Getting Started: Which Supplements Should I Take?
Technically speaking you don't need to take anything. Supplements are exactly that. Supplements. They only exist to enhance the work that you're already doing.
It should go without saying: Diet and Exercise First. Supplements Second.
If don't have a general handle on your diet, or you're not in the middle of a solid exercise regimen, buying supplements will be a complete waste of your time and money. Seriously - leave this site right now, go to Google and start searching for a diet or exercise plan that suits you, and then come back when you're ready to talk supplements.
Here are some keyword ideas for Googling:
Remember: the most effective diet and exercise plans are the ones you stick to.
Also, you shouldn't need to pay for any diet or exercise blueprints. There's a lot of affiliate marketers and self-proclaimed gurus that will try to convince you that you need to buy their latest ebook, but save your money: you can find amazing diet and exercise plans online for free.
Anyway, our focus here on SR is Supplements. So now that we can assume you're hitting the gym and trying to eat right, let's jump into it.
Advice to the newbies: keep your expectations realistic.
Here's the situation: Everyone wants a shortcut. Supplement companies know this. Supplement companies want your money, but there are no shortcuts. Not everyone knows this.
You're not going to see steroid-like-results by taking a whey protein powder. You aren't going to become a fitness model by taking some BCAAs. A pre-workout is not going to turn you into the hulk.
Supplement companies habitually over-promise their results. It's not their fault; they are in a highly competitive and over-saturated market, constantly trying to "stand out from the crowd".
Many of the fitness models you see promoting supplements might be taking a bit more than the supplements they are promoting.
Here's a clip from the movie "Bigger, Faster, Stronger" that shows a fitness model posing for a supplement ad and admitting to taking steroids since he was 16:
So now that you're not expecting the world, let's get to the supplement recommendations!
How to use this guide
There's no one-size fits all, but most supplements fall into a pretty predictable hierarchy. This list is organized in order of priority, with the most important, basic staples at the top, and getting more advanced towards the bottom.
Read through each supplement one-by-one, and see if it feels like a good fit for you. If, at any time, you feel like you've got enough supplements, stop reading and come back after you've had a little more experience and want to try something more.
"But I want specific recommendations for my exact body type and goals!"
Here's the thing. I've built "product pickers" and "supplement recommender quizzes" like that before. The problem is that you always end up with almost the exact same recommendations no matter what you put in. The staples listed below are almost entirely universal, no matter what your goals, age or gender are.
1. Protein: Everybody's First Step
Whether your goal is to build muscle, lose fat or a combination of the two, a protein supplement is going to make the most sense as your first purchase. Protein is something that can be taken by men, women, teens and adults.
You're already following a diet that's likely to have a high protein requirement. Supplementing protein just makes it easier to hit your goal.
What can I expect from a protein powder?
I like to describe protein as a "Food Supplement". It's basically just powdered food that's easy to get down. Think of it as eating an extra can of tuna, or a half a chicken breast, or couple of eggs, but in a delicious shake form.
So, will a few extra grams of protein win you the next Mr. Olympia championship? It's very unlikely. However, a protein supplement will help you hit your daily protein requirements, creating optimal conditions for your muscles to naturally repair and rebuild themselves after your workouts.
Don't expect to get a six-pack just from taking a protein supplement. Your six pack will be the result of a strict diet - which might be easier to follow with a protein shake or two.
Which protein should I buy?
The cheapest and most popular type of protein supplement is Whey Protein, which is derived from cow's milk. If you're absolutely intolerant of any lactose, you might want to try a different form of protein, such as egg protein , beef protein or another type of protein (usually plant).
Whey: Isolate Vs. Concentrate
The two main types of whey protein are Isolate and Concentrate. We don't want to get too detailed in this guide, but in general:
- Concentrate: This is a cheaper, less pure form of whey.
- Isolate: A slightly more expensive and more pure form of whey.
