Do bodybuilding supplements really work, or are they just a waste of good money? The Fitness Nerd dissects body building supplements.
Dear Fitness Nerd,
I have a question:
I’m 41 years old, and workout 5 days a week. I use a lot of bodybuilding supplements and spend a lot of money on them.
Unfortunately, I’m not gaining muscle like I want.
Currently, I take Masstech protein 2x a day. But I’ve also tried Anabolic Pump, NoXplode, SuperPump 250, Universal Animal Stak, Size One, and Vitrix. But I don’t see many results. Am I doing something wrong? Can you help me on it? Thanks — Gleidson
Thanks for the question Gleidson.
I’m afraid that what you just discovered is probably discovered every day by countless bodybuilders and fitness buffs who are hoping to get an edge at the gym by downing expensive shakes, powders and pills.
Just browse the myriad of bodybuilding supplement discussion boards out there and you’ll find plenty of mixed opinions on whether supplements actually result in better performance at the gym. Some people swear by them, others shrug their shoulders and say all supplements give you is really expensive pee.
it’s often hard to sort out what really works, versus how many of the reported results are just the product of the placebo effect.
While there are some supplements out that may be effective for helping more highly-conditioned trainees overcome plateaus, unfortunately, the majority of bodybuilding supplements and sports supplements marketed in fitness and bodybuilding magazines (and increasingly, online) are more sizzle than substance.
Bodybuilding Supplements: Big Demand, Big Promises … and Big Money
The first thing to realize is that bodybuilding supplements are a huge business.
In 2007, sales of sports, diet and bodybuilding supplements — as well as energy/sports drinks and specialty diet foods — topped $19.6 billion. That’s a lot of dough. So there is plenty of demand out there and lots of money to be had. With all that blood in the water, it’s bound to attract sharks, unfortunately.
The second thing to understand is that supplement manufacturers have figured out what nearly every other good direct marketer has discovered: That people want quick fixes. And they are capitalizing on that.
The idea that you can down a shaker of “clinically-formulated” protein powder, or the latest NOS booster and suddenly build that beach body or killer physique is very attractive. I mean, if it really worked, who wouldn’t do it?
And supplement manufacturers pull out all of the stops and use every clever trick in the book to make you really believe that they’ve cracked the code to “insane anabolic pumps” — whatever the hell that actually means.
Anatomy of a Bodybuilding Supplement Ad
There is a pretty standard formula to marketing bodybuilding and fitness supplements, whether those supplements promise to help you burn fat and get “ripped” or help you add pounds of lean mass fast.
You know what I’m talking about:
Usually they’ll feature a jacked-up bodybuilder or uber-toned female fitness model (and this is not to say Amanda is one of them, she’s just an example of a great female physique) who gets paid to say they use the product.
Never mind that most of the bodybuilders who are featured got their freaky mass from anabolic steroids, and not the Super-Creatine-Whey-Anabolic-Pump-Shotgun-NOS-Ultra-Instantized-Accelerator-Supplement-Powder that the bodybuilder is pitching.
Next, they’ll have a product with some amped-up, aggressive name.
Things like “Nitric Oxide Bazooka” or “Napalm Whey Annihilator.” Bodybuilding supplement manufacturers know their target market (which is predominately young and male), so naming the product with some kind of violent, explosive, in-your-face name can be very emotionally-appealing to its already testosterone-driven demographic. It’s all very calculated, and kind of brilliant in an insidious way.
Add into this a picture of the company janitor dressed in a white lab coat who says he’s a doctor and endorses the product; copious references to clinical research (complete with citations to articles few people will ever make the effort to verify, let alone be able to interpret correctly); paragraphs of tiny type stuffed with the latest bodybuilding buzz words, pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo, long chemical formulas and statistics like “clinically proven to increase testosterone production by 1175%!” and you pretty much have the standard bodybuilding supplement ad.
Oh, and let’s not forget the tried-and-true before and after pictures, where the pasty-skinned, unshaven dude with his gut pushed out suddenly transforms himself into a tanned, ripped bodybuilder with a six pack in just two weeks. Thanks NOS Cluster Bomb!
And yes, expect lots of exclamation marks, bold text, cutaway diagrams of muscle fibers and charts created by the summer Intern learning Photoshop.
For supplements geared at women, the formula is the same, but the copy and pictures will be different.
