When it comes to bodybuilding and powerlifting, we all know that training, rest, and nutrition, in general, should be prioritized above supplementation.
If you are looking to optimise your body composition and performance though, it makes sense to take advantage of any benefit you can. And while supplements might not be necessary to see great results, there are certain situations where they can help improve your results.
This post is going to list common supplements used in the bodybuilding and powerlifting community and how they may or may not be beneficial.
Creatine is one of the most well-studied supplements that consistently provides benefits.
It is a naturally occurring non-protein amino acid that is found in foods such as red meat and seafood. But typically, people do not consume the optimal amount through food since that would require quite a high intake of these foods.
It helps with ATP production. This can help you get out a few extra reps here and there, particularly as sets progress. This improved training performance can help improve strength and body composition outcomes.
Creatine also typically leads to increased water retention. It is mostly intra-muscular water and nothing to be concerned about. If you are trying to make a specific weight class as a powerlifter it could be worth dropping creatine though.
How and when to take: 5g per day at any time. There is an optional loading phase of 20g per day split of 4 dosages, for 5-7 days.
Protein powder is really just being an additional source of high-quality protein. It does not matter much whether you get the protein through food or from a supplement.
From that perspective though, protein powder is a convenient way to add protein to your diet. It also is quite cost-effective if purchased online.
How and when to take: ~20-60g per day when desired. It depends on your total protein targets for the day and how much you are getting through food.
Caffeine is well known for being a stimulant that can “hype you up” for a workout. And that is a large reason why most people take it.
More importantly, caffeine can literally improve strength performance.
It even has a statistically significant impact in terms of improving 1RM strength which is particularly relevant for powerlifters.
How and when to take: 5-6mg/kg 30-60 minutes before a workout appears to be the sweet spot from a performance perspective.
Dosages <3mg/kg can help with wakefulness and give you that feeling of alertness, but do not actually improve strength performance.
It is super important to note that 5-6mg/kg is a super high dosage (500-600mg for a 100kg athlete). But that is what the research is showing. Studies have gone as high as 13mg/kg, but the performance benefits seem to be capped at around 5-6mg/kg.
If that high of a dosage causes any negative implications for you, it would not be recommended to go that high.
The benefits of beta-alanine do not come from the compound itself. Instead, they come from the increase in muscle carnosine that it promotes.
Carnosine helps prevent pH from dropping by buffering H+ ions, which in turn helps to reduce feelings of fatigue.
These increased carnosine levels can be useful for improving performance in intense exercise lasting 60-240 seconds.
How and when to take: 4-6g daily. This can be split over multiple dosages across the day to minimise paraesthesia (a tingling feeling associated with beta-alanine).
Citrulline malate can increase nitric oxide levels, which can improve blood flow to muscles.
It is converted to arginine which increases these nitric oxide levels. The reason citrulline malate supplementation is chosen over directly supplementing arginine is that it raises arginine levels more than arginine supplementation does.
Citrulline malate also enhances creatine phosphate regeneration, which leads to slightly quicker recovery between sets.
How and when to take: 8g citrulline malate (with a 2:1 ratio of citrulline to malic acid) taken 30-120 minutes prior to training.
Peak arginine levels appear to be reached 1.4-2.3 hours after supplementation which lines up well with this recommendation.
Collagen supplementation has potential implications for aiding recovery from soft-tissue injuries. And since these types of injuries make up ~70% of all injuries, this could be beneficial for a lot of people.
The research is still in the early days, but it seems that collagen supplementation can be helpful if used well. It can lead to a significant increase in collagen synthesis, which could potentially speed up the rehab process.
It looks as though the timing and dosing are super important though. Part of this is because a large percentage of the body is made up of collagen. An insufficient dosage or one that is not timed near a workout appears to be unlikely to have a significant impact on the injured area.
How and when to take: 15-25g taken alongside some vitamin C (e.g. 50mg of vitamin C), 40-60 minutes prior to a workout/rehab session that specifically is targeting the injured area.
It takes ~40-60 minutes for the specific amino acids to peak in the blood. This lines up with when you want to apply the training stimulus.
There is no research that has been performed on post-workout collagen supplementation for these purposes. Therefore, we do not have any evidence to say that it will/won’t work as well. But based on the theoretical understanding of how it works, I would speculate that it could potentially work as well. But personally, I would take it pre-workout if possible, based on the evidence we currently have.
