First, a little about me. I am in my early forties. I have been lifting on and off since Jr High Football. During my teens and twenties, I ran track, played football, was a top competitive swimmer, and was on championship fencing and martial arts teams. I really started lifting consistently after graduating college, having gained some excess weight as the result of a serious back injury. Since then I have gained and lost muscle and body fat.
I have been in fantastic shape and also to the point that I would not take my shirt off in public. I have probably tried more supplements that most people will go through in their entire lives. I am not here to sway you with graphs and charts and scientific studies. There is a study to support any side of any argument that you want to make.
I have found what works for me, and I stick with it, trying new things as they come along. Based on my experience from years of lifting and my recent transition from hobbyist to competitor, here's what I can recommend.
From Hobbyist To Competitor
Being in my early forties, I have to stay within 15-20 lbs of stage ready condition or I'll lose too much muscle dieting down. People say you can't gain any "real" amount of muscle without putting on some excess body fat and smoothing out, but I've gained back 10+lbs of pure lean mass this year and kept my six pack in view the whole time. All of my lifts have gone up and I'm now more muscular and healthier than I was onstage last year after dieting down from a "bulked state."
I now have a pretty consistent diet and workout routine and am very in tune with what works and does not work for me. This includes diet, lifting, rest, food, and supplementation. Having bought supplements for over 20 years, I have to tell the younger crowd to SAY THANK YOU to these nutritional companies for making excellent products that don't taste like you should be using them to strip varnish of your old desk! Can anyone remember beef protein powder? Enough said.
If you're like me, you've got a busy day, a wife, maybe kids, and a full-time job. You may have figured out that morning is the best time you have available to get in those workouts. You are in good shape, but are looking to add lean mass and not put on so much fat that you cannot actually tell if you're adding muscle or just more fat. You know supplementation will help, but you know you can't hit the gym with a full shake or meal in you. You need something, but what?
As an early morning lifter there are several issues that you face which the evening lifter does not have to deal with.
Catabolic State & Morning Energy Levels
First off, we need to address two important issues: the catabolic state and morning energy levels.
You don't want to go to the gym, with the goal of building muscle, in a catabolic state. You want there to be some supply of nutrients available to feed the muscles you are working that day.
I recommend that you start with one of the many forms of BCAA powders available. My preference is SciVation Xtend as it does not upset my system at all. I can drink my 20 grams and do a full leg workout without it upsetting my stomach. There are many others, but for me, I need something that is basically transparent to my system at that hour.
Since Xtend is flavored and I sometimes mix the BCAA's with a preworkout stimulant drink powder, along with Xtend I can recommend the Essential Amino Acid blend Controlled Labs Purple Wraath, which not only has a good amino acid profile, but also some Beta Alanine. I also use Sci Fit BCAA 5000 unflavored powder.
I use 10-20 grams of BCAA's before every morning workout session, so I buy the Kilo size to save some money. I have also used Xtreme Formulations ICE with much success too. Another very good option here is the new IDS New Whey Liquid Protein. It is in a tube with about 3 oz of fluid and makes for a quick shot of protein that is very transparent to the stomach. However, it is pretty costly per serving.
Morning Energy Levels
Now that I have some nutrients ready to hit my system, I MUST WAKE UP! Come on people, you KNOW it's tough to drag your butt out of bed at 4:30am to head to the gym, facing certain pain and sweat. So I use several preworkout stimulants. My two favorites are Serious Nutrition Solutions Focus XT powder and SciVations Neurostim + C (I really LOVED the powder, but they discontinued it. Come on Marc—hint hint hint). Another one that is really good, although slightly expensive, is Athletic Edge's Steel Edge (which used to be called Gromax).
All of these give you energy, focus, and intensity without jitters. The flavored drinks will mix well with the BCAA's and will not upset your stomach at that early hour. A few honorable mentions in my book are:
- Black Star Labs GO
- IDS Kranker Powder (get the fruit punch flavor, trust me)
- And one of my wife's favorites—ErgoPharms AMP
A Little Edge
Now that I'm awake and have a few nutrients in the system, I'm looking for a little edge in the gym. Something to help me "push it" a bit.