Instead of a bunch of statistics and studies, you’ll have more testimonials and before and after pictures, along with lots of talk about “toning”, “slimming” and “eat all you want and never be hungry!” There is almost always a very buff woman in a bikini as well. These ads still push buttons, but just different ones and in different ways.
What About Those Free Bodybuilding Supplement Offers?
Increasingly, bodybuilding supplement marketers have taken a page out of the direct marketing playbook and started to offer free samples of bodybuilding supplements . The problem with this is that you’ll never be able to accurately determine the effect (or non-effect) of these supplements with just one or two free samples.
Often, the goal here is to get your personal information so the supplement companies can continue to market to you. Or maybe you’ll experience enough of a placebo effect after two servings to compel you to plunk down the $55 dollars for the whole enchilada.
Of course, in return for the free supplement, you also typically get lots of spam in your in-box.
The lesson: Beware of bodybuilding supplement companies bearing free samples … you’ll also probably get an inbox full of junk e-mail.
How About Those ”Clinical Studies?”
The “proven in clinical studies” stuff is particularly hard to resist.
People want to see legitimate studies on bodybuilding supplements — and they areout there if you look hard enough – especially when it comes to whey and creatine.
But frequently, the studies cited by bodybuilding supplement manufacturers have very little to do with their own specific products. They may be generalized studies that the marketers simply reference to provide “credibility” to their own products in advertising. Or, they hire some research firm or doctor to conduct their own studies, which are rarely made available for peer-review and may be statistically or methodologically flawed.
Is The Bodybuilding Supplement Industry A Scam?
If it sounds like I’m making the whole bodybuilding supplement industry sound really shady and seedy, I kind of am.
The tactics they use to get your money and prey on your hopes and aspirations have more in common with the fad diet industry than they do sports medicine.
It would all be kind of laughable if they weren’t wasting so many people’s time and money. And practically speaking, if people spent half the time in the gym or kitchen that they do buying and shopping for bodybuilding supplements or fat burners, they’d probably look more like that guy in the “after” pictures.
Why Bodybuilding Supplements Are So Damn Attractive
Just to be clear, I’m actually not suggesting that people who try supplements are dupes.
I think nearly anyone who is serious about their training has probably succumbed to the promises of some supplement or another. I’ll admit that I’ve tried a number of popular bodybuilding supplements, including some of the ones you listed. I’ve never experienced anything close to the types of gains the supplement manufacturers promised.
In the end, I found that focusing on fundamentals like diet and a well-structured workout routine have produced far more dramatic results than any pill or powder.
Body Building Supplements That Work: A List
Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t some supplements out there that may give you a slight edge in the gym or aid in supporting recovery or even general health and well-being.
The supplements below, which are all supported by a fairly extensive, peer-reviewed body of research, may help you add additional muscle, or at least support intense training. No promises, but they at least have some credible science behind them. You need to make your own choice, free of all the marketing hype.
Whey Protein Powder
I’m talking about 100% whey powder powder productshere, not the ones that have all kinds of supplements like creatine, L-Arginine or loads of sugar added to them (think “Mass Gainers” here.)
Whey is a highly-convenient, portable and quickly digested form of protein that is ideal as a post-workout recovery drink. And there is a fair amount of reputable, published, peer-reviewed clinical research to support that whey can increase lean mass, while reducing body fat.
Whey isn’t a magic elixir, and it’s not a anabolic steroid, so keep your expectations in check around the results you’ll see from its use. It’s a food, and needs to be treated that way. You shouldn’t be replacing all of your meals with the stuff, but as a quick meal first thing in the morning or right after your workouts, it can help keep.
That said, remember that whey protein is pretty much whey protein.
A lot of the claims that bodybuilding supplement manufacturers make around their whey protein brand being “more highly absorbed” or “better formulated” to increase lean mass versus the competitors are just a lot of supplement marketing hot air.
Whey is whey is whey.
There are some differences between whey protein concentrates and isolates, but each have their benefits and drawbacks. So choose a good, 100% whey protein powder without a lot of additives and be on your way. It’s really that simple.
Creatine is one of the most widely-researched bodybuilding and sports supplements on the market.
Does that mean it will work for you? Or is even right for you? Not necessarily.
It does, however, have a fairly extensive body of published research that validates it efficacy in certain groups and under certain controlled-conditions. Some people report great results with creatine, and others find it a complete waste of money.
