Fact vs. Fiction: Which Workout Supplements Work?

Fact vs. Fiction: Which Workout Supplements Work?

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 are 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.

Whey Protein

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 tends to be 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.

Creatine

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 (ISSN), most people need one to three grams of dietary creatine each day to maintain normal stores within the body. But the ISSN also says athletes and larger individuals may need as much as 10g 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 five 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 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 are leucine, isoleucine and valine, and they 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 after exercise. 

However, a 2017 study found that BCAA supplements, taken in isolation, are not very ineffective. 

According to the researchers, BCAA supplements alone without other amino acids appear to be limited in their ability to promote muscle recovery and growth.

Because BCAA supplements have been shown to not be effective when taken alone, athletes interested in reaping the benefits of these essential proteins may be better off selecting a whey product that has BCAAs added to it for a more comprehensive supplement

Caffeine

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 potentially 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 engaging in a timed endurance and performance test resulted in a performance improvement average of about three percent on average. 

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.

The results of studies examining the benefits of caffeine on strength training do show that caffeine has some benefits on muscle strength and power, and that it may be more beneficial in some types of exercises and muscle groups than others. 

It is important to consider what specific effects using caffeine as a supplement may have on you and discuss this with your healthcare provider.

To reap the benefits, it is recommended by the Internal Society of Sports Nutrition that you get three to six milligrams of caffeine for each kilogram of your body weight. So, a 180-pound man would want between approximately 245mg and 490mg of caffeine. 

That’s about three to four 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

However caffeine supplementation may be more effective when taken in tablet form, but whether you drink it as coffee or take a supplement, be aware of jitters and other unpleasant side effects of caffeine. 

One NoDoz® Alertness Aid Maximum Strength tablet contains about 200mg of caffeine. 

You should also be aware that the FDA has issued strong warnings against using dietary supplements that contain pure or highly concentrated caffeine in powder and liquid form as these can be toxic and life-threatening!

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.

The Bottom Line on Workout Supplements

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 have real-deal proven science to back them up. 

Incorporate them into your daily workout and enjoy!

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.