Supplements | Total Shape

Bodybuilding & Workout Supplements 101
Everything You Need to Know

The Lowdown On Supplements: Everything You Need To Know
Isaac Robertson
Written by Isaac Robertson

In this article we’re going to discuss the best supplements to help aid you in building muscle, losing weight, and generally being more healthy. 

You may already be familiar with certain supplements if you’re a gym goer or simply someone who’s made a conscious decision to focus on a healthier lifestyle: from multivitamins to whey protein powder, the supplement umbrella covers an enormous variety of items for almost any intended purpose you can think of.

The key to your decision with any supplement is ultimately understanding how each individual one works, what it does and therefore choosing the right one to deliver the intended benefits as effectively as possible.

Best Supplements for Muscle Gain

1. Protein Powders

If you want to build muscle, you need to be getting a sufficient amount of protein in your body. For the average person, you need around 0.7-1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. 

For example, if you're a 220 lb guy, you would need 220 g of protein. Consuming that amount through diet and whole foods alone would be a daunting task and you would have to be eating almost constantly; whereas using a powdered form of protein you can hit your daily intake in one sitting. 

There and lots of different types of protein powders out there, but my personal favorite is whey protein (isolate) and here's why:

  • Versatility - Due to the fantastic array of flavours available, the versatility is what makes it so popular. It can be used in cooking, combined with other foods and added to most dishes. 
  • Effectiveness - It’s high bioavailability means it is digested rapidly, and the sheer number of grams of protein per serving make it one of the easiest ways to ensure you hit your protein count.
  • Price - It’s also cost effective. If you were to compare the price per serving to the same amount of protein you’d get from meat for instance, then you’d be paying significantly more for the meat.

Though I prefer whey, it's not a one size fits all product as we all have different dietary requirements (e.g., vegan).

Here are some other types of protein powders:

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2. Creatine

Creatine is perhaps next in line for popularity and usage; almost every gym goer knows about or has utilised it at some point in the pursuit of enhanced strength and muscle mass.

What’s interesting to note is that the human body naturally contains creatine within the muscle cells: that’s what the body uses to power itself through intense sets of resistance exercise.

Creatine supplementation theoretically boosts our natural creatine stores, allowing us to perform more reps over a slightly enhanced period.

It is also potentially beneficial for lifting greater loads with greater force acceleration.

There are several creatine options available on the market, including but not limited to:

  • Monohydrate - this has proven to be the most popular and well known. This is the most cost effective yet impurest form on the market; as with whey protein concentrate though, monohydrate is still effective enough to serve the needs of the vast majority of gym goers.
  • Kre-alkalyn - regarded as being the most potent form, as it directly delivers creatine into the muscles with minimal wastage.
  • Ethyl ester - also a potent form, performing the same task as kre-alkalyn, but with a slightly higher risk of some the creatine entering the system not being converted into a usable fuel source for the muscles.

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3. Amino Acids And BCAA’s

Whilst it’s true that protein supplements contain amino acids, there are times when the protection of the muscles becomes incredibly important, more so than normal.

For example, when on a low calorie nutrition plan such as during “cutting” (removing as much excess body fat as possible from the body to reveal muscular definition) or simply losing weight in general, your body is at a higher risk of going catabolic and eating into its own muscle stores.

At times like these, branched chain amino acids come in very useful as a safeguard against this highly damaging mechanism of the body by providing it with the building blocks it needs to sustain growth and cell repair, even though there are not many nutrients available due to the calorie restriction taking place.

Highlights include:

  • Easily digestible
  • Protect the muscles against being broken down and consumed for energy
  • Fairly cheap when compared to other supplements on the market

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4. Glutamine

Our bodies contain a natural abundance of glutamine, much in the same way it does creatine. Glutamine is the primary foundation of 61% of skeletal muscle. It also serves to transport nitrogen to the muscle cells, this in turn helps to sustain activity.

After a hard training session, your glutamine levels will deplete significantly; this leads to fatigue, lack of strength and impaired recovery.

That is, unless you choose to supplement with glutamine and bring those levels back up to normal; as a recovery aid, glutamine has a proven track record for success for thousands of people.

Some of the primary benefits of glutamine supplementation include:

  • Can increase growth hormone levels, which in turn helps to reduce body fat and grow lean muscle mass
  • Protects the muscles from going catabolic during low calorie periods
  • Fights against illness (low glutamine levels can leave the immune system in a weakened state)

5. Weight Gainers

To gain muscle mass, it depends on how many calories you need as an individual to create the surplus needed to create growth.

