Here’s how you can take the best sports nutrition products in the right doses and at the right time to accelerate fat loss, increase lean muscle and get stronger so you can look, feel and perform at your very best, says New Body Plan editorial director Joe Warner
Over the years, in pursuit of a bigger, stronger and leaner body, I’ve tried practically every single sports nutrition product you can think of. Twenty years ago, when I first started lifting weights, the supplement options were stark: mail order protein powder that tasted so foul that getting it down my neck was always the toughest part of every workout.
Today things are very different. Go online or into any supermarket and you’ll find rows of energy-boosting gels, pre-workout powders, muscle-pumping pills, cognitive-enhancing capsules, protein-pimped water, and even tummy-tightening tea bags, and much more besides. Indeed, whatever your health and fitness goal I’d wager that there’s a supplement promising to deliver the result you desire.
But how do you know which supps work and will help you look, feel and perform at your best? Or which are a complete waste of your money – like those “fat-loss” formulas that are essentially over-priced laxatives – so you’re both figuratively and literally flushing your hard-earned cash straight down the toilet?
I’ve written this guide to supplements so you can understand which products can help you build the body you want – alongside a smart and structured training programme – in the fastest-possible time. Below you’ll find my overview, plus pros and cons, of the most common and popular products, so read on to discover what you might need to help you build the leaner, bigger and stronger body you want!
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1 Whey protein powder
What? Whey is a by-product of the cheese-making process and is the liquid left over once milk has been curdled and strained. It can then be dried into a powder, and whey protein powder is one of the most popular sports nutrition products in the world because it’s very rapidly digested, so it gets to your muscles very quickly after training to repair the muscle damage caused to make your muscles bigger and stronger.
Why? A whey protein shake, made with cold water or milk, taken within 30 minutes of the end of your training session will flood your bloodstream with amino acids (the building blocks of protein), which are quickly shuttled into your muscle cells where they are laid down as new muscle.
-Rapidly digested after training
-Easy way to increase protein intake
-Sweet taste to kill any sugar cravings
-High-end brands can be expensive
-Can cause bloating and excess gas
-Not suitable for lactose intolerant
Whey protein powder is a smart supplement investment if you want to quickly and easily increase your daily protein intake to add lean muscle mass fast.
2 Omega-3 fish oil
What? Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid, which means that your body can’t manufacture it so you need to consume it from your diet. It’s found in high concentrations in oily fish, especially those that live in colder waters.
Why? Omega-3 is very important for healthy metabolic function and adequate intake provides a whole host of other health benefits, including reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, mental health disorders and inflammation. If you don’t eat the recommended two portions of fish per week – one serving of white fish, such as cod, and one serving of oily fish, such as salmon – then you should consider an omega-3 supplement (and take it with food to limit the “fishy” taste repeating on you).
–Proven brain health benefits
–Can aid weight-loss efforts
–Doesn’t taste very nice
–Fishy taste can repeat on you
–Not suitable for vegans or vegetarians
Omega-3 supplementation can provide multiple mental and physical health benefits if you don’t eat high-quality fish very often.
Pre-workout products are designed to be taken ahead of your training session because they contain a combination of compounds intended to improve focus, performance and energy levels, as well as better blood flow to deliver oxygen and nutrients to your muscles faster. The key ingredients typically include caffeine, the amino acids beta-alanine and arginine, and creatine, but many ingredients may be present.
Why? Research supports claims that caffeine improves focus and concentration, and many people say they get a superior muscle “pump” during training because of increased blood flow. A pre-workout can also provide a psychological boost as part of a pre-training ritual that fires you up so you consequently perform better. However, you should always test a product with a small sample before trying a full dose to ensure you don’t suffer any adverse reactions.
-Can improve focus
-Can increase muscle pump
-Can boost energy levels
-Beta-alanine can cause skin tingles or itches
-Caffeine too late in the day can disrupt sleep
-May contain many artificial ingredients
Pre-workouts taken at the right time can improve workout performance, but not all products work for all people so some trial and error may be required.
