A good, hard, training regimen is the only way to get a perfectly lean body, and it releases all those endorphins that make you feel awesome afterward. But by all estimates, a sound nutritional program accounts for around 80 percent of your results. What those don't account for is the power of supplements.
Add these 15 critical elements to your diet, and you'll supercharge your lean muscle gains, accelerate fat loss and improve your overall health.
1. Whey Protein
What it is: One of milk's two proteins.
What it does: Whey's primary characteristic is its digestibility. Once in the body, it breaks down quickly, swiftly sending its aminos to muscle tissue. This is beneficial because there are certain times of day (first thing in the morning, before and after workouts) when the lean whole-food proteins we normally recommend (eggs, chicken breast, lean steak, fish) digest too slowly to be effective. But whey doesn't deliver only protein. It contains peptides (protein fragments) that have been suggested to help increase blood flow to muscles, which is particularly helpful before workouts, so that muscles may receive more oxygen, nutrients and hormones right when they need them.
How to take it: Take 20 grams of whey protein (mixed in water) first thing upon waking, within 30 minutes before workouts and another 20 g within 30 minutes after training. And you can always have a scoop as a snack between meals.
2. N.O. Boosters
What it is: Any number of compounds that serve to increase levels of nitric oxide in the bloodstream.
What it does: N.O. relaxes the muscles that control blood vessels, which makes them increase in diameter, allowing more blood to flow through them and to muscles. Because blood carries oxygen and nutrients such as glucose, fat and amino acids, more of these getting to your muscles may help support better energy production—so you can train harder for longer—and better recovery from workouts, which means bigger muscles that can be trained more often. Blood also contains a high percentage of water, which gets pushed through those wider blood vessels into muscles to create the muscle pump you experience when you train. That pump stretches the membranes of muscle cells, which may help you by signaling the cells to grow bigger. In addition, NO may help support lipolysis, which is the release of fat from the body's fat cells, allowing it to be burned for fuel.
How to take it: Look for products that include ingredients such as arginine, citrulline, GPLC (glycine propionyl-L-carnitine) or Pycnogenol. Take one dose of an NO-boosting supplement about 30-60 minutes before workouts.
What it is: Only the world's most popular stimulant drug.
What it does: You already know it perks you up and improves focus, but it also has been found to support a boost in muscle strength, intensity and fat loss during workouts. And it works especially well when taken with green tea extract. Caffeine promotes an increase in the amount of fat that gets released from your fat cells. Meanwhile, green tea boosts metabolic rate, which is the way the body burns fat in the bloodstream. Taking these compounds together may just be the support necessarry to ensure that the fat that caffeine has released will get burned up for energy.
How to take it: Take 200-400 milligrams of caffeine two or three times per day, with one dose 30-60 minutes before workouts.
4. Fish Oil
What it is: Two essential omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
What it does: What doesn't fish oil do? It reduces may help support overall health, and, a biggie, it also has been found to turn on genes that stimulate fat burning.
How to take it: Take 2g of fish oil three times daily, with breakfast, lunch and dinner.
5. Casein Protein
What it is: The other of milk's two proteins.
What it does: Though they come from the same place, whey and casein couldn't be more different. Casein is extremely slow to digest, which means it provides a steady stream of aminos over a span of several hours. That makes it ideal for certain time periods, like right before bed, when your body is about to go without food for seven to eight hours. In fact, one study performed by the Weider Research Group found that when subjects took casein protein before bed, they gained more muscle than those who took casein in the morning. Another study found that when subjects consumed a mix of whey and casein after workouts, they had improved muscle growth as compared to subjects who took just whey.
How to take it: Take 20g of casein right before bed. Also consider combining 10g of casein with 10g of whey in your post-workout shake.
What it is: Three aminos (isoleucine, leucine and valine) that share a branched molecular structure.
What it does: The unique structure of BCAAs gives them certain unique properties, all of which have physique benefits. BCAAs may help increase the length of your workouts - they can be burned as fuel by muscle tissue and they may actually help curb exercise-induced muscle fatigue. The BCAAs are also intimately involved in the creation of new muscle tissue, both as the building blocks and as the builder. Leucine, in particular, promotes protein synthesis, which is the process by which muscle grows. BCAAs may also help boost growth-hormone levels, reduce cortisol and increase levels of insulin, the anabolic hormone that's critical to replenishing muscle tissue with nutrients after workouts.
How to take it: Take 5-10 g of BCAAs with pre-workout and postworkout shakes.
What it is: An amino-acid-like compound that occurs naturally in muscle tissue.
What it does: Creatine's most basic function is to help muscles create fast energy during exercise. Taking supplemental creatine may help increase the amount of energy the body has to draw upon, supporting increased endurance and strength. The compound also draws water into muscle cells, increasing their size and causing a stretch that can yield growth.
