Which Supplements Should You Be Cycling?
Find out which supplements you should be cycling to maximize your results in the gym.
The concept of cycling isn't exactly new to bodybuilding. If you diet, you likely cycle your carbs. The best fat-loss cardio programs, called high-intensity interval training, cycle fast- and slow-paced periods for greater benefits. Competitive powerlifters even cycle their training with low-, moderate-, and high-intensity periods to achieve greater strength gains.
Cycling your supplements can be helpful as well. For instance, if you have a cup or two of coffee—a popular source of the ingredient caffeine—every day, you'll notice it may not have quite the kick it once did. It's possible to develop a tolerance for caffeine, at which point you need to drink even more just to achieve the same effect. For this reason, cycling your caffeine intake is recommended.
Along with caffeine, a number of nutritional supplements can and should be cycled to maximize health and performance benefits. What supplements should you consider cycling, and how should it be done? Let's take a look at four categories.
This one's the most obvious for gym rats. Pre-workouts are one of the most popular supplements on the market because of the energy boost they provide. Pre-workouts generally contain stimulants such as caffeine, green tea extract, and yohimbine, and while these ingredients are responsible for giving you that added edge in the gym, your body can adapt to prolonged usage, making the effects less noticeable.
While the caffeine alone in one serving of a pre-workout may not cause tolerance issues, the combination of multiple stimulants, or the continued use of caffeine throughout the day, may increase your tolerance to the ingredient. This will make it more difficult to get the same effects from your pre-workout you did the first few times you used it. In fact, chronic exposure to stimulants can actually leave you with less energy and more fatigue!1
Caffeine also directly stimulates catecholamine release from the adrenal glands. When given at a dose of 3.3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight (about 300 milligrams for a 200-pound male), it has been shown to significantly increase cortisol levels for up to three hours.2 Chronically elevated levels of cortisol can wreak havoc on your body, suppressing your immune system and encouraging the accumulation of abdominal fat.
The long-terms effects of caffeine are not well known (especially in humans), nor are the net effects of caffeine consumption from multiple sources. Keep in mind that the average caffeine content in a single serving of pre-workout is 150-300 milligrams. Throw caffeine from coffee, tea, soda, and chocolate—which can add another 300-400 milligrams—on top of that and you could be putting unwanted stress on your body.
If you're dependent on a daily pre-workout, I recommended cycling off every 6-8 weeks to give your body a chance to reset. I personally like to stay off for about two weeks and use a stimulant-free pre-workout to help push me through my training sessions. Or I might just slug down a cup of black coffee. If you go the latter route, limit your intake of caffeinated beverages like coffee, sodas, and energy drinks throughout the rest of the day.
2. Thermogenic Fat Burners
Thermogenic fat burners resemble pre-workouts in that they contain stimulants to help rev your metabolism and suppress your appetite. Many people use thermogenics because they may sometimes help reach weight-loss goals in a shorter period of time. They can also boost energy levels at the gym. But chronic usage can increase your tolerance.
Because of their high caffeine content, thermogenics can cause the same elevation in cortisol levels discussed with pre-workouts. Cortisol breaks down muscle tissue. It can also increase body-fat storage, defeating the whole purpose of taking a fat burner. As cortisol levels creep up with the continued use of thermogenics, the once-noticeable fat-burning effects of the supplement can be negated by the fat-storing effects of cortisol.
To avoid this, I suggest using fat burners for 2-3 weeks and cycling off for 2-3 weeks, to help to keep cortisol levels low. A second option would be to rotate your fat burners with stimulant-free fat burners—those that don't contain ingredients like caffeine and yohimbine. This will help reduce the likelihood of becoming tolerant.
* Ratings as of article's date of publication
3. Testosterone Boosters
A Note to Competitive Athletes
Athletes should be aware that nonherbal test boosters are banned by all sports organizations and will elicit positive drug-test results. These products are often referred to as prohormones.
Testosterone boosters are a class of herbal supplements aimed at increasing your body's natural production of testosterone. They claim to allow you to increase muscle size and strength more quickly than with resistance training alone.
Tread with caution any time you start taking supplements that can affect your body's normal hormonal pattern. Side effects can be significant and unpredictable, and your body's natural production of hormones may be disrupted. For example, take test boosters for too long and your body may become so dependent on them that it slows down its natural production of testosterone hormone. This can make it extremely difficult to maintain your physique once you cycle off.
If you choose to use test boosters, I recommend a cycle of eight weeks on followed by four weeks off.
4. Sleep Aids
As the name suggests, sleep aids are designed to give you a more restful, undisturbed night's sleep. Many individuals who use fat burners or stimulant-based pre-workouts also use sleep aids to help them unwind at the end of the day and fall asleep faster.
Melatonin, a hormone naturally produced in your body, helps to establish the circadian rhythms of several physiological functions in your body, including sleep and blood-pressure regulation. This hormone is also found in many sleep aids. While it can offer temporary relief from spending your nights counting sheep, supplemental melatonin shouldn't be a staple of your nighttime routine.
Taking too much melatonin can disrupt your body's natural secretion of the hormone, making it nearly impossible to fall asleep without its use. Additionally, side effects of sleeping aids can leave you feeling groggy in the morning and may even cause small changes in blood pressure. Treat sleep aids as a temporary solution and use them only for two weeks at a time.
Supplements You Don't Need To Cycle
Not every supplement needs to have downtime. For example, creatine is often mistakenly grouped with other supplements you should cycle, but there's no research to support that notion. The same goes for beta-alanine, omega-3 fatty acids, BCAAs, protein powders, multivitamins, and glutamine. None of these ingredients disrupts the body's natural processes, so consuming them long term has no discernible effects.
- James, J. E. (1998). Acute and chronic effects of caffeine on performance, mood, headache, and sleep. Neuropsychobiology, 38(1), 32-41.
- Lovallo, W. R., Al'absi, M., Blick, K., Whitsett, T. L., & Wilson, M. F. (1996). Stress-like adrenocorticotropin responses to caffeine in young healthy men. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 55(3), 365-369.