Supplementation is one of most talked about aspects of the fitness industry. You have countless companies promoting and marketing their individual products as the one that will work the best for you. Advertisements are all over fitness magazines and websites, gyms, and TV commercials.
Everything from creatine to beta-alanine to d-ribose, every company has their own brand and usually their own cocktail blend for pre-workout, post-workout, weight-gainer, etc. Love them or hate them, they are here to stay for a long time.
So how do we know which supplements are right for us? Moreover, if we decide to use certain supplements, how do we determine the what/when/how to take?
The Absolute Best Supplement
Let’s look at this realistically here. We’re talking about the absolute best supplement available on the market. This is not just the ones that are kinda good, or comparable to the other brand names.
Before we get too into what the best supplement is, we can save ourselves a lot of time by considering just one question?
Does the “Absolute Best” supplement even exist?
A lot of us might jump to saying yes and point to our favorite supplement. Whether it’s our favorite brand of whey protein, the bottle of caffeine pills that we swear by, or some other powder that we mix in a bottle, we need to carefully consider this question.
Let’s take a look at some science to help us answer that question.
According to a double-blind study on the effects of short-term creatine supplementation on sprint performance, in this case, 20g/day for 5-days (that is way overkill IMO), did not improve sprint performance but subjects did show a significant increase in body mass1.
Another study on creatine supplementation on anaerobic working capacity and bodyweight showed a difference of effects between men and women, with the effects more pronounced in men2.
A study on d-ribose and ATP resynthesis showed that the dietary ingestion of d-ribose increases the total amount of ATP resynthesized in the muscles after intense exercise3.
Such studies are often used by marketing companies to support the benefits of their products. It is no secret that supplements have many benefits, but which is right for you?
The study stated above that tested for creatine supplementation on anaerobic working capacity yielded differing results between men and women. So would other supplements show a similar disparity?
What about other tests out there that shows adverse effects of various supplementation? Do they outweigh the benefits?
The backbone of what you decide regarding supplementation will be your goals ( I have written a post specifically about the importance of your goals and realizing them here). Deciding what is right for you is simply realizing what you are trying to achieve.
This sounds very obvious and you may be thinking it’s just common sense. Well, you’re absolutely right but you would be surprise at the number of people taking supplements that does NOT help them achieve their fitness goals but in some cases, even hurt their progress.
About a year ago, I was talking with a regular gym rat named Tony in the locker room while we were getting changed. He was complaining about how hard it is to lose his gut and he has tried tons of different training methods, diets and supplements.
At the time, I simply listened and did not offer any suggestions as I was not in the best of shape either. But I do remember seeing him sipping on a workout drink during his workout and then a post-workout shake bought from the gym afterwards.
Having gained some knowledge regarding diet, exercise, and metabolism, I can now say that one of the causes for his gut was the workout drink and shakes that I see him chugging every time he was in the gym.
And he is by far not the only one.
Many decide on supplements based mainly on how they are marketed. They see someone with a ripped body drinking a certain
product; therefore it must be the drink that is getting people shredded.
It is easy to fall into that mindset, especially for those of us in a plateau or not seeing results that we desire. I am not suggesting we disregard all marketing for supplements or supplements in general.
The workout drink and shakes that Tony was drinking could have worked great for someone trying to put on muscle mass and gain weight. It is up to each one of us to do our own due diligence in finding out what supplements works for our specific goals.
Another way that many dig themselves into a hole is to buy almost every supplement there is. In this case, the hole they’re digging is into their wallets.
Those in this category fall into the mindset that they need ALL the best supplements available to make the gains they want. Even if they’re one short, they’d be hindering their potential progress.
This is the exact type of thinking the marketers want us to have.
“I’m going to need this, and that one too because the first one doesn’t cover this aspect of my workout. Oh, that one helps boost my energy even more than the first two, I need some of that too!”
Remember those studies that we went over? Not all supplement works the same for everyone, and the “results” the marketers show definitely aren’t universal for everyone taking them.
Most of them don’t even run tests on the supplements’ effectiveness if you were taking something else, fasting or eaten recently, body fat levels, etc.
All of these factors and more affects our hormones, metabolism and a whole bunch of other bodily functions that dictate how we use up those supplements when digested.
In the case of supplements, more is definitely not better.
If we do decide to go the supplement route, there’s nothing wrong with that. Again, I want to reiterate that I’m not against taking supplements at all.
But just be aware of the pitfalls we mentioned and not sucked into forking over your hard earned money for something that might not do what you want it to.
Next time when you do purchase any supplements, take a few minutes and read through the ingredients label. If you find any of the following on there, avoid them4.
- Aconite/Aconiti Tuber/Aconitum/Angustifolium/Monkshood/Radix Aconti/Wolfsbane
- Caffeine Powder/1,3,7-trimethylxanthine
- Chaparral/Creosote Bush/Greasewood/Larrea Divaricata/Larrea Tridentata/Larreastat
- Coltsfoot/Coughwort/Farfarae Folium Leaf/Foalswort/Tussilago Farfara
- Comfrey/Blackwort/Bruisewort/Slippery Root/Symphytum Officinale
- Germander/Teucrium Chamaedrys/Viscidum
- Greater Celandine/Celandine/Chelidonium Majus/Chelidonii Herba
- Green Tea Extract Powder/Camellia Sinensis
- Kava/Ava Pepper/Kava Kava/Piper Methysticum
- Lobelia/Asthma Weed/Lobelia Inflata/Vomit Wort/Wild Tobacco
- Pennyroyal Oil/Hedeoma Pulegioides/Mentha Pulegium
- Red Yeast Rice/Monascus Purpureus
- Usnic Acid/Beard Moss/Tree Moss/Usnea
- Yohimbe/Johimbi/Pausinystalia Yohimbe/Yohimbine/Corynanthe Johimbi
These ingredients are commonly found in supplements available at your local GNC, CVS, and other supplement stores.