How to take it: Take 2-5 g of creatine (depending on the form you use) before and after workouts with pre- and post-workout shakes.
What it is: A nonessential amino acid.
What it does: When beta-alanine meets another amino acid, histidine, a beautiful thing happens: They get together and form a compound called carnosine. Carnosine has been suggested to improve muscle size, strength and endurance and support fat loss. Since the amount of carnosine the body can produce is directly dependent on how much beta-alanine is present, it makes sense to supplement with beta-alanine.
How to take it: Take 1-3 g of beta-alanine immediately before and immediately after workouts.
What it is: A healthy fat that just happens to be an omega-6 fatty acid.
What it does: Although other omega-6 fats are not so healthy, primarily because Americans tend to get too much of them in their diet, CLA is different. Numerous studies suggest it supports fat loss while simultaneously promoting muscle growth and strength. It's main mechanism appears to support a boost in metabolism. It also appears to promote burning more fat during sleep, thereby sparing muscle tissue.
How to take it: Take about 2g of CLA three times daily, with breakfast, lunch and dinner.
What it is: An essential mineral.
What it does: Just about everyone knows that calcium is intrinsically linked to bone health, but did you know that it's also required for muscle contraction? Without adequate calcium, muscles won't contract properly. And research suggests this unassuming mineral can also help spur fat loss. This may be because calcium decreases the amount of dietary fat that's absorbed by the intestines and suppresses a hormone called calcitriol, which is responsible for reducing fat burning.
How to take it: Take 500-600 mg of calcium twice a day.
11. Vitamin D
What it is: The sunshine vitamin.
What it does: New research keeps coming; most of it supporting Vitamin D's ample health benefits. Vitamin D is associated with greater muscle strength—interacting with receptors on muscle fibers to activate genes that increase muscle strength and growth. As a plus, D may help support fat loss, especially when taken in conjunction with calcium.
How to take it: Take about 2,000 international units of vitamin D twice per day at the same time you take calcium.
12. Green Tea Extract
What it is: The active ingredients in green tea, particularly the polyphenol epigallocatechin gallate.
What it does: EGCG blocks an enzyme that normally breaks down norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter/hormone related to adrenaline that increases metabolic rate and fat burning, keeping norepinephrine levels higher. Green tea extract also has been suggested to help support enhanced muscle recovery after intense workouts, as well as aid in supporting healthy joint function.
How to take it: Take about 500 mg of green tea extract standardized for EGCG three times daily before meals, with one dose about 30-60 minutes before workouts.
13. B Complex 100
What it is: A series of essential vitamins.
What it does: Think of it this way: B makes you buzz. The suite of B vitamins is critically involved in helping your body derive energy from the nutrients you eat and helping get oxygen to muscle tissue. Feeling rundown and lacking energy? It's likely because you're deficient in B vitamins, a common trait of hard-training individuals. Certain B vitamins have additional benefits - riboflavin can help the body digest and use the protein you're eating to make sure you're building muscle properly, and folic acid, in addition to being essential to fetal health, is involved in NO production in the body.
How to take it: Look for a B complex 100, which will provide 100 mg of most of the B vitamins, including thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5) and pyridoxine (B6), as well as at least 100 micrograms of cobalamin (B12), folic acid (B9) and biotin (B7).
14. Vitamin C
What it is: An essential vitamin.
What it does: At the first sign of a tickle in your throat you probably start main-lining the C. That's good, because the vitamin has been suggested to help support immune system function. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that is also involved in the synthesis of hormones, amino acids and collagen and, on top of all that, it destroys free radicals, created from exercise and other stressors, that break down nitric oxide. Sparing NO from free-radicals helps support higher NO levels, and higher NO levels may promote increased muscle endurance, a reduction in exercise-enduced fatigue and increased support for lean muscle growth and strength.
How to take it: Take 1,000 mg twice a day with meals.
What it is: A blend of adequate amounts of major micronutrients.
What it does: Put simply, a multivitamin/multimineral complex fills in all the nutritional gaps in your diet. And, although we suggest you supplement separately with calcium and vitamins B, C and D, you should still take a standard multi. It may help support against the possibility of deficiencies in some of the other vitamins and minerals that can result from reduced food variety or calorie intake (read: dieting) and increased vitamin loss from exercise. Being deficient in many of these micronutrients can lead to low energy levels and restrict muscle growth, strength gains and fat loss.
How to take it: Look for a multi that provides a minimum of 100% of the daily value of C, D, E and most of the B-complex vitamins and at least 100% of zinc, copper and chromium. Take it once per day with a meal, such as breakfast.