There will come a time, even with the best training plan, that you exercise and progress will start to plateau. When this happens, a number of things can occur. It’s common that people will become demotivated and slowly start to give up, but that’s the last thing you should do. Many other people will reach for some type of supplements.
I’m not going to say that all supplements are a bad thing, because I don’t believe that’s true. I would certainly recommend taking a look at your existing nutrition first to see how that is impacting on your training, but there is an argument for other types of supplements. Let’s be clear, we’re not talking about any sort of steroid or ‘artificial’ performance enhancer here.
Before we take a look at how supplements can help you with your goal-focussed nutrition, let me talk a little about your existing diet. When you’re looking to build muscle, it’s vital that you have an adequate calorie intake that also includes enough protein to create a biological environment for both muscle growth and recovery. Personally, I would always suggest eating around 20% more than your maintenance calories, where about 30% of those calories are coming from protein. If you struggle to maintain that, then supplements might be a way to help you hit those targets.
Before we get into which supplements might help you, it’s important to understand that not all supplements will work for everyone. Because we’re all different, our bodies respond differently to them. If one doesn’t work for you, don’t give up hope, just try another.
Creatine is probably the most well-known supplement and is actually a naturally occurring substance within our muscle’s cells. Around 95% of the body’s creatine supply is found around the skeletal muscle tissue, whilst the other 5% is found throughout the rest of the body.
If your goals are focussed around weight-training or body-building, creatine will probably already be your supplement of choice. It’s favoured because of the rapid rate that muscle mass is built. In its natural form, creatine is a metabolite but has been reproduced as a dietary supplement as creatine monohydrate. It is also preferred by many because it’s easy to stop using, as the body also produces it naturally, it removes many after-effects. If you stop taking it as a supplement, your body will return to ‘normal’ levels within a month.
Creatine has other benefits too, including;
- Lean body mass.
- Post-workout recovery occurs faster.
- An increase in glycogen storage.
- Muscle cell volume is increased.
- Increased high-intensity muscle performance.
If you’re interested in taking creatine, I would recommend a daily dose of between 5-10 grams. Take half with a pre-workout meal and the other half with a post-workout shake.
Like creatine, beta-alanine is also a naturally occurring chemical, but this one is an amino acid, albeit a non-essential one. It comes into the body through foods that are rich in protein like chicken and turkey.
Beta-alanine has the ability to increase intra-muscular levels of carnosine, which happens quickly. When used as a supplement, carnosine levels can be raised by as much as 60% in just a few weeks. This is important because when we undertake high-intensity exercises, our bodies accumulate a large amount of hydrogen. This increase causes the body’s pH level to drop, i.e. we become more acidic.
This increase in acidity, through chemicals like lactic acid, causes fatigue and reduces muscle performance. It also begins to shutdown the neural drive, which can cause muscle failure. By ensuring our levels or carnosine remain high through beta-alanine, we can counteract this process and delay the onset of fatigue and reduce the risk of muscle failure.
When it comes to dosage, I would say around 2-6 grams per day. It’s important to say though that it should be taken in small doses spread throughout the day to prevent a tingling sensation in the skin.
Protein shakes are synonymous with weight training and body-building and have been for many years. If you’re a regular shake evangelist, then you’ll be no stranger to whey protein. Post-workout, having a shake that’s high in protein is a great way to kickstart your recovery and, therefore, the muscle growth process.
When you consume whey, either before or after a workout (or both), your body increases protein synthesis which helps both muscle growth and recovery. It works well whether you’re looking to lose body fat or add lean muscle mass. It has become popular over the years because it’s easily digested by the body. This obviously saves times as whey is a fast-digesting milk protein that delivers important amino acids to your skeletal muscles, which assists protein synthesis.
Protein is the building block for muscle repair, so whey protein is a fantastic foundation for that. It also helps to keep hunger at bay because it’s a natural appetite suppressant. If you’re losing weight, be sure the whey protein you use isn’t full of carbohydrates and fat, which will obviously be counter-productive.
If you’re lactose intolerant, whey protein is still a viable option. Whey protein isolate contains a higher percentage of pure protein and, in some cases, can be virtually lactose-free, meaning you can avoid that horrible gastrointestinal pain.
When it comes to dosage, you can consume around 20-30 grams at a time. As I mentioned, it’s best used either before or after your workout. It’s important to say though that you shouldn’t rely on shakes alone. Protein should, wherever possible, come from whole foods.
Branched-Chain Amino Acid (BCAA)
Whilst we’re on the subject of amino acid, let’s talk about another common supplement. Of the 20 amino acids that your body plays host to, just 3 of them are classed as BCAAs; namely isoleucine, valine and leucine. These three key acids stimulate protein synthesis and also help to regulate protein metabolism.
During a workout, BCAAs acts as an energy source so, when used as a supplement, it helps restore the same nutrients you lose during exercise, particularly intensive workouts.
Post-workout, the body uses BCAAs to help your muscle’s recover. Similarly, to whey protein, BCAA push nutrients to the muscle tissue which improves their recovery time. It also helps reduce pain from fatigue and helps to improve metabolic recovery.
As a dosage, I would recommend 3-5 grams when you wake up and another 3-5 grams both pre- and post-workout.
The final supplement I want to talk about is glutamine. Exercise enthusiasts like glutamine because of its ability to slow the breakdown of muscle tissue, particularly during intensive workouts. This improves the body’s strength threshold and elevates endurance limits. This means that you should be able to light heavier weights for longer periods and train more regularly. By pushing your muscles in this way, your body will produce lean muscle to compensate.
Glutamine, when taken as a supplement, has a number of other subsequent benefits. The more lean muscle the body has, the more effective your metabolism becomes. If you’re looking to lose weight, the body, as well as losing fat, also sheds muscle mass, so you need to slow that part of the process down.
When you’re training intensively, the pressure isn’t solely on your muscles, but your entire immune system. Glutamine has been shown to restore muscle tissue health, which feeds into the immune system so recovery occurs across the body as a whole.
If you think glutamine is for you, I would suggest taking 15 grams per day; 5 grams when you wake-up, 5 grams post-workout and another 5 grams before bed.
For all I’ve talked about supplements here, I think it’s important to stress that results can be achieved without using any of them, but it will take a little longer. I will always stress the importance of getting your existing nutritional plan in order first. When your diet is in sync with your training, the results will happen. No question about it.
Supplements like these will also help you, but don’t think you have to take them. As I said at the beginning, the results from any of these is going to vary from person to person, but if you want to go to the next level, give them a try.
Remember that results are driven by nutrition and the effort you put into your training. You get out what you put in. If you want to make sure you are doing everything right with your food and training then a custom personal training and nutrition plan will allow you to enjoy every day of exercise and food in the knowledge you are doing the right things for you.