For some people, this surplus is only a few hundred calories whereas for others, it is literally a few thousand.

This is where mass gainers (or weight gainers) come into play; they deliver quite possibly the biggest bang for your buck of all the supplements due to the advanced array of ingredients some of them contain.

A few of the benefits associated with mass gainers include:

  • A highly convenient source of well balanced calories and nutrients
  • An often superior taste when compared to other protein products
  • Can be used as a meal replacement in most cases
  • Very versatile; mass gainers can serve as an anytime drink including post work out

6. Testosterone Boosters

Natural testosterone boosters exist for many reasons; whether its energy support, lean muscle mass development, or an enhanced state of mental well being, testosterone boosters can affect any and all of these areas.

What’s important to remember is that until your early 30’s, you are already producing the maximum amount of testosterone possible for your body to process. This means any money spent on testosterone boosting products if you are under that age bracket could potentially be wasted.

However, if you are 40 or above, these supplements could give you a much needed boost and impact your training sessions, energy levels and life quality positively.

Some of the most common testosterone boosters include:

  • ​Tribulus terrestris
  • ​Fenugreek extract
  • ​ZMA (zinc and magnesium aspartate plus vitamin B6)
  • ​D-aspartic acid

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Best Weight Loss Supplements

In this section we’re going to look at natural products you can buy off the shelf to help assist with your weight loss goals. Being that they’re natural, provided you only take them according to the recommended dosage on the packaging, there’s a low risk of adverse side effects taking place.

1. Fat Burners

Fat burners are likely the most popular weight loss supplement available, and millions of men and women are buying them in the pursuit of elevated weight loss.

They can work in either one or several ways; with the main aim being to help burn excess body fat away from the body.

Or rather, to help use excess body fat as an energy source.

Some of the main features of popular fat burners include:

  • Caffeine to help elevate the heart rate and burn excess calories
  • Ingredients to help suppress appetite
  • Ingredients to help with the digestion of fat molecules and even promote the body to use fat as its primary energy source
  • Energy release vitamins to help raise serotonin levels and improve mood; this in turn can help to divert the mind away from food for comfort

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2. Fat Controllers

Fat controllers, or fat blockers as they are commonly known are a supplement designed to literally stop your body from absorbing excess fat from the diet.

They work by inhibiting the body's fat uptake capacity and therefore diminishing the chances of any excess fat being stored on the body itself.

There are many proposed ingredients allegedly capable of having this effect, and fat blockers will feature either one or several of them in order to achieve their effect.

They are less “invasive” than fat burners, in that they are often non stimulant based therefore the risk of adverse side effects is much lower.

Some of the main highlights include:

  • Can reduce fat uptake from the diet and reduce the risk of excess fat storage
  • Do not typically interfere with heart rate so no crashes
  • Can enhance fat loss by up to a third when dieting

3. Carbohydrate Blockers

Carbohydrate blockers function in much the same way as fat blockers, except they block carbohydrate uptake from your dietary intake as opposed to fat uptake.

They work by stopping carbohydrates from being broken down into sugars, meaning that there is no excess wasted energy to store as body fat.

In reality, it is actually excess carbohydrate consumption that tends to be the main catalyst for weight gain as opposed to excess fat consumption. We simply take in far too much energy for our bodies to use at once, which is why the extra gets converted into fat.

Some of the best features of carb blockers include:

  • Reductions in the amount of sugar being processed, meaning a lowered risk of diabetes and other diseases associated with excess body fat
  • Arguably allows you to reduce damage on days where you do have bad food types
  • Another non stimulant based supplement

4. Appetite Suppressants

Appetite suppressants are potentially a highly effective way to promote weight loss without greatly altering any internal digestive processes. They do this by increasing serotonin levels within the body, thus making the user feel “settled” and alleviating hunger urges.

Cravings often come from an “unsettled” mindset that is perhaps suffering from stress, or over thinking; what’s great about serotonin is that it promotes an internal state of contentment, thus meaning that cravings are far less likely.

