marketing hype and poorly controlled, often biased studies if you want to find the supplements that work.
To help you find the best supplements from the get-go, I have done a bit of research and used my experience of taking various supplements (many an absolute waste of time) to come up with a list of my top 5 supplements that actually work.
1. Whey Protein
This is quite possibly the easiest to add to the list due to its’ popularity and the importance of protein for building muscle. However, you need to be aware that there is no special muscle-building secret in the whey protein; it is just a very good way of increasing your total protein intake.
If you are already getting enough high-quality protein from sources with a complete amino acid profile, you may not need to take a whey protein supplement.
On the other hand, whey is a quickly absorbed and highly bioavailable source of protein. A good whey supplement will also contain few calories from carbs or fat, so it can help to keep protein high without bumping total calorie intake up too much.
What is whey protein?
Whey is an animal source of protein and a by-product of the curd and cheese manufacturing process and was originally thought of as a simple waste product. Whey has a very high protein content and makes up around 20% of the protein found in milk, the other type of milk protein is casein, which I will touch upon later.
There are two common types of whey protein that are found in supplement form: whey concentrate and whey isolate.
Whey concentrate – this is the most widely available and economical way to consume whey protein. The protein is very pure but still contains a certain amount of carbohydrates and fat, which means the total protein content of whey concentrate is usually around 80%.
Whey isolate – isolate whey protein goes through further filtration processes, which means it is usually more expensive to produce and purchase. The benefits of isolate protein are that many of the carbohydrates, in the form of lactose, and fats have been removed.
This leaves a powder with around a 90% protein content.
Whey protein concentrate vs isolate – which is best?
In all honesty, most people will do just fine with the cheaper concentrate version.
Whey isolate may be a better option for individuals with an intolerance to lactose.
It may also suit those who need to be very careful with total calorie or carbohydrate intake. For example, later stage contest-prep bodybuilders.
Best time to take whey protein
Whey protein can be taken at any time to increase total daily protein intake. I look at it mainly as a quick and convenient way to ingest more protein.
It may be beneficial to take whey post-workout as opposed to slower digesting sources. Taking whey after a workout has been observed to have a positive effect on muscle protein synthesis.
However, you don’t need to rush to consume your protein as soon as you re-rack the bar for your last set. The old myth of an “anabolic window” of 60 minutes may not be as important as people once believed. This post from TheBalancedBodyNutrition.com does a good job of summarising some of the science.
Whey vs Casein Protein
Whey and casein are different types of high-quality protein and the debate on which is better is ongoing. The difference between the two probably isn’t worth worrying about for most people.
There has been a couple of studies (effects of whey and casein after exercise and ingestion of whey and casein protein in a meal) that suggest combining whey protein and casein protein after a workout may be beneficial. The idea is that the faster-digesting whey helps to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, while the casein is digested more slowly and prevents the breakdown of muscle tissue.
Instead of buying both types, mixing whey protein with milk should be sufficient due to milk’s high casein protein content.
Recommended Whey Protein Supplement
2. Vitamin D3
I could have selected a whole bunch of different vitamin and mineral supplements to be included here. Generally, vitamin and mineral supplements do work as intended but are only usually necessary where there is a deficiency.
This is the very reason that I chose to focus on vitamin D3; it has been observed that vitamin D deficiency is common, particularly in cooler, darker climates.
On top of that, increasing vitamin D3 intake has been linked to a whole range of benefits that could have some very positive effects on your health and performance.
Vitamin D3 Benefits
Stronger bones and teeth. Along with calcium, it is widely known that vitamin D is responsible for improving bone density and reducing the risk of developing osteoporosis.
Improved immune function and lower risk of developing a range of conditions from heart disease to multiple sclerosis. A study from 2010 even highlights how vitamin D can prevent you from getting the flu.
Weight loss. It is thought vitamin D can help with weight management; it may have some appetite suppressant and metabolic effects that could boost weight loss.
Which Type of Vitamin D is Best?
The are several types of vitamin D. The most important for your health and the types you will most likely come across are vitamin D2 and vitamin D3.
Vitamin D2 can be ingested via your diet by eating various plant and animal sources since the vitamin occurs naturally in plants.
Vitamin D3, on the other hand, is synthesised by your body after you have exposed yourself to ultraviolet rays, usually from the sun. Therefore, deficiency is prevalent in colder countries and civilisations where people spend large chunks of the day working inside.
It is generally accepted that vitamin D3 is likely the most important to supplement for the health benefits.
Recommended Vitamin D3 Supplement
3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
There is a wealth of studies and information proving the benefits of increasing your omega-3 fatty acid intake. The types of omega-3 fats known as EPA and DHA are known to be especially beneficial to health.
Another type of omega-3 oil found in some supplements is ALA. However, this is usually less crucial since it is found in many plant sources. On the other hand, EPA and DHA are found primarily in marine animal, which we tend to eat less of.
Lower risk factors associated with strokes and heart disease. Omega-3 fats have been observed to have numerous benefits for heart health, as shown by this study.
Decrease inflammation in the body. Studies like this have continuously linked omega-3 supplementation with lower levels of inflammation.
Stronger, healthier joints and bones. By increasing the amount of calcium available in the bones, omega-3s can lead to stronger bones and less risk of developing conditions like osteoporosis and arthritis.
Flaxseed Oil vs Fish Oil and Krill Oil
As two of the most common sources of omega-3 fatty acids, there is often much debate about which source is superior.
Of course, if you are vegan or have a seafood allergy, flaxseed oil wins right away. For everybody else, you may be wondering which is the best omega-3 source.
Both sources can increase your intake of the important EPA and DHA fats, but they do so in diverse ways.
