One of the most common questions in every natural lifter’s mind is simply this: Do I actually need to be taking supplements to make progress in the gym? How much progress am I missing on if I rely 100% on my diet and exercise? And if I should be taking supplements, which ones should I go for?
Are Diet & Exercise Enough?
Short answer; yes. No matter what your goal is (muscle gain, fat loss, strength gain), you will make excellent progress if you stick to a well-balanced nutrition plan and a well-structured and thought-out exercise program. The role of supplements is exactly what the word suggests: to SUPPLEMENT your nutrition plan.
Of course that requires an existing nutrition plan. If you do not have one, don’t bother with supplements, they simply will not work for you. It’s like not knowing how to run and yet buying expensive running shoes. You have no use for them.
How Much Are Supplements Really Helping?
If your nutrition and programming are already spot on and you are already maximizing your results, supplementing a few key products can really help you get an extra EDGE. Do not expect miracles. Making gains as a natural lifter is an extremely slow process and we are discussing only natural supplements in this article. These supplements might help you get an extra 5-15% in terms of results, depending on how your body responds to them.
Are Supplements Safe To Take? Are They “Natural”?
Most of them are pretty safe. Especially the ones mentioned below. That means absolutely no adverse effects. Supplements can not only help you with your results in the gym but also aid your overall health if used wisely. Are they actually “natural”? This is a huge topic and we are just going to scrape the surface of it here.
Let’s take creatine for example. The standard argument is that the human body already produces creatine in the first place and it can also be found in small quantities in fish and red meat so its “natural” to supplement more creatine in your diet. This is all fine and dandy but the creatine you take as a supplement does not come from fish or meat. It is produced in a lab utilizing a certain chemical process.
So as you can understand, the term “natural” is extremely loose. What has “natural” come to mean nowadays is “legal” and “not too effective” in terms of results.
Which Supplements Should You Go For?
Deciding which supplements are good for you is very tricky and it really depends on your budget and your genetics. Not all supplements are going to work the same for everybody. Having said that, there are some general guidelines that stay true for everyone. Let’s take a look at the most effective supplements out there:
Whey protein is not necessarily a supplement, you should think of it more as “food”. It’s a meal replacement. It will help you meet your everyday protein goals. If you already have structured your nutrition plan, you should know by now how many grams of protein you need to be taking per day. It might be hard to meet these requirements by just having normal food so whey protein is just a matter of convenience. It’s not magic and it’s definitely not required to make strength or muscle gains.
Timing: You can take whey protein whenever you want as long as you meet your protein requirements for the day.
Quantity: You can take as much as you want, even in one sitting. Do not buy into the myth “your body can only process 25 grams of protein every 2-3 hours”.
"I always aim for at least 150 grams of protein per day and if I can't hit my protein goals with whole foods alone, I supplement a few scoops of Six Star Whey Protein after my training or before I go to bed" - Rob Gronkowski
Creatine is probably the most studied supplement and everybody agrees that it definitely works. Again, don’t expect miracles. Supplementing with creatine, will most likely make you 5-20% stronger in the gym which does translate to more muscle gains. You can even use it for fat loss. The stronger you remain during cutting, the more muscle you maintain during your cut. There is absolutely no reason not to be taking creatine.
There are many forms of creatine but go for the one that is actually tested and definitely works: Creatine Monohydrate. It’s remarkably cheap as well. You should be able to get a year’s supply for 40$.
There are certain people who are not responsive to creatine at all. These are called non-responders and you will know it if that’s you within 2 weeks of creatine use. You will experience absolutely no progress while taking it, in which case you will know, creatine is not for you.
Timing: Take creatine whenever you want, but preferably when you wake up or after your training. That’s when your body has been deprived of nutrients for a long period of time and is usually most receptive to them.
Quantity: Depending on your weight, take 3 - 8grams of creatine per day. If you are above 200lbs, lean towards 8 grams but if you are really skinny (less than 140lbs), go for 3 grams per day. It’s always enough.
Additional Info: You absolutely do not need to “load” on creatine for the first days of use. Just take 3 - 8 grams per day and you will start seeing results in 1 - 2 weeks. You absolutely do not need to cycle creatine either. Just take 3 - 8 grams every day for as long as you lift. And no it will not damage your kidneys, nor will it make you put on water weight.
This really depends on your personality and what your everyday schedule looks like. PW supplements can intensify your workouts which is key to making more gains. It is advised however, that you only use them if you are a busy person who works/studies all day and needs that extra kick before the gym.
Most pre-workout supplements follow a certain formula and the key ingredient is almost always caffeine. By now you should be considering making your own pre-workout by adding caffeine, whey protein, some carbs and water in a shaker. It’s definitely cheaper and just as effective.
Timing: 15-30 minutes before your workout, depending on the supplement.
Quantity: Always use the directions on the bottle. Start off with a small dose to evaluate your tolerance to the supplement.
Fish oil products contain omega-3 fatty acids, which have numerous benefits for your health. From helping with fat loss, to dealing with depression, to healing joint pain…to preventing heart attacks, fish oil is a necessity not only for lifters, but for everyone really.
Timing & Quantity: Take at least 0.5 grams of fish oil (DHA+EPA) once a day, preferably after a big meal.
A multi-vitamin tablet per day keeps the doctor away? This is not conclusive. Most diets lack certain vitamins or minerals, that’s for sure. Problem is we can’t be certain that the vitamins and minerals in a multi-vitamin are actually bioavailable. MVs that contain ingredients from poor sources are even harder for your body to process and assimilate.
At the end of the day, this comes down to keeping your mind at peace. If it makes you sleep better at night, go ahead and buy a multi-vitamin.
Just be sure to follow the directions on the bottle, because too much of certain vitamins and minerals can actually cause serious health problems.
B-Alanine is an amino-acid and it’s very similar to creatine. Creatine is for strength what B-alanine is for muscle endurance. B-Alanine will help you get more reps with a certain weight and fatigue less when doing drop sets, super sets and circuit training. It has also been tested, just as much as creatine and it definitely works. It’s not very expensive either.
Timing: Same with creatine. Some people take it before the workout because it gives you a tingly feeling in your arms and face. This has nothing to do with your workout. Beta-alanine’s effects are not acute. It needs days to build up in your system. But this tingly sensation might help you concentrate more in the gym.
Quantity: 3-5 grams per day, again depending on your weight. If the tingling is too much for you to handle, just split it into 2-3 doses per day.
GET YOUR MIND RIGHT
Supplements can be useful in the right hands. If you cannot afford supplements, do not worry about it. A well designed meal plan will provide more results than any combination of supplements ever will.
What’s far more important than supplementation is getting your meal plan right, getting your training right and of course, getting your mind right.