Top 5 Workout Supplements for Fitness and When to Take Them

To support muscle growth, weight management, and overall body composition goals, it is crucial to provide your body with the right balance of micronutrients and macronutrients.

A well-rounded diet should be the foundation for meeting these nutritional needs. However, many fitness enthusiasts turn to supplements to ensure they are getting adequate amounts of specific nutrients, especially when their dietary intake falls short or when they have increased nutritional demands due to intense training.

While supplements play a relatively small role in the grand scheme, they can certainly help enhance performance and support your fitness goals. However, the fitness industry is flooded with supplements that can be confusing, sometimes overpromising and under delivering.

In this article, we will examine the top five workout supplements and determine the optimal timing and dosage for each.

From the word itself, supplements are supplemental, and they are not always necessary.

Before considering supplements, it is essential to focus on establishing a well-rounded diet that meets your nutritional needs. Whole foods should always be the primary source of micro and macronutrients, as they provide a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial compounds in their natural form.

However, there are instances where supplements can be advantageous, such as filling nutritional gaps, meeting increased nutritional demands due to intense training, providing convenience for busy lifestyles, or supporting specific fitness goals like muscle growth or exercise performance.

1. Whey Protein

Whey protein is one of the two main proteins found in cow's milk, making up about 20% of the total protein content, with the remaining 80% being casein. While the debate between whey and casein is ongoing, a mixture of fast and slow-digesting proteins is the most beneficial, especially post-workout.

Some experts recommend combining whey and casein to take advantage of whey's effect on muscle protein synthesis and casein's ability to limit breakdown.

Research has shown that whey protein is safe for consumption, with no negative effects on liver or kidney function in healthy individuals. Additionally, ensuring that you have adequate calcium and vitamin D intake can prevent any potential negative impact on bone health.

For vegan and vegetarian fitness enthusiasts, alternative protein powder options are available, such as pea, hemp, rice, and soy protein, which don’t contain dairy products and are easily digestible.

Recommendations:

Aim for a protein intake of 0.7 to 1 gram per pound of body weight per day, depending on your goals (bulking or cutting). Whey protein supplements provide a convenient way to reach these targets.

Take whey protein as needed to reach your daily protein target of 0.7 to 1 gram per pound of body weight.

Caffeine, the most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world, is a central nervous system stimulant that can increase power output, training volume and suppress fatigue.

A 2012 study on rugby players found that caffeine supplementation could negate the effects of sleep deprivation on training performance and even increase the training weights used by well-rested individuals. In addition to its performance-enhancing properties, caffeine can also boost energy expenditure, which can also promote weight loss if you are physically active.

However, it's important to note that caffeine is susceptible to tolerance, meaning that long-term use can diminish its effects.

Recommendations:

To overcome caffeine tolerance, consider cycling caffeine by taking a break for 3-7 days every 1-2 months.

Use L-theanine, an amino acid, to enhance caffeine's effect on alertness and focus while lowering its sleep-disrupting effects.

Take 4 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight before training, as needed. To avoid adverse effects, stay below 500 milligrams per day.

Citrulline malate and other nitric oxide boosters are popular supplements among athletes and fitness enthusiasts due to their ability to enhance blood flow, improve exercise performance, and reduce muscle soreness.

These supplements work by increasing the production of nitric oxide, a molecule that plays a crucial role in vasodilation and widening of blood vessels. This can enhance “muscle pumps” and vascularity or the aesthetic veiny appearance of the limbs.

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When supplemented, citrulline is converted into arginine in the kidneys, which supports muscle repair and growth. Beyond its "pump" effect, citrulline malate has been shown to increase the number of reps performed during resistance training, particularly in higher volume sessions.

It may also help decrease muscle soreness 24-48 hours post-exercise due to its ability to buffer acid and metabolites like lactate and ammonia.

Recommendations:

Take 4-10 grams of citrulline malate one hour before training. For nitrates, start with 500-1000 milligrams an hour before training.

While a well-rounded diet should always be the foundation of nutrient intake, research indicates that athletes, especially those in a caloric deficit, may struggle to meet their micronutrient needs through food alone.

Studies on pre-contest bodybuilders have revealed deficiencies in various micronutrients, including vitamin D, calcium, zinc, copper, and chromium due to restrictive diet and intense training.

Recommendations:

To fill potential nutritional gaps, consider taking an athlete-formulated multivitamin, particularly when in a caloric deficit. This can help ensure adequate micronutrient intake and support overall health and performance.

Multivitamins are usually taken after breakfast. Take one athlete-formulated multivitamin per day, especially when in a caloric deficit.

Creatine is a naturally occurring molecule in the body found in small amounts in meat and fish. Supplementation has been extensively studied, with hundreds of studies supporting its efficacy and safety in improving strength and power in athletes.

Creatine allows for increased ATP production during high-energy demands, leading to improved performance in the gym. While creatine does draw water into the muscles, it does not cause water retention elsewhere in the body, resulting in a fuller, tighter muscle appearance.

Long-term creatine supplementation is associated with muscle gain, as it enables athletes to lift more weight and create a larger stimulus for growth. Unlike caffeine, the body does not develop a tolerance to creatine's effects, making continuous use safe and effective.

Recommendations:

Older adults and people who already get high amounts of creatine from whole foods may experience lesser benefits from creatine supplementation.

As a general recommendation, take 3-5 grams of creatine per day after training or whenever is most convenient.

Here's a plan for men that will put this creatine to good use:

And for women:

While supplements can provide an edge, it's essential to remember that they are just one piece of the puzzle. Genetics, proper nutrition, consistent training, and overall lifestyle habits play a far more significant role in achieving your fitness goals.

When selecting supplements, look for high-quality products that are backed by scientific research and formulated specifically for athletes. Always prioritize a well-rounded diet and consult a healthcare professional before beginning any new supplement regimen.

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Bert Bauzon is a licensed physiotherapist specializing in spinal care and sports rehabilitation. He writes articles and books about exercise science and health care.
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