Supplementation is an important aspect of modern amateur bodybuilding. Protein supplements have come a long way from the earliest available supplements – the last half-a-century of improvements in protein extraction and refinement technologies have ensured that even a moderately priced protein supplement can give substantial results within a short period of time.
In this short blog post, I will discuss the various supplements available to the amateur bodybuilder, how to choose them based on contents rather than brand name or pricing (including the supplements that I have used and attained results with), and how to mix the various supplements together.
For the novice bodybuilder, the following supplements should suffice, in addition to a well-rounded diet (which I will cover in detail in an upcoming blog post):
- Protein supplements
- Creatine Monohydrate
- Pre-workout mixes (Nitric Oxide based) (optional)
- Testosterone Booster (optional)
Let us discuss each one of these supplement types in greater detail in the following sub-sections.
The most important supplement for any person interested in any level of weight training. Muscles (or more precisely, the musculo-skeletal system) are what generate the vast majority of one’s strength. I recall an amusing argument I had with a so-called “certified fitness instructor” who claimed that the CNS (Central Nervous System) was the most important factor contributing to strength. As an example, he presented to me the case of the humble ant, who can purportedly lift 20 times its own body weight. Yes, that is quite some feat indeed, but unfortunately that is not due to the CNS, or even due to super-strong muscles. That is just plain physics – at those scales, the surface area to volume ratio is extremely large, and as anybody with common sense can tell, muscle strength is proportional to cross-sectional area of the muscles. Humans, on the other hand, have very low surface area to volume ratios. Scale a human down to the size of an ant (keeping the same proportion of muscles), and he will lift well over 20 times his own body weight. He grumpily accepted the answer, and then presented forth another example as anecdotal evidence to support his premise: his very stout, short friend in the gym who could lift as much as his own body weight while some of the larger guys in the gym could barely lift a fraction of their own body weight. Sigh. He failed to realize that it was the same principle at work. I realized that if people can get certified, and yet have no innate understanding of the basic principles of their chosen field of specialization, that gives a good indication of the value of these certifications. That is why I place more credence on the opinions of people who have actually tried it out and achieved results rather than those who spout off grandiose terms without any inherent understanding whatsoever. Anyway, I digress.
In terms of protein supplements, there are only two things that you need to consider; 100% Whey Isolate proteins, and BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids). The former will form the bedrock of your protein supplementation, while the latter will be highly useful to maintain (and actually gain) lean muscle during the Cutting Phase (as mentioned in the previous blog). Forget Casein (leave that to professional bodybuilders who have the time, energy and motivation for that kind of experimentation), forget the highfalutin pre-mixed Mass Gainer concoctions (Muscle Milk. Extreme Mass Gainer etc.) that promise to bulk you up with their unique combination of carbs, proteins, and fats (avoid those like the plague, unless you want to end up a diabetic hypertensive obese schmuck), forget the protein concentrates that promise the best of both worlds (“there is no free lunch”). Stick with the basics, and stick with them good.
In order to give a good idea of what to look for when buying a 100% Whey protein supplement, let me show the contents of one of my favorite whey isolates, which has given me fantastic results: GNC Whey Isolate 28:
(Note: Interesting bit about the last information line in the image – it says that we get 9 Calories, 4 Calories, and 4 Calories from fats, carbohydrates, and proteins respectively. This is factually true, and has interesting implications: ultimately what matter is the total Calorific intake. If you are counting Calories, and say that your optimum intake is around 3000 Calories per day, you could get those calories from any of the macro-nutrients. The advantage of 4 Calories per gram of protein is that it allows you to consume much more protein while still sticking to the total Calorific intake! In fact you can consume twice as much protein as fats for the same Calories. This means that weight trainers benefit by being able to consume much more protein as part of their daily diet, and still not overload on their Calories. This aids muscle building, and keeps fat gains at bay.
Also note the ambiguity in popular media about the terms “calorie” and “Calorie”, and they mostly use the terms interchangeably. A “Calorie” (with a capital C represents a food calorie, and is equivalent to 1000 calories (with a small c). So, it can be said that a gram of protein is equivalent to 4 Calories, or 4000 calories. Even websites like http://www.livestrong.com get it completely wrong, and end up confusing the average layperson. Be aware of this difference as it can cause much confusion while counting Calorific content of food items. Always ask/check up if there is any confusion whatsoever whenever purchasing said items.)