There are SO MANY choices, that I'm going to narrow it down to creatine and nitric oxide enhancing choices. Most people have their favorites, but I'm going to list only the ones that have worked for me personally. I have tried MOST of the major brands, except some of the newer offerings and the ridiculously priced stuff.
These all must meet the same criteria as above, no upset stomach, no bloating, and must start working pretty quick.
Factoring these in, I automatically drop monohydrate from a 4:30am introduction to my stomach. I tend to bloat and get cramps from it and it never seemed to work very well for me. I still have a lot of choices and, having tried many of them, I must go with a Creatine Ethyl Ester product.
Some of the other forms I have tried were not much more effective for me than monohydrate; they just lacked the side effects. I prefer the CEE capsules because; let's face it, the powder tastes like battery acid. After trying about 8 different brands, I have landed on just a few that work well for me at the recommended dosage.
Serious Nutrition Solutions Creatine E2 and Creatine E2 Matrix and Axis Labs Creatine Ethyl Ester HCL. These do a great job at keeping the muscles full and have given noticeable and sustainable strength gains in a very short amount of time. The nice thing about the CEE is that it does not require a carbohydrate transport mechanism to pull it into the muscles. So no more high calorie, dextrose filled, "bloat me up" creatine mixes.
This allows me to use the CEE all the way through a prep, with little to no subcutaneous water retention, and none of the gastrointestinal problems that I see with monohydrate. Overall, it is a win for me. Honorable mention also goes to Primaforce CEE (although I must take more than the recommended dosage).
I have tried some others that were "a good deal" and found them to be somewhat ineffective and possibly tainted with monohydrate (as they would give my wife a migraine within 3-5 days of starting them. A monohydrate symptom with her). As with any form of creatine, the object is to keep water in the muscles, so proper hydration is the key to any success with creatine supplementation. You need to drink plenty of water if you lift heavy and lift regularly, but when using creatine, it is essential.
Nitric Oxide Stimulator Choices
This supplement brings up a minefield of controversy, purely subjective choices, and a lot of trashtalking. I have this to say, if you use a nitric oxide supp and it works for you, keep using it. If you think it is worthless, hey don't buy it. It seems to work very well for many people but not so well for others. You should always try something and find out on your own if it works for you.
I thought I was an NO non-responder too. I had tried most of the hyped products by the companies with pictures of pro bbr's in their ads and I really didn't get the whole thing. Then one day I got a bottle of IDS NP2 Thintabs. I decided to give them their fair shot of one week taking them consistently (one day does not a supplement success make). So I tried them, and the second workout with them was arms.
About halfway through my workout I noticed veins sticking out of my forearms were now running up my biceps, through my shoulders, and into my neck. I was soon unable to finish my standing DB curls as I finally got those "Mind-blowing pumps" everyone had always bragged about and I could no longer fully contract my arms.
Hmmm, I thought, I might want to continue this one. I had similar results, although not quite as extreme, while finishing the whole bottle. Unfortunately, IDS no longer makes this product, but they tell me they are working on a replacement. We'll see if it is as good.
After the experience with the IDS Thintabs, I tried a couple of the other "big brand name" products, again with little or no results. Then I got a sample of Serious Nutrition Solutions Arginine E2 Matrix to try with their Creatine E2 Matrix and those pumps were back.
I have also recently tried and been very pleased with Axis Labs NE2, Goliath Labs Groloid, and Shocker Nutritions NO Extreme. Why these work for me when others did not, I am not sure. But if you have been disappointed with NO products and want to try it one more time, the ones I've mentioned really work for me.
If you do not see one mentioned, chances are I tied it and got nothing from it. Although I have not tried EVERY one of them, I really have tried MOST of them, just ask my wife (my nickname is "supplement junkie").
