For many who prefer to maintain their weight and their health without the use of supplements, they need to consider that the Industrial Revolution has resulted in a sedentary lifestyle (decreased physical labor requirement) and refined/processed foods which has resulted in a decline in weight management. Our environment has changed faster than we can adapt, many of us as we age store excess energy (fat) as if to prepare for a case in which we couldn’t find food regularly or needed to store energy for physical activity as would have been the case over a hundred years ago.
However, the fact is that we spend most of our time on our butt thanks to technology and it is harming our health. As much as some would like to complain about the health care costs of lifters injuring themselves and requiring surgery, the fact is that the majority of health care costs are the result of heart disease and cancer (the top 2) and many of the major complications of obesity are right below those top two on the list (heart disease is the #1 complication associated with obesity). So if technology has caused us to become sedentary and it has negatively impacted our health, why not fight back with technology?
I’m not talking about becoming dependent on pharmaceutical drugs to maintain your health. I’m talking about the supplement industries ability to aid in motivation, exercise performance, recovery and the regulation of calories. Take into account a research study done on college age men and women on the effectiveness of supplementing with meal-replacements and a weight loss product on body composition and markers for fitness levels. While the effectiveness of the weight loss supplement was inconclusive (the supplement and its ingredients were not disclosed) it was determined that the meal replacement when used in conjunction with exercise, had positive improvements for fitness levels and body fat reduction (1).
For every person that you can think of that is a supplement guru or lives the bodybuilding lifestyle there are 10 people who either don’t believe in, or fear supplementation. By fearing supplementation I don’t mean being afraid of the products in general, but there are those who feel taking different products at the same time will somehow automatically lead to side effects or degraded health; and in some cases they believe they will receive more muscle growth then they want.
Now there are cases in which creating your own supplement stack is a bad idea and that is always the case when it comes to stimulant or caffeine based products. Everyone has either heard it before or asked the question “can I combine these two pre-workouts?” or “Can I take this pre workout with this fat burner?” Just to make things clear...no stimulant product in the recent history of the supplement industry was designed to be combined with another stimulant supplement.
Part of the reason for so many misconceptions is the result of advertising; unfortunately, to grab the attention of potential customers describing how products make you feel in the most colorful ways possible is part of the game. However, when advertisements start guaranteeing muscle gains in a certain period of time or promote a product as being so strong it could possibly be harmful to your health; that’s when things go too far.
Now for those who don’t believe supplementation is effective at all, it should be known that many of the ingredients and analogues of amino acids are based on things found in food in concentrated amounts for performance. Outside of creatine and protein (especially the BCAAs and the other amino acids that are in protein) there are very few supplements that have a direct correlation with muscle growth.
The majority of supplements, if you look closely, are associated with boosting performance or recovery to aid in your efforts to gain muscle. With all the research being done on supplements and steroids the one thing that can get overlooked at times is the fact that muscle growth has a direct relationship to training. Even if you took steroids, if you sat at home doing nothing, there would be no muscle growth to speak of.
For those who don’t believe in supplementation who feel they are of a higher education level, much of the research disproving the use of supplementation is based on popular supplements like L-arginine being disproven for many of its major uses pre-exercise in terms of increasing the pump or increasing performance (2). But for every bit of researching disproving an ingredients application, there is research supporting ingredients like Citrulline Malate and GPLC (Glycine Proprionyl L-Carnitine) for the same use with benefits for muscular endurance and improved performance.
Also, some of the research discrediting supplementation is ill conceived. All too often research will be done on an ingredient to test for increases in lean body mass after only a short period of time (4-8 weeks) on ingredients that were only meant to promote increases in endurance/performance or recovery. And they use this as evidence to disprove supplementation use when, as stated earlier; outside of creatine and amino acids much of the ingredients in supplementation promote increases in performance or recovery which allow the user to make gains in muscle growth if diet and training are in line with their goals.
A particular case in which this is evident is in a research study done to determine the effectiveness of a protein/carbohydrate supplement, the researchers attempted to discover some sort of correlation between the supplement and performance despite the fact that it is primarily promoted for recovery. They did however discover markers for increased recovery thanks to protein/carbohydrate supplementation (3).