Creatine is a naturally-ocurring organic acid that is plentiful in skeletal tissue like muscle. Creatine is used by the body to regenerate ATP – a chemical that transports energy into the cells. When you perform work (for example, curling a dumbbell) the cells in your muscles get their energy from ATP. When you experience fatigue, it’s because your cells have consumed the availble ATP. When you rest, ATP is regenerated, allowing your to perform more work.
Creatine (specifically phosocreatine which is converted from creatine) “buffers” ATP at a cellular level, in theory allowing you to perform more work with out being as easily fatigued.
Creatine is both a muscle volumizer (meaning it drives fluid into the muscle, making it larger — although this is usually temporary) and also can increase your performance in the gym in terms of recovery time between reps. In other words, some people find that creatine allows them to do a rep or two more without fatiguing, which over time can increase mass.
The effectiveness of creatine supplementation in terms of lean muscle gains may be dependent largely on your current diet. Creatine is naturally present in meats and poultry, so if you already have a diet high in those foods, you may not experience the same results as people who eat less of these foods. Vegetarians, for example, often experience the most noticeable results from creatine.
The jury is still out on the long-term effects of creatine supplementation, but it is generally considered safe for use in healthy adults.
Some people report minor side effects from creatine like stomach upset or muscle cramping, and a few people report more serious side effects like high blood pressure. But for people in good health with no prexisting medical conditions, creatine can be a generally benign supplement. As always, it’s best to check with your doctor before supplementing with creatine (or any bodybuilding or sports supplement, for that matter.)
Glutamine is an amino acid that plays an important role in a wide range of cellular processes, including protein synthesis.
Glutamine is actually the most abundant non-essential amino acid in the body, and it becomes conditionally-essential for people who have sustained injuries or are ill (for example, burn victims.) The L-Glutamine form of glutamine (which is typically what you’ll find in bodybuilding supplements) is more readily available to the body than the straight Glutamine form.
L-Glutamine plays a role in a number of functions in the body, including:
- Aiding in protein synthesis
- A source of fuel for cells lining the small intestine (which supports digestion)
- Supporting the immune system by providing a precursor for the division of immune cells
- The ability to help block cortisol, a chemical produced by the body during stress which may cause fat gain and muscle catabolism (muscle breakdown
Glutamine has been studied extensively in conjunction with treatment of burns, where it helps speed skin regeneration and healing.
It’s also a popular bodybuilding supplements because it may aid in preserving lean muscle mass and reducing body fat by blunting cortisol-related fat storage and catabolism. It also is thought to help maintain positive nitrogen balance as well as reduce the symptoms of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) — a fancy name for the soreness you experience a day or two after intense exercise. Some of these benefits have been clinically-validated, while others are more anecdotal.
Glutamine is already fairly abundant naturally in our diet, and many protein powders. As a supplement, it’s generally inexpensive.
There are very few reported side effects associated with Glutamine or L-Glutamine supplementation — even when taken in high dosages. However, you should notsupplement with L-Glutamine if you have kidney disease, cirrhosis of the liver or Reyes Syndrome.
Weight and resistance training can take a toll on joints and cause muscle and tissue inflammation. Fish oil, which is high in Omega-3 fatty acids has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body, and may help aid in recovery after a grueling workout.
Fish oil, and diets that are high in Omega-3s also may reduce the risk of stroke and heart disease, as well as improve concentration and mood.
This is one of those “no-brainer” supplements that even many doctors themselves take. The Western Diet is very high in Omega-6 fatty acids, which some scientists believe may explain the rise in auto-immune or inflammatory disease. By taking fish oil, you help re-establish a healthy ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6, which can lessen inflammation.
Side effects are rare, and generally not serious. However, because fish oil can thin the blood, if you are currently on anti-coagulant drugs or expecting a surgery in the near future, you’ll want to consult your doctor before supplementing with fish oil, since it can cause problems with clotting.
Intense training can put additional stress on the body and increase the demand for certain key vitamins and minerals. Including a well-balanced multi-vitamin daily can provide a little extra insurance.
Vitamins alone are not going to make you get bigger, but they may reduce the chances of catching a cold, which can put a crimp in your training.
If you are a male, opt for a multi-vitamin that doesn’t contain iron, since men already get plenty of iron in their diet, and high blood iron levels have been linked to increased risk for heart disease. If you’re a female, a multi-vitamin with iron is usually fine.
This is the main ingredient in nitric-oxide boosting supplements.
