Natty Lifter's Guide to Supplementation: Build Quality Gainz w/out Steroids

In this four part series, we break down everything natural lifters should know about building muscle without steroids. Part 4 covers supplementation!

5:45am.

The iPhone blinks awake as the alarm cranks to life and cuts through the stillness of night.

John slowly rolls over and mashes the home button a few times.

5 new emails, 2 calendar reminders, and a host of mindless social media notifications greet him as the blue hue hits his retinas.

His mind races to life but his body senses the need for more sleep despite the impending sunrise.

He takes a deep breath and pulls his body upright.

Carefully, he gropes his way to the bathroom and manages to miss any potentially injurious furniture.

He steps on the scale and the red numbers come to life.

“237lbs.”

He steps off and shakes his head.

“Weird, I’ve been 237 for the last 3 months despite all those new supplements I started.”

Heading for the kitchen, he rummages through an assortment of bags and bottles as he prepares his supplementation for the day ahead.

  • 3 Scoops Whey
  • 4 Caps Magnesium Glycinate
  • 6 Caps Fish Oil
  • 2 Caps Zinc Picolinate
  • 1 Cap Vitamin D

He shakes his head and turns to the door.

“I’m going to rattle when I walk if I keep taking this many pills…” he chuckled to himself as he walked out the door.

Natural Lifter Pouring Supplements into Hand

Fundamentals First and Foremost

Before we proceed, let me make one thing clear, I’m not an anti-supplement guy. On the contrary, I use and recommend them myself. But, they most certainly are not a silver bullet. You won’t bust through a lengthy fat loss or performance plateau simply because you tossed back a couple fish oil capsules and snorted a line of creatine.

Related: Are Your Genetics Preventing You From Building Muscle?

As I mentioned in the nutritional piece of this series, if you are considering supplementation, these 11 foundational concepts must be in place before you even think about popping a pill.

  1. You should have an adequate grasp on your total daily calories and protein intake.
  2. You should consume a wide variety of whole foods within your diet.
  3. You should consume a decent protein bolus of 20-35g with each feeding (0.18-0.23g/lb).
  4. You should sleep a minimum of 7.5-8hrs (or more) nightly.
  5. You should consume premium cuts of red meat 2-3 times per week.
  6. You should consume foods rich in potassium and lightly salt your meals (if eating bland foods) to ensure adequate electrolyte balance.
  7. You should consume 4-6oz of wild caught fatty fish 2-3 times per week.
  8. You should go to bed before 11pm.
  9. You should consume (at least) 7-10 servings of fruit and vegetables daily.
  10. You should ensure 20-30 minutes of direct sun exposure daily.
  11. You should consume 2-3 whole eggs daily.

Creatine, Caffeine, and Carbs…Oh My!

Now, if you’ve addressed #1-11, we can move into some finer points. This list isn’t comprehensive by any means, there may be certain instances where additional supplementation may be required depending upon specific medical conditions. However, this is a good starting point for most.

Natural Lifter Pouring Supplements into Blender Bottle

1. Liquid Carbohydrates

Carbs are a supplement? Better believe it. We’re talking about the liquid version though, not a handful of mashed sweet potatoes. In case you missed the discussion on their physiological significance (see here if interested in reading more), here’s a quick recap:

  • Lower prevalence of upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs)1,2
  • Improved muscle glycogen resynthesis3
  • Blunted cortisol response4
  • Improved T:C ratio5

​Dosage: 30-60g depending upon the volume of your training session.

2. Creatine

Creatine should be a staple for literally everyone, including those who don’t train. Research has repeatedly shown performance and aesthetic benefits from creatine supplementation. But now we’re seeing some studies showing reductions in fatigue following periods of sleep deprivation, cognitive improvements in post-concussion patients, and alterations in cerebral oxygenation.6,7

Dosage: 5g/day for most. 10g/day may be beneficial for those with high activity levels or large amounts of muscle mass. Loading isn’t necessary but may help to elevate brain creatinine levels and improve some markers of sleep quality.7

3. Caffeine

Keep in mind, there may be some whose performance suffers from compounds, such as caffeine, which create excessive sympathetic stimulation. So, do not automatically assume it is necessary (see foundational concepts #1-11 before you default to this ergogenic “aid”).

