Regardless whether you’re using my simple workout plan or a method like Body for Life, if you want to add muscle you need to eat more calories than you burn, while making sure your diet is balanced. Likewise, if your goal is to melt that belly fat and see those abs, you need to burn more calories than you eat – again, while keeping the foods you eat healthy and balanced in fat, carbs and protein.
Keeping that in mind, there are some great products out there that will help you stay on target while providing you with nutrition, recovery, energy and enhanced fat-burning. There is a great deal of hype for (and against) the vast majority of supplements – which are worth your money?
Note: There are no magic bullets. These products only help if you also follow a program of exercise and nutrition. Anything (including vitamins) used incorrectly or with pre-existing conditions can cause side effects. Read data, be aware of potential side effects and listen to your body.
Supplements You Want
1. Protein Powder
Use: Because eating eight burgers a day would be bad.
Recommended: Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey Protein. It’s cheaper than most proteins, and it also tastes better (see below).
What it is: It’s food. Made from either whey or soy, protein powder comes in various flavors. More expensive proteins include casein, a slower-digesting protein that’s ideal to take before bedtime or if you’re planning a long gap between meals. Unless you’re vegan, use whey protein: it’s low in lactose, and soy protein doesn’t make the trip to your muscles quite as well. There are brands that cram in multiple substances besides the protein – some of which you’ll see in the list of supplements you don’t want. Ask for 100% protein.
Tips: You may want to sample a smaller-size container of various brands until you find one that tastes good to you, because 5 lbs. of powder is a lot to get through if you can’t stand the flavor. Mix the powder with milk or water, or for more flavor and nutrition, blend it with milk and either a handful of frozen strawberries, or ice, a banana and a tablespoon of peanut butter.
Use: Helping you to lift that little bit more. It may also positively affect mental function.
Recommended: Now Foods 100% Pure Creatine Monohydrate Powder.
What it is: Creatine is a component of muscle that helps to supply energy to the muscle. Your body either takes it in directly when you eat meat or synthesizes it for you when you eat a vegetarian diet. In both cases, your body doesn’t necessarily take in enough to positively affect your workouts. Creatine is possibly one of the most thoroughly tested supplements available, with limited drawbacks unless you abuse it.
Tips: While exercise gurus recommend a “loading phase” where you take higher doses, this higher level of creatine use can cause problems in a few people. I’d suggest taking the “maintenance” dose for an entire month, followed by a month of taking none.
3. Recovery Drink
Use: To help your body to recover after a hard workout.
Recommended: Make your own (see Tips).
What it is: A muscle-building workout actually damages muscle fibers, causing your body to build more fibers to repair the muscle. To speed this process, you should make sure your body has the components for recovery immediately after the workout. A recovery drink for a muscle-building workout should always contain at least 2 grams of carbs to 1 gram of protein, and as many as 4 grams of carbs per gram of protein. A high-quality protein drink uses glucose (often maltodextrin) for its carbs.
Tips: You don’t have to buy a pre-packaged recovery drink. Adding unflavored or fruit-flavored protein to fruit juice can work almost as well. Making a smoothie with a small amount of protein can also do the job. And substituting good old chocolate milk can add the benefits of the milk’s vitamin D and potassium.
After a hard aerobic workout like a 5k run, a “sports drink” including potassium and sodium is what you need.
4. Green Tea
Use: The closest thing to a safe, proven fat loss aid. It also boosts energy.
Recommended: Bigelow Organic Green Tea. It doesn’t say “Ultra Super Antioxidant!” on the package, but it’s perfectly good green tea.
What it is: While most of green tea’s wide range of positive effects, from cancer prevention to cavity prevention to snake anti-venom, are still undergoing scientific testing, there are two advantages that can help you reach your exercise goals: first, the catechins in green tea raise your metabolic rate, aiding in fat burning. Second, studies have shown that caffeine improves athletic performance.
Tips: Avoid green tea extract capsules: the studies that showed the above effects showed that brewed green tea was the most effective form. Drink about four cups per day. In the summer, brew up a batch of iced green tea.
Supplements You Don’t Want
Use: Theoretically helps repair your damaged muscles after a workout.
Why you don’t need it: You don’t work out hard enough.
What it is: Currently the most hyped supplement after creatine, L-glutamine replenishes an amino acid that helps rebuild your muscles when you’re injured or sick. However, with a balanced diet your body will manufacture enough of this amino acid on its own to perform the small repairs you need after a workout. Studies so far show that an L-glutamine supplement isn’t useful unless you’re doing extreme training for a bodybuilding competition or run marathons.
2. Nitric Oxide Booster
Use: Dilates your blood vessels to enable greater oxygen flow to your muscles.
Why you don’t need it: No proof that any oral supplement actually works to boost nitric oxide. It’s also a free radical.
What it is: Nitric oxide is a compound that helps relax blood vessel walls, helping them to dilate. This promotes blood flow, which promotes oxygenation of your muscles. Pricey supplements promoted to boost nitric oxide were the rage several years ago, but no studies have shown that the supplements actually do what they claim. (What does work to boost nitric oxide? Viagra.)
Use: Theoretically boosts performance, promotes energy and weight loss.
Why you don’t need it: No published scientific proof that it works.
What it is: Another amino acid like L-glutamine and found in large amounts in red meat like creatine, L-carnitine actually has promising initial findings for men suffering from angina, peripheral vascular disease and even erectile dysfunction. But the news for our fitness program is bad: a recent study showed no weight-loss benefit, and claims of performance enhancement have still not been backed up by science.
4. Human Growth Hormone/Testosterone Supplements
Use: Billed as over-the-counter versions of super-powerful banned performance enhancing drugs.
Why you don’t need them: Snake oil.
What it is: Okay, I cheated here, but these two are very similar. Both HGH and prescription steroids are actual hormones that have been proven to help muscles grow, build stronger bones, and fail sports drug tests. However, the versions you can buy over the counter or Internet are to these controlled substances as a 7-Eleven Slurpee brain freeze is to LSD. What you generally get in over-the-counter HGH and testosterone-boosting supplements is a “precursor”: a substance that theoretically works chemical magic to stimulate the organ that produces HGH or testosterone. At best they’re unproven, at worst independent lab tests have shown such miniscule amounts of the “active” ingredients that you’d get more benefit from a sugar pill.
Also, any substance judged to even remotely boost testosterone has been outlawed from over-the-counter sales (even though many of those were never proven), in effect giving the government’s seal of approval that the stuff advertised in Muscle & Fitness won’t work.
To sum up, there are no cheats to a better physique – science has shown that. Now go get your workout on.