First of all, what is the definition of a supplement?
It is to add something extra in order to improve something or compete it. A supplement is to be taken to ensure you are not lacking in certain vitamins or minerals. In most cases, natural foods will suffice. But in training & dieting conditions, you may need more of a certain something that you just can't consume from the foods you are eating. Especially with your body being put under, what can be considered immense stress and strain. You may also find you are diffident in certain vitamins, minerals etc so if you are never feeling 100% it would be good to go to the doctors and test your levels.
Being an avid gym junky my entire life, and taking the delve into competitive stage shows, supplements are something I’ve been asked about more times than I can count from people who I know or followers. Every year it seems there is something new and shiny on the market, because let’s face it, in an industry that is completely unregulated, why wouldn’t the companies be trying to put new stuff out all the time, even when it’s of questionable effectiveness? Call something a “proprietary blend” and you don’t even have to say what’s in it, you just tell consumers how awesome it is and watch the money roll in.
There is so much rubbish out there in the market right now, and the reality is that over 80% of what’s on the shelves is garbage that won’t do anything for you. That 20% though, when you know what to look for, can make a significant difference to how you feel on a daily basis. Most of it has to do with deficiencies, because due to most people’s diet, they are deficient in any number of vitamins and minerals. Once they start supplementing and restoring those levels to normal, the change is unmistakable.
The supplements below are the few I consider worth my time and money, and therefore, worth your time and money. Again and again they’ve proven themselves over my time in training, in addition to being backed by the research. I’d recommend you go and get a blood test that checks for vitamin and mineral deficiencies, because it will tell you exactly what you’re lacking and where to focus your effort. Don’t just run to the vitamin store and stock up, because you could be throwing good money away.
Vitamin D deficiency has some pretty serious consequences, which is why when you supplement and bring those levels back up, you notice big changes:
- Compromised immunity — you get sick more often
- Bone loss
- Impaired wound healing
- Hair loss
- Muscle pain
Ever notice how everyone seems to have much more energy once the weather starts warming up and the sun is shining? It’s not a coincidence or because they’re excited about summer — the increased sun exposure causes people to feel more energetic because their vitamin D levels are going up after being depleted during the winter. Talk to anyone who’s ever been vitamin D deficient and they’ll tell you that they’re incredibly lethargic and just getting life done feels a struggle, which is the last thing you want when you’re an athlete or in the corporate or startup game trying to level up.
The best way to get vitamin D is obviously through sunlight, because it’s how our bodies have evolved to get it. When it's nice out, make the effort to get out and soak up some sun. Maybe have a nice 45 minute walk or even take your workouts outside. During the winter, I personally take tablets to keep my levels topped off. It’s important to note with vitamin D that it’s like a battery — finding out you’re deficient and taking a few tablets won’t bring you back to normal. It will realistically take weeks, or more likely a couple of months to saturate into your body and normalize. Start now.
Consider this: you spend your summer getting plenty of sunlight and then when winter comes, you keep it going with tablets (I take 5000IU a day, but do your own research before you decide on your dosage). 2 months into winter, everyone else is exhausted and down, wanting the warmer weather to arrive. You’re still firing on all cylinders, because your vitamin D levels barely went down at all.
Depending on which studies you read, anywhere up to 50% of the population is deficient in magnesium, due in part to the demineralisation of soil and the plants we grow in it. Magnesium is responsible for over 300 biological processes and has a number of effects if you’re deficient in it, many similar to vitamin D deficiency. The biggest reason I’m talking about magnesium supplementation, however, is for two very specific reasons:
Magnesium is a powerful sleep aid. Most people, when they begin to take magnesium before bed, see a deeper sleep pattern and when combined with zinc, incredibly vivid dreaming. That means high quality sleep, which is where the body and mind do their best in recovering. If you’re having trouble sleeping and especially getting to sleep, it’s worth your while taking magnesium and zinc an hour before bedtime.
