Be Smart About Supplementation!

Amidst the current crisis the country is witnessing in regards to Vaping (E-Cigarette consumption), I see a lot of parallels to the wide-ranging supplement intake in the fitness industry. Just like we’re finding out right now with Vaping, we don’t really know the long-term effects on our bodies from taking the “cutting edge,” newest supplements. I am most certainly not a chemist, nor a supplement guru, however, I’ve taken my fair share of legal supplements and have a lot of experiences to draw on. I am not going to advocate for any one brand, rather I’d like to shed some light that never occurred to me when I was first trying different products.

The Purpose of Supplementation

Getting the proper amount of sleep, eating nutritiously wholesome meals, and working out vigorously are the keys to living a well-rounded, healthy lifestyle. Supplements should do just that- supplement your lifestyle. In other words, taking a supplement will not cancel out poor nutritional choices, or the fact that you haven’t properly exerted yourself in the gym in weeks. IF taken properly, supplements can aid in workout effectiveness, as well as muscle recovery, however, too often we are blindly buying products with the catchiest name or logo- rather than what is in the product.

For the purpose of this blog, I’m going to focus on 3 different types of supplements- probably the most commonly inquired about.

  1. Pre-Workout
  2. Intra-Workout
  3. Post-Workout

What Is a “Pre-Workout” and Why Take It?

The purpose of a pre-workout supplement is to prepare the body for the impending workout by increasing your energy and focus as well as the expansion of blood vessels; thus allowing more blood to be pumped to working muscles. The increase in blood flow means you’ll have more quality sets and reps, accordingly increasing your strength and muscle gain. Ingredients often include various amino acids, such as Beta Alanine (which gives your skin the tingling sensation some crave) and Citrulline, as well as caffeine and occasionally Creatine (a future blog post will be done solely on Creatine).

The first pre-workout, Ultimate Orange, was developed in 1982 by bodybuilder Dan Duchaine. Since then, the supplement industry has seen countless lawsuits (including against Ultimate Orange) due to heart attacks sustained after extended use of products. (Most recently Jack3d, was the pre-workout that made headlines for the deaths of 2 soldiers in 2011). Much of the controversy surrounding pre-workout consumption is centered around abusing the serving size, combined with severe dehydration.

Most individuals take a pre-workout for the mental edge prior to a workout. There is most likely an element of the placebo effect to it, however, as long as you’re not abusing how many scoops of pre-workout you’re taking, and you’re hydrating properly, a pre-workout supplement can definitely positively impact a training session.

What Is an “Intra-Workout” and Why Take It?

Anything you consume while working out is technically an intra-workout drink. For most, this happens to be water or a sports drink. Others though will consume an intra-workout supplement. These drinks generally contain a combination of BCAA’s (branch chain amino acids), carbohydrates, proteins and/or caffeine.

The basic purpose of consuming such a supplement while training is to improve an individual’s muscle buffering capacity. In other words, this supplement will theoretically stave off the impending fatigue and acid build up in working muscles. As well as give you an energy kick either through a carbohydrate spike or caffeine.

Over the years, studies have been pretty wide ranging on the benefits of direct consumption of BCAA’s. Some studies say they vastly improve muscle recovery and aid in protein synthesis (thus resulting in muscle growth), while others say you’re best off consuming your BCAA’s naturally through whole food sources such as: beef, chicken, turkey, salmon, canned tuna and eggs.

Similar to a pre-workout, consuming BCAA’s while training is probably another example of the placebo effect. The biggest key to any training session is staying hydrated. Whether you do that through an intra-workout supplement, or just water, always make sure you’re replenishing fluids as you’re exercising.

What Is a “Post-Workout” Shake and Why Take It?

One of the staples in the gym bag of many gym goers includes a shaker bottle with a post workout shake in it. When you walk into your local GNC or Vitamin Shoppe, there are entire walls dedicated to solely post-workout protein powders in massive containers. There is a great emphasis placed on the need to consume a post-workout supplement, however, it’s imperative to also understand why you’re taking it, and which type of protein to choose. 

After you’re finished with your workout, there is a window to take your post workout supplement that lasts almost 2 hours. It is crucial to get a source of protein and complex carbohydrate in your body during this time to aid in muscular recovery and glucose replenishment. Most people opt for a post-workout shake at this point, which should be some form of Whey Protein– whey is a fast digesting protein, so it will be absorbed by your body much quicker than any other form of protein, such as Casein.

Depending on what your training goal is and how much time you’ve got can determine how simple or complex you make your protein shake. If you’re looking to put muscle on, and you’ve got some time after you train, you can blend up a protein shake with whey protein, a banana, peanut butter, almond milk, etc.

If you’re trying to tone up or lose weight, simple is usually better, so I’d recommend taking the whey protein with just water (which is how I take mine daily due to time constraints). Or, if you’re looking to drop weight, but you still want to make a ‘calorie heavy’ protein shake like I just mentioned, treat that as a full meal replacement and fast for the next few hours. In other words, don’t have that type of shake as a beverage with a full meal as well- the excess carbohydrates will just get turned to sugar by your body and eventually stored as fat.

Questions to Ask Yourself!

Is the supplement(s) I am taking in line with living a healthy lifestyle?

I think this is the question that I’ve come face to face with most in my own training career. When I first started consistently working out about 10 years ago, I had zero interest in looking at labels or stopping to listen to any side effects a supplement was causing my body. As I learned more though and my goals have shifted, this is the question I always ask myself before I put a supplement in my body. If my overarching goal is to live a healthy lifestyle through exercise, then why would I potentially give myself a heart problem down the line because of a supplement? At the end of the day, you need to be brutally honest with yourself and how you feel when taking any kind of supplement.

