A friend of mine suggested that I write up a blog article about workout supplements that I use and since I do/have use(d) quite a few of them, I thought that was a really good idea. There are a number of workout supplements that I have found have really helped improve the quality of my workouts; whether lifting, running, or cycling. Important note, though, before I go on: not all workout supplements are for everyone and this is not me telling you that you will run faster, lift more or lose more weight if you use these. This is information based on my own personal experiences and also some that I pulled up to check facts.
All right. Here we go!
Creatine is actually one of the only supplements that has some scientific backing with over 200 studies having been done. It is a nitrogenous organic amino acid (actually a combo of 3 – glycine, argenine and methionine) that your liver naturally produces to help supply energy to your body. While creatine doesn’t do much for runners since the energy it provides is basically in rapid bursts, it’s awesome for lifting or basically any all-out effort, high intensity anaerobic training.
When you perform a strenuous activity, your body uses something called adenosine triphosphate as an energy source, or for short, ATP. Basically, ATP has 3 phosphate molecules and to fuel the contraction of a muscle, ATP gives the muscle one of its phosphate molecules thus making it become adenosine diphosphate. That’s where creatine comes in – it basically donates its phosphate to help regenerate ATP faster.
So does this actually improve your exercise performance?
I have done some comparative workouts to actually answer this question for myself and I would say, yes. Yes, it does. Using the bench press as my ‘lab rat’ since it is the lift I do the best, I tried benching one week without creatine and the following week with creatine. On my last set of each workout, I was lifting at 95% of my 1 rep max until failure with a weight of (at the time) 100 lb. The week without creatine, I was able to knock out 4 reps. The following week when I used creatine gain, I was able to bench that weight with 10 reps. So in my personal experience, I would say that creatine absolutely helps improve athletic performance.
Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s)
BCAA’s have less scientific backing than creatine, so much of this is based off of my personal experience and the personal experience of others. The idea behind using BCAA’s as a supplement is to prevent catabolism – muscle breakdown especially if you have a calorie deficit. When you are dieting, your body wants to breakdown protein into amino acids to use as energy. Also, when you are trying to lean out, it is pretty common to feel fatigued throughout the day. I know personally when I try to lose weight, I’m often exhausted by 2 pm. This can be problematic to athletic performance not allowing you to lift as much weight. And if you aren’t lifting as much weight due to lack of energy, your muscles may adapt to that.
The idea behind using BCAA’s as a supplement is that it theoretically stimulates protein synthesis and potentially halts protein breakdown. BCAA’s can also combat fatigue by reducing the amount of tryptophan entering the brain. Tryptophan is a hormone that converts to 5HTP and then to serotonin which can produce a feeling of fatigue. You know how you feel wiped out after eating turkey on Thanksgiving? That’s the tryptophan in the meat going all serotonin-y on you. Using BCAA’s can make you feel able to push harder in your workouts for longer periods.
My own experience with BCAA’s
Since there aren’t as many conclusive studies backing BCAA’s as there are with creatine, I feel like it would be more valuable to offer my own feedback since BCAA’s are one of the supplements that I take everyday. I don’t feel like I get the same boost in performance as I do using creatine, but I have noticed that I have been able to increase my muscle mass much more since I started using it. Since I teach spin and do other forms of cardio often, I was having a difficult time building muscle since I think I was probably burning it off and I think that probably has something to do with why I was having so many problems with my knee for so long. Since I’ve started using BCAA’s everyday, I’ve been actually building muscle in my body and getting stronger. I can lunge and even do things like box jumps and squat jumps without my knee bothering me and without even having to tape my patella in place.
This seems like a weird one to add to this list since it isn’t something I generally think of as a workout supplement per se, it is something that I have noticed makes a big difference in how I feel when I’m running, cycling, lifting, or whatever workout I’m doing really. I do feel that caffeine makes more of a difference when I do endurance workouts and I just found something in an article that makes this make sense:
Glycogen is the principal fuel for muscles and exhaustion occurs when it is depleted. A secondary fuel, which is much more abundant, is fat. As long as there is still glycogen available, working muscles can utilize fat. Caffeine mobilizes fat stores and encourages working muscles to use fat as a fuel. This delays the depletion of muscle glycogen and allows for a prolongation of exercise. The critical time period in glycogen sparing appears to occur during the first 15 minutes of exercise, where caffeine has been shown to decrease glycogen utilization by as much as 50%. Glycogen saved at the beginning is thus available during the later stages of exercise. Although the exact method by which caffeine does this is still unclear, caffeine caused sparing in all of the human studies where muscle glycogen levels were measured. The effect on performance, which was observed in most experimental studies, was that subjects were able to exercise longer until exhaustion occurred. (Read the article here)
The same article goes on to show that caffeine can lower your RPE, or rate of perceived exertion. This I have absolutely noticed to be true. I haven’t been training my running in a while since I’ve been needing to let my legs build more muscle to support my dislocated knee but I do recall that before when training, runs fueled with caffeine felt much more successful and effortless. Runs without caffeine often felt taxing and less enjoyable. In fact, those days I didn’t really want to be running at all.
I do still caffeinate my body before going to CrossFit although I’m not sure it really changes my performance at all. I can fairly say that it helps me feel more motivated to do more workout-wise but I don’t think it contributes in any way to me lifting more weight or swinging a kettlebell any faster.
Dextrose is glucose which converts into glycogen to fuel your muscles. This I add to my post-workout recovery shake everyday with a little bit of whey protein powder no matter what workout I’ve done that day. The combination of protein and dextrose elevates your body’s insulin level so that it can start storing nutrients. And because dextrose converts to glycogen so easily, you absorb it very quickly after working out. This is basically fuel for rebuilding and recovering muscles. Some people get concerned with the idea of an insulin spike but right after working out, this is actually important. It basically alerts your brain letting it know that there is energy in the body – send it where it needs to go!
In my own personal experience using this, I definitely notice the most difference with adding this supplement to my daily intake. When I don’t use it, I feel tired and more sore for longer periods. It takes me longer to pep back up after working out. With it, especially after a hard workout, I feel myself ‘coming back to life’ more quickly. I absolutely swear by this bad boy.
Anyway, these are my four. Sometimes I add in some other things, like preworkout shakes with nitric oxide added in or if I’m doing a tempo running workout, I’ll drink something with some taurine and beta-alanine to try to delay muscle fatigue. But mostly, at least on the regular it comes down to these four. Do you add supplements to help improve your athletic performance? Comment below and let me know what you use and how it helps you!