You might cringe when you hear nails across a chalkboard—if you can still find a chalkboard, anyway. Me, I cringe when a nearby conversation begins with, "What supplement should I take to [fill in the goal]?"
If you are in the health and fitness industry, or just look like you're relatively healthy and fit, you've probably been asked the same thing. There are just too many confused people, wanting to believe the answer lies just one pill or powder away. And there are just as many bad shepherds feeding that misbelief, too. Let's fix that!
In one way or another, I've walked countless thousands of people through what you're about to read. This is my "keep it simple and smart" approach to effective supplementation. I'll give you six steps to help you get the most out of whatever supplements you do choose to take, and then my six recommendations for a supplement starter set.
Add One Step and One Supp at a Time
You'll never know what supplements do or don't work for you if your approach is haphazard. Instead, when you decide to introduce new supplements into your regimen, do it by an addition of one. That even applies to these big six!
Specifically, only add one new supplement to your diet at any one time. Take that supplement for a minimum of 6-9 weeks—and do it according to the label or an expert-driven article like this one—before you decide if it's provided the benefits you sought. If not, discontinue using it.
If it has helped, great. Keep using it until you notice your gains peaking. Then, you can add another one following the same process.
Getting healthy and building your body is a long-term project. Respect it as one, and you'll have a better chance of getting where you want to be without wasting tons of time and money along the way.
What To Do Before Getting Serious About Supplements
Step 1: Take legitimate inventory of your current diet, training, lifestyle, and health
Sorry, supplements shouldn’t be your first point of action if:
- You’ve been sedentary
- You don’t train or haven’t mastered the basics of programming like progressive overload and undulating intensity
- You have a piss-poor diet
- You have a pre-existing medical condition
Instead, it’s time to get the basics in order first. What are you doing, and how do you feel? Have you been avoiding the doctor for years or neglecting a major part of your self-care? Have you not trained in years, but are considering taking a pre-workout? You'd better believe these things can affect the effectiveness of a supplement.
Step 2: Set realistic, but proactive major and weekly goals
Any supplement worth taking—including the basics like protein and a multivitamin—should only be an addition to realistic, progressive training and a well-planned nutrition program.
What do you want to do, and how do you want to feel? This doesn't have to mean "I want to lose this many pounds"—although I know for many it inevitably will. It can be getting stronger, improving at a sport, doing a certain number of workouts a week, or even just finishing a solid workout program. These goals should inform what you eat, how you train, and what supplements get your hard-earned dollars.
If you think any supplement will allow you to reduce effort in the gym or adhering to a solid eating plan, then you’re setting yourself up to be sorely disappointed in your supplements.
Step 3: Eat and train intelligently for your goals
You don't have to hire a world-class trainer. Just don't be a complete embarrassment! For example, if you're trying to add an inch to your biceps and chase a triple-bodyweight deadlift while eating in an 800-calorie caloric deficit and are getting black-out blitzed three days a week… no supplement will help you. Watch the Bodybuilding.com Foundations of Fitness Nutrition course. Eat lots of protein and veggies. Don't let bad habits dominate. Train consistently and progressively.
Step 4: Recharge Well and Keep Life’s Stress Under Control
No supplement out there will do as much for your performance—and health—as getting adequate rest, keeping mental stress in context, and limiting your exposure to people who are toxic to you and sabotage your ability to reach your goals. If your friend's idea of a healthy night out is downing a 12-pack and ending the evening pointing blearily at food items on a Denny's menu at 3 a.m., hey, good for them. But if you match them night after night and then try to compensate by slamming a pre and some creatine before hitting the gym the next day, you're only fooling yourself.
Step 5: Rid your environment of harmful pollutants that you can control
If you think chemical pesticides and weed killers are the perfumes of healthy living; if you believe all things should be stain-resistant and a home or office space isn't hitting on all senses unless intoxicating inhabitants with plug-ins and aerosol deodorants; if you lather on sun block every day like you're putting on baby oil to wrestle Blue in Old School… sorry. Your life may smell like a scented candle, but your body is left battling off so many physiological attacks from these common and easily avoidable chemicals. Over time, this can significantly and negatively affect hormones, neurohormones, your health, and yes, the effectiveness of your supplements.
Step 6: Get your mind right
Stay committed, positive, and know that getting in your best shape isn't a cakewalk. Everything worth earning is earned incrementally. Immediate results can leave you as quickly as they find you!
