Supplements should be considered the final step in a well-rounded nutritional program, but when peaking for a competition, and/or if all other training, recovery, and nutrition factors are optimally in place, supplements can give a strength athlete the edge they need to bust through training plateaus, break personal records, and to provide a competitive advantage no matter the sport.
Unfortunately, the supplement industry is flooded by what I consider modern-day snake oil salesmen. Dubious supplements are advertised by misleading steroid users who endorse supplements which offer little to no effect on sports performance, either through bogus compounds or ineffective dosing. Navigating through supplement research can be a chore, so to help I have rounded up the three most scientifically proven supplements which can increase performance in the gym or while competing.
Note – A lot of this data comes from examine.com, a fantastic resource not just for supplements but any interesting compounds and drugs that have been studied by the scientific community.
Creatine monohydrate (which is stored in the body as creatine phosphate) is probably the most rigorously proven sports performance enhancing supplement. Hundreds of studies have proven creatine to be safe, and unlike what you might see in the media, side-effects are minor in being limited to occasional gastrointestinal distress (from too much supplementation at once) and cramping (from insufficient hydration).
Creatine is so effective because it functions directly in the cellular energy cycle. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the molecule cells use for energy, and upon consumption ATP becomes converted into adenosine diphosphate (ADP) and later adenosine monophosphate (AMP). By fully saturating muscle cells with creatine phosphate, once ATP releases its energy and becomes AMP, creatine phosphate gives up its phosphate groups to convert AMP back into ATP. ATP is then used once again to fuel metabolic processes. It is as an energy intermediary that creatine is able to elicit strength increases and improved athletic performance when supplemented.
By supplementing with creatine, it is possible to increase power output and strength output, with creatine allowing one to possibly perform 1-3 extra repetitions than normal.
To supplement with creatine, a loading phase is typically performed to saturate the muscle cells with creatine as quickly as possible. To begin loading, take 0.3 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day for a week, then continue with at least 0.03 grams per kilogram per day indefinitely. Often you will see people recommend you cycle creatine for various reasons, but there is no reason to cycle on and off creatine. For an individual weighting 200 lb (90.7 kg), this translates as 27.5 g/day during the loading phase and 2.75 g/day henceforth. Typically, since creatine is so cheap, most users take 5 g/day to keep muscle cells fully saturated in the event a day or two of supplementation is missed. Creatine can be taken at any time for its performance enhancing effects. If you have a high lean body mass (LBM) and are very active, higher maintenance doses are recommended.
I’ve taken creatine monohydrate from multiple different brands, but I prefer Bulk Supplement’s Micronized Creatine as it is very cost-effective, dissolves quickly, and pure.
Caffeine is a powerful stimulant, as probably everyone reading this knows, but instead of just waking you up in the morning it can be used to improve physical strength and endurance, given a few conditions.
Caffeine has been reliably shown to increase anaerobic running capacity, increase power output, increase aerobic exercise capacity, reduce the rate of perceived exertion, increase reaction time, decrease fatigue, and lastly increase oxygen uptake if supplemented in higher dosages without a developed tolerance. There are numerous other beneficial effects from caffeine as well, but these do not apply to athletic performance.
Typically, caffeine is taken everyday by people around the world in dosages ranging from 50-400 mg. The issue with daily supplementation of caffeine is that habitual caffeine use leads to tolerance. Over time, the powerful effects of caffeine listed above are diminished, and if daily supplementation is continued, only caffeine’s anti-sleep effect remains. This is an ‘insurmountable’ tolerance, so taking more caffeine will not overcome it. A break from caffeine of a month or longer will reduce a developed tolerance.
To experience caffeine’s powerful performance effects, caffeine supplementation should only be performed occasionally, around once a week max. Additionally, everyone responds to caffeine dosages differently, so caffeine supplementation should be tailored to individuals. If new to caffeine supplement and unsure how you react, start with a 100 mg dose and increase by 100 mg at a time. Caffeine should be taken 45-60 minutes before your workout for maximum effect. Acute strength increases, and increased power output occur at higher doses of around 500 mg and greater. Alternatively, a dosage range of 4 – 6 mg/kg bodyweight can be used.