Researchers have found that some may have adverse reactions to products with these ingredients. Some of the reactions range from seizures, liver damage, dizziness, vomiting, kidney problems, just to name a few.
Those that take any prescription or over-the-counter drugs like cholesterol lower medication or blood thinners are at more of a risk having these reactions.
So yes, next time you contemplate on buying a supplement, check the ingredient labels. If any of the above 15 are on there, avoid it like the plague.
How To Choose The Best
Now we know what ingredients and what specific attitudes to avoid, let’s take a look at how we can choose the best supplements.
I know, I know, I contradicted myself. I hinted to the fact that there really is no “best” supplement. Well, there is no absolutely best, but there are ones that are the best for us.
So once we’ve defined our goals and have an idea what we need supplementation wise, we can move on to these next steps to find the best supplements for our personal needs.
The easiest and most effective way to find the best supplement is through different reviews available.
Whether it’s online or word of mouth, products heavily pushed by marketers leave no shortage of reviews. Consumers buy the products and a lot of them leave their opinions on how well it worked.
Most of the reviews left by these consumers are just like you and me. So what better way to find out the quality of the supplement than to see what others like us that tried it thought about it?
One thing to keep in mind is who the review is coming from. Notice I said that most of the consumers are just like you and me.
Some marketing companies have their own staff leave positive reviews of their own products just to leave the impression they are worth buying. Or they might leave bad reviews for their competition while praising their own products just to hopefully boost their sales.
If you get an inkling that may be the case, then I’d look for evidence from other reviews to substantiate the truthfulness to those claims.
In the case of reviews, it really is majority rules. The more reviews a product has, the easier it is to trust them because it’s less likely that all the reviews are biased or put there by the product company themselves.
So definitely look into what others have to say about the product before making the decision to purchase or not. I personally leave reviews on products that I’ve personally used, most of which I’ve found to be very useful. You can check them out here.
There are a couple of other major factors to consider within a review that we need to be on the lookout for.
Reputation Of Source
The first thing that usually pops out at us when we see a supplement is the name. The very next thing should be the brand. What companies are behind this supplement?
Sometimes, knowing the answer to this question saves us the hassle of even looking through the ingredients.
I won’t mention any specific names of supplement companies here, but there are a few that are known to put out subpar products. Some have been caught with ingredients in their products that aren’t mentioned in the labels. Even if something is proprietary, they’re still require to list allergenics for safety reasons.
Others have been known to male false claims about their products. Citing benefits that have no evidence and grossly exaggerating results from various tests.
No, simply saying these statements have not been approved by the FDA doesn’t make it okay to claim that your product grants us immortality.
The reputation of the manufacturer and distributor has a heavy implication on the quality of the product. It gives us a pretty good indication of what we can expect from a certain supplement when it’s made by Company X vs Corporation Y.
Another not so obvious factor that I look for in supplements is the customer service.
Even with the best quality control in the world, all products will exhibit a flaw at one point or another. And if we just so happen to be the one that gets a bad batch, we’d obviously contact the manufacturer about it.
At this point, any reputable company with decent customer service would at the very least address the problem. Most would mostly send us another product free of charge, just to leave us a good impression.
Some companies may ask the product be returned to them so they can see what the problem is. They usually ship you the return container along with the replacement product.
Any company worth their salt knows their customer pays their bills and will do everything they can to keep them happy. Top notch customer service is a sign of a company that truly cares about the quality of their products and one that we can trust.
If we can’t get the time of day from the customer service, then it’s most likely the company cares more about making a quick buck before they sink than its customers.
Don’t Get Caught Up
The important thing to keep in mind when it comes to supplements is to not get wrapped up in it. All the minutia and geeky science and stuff can not only be overwhelming, but even worse distracting.
My next point technically belongs in the Potential Pitfalls section earlier. But since it’s probably the easiest and most dangerous trap we can fall into, it’s being mentioned here as a separate section.
Paralysis by analysis.
If your primary goal is athletic performance enhancement, but you are spending more time studying the details of supplements and its effects and every nuance associated with them than actual training and resting, and sacrificing a healthy lifestyle, then you may need to reassess your goals.
It may be that the study of supplementation is really what interests you. Or maybe you’re distracted from your original goal.
But if you are trying to be the best athlete you can be, it is important to keep supplements in its proper place; it is something to supplement what you are already doing.
Supplements Are SUPPLEMENTS
A few of the Olympic athletes from the 2016 Rio games have tried a technique called Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS). This technique sends electrical signals to the motor cortex of the brain, which helps the neuron fire easier5.
This allows signals sent from the brain to the central nervous system and then to the corresponding muscles to fire more efficiently.
My point for bringing this up is that the athletes that tried this technique only spent a small portion of their training time on it. They didn’t do it all the time or obsess over the science behind it and how to get the best out of it.
They knew it was something that helped them along with the training they were already doing.
They didn’t sacrifice anything to take on this new “supplement” so to speak, and neither should we.
Supplements are there to aid in our training. Our training and diet and other aspects of our lifestyle should only change when we have a change on goals.
Keeping supplementation in the proper place not only let’s us focus more on the important stuff, but keeps us from the headaches of trying to decipher through all the different kinds.
So if you’re into supplements, just make sure they are doing what you intend for them to, and keep them as what they are: a supplement to your training and lifestyle.