Have you been minding your own business in the gym when some ridiculously swole individual starts harping on about amino acids? This is a man who knows what the best fitness supplements are, whether that's for bulking up or just giving him something to chunter on about.
Or, perhaps someone has suggested a hefty intake of caffeine before working out and then eulogised about the benefits of creatine when crafting the ultimate shredded bod. And you thought it was all just about protein powder…
We don't blame you if you have been left scratching your sweaty head, because the world of sports supplements is an extremely confusing one and a subject that typically requires a degree in chemistry and advanced biology to properly understand.
And that's exactly what we did, while rounding up some of the best sports supplements we've found on the market to improve athletic performance, aid muscle growth, increase energy in the gym and speed up recovery time.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA)
Commonly available in carbonated sports drinks, powders and tablet form, these amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are therefore supposedly great for increasing muscle size.
Do I need to bother with them?
"Not really. BCAAs are just three specific building blocks of protein called amino acids, which include Isoleucine, Leucine and Valine. Essential Amino Acid supplements will contain all 20 of the essential amino acids needed for muscle tissue building. If the user is eating sufficient protein and consuming a protein supplement or food sources of protein around their training, there is no need for BCAAs or EAAs.
Furthermore, they do not contain any of other nutrients that you might get from consuming whole foods, such as the calcium, iodine and vitamin B12 you would get from drinking a pint of milk, for example.
When are they worth taking?
If you follow a vegan diet, it can be difficult to get enough leucine, which is the key ‘trigger’ amino acid to elicit muscle protein synthesis.
Most plant-based sources are low in leucine, except for soya protein. Under these circumstances, it might be worth taking BCAAs alongside your vegan protein sources to 'top up’ the leucine.
Similarly for EAAs, they might support people who cannot consume regular sources of protein due to intolerances or gastric distress during exercise, EAAs and BCAAs require almost no digestion so they are quickly absorbed.
Why do they exist, then?
BCAAs and EAAs are used in intensive care, where they are infused intravenously to help with preventing muscle protein synthesis breakdown when someone can’t feed by normal means.
Many of the supplement companies rely on this research to support the claims of the product. Researchers have also seen some benefits in professional athletes, particularly during intense exercise, because the BCAAs and EAAs are used as part of energy release reactions. But when put into the context of a complete diet, BCAAs and EAAs are just not that useful or necessary.
Available in powder, tablet and drink form, creatine is also often found as an additional ingredient in many protein shakes and 'size gainer' products, simply because it's a quick way of adding bulk.
Do users need to bother?
Yes. Creatine monohydrate is one of the most well-researched sports performance aids and is inexpensive and works for a large number of athletes.
When is it worth taking?
There are multiple studies of varying length (up to years at a time) in various age groups showing that creatine monohydrate can help with strength, power and muscle building. So if this is the goal then it makes sense to take creatine, assuming no medical problems of the kidney that would prevent taking it.
Why does it exist, then?
Creatine phosphate is known as an 'intracellular high energy compound’, which basically means it is broken down during the first few seconds of muscle contraction to provide the energy currency of the body, adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
When you sneak more creatine into the diet, it builds inside the muscle tissue and this allows the muscle to contract harder for slightly longer, leading to more strength and power.
That's why you'll see a lot of body builders and athletes take it just before, during or just after exercise.
Vitamins and Minerals
This one doesn't need much explaining but there's been an explosion in popularity of carefully selected vitamin and mineral tablets that are designed to support those undertaking intense exercise or a tough muscle-building programme.
Do users need to bother?
Yes. We all have differing requirements in terms of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and some are near impossible to obtain through the diet, such as Vitamin D that is mainly possible through sun exposure.
We also have different abilities to digest and absorb micronutrients from food, or if following restrictive vegan or vegetarian diets, so supplementation for many is useful and may even be necessary.
When are they worth taking?
Ideally after you’ve seen an expert in nutrition, had your diet assessed and, if possible, further analyses conducted to understand how much you need.
But the typical deficiencies I see in fitness enthusiasts and athletes are vitamin D, zinc, iron, vitamin B12, iodine, choline and calcium, especially if they don’t consume dairy products.
Many people often take a ‘more is better’ approach and try ‘mega-dosing’ micronutrients but they don’t realise that vitamins and minerals can become toxic when overdosed and start to have very damaging effects on the body. A good example is vitamin C tablets, as these can cause kidney stones when taken in high dosages.
