Okay so this might be a bit of a controversial post! However, with the sheer amount of supplements on the market, I think it’s important to highlight which simply aren’t worth the money. It can be so confusing to know which supplements to take, and which to avoid, especially when starting out in the gym. Below I have outlined a few supplements that, in my opinion, are in no way necessary for the average gym goer.
Many people struggling to gain muscle turn to weight-gainers to help with the process. Is this necessary? Absolutely not! To gain muscle you must be in a caloric surplus* – i.e. be consuming more calories than you need. You also need to be consuming enough protein – 2g of protein per KG body weight is a good general recommendation for most. Your training obviously needs to be on point too – ensure you have a good program in place and are progressively overloading your muscles. Some people do however struggle to eat enough calories to gain weight (though I’m not one of them!). Is it then necessary to add a weight gainer shake? While they will work to increase your calories, they are generally of poor nutritional quality, low in micronutrients, and quite expensive. So what can you do instead?
- Start by taking a look at your meals – make sure you’re getting enough carbs, fats and protein in each. If you’re only eating 3 meals, add in a 4th and so on.
- Fats are a great way to add calories without increasing food volume too much. Ditch the low calorie cooking spray and cook your food in olive oil or coconut oil. Nuts and nut butter are another east addition to meals – you can add calories so easily with peanut butter, almond butter etc.
- Ditch any low fat products and replace with the full fat versions. This also goes for calorie free sauces etc. – ditch the Walden Farms if you’re trying to gain weight!
- If you’re really struggling, make your own high calorie shakes with whey, oats, fruits like banana, peanut butter etc. – it’s so easy to rack up the calories in a shake without it being too filling. It’ll be cheaper and more nutritious than a weight gainer too!
*A caloric surplus isn’t strictly necessary, as muscle can be gained when eating at maintenance or in a slight deficit. For the purpose of this topic, however, I’m assuming those taking weight-gainer are looking to be in a caloric surplus to maximise hypertrophy.
Diet Protein Shakes
Lots of supplement companies produce ‘diet protein powder’ marketed towards women interested in weight-loss. The concept that women should take different protein to men is absolutely ridiculous – protein is protein! Most diet whey have added carbs and fats, as well as varying amounts of questionable other substances that are claimed to increase fat burning. Do you need any of this? Absolutely not! A simple whey concentrate protein powder is perfect for both men and women. If you’re very concerned about the small amounts of carbs and fats in whey, then opt for whey protein isolate – it’s more expensive, but has less carbs and fats. Whey isolate is also more beneficial if you don’t tolerate dairy/lactose very well.
Taking pre-workouts has gotten pretty popular in the last few years, leading many to believe they need to take one for a good workout. Are they really necessary though? In my opinion, no. Before you consider taking a pre-workout supplement, ensure your nutrition and sleep are in a good place first. A meal high in carbohydrate and protein with some added sodium 2-3 hours before training, along with a good night’s sleep can massively boost your performance. Many people swear by pre-workout to get them through a session, but the effect is usually just due to the caffeine. Most pre-workouts don’t contain enough of the ingredients which do confer a benefit to training, like creatine, beta alanine, and citrulline malate to actually benefit performance. This is often disguised on the label by listing these ingredients in a ‘proprietary blend’, meaning they don’t state exactly how much of each ingredient goes into the mix. This allows companies to add lots of the cheapest ingredient, and a minuscule amount of the more expensive (and effective) ingredients. There’s often all kinds of other things added to pre-wokouts, like BCAAs and random other ingredients that have little evidence of benefit. To get the most benefit from a pre-workout, it’s often better (and cheaper) to make your own. The Beltsander has a great article on making your own pre-workout here. When choosing a pre-workout, the following ingredients show the most benefit on performance in research – anything else probably won’t have a huge effect.
- Caffeine – Caffeine is the main ingredient in pre-workouts that enhances training – which you can get just as easily in a strong cup of coffee. Coffee also has the added benefit of antioxidants and other substances which are beneficial to health. If coffee isn’t your thing, the odd sugar-free Monster won’t do you any harm. You can also buy caffeine tablets pretty cheaply.
- Creatine – while creatine is present in some pre-workouts, it isn’t necessary to take it around training. Creatine works in the long term, so as long as you take it at some point everyday, it doesn’t make too much difference. 5g a day is generally a good dose for most. There’s no need to cycle or load it either – just take 5g a day, always.
- Citrulline malate – This is a relatively new supplement, so there isn’t a huge pile of research behind it. It does appear promising though, with supplementation showing a reduction in fatigue, and increased endurance during training. The dose needed to get an effect is about 6-8 grams, which is a lot more than you’ll see in your average pre-workout.
- Beta-alanine – this may be useful if you train with higher volume sets, lasting 60-240 seconds. Like creatine, it doesn’t have to be taken directly before a workout. The recommended dose is 2-5g a day, which you can split into 2 doses to avoid the tingling sensation associated with it.
The majority of people will see very little benefit from fat burners, which are a waste of money for most. Many contain caffeine, which does slightly increase your metabolic rate – you can easily get this effect from just drinking coffee though! Other common ingredients like CLA and green tea extract do slightly increase fat oxidation. but the effect is still pretty small. These may be of some use when you have completely optimised your diet and training to provide that extra 1% benefit – but how many people can honestly say they have done that? Adhering to a decent diet and training program will be more than enough to reach your goals. If you’re not reaching your body composition goals, it most certainly isn’t from a lack of fat burners! If you’re a competitive bodybuilder prepping for a show, then they may be useful for a select few – otherwise, don’t waste your money!
This is probably the most controversial one of the list, but hear me out! There seems to be a notion that BCAA’s are an essential part of supplementation for the average gym-goer, up there with whey protein. This is completely ridiculous! BCAA’s are pretty worthless for the vast majority of people. If you are hitting your daily protein goals, then BCAA’s are not going to add any extra benefit. About 25% of whey protein is made up of BCAA’s anyway, so if you’re using whey there’s certainly no need to worry! If you’re taking BCAA’s just to flavour your water, save yourself some money and use MiWadi or a similar dilute instead! There are a few cases where BCAA’s are useful – when training fasted, before long endurance training, and possibly on a plant-based diet (if low in BCAA’s/protein). Apart from that, there’s little evidence (to my knowledge) that BCAA’s are beneficial. If you’re unconvinced, Danny Lennon has a great podcast all about BCAA’s here.
Those are my thoughts on supplements which aren’t worth the money – there’s many more I could have mentioned, but these are some of the more common ones! I also have a post on the supplements I do recommend taking, which you can find here .
Hope you found this useful – let me know your thoughts!