Despite appearances to the contrary, sports supplements are nothing new. Back in the days of ancient Rome, Gladiators and athletes ate raw bull’s testicles in an effort to make them more powerful. Peruvian hunters chewed cocoa (the raw ingredient for cocaine) plant leaves to give them energy on long hunts. 

Vikings consumed the herb bog myrtle to psych themselves up before a hard day of plundering and pillaging; these particular Vikings being known as Berserkers, giving us the expression to go berserk. Bog myrtle was the original pre-workout stimulant! 

Supplements are designed to help give you a leg-up in terms of performance or recovery and, if you read and believe the popular bodybuilding and fitness magazines, if you are even thinking of going to the gym, you should be taking some form of supplement.

But, and that’s the point of this particular article, do you really need supplements? 

Supplements – don’t believe the hype!

Supplements are not drugs and do not have miraculous effects. The images that often accompany advertisements for sports supplements are not representative of the sort of results experienced by typical users. In fact, quite often, the model pictured doesn’t even use the supplement in question and has been hired simply to put a face (and a body) to the product. 

False advertising aside, there are some excellent products out there – protein powder, creatine and fish oils being amongst the best and most useful. But before you even think about using sports supplements, you need to get your diet, your training, and your recovery strategies in order.

Even the best supplement will not make up for a lousy diet, improper training, or not getting enough sleep. These are the three pillars of progress on which fitness and strength are built. If, and only if, you get these things in order, is it worth adding supplements to your diet. You cannot prop up a lousy workout schedule or lack of sleep with a supplement – it just won’t work. 

Before you consider supplements, ask yourself a few questions...

  1. Do I train hard and consistently at least three times a week? 

  2. Do I get eight hours of sleep at least six nights per week?  

  3. Do I eat a balanced and healthy diet at least 90-percent of the time?

  4. Have I been training for at least 12-months and have I made some good progress without supplementation? 

  5. Do I have the discipline and finances to use supplements regularly and as instructed by the manufacturer? 

If you answered yes to these five questions, you are a viable candidate for sports supplements. 

But, if you said no to any of the questions, there are bigger things you need to be worrying than wasting your hard-earned cash and turning it into expensive urine! Get your life in order before you squander your money. 

If you have decided that, yes, supplements are for you, what should you use? 

With so many supplements to choose from, it can be hard to know where to start. This short list represents the “tried and tested” basics that are backed by science. Remember though, none of these supplements are compulsory! 

Whey protein powder – it can be hard to get enough protein into your diet and even harder if you aren't allowed to eat steak while say at your desk at work! Protein powders can help you maintain a favorable amino acid balance which promotes anabolism or muscle building.  

While it is usually cheaper and more enjoyable to eat some tuna, chicken, or eggs, in terms of convenience, protein powders can be very advantageous. Choose products with as few artificial additives in as possible and also consider rice, pea, and hemp protein as a dairy-free alternative to whey if you have issues with lactose.

Creatine – a vital chemical in the production of ATP, the energy currency of the human body, creatine may help you train longer and harder and recover faster. It doesn't work for all users, but those that find it beneficial usually report noticeable improvements in performance within a few weeks of regular use. 

Creatine also promotes water retention which makes muscles bigger. This can aid the lifting of heavier weights due to increased mechanical advantage caused by improved leverage.

Branch Chain Amino Acids – available in capsule and powder form, BCAAs are the most common protein in your muscles. These proteins are heavily catabolized (broken down) during intense training. 

Consuming BCAAs before, during and/or after heavy exercise seems to increase recovery and reduce muscle breakdown. Also, BCAASs are very low in calories which make them a viable alternative to protein if you are restricting your calorific intake.

Carbohydrate drinks – long or intense workouts cause depletion of your muscle glycogen. Muscle glycogen is basically stored carbohydrate. The last thing you want during a hard training session is to "hit the wall" and run out of energy. This is where carbohydrate drinks are beneficial.  

However, if you are exercising for fat loss, carbohydrate drinks are not a good idea. The whole point of exercising for fat loss is to burn calories. The last thing you want to do is consume more calories than you are burning off! For general exercise and fat loss workouts, water should be your beverage of choice. 

Supplements CAN be useful but only if you are training hard, getting plenty of sleep and eating a well-balanced diet. Even then, they are not "miracles in a jar" and will only give you a small boost in performance. If you have all your lifestyle and recovery ducks in a row, by all means try a supplement. However, make sure you only use tried and tested products and don’t fall for the hype surrounding the latest wonder-pill.