I know it's a lot to take in. But there's an overriding theme here, and it's this: Supplements aren't magic. They won't make an unhealthy lifestyle healthy, but they can make a healthy lifestyle healthier!
Now, once you've taken the aforesaid steps and are on your path to a solid base level of fitness, it's time to start optimizing that base with a few key supps. These six supplements are ones everyone should start with to help stay on the road to optimal health and fitness.
How And Why To Take A Multivitamin
Why: No supplement can compensate fully for a poor diet or lifestyle, but these supporting actors (or "cofactors") can help make the processes in your body work optimally. These nutrients are also in increased demand whenever your body's physiological processes are stressed, such as in response to intense training, dieting, periods of growth, or immune system attacks, just to name a few.
What: An intelligently designed multi should provide active ingredients shown to significantly elevate circulating levels of the biologically active forms of the following vitamins and minerals:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin C
- Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12
Start reading about multis, and you'll sometimes hear that you shouldn't consume this or that vitamin or mineral in combination with others. Calcium decreases the absorption of iron, for example, and zinc can decrease absorption of chromium and magnesium. However, such statements are just marketing-driven spin to justify why ingredients that take up a lot of space in a capsule or tablet haven't been included in a particular supplement.
Why? Because nearly every one of the nutrients can decrease the absorption of one nutrient…and increase the absorption of something else. Calcium increases vitamin B12, to return to our earlier example, and zinc increases the absorption of selenium. Also, having low circulating zinc levels can decrease the absorption and utilization of vitamin A and folate, and decrease the amount of vitamin E in the body.
The point is that the human body has a very large number of examples where competition for absorption occurs. It doesn't mean that absorption doesn't occur at all, though; just that it can be less efficient. The human body has synergistic feed-forward mechanisms whereby circulating levels of one vitamin or mineral will affect the bioavailability of others. Therefore, take a multi for what it is: a good back-up for your diet. Nothing more.
How: Take half a dose with breakfast and another half-dose with another meal later in the day. Even better, split a full day's dose across three or four servings. If you take a high-potency multi on an empty stomach, be forewarned that not only will the absorption of many of the nutrients be reduced, there's also a very good chance you'll begin to feel nauseated within about 30 minutes of taking the supplement.
How And Why To Take Vitamin D3
Why: Most multis just don't include enough of this critical nutrient, which is now commonly referred to by experts as a versatile steroid hormone instead of a vitamin. And as explained in Bodybuilding.com's article "Your Expert Guide to Vitamin D," the recommended daily allowance of this vitamin is pretty low—especially considering that much of the population of the United States is estimated to be deficient in this nutrient, which plays a big role in health and vitality across the body.
Using between 4,000 IUs to about 8,500 IUs per day has been shown to provide a significant and beneficial effect on measures of exercise performance. Most multis contain 600-1000 IUs, if that.
What: Cholecalciferol is the D3 form of this vitamin. The ergocalciferol, or D2 form, albeit much cheaper, has regularly been shown to be significantly less effective than the D3 form at raising circulating levels of the active form of vitamin D (25-hydroxyvitamin D) in the blood.
How: Take 2,000-4,000 IUs with breakfast and again with another meal later in the day. It's a fat-soluble vitamin, so taking it on its own isn't likely to be as effective. And even if you take a vitamin D supplement, still get out in the sunshine.
How And Why To Take Protein Powder
Why: Protein is the only major nutrient that stimulates muscle protein synthesis, the process by which your body repairs and grows muscle. But it also improves insulin sensitivity and blood glucose control, supports healthy blood pressure and inflammatory response, reduces age- or inactivity-induced losses in muscle and strength, and is critical for a robust immune system. Plus, protein increases calorie burning (thermogenesis) and reduces hunger more than either carbohydrates or fat.
And no, it's not just for when you're looking to gain weight. When combined with a calorie-restricted diet, supplementing with protein also increases the loss of body fat and weight, and reduces the loss of lean body mass.
In today's market there are plenty of options for where you can get your protein: dairy, egg, chicken or other animal sources, vegetable (soy, rice, pumpkin, hemp, etc.), fish, algae like spirulina—the list goes on and on. However, I'm of the opinion that the conversation begins with whey.
Why? Because for the human body, whey is literally the protein of life. Whey makes up almost 92 percent of the total protein present within human breast milk at early lactation, and is still about 55-60 percent of the total protein in breast milk when children have been fed for more than two years. Even if the mother is strictly vegan, she still produces whey protein to provide for the robust needs and health of her offspring.
