We’ve all seen them: the guys (and girls!) at the gym who chug supplement drinks from their shaker bottles before, during and after workouts. They will swear that their supplements make a significant difference, but do common sports enhancements really help?
Do we need sports supplements?
The sport supplement industry is relatively new, and growing at a rapid pace. Not so long ago, bodybuilders and gym-goers didn’t use sports supplements. Very few existed, and those that did were chalky, lumpy and tasted disgusting. The guys and girls with the best bodies simply ate the right food and trained hard, so it could be argued that nobody needs supplements; good food and smart training is all we need. But it would be foolish to ignore the huge developments that have been made by research and development teams in sports supplement companies.
Common sports supplements pros and cons
As with everything, there are pros and cons to sports supplements and it’s important you understand all of the facts. It may be that you decide one or two supplements really help with your fitness routine, whereas others are almost surplus to requirements. Below, you’ll find some of the most common sports supplements in the gym environment. Read up on them before deciding whether they can be beneficial to you and your fitness routine.
Protein powders are simply a powdered form of the macronutrient protein. They hold no special superpowers, but they are convenient and easy to use. This can include whey protein powder, less common forms like egg protein and beef protein, and plant-based protein powders like brown rice, pea and hemp protein.
Pre workout drinks, powders or capsules are often used as a pick-me-up and to deliver ingredients like vasodilators into the bloodstream before a workout. The idea is that after consuming a pre-workout supplement, you’ll feel more energised, focused and driven, and your ability to build muscle or swell tissue may be increased. Most pre-workout products are heavy on the caffeine and other ergogenics.
Mass gainers are really just cleverly-named protein powders, combining protein with carbohydrate sources (usually from oats, maltodextrin or sugars), some fats (often MCTs) and familiar named ingredients like creatine. A mass gainer is certainly a very convenient way to get ample calories, nutrients and macros all in one hit, but you could also simply eat a balanced (and large) real food meal to get a similar effect.
On the flipside, diet protein is named and labelled to appeal to people (usually women) who want to lose weight or fat. These protein powders are usually lower in calories (often due to serving size), have minimal carbohydrate and fat content, and sometimes contain ingredients like green tea, CLA and l-carnitine which are purported to help fat loss.
ZMA is a combination of the minerals zinc and magnesium, often with a B-vitamin compound. We can become deficient in these minerals and it’s easier to get a precise dose through a supplement, than it is through food. Zinc and magnesium can help recovery and ZMA is thought to be useful for aiding sleep and relaxing the muscles - ideal after a very hard workout.
Three sports supplements which really work
If you have cash burning a hole in your pocket and want to get spendy on supplements, there are some that have a better following than others. These are the ones that you’re likely to find most fitness experts will agree on having some benefits:
Creatine (often found listed as Creatine Monohydrate or Creapure) is one of the most researched, trusted and respected sports supplements on the market. Studies have shown that it can improve sprint times and boost performance during bursts of high intensity exercise. Not everybody finds they respond to it, but most people tend to. You’ll find creatine in the supplement stack of bodybuilders, track athletes, strength and power athletes, rugby players and more. It’s safe and natural; in fact, creatine is found in our bodies already, with 95% of it stored in skeletal muscle. Supplementation just gives us more of it.
That’s all well and good, but what does it actually do, I hear you ask? Well, creatine can boost energy output and maximal strength, and volumes cells (giving you the “pump”). It’s a solid, reliable all-rounder if you’re engaged in heavy lifting and intense exercise, and want to grow.
As discussed previously, protein powder really is just a powdered form of that all-important macronutrient. So why use it, when you could just chew on a chicken breast instead? Convenience, speed, practicality and taste are the main reasons. Plus, some protein powders do contain smart extras like creatine, or carefully measured amounts of carbs and fats. Another benefit is that you can add protein powder to your porridge oats, make smoothies or protein ice cream, and even bake with it. A useful stand-by because - let’s face it - we don’t always want to eat chicken!
Most of us neglect overall health in our quest for the body beautiful, and healthy fats are often bottom of the list. Fish oils aren’t sexy, but they are important. They are high in omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA which are “essential” (we need them, but our bodies don’t make them). We can get omega-3 fatty acids from other foods, but fish oils give the best balance and ratio and help us to tread the fine line of balancing our omega intake. It might sound counter-intuitive, but fish oil intake can actually help with fat loss, as well as muscle gain and overall health. Even non-sporty folk should take fish oils because they help with brain function, immune system health, vision, joint health, and heart health.
If you choose to use sports supplements, the key takeaway is to go for quality over quantity. Ignore long ingredients lists which feature small, ineffective levels of unnecessary ingredients, and try not to be swayed by fancy labelling. Look at ingredient quality, dosage and formula transparency when choosing which supplements you want to introduce. Keep it simple and add to your supplement stack over time if you feel the need. Following this strategy means you’ll be taking the supplements you need - if you need them. Some people swear by them, but others prefer to steer clear. Do what feels right for you and consult a professional personal trainer for a tailored diet and exercise plan.