Many professional athletes depend on the perfect supplement regime to help them perform their best. Whether you are looking to lose weight, build mass, or just be a better athlete, your body needs the right nutrients in order to do its best.
While you may know that a healthy, balanced diet is an important part of achieving absolutely any fitness goal, it can be tough work trying to make sure you are getting the right amount of every single nutrient. Supplements can help take some of the guess work out of it.
The right supplements can help round out that balanced diet so that you can be confident you have the optimum level of each nutrient. That way, you can focus on cooking healthy meals that you enjoy rather than trying to calculate exactly how much of which nutrient is on your plate!
In this guide, you’ll get all the info you need to get started including a supplement definition, a discussion of the different types of dietary supplements, and some tips for how to get the most from your workout supplements.
What Are Supplements
Supplements are highly concentrated forms of specific nutrients. Today, there is a supplement for just about every nutrient your body needs. By taking it in this highly concentrated form, you are doing a couple things—1) making sure you get enough of that nutrient, or; 2) taking a powerful enough dose to achieve your fitness goal.
Supplements can come in many forms but they are most often either pills or a powder that you use to make a shake or beverage. In this form, they are easy to consume and easier for your digestive system to break them down.
However, as convenient and helpful as they can be, there are some important guidelines you should follow to make sure you are using them smartly, safely, and effectively. We’ll take a look at those guidelines a little later in this article.
Who Should Take Supplements
Supplements can be a great addition to your diet and workout routine if you use them right. There are many benefits to using supplements smartly to optimize your workout and achieve your goals. But are they the right choice for you? Here are some general reasons that people opt to take supplements:
- Nutrient deficiency - The key purpose of a supplement is to make sure you are getting the optimal amount of a certain nutrient. Most people fail to get a complete dose of every nutrient in their daily diet, even if you try to eat healthy. Taking a supplement can help you make sure you are giving your body everything it needs.
- Overweight - If you are overweight or even if you are just trying to shed those last few pounds, the right nutrient balance can help make this possible. Whether it’s a supplement to help you get through that workout without collapsing or one that speeds up your metabolism, there are many ways that supplements can help speed up weight loss.
- Low muscle mass - Whether you’re trying to recover lost muscle mass from an injury or you just want to bulk up, supplements are almost always necessary. It’s not easy for your body to build and maintain muscle. So if you are trying to gain more muscle, you need to give your body more than just the minimum requirements of the nutrients it needs so that it has plenty to work with.
- Athletic goals - If you want to shave a few minutes off your marathon time or add a few pounds to the bar in your next bench pressing session, you need to make sure your body has the fuel it needs to push itself to the next level. Supplements are perfect for making sure you are able to maintain optimal performance.
Even if you are concerned about loading your body up with artificial junk, you can still take supplements safely. There are many natural supplements out there that use all natural sources to make sure you are getting the nutrition you need without all the extra artificial filler.
Now, there may be a lot of different reasons to take supplements and a lot of different people that they can help but that doesn’t mean every person should be taking the same exact supplements at the same exact levels. Our bodies, our goals, and our needs are all different.
What Supplements Should I Take
To help you figure out which supplements are right for your individual goals and needs, take a look at some of the different types of supplements that are available. Some of these are more geared toward weight loss, some for muscle gains, and some can help with both.
Rather than just choosing one, it’s usually best to put together a combination in order to maximize the effects of each (for example protein and fiber are a good pair). But we’ll talk more about this in the next section.
Protein is the essential building block for muscles. It’s also the sustained energy source that will power an intense workout which makes it one of the best pre workout supplements. It’s actually also great as a post workout supplement as well, though.
Pre workout, you’re getting the protein you need for lasting energy and endurance. Post workout, you’re getting the nutrients you need to build new muscle. So, if maximum gains are your main goal, give yourself a protein boost before and after a workout. But if you’re looking to lose weight, you only need the pre workout boost.
One advantage of a supplement like a protein shake before your workout is that it gives you the protein you need in a form that is more easily digestible. While you could get the same amount of protein eating a whole steak, you’ll end up feeling bloated and sluggish during your workout as your body focuses on breaking down and digesting the steak.
On the other hand, you can chug a protein shake and 30 minutes later, you’ve got the powerful energy and endurance you need to sweat it out at the gym or on a run. Whether it’s weight training or cardio, the immediately available energy is a welcome boost.