All other proteins are fine as a matter of variety and a source of amino acids, but whey is the most popular for a good reason.
What: If your goal is to get bigger and stronger, any whey protein concentrate (WPC) will do just fine. If you're following a carb- or fat-restricted diet, or if you have a genuine lactose allergy, then reach for a whey protein isolate (WPI).
A hydrolyzed ("pre-digested") WPC or WPI, though more expensive, can also be used if you typically get an upset stomach by consuming dairy proteins, or if you want more insulin response. Plus, some evidence suggests that extensively hydrolyzed forms of whey may promote greater fat burning than other forms of whey. Data is equivocal if moderately hydrolyzed whey can provide the same benefit, and no quality data supports any advantage of using minimally hydrolyzed whey.
How: The majority of the studies support consuming at least 20 grams of whey per serving, at least once, but possibly multiple times per day. To help reduce appetite and lower blood glucose response to a meal, drink a whey shake at least 30 minutes prior to eating a meal. Around exercise, there's really no wrong or conclusively right time to consume whey: pre-, intra-, or post-workout. Each has its potential benefit, depending upon other factors. The main point is, consuming whey around the time of your workouts can amplify the positive effects of your training.
How And Why To Take Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Why: In addition to being a source of caloric energy, fatty acids (FAs) are something every cell in your body uses as the foundation of its fluid membrane. Since cells are constantly being rebuilt and destroyed, you can hopefully understand why having a diet high in essential FAs (EFAs) is necessary to support optimal health and fitness.
FAs are also critical as metabolic precursors for hormones and they help your immune system operate properly. Notably, when consumed in adequate amounts and ratios to other FAs, certain FAs provide a potent anti-inflammatory response which is necessary to recover rapidly from intense workouts or the stress that occurs because of inadequate sleep, a poor diet, or other environmental and lifestyle stressors.
In one well-designed study, when 4 grams per day of a certain FA was consumed in the absence of any other nutrients, there was no direct effect on stimulating muscle protein synthesis or pathways that lead to increased muscle growth in healthy, but physically inactive men and women. However, when blood levels of insulin and amino acids were increased, the EFA supplement increased the anabolic effects by approximately 50 percent over what occurred in response to just the insulin plus amino acids.
The upshot for you: EFAs don't just offer great benefits on their own, they also make other nutrients work even better.
What: Omega-3s are particularly important forms of EFAs, should be supplemented regularly, and occur in higher concentration in fish than plants. Fish-derived omega-3s also yield a higher concentration of two powerhouse EFAs, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
When buying an omega-3 supplement, reach for those that provide the FAs in natural triglyceride, or free fatty acid form. The other most popular options include ethyl ester, concentrates, or "pharmaceutical grade" forms, all of which are required in higher doses to provide comparable rises in blood levels of what occurs in response to lower doses of the naturally occurring form. Even then, the ethyl esters don't appear as consistently or nearly as effective as when omega-3s are provided as free fatty acids.[5,6]
How: To support a healthy inflammatory response to exercise and other forms of physiological stress, as well as to support mood and mental health, and promote a healthy heart and healthy-looking skin, consume at least 2.8 grams per day of combined EPA and DHA, in about a 1.75:1.00 ratio of EPA to DHA.
Also, the more processed grains, refined vegetable oils, eggs and other poultry, red meat, pork products, cheese and other forms of dairy that you consume, the more your fat intake will tilt toward omega-6s. This increases the need for omega-3s to achieve a healthy ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. An even 1:1 to not more than a 4:1 ratio is optimal; a typical Western diet is in excess of 18:1 omega-6s to omega-3.
How And Why To Take A Multi-Phytochemical Or Greens Supplement
Why: Less than a decade ago, the vast majority of college-level nutrition textbooks considered plant-based foods as little more than sources of calories, major nutrients (e.g., carbs, fat, protein), fiber, and the essential vitamins and minerals. But partly due to the continued growth of integrative and alternative medicine and osteopathic medicine programs, a wide range of new (and ancient) plants have burst into the mainstream.
Hopefully the textbooks ten years from now will have caught up to what nutrition experts in the trenches are realizing more every day: namely, that phytochemicals (secondary metabolites from plant-based sources) have the potential to unlock a world of optimal health and fitness benefits.
