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Bodybuilding/Muscle Building Supplements

My personal opinion is that most supplements promoted by bodybuilding magazines are junk and the supplement industry is basically a multi-million dollar snake oil industry.

Bodybuilding itself doesn't pay very well, so many bodybuilders supplement their income by endorsing any product that someone will pay them to.  When you see that perfect smile on a toothpaste ad, do you really believe they have those perfect pearly whites because they use brand X toothpaste?  Same rule of thumb for the bodybuilders you see posing next to their favorite supplement.

  • If it doesn't have solid peer-reviewed scientific research to support it, then it's probably junk.
  • Many supplements have little or no testing done on them. Therefore, you don't really know if they're going to work or what short term and long term side effects they'll have.
  • Ingesting a particular chemical does not necessarily increase its amount in your body or muscles.  There's a long complicated process between your stomach's digestive acids and your muscles.  Many substances simply get broken down and excreted by the digestive system and never even make it to your blood stream, much less your muscles.
  • Good Rule of Thumb: If a chemical has a major impact on your body chemistry, then it will most likely have correspondingly large side effects and health risks.

Stick to the basics: 

  • Exercise Properly
  • Eat right
  • Allow for Recovery
  • Sleep right
Milk, Eggs, and Barbells - My Favorite Supplements

People often ask me what supplements I take: Being basically a smart ass, I usually answer "Milk, eggs, and barbells."  In reality, I take Creatine Monohydrate, Zinc, multi-vitamins, BCAAs, and L-Glutamine.

I strongly discourage the recreational use of steroids

Steroids - Everyone has an upper limit of how strong they can get and how much muscle they can build. This is based on genetics, age, health, etc. Steroids can get you past this limit. However, if you haven't reached this limit (and very, very few people ever do), then steroids aren't doing anything for you that you can't achieve without them - and without their harmful side effects (acne, bitch tits, heart failure, medical problems, etc.).  Yes, it may take a little longer and you may have to work harder and smarter to develop the body you want, but two years from now is it really going to matter if it took you an extra couple of months to get where you are? I strongly discourage my clients from recreational use of steroids. I have chosen this policy, not for moral reasons (an adult should be able to do what they want with their own body), but because I believe that exercising should improve your health, and recreational use of steroids doesn't fit with that philosophy. Also, I have only studied natural training. The optimal workout regimen for a steroid user is different from that of natural trainee. The workouts for natural trainees have to pay more attention to rest and recovery and are designed to help boost natural hormones. This is important for a natural lifter. However, it's not so important for steroid users since the steroids aid in recovery and since their body is typically no longer producing significant amounts of testosterone anyway - no matter what they do. Almost all their testosterone comes from external drugs. Therefore, a workout program based on causing the body to produce more natural hormones is pointless.

My policy used to be not train anyone on steroids, however, that policy wasn't working since clients would simply deny their use when asked. If they are using, it's better for me to know and work with that information. I will still continue to encourage them to quit.

I can't recommend what supplements you should take since everyone's body is different and responds differently to what they take. As a general rule, I tell people to avoid supplements. For most, even if they do work, the cost outweighs the benefits. But, there are a few that are worth considering, so here is some basic info on some common supplements and whether are not I think they may be beneficial.

Before taking any supplement, check with your doctor to make sure it doesn't have any adverse reactions with drugs you are taking.  For example, the common supplement L-Arginine reacts with many blood pressure medicines and can be very dangerous for people with heart problems. It seems almost everything adversely affects statin users.

Full Disclosure Notice: If you purchase any Amazon products via the links provided, I receive a small commission.

Protein/Whey Supplements

Protein/Whey supplements can simplify your meals when trying to gain weight, but good food will do just as well.  Eggs and milk are great sources of protein. There is still debate about whether eating egg yolks raises your cholesterol. While the yolks contain significant cholesterol, they also contain cholesterol lowering agents. Eat just the whites if you are concerned about cholesterol, but don't be too quick to write off the yolks. I personally eat the yolks and have good cholesterol numbers.

Stick with whey-based protein supplements and avoid soy-based supplements. Soy products are estrogen boosters, not what you want if you are trying to build muscle.

And as much as manufacturers want you to believe that their whey protein is magically better than everybody else's, the reality is making whey protein isn't rocket science. The actual whey in every reputable manufacture is no better than the whey in any other reputable brand. However, what is different is the other ingredients added to the product. It's hard to find just plain old whey protein. Most have a laundry list of ingredients that are added to make their brand "unique and special." But that's mostly just marketing hype. Here's a good rule of thumb: If they list an ingredient, but don't list the actual amount of that ingredient, then assume it's only just enough so that they can legally list it on the label - and probably NOT ENOUGH to have any real value. They do this so they can list it on the label to induce you to buy it, thinking you're getting something that's better than everybody else's whey. It's probably not.