The need for immediate energy is why you’ll see some people eating massive high carb meals shortly before a workout. While this technically works because carbs are easy to breakdown and convert to energy, this doesn’t pack the same nutrient punch or provide the more powerful fuel that a protein supplement does.
A protein supplement combines the nutritional quality of a high protein meal with the immediate energy availability of a high carb meal—the best of both worlds!
So take a protein supplement if:
- You want to see quicker gains. In this case, take before and after workout (or take a supplement before and chow down on that steak after!)
- You want to lose weight. In this case, only take it before your workout.
- You want to improve performance. In this case, definitely take it before our workout. The post workout is optional.
Fiber is an essential part of any diet and so many people fail to get enough of it. And if you’re taking supplements (especially protein or iron), you need even more fiber than the average person. So if you’re not getting enough in your diet, you should considering taking a fiber supplement.
This is one of the most important weight loss supplements because fiber is pretty much the main nutrient in charge of keeping your metabolism going. Without fiber, your digestive system has a tough time breaking down food and absorbing nutrients (which means you are wasting those supplements by letting them pass through only partially digested).
So fiber supplements should be part of your routine if:
- You are trying to lose weight.
- You are increasing your protein intake (through supplements or diet).
- Your bowel movements are irregular or difficult.
Potassium is a crucial mineral that your body needs for proper circulation and to keep your organs working properly. Many people don’t even get the minimum amount of potassium required in their diet.
When you sweat during your workout, that sweat contains potassium and sodium. So, if you work out, you need even more potassium than the average person who doesn’t exercise.
But you don’t just need to increase potassium to make up for what you lose, it also helps your workout. That’s because potassium helps maintain normal blood flow. It keeps blood pressure at healthy levels and keeps your heart working optimally.
You need healthy blood circulation during your workout because your blood is what delivers oxygen and nutrients to your muscles while they’re working. When your muscles feel cramped or sore, it’s because of a lack of adequate blood flow.
So, take potassium supplements if:
- You aren’t getting at least 4,700mg from your diet.
- You are doing any kind of workout at all—cardio or strength training.
If you’re taking a potassium supplement, we recommend combining it with magnesium supplements. Magnesium is another essential mineral that works with potassium. They are more powerful when they are able to work together than when they have to work alone. So if you want to unlock the full potential of potassium, you need to take it with magnesium.
Nitric Oxide Supplements
Nitric oxide probably sounds more like something you’d put in your car than in you. But it’s actually an important substance in your body. It’s not so much a nutrient as it is a gas that your body produces on its own.
Its job is to help regulate circulation (like potassium) and to regulate the activities of your organs. Taking a supplement will help you speed up muscle growth and recovery time by delivering more nutrients to your muscles so that they can repair and build as quickly as you want them to.
The supplements you will find don’t actually contain nitric oxide (since it’s a gas). Instead, they contain Arginine which is what your body uses to make the gas.
So take nitric oxide supplements if:
- You are trying to build muscle.
- You are trying to improve performance.
Testosterone is technically not a nutrient so much as it is a hormone. It’s something that your body naturally produces. And it has a number of jobs that it’s responsible for. It triggers your body to build more muscle. It increases your metabolism. It energizes you to perform better. And it does a few other jobs but they don’t really play a role in your workout so we won’t mention them here.
When considering a testosterone supplement, it’s important to have very specific goals in mind. Don’t just decide “I want to see gains faster.” Give yourself a set goal. How much muscle do you want to pack on?
The reason for this is that, of all the supplements mentioned, testosterone is the most likely to cause side effects, even in its lower doses. So it is best to use this as a temporary boost to help you get to your goal faster before cutting it out and just focusing on maintaining that level.
So take a testosterone supplement if:
- You have been diagnosed with low Testosterone.
- You want to bulk up fast.
You have been diagnosed with low Testosterone.
You want to bulk up fast.
Tips For Getting The Most from Your Supplements
(combining, taking them with meals, pre vs post workout, taking them even on rest days)
Take Pills with Food
If you’re taking a daily vitamin, don’t just toss it back with your morning cup of Joe. Eat breakfast and take your vitamin on a full stomach. If you don’t you’re wasting that supplement.
All nutrients are either fat soluble or water soluble. That means your digestive system can only break down and absorb the nutrient if it is saturated in either fat or water. Your digestive system also needs fiber to kick it into gear.
