By Dwayne N. Jackson, PhD
Regardless of your training status, athletic goals, or whether you are male or female, one thing is for certain—you must train and eat smart to meet your goals. Beyond proper diet and consistent hard training, incorporating a savvy supplementation regimen boosts performance and helps you smash through ‘personal bests’ in record time. Currently, supplement R&D is booming, leaving literally thousands of products to choose from and charging you with the daunting task of selecting the best products to meet your fitness/athletic needs. Well, today is your lucky day! We have saved you some time (and possibly money) by outlining 5 scientifically proven ‘must haves’ from the top 5 supplement categories.
Blended Protein Powder
Proteins are chains of amino acids that provide the substrates needed to build muscle and support metabolism. The amino acids in proteins also provide important biological signals for growth and recovery after bouts of heavy exercise or sports performances.
How protein supplementation supports muscle building: Taking a protein supplement prior to training raises blood amino acids during your workouts, which ensures your body will not rob hard-earned muscle of amino acids for energy production. Supplementing with protein after performing or throughout the day provides a steady stream of amino acids in the blood needed to support repair and recovery from day to day athletic bouts. The end result? More muscle in less time!
Several scientific studies have shown that blended protein supplements raise and sustain blood amino acid levels and protein synthesis better than whey protein isolate alone. Protein powder blends are supplements formulated using proteins (from many sources) that have different absorption profiles. Most simply put, these products work by raising blood amino acids quickly and keeping them elevated for extended periods of time (i.e., several hours). The best protein blends contain fast digesting whey protein hydrolysates and isolates, as well as slower digesting milk protein isolates and micellar casein. Beyond milk proteins, some of the top brands also include high biological value egg protein.
How to use it: Research tells us that athletic males and females need between 1-2 g of protein per pound of bodyweight per day, depending on training frequency and intensity. As a rule of thumb, we suggest supplementing 20-50 g (generally 1-2 scoops) of high-quality blended protein 3 times daily—one dose upon waking, one dose about 30 minutes prior to training, and another dose postworkout or sometime later in the day.
Creatine is synthesized by the body from arginine, methionine, and glycine and is stored in skeletal muscle. During exercise, it plays a fundamental role in energy production by forming the ATP (energy) needed for muscle contractions. Creatine monohydrate is the most studied, supported, and affordable form of supplemental creatine.
How creatine supports strength increases: Daily creatine monohydrate supplementation replenishes and boosts muscle creatine stores. Boosting creatine levels in muscle provides a surplus of energy substrates to directly increase strength and promote anabolism (which indirectly increases strength over time). In terms of anabolic signaling, creatine increases the amount of water taken up by muscle cells—which swells the muscle and signals for increased repair (it also makes your muscles look bigger). Second, it increases the release of the anabolic hormone, insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) and decreases myostatin levels (the ‘anabolic brakes’) postworkout. Notably, research has shown that beta-alanine (see below) stacked with creatine produces synergistic increases in strength and muscle mass, with decreases in fat mass.
How to use it: For men and women, the fastest way to boost muscle creatine levels using creatine monohydrate is by carrying out a one-week loading phase at approximately ~0.3 g/kg bodyweight per day followed by maintenance at ~0.1 g/kg bodyweight per day. During the loading phase, split the daily dose into approximately 5 gram servings to be ingested throughout the day, making certain that one dose is ingested 30 minutes preworkout and another 4-6 hours after training. During the maintenance phase, ingest one serving prior to training and another post-workout. On your rest days take one dose in the morning with breakfast and one dose with dinner. Drink plenty of water throughout the day.
Beta-alanine is an amino acid that is not involved in synthesizing proteins. In skeletal muscle, beta-alanine and histidine form carnosine, where beta-alanine is rate limiting. So, when beta-alanine is supplemented, it elevates the body’s muscle carnosine levels.
How beta-alanine provides energy: Proper beta-alanine dosing can increase muscle carnosine levels by more than 60% in as little as 4 weeks. Elevated muscle carnosine levels increase muscle energy/endurance by buffering skeletal muscle acidity that accumulates during prolonged high intensity exercise. Since one of the primary causes of fatigue during heavy exercise is metabolic acidosis, it is clear why intramuscular carnosine levels would be beneficial to strength athletes. Beyond its buffering effects, high muscle carnosine also acts as a potent antioxidant and metal chelator. Thus, through its effects on free radical scavenging, scientists hypothesize that high carnosine levels prolong neuromuscular excitation-contraction coupling. In the end this simply means that beta alanine can help you push harder for longer during your workouts.
How to use it: The research suggests that you can reap the benefits of beta-alanine with as little as 1.6 grams per day, however it will take much longer for muscle carnosine levels to peak. For best results, we recommend taking 2-3 g of beta-alanine 30 minutes before training and again immediately after training— if you are looking for an extra strength boost take 2-5 g of creatine monohydrate with both doses of beta-alanine.
Of note, there is a positive relationship between beta-alanine dose and muscle carnosine levels. However, for some, taking too much in a single dose may induce tingling, or pins and needles in your neck, arms, or hands. This side effect is called acute paresthesia, which is harmless; however, if you want to avoid this annoyance, take your daily dose in several small doses not exceeding 800 mg each.
Caffeine is one of the most safe and effective stimulants for priming your workout energy levels. Caffeine is an ingredient in numerous over the counter medications and exists in coffee, tea, cola, chocolate, energy drinks, and many other products.
How it boosts focus and training intensity: In the brain, adenosine binds to nerve cells and makes them slow down in their activity; this is what makes you feel sleepy at bedtime. Caffeine acts as a central nervous system stimulant by blocking adenosine’s effects. As such, the caffeinated brain has an abundance of nerve cell activity, which is sensed by the brain as an urgent situation and signals the anterior pituitary to release adrenaline. The end result is increased wakefulness, energy, rapid heart rate, dilated pupils and a number of other “fight or flight” symptoms. As well, caffeine intake results in increased dopamine levels in the brain, giving the user a sense of focus and well-being. Several studies have shown that pre-workout caffeine ingestion decreases perceived exertion and increases workout intensity and focus.
How to use it: Males and Females take 100 mg to 300 mg of caffeine anhydrous 30 minutes prior to training (adjust according to your caffeine sensitivity).
Green Tea Extract
Green tea extract is derived from of the naive leaves of C. sinesis, the same species used for black tea. However, because green tea is non-fermented and non-oxidized it retains unique and beneficial components that are not available in black tea.
How it promotes fat burning: Green tea extract contains high concentrations of pharmacologically bioactive polyphenols including epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). EGCG is the catechin primarily responsible for the tea’s thermogenic (heat-producing) effects and it induces thermogenesis through at least two well-defined but related means. First, it boosts the amount of fat burned as energy during and after exercise. Second, by inhibiting the reuptake of norepinephrine (noradrenaline), a key player in metabolic regulation and appetite control. Research has shown that taking green tea and caffeine combined with cardio significantly increases the amount of fat burned.
How to use it: Take 500-1,000mg of green tea extract standardized for EGCG, 2 to 3 times per day. For best fat burning effects, always take one dose 30 minutes prior to doing cardio and take with caffeine.