Typically sold in tablet form, these pills are designed to burn fat faster in a variety of ways. They can curb appetite, boost energy and even encourage users to poop out fat. Gross.
Do users need to bother?
No. The vast majority of fat burners are based on stimulant ingredients, such as caffeine, that help to release more fatty acids from stored tissues and this further suppresses the appetite. Fat loss is entirely down to a balance of dietary modification and the right type, intensity and volume of exercise to help preserve muscle mass and burn more calories. Fat burners do very little to change this at all.
When are they worth taking?
Never. Caffeine is useful in some situations to help with fat loss as there is some research that indicates a lipolytic effect, it may also help users train harder and remain motivated. However, I would always personalise its use and use at the right dose for the person, not use a blended fat burner that may have little to no ingredients that do anything.
The best fitness supplements, in order
Protein wasn't mentioned by our resident nutritional expert Rick Miller purely because it is one of the most popular supplements bought and consumed by anyone wanting to pack on a little extra muscle.
That's because protein is essential in building and repairing the torn muscle fibres experienced after an intensive bout of exercise.
Of course, you could get your daily intake by eating a steak for breakfast, a chicken for lunch and then a couple of salmon fillets just before bed, but some find it a little easier on the stomach to mix some powder with water and chug a sweet shake.
The Blue Lab line from USN is made from its best quality whey protein yet, which is super easily absorbed by the body, so it gets to where it is needed most… fast.
It also mixes extremely easily with cold water and this Caramel Chocolate flavour is one of the most convincing we've tried in a protein powder in a long time.
Our resident nutritional expert claims the benefits of quaffing BCAAs aren't exactly crystal clear, but these sports drinks have become extremely popular with gym-goers due to the 'lift' they can give mid-workout.
Packed full of caffeine from green tea extract, 3000mg of BCAAs and six different vitamins, these tasty beverages are claimed to have everything you need to push through those gym low points and aid recovery.
We found them extremely tasty but the whopping 180mg of caffeine included in the caffeinated products was a difficult to swallow, especially if you're partial to a few coffees in the morning, like us.
They certainly give an additional boost mid-workout, but irritable legs and trouble sleeping can be some serious side effects if you're downing a lot of these during the day.
The packaging is so manly, it almost made us laugh when we first clapped eyes on it, but the ridiculously titled Grenade Ration Pack boasts 30 days' worth of essential vitamins and minerals to support hard-training athletes.
As Rick previously mentioned, some vitamins and minerals are difficult to find in healthy diets so supplementing with pills can be a good idea, particularly if your diet isn't well-rounded.
A daily strip that contains a Multivitamin and Mineral tablet, Essential Fatty Acid soft gel capsule, Antioxidant tablet and Bifidex (Acidophilus and Bifidus) hardshell capsule is designed to support anyone pushing themselves athletically.
You may be getting much of this in the diet anyway, so it's worth making sure you aren't ingesting high doses of a particular vitamin or mineral, but this is an easy (read lazy) way of ensuring you hit the key nutrients.
The brainchild of international footballer Thomas Hal Robson-Kanu, The Turmeric Co. cleverly bottles up fresh turmeric drinks that are delivered directly to your door for regular intake.
Why turmeric? Well, the company claims it packs a powerful compound called Curcumin, which studies show acts as natural anti-inflammatory, helps fight infection and boosts your immune system.
Robson-Kanu decided to give it a go when suffering from a heavy injury and claims it was more effective than his prescription drugs in aiding recovery.
We're not sure about that, but the range is easy to drink first thing in the morning and the bottles infused with ginger feel like they have got everything in them to keep the immune system in top shape.
Because the drinks are made fresh, it's a good idea to sign up to a subscription package, but this can be expensive and we weren't so keen on the amount of single use plastics involved in every tiny bottle.
Creatine is difficult to get in high quantities from a regular diet, so has rapidly become one of the most popular supplements among those that are looking to add muscle and power.
In short, additional creatine frees up energy for use during bouts of high intensity workouts, meaning users can typically work harder for longer and therefore see results quicker.
There is loads on the web about the benefits and drawbacks of creatine use, so it pays to do some research if you are considering it.
We found this simple powder from MyProtein extremely easy to mix with water and take just before heading into the gym.
When paired with a good quality protein shake and a clean, well-rounded diet, users will see results pretty quick.