Fish and krill oils contain EPA and DHA in relatively large quantities, so you get an instant boost from supplementing with them.
On the other hand, flaxseed oil contains the other type of omega-3 fat: ALA. By using ALA, your body is able to synthesise EPA and DHA but it only happens when your body already has enough ALA to fulfil its primary functions.
The bottom line is that you are going to need to consume more flaxseed oil than fish or krill oil if you want to boost your EPA and DHA intake. Therefore, I prefer to go with a marine source like fish oil or krill oil.
Recommended Omega-3 Supplement
A bodybuilding favourite and one of the most studied supplements around. Unlike most supplements that claim to boost muscle growth and performance, creatine does actually have the research to back it up.
By aiding in the regeneration of your muscles primary fuel source: adenosine triphosphate or “ATP”, creatine can help to boost power output as well as endurance in the muscles.
Benefits of Creatine
More energy during workouts. As well as helping with the chemical reactions involved in the synthesis of ATP, creatine itself can be used as an energy source. During fast, explosive movements like weightlifting, your body turns to its creatine phosphate stores for energy.
Hydrates the muscles and could lead to an increase in protein synthesis as a result.
Bigger, fuller looking muscles. Another benefit of creatine effectively “pulling” water into the muscle cells is that they can appear fuller and look bigger.
Should you Cycle Creatine?
Creatine cycling is not necessary since your body will not build up a tolerance to it like it does with other substances like caffeine. There was also a study on the long-term creatine supplementation in 2003 that showed no adverse effects from 21 consecutive months of taking creatine.
Do you Need to Load Creatine?
A loading phase of around one week where you take a higher daily dose of around 20g per day of creatine to saturate the muscles cells more quickly is often suggested.
However, this protocol is not needed. While there may be a quicker response from the creatine thanks to the loading phase, the long-term results will be the same as taking 5g each day on a consistent basis.
The possibility of stomach cramping, which some people complain of, is likely going to be higher if you go with the loading method.
Recommended Creatine Supplement
5. Pre-Workout Supplements – Caffeine & Citrulline Malate
There are a ridiculous number of “specialised” pre-workout supplements available that contain all manner of different ingredients. The trouble with these type of supplements is they can include ingredients that are unnecessary hence, making them quite costly but ineffective.
I have taken pre-workout supplements before and I do like them since I certainly enjoy the extra energy. The likelihood is only a very small number of the ingredients in a pre-workout help you in the gym.
For this reason, I have picked the two ingredients that I feel really can benefit you when taken pre-workout: caffeine and citrulline malate. I guess this really makes it my top 6 supplements that actually work.
Why Take Caffeine Before a Workout?
I feel like this question is self-explanatory; caffeine is one of the most commonly used drugs on earth and is well known for increasing energy levels.
It has also been shown to increase power output while suppressing pain and fatigue. A study of the effects of caffeine on rugby players so how it can improve performance, even in a sleep-deprived state.
Benefits of Caffeine
Increased power and total training volume output
Suppression of fatigue and pain, which allows longer and harder training sessions.
Burn more calories. It has been observed that caffeine can increase energy expenditure by around 100 calories when ingesting 600mg of caffeine. To note, 600mg is probably too much for most people so I would not suggest taking this much. However, you are still going to burn more calories than normal when taking less than 600mg.
Should you Cycle Caffeine?
Unlike creatine, your body will build up a tolerance to caffeine after a while. As a result, the effects will diminish and taking a larger dose is not recommended and it may not even work.
Therefore, going through periods without caffeine is a good idea to allow your body to become sensitive to it again. Taking a few days or even a week off after every couple of months of supplementing it should help.
How Much Caffeine Should You Take Before Training?
Most pre-made pre-workout supplements contain around 200mg of caffeine per serving. The amount you should take will depend on individual factors like body weight and your personal tolerance.
Between 200mg and 400mg is the general recommendation before a workout. I would certainly try to keep total intake below 500mg in a single day.
Recommended Caffeine Supplement
Citrulline Malate as a Pre-Workout Supplement
Citrulline malate may be known as a “pump product” since it influences the blood vessels in a way that increases the tight, pumped feeling of your muscles when you train them.
When ingested, citrulline is converted into arginine and stimulates the production of nitric oxide, which acts as a vasodilator and relaxes the muscles of the blood vessels. This increases blood flow and gives that pumped feeling.
Although the pump feels nice and could be a psychological factor in a training session, that by itself probably isn’t enough to make citrulline worthwhile.
Fortunately, citrulline malate has been shown to have some positive effects on athletic performance. Taking around 5-10 grams of citrulline malate 30-60 minutes before a workout should be sufficient.
Benefits of Citrulline
Improved blood flow and greater muscle pump.
Enhanced performance and increased training volume.
Better recovery and less muscle soreness post-workout.
Recommended Citrulline Malate Supplement:
Best Pre-Workout Supplement
If you do like to take an all-in-one pre-workout supplement or you don’t want to worry about dosing caffeine and citrulline separately, I have found a very good pre-workout that contains both.
Altius from JackedFactory is a solid pre-workout supplement that contains both caffeine and citrulline in good dosages. If you are set on taking an actual pre-workout supplement and have the budget, this would be my recommendation.
Adding supplements to an already healthy diet can be an effective way to improve health and performance. However, they should not be seen as a miracle cure or something to be relied upon.
For the most part, if you are able to reach your nutritional requirements from proper food, you should go down that route first.
As with any dietary changes, you should always consult with your GP or a registered medical professional. This info is just my opinion and isn't meant to be medical advice, be sure to do as much research as possible before adding new supplements to your routine.