Nitric oxide (NOS) helps relax the walls of blood vessels (also called vasodialation), which is why bodybuilding supplement companies like to associate L-Arginine supplementation with increased vascularity (think big “pumped up” veins — which is a desired look for some bodybuilders.)
Also, arginine assists in the synthesis of creatine, L-glutamate, and L-proline. When necessary, Arginine can be converted to glucose and glycogen to fuel work. Arginine also helps the body sweep ammonia from your system — which is a by-product of protein metabolism. There is also some evidence that L-Arginine may stimulate the release of growth hormones in large doses (typically exceeding 5 grams.)
The research is mixed on the anabolic properties of L-Arginine.
In my opinion, based on a review of the existing research, L-Arginine is iffy from a results perspective.
The good news is that it has very few side-effects, so if you want to experiment with it, fine. However, it’s not cheap, so you need to balance your own results with L-Arginine against the cost.
You will want to avoid Arginine supplementation (or at least use it under a doctor’s supervision) if you have a history of acid reflux, have genital herpes, are diabetic, have liver or kidney disease, or are pregnant or nursing (which I assume IS NOT an issue for you Gleidson.)
Also, if you have had a heart attack, you shouldn’t supplement with Arginine. A study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health found that heart attack victims who supplemented with Arginine post-heart attack had a higher mortality rate than those who didn’t use Arginine.
Do You Really Need Bodybuilding Supplements to Meet Your Goals?
While I’ve experimented myself with all of the supplements above, it’s important to realize that you don’t need any of these to build a great physique.
In fact, aside from the whey powder, fish oil and multi-vitamin, I’m not even recommending any of them. Even the whey isn’t essential if you’re eating other good sources of protein regularly.
Consider this: The old school bodybuilders and strong-men (and women) didn’t have bodybuilding supplements available to them and developed some pretty impressive physiques on hard work, good diet, plenty of protein and sleep. I don’t think Reg Park or Steve Reeves even knew what creatine was, and their “Anabolic Supercharger” was nothing more than lots of food.
Maybe they had “great genetics” — but even this justification is overused. Yes, genetics matter — but not as much as focus and discipline. We’ve been overcoming our genetics as human beings for centuries just fine.
Marginal, Iffy or Under-Studied Body Building Supplements
There are all kind of other supplements out there that promise to do everything from burn fat, to build muscle to increase testosterone. Often, these supplements are a hodge-podge of herbs, which the supplement manufacturers love to proclaim as “all natural!”
However, the claims around these supplements are typically pretty thin.
That’s not to say that with further study and research, the benefits won’t become more clear, but most of the buzz around these herbs and supplements are based on a single study or a handful of studies utilizing small sample sizes.
I would be especially cautious with any supplement that promises the following:
- Burn body fat (Ephedra was the last supplement that actually did what it promised — but that caused sudden cardiac arrest and has been banned in many countries.)
- Increase metabolism
- Increase testosterone levels
- “Legal” substitutes for anabolic steroids
- Change your DNA (yes, I actually saw this claim recently)
- Block estrogen
As a rule of thumb, the more buzzwords used and the wilder the claims around the benefits of a given supplement, the more wary you should be.
Other Tips For Spotting a Bodybuilding Supplement “Fast One.”
There are a number of other red-flags you should look for, Gleidson, when determining what supplements are “legit” and worth opening up your wallet for.
If the bodybuilding supplement ad uses a lot of diagrams of molecules, line-after-line of indecipherable technical and “organic chem” terminology and pictures of scowling bodybuilders with ridiculous vasculature (typically digitally enhanced, by the way), I would quickly put my money back in my pocket.
And any time you see a bodybuilder who is depicted as half man, half machine there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be completely underwhelmed by the supplement.
If Not Supplements, Then How Do I Make Gains? A Back-to-Basics Guide
So now that I’ve probably burst your bubble, Gleidson, around what to actually expect from bodybuilding supplements, I actually have some good news: You can still get great results without all of the powders and pills.
Even better it won’t cost you anything but your time and buying some healthy food (which you need to do anyway — we all have to eat.)
At the end of the day, it’s making progress in the gym is really as simple as focusing on the fundamentals.
That means a clean diet and a well-targeted workout routine. While supplements may let you eek out some incremental gains in performance and muscle mass, they simply can’t match the overall impact of a solid, balanced diet and a good training regimen.