This is a double edged sword so choose wisely as we’re entering a slippery slope and you might find that this ergogenic aid turns into a lifestyle crutch very quickly. Here are some simple contraindications to keep in mind:

  • Avoid consumption of any caffeine after 1pm.
    • Some may need to limit usage prior to 11am if they possess a genetic alteration in CYP1A influencing caffeine metabolism.15
  •  Be very careful in supplementing regularly with heavy caffeine dosages prior to training sessions occurring after a poor night’s sleep - you may potentiate neuroendocrine maladaptations.
  • If there is any indication of HPA axis dysregulation (cortisol/melatonin dysrhythmia, altered cortisol waking response, abnormal stress response to exercise, etc.) then caffeine use should be avoided entirely.

Dosage: Start with the lowest effective dose - 100mg will likely suffice in non-habitual users. More frequent users may need to titrate up to dosages ranging from 1.4-2.7mg/lb.

4. Magnesium

Despite the marketing hype, magnesium isn’t a sleep supplement but it plays a role in well over 300 enzymatic functions and sleep is one of them.8 It assists in the clearance of catecholamines from the sympathetic nervous system and upregulates GABA production, which both assist in improving one’s sleep, especially as you age.9,10

Not only that, unless you’re crushing Swiss chard, pumpkin seeds, avocados, dried figs, and black beans, you’re probably deficient.11

Also, as I mentioned here, stick to magnesium chelates (e.g. Magnesium Bisglycinate Chelate, Magnesium Buffered Chelate, etc.) and avoid magnesium salts (e.g. Magnesium Oxide, Magnesium Stearate, etc.). Most companies use salts because they’re cheap but they aren’t readily absorbed and have rather poor bioavailability.

Caveat Emptor.

Dosage: 400-500mg and ensure one consumes a variety of foods rich in magnesium within their diet. However, some may need to titrate up to 5xBW depending upon their current nutritional status as well as symptomatology.

5. Zinc

When was the last time you ate oysters? If you’re like me, the answer is probably never. Zinc not only plays a vital role in immune function, it can also function as an endocrine modulator (aromatase inhibitor) and shows promise for repair of the intestinal lining following damage or alterations in gap junction permeability (i.e. “leaky gut”).12,13

Dosage: 30mg/daily. Different types of zinc will possess varying amounts of elemental zinc; thus, dosages may change depending upon daily requirements. Sweating easily depletes zinc in many athletes so it is a nutrient of concern for most.

6. Vitamin D

20-30 minutes of daily sun exposure? Good, you’re regulating your circadian rhythms and assisting in vitamin D production which has cardio protective benefits, anti-carcinogenic properties, and reductions in diabetes incidence.

Related: The Truth (and Myths) About Vitamin D

But, if you’re like most Americans, you’re probably inside glued to screen for most of the day. Not to mention seasonal variability can influence the intensity and duration of sunlight available in your area.

Dosage: During the winter months, higher amounts of supplementation (2-5,000IUs) will likely be necessary to keep blood levels within an optimal range (>75nmol/L-250nmol/L).14 During periods of high sun exposure (spring/summer), supplementation may not be necessary at all.

7. Fruit/Greens Powder

This is more so an honorable mention than a hard and fast recommendation. But, I can almost guarantee that 95% of individuals reading this article aren’t consuming the recommended 7-10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily so a high-quality fruit+greens powder will benefit nearly everyone.

However, do your best to chew your veggies whenever possible. Don’t rationalize your poor dietary choices and assume you can’t get away with pounding lucky charms 7 days a week simply because you drink a greens supplement. Eat like an adult.

Dosage: AMAN (As Many As Necessary) to meet the recommended fruit and vegetable intake (see foundational concept #9 above).

Dig Deep and Do Your Homework

At the end of the day, individualization is the name of the game when it comes to performance enhancement, alterations in body composition, or improvements to general health. Your best bet will always be monitoring through bloodwork and targeted supplementation rather than a shotgun approach.

Think critically, challenge everything.

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