If taking a Whey Protein Concentrate gives you bad gas or bloating, it might be worth paying a premium for the good stuff (Isolate). Personally, I started having major gas with my last Concentrate, and it all went away when I switched to an Isolate.
Our Whey Protein category contains both Isolates and Concentrates, and many products that are a blend of the two. So be sure to check the product labels to make sure of what you are getting.
When should I take my protein shake?
- Immediately after your workouts
- Between meals to supplement your daily protein requirements
Will protein give me any side effects?
The main complaint we see is gas, bloating and other digestive issues. If you experience any of this, try switching up your protein brand. We see that some people have to try a few different brands to find the one that works best for them.
The other complaints we see are from the use of artificial sweeteners. Some people have reported negative effects from these, so it's best to study the ingredient labels and keep trying products until you find something that works for you.
Sometimes we see silly questions like "Will protein cause hair loss?" or "Is protein dangerous?". Again, protein is not a steroid. You wouldn't get these side effects from drinking milk, would you?
Whey Protein Rankings
2. Creatine for Muscle Performance
While creatine is most popular among those trying to build muscle, it's main benefit is providing muscle energy, so anyone looking to improve their performance in the gym might want to give it a shot.
Creatine has been around for a long time, and the results have been very well studied and documented. It's naturally found in meat, however you'd have to eat several pounds in order to match one serving of a typical creatine supplement.
Fortunately, creatine can be extremely inexpensive. I've been able to get over a pound for less than $10 on sale. Of course, supplement brands will often try to sell you an expensive, fancy creatine, however most serious lifters find that they offer no real advantages over your basic, cheap creatine monohydrate powder.
How do I take creatine?
The recommended dose is 5 grams of creatine monohydrate daily. It should come in a powder form, so typically that just means throwing a teaspoon into your protein shake.
Be sure to stay well hydrated when taking creatine. Since it works by hydrating muscle tissue, you'll want to make sure there's plenty of hydration in your system for it to work. There's a debate about whether or not creatine can be hard on your kidneys, but drinking plenty of water will help ensure there's no issues.
In your research, you'll also see a lot of debate surrounding a "loading phase" or "cycling". There isn't a lot of evidence to support either, so keep it simple, take 5 grams a day and stay well hydrated.
Will I gain water weight on creatine?
Most likely, yes. Creatine works because it helps hydrate muscle tissue, so most users experience some temporary water weight gain while taking creatine.
3: Try a Pre-Workout for a Boost in the Gym
It's no secret: if you go harder in the gym, you'll see better results. Pre-workouts, also know as PWOs are typically a cocktail of stimulants, energy supplements and focus enhancers, designed to take your workouts to the next level.
Pre-workouts have seen an explosion in popularity over the last 10 years. It seems everyone has released their own PWO these days, all touting theirs as the best. At the time of writing, there's over 1,000 different PWO products on our site.
Do I need to take a pre-workout?
In short, no. If you aren't taking a PWO currently, and you are doing fine in the gym, then there's probably no point in dabbling with PWOs. However, if you feel the need to step it up a notch, a pre-workout will help take your efforts in the gym to the next level.
Which pre-workout should I take?
This is a tough question, and there's no single right answer. We're currently working on publishing a comprehensive Pre-Workout Guide, but in the meantime, here's a few things to consider:
What is your stim tolerance? Are you up for 2 days straight if you have a sip of coffee? If so, then you might want to consider trying a Stimulant Free Pre-workout for starters, or try to find something with less than 150mg of caffeine (or cut your doses in half).
Do you work out at night? Taking a stim-heavy PWO before a late-night workout session might make it hard for you to fall asleep.
Do you have a sensitive stomach? If your gut isn't made of steel, try to start with something more mild, or find reviewers that also have sensitive stomachs and see what they recommend.
Avoid prop blends: In order to find the right PWO fit, you'll need to get a basic understanding of the common ingredients and assess which dose of each ingredient is best for you. If you take something that has all the ingredients hidden in a prop blend, it's going to be difficult for you to pinpoint how your body responds to the different ingredients.
How do I take a pre-workout?