What you do need to watch for is unwanted added ingredients, such as sugar/glucose. And even sugar isn't all bad. If you are using whey as post workout food, then a little sugar to boost your insulin levels immediately after a workout is a good thing for most people who are trying to add muscle.

But what's even worse are INGREDIENTS THAT ARE NOT ON THE LABEL. Consumer Reports did a test of popular whey products and found several that had unsafe levels of contaminants such as arsenic, lead, and cadmium. Cadmium is especially harmful because it can damage the kidneys and takes years to clear from the body. See Cadmium Poisoning.
See Consumer Reports Article

The Worst Offenders:

  • Muscle Milk products. Three servings had what is considered unsafe levels of arsenic, lead, and cadmium.
  • EAS Myoplex Original Rich Dark Chocolate Shake. Three servings had an average of 16.9 micrograms (µg) of arsenic and an average of 5.1 µg of cadmium, both of which are considered unsafe levels. And while these are fairly small amounts, why do want them at all when better options are available?

Products that Did Well:

Optimum Nutrition Platinum Hydro Whey Velocity Vanilla Six Star Professional Strength Whey Protein French Vanilla Cream Solgar Whey to Go Whey Protein Powder Natural Vanilla Bean

In 2005, National Football League running back Michael Cloud filed a lawsuit claiming MuscleTech Nitro-Tech protein powder contained undisclosed ingredients that caused him to fail a drug test. According to Cloud's legal complaint, an independent laboratory analysis of the Nitro-Tech powder showed it contained the undisclosed ingredients norandrostenedione and androstenediol, steroid precursors that would cause the positive test results. A similar complaint was filed by Olympic bobsledder Pavle Jovanovic. See Consumer Reports.

A good rule of thumb, if a company has poor manufacturing processes and controls for one product, their other products aren't likely to be much better (and vice versa). As such, I would avoid products by Muscle Milk and EAS.

Verdict: Useful, just be selective of what brands you choose.

Caffeine Go-juice, Joe, java, morning dew, you know the stuff. Caffeine acts as a central nervous system stimulant, temporarily warding off drowsiness and restoring alertness. It has been shown in numerous studies to improve athletic performance. It has also been shown to help with glycogen resynthesis after a workout (see study). A little more energy during your workout can help provide additional gains. A typical pre-workout dose is 50-200 mg. A typical cup of coffee can have between 80-170 mg. Check your label to find how much caffeine your favorite cup of Joe contains.

Everybody reacts a little differently to caffeine, so only use if it you have a good response to it. And of course, don't take it anywhere near bedtime. It's best for morning workouts. If you're a coffee drinker, you can just drink coffee instead.
Start with 50 mg to see how it affects you. If it gives you the jitters or any unwanted side effects, then lower the dose. If not, try a slightly higher dose. If caffeine doesn't agree with you, then skip it. It's helpful, but not essential.

The easiest (and usually cheapest) way to buy caffeine for us non coffee drinkers is No Doz (or the generic equivalent). They are typically 200 mg each, so you may need to break them up.

See also Post-Workout Caffeine Consumption

BCAA (branched chain amino acids) The three essential amino acids that make up the BCAA's are leucine, isoleucine and valine.
Leucine is one of the most powerful anabolic agents known. It is responsible for the building and repair of skeletal muscle, skin and bone. It is also needed for the creation of human growth hormone (HGH).
Isoleucine, also builds and repairs muscle, skin and bone and is needed for the creation of HGH.
Valine is needed for building and repairing muscle and to maintain the nitrogen balance in the body.

While there is good clinical evidence for the value of BCAA's, they can be found in the food you eat. If you have a good diet, supplementation is not really necessary. In fact, two large eggs have roughly the same BCAAs as a typical dose of BCAA pills for about the same price; and as a bonus the eggs also contain many other essential amino acids and protein.

For Those Trying to Lose Weight
While two large eggs have similar BCAAs to a serving of Twinlab BCAA Fuel, notice that the calories for the eggs are significantly higher. For those on a calorie restricted diet, BCAA supplementation may be a good low calorie source of these important amino acids.

Table comparing a single serving of Twinlab BCCA Fuel to common foods:

Product leucine
calories approx. cost USD
1 serving Twinlab BCCA Fuel 1000 500 500 10 0.25
2 Large Eggs 1088 672 860 143 0.28
1/2 cup peanuts 1120 608 725 427 0.50

See Twinlab, Eggs and Peanuts for nutrition info

Verdict: Useful, especially if you are trying to get your amino acids on a calorie-restricted diet. If you are eating a full diet, then probably not that necessary.

Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) has been shown to increase lean muscle mass and lower body fat, however, the gains are minimal at best. In most studies, the participants lowered their body fat by 1% or less. If you are prepping for a bodybuilding contest and your body fat is 7% or less, 1% can make a difference. But if you are 12% body fat or more like most people, 1% would hardly be noticeable. Studies with athletes show it to not be effective. While there is some concern that CLA may increase the risk of diabetes for obese people, it appears to relatively safe; The FDA deemed it "Generally Recognized as Safe." Also, there does not appear to be any advantage to taking more than 3.2g a day. A month's supply is typically about $20 USD.

Verdict: Not likely to be useful.

Creatine Monohydrate (CM) has numerous studies showing that it enhances muscle-building gains by allowing the user to perform a more intense workout.  This usually translates to being able to do one maybe two more reps when working 12 reps or less to failure.  However, if you are not working out at full intensity, then CM is not likely to provide any benefit for you.

The long term effects of CM use is not clear although it appears to be safe.  CM also causes a weight gain due to water retention.  This goes away a few weeks after use is discontinued.  Another important thing about CM is that the body can only store a limited amount, making overdosing difficult.  This also means that taking more than the recommended 5 grams/day is a waste of money and just more work for your kidneys, since your body will have to excrete it.  Many people recommend a preloading phase, such as 20 grams/day for four days, but studies show that this is not necessary.  It should be taken with carbohydrates, such a fruit juice or a sugared drink.  Since it is stored by the body, it doesn't really matter if you take before, during, or after exercise.  It is also recommended that its use is discontinued for one week of each month.  The serum is NOT as effective as the powder.

Creatine and endurance athletes: CM does not provide significant benefit for endurance events, and because of the water weight gain associated with its use, is probably more of a detriment.  However, it can be useful during the strength training phases to build muscle, but should be discontinued four weeks before an actual event to reduce the water weight gain.

Note: Studies show that about 30% of the population will not get any benefit from CM.  How can you tell if you are in this 30% group? Short of lab tests, you really can't.  The effects of CM are relatively minor.  In fact they are so minor that you are unlikely to be able to tell the difference.  But if it works for you, you will be able to work out slightly harder and this can translate into a significant difference over a long period of time.

Creatine Monohydrate studies and information

Verdict: Useful

L-Glutamine has been shown to help prevent muscles from being catabolized (consumed) in order to provide Glutamine for other cells in the body.  This helps preserve the gains made by hard training sessions, which deplete Glutamine levels.  It also has been shown to reduce the effects of immune system degradation as a result of overtraining.  However, the benefit is small and somewhat disputed, but it is also fairly inexpensive.  The recommended dose is generally about 10 grams per day 30 minutes after a workout and at bedtime on non-workout days.

L-Glutamine studies and information

Verdict: Maybe Useful

Zinc is necessary to maintain testosterone levels in men.  It also inhibits the aromatase enzyme that converts testosterone into estrogen. However, as with most supplements, more is not always better: Zinc competes with iron and copper, therefore high zinc intake may cause deficiencies of these minerals.  Food sources high in zinc include shellfish, liver, oxtail, and corned beef.

Zinc studies and information

Verdict: Useful

Digestive Advantage Lactose Defense Formula While not technically a bodybuilding supplement, it can aid in the digestion of milk products for those who are lactose intolerant. Before I starting taking this, a single glass of milk would give me terrible gas. I can now drink up to half a gallon a day with no problems. Several of my clients have also had similar success. It doesn't work for everyone and some people report that it causes them diarrhea, but if you're lactose intolerant and want to add milk to your diet, it's worth a try. It's a probiotic that you take up to once a day and helps your digestive system break down lactose. I personally only take one every other day and have good results.

Verdict: Useful

  HMB Studies with untrained athletes tend to show positive results, however, studies with trained athletes show little to no benefit. Here's an interesting article on HMB.
This is a very common problem for weightlifting/bodybuilding studies. They take a group of untrained people and test a product. In general, this makes the results meaningless (unless you are trying to figure out what works for a beginner). What works for a beginner is irrelevant for an advanced trainee. If you are an advanced lifter, then ignore studies involving untrained athletes.

Verdict: Not likely to be useful

doctorAs with any nutrition or exercise program, always review them with your doctor to ensure that they don't interact with or are contraindicated by any medications or medical issues you may have. If you haven't trained for a while, start out slow and go easy. If you are pregnant, have diabetes, blood sugar problems, or any heart issues, you shouldn't do this program as it is very strenuous.
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