By James Collier BSc (Hons) RNutr, Nutrition Consultant
This article aims to cover the majority of bodybuilding supplements which were the ‘in thing’ 10, 15 or more years ago, and although some in the list are still available, many have really all but died a death in the 21st Century. You may well notice that some people, especially older guys still swear by them and insist that they ‘work’.
The sceptic that I am though puts this avid enthusiasm down to habit, and whilst there may be some remote nutritional benefits, there are certainly better alternatives from food or other more fundamental supplements.
The list in this article is by no means finite, and may well grow and I will review more supplements of yesteryear as I am reminded of different products – remember that many are unheard of these days! It’s important to note that just because a supplement is still abundant in supplement shops, and thus not included in this article, does not mean it is of any use.
Indeed many modern supplements are also a load of rubbish; always remember my advice: make sure your diet is optimal and stick to the basic supplements integrated into your nutrition plan. For information on some of the more useful supplements see Top 10 Supplements
Indeed many of these supplements of yesteryear were still mainstream when I started to get into the bodybuilding scene (hang on, that was a long time ago!). Just in the last 10-15 years you can see how the industry has boomed. I wonder how many of today’s supplements will be added to the Yesteryear List in just a few years from now. Maybe I will follow up this article in a few years.
Anabolic Mega Packs
These were really trendy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They consisted of sachets of a mixture of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and other substrates supposed to work together to pack on size with ‘steroid-like effects’. Indeed, in my teenage years, long ago, I too fell for this one, and wasted loads of money on expensive, low dose micronutrient and amino acid complex supplements.
Androstenedione is a prohormone steroid precursor to testosterone, and was one of the original prohormone supplements available. It’s rarely found as a sole supplement these days, but does show up as an ingredient alongside others, in some testosterone formulas. Andro (as it’s abbreviated to) was no where near as effective as modern prohormones, so, I guess got nudged out.
Arginine Pyroglutamate and L-Lysine
Arginine pyroglutamate is an amino acid, which was said to have ‘growth hormone like effects’. Come on! Were we born yesterday?! Combined with L-lysine, a new supplement was marketed in the 1980s, which teenage James Collier fell for too! L-lysine is an essential amino acid, and is marketed as a bodybuilding supplement, but has no real use on its own. Waste of money, just consume protein foods.
Beta-sitosterol and Diosterol
These are plant sterol supplements, marketed in bodybuilding to assist in the production of various hormones. The fact that they do nothing to raise testosterone thankfully has now been accepted and you will not see these two as preparations. Unfortunately they are still around as ‘filler’ ingredients in supplement formals, to help marketing. As they are plant sterols, they may have a use in controlling blood cholesterol though, in the same way that plant sterol spreads (like Benecol) help.
Boron is an essential trace element, which we only need in minute amounts, and thus there is plenty from our food. As a supplement boron (as sodium borate) is used in ‘bone-replenishing’ formulas. Because of the effect of boron on testosterone levels, boron supplements have been marketed to athletes on the basis of their ability to increase muscle mass and strength. However a 1994 study (Green & Ferrando) of the effects on ten male bodybuilders did not find any increases in those with boron supplements. It’s rarely found in bodybuilding supplement shops these days.
Possibly one of the most popular health supplements of the 80s, and is still available nowadays, though less popular. It is basically yeast cells cultured and dried, to give a rich source of some B vitamins and some minerals. Not a complete waste of money, as there is something in there, but all the health benefits are grossly exaggerated.
This was a fibre supplement derived from the shells of crustaceans, supposed to block absorption of fat in the gut. Side effects are bad stomach-ache, diarrhoea and fatty stools. This is still used in weight reducing supplement formulas and if not used correctly can be quite nasty. There is also risk of deficiency of fat-soluble vitamins.
Choline and Inositol
Choline and inositol are ‘unofficial’ B Vitamins. Both are water soluble and natural constituents of cells, which can be synthesised in the body and are abundant in our diet. Supplementing with inositol supposedly helps to get a more pronounced muscle pump, by drawing water into cells, thus aiding cell volumising. However, there is no evidence that supplementing with inositol increases blood concentrations notably, nor that increased blood concentrations are taken up with water by cells.