So what do I see? I see that I get 28.00g of protein per scoop (this is excellent even though the scoop size is quite large). I also get only 0.5g of saturated fat (always go for a supplement that gives you the inevitably extra Calories through fat rather than sugar, of which only 2.00g is present, which is still better than most of the other supplements out there). The good bit is that there is zero trans-fats, which is the real killer. Moving on, I get no vitamins at all. This is not a problem since that is the job of the multi-vitamins. Most importantly, I get only 5.00mg of cholesterol (go for a supplement that has this value as low as possible). I also get 110.00mg of Sodium (which is a decently low value, try to keep this value minimally low as well), and then I have 280.00mg of Potassium (excellent! This more than balances out the already minimal Sodium. Potassium is extremely vital for your muscles, especially after a workout. Try to find a supplement which has a good high value for this metal). My conclusion? This is a good supplement since it gives you the core ingredient (protein isolate) in good quantities, while maintaining very low levels for other elements, which are essentially impurities present in any refinement procedure for whey protein. The other advantage of going for a good brand like GNC is that you can be more assured that they will have only trace elements of the heavy metals (such as copper, mercury etc.), which are extremely dangerous for your health, as compared to lesser known brands. It may seem trivial, but it is well worth the extra money, I assure you. You certainly do not want to wind up like the bloke who ended up in a hospital with a huge clogged heart from all the cholesterol from the cheap local brand of whey protein that he was using, do you?
(Note: Take all online reviews of supplements with a pinch of salt, even the ones posted on supposedly neutral supplement review websites. Many brands spam these sites with fake users posting good reviews of their own products as well as negative reviews of their competitors. Use your discretion!)
To summarize, keep these factors in mind while checking out any protein supplement:
- Go for a good brand (GNC, Dymatize, Ultimate Nutrition, and Optimum Nutrition are the ones that I have tried out, of which I prefer GNC). Generally, the more expensive, the better. Just like in real life.
- Check for the levels of these after checking the protein content per scoop, with desirable values in parentheses: Cholesterol (minimal), Sodium (minimal), Potassium (more than the Sodium content), Trans-fats (nil), Sugar (minimal), Fats(minimal, but better than sugar any day).
- For the extra Calories present per scoop, prefer the one which gives it through fats (saturated) rather than sugar. It is the lesser of two evils.
- Some supplements do give a breakdown of the protein itself (Leucine, Alanine, Arganine, etc.). Don’t worry too much about that. Protein Isolates are made up of tons of amino acids (and some BCAAs). The relative percentages of these contents do not really matter in terms of gains. Special note for BCAAs: BCAAs are simply special forms of amino acids (the base components of any protein). Some essential BCAAs are Leucine, Isoleucine, Valine, etc. These are called “essential” since they cannot be produced or synthesized in our body. From a weight training perspective, BCAAs have the wonderful advantage that they are the fastest absorbing proteins available – they are literally directly absorbed into the blood-stream within minutes of consumption. As such, as I have already posted in the previous blog on Weight training Strategies, they are best used during the Cutting phase to maintains lean muscle levels. Most decent brands will have good quantities of BCAAs mixed with their Whey Isolate, but you can still consume around 2-3g of BCAAs post-workout. Just ensure that you take the BCAAs immediately after workout, and then your whey isolate after about 10-15 minutes.(Note: I did an experiment one time for a few months where I took only BCAAs in relatively large quantities as my protein supplement. What resulted was the densest lean muscle that I ever gained. It would be amazing to get that lean fitness model or athletic swimmer look!)
- Lastly, never underestimate the role of taste in choosing your protein supplement. It might seem laughable when you taste it for the first time, but try ingesting that stuff day in and day out for months, and you will literally feel like puking your guts out, if you didn’t like the taste to start off with. GNC Isolate 28 tastes extremely good (the chocolate one). I usually go for non-flavored ones (very hard to find), or for chocolate if I can help it. Somehow, I don’t like vanilla as much. There was this supplement from Ultimate Nutrition that I tried out once (Iso Xtreme Mass Gainer) that was flavored as “Cookies ‘n Cream”. It was delicious the first time I tasted it, and then I spent the rest of the month dry-heaving the whole day. Absolutely atrocious!
