Supplements are a racket.  Just like the fad diet industry, muscle-building snake oil peddlers make a living (or a fortune) by preying on your insecurities and promising you results that range anywhere from unlikely to utterly impossible.  With all that said… there may still be a place for supplements in your fitness regime, if you’re able to maneuver through the minefield of misleading labels and grandiose claims.  Like a combat operation, I can’t guarantee we’ll all make it to the other side if you embark on this journey with me, but I’ll do the best I can to make sure you’re well equipped for the fight ahead.  The rest is up to you.

The first and most important thing you need to know when shopping for a workout supplement of any type is that there are no laws forbidding “false advertising” in supplements.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is not legally obligated to verify the claims made on those often medical-looking bottles on the shelves in your local GNC, despite the fact that their marketing methods seem awfully similar to the pharmaceutical industry, where the FDA mandates verification of validity.  If that seems impossible, I’ll let the FDA explain it for themselves.

FDA is not authorized to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed. The manufacturers and distributors of dietary supplements are responsible for making sure their products are safe BEFORE they go to market.”

The fact that there’s no oversight over the supplement industry creates two immediate issues: the first is that the ingredients of the supplement you purchase may not actually provide any benefit to you whatsoever.  The second is that the supplement you bought may have proven ingredients listed on the label… but there’s no guarantee that the manufacturer actually put any of that stuff in the bottle.  That’s not paranoia – it rocked the industry a few years ago when lab testing proved that many of the supplements sold at large retailers like Wal-Mart, GNC, and Target were actually just flour pills with none, or very little, of the ingredients listed on the label actually found inside the product.

So as you stroll down the aisle full of pseudo-scientific labels mixed with words like “extreme,” it pays to know that literally nothing you see written on all those packages has been verified by a third-party.

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When you hear that, you might be tempted to believe that literally no supplements on the market are what they claim to be – and that may be the safest belief to have – but there are some out there that really offer the benefits they promise, you just need to know where to look.

The first thing you need to do when adding a supplement to your fitness routine is decide on your goals.  If you’re looking for strength building, for instance, you need quite a bit of extra protein in your diet to support muscular development.  If you’re hoping to lean out as you build strength, you may also want to consider the caloric content of the protein supplement you choose.  If mass is your goal, I also recommend incorporating creatine into the mix, though the proper use of it could potentially warrant an article in itself.

With a goal in mind, look for third-party laboratories that test different supplements on the market and review their findings.  The internet has seen an upsurge in supplement retailers in recent years that offer a lab analysis of the content actually found inside supplement packages – but of course, because the world is awful and so is everyone in it, some of them have since been outed as marketing frauds themselves.

Before you purchase a supplement, whether aimed at muscle growth, weight loss, or easing stress, I highly recommend checking out its lab results on the website ConsumerLab.com.  It has a long history of offering independent analysis of supplements free from marketing hype or retailer agenda – however, they also charge for their work.

Creating an account and forking over the $24 per year may not be worth it to you if you just intend on buying a bit of protein powder, but there are free alternatives that are pretty reputable in my experience as well. Labdoor.com, for instance, sends their supplements out for third-party analysis at FDA approved laboratories and posts the results on the site – but be aware that they are also a supplement retailer.  While I’ve found that their results tend to coincide with those provided by Consumer Lab, it’s always important to be cognizant of the fact that they are, after all, a for profit company trying to sell you something.

Don’t fall into the user review trap when it comes to supplements.  Ego tends to drive the mentality of those who want to broadcast their regiments and supplement lists as the best around, and ego has no place in this fight.

Besides, what kind of a tool thinks you should be listening to his workout advice?

Although BodyBuilding.com is often a fantastic resource for workout tips and even offers pretty competitive prices on the products they sell, for instance, user reviews alone are not, in my opinion, sufficient evidence of a supplement’s validity.  BillyBiceps69 might think his supplement stack is “THE MOST EXTREME BRAH!” but until I see some cold, hard facts to support his list of powders and pills, I don’t need his advice until I decide to start spray tanning.

So never.

A few last-minute tips that may help you to survive your expedition in the supplement aisle of your local big-box retailer:

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  1. If claims sound too good to be true, they are (if a magic pill had been invented, trust me, it would have made the news).
  2. Don’t be swayed by the models in the ads or on the box; they’re fit for a living and often use less than reputable means to stay that way.
  3. The kid behind the counter may sound like he knows what he’s talking about (and sometimes they really do) but there’s no beating doing a bit of your own research.

Supplements can really help you to achieve your fitness goals, but the risk they pose by not accurately listing their ingredients on the label (of particular concern to those of us with allergies) means you should take all of their claims with a grain of salt… or maybe more than a grain.  Use this much salt:

(Maryland State Gov)

And remember, supplements SUPPLEMENT your diet – it’s always better to get the nutrition you need from good old-fashioned food whenever you’re able.  The powders may help, but it’s up to you to put the work in.