Some of the main benefits of appetite suppressants are:

  • Decreased likelihood to make negative food choices 
  • Potentially less calories consumed due to less binge eating
  • Enhanced levels of energy and mental alertness

5. L-Carnitine

L-carnitine has become an incredibly popular product for weight loss; it is very widely used by gym goers and fitness enthusiasts in the pursuit of a leaner physique.

Carnitine works by transporting fatty acids in the system into mitochondria, where they can be used to produce energy. Basically, carnitine takes fat and turns it into a usable fuel source.

Enhanced levels of carnitine could lead to more fat being used for energy than normal, and in conjunction with this primary benefit there are also several other alleged benefits including:

  • Enhanced male fertility
  • Helping with kidney problems in instances where carnitine production has reduced
  • Potentially increases glucose oxidation, helping to stabilise sugar levels and assist with health issues like diabetes
  • It has also been linked with antioxidant properties, meaning it can potentially combat disease and illness.

6. Herbal Weight Loss Remedies

Herbal weight loss remedies have been tried and tested sources that have been consumed by humans for years.

This includes the likes of green tea which is not only useful as a weight loss aid, but a incredibly valuable health resource for the body for a spectrum of other reasons too.

Other choices include but are not limited to:

  • ​Green coffee bean extract
  • ​Raspberry ketones
  • ​Ginseng
  • ​Caffeine
  • ​Hydroxycut (no, this doesn’t grow in the wild; it’s a combination of several herbal products in one)
  • ​Glucomannan
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Pre and Post Workout Supplements

You could argue that every health supplement can improve your workouts due to the fact that they either enhance the effect of your training, or allow you to train better in the first place.

However, some supplements have been specifically engineered to directly impact your workout and the improvements you see. 

The important thing to note about these supplements is that each supplement has been specifically designed to assist your training over the course of three very different windows known as:

  • ​Pre workout
  • ​Intra workout
  • ​Post workout

1. Pre Workouts

A pre workout is simply an advanced energy drink, often higher in caffeine content that will deliver a high state of mental and physical readiness.

Usually, there are a plethora of B vitamins included, as well as elements like creatine and several amino acids designed to promote improved blood flow and allow the muscles to function to their maximal capacity.

Some of the main benefits include:

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2. Intra Workouts

Intra workout supplements are engineered to be used in the middle of your workouts to safeguard against catabolism.

If a pre workout is an advanced form of energy drink, then intra workout supplements are usually an advanced form of branched chain amino acids containing extra benefits.

They come in many different flavours and can contain many different ingredients to assist with your muscular growth and recovery process. Some intra workouts contain compounds to help raise growth hormone and testosterone production (like tribulus for instance) and will typically base themselves on an amino acid mix (of the same variety as BCAA’s) for muscular sustenance.

Some of these benefits can include:

Scivation Xtend BCAA Powder
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  • B vitamin blends to help with mental energy
  • Added glutamine to help protect the muscles against breakdown
  • Added vitamin C to help protect the immune system
  • Peace of mind whilst following a low calorie nutrition plan

3. Post Workouts

Post workout supplements are an absolutely vital component and the most important out of all three to a successful workout regimen with clear results. Without adequate post workout nutrition, the benefits of your training session will be critically diminished.

It’s unbelievably important that you take in at least some fast acting protein and carbohydrates within the hour long window after a training session.

Post workout supplements perform the following roles:

  • They “lock in” your training results
  • They replenish glycogen stores and allow you to feel “stable” again
  • They sometimes contain added compounds to promote growth hormone release
VINTAGE BUILD Post Workout
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Supplements for Energy

Technically, anything that has been designed to boost your energy levels would class as an energy enhancing supplement. This means the likes of monster, red bull and relentless fall into this category.

When you consider the sheer number of energy drinks available on the market today, it’s actually quite mind blowing how widespread these supplements have become.

Why Do I Need Extra Energy?

When training, low energy means your workout will directly suffer; you simply won’t feel like giving it your all, and as a result, you risk not being able to maximise the positive benefits of your workout. You’ll also need energy for weight gain for the same reason; lack of intensity during workouts isn’t going to stimulate the muscles enough to lead to growth.

Energy boosting supplements, much like appetite suppressants will typically fall into one of two main categories which are:

  • ​Stimulant based
  • ​Non stimulant based

1. Caffeine

Caffeine can be found in a number of products, including coffee and tea. It is also the primary ingredient in most energy drinks and the reason your mental acuity may immediately spike after drinking them.