What is my total caffeine intake?

I’m totally a coffee guy- I don’t just drink coffee for the caffeine either. I genuinely enjoy the taste of black coffee. So, if I’m taking a supplement that has a certain amount of caffeine in it, I need to be cognizant of the fact that I shouldn’t drink nearly as much coffee as I normally would. One of the scariest responses I’ll get from someone telling me about their new pre-workout is an “I don’t know” in regards to how much caffeine is in it. (There are pre-workouts out there that have almost 400 mg of caffeine in it!)

Caffeine isn’t solely in pre-workouts either. If you’re doing a full stack (pre, intra and post workout supplements) be aware of the ingredients in your intra-workout as well- because a lot of times they’ll contain some caffeine as well. Consider this, if you took a pre-workout with 350 milligrams of caffeine, then an intra-workout with an additional 100 milligrams, you’re almost already at 450 mg of caffeine.

If you exercise in the morning, that means you’ve already had the equivalent of 4-5 cups of coffee (approximately 80-90 mg per cup of coffee). Therefore, whatever coffee, or God-forbid energy drink, you consume the rest of the day is putting your caffeine content extremely high. Admittedly, everyone responds differently to caffeine, so some people can handle upwards of 700 mg of caffeine per day and not experience any negative side effects (fluttering heart, insomnia, anxiety, nausea). Just be aware of your caffeine consumption and listen to any side effects your body may experience!

Am I drinking enough water?

Regardless of what supplement(s) you take, your water consumption needs to be high. If you are in a dehydrated state, you’re only asking for issues in terms of negative side effects. There have been studies done that link potential kidney dysfunction to dietary supplements- one way to guard against this is to flush your system out with water, so there’s no potential deposits that could turn to kidney stones down the road.

How long have I been taking this supplement?

There’s two sides to this question. First, a legal supplement is not some magic potion. Just because you take a pre-workout, doesn’t mean you’re going to turn into Superman during your next workout. Allow for 4 weeks to see improvements in your various goals. Conversely, if you’ve been taking the same supplement regiment for the past 10 months (or several years for some!) it’s time to cycle off.

This is primarily because you lose the effectiveness of the supplement due to your body gets used to it (this is mainly in reference to pre-workout). But also, you’ve now become dependent on a supplement to train- and I don’t consider that healthy. At any point, you should be able to walk into the gym and have a quality workout, without feeling like you had to have a certain drink beforehand. If I take a pre-workout, I generally do 4 weeks on, 4-8 weeks off. A good rule of thumb is basically when you go through the tub of pre-workout, it’s time to cycle off.

How much money do I want to spend per month on supplements?

This is where the buck stops for me. I have a really hard time justifying spending several hundred dollars per month on supplements. Simple is always better for me, so I don’t get wrapped up in the different “blends” of protein (all I look for is my Whey Protein Isolate), nor the catchy logos on the $65 pre-workouts. Over the years, I’ve figured out what works best for me, and very much fits into my budget. Rather than spend a head scratching amount of money every month in GNC, I’d recommend simply hiring a good coach/trainer instead. I guarantee your results will be better.

Bottom Line

The supplement industry is NOT regulated by the FDA. It is a slippery slope sifting through the products in your local GNC or Vitamin Shoppe, and you need to be careful with what you’re putting into your body. My biggest piece of advice would be read labels. Theoretically before you buy the product, but most importantly before you ingest anything.  Don’t necessarily go by what the wildly undertrained employee is telling you either. Look ingredients up online, and use the attitude of: if you can’t pronounce an ingredient then you should probably look it up and see what it is.

Everyone responds differently to different ingredients and products, and I don’t possess the expertise to list off what you should or shouldn’t be looking for. My simple advice is awareness. Be aware of what you are consuming in the name of being “healthy.”

Healthy Alternatives

Also understand there are completely healthy alternatives to supplements as well. Instead of a pre-workout supplement, go old school and drink black coffee with an apple and peanut butter about 30 minutes prior to your workout. Or, if you want to go with a hybrid approach, make coffee and buy a pre-packaged protein shake (I like Muscle Milk because they have a coffee flavored protein) and use it as a creamer. That way you’re getting your caffeine, carbohydrates and protein all together.

During your workout, just make your goal to stay hydrated. Sometimes, if I’m really dragging ass, I’ll bring a travel cup with coffee to sip on (along with water) during my workout. You can also drink a sports drink as well- if you go that route though, I’d do 50% water though to cut some of the sugar out of it.

Post-workout, rather than take a shake you can eat a protein filled meal with some complex carbs and get the same basic results. (The advantage to a protein shake in this instance is the rapidity at which Whey Protein is absorbed by your body as opposed to whole foods) If you train in the morning, then a great breakfast option would be a veggie omelet, with a Greek Yogurt and/or whole wheat toast- all in lieu of a post-workout supplement.

In Conclusion…

Regardless of what you choose, find what works best for you and always be in tune with what your body is feeling. Make the necessary adjustments and remember not to rely on supplements nor take them for an overly extended period of time. If you ever feel lost in terms of what supplement may or may not be right for you, reach out to a nutritionist or dietician. Or take the time to do your own research, because the information you get from a sales rep in a store may not be 100% accurate.

Keep in mind that the Fitness Industry as a whole is still in it’s infancy stage- let alone the supplement industry! We really don’t know the long-term effects of taking certain products long-term. Always keep that fact in the back of your mind. Remember to read labels and treat your body like a temple with what you choose to put into it!

Yours in Fitness and Health,


Your Final Reward Will Be Heartache and Tears, If You’ve Cheated the Guy in the Glass. 

2 thoughts on “Be Smart About Supplementation!

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