With the vast array of nutritional supplements and erogenic aids on the market it is no wonder that even many experienced bodybuilders and athletes are baffled as to which are effective.
After many questions on MuscleTalk, I decided to write an article listing the top 10 best value-for-money supplements available to bodybuilders and a brief description of their use.
This article is based solely on my professional opinion and experience, but I have taken into account experimental, epidemiological and anecdotal evidence. The list is in no particular order (except for the first two, which, I feel, are the most useful), and, indeed, not all listed are appropriate for every bodybuilder, but all listed have their uses for some individuals. Most of the others not listed here, I feel, are a waste of money (though I keep a slightly open mind, as there are new developments). You do not need supplements to build a great physique, but they are an extremely useful and effective way of improving your gains.
A few years ago, a new system of filtration identified ion-exchange whey protein as a top quality protein source. Before then, protein powders were based on cheap, poor quality soya protein, or egg white protein (which mixes poorly). Whey is a very important addition to a bodybuilding diet, because it is semi-elemental, i.e. it is naturally predigested. This means it is digested and absorbed very quickly after ingestion. For this reason it is ideal mixed in water first thing in the morning or after training
Whey protein has a high biological value and similar amino acid profile to that of human muscle tissue, as well as being digested, absorbed and taken up by muscles quickly. However, some people feel whey protein (especially whey protein isolate) passes too quickly through our gut, so not all is available for absorption.
There are two main production processes for whey protein producing different quality formals: whey concentrate and whey isolate, the latter is supposed to be superior in quality (and price!). However, as a protein source, whey concentrate does the job very well and does having the protein being absorbed very slightly quicker or having a few mg more of one amino acid really make that much different compared to having a balanced, healthy diet and putting a lot of effort in the right places in your workout? The following analogy was posted by a member: using whey isolate is like filling a family car with Formula 1 type petrol – it won’t improve the performance of it. Use the money saved to buy some good quality food.
There are also other quality protein powders on the market often made up of a combination of two or more sources of protein. These often include whey, but other sources as well, so there is a more staged digestion of the protein. For example whey, soya isolate, wheat, egg white or casein (the slowest digested protein). The formulas are often ideal drunk mixed with skimmed milk last thing at night when it will be many hours before you can consume more protein, or if you are a shift-worker and have long periods of work without a tea-break.
Other useful protein powders available are those based on casein alone (for night time shakes) and soya isolate or pea protein for the vegan bodybuilder.
Quality protein powders are invaluable to the bodybuilder, as it is often impractical to eat the amount of high protein food required for optimal gains. Ideally they should be consumed in between or as a compliment to meals.
Meal Replacement Powders (MRPs)
These are ‘complete’ nutrition containing high protein, moderate carbohydrate, essential fatty acids and all essential vitamins and minerals. They are an invaluable aid to the bodybuilder as they can be used to substitute one or more of the many meals he/she has to consume in a day; or can be used to complement a meal. MRPs should be made up with water only.
MRPs started quite a few years ago and since then, many companies have improved on the original idea. Some now many other ingredients which are often added merely to help market a brand, although some added ingredients, like pre- and probiotics and many anutrients (substances found in food which have no nutritional value per se but have been found to have health benefits) are useful additions.
Although they are called ‘meal replacements’ they are not a substitute for all food, and I would suggest a maximum of two or three per day replacing smaller meals, rather than main meals. Most come in portion sachets, but some are available in tubs. The problem is, sachets make up to a large volume which can be hard to consume in one go, and they are very expensive, so why not consume them as two half portions?
A must for the enthusiastic and busy bodybuilder.
Weight Gain Formulas
Weight gain powders will always have their place in the bodybuilding market. I do not mean the ridiculously high calorie crash weight gain formulas full of simple carbohydrate and fats; but the moderately high calorie, high protein formulas available. Typically these are 600 or so calories, 50g protein per serving, high carb and can be mixed with water or skimmed milk.
Weight gain formulas are not necessary for every bodybuilder, but very useful for the skinny newcomer who struggles to eat enough food to put on quality weight. Also useful for the off season more-advanced bodybuilder with a fast metabolism and busy lifestyle to add a few more quality calories. Again though, even the best weight gain formulas are not a substitute for good food, and are there purely to add in extra quality calories.