Naturally choline is essential for proper neurological function, and is a functional component of cell membranes. It also helps transport fat from the liver. It is manufactured in the body from the amino acids methionine and serine. It is unclear whether our bodies are able to produce enough, but as it is abundant in food there is no real issue.
Both choline and inositol were sold as a bodybuilding supplements on their own or, more commonly, in preparations together. They don’t seem to be around anymore, mainly because they don’t ‘do’ anything. As natural components they may be essential, but as they can both be synthesised in the body and are abundant from food, there clearly is no need for them to be supplemented. Some formulas still do include them as ingredients.
Although not strictly a ‘supplement of yesteryear’, as it’s still found in some ‘fat loss’ preparations, chromium picolate should be in the past! Chromium is an essential trace element for insulin and deficiency in chromium may inhibit fat loss. For this reason it’s claimed that even more chromium will help you lose more weight, but this just isn’t’ the case. Studies have demonstrated that chromium has no effect on athletic performance (Vincent 2003) and there is no association between chromium and glucose or insulin concentrations for non-diabetics, and inconclusive results for diabetics (Althuis 2002).
I have never had time for this supplement, and it’s still available in formulas these days, even though it just doesn’t do anything apart from help you lose weight through carrying less money around with you!
Cyclo Histidyl-Proline Diketopiperazine (CHP)
Cyclo Histidyl-Proline Diketopiperazine is a naturally occurring cyclic peptide that acts as an appetite suppressant. Levels of CHP in the blood have been shown to be a strong indicator of appetite (Battaini & Peterkofsky 1980), and high levels correspond with a small appetite. Unfortunately, there is no evidence showing an effect of CHP supplementation on weight control.
Desiccated liver tablets have also been raved about for years by many ‘old school’ weight trainers. They are still available from some larger brand names, because they still sell, although they are considerably less popular then back in the 1980s. Desiccated liver tablets were formed by vacuum drying liver at low temperatures, in the view that vitamins and minerals for the liver will be preserved and also contain some amino acids. The problem is that the liver is a detoxifying organ so effectively you may be supplementing with rubbish as well. Also it is doubtful that the tablets will break down well in the gut, nor do they, in reality, offer much in respect of nutrition. My consensus is that these are a waste of money, but try telling that to a 50 year old guy who’s been training since his teens!
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a natural steroid prohormone produced from cholesterol by the adrenal glands, the testes, adipose tissue, brain and in the skin. DHEA is the chemical precursor of the prohormone androstenedione, which further converts to testosterone and the oestrogens.
DHEA was one of the first prohormones available, and was popular. However, regular users of prohormones will say that it was, at best, only mildly effective, hence you hardly ever come across DHEA these days. It is claimed anecdotally though, to be effective in guys in their 50s who train.
Dibencozide is synthesised in the body from vitamin B12, and is involved in protein synthesis and in the formation of red blood cells. It was shown years ago to help children who are not thriving properly and hence supplement companies marketed it to help healthy athletes. It was of no benefit.
Dong Chong or Jing Zhi Dongchongxiacao was marketed as a thermogenic stimulant for weight loss. It is an extract from a Chinese fungus, and does give ‘speed-like’ effects. Marketed to be like ephedrine, unfortunately, the effects were not even comparable, leaving dong chong being removed from the shelves.
I’d like to say that ecdysterone is not around anymore, but unfortunately it is still found in formulas along with other ingredients, some of which are very popular; though I doubt their popularity is down to the ecdysterone. Ecdysterone is a necessary anabolic hormone for an insect. However there is no biological reason why it should even have any benefits to humans. Therefore it’s a complete waste of money.
This was a blend of oats, nettle root and vitamin C. It was claimed to increase testosterone levels and be an aphrodisiac. But, there is neither evidence, nor theory to back this up. Have you ever come across anyone who claims any benefit?
FRAC / Gamma Oryzanol
If you were reading bodybuilding magazines in the late 1980s, you’ll remember the adverts claiming ferulic acid (FRAC) and its related compound gamma oryzanol are the new revolutionary anabolic agents. What a revolution that was; they’re not even around anymore!
