For a lot of reasons, most supplements will contribute very little to your success - while costing you more than they’re worth.
That said, if your goal is to be the best you can possibly be, this small benefit may still be worth it. Serious athletes and bodybuilders can’t afford not to take every possible step in the name of their profession.
I’ve assembled a list of the supplements that work well - and what they’re good for.
Very often, I get asked questions about which supplements I recommend.
Now, this isn’t an unexpected question. If you’ve been a fitness enthusiast for any length of time, you know that supplements are a big deal. Bodybuilders plug them constantly, and are always advertising the latest, newest, most effective supplements, touting them as the reason for their success. Entire articles tell us how useful and important they are, and how we need to take the perfect combination of pills and powders at just the right times in order to maximize our results.
However, here’s the truth: most supplements will do very little for you.
After all, you can probably see how suspicious it is that some bodybuilder will get big - and then suddenly claim that their success comes from some supplement that they conveniently didn’t start taking until they were paid to. Remember my principle of following the money - if someone’s getting paid for it, you need to be suspicious of their motives.
Most everything else in your exercise toolkit matters a lot more than supplements. For example:
Training and hard work. If you don’t train or train with a bad program, you won’t see any results, period. As you get more trained, a greater stimulus needs to be provoked in order to continue to adapt - meaning, you need to put in harder and harder work.
Diet. Protein intake is hugely important for determining how much muscle mass you can build and how quickly you can recover from exercise. So without enough protein, you’re going to see lesser results.
Stress management. High amounts of stress will sabotage your results in the same way that lack of sleep will - so if you don’t have ways to manage your stress levels, you need to get on it.
What does that leave? Yes, you can get slightly better results with supplements, but the percentage will be small compared to all of these much bigger, make-or-break contributors to your results. And I’m not the only one to believe this - this is generally the consensus among higher level coaches, I can tell you.
It’s also important to understand that the supplement industry in the US is only minimally regulated - and this causes problems. Stories of supplements not containing the active ingredients on the label, being cut with cheap fillers, being spiked with steroids to increase their effectiveness, or causing health issues due to untested dosages are, if not always common, certainly not unheard of. So, you have to take the supplement industry’s self-promotion with a grain of salt.
Another important consideration is price point. Some supplements will be GMP certified (suggesting that it’s more likely that they’re one of the trustworthy supplement companies), but this also means that they go through more security procedures and also charge more. Supplements aren’t cheap to begin with, with a month’s supply of many supplements running you more than your gym membership would. For those without a ton of money, the financial impact on your wallet can’t be overlooked, and the benefits you get from these supplements become even less worth it.
The absurd amounts of money that professional bodybuilders spend monthly on supplements and drugs (some of which will do very little for them) is more of a sign of their willingness not to spare any possible expense than anything else. These huge price tags make it hard to justify spending this much unless you both have the money to spare and don’t mind that your return on investment is tiny.
Then there’s the problem that many supplements simply don’t do… well, much of anything.
Supplement companies will push through flawed research in order to justify their latest supplements, and then by the time better research is done which shows that the supplement doesn’t do much of anything, they’ve already made their money selling you sugar pills. When you look closer at the research, you often find that a lot of supplements aren’t nearly as useful as you might think. I highly recommend Examine - they do research reviews for most major supplements so that you can know what works and what’s just some random line that the guy at the GNC is telling you in order to make a sale.
Some supplements work well - but only in very specific scenarios. Recent research showed, for example, that BCAA supplementation isn’t nearly as effective as we once thought, since you consume enough BCAA’s in plain old protein supplementation that the addition of further BCAA’s doesn’t do much. Interestingly, supplementing only with leucine (one of the BCAA’s) is possibly more effective than supplementing with all the BCAA’s - suggesting that the other BCAA’s are really just interfering with the good work that leucine is doing.
The effect may be even greater for vegetarians. A plant-based diet includes minimal amounts of naturally occurring leucine (which occurs naturally in meats), so the supplementation of it, while not too crucial for meat-eaters, is probably much more important for vegetarians.
On the other hand, there are certainly plenty of serious lifters who want to get every last possible percentage point out of their results - they want to be the very best. If you’re one of those people, and you have the money to spend, then yes, supplements are going to be worth it, even if the results are tiny. So, it’s a matter of your goals and intentions just as much as the actual results.
With these things in mind, here are a few supplements I recommend (and the situations that they’re useful in):
Multivitamin. While multivitamins are commonly suggested as a general health supplement, the research shows that their results are mixed, and may cause harm in large dosages. The general theory is that this is simply because the average diet covers more of our micronutrients than we think - making supplementation unnecessary. We don’t get “bonus health points” for getting more than we need. However, I do recommend a multivitamin for one reason: cutting weight. When you’re eating at a significant calorie deficit, you’re putting yourself at a greater risk for malnutrition simply because you’re consuming less food, and by extension, you’re likely to be consuming a smaller variety of foods, increasing your risk of missing out on some important micronutrient. When cutting weight, a multivitamin just helps cover all your bases.
