By: Tim Rigby (courtesy of Inside Fitness)
Sports nutritional supplements specifically can be a valuable adjunct to your training, nutrition plan and overall health. In this feature, we're pleased to present our annual look at supplements – what they are and how they work – including a selection of some of the hottest and most effective supps on the market today. This guide will be divided into five sections (Protein Powders, Pre-Workout Products, Muscle Builders, Fat Loss Support Supplements and Greens Products), providing you with a framework that's easy to navigate through. All you need to do is determine your fitness goals, take a look at all the magnificent brands on the market today, and find the ones that are right for you.
Looking for a way to intensify your workouts and help maximize your efforts in the gym? Pre-workout supplements can be an excellent training partner. As their name suggests, pre-workout products are typically taken 15 to 30 minutes before your training session. They're usually powder based formulas that you mix with water, however, there are ready-to-drink offerings in this category as well. These specially designed blends fall into one of two categories: Stimulant-Based and Non-Stimulant Based.
Stimulant based pre-workout products most often contain energy enhancing catalysts like caffeine in some form (i.e. caffeine anhydrous), Taurine and B vitamins; all of which aim to help increase energy levels, fat oxidation and physical endurance, while helping foster improved strength, focus and delayed fatigue. Common among athletes looking for a quick 'pick-me-up' via an extra boost in intensity before they hit the gym, stimulant based pre-workout products are very popular today, likely rivaled only by protein powders in terms of their use in the sports nutrition marketplace.
For those athletes and gym goers that are sensitive to stimulants like caffeine or train later in the day yet are still looking for an edge when it comes to maximizing their performance in the gym, there are a wide assortment of high-quality non-stimulant-based pre-workout products on the market. These products, while they may not contain caffeine, do commonly contain ingredients like Arginine, Citrulline and other amino acids and derivatives that collectively work to help increase blood flow producing better muscle pumps. Given the importance of the 'pump' when it comes to muscle growth, it's easy to see why these products have caught on and have built quite the following over the last few years.
Muscle Builders is a 'catch all' category of sorts, which can appeal to fitness enthusiasts, bodybuilders, physique and power sports athletes (i.e. football players), martial artists, power lifters and of course, almost anyone looking to gain muscular bodyweight. While these products all aim to support the process of muscle building in healthy individuals, how they achieve that end can be very different depending on the ingredient profile of the product. This category houses big hitters like Creatine, Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA's), Essential Amino Acids (EAA's) and Glutamine, along with Hormonal Support Products and Weight Gainers.
Creatine as a supplement came into wide acclaim in the early 1990's when studies from Memphis State University demonstrated it had an ability to improve contractile strength and help build muscle. Originally, creatine in its monohydrate form was the only choice available to consumers. Over time though, it’s been developed into many different available forms including buffered, alkaline, ethyl ester and hydrochloride. This unflavoured supplement is available in powder form and has been extensively studied, consistently yielded impressive results. Make no mistake, creatine has stood the test of time and can help support big improvements with respect to your gains.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA's)
Branched chain amino acids (BCAA's) are comprised of Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine. The reason for the inclusion of “branched” in their name is because if you examine them from a chemical structure point of view, they each have a forked outcropping that resembles a branch. BCAA's have been studied intensely and it’s no secret they’re critical for building muscle, but they also do much more than that – they can help boost energy levels, delay muscular fatigue, and indirectly assist fat loss. What makes them unique is that whereas the other amino acids get processed in your liver, BCAA's tend to be spared and go directly to your muscles. Science has also shown that the ideal consumption ratio for BCAA's is 2:1:1 of Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine respectively.
Essential Amino Acids (EAA's)
As their name implies, Essential Amino Acids (EAA's) can't be made by the body and as such, we must get them from our food and/or supplements. For our purposes here, the nine essential amino acids are: Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Valine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine and Tryptophan. While we got a good overview of Isoleucine, Leucine and Valine in the previous section on BCAA's, it's important to note that the other essential amino acids in this category also play key roles in helping support a wide range of functions related to the muscle building process including, but not limited to: hormone secretion, fat metabolism, nervous system function and appetite regulation – warranting their inclusion herein.
While Glutamine may not receive the same level of fanfare as say creatine, it's quite important to you as a fitness athlete. Technically classified as a conditionally essential amino acid, Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in your muscles, coming in at a whopping 61 per cent of your skeletal muscle composition. It plays a very important role in protein synthesis, meaning it can help prevent breakdown and also improve metabolism. Did you know that after intense training, your stores of glutamine can be depleted for up to six days? That in mind, supplementing with this amino acid may prove to be a wise decision. Glutamine may also be particularly helpful for those who’ve just completed a bulking phase complete with heavy calorie consumption and are now looking to cut up by way of helping preserve your hard-earned muscle.
Hormonal support supplements take direct aim at the key muscle building hormones in the body, namely: Testosterone, Growth hormone and Insulin. The method of action of these products is to help support the muscle building process by acting on the aforementioned hormones as a means to help create the optimal hormonal environment for muscle growth to occur. Whereas testosterone support products usually contain ingredients along the lines of Tribulus Terresteris, D-Aspartic Acid, Fenugreek, Saw Palmetto and Zinc, all of which aim to help support increases in testosterone and/or reductions in estrogen, Growth Hormone Support supplements often contain a unique mix of amino acids in key sequences and other compounds that work in concert with each other to help support increases in growth hormone release. Popular insulin support ingredients that you'll see included in some muscle building supplements include alpha lipoic acid, taurine and vanadium, to name a few.
A weight gainer ('gainer' for short) is a powdered, calorie dense nutritional supplement that typically contains not only a high dose of protein per serving, but is also high in carbohydrates and healthy fats, oftentimes coming equipped with vitamins, minerals and other key nutrients and compounds. Weight gaining supplements are typically used by those looking to build muscle vis a vie increases in bodyweight and overall mass.