Use the 80/20 rule here. Eighty percent of your gains and progress will come from 20 percent of your tactics and effort.
In my experience, that 20 percent is food and hard-work. Certain supplements — like creatine, for instance – may help you break through training plateaus when other, more simple and fundamental tactics fail. But you have to try the basics before you try the advanced stuff. That goes for your training as well as supplements.
Also, if you are using supplements but not seeing the progress that the bodybuilding supplement manufacturers and marketers promised, you need to ask yourself “Why Continue?”
Remember, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over-and-over with the same results. If they aren’t working for you, stop buying them and use the money that you saved to hire a good trainer or weight lifting coach. You’ll probably be more pleased with the outcome.
But Isn’t It Just An Issue of Finding The Right Bodybuilding Supplement?
I know the tendency is to think you just haven’t found “the right supplement” — but that’s exactly what the bodybuilding supplement marketers are counting on you to think.
It’s really no different from a person who moves from fad diet-to-fad diet, thinking that the next one will be “The One” — while finding themselves becoming even fatter in the process.
We all want to be in better shape, be stronger, have more stamina — and when a company promises that they’ve “unlocked the secret” to achieving this, the optimist in all of us wants to believe. It’s completely natural and understandable. And it’s really not your fault — you want to be better. Which is a good goal. You just need to temper it with some healthy skepticism.
Four Supplement-Free Things You Can Do To Jump-start Your Progress
In terms of specific tactics to help you achieve the results your looking for, I’d offer four areas to focus on:
Are you eating enough and the right mix of macro nutrients (Carbs, Proteins and Healthy Fats?)
Use a calorie calculator to find out how many calories you really need to consume to gain muscle based on your age, height and weight. And then track those calories carefully for at least 2-3 weeks. Consider using an online food and exercise tracking website (most are free) like Fitday, Calorie King, or The Daily Plate.
You might also want to check out sites like Traineo or Gyminee, which offer some pretty cool workout tracking tools, as well as a community of people who are trying to hit similar goals as you. The support and advice from that community can help keep you motivated.
It may be that you’re simply not eating enough food and the right combinations to gain lean tissue. It’s amazing how many people never take the time to figure out how much energy their body needs each day to put on muscle. No wonder they are popping pills.
Your Weight Training Routine
Take an even closer look at how you are working out.
When was the last time you changed your weight training routine? What are your rep ranges? And when did you change them last?
Are you doing a lot of split routines? If so, try a full body workout routine. Or if you are currently doing a full-body plan, are you doing it too often (three times a week is plenty.) Are you doing lots of leg training — which can spur overall gains – not just in your legs, but everywhere?
Finally, are you recording your exercises, weight-used, reps and sets each workout in a printable workout or exercise log? If not, I would recommend doing this today. This alone can make a tremendous impact on your progress and jolt you out of a plateau. Again, how can you improve what you don’t measure?
Look at Your Goals
What do you actually want to achieve?
Is it to become very lean, but “buff?” Is it to just gain muscle mass, even if that means you’ll be a little more “blocky?” Do you want to gave loads of freaky muscle (which may be more difficult to attain, depending on your current mass, age and conditioning.)
For example, if your goal is to look like a pro bodybuilder, you may need to adjust your expectations — especially since so many pro bodybuilders are on the juice.
It’s still possible to build plenty of well-defined muscle without anabolic steroids, but ask any natural body builder and they’ll tell you it takes lots of food, a clean eating diet, hard work in the gym and discipline. Supplements probably wouldn’t be high on their list.
Examine Your Activity Levels
Maybe five days a week is too much. I know a lot of people who only workout three times a week — or even once a week, but with higher intensity — who are in fantastic shape. You might actually be working too hard and just need a break. It’s amazing what a week of rest can do for someone.
Again, nothing changes you like change.
The Fitness Nerd’s Advice
Yeah, I know this stuff is the same advice you see all the time. But making progress toward your goals really isn’t rocket science.
They call them “fundamentals” for a reason. Think of it this way: The bodybuilding supplement people want to sell you a spaceship to cross the street, when you could easily accomplish the same goal by just getting up and walking there.
It’s easy to get sucked into all of the bio-chemistry, latest research, newest bodybuilding supplements, advanced training techniques and ”underground bodybuilding secrets.” Some of these things can help — especially when you hit a training plateau — but most of your progress will just come from focusing on the basics. Really. Trust me here.
So give it a try and let us know how it works.
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