Nutrition Part 2: Supplements should profit you, not the industry
(This is part 2 of a 3 part series on nutrition and training. Read part 1 here)
If you read Part 1 on the basics of nutrition and how it shouldn’t be complicated I mentioned that I don’t believe supplements to be a complete waste of time.
However I do believe they should be understood to be used properly and sparingly; if you can step out of that blinding marketing flashlight most companies are shining directly into your eyes and apply them they have their place in your training toolkit.
There are so many supplements out there I’m not going to try to explain them all; I’m just going to try to explain my thoughts behind them and which ones you could use to help you in your training.
1. Whey Protein
The obvious Moby Dick of the fitness world, this is one whale whose blubber is never going to stop giving for the supplement companies.
There are a bewildering number of whey proteins out there with new ones coming out every other week: it seems like nowadays all you need is a six-pack and you can start promoting your ‘revolutionary’ powder (check out the YouTube fitness ‘celebs’ who are all at it).
Perhaps out of all the products in the fitness industry this is the one which has the marketing department working double shifts and weekends for: how many different ways can we package the same thing and keep it selling?
Whey proteins are pretty much all the same
Whey is a by-product of cheese production, and the powders you buy are basically a dehydrated version that has been refined to remove non-protein elements and increase the overall protein content.
Some products are also made from soy or egg protein, which is meant for those who are lactose intolerant. You can also buy what is known as whey isolate, which is has a very high protein purity and has been processed to remove the lactose content.
That, is basically it.
You can get different blends and compositions but despite how manufacturers try and re-label it it is just a dehydrated source of protein; there is nothing magic about it and it does not provide you with something you can’t get by just eating food.
Doesn’t it ‘absorb’ better?
One thing that is true is that whey generally has a high Biological Value (BV), which is a measure of the proportion of an absorbed protein that is used for protein synthesis in an organisms cells; a high BV means that the protein is more readily used by the body. Whey protein’s BV ranks it above other protein sources such as chicken and eggs.
However this is not going to realistically make any difference to your progress. Do you really think results will suffer because you absorb slightly more protein from your powder than from eggs?
If you were doing EVERYTHING right to maximise your recovery and performance (I mean get over 8 hours of quality sleep per night, abstaining from alcohol, eating foods measured and calculated to provide your specific calorific and nutritional needs, training like an animal 4 times a week, no stress etc.), then maybe it might make a tiny difference what sort of protein you were putting into your body.
The bottom line is whey protein is useful as a convenient quick snack, IF you are deficient in protein due to genuinely not having time to cook and eat healthy food, or if you are incapable of eating solid food (like you broke your jaw).
But it is just a by-product of cheese making. By packaging it in a flashy tub and giving it a catchy name (Premium, Gold Standard, Whey Blast, Mutant Whey) companies want to seduce you into thinking it is essential or it will make you like the steroid using models advertising it.
If you think you need some, then just pick the cheapest one that agrees with you for taste and your stomach, and use sparingly.
The chances are though, you don’t need it.
2. Weight gainers
Talking about non-essentials, let’s discuss another big part of the industry pie: weight gainers.
These are powders that are essentially whey protein with carbs and sugar thrown in to increase the calorie count. They are marketed either as ‘meal replacements’ as a liquid substitute for food or for those who have such high-metabolisms (called ‘hard-gainers’ in fitness parlance) they cannot physically eat enough to put on weight.
The marketing of weight gainers is all tied up in the cycle of misinformation from the industry.
- You are told if you want it bad enough there are no limits
- You are told to expect large and rapid results if you eat enough
- To help you eat enough, a convenient powder is there for you so you can stop your nutrition from holding you back, and start getting close to the size of your favourite athletes and the fitness model on the tub.
What actually happens is this:
- You are frustrated that 6 months of bicep curls hasn’t given you the 18 inch arms of the guys in the magazine
- The magazine interviews a fitness model who says that they eat 5000 calories a day to get huge
- You think your progress is slow because you don’t eat enough
- You go and buy ‘weight-gainer 3000’ and take as prescribed (two scoops in the morning, two at night)
- You weight goes up to your delight, but it is almost all fat from the excess calories and sugar from the weight gainer
Just stay away from them, they will make you fat.
If you are genuinely a ‘hard-gainer’, i.e. a true ectomorph then you firstly need to accept that you have genetic limits and unfortunately, just like the guy with a low IQ is never going to be professor, you’re not going to go that far in terms of muscle and strength.
But you can first help yourself by just adding a bit more real, healthy food to your diet and learning to train properly, using heavy compound movements and learning what exercises your body responds to the best.
Over time, you’ll get the maximum from your personal potential.