That's easy, take it pre-workout.
Jokes aside, if you're new, don't feel embarrassed to start with a half-scoop or less. Some products can be very potent, so starting slow is always advised.
Also, since some PWOs tend to be stim-heavy, taking them before a late night workout might not be the most conducive decision if you want to fall asleep quickly.
What results should I expect with a pre-workout?
Just like we called protein powder a supplement to your diet, consider a PWO as a supplement to your exercise. Should you expect steroid-like results from working out longer and harder in the gym? No. Can you expect to see a little bit of change in your body from stepping up your workouts? Probably.
4. Your Muscles Recover Best when you Sleep Well
With all the stimuli we're surrounded by in today's environment, people are having more and more trouble falling and staying asleep. There's a lot of products on the market that are really effective, but it's always best to promote restful sleep the old fashioned way:
Limit caffeine intake late in the day - be sure not to take your PWO late in the evening.
Do something boring before sleeping. Read a book instead of playing Call of Duty.
Avoid taking naps.
Don't drink alcohol.
Invest in a comfortable mattress.
If you've tried all that and still want something to help you get to sleep or stay asleep, there's plenty of options on the market. None are going to fully knock you out like an Ambien, but many will make you quite drowsy.
Sleep Supplement Rankings
5. Fill in the Gaps with a Multi, D-Vitamins and Fish Oil
This has to be the most boring category of supplements that we're going to suggest - anything that your grandma takes isn't going to be the most exciting product you've ever considered buying.
However, regardless of your goals, age or gender, these are going to be staple supplements that everyone should consider taking. We aren't going to go into much detail on these since they aren't the most reviewed products on our site, but we suggest you check out the following:
Unless you're eating a lot of fish every day, many studies suggest that supplementing with Essential Fatty Acids is beneficial to overall health.
Here's another basic supplement that isn't always supplied at optimal levels by our diets and sun exposure. Not commonly reviewed on SR, your best option is to search Amazon for Vitamin D3 .
There's a lot of debate about the efficacy of multivitamins. One school of thought is that you're already getting everything you need through your diet and that you excrete almost everything in the multi anyway. The other school of thought is that they are a cheap and easy way to "cover your basis".
There's a lot of multis available that are marketed specifically towards athletes or anyone who leads an active lifestyle. While they are definitely beefed up compared to your grandma's Centrum Silver, there's still a lack of evidence to prove that you "need" them. That said, several are highly recommended in our Multivitamin Supplement category.
6a. Can't Get Enough Calories? Try a Gainer.
If you are specifically trying to gain weight, Weight Gainers (also known as Mass Gainers) might be of interest to you. Otherwise, skip down to section 6b.
One of the most popular questions on SR is "How do I gain weight?". The answer is always "EAT MORE".
The next most popular question is "I'm already eating more, but still not gaining weight. What's wrong?". The answer is always "YOU'RE NOT EATING ENOUGH".
So if you are physically incapable of chewing and swallowing another morsel of food each day, drinking calories is your next best option.
We're currently working on an "Ultimate Mass Gainer Guide", but in the meantime, here are some tips:
Look closely at the serving size and servings per container. Sometimes a 5lb tub will advertise that it's 1200 calories per serving, however each serving is 4 massive scoops and there's only 8 servings per container. That's going to be a lot of shake to get down and won't last you too long.
A gainer should be a temporary solution to help you reach your goal weight. It would be pretty unhealthy to integrate a gainer as part of your long-term diet.
Protein and gainers are very different. They may look similar, but a gainer is mostly carbs and calories while a protein supplement is going to be almost strictly protein. A 5lb tub of gainer will be much cheaper than a 5lb tub of protein, however the gainer will have much less total protein in it.
Weight Gainer Rankings
6b. Can't Cut Enough Calories? Try a Thermo.
If you are specifically trying to cut fat, Thermogenics (a fancy name for fat burner) might be of interest to you.
