Ah, supplements — to the uninitiated, they seem like powdered steroids dispensed via that obnoxious shaker the religiously “fit” among us are always carrying around the office instead of a coffee cup. To the beginner, they offer the promise of expedited progress, or even progress you could never do without the aid of science and the Muscle-testosterone-blaster proprietary blend of herbs and chemicals presented on the bottle like a discovery of modern medical science.

And to the seasoned lifter? Well, they usually look like what they are: useless powders that cost as much as the annual dues for your gym membership.

That isn’t to say that all supplements are bunk — as we’ve discussed in previous editions of Old Man Fitness, there are indeed supplements on the market that can help you reach or even exceed your goals faster than you may be able to otherwise. The secret to supplement-success is two-fold: you’ve got to find the right ones and just as importantly, you’ve got to use them properly.

Protein

Protein is usually the first supplement that comes to mind and it is perhaps the most true-to-title of the bunch. Protein powders are intended as a supplement to your natural protein intake. Protein isn’t anything exotic and didn’t require any major scientific breakthroughs in the past few decades to help you get stronger … protein is just the stuff your body uses to repair and rebuild your muscle fiber. Whether you get it from fish, chicken or Muscletech, protein effectively does the same job.

Because supplements are not regulated by the U.S. government’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA), even protein can be a waste of money. All too often, the nutrition labels on supplements don’t actually show what’s inside the container and without FDA oversight, larger brands than you may think are able to get away with the ruse. It’s much cheaper to sell you a tub of corn flour with protein in it than it is to fill the tub with protein — that’s why even good brands often fall short of their claims when it comes to protein content.

My twenties proved that good protein still works no matter what you mix it with.

The problem with even the good protein supplements has more to do with how supplements are perceived than it does with the powders themselves. People lose sight of the fact that the chalky-shake they’re drinking isn’t a magic muscle building potion — it’s literally just extra building blocks your body can use when building the temple of power you’re working on.

And what happens if you keep delivering more building blocks to a site without putting in the time on the temple? Well, you end up with a pile of shit nobody wants to look at from the highway (or your bedroom door).

In order to make most protein shakes palatable, many companies load them up with carbohydrates and sugars that can almost make you think you’re drinking chocolate flavored misery, rather than the plain old generic sort. All those extra calories aren’t necessarily a bad thing — building muscle requires a caloric surplus in your diet (you’ll need to take in more calories than you burn throughout the day). But if you’re not putting in the hours at the gym, that caloric surplus doesn’t just disappear, it finds a new home … in your love handles.

When looking for a good protein supplement, consider the caloric content as well as the protein content and make sure you’re using the shake to help build muscle by putting in the time under the weights.

Creatine

Like protein, creatine has proven effective as a way to help bolster your muscle-building endeavors and like all supplements, it’s important to check with third party lab tests to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth. Unlike protein, some forms of creatine require a “loading” stage, in which you inundate your body with large amounts of creatine to establish a baseline before dropping consumption down to a scoop or two after your workouts. To be honest, I’ve found scientific studies dismissing the loading stage as a marketing gimmick intended to make you run out of creatine sooner and others that claim creatine isn’t nearly as effective without that loading stage.

Like most forms of drinking, “loading” is only arguably productive.

Just like any other multi-billion dollar industry, there’s no shortage of studies funded by (or influenced by) supplement distributors, so it can be tough to sift through the noise. I’m still honestly a bit on the fence about this one, so I tend to lean toward following the directions on the container (of a verified and trusted brand). Maybe I’m burning through a bit more creatine than is truly necessary when I go through “loading” stages, but I’ve decided that the few bucks that costs me is worth the expense.

Like protein, creatine is often loaded with sugars to improve its taste, but you tend to consume less of it by volume than you might a protein shake. Nonetheless, if you’re not putting in the work, those scoops of creatine in your protein shake will also result in nothing more than a few extra dimples in your growing cottage cheese butt. Supplements can’t replace hard work — they can only supplement your recovery process.

 

Pre-Workouts

Pre-workout supplements are a big hit for younger guys that are looking to add a bit of pop to their workouts, as well as newcomers that love the tingly feeling of invigoration they can provide you as you make a beeline for the weights — but a lot of guys that have lifted for a long time tend to forgo the NO-Xplode’s and Jack3d’s in favor of way crazier shit like getting a good night’s sleep. Why is this? It’s certainly not because older men and women don’t need a pick-me-up before their workout starts, after all. With a baby in my house, I need a few scoops of pre-workout just to get me into the showers some mornings.

The real reason is pre-workout supplements have a diminishing effect on you the longer you use them. That drop in effectiveness will sound logical when you take a look at nutrition label of your favorite supplement … they’re absolutely loaded with caffeine.

Doesn’t seem quite as healthy when you look at it this way.

Now, the guy behind the desk at GNC (and someone in the comments section below this article) will tell you that the herbal blends and fancy ingredients in their pre-workout are really what makes the difference and that the caffeine isn’t what’s doing the trick. They’re the supplement equivalent of a homeopathic doctor trying to convince you that a bag of oregano is the secret cure for your IBS.

While some of these additional ingredients may have some science to back up the idea that they can boost your level of alertness or what have you, they often come in such small doses that they can’t have much effect on you at all, whether good or bad. It’s the caffeine that really gets you moving — and if you don’t believe me, you will when you realize that NO-Xplode has a similar effect on you to a cup of coffee, complete with the often-mandatory trip to the bathroom to squeeze out a number 2.

Just like your coworker that drinks eight cups of coffee a day and swears it does nothing to help him wake up, the more pre-workout powder you take on a regular basis, the less effective it will be at energizing you for your workout. That doesn’t mean pre-workouts are without value, it just means you need to use them with a little forethought.

To keep your pre-workout supplements effective, you should cycle on and off of them. Spend a month with your pre-workout supplement of choice, then spend a month working out without that powdered boost. After a month, your tolerance will be reduced again and you’ll go back to really feeling the value of the supplement.

And of course, remember that these or other effective supplements can’t do the job for you. The supplements aren’t the car, the engine, or even the fuel — they’re more like an octane booster you can add once you’ve already got the rest in order. They can help keep things running smoothly, but you’ll always be the one in the driver’s seat.


About Alex Hollings

Alex Hollings writes on a breadth of subjects ranging from fitness to foreign policy, all presented through the lens of his experiences as a U.S. Marine, athlete and scholar. A football player, rugby player and fighter, Hollings has spent the better part of his adult life competing in some of the most physically demanding sports on the planet. Hollings possesses a master’s degree in communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University.