Do you really need to take supplements for working out? Do supplements even work? If so, what supplements should I take?
Supplements are a trendy topic right now, with many companies claiming theirs are the latest and greatest. While immune supplements have perhaps been most popular as of late, weight training supplements receive no shortage of discussion.
Explore the full scoop on weight training supplements and how they can complement resistance training efforts.
What Are Supplements?
Dietary supplements are defined as vitamins, minerals, herbs, enzymes, amino acids, and other products and come in pill, capsule, powder, tincture, or bar form. They are generally intended to supplement good health and/or improve bodily functions in some fashion.
There’s a common misconception that taking supplements displaces or negates healthy habits like eating a mostly whole foods diet or exercising regularly. But this could not be further from the truth.
In fact, this is why many registered dietitians are so skeptical about recommending supplements. They understand that eating healthfully and exercising regularly will have a much bigger and better impact on overall health – and that supplements are intended to complement established good habits.
It’s also important to recognize that supplements do not treat or cure diseases. Once again, supplements are intended to assist, complement, or of course supplement an already-healthy habit or bodily process. In essence, they help bolster bodily processes and fill in nutritional gaps.
How Do Supplements Work?
Supplements typically contain active ingredients or nutrients that can exert powerful biological mechanisms. At a scientific level, supplements elicit health benefits and effects through one of the following mechanisms, although this isn’t exhaustive:
- Increase storage of a vitamin or mineral
- Enhance metabolic function/cellular health
- Serve as a cofactor in a chemical reaction
- Reduce inflammation
- Improve performance (concentration, focus, output)
- Reduce side effects/symptoms of acute sickness or chronic disease
- Target the HPA axis
- Help balance hormone levels
- Improve immunity/reduce risk of disease
- Enhance exercise performance
- Speed up recovery processes
- Improve natural detoxification of liver and/or kidneys
- Enhance other specific organ functions (especially the brain, heart, lungs, and skin)
- Enhance external appearance
With that being said, in terms of weight training supplements, most are targeting one of the following functions:
- Improve performance (concentration, focus, output) before exercise
- Enhance metabolic function/cellular health in order to perform better during exercise
- Speed up recovery processes so muscles grow bigger, faster
Best Weight Training Supplements
Not all supplements are created equally. In fact, the FDA regulates supplements as food rather than medications or drugs, though supplements typically exert functions closer to medication.
Therefore, not only are there side effects to some supplements, certain types, forms and brands are more effective than others. Looking for third-party testing and only purchasing reputable brands is a solid way to ensure you purchase a high-quality version of a supplement.
When it comes to weight training supplements, there is no shortage of options. However, many of them are unnecessary and simply a money ploy. Nonetheless, there are a few that have been extensively researched and show promise.
Divided by the pre-workout, intra-workout, and post-workout phases, here are the top studied and recommended supplements for weight training.
The purpose of pre-workout supplements is generally to provide nutrients that will increase exercise performance through enhancing stamina, focus, or muscle endurance or increasing time to fatigue. In this way, someone may be able to work out longer, lift heavier, or a combination of both which then helps to build more muscle.
Indeed caffeine is considered a supplement. It is also unique in that it can also be classified as a drug. And others consider it a lifeline!
Regardless, caffeine is a stimulant that increases alertness and boosts energy. In turn, this may allow someone to work out longer and harder, which can then lead to increased muscular adaptation.
Large amounts of caffeine are often added to supplements labeled “Preworkout” with many other – sometimes questionable – ingredients. Therefore, a cup of coffee or tea will offer 50 to 100 grams of pure caffeine along with some antioxidants which benefit cellular health in general.
In essence, nitrosigine is a non-boosting supplement that still provides a “pump” type of feeling. It exerts potent anabolic effects by boosting muscle pump and increasing muscle volume.
Research suggests it can help take a workout to the next level by:
- Increasing blood flow to muscles during exercise
- Increasing energy, mental acuity, and focus
- Reducing muscle damage from exercise
Take this supplement to not only improve weight training performance but also to kickstart the recovery process after exercise terminates.