What: Given how different phytochemical supplements can be, it's hard to make sweeping conclusions. As a very general rule, most powdered forms of botanicals and their constituent major categories of phytochemicals (e.g., phenolic compounds) are of limited efficacy in doses of less than about three grams per day, and most sub-categories of those major phytochemicals (e.g., total flavonoids) require you take at least 500 milligrams per serving to reap their true benefits. Sure, there are exceptions, like when the alkaloid caffeine is isolated and extensively concentrated from its original source.
In lieu of giving any specific recommendations, I'd advise to take a product, but not stick with it for more than 6-12 weeks. Some of the major and sub-categories of phytochemicals to look for include:
Terpenoids (carotenoids, triterpenoids, and phytosterols)
Phenolic compounds, including:
- Aromatic acids
- Polyphenols (flavonoids, flavan-3-ols, anthocyanidins, and anthocyanins)
How: There's no one-size-fits-all dosage strategy that works across every category and sub-category of phytochemical. But many phytochemicals have been found to be more effective when consumed with food. For a few examples, omega-3s, vitamin C, and the beneficial active ingredients endemic to spicy foods have been shown to increase the bioavailability of some of the most beneficial, but least absorptive, phytonutrients.
How And Why To Take A Probiotic
Why: Unlike bad bacteria strains like Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli that can make you sick or worse if they enter your digestive system in high enough numbers, there's a growing list of good bugs that should take up residency within your body if you're to maintain optimal health.
Consuming a wide variety of fresh or lightly cooked organic fruits and vegetables can do wonders for supporting a healthy and diverse population of beneficial bacteria, and that's where your strategy should start. But unfortunately, the environment you live in, how you respond to stress, your lifestyle and diet, eating processed foods, and a wide host of chemicals (including high-intensity sweeteners—both "natural" and artificial) can beat the life out of these gut good-guys.
What: The lactobacilli and bifidobacteria strains of probiotics are the most common that you'll find in almost all supplements. Current recommendations are that you cycle between products that contain a variety of different probiotic strains, because once you get enough good bugs in your system and consume a sound diet with ample variety, the good guys will multiply on their own.
Therefore, like a healthy society, you want to increase the diversity and the total number of good guy bugs as opposed to just supporting a single homogenous sub-population. Also, only choose probiotics from companies that will provide a guarantee of the total number of active "colony-forming units" (CFUs) for each of the probiotic strains listed on the product, all the way up to the product's expiration date. Otherwise, it's very likely that what was originally in the supplement has decreased dramatically since manufacturing.
How: Consume probiotics with meals or snacks high in plant (vegetable and fruit) polyphenols, other phytochemicals, omega-3s, and other "good" fats.
- Norman, A. W. (2008). From vitamin D to hormone D: fundamentals of the vitamin D endocrine system essential for good health. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 88(2), 491S-499S.
- Tomlinson, P. B., Joseph, C., & Angioi, M. (2015). Effects of vitamin D supplementation on upper and lower body muscle strength levels in healthy individuals. A systematic review with meta-analysis. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 18(5), 575-580.
- Lockwood, C. M., Roberts, M. D., Dalbo, V. J., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Kendall, K. L., Moon, J. R., & Stout, J. R. (2017). Effects of hydrolyzed whey versus other whey protein supplements on the physiological response to 8 weeks of resistance exercise in college-aged males. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 36(1), 16-27.
- Smith, G. I., Atherton, P., Reeds, D. N., Mohammed, B. S., Rankin, D., Rennie, M. J., & Mittendorfer, B. (2011). Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids augment the muscle protein anabolic response to hyperinsulinaemia–hyperaminoacidaemia in healthy young and middle-aged men and women. Clinical Science, 121(6), 267-278.
- Offman, E., Marenco, T., Ferber, S., Johnson, J., Kling, D., Curcio, D., & Davidson, M. (2013). Steady-state bioavailability of prescription omega-3 on a low-fat diet is significantly improved with a free fatty acid formulation compared with an ethyl ester formulation: the ECLIPSE II study. Vascular Health and Risk Management, 9, 563.
- Offman, E., Davidson, M., Abu-Rashid, M., Chai, P., & Nilsson, C. (2017). Systemic bioavailability and dose proportionality of omega-3 administered in free fatty acid form compared with ethyl ester form: Results of a phase 1 study in healthy volunteers. European Journal of Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics, 42(5), 815-825.
- DiNicolantonio, J. J., & O'Keefe, J. H. (2018). Importance of maintaining a low omega–6/omega–3 ratio for reducing inflammation. Open Heart, 5(2), e000946.