Claims were made of studies comparing FRAC with high doses of anabolic steroids, and that FRAC was nearly as good. Advertisers clearly thought the public were incredibly naïve (don’t they always?), but thankfully we’re not. FRAC was short lived as people soon realised it offered little, if any benefit. Not only that, but the studies referred to didn’t seen to be available, and who would authorise a study with subjects taking very high doses of anabolic steroids? In fact studies FRAC may have actually caused a decrease in luteinizing hormone levels, which in turn, would lead to a reduction in testosterone production.
The use of glandulars in nutrition and bodybuilding has been popular since the 1960s, but, thankfully, are barely heard of today. Basically, glandulars are freeze-dried extracts of glands like bull’s testes in the theory that you are taking in anabolic hormones. Glandulars are destroyed in digestion before being absorbed so any potentially active component will be lost. Some companies sold neonatal glandular extracts, claiming glands from embryonic tissue are supposed to have higher activity levels of hormones. Orchic testosterone extract was an extract of powdered bull’s testes, and another variant on the glandular theme. It was supposed to contain active testosterone and was taken sublingually. This stuff has never been tested and doesn’t do squat; thankfully it’s not around anymore.
Glandulars are useless in bodybuilding and any other sport. They are a complete waste of money, though you might still catch a guy in his 50s who’s been training for years raving about glandulars. Yes indeed, glandulars really were a load of old bull knackers!
In the body glutathione (GSH) is a powerful, possibly the most powerful, antioxidant, helping to quash harmful free radicals. It’s essential for life. Intense exercise reduces the body’s natural level of GSH and good nutritional intakes of other antioxidants (vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, etc) have been shown to help preserve GSH levels, as the other antioxidants help quash free radicals. It’s synthesised in the body and there is no evidence that supplementing with GSH itself is of any benefit.
Inosine is a nucleic acid, and occurs naturally in every living cell. It was a popular bodybuilding supplement in the early 1990s claiming that it helped energy and exercise endurance. However Starling, et al (1996) found no benefit from inosine supplementation on aerobic or anaerobic performance. Inosine soon disappeared from shelves. Infact they found that inosine actually lessened endurance due to a raised uric acid level.
Mexican Yam Extract / Dioscrorea
As a herbal bodybuilding supplement Mexican yam extract was claimed to boost DHEA and testosterone levels, as it contains plant sterols. It was marketed as a testosterone booster supplement. Found to be ineffective, it’s no longer available as a supplement in its own right, however can be found as an ingredient in some testosterone formulas.
Milk and Egg Protein
Although not strictly ‘supplements of yesteryear’ as they are still abundant today, the old milk and egg protein powders do need a mention. I included them, because, although used a lot more in the past rather than these days (as now we have whey, casein and protein combo formulas), they were useful and certainly not a waste of money. They are still about, but food technology has progressed and there are superior alternatives. Saying that though, egg protein is still included in bedtime protein formulas, and so called ‘muscle milks’ are coming back into supplement fashion.
Mumie (pronounced moo-mi-yo)
Mumie has been used in folk medicine for thousands of years, but became ‘recognised’ in Russia in 1910, when it was used as a performance enhancer for their armed forces as it is supposed to have an anabolic physical and mental effect. Mumie is found in rare plants which only grow in specific temperate zones of Russia and is rich in vitamins, minerals, chlorophyll and tribulus saponins. It was fashionable in bodybuilding mags in the 1980s and mumie can still be purchased today, but you rarely hear of it. Doses of 150mg three times per day were recommended which would improve recovery by 30%. Although there have been studies, these are very poor in design and anecdotally no one recommends it.
19 nor, andro
This was a popular prohormone as recently as 5-6 years ago. However when the US legislation on prohormones came into effect, it kind of died a death as US companies stopped producing it. It can still be found in some older prohormone preparations though and still has a fan club.
This amino acid was marketed as a growth hormone releaser. There is no real benefit of supplementing with ornithine on its own; you only find it now in amino acid formulas.
A Russian supplement which was an extract from the antlers of the male spotted deer, and was supposed to increase muscular performance, but there never been any evidence to say that it does. Fortunately bodybuilders aren’t so gullible as to fall for this one anymore.