Magnesium deficiency means your body can’t metabolise vitamin D, so you’re taking a double performance hit by being deficient. Vitamin D without magnesium can also cause plaque build-up on your arteries long term, so ensure you’re getting decent amounts of both.
There is a specific type of magnesium test to look for, known as RBC (or red blood cell). The more common test of magnesium deficiency is serum magnesium, which doesn’t actually give an accurate indication of whether you’re deficient. That’s because the main place you want magnesium is in your red blood cells and bone marrow, and if you have a high level of serum magnesium, it could be because it’s being pulled out of your marrow. There are two solutions here: either get an RBC magnesium test, or just take some supplemental magnesium and see how you go.
Magnesium becomes especially important in summer for athletes, because you sweat it out when you’re training.
It’s also important to note that you should steer clear of magnesium oxide tablets. It’s the cheapest, most rubbish form of magnesium that doesn’t absorb well in the body. Chelated magnesium is the standard you should be going for because it’s easily absorbed by the body.
Creatine is one of the most studied and scientifically backed supplements out there. It’s safe, it’s effective and is worth your consideration. Until recently it’s been the exclusive domain of gym meatheads because it’s very good for recovery, strength and power. It turns out though that it’s also an effective nootropic. Studies show that, in addition to improving strength, power and recovery (amongst other effects) in athletes, creatine improves short term memory, intelligence and reasoning in healthy subjects. Bear in mind that this is also incredibly recent data — we haven’t even scratched the surface of what creatine can do in the cognitive realm.
It will should interest any vegans, vegetarians and those who don’t eat much meat that creatine will be even more effective for them. Without supplementation, the way we obtain creatine is through red meat, so if you don’t eat it, you’re going to have depleted levels compared to those that do. Supplementing with creatine should bring a significant difference to how you feel day to day.
The great news about creatine is that it’s extraordinarily safe. Take 5g per day and you’re set. No timing involved, just at some or any point of the day get your 5g of creatine in and you're good to go. I like to take mine with either my pre workout (if I am in need of one that day) or if not, my recovery shake. Don’t bother with any of the number of variations of creatine out there made by supplement companies trying to charge more money, stick with basic creatine monohydrate, which is thankfully extremely affordable and easy to get.
Omega 3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are the one place where I recommend people don’t supplement. Fish oil and krill oil are huge industries now and have been very effective in getting people to believe that they must be taking tablets to prevent heart disease, stroke and lower inflammation. Apart from the fact that research doesn’t show this to be the case, it’s yet another example of us trying to take a short cut for something that doesn’t need a shortcut.
Doctors, nutritionists and dieticians will tell you to eat fatty fish a couple of times per week instead of taking fish oil capsules. Seems like a small number, but for many people that kind of fish is either too expensive, they don’t know how to cook it or it’s inconvenient to get, because you need to buy it fresh that day to get the best. Then there are the recommendations by the likes of Tim Ferriss to eat sardines, kippers, mackerel and so on. Lower down the food chain without any of the heavy metal issues (mercury) for example. There’s just one problem — they’re not the best tasting to say the least. I mean, I can deal with mackerel very occasionally, but sardines? Yeah, no thanks.
Enter the humble bivalve, which you’d know better by the names mussels, oysters, clams and so on. These little babies are packed with protein and omega 3s and require absolutely no preparation if you don’t want. Simply go to the canned fish aisle of your grocery store and grab a pack of them smoked or preserved in oil. They taste great and are so convenient that now there is simply no excuse — put them on toast with avocado (my favourite), throw them in with some spaghetti or paella or even eat them straight out of the tin. The best news is that they’re dirt cheap as well, a fraction of the price of a fillet of salmon. But if it is just twice a week then you may like to treat yourself to a nice salmon fillet or 2.
So there you have it. 4 unsexy supplements that were probably the last thing you expected to see. You no doubt expected protein powders, testosterone supplements or something, nope. These in the list are effective and can be very cheap also.