Before we dive into thermos, let me say one thing - a lot of people visit our site wanting to "build muscle" AND "burn fat". That's totally reasonable, and when you are first starting out, you might see those two things happening simultaneously.
However, once you get to intermediate or advanced levels, you'll want to pick one goal (build muscle OR burn fat), and focus on just that. You'll often hear people say "I'm bulking" or "I'm cutting", and it's very common to toggle between the two during different parts of the year. Many people will bulk in the fall/winter and cut in the spring/summer (so they can show off their beach body).
So if you're in the middle of a "cut", it might be worth looking into thermogenics. If you've been battling with obesity your entire life, you might be in a perpetual state of "cut" and that's fine too.
A word of caution: watch out for scams.
The diet pill industry is one of the most over-saturated and scammy markets known to man. With two-thirds of Americans being considered "overweight" and half of those being in the "obese" category, there's a whole industry built around promising shortcuts to weight loss in the form of a pill.
Another word of caution: watch out for stims.
Thermogenics are basically stimulants in a pill. They increase your metabolism, provide you with energy despite running a caloric deficit, and help suppress your appetite. The main ingredient in many thermogenics is caffeine, so be sure to read the ingredient label to make sure you're not overdoing it on the stims.
As usual, find the ingredient label and Google the various ingredients to research any product that you find. Don't buy into the marketing hype - do your research and keep your expectations realistic.
7. Other Supplements
Now you're probably surprised that we're missing testosterone boosters, intra-workouts, joint supports or a number of other popular supplements types on here. That's because this is just a GETTING STARTED guide. It's best to get your feet wet with the top 5 or 6 we listed above before you move on to other stuff.
Either way, we'll give you a few tips on other categories:
Designed to keep your muscles fueled during a workout, the research shows that these are only really necessary if you're working out in a fasted state. Either way, many folks enjoy sipping on something tasty during their workout, and the extra hydration probably doesn't hurt. See all products in the BCAA/EAA/Intra-workout category here.
Natural Testosterone Boosters:
The biggest word of advice we have here is that natural test boosters are NOT steroids - and you should not expect the same results. This is a product category that has a reputation for extreme marketing hype that tries to piggyback off the well-known effectiveness of real steroids. Many of the popular ingredients in natural testosterone boosters have been proven to have no effect on testosterone levels, so be sure to do your research before buying into the hype. See all products in the natural testosterone booster category here.
Our users have reported mixed results with joint support products. One thing to keep in mind is that these products will not fix injuries. If you tear your ACL, you need to see a doctor, not take a supplement. See all the products in our joint support category here.
Glutamine is another debated supplement, with a lot of studies failing to produce evidence that it actually assists in muscle building for healthy individuals. If you're already taking a whey protein or eating enough food, you probably don't need to supplement glutamine. See all glutamine products here.
Unless you're competing in a bodybuilding competition, posing on stage, doing a photoshoot or otherwise need to temporarily cut water weight, you probably won't see lasting results with a diuretic.
Did we miss something? Figure it out yourself!
Just kidding. Kindof. But really though, a lot of the time, we see visitors land on our site, just looking to see if [Obscure Product X] is any good. And most of the time, it's over-promised, overpriced junk. Just because your trainer, friend or co-worker swears they saw amazing results with [Obscure Product X] doesn't mean that it's the only product that has those ingredients in it.
But seriously, we want to help you learn how to PROPERLY research products.
We're in the middle of writing a more comprehensive guide to doing your own product research, but for now, here's some basic tips:
First off, find the ingredient label. Brands will say anything they want on their marketing. It's what's in the product that really counts.
Use Google to research each ingredient. Not only will you probably find that there's not a lot of real evidence to support the brand's claims, you'll also be able to find that ingredient for sale MUCH cheaper on it's own.
Be skeptical doing research on a product by Googling the product's name. Some of the most scammy products will offer a 40% or more affiliate commission to bloggers who recommend their product. This will often lead to the whole first page of Google results being dominated by shady bloggers posting fake reviews and trying to cash in on the commission.