Another aspect of the supplement industry that is criticized is the pre-workout. It is well known that caffeine interferes with creatine’s effectiveness if they are taken at the same time; however this is not enough to discredit the use of stimulant based pre-workouts. Your strength is largely central nervous system based, so caffeine’s ability to decrease pain associated with exercise and result in an acute increase in strength is very real (4).
Also, in a study done on sedentary (does not exercise on a regular basis) men, it was determined that a low-calorie energy drink aided in their physiological adaptations to exercise (5). This is very important when you consider that it improved their body’s ability to adapt to a stress (exercise) that it was not previously trained to be able to handle.
Supplementation even for beginners can be important for helping them to cope with the physiological stress associated with returning to exercise. More research on popular specific ingredients like the recovery enhancing L-carnitine L-tartrate can be found in the article ‘The Key Amino Acids, Minerals, And Antioxidants For Recovery’ and the latest information on glutamine and creatine supplementation can be found in the article ‘Glutamine and creatine: Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks’.
As far as the concern for taking too many supplements, although too much of something is a bad thing (see ‘The Key Principle for Life, Dieting and Training: Moderation’) much of it is unwarranted. The largest known concerns based on research for supplementation are that fat soluble vitamins (like A, D, E, and K) have known toxicity levels and that taking too much of single amino acids ex: L-Leucine, can interfere with the absorption of other amino acids (6).
Another concern that the NCAA took control of was excess protein supplementation which lead to dehydration. Now the NCAA’s new ruling is to not recommend servings of protein supplements in excess of 40g per serving. However, past this, as long as supplements are taken as recommended there isn’t too much cause for concern. creatine is constantly proven to be safe and effective and recently popular amino acids in research such as L-Carnitine L-Tartrate have also passed their preliminary tests for safety (7).
So in the end, while it is true that you’ll have to do a little research on a supplements ingredients before purchasing and falling into the hype; that doesn’t mean that supplements are ineffective. For every study that discredits a supplement, there is one that proves another ingredient worthy to add to your training regimen, and for every proven ingredient that is discredited for a particular use; if applied appropriately it can be irreplaceable in your supplement stack.
The key thing to also remember is that very few products have a direct relationship to muscle growth; they are mostly training aids, so there should be no fear of becoming too bulky or looking like the bodybuilders in the ads because you are using a product to increase your endurance and another to increase recovery.
Dustin Elliott is the Head Formulator for Betancourt Nutrition.
- Poole, Chris N; Roberts, Michael D; Dalbo, Vincent J; Tucker, Patrick S; Sunderland, Kyle L; DeBolt, Nick D; Billbe, Brett W; Kerksick, Chad M. The Combined Effects of Exercise and Ingestion of a Meal Replacement in Conjunction with a Weight Loss Supplement on Body Composition and Fitness Parameters in College-Aged Men and Women. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research., POST AUTHOR CORRECTIONS, 14 December 2010
- Camic, Clayton; Housh, T J; Zuniga, J M; Hendrix, C R; Mielke, M; Johnson, G O; Schmidt, R J; Housh, D J. Effects Of Four Weeks Of Arginine Supplementation On The Physical Working Capacity At The Fatigue Threshold. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 24():1, January 2010
- Baty, Jacob J. et al. The Effect of A Carbohydrate and Protein Supplement on Resistance Exercise Performance, Hormonal Response, and Muscle Damage. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 21(2):321-329, May 2007.
- Beck, Travis W. et al. The Acute Effects of A Caffeine-Containing Supplement on Strength, Muscular Endurance, and Anaerobic Capabilities. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 20(3):506-510, August 2006.
- Lockwood, Christopher M; Moon, Jordan R; Smith, Abbie E; Tobkin, Sarah E; Kendall, Kristina L; Graef, Jennifer L; Cramer, Joel T; Stout, Jeffrey R. Low-Calorie Energy Drink Improves Physiological Response to Exercise in Previously Sedentary Men: A Placebo-Controlled Efficacy and Safety Study. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: August 2010 - Volume 24 - Issue 8 - pp 2227-2238
- H. Fisher, P. Griminger, G. A. Leveille and R. Shapiro. Quantitative Aspects of Lysine Deficiency and Amino Acid Imbalance. The Journal of Nutrition, January 18, 1960
- Rubin, Martyn R et al. Safety Measures of L-Carnitine L-Tartrate Supplementation in Healthy Men Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 15(4):486-490, November 2001.