Vitamin D. Vitamin D is naturally made in the body in response to exposure to sunlight. This is great, but it can be a problem if you don’t go outside much, or live in an area without a lot of sunlight. In these instances, supplementing with vitamin D will definitely help with your long term health, and may improve performance if you had a deficiency beforehand.
Protein. Protein shakes are one of the best-studied and safest supplements around, and they work for the simple reason that almost no one is getting in enough protein. If you’re getting in enough protein via your diet, then chances are that you don’t need to supplement with a protein shake. But here’s the thing - protein shakes are much easier and simpler (and sometimes cheaper) than preparing a ton of meat and carrying it around with you all day. The ease of making a protein shake also makes it easier to get protein when you need it - say, when you’re going a long time between meals, or when you’re about to go to bed for the night. So, for almost everybody, protein shakes are a very useful supplement towards hitting your protein targets and building as much muscle as you can.
Creatine - Creatine is a form of naturally-occurring energy which is stored in the muscles and used during high intensity, short duration activities. Some creatine can be consumed in meat, but with supplementation you can get in a lot more. Now, it won’t help at all for endurance activities, and will have only minimal carryover for moderate to high rep sets of lifting weights. In short, it’s only really going to have much of an impact on your 1RM strength, and may not even carryover much to muscle-building sets of higher reps. It’s a supplement that’s very useful for strength, but won’t do much if you’re training for anything else. I recommend its use for those looking to get stronger, and potentially for those looking to get bigger, but that’s about it.
BCAA’s - Protein molecules are made up of smaller amino acids. Among these amino acids, the branched chain amino acids (BCAA’s) in particular Leucine, are responsible for a great deal of the muscle-building properties of protein. However, as mentioned above, you get a decent amount of BCAA/leucine content from most animal protein sources. It used to be believed that BCAA’s were very important for building muscle mass and maximizing the effect of the other protein you were consuming, but it’s probably better to focus on leucine supplementation, especially if a lot of your diet comes from plant sources. Otherwise, not so much.
Fish oil. When I was starting out, it seemed like everyone recommended fish oil as a miracle health supplement. Then, a lot of research pointing to minimal to no benefit effects suggested that fish oil isn’t nearly the miracle pill it was initially purported to be. That said, there are still some potential minor positive benefits in terms of general health, soreness, and recovery. This falls squarely into the “it may not do much, but if you’ve got the money, go ahead” camp.
Caffeine. As I’ve written about before, caffeine may not have any positive effects on workouts alone in small doses, but large doses start to cause health issues and cause you to develop a rapid tolerance. All the same, caffeine can be a useful adherence tool if you need a bit of a stimulant to help you get the energy to drag yourself to the gym, or just to help you keep more consistent energy levels throughout the day. Stick to small doses of the usual suspects (coffee and tea) and don’t go overboard.
The dirtier stuff. There are, of course, steroids and other more serious drugs which are both illegal for competitive usage and likely to cause serious health effects. While these pharmaceuticals work, they also represent a serious commitment with serious drawbacks that should not be taken lightly, and are certainly not recommended for the average exerciser or even the semi-serious one. Steroids will not immediately make a world-record athlete out of a piss poor one, and most people would be better off just tightening up the rest of their regimen. These supplements work - but I don’t recommend them.
This list is probably a lot shorter than you expected - because the reality is that there’s very few supplements with consistent, large effects. Again, I recommend checking examine.com for some more in-depth research, and saving your money.
Spending a crap ton of money on supplements when you don’t have everything else in line (diet, training, recovery, stress management) is like putting the cart before the horse - a waste of your time and money. Focus on what matters.
About Adam Fisher
Adam is an experienced fitness coach and blogger who's been blogging for 5+ years, coaching for 6+ years, and lifting for 12+ years. He's written for numerous major health publications, including Personal Trainer Development Center, T-Nation, Bodybuilding.com, Fitocracy, and Juggernaut Training Systems.
During that time he has coached hundreds of individuals of all levels of fitness, including competitive powerlifters and older exercisers regaining the strength to walk up a flight of stairs. His own training revolves around powerlifting and bodybuilding.
Adam writes about fitness, health, science, philosophy, personal finance, self-improvement, productivity, the good life, and everything else that interests him. When he's not writing or lifting, he's usually hanging out with his cat or feeding his video game addiction.
Enjoy this post? Share the gains!
Ready to be your best self? Check out the Better book series, or download the sample chapters by signing up for our mailing list. Signing up for the mailing list also gets you two free exercise programs: GAINS, a well-rounded program for beginners, and Deadlift Every Day, an elite program for maximizing your strength with high frequency deadlifting.
Interested in coaching to maximize your results? Inquire here. If you don’t have the money for books or long term coaching, but still want to support the site, sign up for the mailing list or consider donating a small monthly amount to my Patreon.
Some of the links in this post may be affiliate links. For more info, check out my affiliate disclosure.