4 Vitamin D
What? Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin-like compound that plays an essential role in a huge number of biological functions, as well as improving cognition and reducing the risk of certain cancers, cardiovascular disease and dementia. It is sometimes known as the “sunshine vitamin” because it is produced by your body when your skin is exposed to direct sunlight, but is also found in low doses in some foods, such as fish and eggs.
Why? If you live in the UK, or other higher-latitude parts of the northern hemisphere, then the chances are that you will have some level of vitamin D deficiency. One study found more than 50% of the UK adult population have sub-optimal levels because there isn’t enough strong sunlight for much of the year to make production possible.
–Essential for brain health
–Crucial role in hormone production
–Vital for muscle and bone health
–Taking too much can be toxic
–Better absorbed when taken with food
–Can lower levels of vitamin K
If you live in high-latitude countries then you may suffer from sub-optimal vitamin D levels for around half the year so supplementation can reduce your risk of a deficiency.
What? Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a combined form of three of the nine essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. They are called “essential” because your body can’t manufacture them and so they must be obtained through the food you eat.
Why? Research is fairly conclusive that BCAA supplementation before, during and after training can help induce muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which is the technical term for the process that lays down new muscle tissue that makes your muscles bigger and stronger. BCAAs also improve muscular endurance, increase energy levels, and reduce recovery time. High use of BCAAs can deplete levels of other nutrients, especially the B vitamin B6, so choose a product that also contains these vitamins or take a daily a multivitamin.
–Inhibits muscle tissue breakdown
–Encourages muscle protein synthesis
–Shortens recovery time
–Can deplete levels of vitamin B6
–May contain many artificial ingredients
–No substitute for high-quality protein-rich foods
BCAAs can be a cheap and tasty way to improve gym performance, increase muscle mass growth and speed up the recovery process.
What? Creatine is an organic compound that exists naturally in the body and is instrumental in providing energy to your cells. It is not an essential nutrient because your body can make it from other compounds (two amino acids: glycine and arginine), but it can also be consumed through certain foods. Red meat, such as steak, is naturally high in creatine.
Why? Taking creatine will increase your body’s natural levels and research has shown that supplementation can improve physical performance, especially during high-effort exercise, such as weight lifting or high-intensity interval training, because creatine enables your muscles to work harder for longer. Always take creatine with plenty of water to avoid dehydration, and some people benefit from taking it with food to prevent stomach upset or discomfort.
–Increases your cells energy stores
–Improves performance during intensive training
–Makes muscles look and feel bigger
–Causes water retention
–May cause stomach discomfort
–Can cause muscle cramping
If you want to build muscle mass faster then creatine can help but water retention can make the body look “softer” and less defined during periods of supplementation.
7 Zinc and magnesium
What? Zinc and magnesium are essential trace elements that are have a huge number of biological roles. Zinc is involved in DNA metabolism, testosterone production, brain health, and efficient central nervous system function, while every single cell in your body needs magnesium ions to produce energy. Shellfish and red meat, especially beef, lamb and liver, are the best dietary sources of zinc, and magnesium is found in nuts, leafy greens and whole grains.
Why? Research suggest that most Western adults fail to hit the daily recommended target of both minerals through diet alone, and increasingly poor soil quality due to over-farming means that produce is now less nutrient-dense than a generation ago. What’s more, levels of both elements are depleted through training: zinc is lost through sweat, and magnesium is needed for central nervous system function and muscle contractions.
–Zinc is heavily involved in testosterone production
–Magnesium is needed to release energy in cells
–Supplementation increases levels depleted by training
–Can cause nausea
–Can cause stomach upset
–Can suppress copper and iron absorption
If you regularly train hard and sweat a lot, or don’t eat a lot of red meat or leafy greens, then supplementing zinc and magnesium could help optimise your levels.
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