Finding the right fitness supplements is like finding a diamond in the rough. To put it politely.

This is partly because of the sheer volume of misinformation swimming around in this unregulated market.

Most of these supplements won’t help you at all.

Some are downright dangerous. Just because it’s for sale doesn’t mean it’s safe.

Always consult your doctor before you start taking anything as no supplements are reviewed for safety or effectiveness by the FDA.

Here’s a brief overview of the fitness supplements with a good evidence base behind them. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition amongst other American and Canadian academic societies.

It’s important to note that supplements are just that. They supplement your fitness journey. They are certainly no replacement for a good exercise regime and diet, and other general self-care like getting enough sleep. They should be used in combination with your lifestyle.

We can split supplements into pre-workout and post-workout supplements.

Pre-workout supplements

These act to provide energy and endurance during a workout. Usually taken 15-30 minutes before a workout.

Caffeine

  • A stimulant which boosts workout performance.
  • 3 mg/kg body weight (~200 mg) has been shown to be effective.
  • The International Olympic Committee recommends 3-6 mg/kg body weight for high performance athletes. Not your average gym goer. So lower doses should be fine.
  • The FDA considers 400 mg of caffeine to be a safe daily limit for caffeine consumption.
  • Beware of the supplements which exceed the recommended doses.
  • Avoid powdered caffeine as they contain dangerous amounts: accidental overdoses have led to deaths in adults.
  • Note that studies have been conducted with professional athletes, not average gym goers, which is why you should consult a doctor first.

Creatine

  • Synthesised naturally in the body from amino acids and found in seafood and red meat, it boosts adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production which provides energy for muscles.
  • Primarily recommended for those who lift weights or engage in high-intensity bursts of exercise (eg. Basketball, football).
  • The recommended initial dose is 5g four times a day for 5-7 days to build muscle creatine stores.
  • Then maintain your levels with 3-5g/day.
  • Again, see your doctor first. Creatine might not be a good idea for people with kidney disease or bipolar disorder.

Beta-alanine

  • An amino acid made in the liver and also found in meat, poultry and fish.
  • It reduces muscle acidity, which generally contributes to fatigue and difficulty contracting muscles.
  • 4-6g/day for 2-4 weeks can improve exercise performance.
  • Benefits are most seen in people undergoing high-intensity interval training or short sprints.
  • A common side effect is skin tingling, which can be reduced by taking lower doses (1.6g) or using a sustained-release formula instead of a rapid-release one.
  • Again, see your doctor first!

Post-workout Supplements

The aim of these supplements is to enhance muscle repair and recovery after a workout. Which will optimise muscle growth.

Protein

  • Recommended daily intake is 0.8 grams/kg body weight for the general population.
  • This increases to 1.4 – 2 grams/kg body weight for those exercising hard to build and maintain muscle.
  • Protein intake can be through food and/or protein powder.
  • Protein powder provides protein as either whey or casein.
  • Avoid these if dairy doesn’t agree with your stomach.
  • Whey and casein both contain all amino acids.
  • The main difference between the two is that casein is digested more slowly as it is not water soluble.
  • There is no significant difference between the two in terms of promoting muscle growth or weight loss, so pick whichever one you like more!

Carbohydrates

  • Not technically a supplement as most people get their carbs through their diet.
  • Carbs replenish the glycogen stores in our liver so that we have enough energy for muscle recovery and our next workout.
  • 3-5 g/kg body weight per day is recommended after low-intensity exercise (eg. Walking, yoga).
  • 5-7 g/kg body weight per day is recommended after moderately intense exercise (eg. 1+ hour of walking, jogging, cycling or swimming).
  • Supplementation is only recommended after strenuous exercise such as 1+ hour of running, sports or interval training: 6-12 g/kg body weight per day should do the trick.

Electrolytes

  • We’re talking salts like sodium, potassium and calcium which are commonly in supplements.
  • These salts are important for good muscle and nerve function.
  • Drinking adequate amounts of water is good enough for you in most cases.
  • Electrolyte supplements and sports drinks are generally only worth it if you exercise hard for over an hour and sweat a lot. It’s your call!

Just to reiterate...

If the supplement isn’t discussed above, chances are it’s not worth your money and/or it’s dangerous.

Consult your doctor before using supplements, especially if you have medical conditions.

Read the label carefully and know each ingredient.

Don’t take more than the recommended dose.

If you think a supplement is making you ill, stop taking it and see a doctor.

And just as importantly as the above, enjoy your fitness journey!