If you're a serious strength or physique athlete, you've surely heard that supplements can help you get the most from your intense training sessions and on-point diet. But which supplements? The market is overstuffed like a bodybuilder in a child's blazer! You might be tempted to wander through a digital forest of get-big blogs and personal guru websites, but unfortunately those places can often be rife with misinformation.
Fortunately, we're here to set the record straight. Knowing what to take, how much to take, and when to take it will help you squeeze every ounce of results from your hard work, so let's zero in on the right supplement stack for your needs.
If your goal is to get as big and strong as possible, these eight products will help you do it.
1. Creatine Monohydrate
This muscle-building, power-enhancing supplement has an extremely high safety profile and a plethora of evidence to support its efficacy. Creatine supplementation works by increasing the availability of creatine and phosphocreatine (PCr) within the muscle, helping to maintain energy during high-intensity exercise such as weightlifting. Furthermore, increasing the availability of PCr may help speed up recovery between sets.
Long-term creatine supplementation appears to enhance the quality of resistance training, generally leading to 5-15 percent greater gains in strength and performance.
Recommended dose: The fastest way to increase muscle creatine stores is to follow the loading method of 20 grams per day for 5-7 days, followed by the standard maintenance dose of 5 grams per day. However, a lower dose of 5 grams for 28 days will also increase creatine stores without causing the 2-4 pound weight gain typically seen with a loading protocol.
Caffeine may be the most widely used stimulant in the world, and for good reason. It has repeatedly been shown to be an effective ergogenic aid in both endurance exercise and high-intensity activity. However, when it comes to strength performance, the effects of caffeine are a little muddier.
While there's some research suggesting caffeine consumption prior to resistance training can increase one-rep max (1RM) for the bench press, other studies have found no strength benefits from caffeine.[2,3,4]
That being said, caffeine has been shown to decrease rates of fatigue and lower perception of effort, which may be of benefit during high-intensity, high-volume workouts, or if you just need a little pick-me-up before hitting the weights.
Recommended Dose: 150-300 milligrams 30-60 minutes before your workout.
3. Branched Chain Amino Acids
If you're a strength athlete or bodybuilder, we can't think of a single reason not to take BCAAs during your workout. Besides the fact that they taste delicious, sipping on BCAAs between sets may help speed up the recovery and repair processes after a tough workout.
A 2010 study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that participants who ingested BCAAs at 100 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight, or about 9 grams for a 200-pound individual, experienced significantly less muscle soreness and damage following a high-volume squat protocol.
It appears that BCAAs, especially leucine, help to regulate protein metabolism by promoting protein synthesis and suppressing protein degradation, which may improve recovery of muscles damaged during resistance training.
Recommended Dose: 6-10 grams before or during your workouts.
4. Citrulline Malate
Citrulline malate (CM) was originally marketed as an "antifatigue" supplement. In fact, if you were to travel back in time about 40 years, you'd find CM being prescribed to treat both mental and physical fatigue in post-surgery patients. More recently, CM has become popular for its performance-boosting effects.
The benefits seen with CM supplementation are most likely attributed to the synergistic combination of both L-citrulline and malate, which may help to increase rates of ATP during exercise, followed by increased rates of PCr recovery after exercise.
Previous investigations have shown that a single dose of CM (8 grams) increased the number of repetitions performed during an upper-body resistance training protocol and reduced soreness at 24 and 48 hours post-exercise (compared to a placebo).7 Recently, researchers from Mississippi State University found that a single dose of CM (8 grams) significantly increased the number of lower-body repetitions compared to a placebo group.
CM may be beneficial in improving exercise performance during upper- and lower-body multiple-bout resistance exercise in resistance-trained men.
Recommended Dose: 8 grams of CM taken 60 minutes before exercise
5. No Boosters
Nitrate-rich foods like beets, radishes, and pomegranates are a great way to boost the production of nitric oxide (NO). Although there's very limited research examining the effects of beet root juice and pomegranate extract on resistance training, these ingredients have previously been shown to increase skeletal muscle blood flow and lead to reduced soreness, which may ultimately lead to improvements in strength and performance.[9,10]
Several studies have used either beet root juice or pomegranate extract in multi-ingredient performance supplements and have observed improvements in strength, hypertrophy, and performance in resistance-trained men. At this point, however, it's difficult to determine if these benefits are from beet root juice and pomegranate extract working alone or synergistically with other ingredients.[11,12]
Recommended Dose: 500 milligrams of beet root juice or pomegranate extract 30-60 minutes before your workout.
6. Whey Protein
Fast-digesting protein like whey is optimal post-workout as it can help improve your muscles' ability to recover and adapt after strenuous exercise. In fact, consumption of whey protein has been found to stimulate muscle protein synthesis to a greater degree than other proteins like casein and soy.[13,14]
A recent review article published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition highlighted the benefits of protein supplementation and showed that supplementing with protein during prolonged (greater than 6 weeks) resistance-type training can lead to significantly greater increases in muscle mass and strength when compared to resistance training without a dietary protein intervention.
Got milk? Blends of protein, like whey and casein, have been shown to promote muscle hypertrophy and improve body composition to a greater extent than soy-based proteins when consumed after resistance exercise.[16,17,18]
The combination of fast-digesting whey and slow-digesting casein keep the body in a highly anabolic environment for a prolonged period of time, helping to keep rates of protein synthesis up, while minimizing any muscle breakdown.
Lifters who follow high-volume or high-intensity resistance-training programs, as many bodybuilders do, may also benefit from carbohydrate intake immediately post-workout. Compared with a placebo, carbohydrates combined with protein immediately post-workout and one hour after a bout of resistance exercise have been shown to increase insulin levels and rates of glycogen resynthesis.
Recommended Dose: 20-30 grams of whey (or whey/casein blend) protein with a high-glycemic carbohydrate post-workout
While this nonessential amino acid may not deliver earth-shattering PRs or extreme muscle growth, it does play an important role in repair and recovery. Glutamine works by removing excess ammonia, which can accumulate during intense exercise, helping to regulate your body's acid-base balance. Individuals who are engaged in heavy resistance training, two-a-day training splits, or are in a calorie deficit may benefit from the extra support of glutamine supplementation.
Recommended Dose: 20-30 grams a day, consuming 10 grams post-workout
8. Fish Oils
Fish oils are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which provide myriad benefits for the body. For strength athletes and bodybuilders, we're most concerned with their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Intense resistance training can cause microscopic tears in your muscle fibers, leading to muscle damage and inflammation. While some inflammation is desirable, too much can delay the post-exercise recovery process.
Research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce post-exercise muscle soreness and speed up the recovery process, getting you ready for your next session with the weights.[20,21] As an added benefit, when combined with BCAAs and carbs, omega-3s can increase protein synthesis rates, leading to greater gains in muscle mass.[22,23]
Recommended Dose: 2 grams daily, ideally with a meal
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