Maltodextrin, also known as multidextrose or glucose polymer powder, is a synthetic polysaccharide, i.e. a complex carbohydrate. It is used by a range of sports people to help meet the high-energy demands of intense exercise, especially by tri-athletes. Although structurally it is a complex carbohydrate the chemical structure is such that it is open to rapid enzymatic degradation, i.e. it is digested and absorbed very rapidly, infact faster than sugar, so it scores high on the glyceamic index. For this reason many people are worries it will put on fat so in bodybuilding it is invaluable for the lean hard gainer who struggles to eat enough carbohydrate each day. By adding the powder to drinks can increase intake by 6-800kcals a day. It is also useful for post workout replenishment of carbohydrate stores. Maltodextrin powders are cheap, and useful for bulking up on.
Probiotics are live strains of ‘good’ bacteria, which help our digestive system work efficiently, e.g. bifidus and acidopilus. Formulas have been manufactured which contain one or more live strains of these bacteria and are available in special yoghurts, powders, capsules or specially formulated probiotic drinks.
Food processing, pollution and antibiotic therapy, have lead to colony size of the ‘good’ bacterial flora occurring naturally in our gut being reduced. By actively consuming the bacteria, the size of the colonies in the gut can be increased, which improves digestion and the immune system is improved, increasing our ability to fight disease. Probiotics may also have a role in reducing the severity of allergies.
Almost everybody should be supplementing with probiotics in their diet for optimal health. Bodybuilders especially so, with their high demands for good nutrition, should include formulas in order to digest their food better, recuperate quicker and stay well.
These are useful additions to the bodybuilding diet if you are a busy athlete who struggles to find the time to eat, as bars can be eaten on-the-go. They come in many forms, some are termed meal-replacement bars which have ‘complete nutrition’, some are high protein bars, providing high protein, some are energy bars which contain high carbs for bursts of energy. There are also flapjack-based bars and ‘slimming’ bars available.
Although they are extremely convenient they do contain some trans fats and a lot of additives so should not be depended on too much and should not replace proper food! Another criticism is their price; is there really a need for them to be so expensive?
Energy drinks come in a vast array of different concoctions, some just sugar-based and some containing a range of stimulants like caffeine, guarana and ephedra. Again very expensive, but nice tasting and many feel they need them to train after a hard day at work. I will not recommend any particular types, I’ll leave that for you to decide which you prefer; but avoid the high sugar (glucose) ones which are full of calories, as these can have a rebound effect on your energy levels and, in fact, cause sluggishness. To avoid stomach cramps, sip them before and during workouts, don’t gulp! You can also check out our article where we cover best pre-workouts on the market.
Fat-burners and Thermogenics
The fat burner market is big business and there are 100s of compounds and formulas on the market which contain different combinations of a huge range of ingredients which are claimed to help burn fat. In reality there are only a few compounds which are actually effective and, although it is beyond the remit of this article to detail all, there are a few ingredients in supplements which are useful for burning fat through thermogenesis, acting as a stimulant to help you train harder, mobilising fat through metabolic processes or by curbing your appetite.
Most people agree that a thermogenic aid based on the herb ephedra (from the ma huang plant) is the most effective. Ephedra is even more effective when combined into ECA stack with caffeine and aspirin. These three ingredients are synergistic, though may be labelled as ma huang, guarana and white willow bark respectively. (We also have a more detailed article about caffeine and ECA.
Other possibly useful fat-burning supplements are sido cordifolia, alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) and green tea extract (catechin).
Probably the most scientifically researched supplement ever, results of which are conclusive in that creatine does help improve performance. Here’s the science in brief: ATP is used for energy, by being broken down to ADP. Creatine Phosphate (CP) is found in muscle cells and replenishes ADP to ATP; hence more ATP is available for energy. It has been found that muscles can store far more CP than is possible to obtain from food (creatine is found in meat), so by supplementing with creatine monohydrate you can maximise these stores. More CP stored in muscle also draws water into muscle and makes it fuller and stronger.
Not only does creatine allow you to have more energy (through the above process) to help lift heavier weights, train harder and at higher intensity, but it also has other benefits to the bodybuilder. It has been demonstrated that creatine may also promote muscle growth by stimulating protein synthesis in two ways. Firstly, from the increased work you are able to do as a result of the above actions. But also, creatine’s other principle function is as a cell volumiser, the more CP that is stored in muscle, the more water is drawn in. This aids ability to work, enhances the muscle ‘pump’ and helps to trigger protein synthesis, minimise protein breakdown and increase glycogen synthesis. If a muscle is then trained properly, this could lead to enhanced muscle growth.