Adaptogens are typically touted for their balancing effects on hormones, but they can also be used to bolster exercise performance. The adaptogens most likely to achieve this include ginseng, ashwagandha, schisandra, rhodiola, coryceps, reishi, and mitake.
Whether they increase blood flow, improve mental focus, or provide a boost of energy, taking them before a workout can help.
The purpose of exercise supplements is essentially to provide additional energy to muscles to extend the time to fatigue.
This amino acid (a building block of protein) reduces fatigue and may therefore increase exercise performance. When combined with an adequate weight training plan, research shows it can also help increase muscle mass.
Oftentimes taking supplements while working out is unnecessary. But beta-alanine is one that may provide that extra little bit of energy to achieve more reps or increase that weight to ultimately create a bigger muscular adaptation in the long run.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
Similarly to above, the branched-chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine have been extensively studied for their connection to muscular ability. And many people sip on these during their workout to kickstart the muscular recovery process.
Naturally found in high-protein animal products, these amino acids are critical for muscle growth. In fact, they make up nearly 15% of the total amount of amino acids stored in the muscle.
A small amount of research shows that BCAAs can improve muscle gain and/or reduce loss of muscle mass. And similar to creatine, the effects of BCAAs appear to be more pronounced in those who do not eat enough protein from their diet.
The purpose of post-workout supplements is to replenish muscle stores, help muscle tissue repair, and, of course, promote hypertrophy (growth) of muscles.
This naturally produced molecule provides energy for muscles during very quick, intense exercise and for other tissues.
However, research shows that taking it in supplement form can increase muscle creatine up to 40% beyond normal levels. This promotes increased muscle strength and performance, which ultimately leads to gains in muscle mass.
Creatine also causes water retention, which causes muscles to swell and elicit signals for muscle growth. What’s more, it may increase levels of IGF-1, a hormone involved in spurring more muscle growth as well.
Protein is certainly the most important macronutrient of all three – the other two being carbohydrates and fat – for muscle growth. Specifically, one needs to consume more protein than the body breaks down through natural processes and exercise.
Research shows that adding extra protein via supplementation of powders or bars causes slightly more muscle gain than those who don’t. However, this effect occurs on a greater scale in those that are new to exercising. Perhaps this is because veteran exercisers have determined ways to consume enough protein via whole, healthy foods, but all in all, the mechanism is unclear.
Nonetheless, there are many different variations of protein powder. Concentrated whey seems to be the most popular and effective followed by casein and soy/plant-based powders.
Beta-Hydroxy Beta Methylbutyrate
This molecule is produced after the human body processes the branched-chain amino acid, leucine. Taking HMB in supplement form caters to higher circulating levels which can benefit muscles by reducing the breakdown of muscle proteins.
Several studies show that consuming 3-6 grams per day may increase gains in lean body mass related to weight training. Again, this appears to be more effective for those who do not regularly work out and are just starting.
The Takeaway on Supplements for Working Out
Supplements are vitamins, minerals, herbs, enzymes, amino acids, and other products that exert potent biological functions. Weight training supplements are typically intended to improve exercise performance and speed the recovery process in order to cause hypertrophy (building) of muscles.
While they can certainly complement exercise efforts, they don’t replace a healthy, high-protein diet or the exercise itself. Instead, they simply aim to fill in the nutritional gaps of whole foods.
If choosing to supplement, look for high-quality brands that receive third-party testing and always choose wisely!
6 Things You Need to Know About Nitrosigine. Muscle & Fitness. October 19, 2017. www.muscleandfitness.com/supplements/build-muscle/6-things-you-need-know-about-nitrosigine/.
Adaptogens for Athletes. First Endurance. www.firstendurance.com.
ProSupps Team. Top 9 Supplements for Your 2021 Fitness Goals. ProSupps. Published December 29, 2020. www.prosupps.com/blog/top-9-supplements-for-your-2021-fitness-goals/.
Tinsley G. The 6 BEST Supplements to Gain Muscle. Healthline. Published July 16, 2017. www.healthline.com/nutrition/supplements-for-muscle-gain#TOC_TITLE_HDR_3.