Incase you’ve ever wondered how it actually works; caffeine simply stops adenosine from binding with adenosine receptors. Adenosine is what signals our brain to rest or sleep, therefore without them binding together, the urge to sleep or rest is greatly reduced.

Girl holding orange cup of coffee

Benefits of caffeine use include:

  • Enhanced energy
  • Enhanced mood
  • ​Relaxed muscles
  • ​Greater blood flow
  • Enhanced calorie burning

Side effects with caffeine will often come from overuse, and can include migraines, stomach irritation, skin irritation and sleeplessness. You should try to only use caffeine as and when it is needed, as it is quite addictive and overuse could lead to any or all of the above issues should your intake not be moderated.

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2. Energy Drinks

iced energy drink

They’re designed to deliver an instant hit of energy to the the body at times where fatigue may be high and the body needs something to take it through either a rigorous training session or a tough task at work.

One of the main components of the vast majority of energy drinks is caffeine; as previously discussed, this stimulant can deliver an instant pick me up.

You’ll often find that most energy drinks contain a blend of B vitamins too; B vitamins are responsible for energy release and the release of serotonin within the system.

Some of the main reasons to use energy drinks are:

  • They provide an instant effect
  • They usually contain vitamin blends to enhance your mood and give you more focus
  • They’re one of the only supplements that are actually guaranteed to have an effect

You can acquire most energy drinks in either sugar free, or full sugar variants. Sugar free variants are brilliant for those on a calorie restriction as they allow the user to get a much needed energy boost without the excess calories.

3. Herbal Energy Enhancers

As with herbal weight loss remedies, herbal energy enhancers are a great option if you’d prefer to stay away from anything that’s been highly manufactured. Provided you’re responsible with energy supplements, you’ll usually find that you never experience any negative side effects.

The vast majority of these products are made with ingredients sourced from plants, including green tea extract, kola nut extract, guarana and ginseng.

There are several benefits to choosing herbal options over tinned energy drinks and other synthetic energy boosters and they include:

Ginseng roots differently processed
  • Herbal remedies are a more sustainable option and can be taken indefinitely provided no negative side effects are experienced
  • No nasty crashes; energy release with herbal options tends to be slower and sustained as opposed to providing an immediate but short lived hit
  • No surprises; whilst some commercial energy drinks are produced responsibly, others contain proprietary blends with potentially dangerous ingredients

The energy being provided here comes from a very natural source, and is produced using very natural bodily processes. This means you don’t get the instant “buzz” associated with many energy drinks, but you do get a different, more permanent form of energy that will potentially last all day.

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4. Energy Bars

Energy bars will typically consist of a low GI (glycaemic index) form of complex carbohydrate that can steadily release into the system, leading to sustained energy for physical activity.

Some bars are hybrids and contain some fast acting elements, whereas others can be fairly high in glucose to serve as a more immediate energy source and contain less complex carbohydrates.

Some of the best aspects of energy bars are:

Energy bars on a cutting board
  • No crashes due to sustained energy release
  • Usually non stimulant based (though some bars do contain caffeine)
  • A wide array of flavours and options to suit any sport or situation

Some energy bars are great meal replacements as they contain an array of vitamins and minerals along side healthy carbohydrates and fats. Others should really only be consumed shortly before or after exercise.

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As you can see, there are more potential reasons for than against.

Other Supplements To Consider

There are some other products you should consider if you want to really maximize your results and squeeze out the limits of your human physiology. Check out the following: 

Is There Any Risk Involved?

In a word, yes - It really depends on whether or not you stick to dosage guidelines and use the product as it’s intended to be used.

Some micronutrients can be toxic to the body when consumed in enormous doses, and with many products often being a crossover and containing several different ingredients at once (especially in the case of weight gainers) you really do have to ensure you’re sensible with how much you ingest.

Where the biggest risk lies is with:

Protein supplement, weight, measuring tape on wood surface
  • Weight loss and energy products
  • Excess strain on the liver.

Weight loss & energy products

It could be said that in the case of fat burners especially, they are perhaps marketed towards people who feel that they are not only in a desperate situation, but also have relatively little experience with supplements and sometimes physical activity. This can lead to a less is more approach, meaning a higher dosage than is recommended gets ingested, then as a result, the heart rate can elevate to highly abnormal levels and damage can easily get caused to internal organs.