You will see a number of formulas each marketed as being ‘the best’! To sum it up – only use creatine monohydrate powder. Creatine phosphate, creatine citrate and creatine serum are useless. Some are marketed with special transport mechanisms, but these are expensive. Stick to the basics.
How to use creatine
You will hear a number of theories as to the best way of supplementing with creatine, some say take with a carbohydrate load; some say take with a hot beverage so it dissolves and is absorbed more easily; some advocate a loading and maintenance phase; some say only a maintenance dose of 5g a day and loading is a waste. My justification for having a loading phase is down to its side effect of nausea and using a continual 5g a day for weeks on end can be a lot to stomach. Though a loading phase does mean more creatine per day initially, this is only for a few days and enables a maintenance dose of merely 2g. Some argue that having a loading phase is just a way of companies selling more but, if you use my regimen below, you will actually require less.
It is also recommended to take creatine with simple carbohydrates. Pre-formulated creatine + carbs concoctions are available, but these are very expensive and contain excessive amounts of sugars, it is far cheaper and better to add your own carbs.
My conclusion, studying all data, it appears the following may be the optimal way of using creatine. Take creatine monohydrate powder in a hot beverage with sugar (or a sugary cordial with hot water) with fruit with a loading and maintenance phase as follows:
- Loading phase: 10g per day as 2 x 5g for 5 days; 5g per day for 5 days; 3g per day for 7 days.
- Maintenance phase: 2g per day for 5 weeks.
This may be followed by a period off, or back on the loading phase.
Some ‘experts’ claim that creatine shouldn’t be taken with caffeine, like tea or coffee. They say that caffeine inhibits optimal absorption of creatine due to its effect on carbohydrate take up by muscle, and there is sub-optimal hydration of muscle too. There is no evidence to substantiate these claims, and I really fail to see that caffeine with creatine is a problem, as long as you continue to drink plenty of fluid.
Creatine is not the be-all-and-end-all of supplements and is certainly not fundamental to your nutrition regimen, though it is worth giving it a try to see for yourself. There are side effects namely nausea, especially on the loading phase, and quite intense muscle cramps, which can lead to injuries if you are not cautious whilst training. You MUST drink plenty of fluid whilst using creatine.
For more information on creatine, please see our Creatine FAQs article.
Glutamine is a supplement which is claimed by many bodybuilders to be ‘essential’ for quality muscle gains, yet many researchers claim it is completely useless. The reason for using glutamine arose from its clinical use in the intensive care setting to aid wound healing, as in times of stress levels are reduced, therefore bodybuilders hypothesise that they too require extra.
Bodybuilders claim they ‘need’ more glutamine as it is the most abundant amino acid in muscle tissue. Scientific evidence points to glutamine being of no use in sports, but anecdotal reports have shown benefits. Indeed, even some clinical evidence points to no benefits from supplementation with glutamine. However, the most overlooked function of glutamine in reports both for and against its supplementation is that glutamine is the nutrient which is the preferred source of energy for intestinal muscle cells; so higher levels mean a stressed digestive system may be able to work more efficiently in helping us absorb more food. This is the key factor and the reason that I choose to supplement with glutamine myself.
If you’re unsure as to whether supplementing with glutamine is worth it, bear in mind the following: whey protein is naturally high in glutamine, so if you consume a lot of whey, you may not need extra glutamine. Also note that glutamine supplements are relatively cheap for the amount you use, and one small tub will last weeks.
Glutamine supplements come in two forms, L-glutamine or glutamine peptides. On the grand scale of things it doesn’t really matter which you choose as digestion of protein foods will provide both forms anyway, so shop around for a reputable brand at a fair price.
If you do feel glutamine is worth including, take one of your daily servings with carbohydrate (e.g. fruit juice) at least half an hour away from other protein sources, as other amino acids will compete for receptor uptake. You may also wish to add an additional 2-3g to your early morning and post-workout whey protein drinks. I see no need for it to be used in the ridiculously high doses some bodybuilders recommend.
Glutamine may have a place for the more advanced bodybuilder in improving growth and helping the digestive system be more effective.
I have discussed which supplements I feel have a use in certain circumstances to the bodybuilder. I hope this article makes spending your money wisely a little easier.