There is a lot of debate about whether this stuff works, and it seems to be something that people either can’t do without or think is garbage.
To cut the science short, creatine is something that is found in very small quantities in food such as red meat. It plays a role in improving muscular contraction and apparently means you can give more effort in the gym.
Since you would have to eat a lot of red meat to get even a small dose of creatine what supplements do is provide a relatively large dose as a powder.
I have used it and all I noticed was I retained a lot more water, i.e. I looked bigger, but more bloated. Once I stopped the bloat went away. In the gym I didn’t really notice anything.
Studies remain inconclusive to how effective it is, but personally I think this is all hype and just another excuse to sell you another powder. Why?
Because 99% of people aren’t pushing themselves that hard anyway, or if they are they aren’t near their natural limits for exertion. So adding something that apparently gives you more energy and better muscle contraction is only going to help if you are already maxing your natural potential.
In other words are you training with maximum efficiency and effort every session? Even if you are your results are not going to be sped up by some powder, they will come over time if you stick to it.
If you’re after aesthetics the water retention also doesn’t help.
4. Pre-workouts and energy drinks
I covered this a bit in part 1; stuff like pre-workouts are just not needed, unless you are as lethargic as a sloth. Hyping yourself up on caffeine and sugar might make you feel full of energy for half an hour but you’ll crash afterwards or even towards the end of your workout.
What’s more if you take it everyday your body is going to become adapted to it and so need more to respond; it is just the same as coffee drinkers who start on 1 cup a day and progress to 5 over time.
Bananas are a good source of natural sugars and energy that will do the job just as well. If you don’t like bananas well, you’re crazy, but if you really can’t stomach them then other fruits (which all have sugar) work as well.
Often it is your prevailing attitude and mood that sets the tone for a good gym session, not what fluorescent drink you had beforehand. By knowing what you are going to do, planning and seeing progress you are going to get a much more natural psychological boost.
5. Nitric Oxide (NO) boosters, Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs), Glutamine etc etc.
At the beginning of my training days I remember flicking through the supplement brochures, eagerly deciding what I ‘needed’ to get next.
I distinctly remember one company (who shall remain nameless) had a section entitled ‘the cutting edge stacks: hardcore supplements to give you extreme performance’.
These were all sorts of small bottles, pills and tablets that claimed to ‘add the finishing touch for the advanced trainer’ type of thing. Typically this was the page dominated by the images of the guy who was jacked and ripped.
These supplements are based loosely on science: NO helps increase blood flow, BCAAs are essential amino acids the body requires because it can synthesise them from scratch.
So do you need to use them? It is telling that even the companies selling such products promote them with the proviso that you are doing everything else possible to help your performance (i.e. as I mentioned before, eating, sleeping, living training). Most people are not: again it is much more worth your while to sort out your training and make sure you are eating healthily.
My bigger problem with these ‘cutting-edge’ supplements and supplements in general is their depiction of their efficiency with steroid-like gains.
In that sense supplements are pretty much a scam.
If your genetic potential is to have a lean body mass of 170 lbs at 6′ then you can’t exceed it naturally.
What’s more is that you could train your whole life and you probably won’t even get that far, because it is a theoretical maximum.
Your muscular potential, like your potential to run fast, or having the right build to run extremely long distances quickly is set in stone and your training and diet are just going to inch you closer to that limit.
Obviously if you don’t eat at all then you won’t get very far, no matter what your genetics. But by eating normally (i.e. healthy balanced meals) and most importantly training correctly you should have everything you need to get close to your potential.
Your hormones are powerful things. If you raise two kids of the same age and gender, doing the same exercise and eating the exact same thing one of them could end up taller and bigger than the other.
Is the other one going to catch him by eating more? No, because it is the hormone that is producing the result, not the nutrition.
So what should you do?
Learn how to train properly. Learn good form and practice. Make sure you have a plan and approach each session with purpose and intensity. Learn how your body reacts and your own weakness and strengths. Eat healthy 80% of the time. If you want to lose weight, gradually and slowly reduce your portions and increase your cardio, while continuing with the weight training.
Accept there is no such thing as a shortcut to lasting, solid results.
This should be your preoccupation when you want to get somewhere physically. Look back on your childhood and sporting history, you probably know how genetically gifted you may or may not be. Then learn (from sites like this) how to train, according to your own body.
If you have a busy job, work long hours or have a lot to do then picking a simple, cheap protein shake to have once a day to make sure you have enough is not a problem.
But that is literally as far as you need to take it, supplements wise.
It is not what your eat that is going to make all the difference when you look at your progress over time, or what supplements you took. Genetics and mindset are what will determine your results.
One of these you can’t do anything about. The other, is up to you.
For Part 3 click here: Bulking and cutting diets are not for you