Let’s say you walk into a GNC (or Vitamin Shoppe) to restock your supply of supplements. You don’t necessarily have a limited budget but throwing money away isn’t part of the plan. What three supplements - in addition to protein powder - are the best buy for those looking to improve performance in both the gym and in sports? Here are the three best supplements to add to your nutrition regimen
1) Creatine: There are few supplements that have withstood the test of time regarding the ergogenic effects in athletes. First there was protein. Then there was caffeine. And now there is creatine. Creatine is a tripeptide (3 amino acids) found naturally in muscle and shuttles phosphate groups to ADP (used up energy) in muscle cells. Shuttling phosphate to ADP re-energizes the cell specifically during short burst strength and power movements under anaerobic conditions. When you regularly supplement creatine you can saturate your body’s natural stores of that phosphate-creatine shuttle. It’s the equivalent of priming the engine before you start the machine. Your muscles will be ready to go especially when pushing your limits during a training session.
The physical effect of supplementing creatine however, is rather subtle. You might not feel a massive burst of energy so don’t expect to turn into the hulk 30 minutes before your workout. In fact, you don’t need to ingest creatine around the workout to get the same effect as other supplements. The results, nonetheless, can be significant when combined with a strength training protocol. Research shows up to a 50% increase in lean body mass for subjects that consumed creatine monohydrate regularly compared to a placebo group.1,2
The recommended creatine intake for athletes is between 2-3g/day or 0.3g/kg of lean body mass and should be consumed with salt or a salty foods (NaCl is needed for transport into the body).1 There are creatine isolates supplements that are an easy addition to any sweetened beverage (assuming you don’t mind the taste). If you’d rather buy something premixed creatine is commonly found in preworkout supplements but, make sure the concentration is at least 2-3g/serving.1 Avoid going over 10g/day as you won’t need more for the same effect and creatine can cause some stomach discomfort. You might also want to check that creatine is listed as creatine monohydrate as that form has the greatest amount of research.
2) Branched Chain Amino Acids: The three-branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are leucine isoleucine and valine. BCAAs have many important physiological functions but athletes should mainly focus on the protein balance and muscle building qualities. BCAAs have been shown to improve total protein balance in populations prone to muscular breakdown. Exercising is one such way to push your body into a negative protein balance. One study suggests BCAAs not only improve the balance but increase protein synthesis.3 Protein synthesis gets activated primarily by the leucine concentration of BCAA supplements. Leucine has the unique ability to independently activate muscle protein synthesis (MPS). This effect is largely related to a regulatory protein known as the mechanistic target of rapamycin (mTOR) and stimulating mTOR is key to building more muscle.
Amino acid supplementation is best around your workout or between meals. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends roughly 2-3g leucine to stimulate mTOR per meal.1 That means each meal should contain around 20-30g of animal sourced protein. Since not every meal is going to contain that much protein, amino acid supplementation can ensure you are optimizing muscular hypertrophy. There are no serious side effects when taking BCAAs. The most common is diarrhea and stomach discomfort but these can easily be remedied. If you happen to experience these side effects, then you are taking way too much and should cut your intake in half.
3) Beta Alanine: While beta alanine is another great supplement, it really doesn’t compare to BCAAs or creatine. The research for beta alanine is much less conclusive especially regarding athletic performance. The theory behind this supplement is a buffering effect through the conversion of beta-alanine to carnosine. Carnosine works in muscle to buffer the accumulation of protons and maintain a specific pH.1 If carnosine was not present, lactic acid would accumulate in the muscle and would become too acidic to function properly. This is specifically important for athletes because resisting the buildup of lactic acid - or soreness - can increase muscular performance especially for endurance sports. Beta alanine has the added effect of working synergistically with creatine. Since creatine increases energy availability in anaerobic conditions, lactic acid used for energy in that scenario will be buffered. This ensures an environment that keeps more energy available to the muscle or so the theory behind beta-alanine suggests. Even though the research in athletes is limited, supplementing beta-alanine does increase cellular carnosine concentrations. Four to 10 weeks of supplementation at 6.4g/day elevates carnosine concentrations by 60-80% with high intakes leading to higher concentrations.1,4
Large concentrations of beta-alanine can lead to a side effect known as paresthesia. You might recognize paresthesia or a “burning” sensation of the skin if you’ve taken a preworkout before. While this is the only known side effect, stop taking beta-alanine if you are sensitive or find the sensation uncomfortable. You may not find an isolate in your GNC but beta-alanine can be found in many preworkouts just make sure the amount is right for you rather than the right dose.
1. Smith-Ryan, Abbie. Antonio, Jose (2013). Sports Nutrition & Performance Enhancing Supplements. Linus Learning Publication. Ronkonkoma, NY 11779.
2. Buford, T. Kreider, R. et al (2007). International Society for Sports Nutrition Stand: Creatine Supplementation and Exercise. Journal of the International Society for Sports Nutrition. Vol;4(1):6.
3. Layman, DK (2002). Role of Leucine of Protein Metabolism During Exercise and Recovery. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology. 27(6):646-663.
4. Harris, RC. Tallon MJ. Et al (2006). The absorption of orally supplied beta-alanine and its effect on muscle cornosine synthesis in Human vastus lateralis. Amino Acids. 30:279-289.