Caffeine can be ingested through a variety of sources (coffee, pre-workout, energy drinks), but in order to limit any unintended effects from those drinks, it is best just to take caffeine in pill form. I prefer Nutricost 200 mg Caffeine Pills because they are extremely cost effective compared to other sources like a cup of coffee.
While creatine and caffeine above can improve power output, beta-alanine is a fantastic supplement to enhance muscular endurance in the 60-240 second range.
Beta-alanine is a modified version of the amino acid alanine. Upon ingestion, beta-alanine is converted into the molecule carnosine. Carnosine acts as an acid buffer in the body, first stored in cells and then released in response to drops in pH. Through supplementation of beta-alanine, you increase the muscular stores of carnosine, which offers protection from exercise-induced lactic acid production.
When supplementing with beta-alanine, you can expect to be able to perform 1 – 2 extra repetitions when training in the 8 – 15 rep range. Considering beta-alanine works best when a set is 60 – 240 seconds in length, beta-alanine is a fantastic supplement for bodybuilders who perform long sets of pump work. Beta-alanine is also a great supplement to use when performing blood flow restriction training (BFRT). When performing BFRT, the limiting factor is not the weight or even muscular fatigue, but primarily the unbearable buildup of lactic acid. Supplementation of beta-alanine to delay the onset of intense lactic acid buildup could prove extremely useful under these circumstances. Outside of the gym, Beta-alanine supplementation improves performance during moderate-to high-intensity cardiovascular exercises such as rowing or sprinting.
Like creatine, increasing muscular stores of carnosine through supplementation of beta-alanine takes time. With beta-alanine supplementation, carnosine muscle concentrations are increased by up to 58 percent at around four weeks, and those levels increase up to 80 percent after around 10 weeks. Taking an overall dose of 3 – 6 grams of beta-alanine a day spread out over 3 – 4 smaller doses is typical for the studies which have shown performance enhancing effects. Start supplementation at 2 g/day, taking 600 – 1200 mg every 4 – 6 hours, and increase by 1 g/week until you notice tingling or the fatigue diminishing effects. The tingling (paresthesia), a common side effect of pre-workout supplements (as you might have once noticed), is harmless and is a result of excess acute beta-alanine supplementation. Spreading out beta-alanine supplementation to 3 – 4 600 – 1200 mg doses a day is the best way to avoid paresthesia. If you notice any tingling, lower the daily dosage until the side effect is gone.
A high quality, cost-effective brand of beta-alanine can be bought from Bulk Supplements, which is my preferred choice.
Creatine, caffeine, and beta-alanine are the three TOP proven performance enhancing supplements currently available. While there are a lot of promising compounds and supplements currently being tested and studied, these three are the best available right now. Between these three supplements, expect to possibly have an improved anaerobic running capacity, increased power output, increased aerobic exercise capacity, reduced rate of perceived exertion, increased reaction time, decreased fatigue, increased oxygen intake, and increased muscular endurance.
Remember, while each improvement listed above might only range from +/- 1-10%, taken together and over time, the results can become pronounced and apparent, and offer you a significant edge over the strength athlete who has not done their supplement research.
Note – I did not reference any individual studies proving these supplement claims in this article because that information is easily accessible at examine.com.
GO FORTH AND CONQUER
DISCLOSURE - This post may contain affiliate links, which cost you nothing, but do help to support this site's maintenance and fees. For more information visit the disclosure page.
Latest posts by Stefan Burns (see all)
- Easy Three Ingredient Weight Gainers - May 30, 2016
- The Cost of Muscle - May 14, 2016
- Watch 7 Years of Europe’s Strongest Man Competitions - May 8, 2016