(Note: Aside from the taste, be aware that any new protein usually takes some time to get adjusted with your stomach. You might experience some irritable bowels for a couple of days. Don’t worry too much about it – it definitely gets easier).
Supplements that I have tried:
- Ultimate Nutrition Iso Sensation 93 (http://www.ultimatenutrition.com/catalog/protein/iso-sensation93.html). Pros: Easy on the wallet, mixes well with water, moderate taste. Cons: Low to medium gains even with large doses, takes the stomach some getting used to.
- GNC Whey Isolate 28 (http://www.gnc.com/product/index.jsp?productId=2986026) Pros: Great gains in a short time, great taste (chocolate), easy on the stomach. Cons: Price. Price. Price.
- Optimum Nutrition 100% Whey Gold Standard (http://www.optimumnutrition.com/products/100-whey-gold-standard-p-201.html) Pros: Decent price, decent gains. Tolerable taste. Cons: Not enough gains for the price, .
- Ultimate Nutrition Iso Xtreme Mass Gainer (http://www.gnc.com/product/index.jsp?productId=2815248) (not a whey isolate) Pros: None. Cons: Horrendous taste, intolerable stomach problems, gained tons of fat while using this shite product.
- Dymatize Elite Whey Protein (http://www.dymatize.com/products/protein/88/elite-whey-protein/) Pros: Decent price, low to moderate gains, easy on the stomach. Cons: Cholesterol level was a bit high, did nothing much for me despite looking decent on paper.
Arguably the most important supplement after isolate protein. It is a great pre-workout drink, and can also be mixed with your post-workout protein shake. Used as a pre-workout supplement, you should take it around an hour before your workout. It will give you much better results – great energy during the workout, and that wonderful “pump” in your muscles. Despite many people claiming that there needs to be a “loading phase” for creatine (as in, load up with 10-15g of creatine for a week, and the stabilize to 5g per day after that week), I find it to be utter nonsense. I would recommend the following mode of usage for your creatine supplement: use around 5g mixed with around 180ml of water for your pre-workout drink an hour before your workout. Mix around 5g along with your protein supplement for your post-workout drink. It will ensure a more sustained pump. The role of the pump is that it allows the nutrients (via your blood) to more easily reach your torn muscle fibers, and better replenish them. This, in turn, aids better muscle hypertrophy leading to more muscle gains in the long run. In addition, creatine gives you tremendous energy during your workout.
While protein supplements will need to be taken throughout the year (even during non-workout days, when you can take half as much protein as you take on a workout day), creatine can be cycled on and off. I usually like to cycle creatine throughout the year, and lay off it only if I need to get super ripped during my Cutting phase. The reason for this is that creatine can and does lead to some water retention in your muscles. This is the reason why your muscles will be pumped up as hell after a good workout (only for an hour or so though). Just make sure that you drink plenty of water (at least 2-3l of water spread out over the day).
Creatine also comes in Creatine Ethyl Ester (CEE) form in addition to Monohydrate form. I have tried out CEE, but was not impressed. I would suggest that you stick to a good brand of Creatine Monohydrate. To summarize:
- Get a decent brand of Creatine Monohydrate. (I have tried out Ultimate Nutrition as well as GNC both with decent results. Brand name doesn’t really matter as much for creatine as it does for protein supplements. Neither of them worked half as well though as that creatine that my partner had introduced to me the first time around. That stuff was amazing, and when I say amazing, I mean it. If I can get hold of the product name, I will update this blog with its name).
- Stick onto Creatine Monohydrate for some time (give it at least a year) before you experiment with esoteric stuff like Creatine Ethyl Ester (the stuff didn’t work as well for me as Monohydrate did).
- Forget the loading phase, stick with 5g pre-workout, and 5g post-workout. Cycle on during Bulking, and off during Cutting if you want to, but it’s not required.
- Creatine Monohydrate will give you good energy and muscle pump during workout, and a pump for some time post-workout.
- Expect some stomach disturbances for the first week or two while using creatine.
- For your kidney’s sake, drink enough water (2-3l per day, spread out), especially while taking creatine. And no, Gatorade is not water.
- Creatine is also found in natural meat like beef, and that’s why you get a much better pump when taking beef as opposed to lean meat like chicken. Ditto for the strength gains. More on beef vs chicken in the blog on diet.