I am paying less per serving, for all of the above supplements combined, than some people are paying for the newest "Supplement of the week." This preworkout stack works for me and I'm sticking with it. I am getting everything I need with this.
"Have It All":
I feel I must mention some of the "Have it all" powders. These have some CEE and N.O. stimulators, they taste good, and they are very affordable per serving. I may use these with unflavored BCAA's, stimulant caps, and maybe a half serving of CEE caps or N.O. caps. For some reason, at my size, I need to almost double the serving size of almost every powder, so I would opt to add some caps instead.
Serious Nutrition Solutions CVM Extreme, Dymatize Xpand, and Ultimate Nutrition Horse Power have proven themselves worthy, after many wasted dollars on supposedly comparable items. I also like ISS Research Satur8 Rush, but I must mix it with another powder or almost a full serving of caps. It has a very good energy hit, but I don't get great pumps from it alone.
The Orange Satur8 Rush and Orange CVM Extreme make an awesome combo.
MAN Sports Body Octane and the Lemon Flavored Horse Power are a perfect match as are Isatori H-Blocker and the Very Berry Xpand. Body Octane and H-Blocker do not fall into the above categories of Creatine or N.O Stimulators, but I have used both and they are both excellent products that do they job they claim, at the recommended dosages.
They both do an excellent job of delaying the onset of the lactic acid burn failure that you get when you push into high rep or final set territory. Flavor would be the determining factor for me as the Body Octane is citrus and H-Blocker is Fruit Punch. So blend accordingly. They both passed my one week early morning test which includes one heavy leg workout and the Group Power "squat til you puke" workout.
There are some other great powders and combinations that I will mention in an upcoming article for the evening lifter, but they just do not sit well during heavy workouts that early in the morning.
The last part of the equation for me is the post workout meal. I generally have a shake. One reason is that it is quick and easy; another is that it sits well following an intense workout.
I do not subscribe to the school that says you must have a ton of "massive insulin spiking, sleepy making, waist expanding" simple carbs in the PWO shake. Your muscles are hungry. Provide them with quality nutrients, a decent amount of simple and complex carbohydrates, and a good protein, and they will eat it up.
I prefer to use a combination of whey protein and a slower absorbing type such as calcium caseinate or egg white protein. I get plenty of fast acting, quickly absorbed protein this way, as well as a slower version to try and keep nitrogen levels steady for a few hours. I try to get these in a "protein only" form and mix this with a couple of scoops of rolled oats.
I will sometimes add a scoop of waxy maize type carbohydrate. I have found that if I use maltodextrin, dextrose, or another "quick hit" sugar source, I simply get sleepy and fat. I look for quality muscle gains that I can see. I can only see them if I don't get fat.
You can get creative with the shakes, add some REAL fruit in there, maybe some yogurt, but keep those oats in there for the fiber and the slower absorbing carbs to keep those blood sugar levels stable. No sense in doing a face plant into your keyboard at 9am because the simple sugars in your shake gave you the "blood sugar rollercoaster ride".
I also need another post workout stimulant in order to bounce my waning energy levels back up. Thermoloid, Neurostim+C, and Amp are all excellent choices for this and all work very well without giving me the jitters.
I've been lifting in the mornings now for almost 18 months, taking some time off and switching the workout times around, but winding up back at the gym at 5am eventually. This lifestyle has forced me to make good changes in my eating habits. It has made me get to bed earlier. It also promotes better sleep at night because I am actually tired at bedtime.
If you are a morning lifter, which a lot of you gainfully employed people are, I hope this article has helped direct you to some supplement choices that will work as well for you as they have for me.
Remember that none of these supplements will take the place of a good diet, plenty of rest, and a lot of serious hard work in the gym. If you are lacking the basics and you take these supplements hoping they will magically transform you into Ronnie or Jay, you will be sorely disappointed and it will not be the fault of the supplements. It will be your own fault. So Eat good, lift heavy, get plenty of sleep, and drink plenty of water. Supplements are designed to help AFTER you've gotten these points covered.
Good luck, until next time