Phosphatidylserine (PS) was promoted as an anti-catabolic supplement, as it has been shown to reduce cortisol (a catabolic hormone) levels after exercise. However there was no evidence to show it helps performance, so this one fell off the racks.
Marketed as a testosterone booster, as it is a precursor in testosterone synthesis. One problem is that pregnenolone is also a precursor to other steroid hormones, including progesterone, cortisol and aldosterone, all of which are disadvantageous to a bodybuilder. Therefore not only may pregnenolone be of no use to a bodybuilder, but it may, in fact, be catabolic. Thankfully pregnenolone has stepped aside and made way for more advanced testosterone formulas and prohormones.
Not as popular as it was in the 1990s, D-ribose should be. As it does have a place in sports supplementation, and thankfully, some bulk supplement suppliers do include it in their range. Ribose is a pentose sugar; a monosaccharide carbohydrate which follows a different metabolic pathway to glucose to be broken down for energy. Its uses are therefore two fold in that it can possibly be used alongside conventional hexose sugars for additional energy. Also in conditions during and following viral infection like post viral fatigue syndrome aka chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS, ME) and possibly even the common cold, ribose may be a useful source of quick energy, especially when you feel lethargic.
Let’s bring back ribose to the supplement shelves and it shouldn’t be a ‘supplement of yesteryear’.
This originally became popular after it was marketed as a possible cure for cancer, as sharks were supposedly the ‘only animals that don’t get cancer’. Well, sharks can suffer from cancer, and there are no legitimate studies to support the use of shark cartilage as an anti-cancer agent.
Bodybuilders became interested in shark cartilage because of its alleged effects on promoting the healing of damaged cartilage, as it contains glucosamine. But taking shark cartilage in the whole form doesn’t do anything and has only a low concentration of glucosamine. Best stick to conventional glucosamine formulas.
Smilax officinalis is a herb that contains plant sterols, and like the other waste of money plant sterols, smilax has no use in bodybuilding. It was marketed as a product that leads to increased testosterone production, but, as the body lacks the enzymes to convert plant sterols to testosterone, it does absolutely nothing. As it contains plant sterols, it may have a use in controlling blood cholesterol, in the same way that plant sterol spreads (like Benecol) help.
Sodium bicarbonate or baking soda has been used in sports nutrition for decades. It acts as a buffering agent neutralising bi-products of exercise, helping muscles to function at optimum levels for longer. The theory is sound, and some bogus sports nutritionists still recommend it, but in the real world it shouldn’t be used, because it has the side effect of causing very bad stomach-ache and gastric disturbances, obviously bad for working out on. So in practice, when using sodium bicarbonate the cons greatly out weigh the pros, so it is not used anymore.
Vanadium is an essential trace mineral, and vanadyl sulphate is the supplementary form which was very popular in the 1980s and 90s. It has fallen out of vogue in the last few years, though it is still available from a few companies on its own.
Interest first came up in bodybuilding due the effects it is supposed to have as an insulin mimicker, and hence it will help fuel muscles and help ‘pump up’. This indirectly is supposed to help performance and gains. However, back in the real world, actual results are undetectable if anything, yet vanadyl sulphate remains popular again with older athletes.
- Althuis MD, Jordan NE, Ludington EA, Wittes JT (2002). Glucose and insulin responses to dietary chromium supplements: a meta-analysis. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 76 (1): 148-155
- Battainni F; Peterkofsky A (1980). Histidyl-Proline Diketopiperazine as endogenous brain peptide that inhibits (Na+ + K+)ATPase. Biochem Biophys Res Comm 94: 240-247
- Green NR; Ferrando AA (1994). Plasma boron and the effects of boron supplementation in males. Environ Health Perspect 102 Suppl 7: 73-7
- Starling RD; et al (1996). The effect of inosine supplementation on aerobic and anaerobic cycling performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc 28: 1193-1198
- Vincent JB (2003). The potential value and toxicity of chromium picolinate as a nutritional supplement, weight loss agent and muscle development agent. Sports Medicine 33 (3): 213-230