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Most sports supplements are bullshit. Ask any expert and they'll tell you the same thing. For as much as the pharmaceutical industry claims that a half-cup of dehydrated rattlesnake testes lengthens your back muscles, there is a whole catalogue of scientific research that states, in no uncertain terms, that all those laser-printed amino acids on the back of the tub are either useless or dangerous. Working out is always best when you keep things simple, and the whole marketing strategy behind sports supplements is to chuck so much bogus information your way that you eventually give up and buy them all.
That said, it is totally possible to wrap a few extra wrinkles into your workout plan in a reasonable way—as long as you do so within reason, and with real data by your side. I called up two experts to get to the truth on sports supplements: Kamal Patel, the director of the online nutrition encyclopedia Examine.com, and Eric Trexler, Director of Education at Stronger By Science. They were more than willing to cut through the chaff, and offered up a supplement regimen that won't get you laughed out of the laboratory.
Creatine remains probably the most popular sports supplement on the market. Scientifically, it's a molecule produced by the liver that, according to Examine.com, stores "high-energy phosphate groups," which can come in handy "under conditions of high energy demand such as intense physical or mental activity." In layman's terms, that means creatine unlocks some extra juice at the gym.
"Creatine usually works, it works better than most sports supplements, because it's something your body usually has," says Patel. "If you use it, you're saturating your body with creatine, which allows you to crank out a few more reps."
The other upside is that creatine is relatively safe to use. The worst side-effects might be some stomach cramping or diarrhea, which, let's face it, isn't any different from the average bulk diet. There is no shortage of creatine powders on the market, but Optimum Nutrition's Micronized Creatine Monohydrate Powder is a frequent top pick.
It should be said that both Trexel and Patel told me that, for certain people, creatine just doesn't work. Creatine products aim to swell the body with as much creatine as it can hold, because most of the world operates outside of total capacity. But there are those who just naturally have tapped creatine levels, so if you start taking it and don't see results, congratulations! Expect your call from Charles Xavier soon.
The other ubiquitous sports supplement next to creatine? Whey protein. A brief story: In college I went over to a buddy's house to find the hallway outside his dorm absolutely caked with strawberry whey protein. It was one of the worst smells I ever encountered in the dorms, which is really saying something. Anyways, whey isn't just used for horrible frat pranks, it's also a great, easy way to boost the protein intake in your diet. The benefits mirror the benefits you see in any other protein-rich diet—muscle gains with weightlifting, and a buffer to muscle loss during cuts, and fat gain during bulks. The most important quality? Products using it can taste pretty good.
"The more you break down a protein the crappier it tastes,” says Patel. “Usually they have to heavily flavor it, but whey you can actually drink without any flavor. It tastes neutral.”
Again, whey is one of the most common sports supplements on the market, so you've got a ton of options but topping many lists is BiPro 100 Percent Whey Protein Isolate, which has one of the simplest ingredients list you'll find in the industry.
There are a lot of sports supplements out there that claim to offer an energy boost to jolt up your workouts. But both Patel and Trexler told me to forget all the noise and stick with old faithful: caffeine. Though not just any caffeine! Your morning coffee isn't helping you crush plateau points at the gym, as Patel explained to me.
"Caffeine works great, but as a pre-workout stimulant, you have to cycle your caffeine. If you're someone who drinks coffee everyday, that's not really gonna help your workout," he says. "But if you ratchet it down, and take it as a pre-workout supplement, it's basically the best one for energy."
So, down your caffeine before your workout, and you'll see improved physical strength and endurance, as it purges all those sleepy receptors out of your brain. You can obviously get a caffeine fix in a variety of ways, be that Prolab Caffeine Tablets, BulkSupplements Caffeine Capsules, or just a coffee or tea before heading off to leg day.
Citrulline Malate is an amino acid supplement that, in some research, has been shown to stymie fatigue and bolster endurance during, say, minute 37 of a 45 minute workout. It's something Trexler recommends as a training alloy that might help certain consumers. "There's evidence that it boosts strength performance, and it's usually pretty cost effective. It tastes great, it's single dose, six to eight grams right before a workout," he says.
There are a variety of Citrulline Malate powders on the market, like say, Transparent Labs RawSeries Citrulline. But even if you've got enough supplements in your life already, Trexler says he often recommends people to get some Citrulline in their body through their regular diet. It's common in watermelon, pumpkins, cucumber, and gourds, so even if it doesn't work, says Trexler, "The downside is you ate a ton of vegetables. You don't regret that."
Last but not least is beta-alanine, another amino acid sports supplement both Patel and Trexler recommend. Functionally, Patel compares beta-alanine to creatine, and Examine.com says users report the ability to get a few extra reps out of a set, and the ability to sustain some high-intensity cardio.
"It's not bad, it helps with really intense exercise, because it helps you buffer lactic acid. [Which is what causes pain during workouts,]" says Patel. "It can help some people, some people it doesn't help."
TransparentLabs' Beta-Alanine powder is a good option for its simplicity, and Patel warns that in high doses, you might notice a tingling sensation in your hands called paresthesia. Don't worry though, it's totally harmless.
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