So you don’t have to prepare yourself a feast each morning just to get your vitamin. Just eat something that contains some fat, some fiber, and some water. For example, a bowl of oatmeal with fruits and yogurt. Or if you’re really in a hurry, a piece of whole grain toast with butter and a glass of water.
Maintain Nutrient Balance on Rest Days
Some make the mistake of skipping supplements on their off days. And while you may not need to take the same high dosages that supercharge your workout, you still need to give your body the nutrients it needs to repair and build your body.
Don’t take mega doses but don’t fall below minimum recommended doses either.
Check Drug Interactions
If you are currently on any medications of any kind, make sure to tell your doctor before you start any supplement, no matter how natural. In the kinds of doses you get from supplements, some nutrients can interact negatively with some medications.
Check The Label
Do to the tricky legal area that supplements are in, it can be difficult to get quality supplements. The label might say “POTASSIUM” in all caps but on closer inspection, you could find that there is hardly any potassium in it at all. It sucks. But if you shop smart, you can find quality supplements that are everything they advertise.
Check the following items on every label:
- Certification - The FDA doesn’t regulate supplements strictly. They don’t check whether they are safe or effective. Luckily, other organizations do. Look for certifications from Consumer Lab, NSF International, or United States Pharmacopeia (USP) to know the supplement has met high standards to prove it’s safe and does what it advertises.
- Complete ingredient list - There should be a full list of ingredients including active and inactive ingredients. And it should tell you how much of the active ingredients are in each serving (as well as what a serving size is).
- Contact info - You might be surprised to know that some manufacturers don’t even bother to put their company name, address, and phone number on the bottle. That’s because they don’t want you contacting them about their low quality product! If you see contact info, it’s a sign they’re confident enough to stand behind their product. And it means you know who to call if you have questions about the supplement.
Mistakes to Avoid when Taking Supplements
When taking supplements, it’s easy to fall into certain traps. Avoid making the following mistakes to make sure you are being smart, healthy, and getting the absolute best out of your supplement regime:
Supplements Are Not an Excuse to Skip Meals
Just because that protein shake feels satisfying doesn’t mean it can be used instead of a meal. You need to eat whole meals. You can use it to skip a maximum of 1 meal per day and only if that shake includes some real ingredients like yogurt, oats, or peanut butter.
And if you’re trying to bulk up, you shouldn’t be skipping any meals. Take your supplements and eat 3 square meals on top of that.
Skipping meals and depriving your body of calories can send it into shock. It will start to think you are living through a famine. In an attempt to help you survive that “famine”, it’s going to start storing the majority of the calories you eat immediately as fat.
So, in the end, replacing that meal may seem like an easy way to cut out some calories but the truth is, it could end up making you gain more fat in the end.
Supplements Are Not an Excuse to Eat Junk
Some people get a little overconfident when they start supplementing. They start using the logic that as long as they work out and take supplements, they are free to eat whatever junk they crave.
But eating a healthy balanced diet is just as important no matter what supplements you take or how much you work out. Diet and exercise are not a pick and choose deal. They come as a package. If you want to achieve your goals, you need the optimal diet, the optimal workout plan, and the optimal supplement regime.
Supplements Should Not be Taken on an Empty Stomach
We know you’re busy and we know it’s tempting to just toss back that pill and run out the door. But you are wreaking havoc on your system and preventing your body from actually absorbing all the nutrients from that supplement. So it’s a complete waste.
If you are taking a pill, follow the advice above about eating the right meal. If you are taking a powder supplement, make sure you mix it with fiber, fat, and water. That could be fruit, yogurt and water, for example.
Don’t Take Mega Doses Daily
If you need a mega nutrient boost to power your workout, go for it. But on those days, skip supplements the rest of the day. And on rest days, stick with a minimum or moderate level.
Taking mega doses sounds appealing at first. If a little potassium is good, a lot of potassium must be great, right? Wrong. There is such a thing as vitamin toxicity. Regularly taking excessive doses will have negative side effects.
Basically, there are a lot of great reasons to take supplements and a lot of great supplements out there to help you achieve your goals whether you’re trying to lose weight, gain muscle, improve performance, or just make sure your body has the optimal nutrient balance. However, not everyone needs to take the same supplements at the same doses and there are some important tips to keep in mind to make sure you are taking them correctly and safely.
As long as you do your research before buying a product and make sure to follow the tips you read about in this article, you will be able to get the most out of your supplements while achieving your goals in a safe and healthy way. So start crafting your new supplement-powered diet and exercise plan to see the difference it can make!