Pop into any workout supplement shop and the 18-year-old behind the counter will be happy to sell you hundreds of dollars worth of pills and powders that are “scientifically proven to deliver results.” But ask that clerk a question or confront them with the science and they’ll likely clam up.
The fact is: You don’t need all that stuff. If you want to take your gym goals to the next level, there is a handful of workout supplements that are truly scientifically proven to deliver results. And generally, you don't have to spend a small fortune to get them.
The number of workout supplements out there is extensive to the point of outrageousness. For now, we’re covering some of the top workout supplements among gym-goers, and those most worth your money.
Verdict: Workout supplements that work are hard to come by, but whey protein is excellent. Good for men who have muscle-building or -maintenance goals and aren’t otherwise getting enough protein in their diet. “Enough” defined here as one gram per pound of body weight.
Your first foray into fitness supplements likely involved protein—a protein bar or shake, post-workout or in lieu of a meal. This macronutrient is crucial in building muscle tissue. There’s a reason protein supplements, and whey protein in particular, are popular among muscle heads. Whey protein is a relatively low calorie way to increase your protein consumption throughout the day, which, in turn, can help you build muscle when paired with regular strength training.
A review of studies found that the often recommended adage of consuming one gram of protein per pound of body weight each day had some scientific backing. In fact, the research indicates getting about this much protein each day can aid in strength and body composition goals. Now, for many people, getting that much protein can be difficult. Enter protein workout supplements.
There are several types of protein supplements. Whey is one of the more popular because it’s relatively inexpensive and effective. It is also absorbed more quickly than other types of protein, making it popular post-workout. Typically, you’ll run into two types of whey in supplement shops and supermarkets: isolate and concentrate. Either is a solid choice, but whey isolate is slightly more expensive with more concentrated protein. Also, isolate is better for folks with even mild lactose intolerance, as much of the lactose has been processed out.
Verdict: Consistently ranked one of the top workout supplements, creatine may boost muscle growth and strength, especially if you don’t get enough through natural sources such as red meat.
Creatine is a compound of three amino acids naturally synthesized by the body According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, most people need one to three grams of dietary creatine each day to maintain normal stores within the body. But the organization (ISSN) also says athletes and larger individuals may need as much as 10 grams per day.
Numerous studies have repeatedly linked creatine with increased athletic performance, increased strength, fat-free mass and muscle. It’s also been suggested that weight training with creatine supplementation may be more effective than weight training without. Furthermore, creatine may enhance muscle recovery.
Food sources with naturally occurring creatine include fish and red meat. One pound of beef contains about 5 grams of creatine. Considering most folks don’t eat that much red meat in a day (nor should they), supplementation makes sense for athletes and vegetarians alike.
There are several types of creatine workout supplements available, but creatine monohydrate is, fortunately, both the best and least expensive. With most types of creatine, water retention is a known side effect, so you can expect the scale to tip slightly when you first begin supplementing.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
Verdict: Largely an unnecessary stand-alone supplement, branched chain amino acids may have limited benefits on reducing muscle soreness and supporting muscle growth. However, the science backing these oft-touted claims is slim, and the most recent research suggests you’re better off with a whey protein supplement including BCAAs in the formula.
Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a necessary or essential protein in the human diet—we need them to live. These proteins include leucine, isoleucine and valine, and are found naturally in sources of dietary protein. But BCAA powder supplements are one of the more popular gym drinks out there, despite the mostly-lacking proof supporting their effectiveness.
BCAAs can promote protein synthesis in the muscles, leading to muscle growth. They can also prevent muscle soreness and fatigue in novice athletes. However, a 2017 study found that BCAA supplements, taken in isolation, are largely ineffective. According to the researchers, BCAA supplements do not contain other amino acids “essential for the best response” in muscle recovery and growth.
“A sufficient amount of the full complement of amino acids is necessary for maximum muscle building, following exercise,” the University of Stirling researchers said in the study. “Athletes interested in enhancing muscle growth with training should not rely on these BCAA supplements alone.”
Because most high-quality whey protein supplements already contain the three BCAAs within, athletes interested in reaping the benefits of these essential proteins are better off taking their whey supplement post-workout for a more comprehensive supplement.
Verdict: A solid choice for folks hoping to shave time off their 5k or improve their endurance and speed, but the evidence linking caffeine to other training (like lifting weights) is limited. Fortunately, you’re probably drinking this supplement every morning, and perhaps even enough to reap the most benefits.
This is one gym supplement most of us take regardless of our workouts. But having a few cups of coffee could have benefits beyond getting your lazy ass out of bed. In addition to improving wakefulness, research has shown caffeine could increase our pain and effort perception thresholds, making us low-key superheroes. So, it allows us to work harder in multiple ways: providing energy, dulling our perception of pain and lessening the “this is so haaard” response.
These benefits are particularly useful for runners and other athletes who need steady, sustained energy. According to one review on the topic, taking caffeine prior to racing shaved an average of about 3% off participants’ times. There have also been demonstrated benefits in team sports like soccer and basketball, which require a long period of play marked by bursts of high-intensity effort.
However, the results on studies examining strength training benefits are mixed: some show increased strength and others do not. Despite this mixed bag of research, the International Society of Sports Nutrition says the positive outcomes in some studies “suggest that supplementation may help strength and power athletes.”
To reap the benefits, research suggests you get three to six milligrams of caffeine for each kilogram of your body weight. So, a 180 pound man would want about 245 mg of caffeine. That’s about 3-4 cups of brewed coffee or one tall (small in Starbucks-speak) Pike Place roast from Starbucks, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. If you don’t want to drink your caffeine, you could take caffeine tablets, but be aware of jitters and other unpleasant side effects. One No-Doz Plus tablet contains about 100 mg of caffeine.
An added tip: Much of the research on caffeine and athletic performance suggests you can only get the most out of caffeine if you haven’t built a tolerance to it. So if you’re preparing for a race or an event you want to be your best at, take a week off of caffeine before supplementing on the big day.
There you have it, folks. Of all the junk pushed by brands, celebrities and Instagram "fitness influencers" across the internet, here are four workout supplements that work, and that real-deal proven science to back them up. Incorporate them into your daily workout, and we'll guarantee you see the results you want. Enjoy!