This is at least as true if not doubly so with pre workouts and energy drinks; after taking them a few times the body often starts to develop a tolerance.

Following on from this, it’s not uncommon for people to start recklessly increasing the dosage to a point where it far exceeds what’s being recommended by the supplier. This can and has previously ended fatally in both cases; it’s never a risk you should take.

Generally speaking, simply following the recommended guidelines for any product will always carry almost no risk whatsoever provided you’ve read any associated health warnings on the product box and consulted with a GP prior to use. Simply put, play safe at all times; that’s how any supplement is intended to be used.

Excess strain on the liver

It is believed that the liver can only process so much protein at once, and the rate at which it is able to extract amino acids from protein certainly has a  limit.

This limit is going to fluctuate slightly from person to person (the previous link contains further information on this) but what’s important to take on board is that there is a wall for everybody, and it can be hit.

As with any organ, should the liver have too much demand placed on it, then over time you risk damaging it and adversely affecting its functionality. With the liver being an absolutely vital component of your overall health, it’s incredibly important that it is not in any way compromised.

Stick to the guidelines above and don’t take in unnecessary amounts of protein at once or throughout the day; any adaptation to exercise can be created through very simple nutritional principles and training. It’s always best to stick with what works.

Dosage

Dosage truly depends on your body weight; you’ll typically find that one scoop of any protein supplement is going to deliver anywhere between 20 - 30 grams of protein.

As the body only needs a marginal increase in protein intake to lead to muscle growth, there’s no genuine research in existence to prove that extreme intakes of anywhere up to 400 grams per day will actually have the beneficial effect desired on muscle growth.

As a rule of thumb, it has been stated the body can only absorb at the most 30 grams of protein in one sitting; at present, no conclusive evidence exists to contradict this.

It’s always best to ensure your total daily intake doesn’t exceed the 1.2 - 1.4 grams per pound of body weight ratio, and that you don’t try to consume an amount exceeding 30 grams in one sitting. This will at the very least minimise wastage, at best it could save your liver.

​Important Tips to Consider

We’ve covered a very comprehensive array of the most popular supplements.

You should now have a good solid idea of not only how these supplements work, but also which qualities you need to look out for.

Some further important tips to bear in mind before you purchase any supplements are:

  • ​Never purchase or use a supplement without first reading any associated health warnings
  • ​Never assume that a supplement will override the need to train hard and eat a healthy, balanced diet
  • ​Should you experience any negative side effects (provided they are not typically associated with the initial use of the supplement and are of a severe nature) then you should always stop using said supplement
  • Always make an informed decision; compare user reviews and check for potential side effects at a reputable sources
  • ​Always shop with a well established, respectable company to ensure the highest quality of ingredients have been used in the creation of a supplement
  • ​Never exceed the recommended dosage of any supplement

By following these guidelines, you’ll almost always have a positive experience when using supplements.

FAQ

Should I always buy a supplement if it can help me with an existing issue I'm faced with?

Should I only buy natural supplements?

How long should I wait before I stop using a supplement if I experience adverse effects?

How do I know if a supplement will work?

How do I know if a supplement is working?

Should I take anything I've been given, or take something someone else has recommended I take?

​Final Thoughts

So here we are, at the end of our initiation into the supplement world.

In truth, we have only scratched the surface of the tremendous number of supplements available on the market; the options you’ve been studying are simply the most popular and widespread categories available.

Should you take on board any warnings given throughout these pages in regards to dosage, side effects and how a supplement is used; you will hopefully have a good experience with your chosen product.

Never hesitate to ask for professional advice should you find yourself confused or lost over a certain supplement; you can never ask too many questions, and you can never receive too much advice.

Buying a supplement is always an important decision, and at the least it’s important to ensure that no money gets wasted and that your health is protected.

Good luck in your gym based endeavors, and happy training.


About the author

Isaac Robertson

Isaac Robertson

I’m a personal fitness trainer and nutritionist living in sunny Indianapolis, IN. I’ve spent the last 8 years staying at the forefront of the health and fitness industry. In that time, I’ve helped hundreds of people shed the excess weight and get into shape, maintaining their healthy new lifestyle through proper training and eating habits. You can read more about me here​.

  • Yo, I was searching for the best workout supplements for muscle gain and I’m glad to have stumbled upon this article. Very good read with lots of information about gaining (or even losing) weight. This is just what I need. Thank you!

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