The biggest benefit of pre-workout is typically the caffeine. It also often has other potential performance enhancers such as creatine, beta-alanine, citrulline malate and B-vitamins.
As an interesting thought experiment though – let’s say each of those supplements individually improve your performance by 1-3%. Does that mean your performance will improve by >3% if you add them all together?
At this stage, the evidence seems to indicate that this does not happen. There are a bunch of reasons that are speculated as to why this happens. Regardless, it appears that there really does not seem to be an additional benefit.
Certain ingredients like creatine and beta-alanine are often included. But those ingredients require time to build up in your system with daily supplementation. Taking them right before a workout only on training days makes less sense than supplementing every day.
Pre-workout can still be useful though, even if you just think of it as a good caffeine source.
How and when to take: The dosage will be unique to the product.
I would base it on the caffeine amount, but also be aware of the other ingredients.
For example, if you wanted a specific dosage of caffeine, but to achieve that required you to have >5g of beta-alanine, that might not be ideal. Such a high dosage of beta-alanine would likely lead to a lot of paraesthesia in some people.
The easiest way would be to take the recommended serving size that the company recommends, but there are pros and cons to this.
This could potentially have carryover in terms of allowing you to train harder and more consistently.
Eating fatty fish 2-3 times a week is the easiest way to meet Omega-3 recommendations. This provides the equivalent of around 250-500mg of EPA and DHA per day. You can also meet these needs on a plant-based diet if desired too.
If not meeting these needs through diet, it can make sense to supplement.
How and when to take: 1-2 capsules per day, depending on the dose in the supplement. Fish oil and krill oil supplements are best as they contain both EPA and DHA. A typical fish oil capsule contains 180mg of EPA, 120mg of DHA and a total of 300mg per capsule.
In older adults, there is evidence that addressing a deficiency can significantly improve muscle strength as well.
Unfortunately, there is a lack of data on younger subjects. I would be hesitant to speculate that it is going to make a significant impact on strength for those already lifting at a high level.
If immunity is improved that means there will be might be less time spent off from training due to illness. Increased bone mineral density can potentially reduce the likelihood of certain injuries. It has also been speculated that higher bone mineral density makes it easier to gain more muscle.
Balance can potentially play a role in some assistance exercises. For example, improved Bulgarian Split Squats, which could carry over to improved hypertrophy and strength overall.
Improved insulin sensitivity can play a role from a nutrition perspective. It can also be of benefit for those at higher body weights in terms of reducing the risk of diabetes.
With all that being said, it is recommended to get a blood test first to check your levels. If you are already at the high end of the healthy range, there will likely be no benefit. If you are at the low end, or below the healthy range, it will likely be very beneficial to supplement vitamin D.
How and when to take: The standard dosage is 1000IU per day, taken at any time. But it is not uncommon to take higher dosages (ideally under the guidance of a professional) to address a deficiency quicker.
A multivitamin is a cover-all solution. Personally, I prefer to address each nutrient individually whenever there is an inadequate intake. But if you are consistently falling short on multiple nutrients, it makes sense to take a multivitamin to cover your bases.
This becomes far more relevant in a calorie deficit in a calorie surplus. When you are in a calorie deficit, you have a smaller calorie budget to reach your micronutrient nutrient needs. If this is a large calorie deficit, this issue becomes even more relevant.
Using a multivitamin can minimise the risk of there being any glaring nutritional inadequacies in your diet from a micronutrient perspective.
How and when to take: 1x tablet per day at any time, based on the company’s recommendations.
Sodium Bicarbonate helps buffer intracellular hydrogen ion build-up. To put it in simpler terms, it helps to reduce lactic acid.
Sodium bicarbonate is mostly applicable for improving higher rep sets taken to failure.
It can be impractical for some to use though. Particularly in the case of high dosages supplemented acutely, since a lot of people find it causes GI distress.
How and when to take: 600mg/kg over the course of ~20hrs pre-training. Acute dosages 60-90 minutes before exercise at 200-300mg/kg also work but have the potential to cause GI distress. Any GI distress would likely outweigh the benefits.
Beetroot juice is high in nitrates and improves vasodilation, which allows blood to flow more easily. This can help people get a better pump, which may or may not carry over to improved hypertrophy.
It also significantly improves reps to failure for higher rep sets.
Theoretically, this could also carry over to improved strength and hypertrophy.