Pre-workout supplements (Nitric Oxide based)
Well, I am in two minds about posting information on this one. There is a lot of claim floating around that these drinks magically improve your workout performance. I severely beg to differ, but since I have tried them out, let me give you my experiences with them.
Most pre-workout supplements come branded as “Nitric Oxide” based supplements. However, I could find no evidence of the same by reading their contents. They mostly seem to contain an insane amount of caffeine (which would explain the energy boost) as well as large quantities of carbohydrates. Arguably though, carbohydrates is good during your workout since they supply the energy required for the workout to your muscles. Always remember – carbohydrates power your muscles during workout, protein rebuilds your muscles (specifically the torn muscle fibers) into thicker stronger muscles post-workout. That last bit is quite important – muscle hypertrophy when working out naturally is in the form of thicker muscle fibers. You never increase the total number of muscle fibers, unless you take anabolic steroids. This explains why bodybuilders on juice gain so much more muscle mass than any natural bodybuilder could ever dream of obtaining.
Some of the supplements in this category that I have tried out are listed below:
Instead of wasting your valuable money on these supplements, I will give you a free pre-workout energy booster (over and above Creatine Monohydrate): a cup of black coffee, and some simple carbohydrates (such as a chicken sandwich, or a granola bar) an hour before your workout. The coffee will give you the caffeine at virtually no cost, and the simple carbohydrates will give you the fuel required for your workout. Case closed.
Now we come to the most controversial supplement of them all – testosterone boosters or “t-boosters” as they are also known. A lot of people often have an inherent fear of them as soon as they hear the expression “testosterone booster”. Probably horrifying images of anabolic steroids, gynecomastia, and heart problems flash through their minds. Heh. Relax, that’s all complete and utter nonsense. T-boosters are anything but anabolic steroids. All this hype does is underline the importance of doing due research for yourself before believing “facts” either way.
I was initially skeptical about the efficacy of such t-boosters, and boy, was I surprised by my experience! Most decent t-boosters will contain extracts from the Tribulus terrestris plant. These are the t-boosters worth considering. Many other t-boosters that do not contain this extract are, well, worthless. They may contain tons of other acids and chemicals, but all they will do is give you a nice set of pimples on your face (Nutrex T-Up, for instance).
The one that did work wonderfully for me was Ultimate Nutrition’s TestostroGrow2Hp (http://www.ultimatenutrition.com/catalog/sports_nutrition/testostrogrow2hp.html). Despite its fucked up name, it was really potent. After a week of usage, I could feel the tightness and denseness in my muscles, and my lifts increased by anywhere between 20-30%. A side-effect of this was increased libido, but hey, I am not complaining! There are some supplements going by the generic name of “horny goat weed” (supposedly based on extracts from the Epimedium plant), but I haven’t tried them out so I had best not comment on their efficacy or results. My recommendation? If your t-booster contains Tribulus terrestris, give it a shot. Make sure to follow the instructions on the bottle regarding the cycling of the product. This bit is really important.
After that controversial supplement, it’s wise to end on a positive note. Finally we come to the most neglected supplement of them all – multi-vitamins. I must confess that I myself have been a major skeptic of the usefulness of this mini-supplement. Multi-vitamins are important for our health since even our normal diets barely give us a handful of the micro-nutrients that we really require, and when we move on to a bodybuilding diet, these figures drop down even more. From a weight training perspective, the double advantage of taking multi-vitamins is that they enhance the body’s ability to recuperate from a punishing workout. They help the muscles absorb vital protein and other nutrients much more efficiently, thereby enhancing their growth. Even more importantly, they take care of your kidneys and liver, which is crucial in the long run.
While multi-vitamins can easily be obtained from the local pharmacist and combined together, the mathematics involved is best left to people with far more time and purpose than the amateur bodybuilder. I would highly recommend going for a good brand and sticking to the recommended dosage. Personally, I take two caplets of GNC’s Mega Men Sport (http://www.gnc.com/product/index.jsp?productId=4033435) – one with lunch, and one with dinner. The differences can be felt in subtle ways – better sense of wellbeing, good energy throughout the day, and no health issues related to weight training whatsoever. They are pricey, but for me personally, my health is worth much more than the small price that I pay for these supplements!
(Note: Multi-vitamins can, and should, be taken throughout the year.)
In the next blog post, I will cover the topic of rest, and its role in muscle-building and fat loss.