How and when to take: Concentrated 70ml beetroot juice 1-3 hrs pre-training is the dosage that has been consistently shown to have benefits. If using a different size/concentration, the nitrate amount that you are aiming for is ~300-600mg.
Beetroot juice supplements are also notorious for being inconsistent with the amount of nitrate they contain in comparison to what they list.
I typically do not recommend fat burners. Often, they contain a lot of ingredients that are not beneficial, but I’ll individually discuss some common ingredients.
Caffeine – Caffeine is the main ingredient in a lot of fat burners. Around 100mg of caffeine can increase resting metabolic rate by 3-4%. This can carry over into increasing total daily energy expenditure (or maintenance calories) slightly.
To drop fat effectively you need a calorie deficit and caffeine can slightly help to make that easier to achieve.
Of course, you can get caffeine without taking a fat burner, however.
Green Tea Extract – Green tea extract contains caffeine and contributes to the point above. It also contains an antioxidant called catechin which can also increase energy burn due to thermogenesis slightly.
Soluble Fibre – Soluble fibre has an appetite suppressant effect that may make it easier to consume fewer calories.
L-Carnitine – L-Carnitine is proposed to help fat loss since it is literally used in fat transportation throughout the body.
Unfortunately, L-Carnitine does not actually appear to have any beneficial effects on fat loss in practice. In addition, some people experience negative side effects including nausea and diarrhea.
How and when to take: Not recommended. The main benefit is that they make it very slightly easier to create a calorie deficit. From my perspective, the downsides outweigh any small benefits.
Testosterone boosters typically do not have a meaningful impact in terms of increasing testosterone by an amount that will result in meaningful results in terms of strength and hypertrophy.
If there are no glaring insufficiencies in the diet, then there will likely be no benefit. If there are insufficiencies in terms of zinc, magnesium, B6 or a deficiency in vitamin D, it would make sense to address those without a test booster.
How and when to take: Not recommended.
EAAs and BCAAs
BCAAs are made up of 3 essential amino acids. EAAs contain all 9 essential amino acids. There are 20 amino acids total, so that leaves 11 other non-essential amino acids.
If you are consuming a sufficiently high protein diet to optimise muscle growth, BCAAs likely provide no additional benefit.
Typical high protein food sources generally contain ~18-25% BCAAs anyway. Similar kind of concept for EAA’s except they will make up a larger proportion of the total protein.
Basically, if you are having an abundance of these amino acids in your diet, the addition through a supplement is not adding any more value.
For people on lower protein diets or lower quality of protein diets, the addition of BCAAs can be beneficial. This is often the condition that BCAAs and EAAs are taken in during studies by supplement companies, which can be misleading.
If you were looking to increase your total protein intake for the same reasons mentioned above, it makes sense to use a protein powder instead. This would be better value for money and also be easier to consume in larger dosages.
There may be applications for those on predominantly plant-based diets due to the difference in the amino acid profile of the foods commonly consumed to meet protein targets. That needs to be assessed on a case by case basis though.
How and when to take: Generally not worthwhile, but if taking them, the standard dosage is 5-10g.
When to Take Supplements in General
My thought process when it comes to supplements is that you should consider taking something if it meets the following criteria:
- Addresses the intake of something that you aren’t obtaining the optimal amount of for performance without that supplement.
- Does not have any clear downsides.
From a nutritional perspective, there are some great examples of that first point.
One is vitamin D. If you are at the high end of the healthy range of vitamin D when you get a blood test, supplementing is likely not going to further help performance.
But if you are at the low end of that range, or below the range completely, then supplementing can help.
Alternatively, there are cases like creatine where even though it is possible to get enough creatine through food, it is often still not the ideal option. You would likely need to adjust your diet to the point of ignoring other major dietary priorities to achieve that. In that case, it makes a lot of sense to supplement.
At the other end of the spectrum, most of these supplements are only improving performance 1-3% at best. If you notice a clear downside, it does not make sense to take the supplement. This is because that negative impact will likely outweigh the performance benefit.
A classic example of this is caffeine. Some people experience anxiety or GI upset when they consume caffeine. Or alternatively if supplemented late in the day, it can disrupt sleep.
These detrimental impacts clearly outweigh the small impact on performance. It would only make sense to supplement if you were not experiencing those negative outcomes.
Basically, supplementation should not outweigh good training and nutrition principles, but if used well they can certainly help improve performance.