By Steven Stiefel
Many sports supplements provide benefits for improving your workouts and the results you get. Over time, some supplements have been upgraded or reformulated, often offering you options. Most importantly, research has often determined benefits of specific nutrients (vitamin D3 compared to vitamin D), and supplement companies have responded, reformulating their multi-ingredient products to give you the biggest bang for your buck.
Research has also demonstrated the synergistic effect that one supplement has on another. For example, creatine and beta-alanine are both great supplements on their own for supporting increased strength and muscle growth, but science shows that they work better together. All the supplements on our list are valuable in their own right, but we’ve shown you how to upgrade the supplements you’re currently taking for even better results.
Supplement: Vitamin D
Primary Benefits: This fat-soluble vitamin is known for supporting health in many different ways. “Research shows that taking in plenty of vitamin D may help fight diabetes by reducing unwanted effects of insulin, and it also helps calcium concentrations in muscle for strong contractions,” says Luke R. Bucci, Ph.D. CCN, CNS, author, Nutrients as Ergogenic Aids for Sports and Exercise.
Upgrade To: Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) in oil (softgel form)
Reason: The D3 version is particularly beneficial for increasing strength, boosting testosterone levels and improving immunity, which helps support better recovery. “Vitamin D3 controls calcium, which is used as an intracellular messenger, making sure there is enough to go around for what cells normally do,” Bucci says. This includes making sure that calcium is available for muscle-contraction cycles. Bucci explains that taking vitamin D3 in oil helps absorption and notes that you should make sure you’re getting D3, not D2, which is somewhat less effective.
Get Dosed: For best results, take at least 4,000 IU of vitamin D3 per day. Doses less than 10,000 IU per day are safe, but no better than 4,000 to 5,000 IU. “You can check your body status by getting a doctor to order a 25(OH)D blood test,” Bucci says. “You want high-normal ranges to keep vitamin D3 and calcium working for you.”
Supplement: Whey Protein
Primary Benefit: Whey protein is a fast-digesting protein source that gets to work almost immediately, providing your body with the aminos it needs for physiological processes and the muscle tissue you’re training. After workouts, whey quickly supplies amino acids to start the repair process caused by intense training.
Upgrade With: An equal amount of casein protein
Reason: Before and after workouts you need protein, and the science has long supported whey’s effectiveness in this regard. Recent research shows that casein, the slow-digesting fraction of milk protein, delivers results equivalent to whey when taken after workouts. Casein releases amino acids for longer than whey, continuing to stimulate muscle growth. Prior research shows that a combination of whey consumed after workouts is better than either alone, giving you the benefits of both immediate and sustained delivery.
Get Dosed: You can take a mix of whey and casein proteins before and after workouts, getting in an amount that serves your protein needs based on what you’ve recently ingested, the intensity of your training and your body weight. As a rule of thumb, consume about 0.25 grams of protein for every pound of bodyweight both before and after your workouts, and split these evenly between whey and casein. In other words, a 180-pounder should get in about 45 grams of protein both before and after training. That works out to about one scoop of whey and one scoop of casein per dose from most protein powders, unless your product contains both sources.
Supplement: Multivitamin and -mineral
Primary Benefits: Taking a multivitamin and -mineral every day provides a range of nutrients to help make sure that you don’t have any deficits in your nutrition program. This also boosts immunity, helps you recover from training and supports muscle growth.
Upgrade With: ZMA (zinc magnesium aspartate)
Reason: Many athletes and bodybuilders have low levels of some minerals, including zinc and magnesium, even if they take a multi. That’s because these minerals are easily lost through intense training and sweat. While you may be taking a multivitamin and -mineral, that doesn’t necessarily help boost the levels of these minerals. “Your body preferentially takes in calcium over magnesium and zinc, reducing absorption of these other minerals,” Bucci says. That’s true even when you’re already low in them. ZMA was designed to help you overcome this physiological quirk. It also supports better sleep and exercise performance.
Get Dosed: Take your multivitamin and -mineral in the morning or earlier in the day with a meal. Then take a dose of ZMA (usually containing about 450 milligrams of magnesium and 30 milligrams of zinc) on an empty stomach before you go to bed. If you want to get in a bedtime snack, take your ZMA about 30 minutes before eating or drinking a protein shake (which is likely high in calcium). That will give the zinc and magnesium time to absorb.
Supplement: Fish Oil
Primary Benefit: Fish oil is one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, the healthy fats that are scarce in the diets of most Americans. While eating foods that are high in healthy fats is helpful, it typically isn’t enough. That’s because most foods have many more omega-6s than omega-3s. And, while the omega-6s are beneficial, we get more than enough and sometimes too much. Supplementing with fish oil helps to correct this problem. Omega-3s are beneficial for many reasons: They help fight cancer, support heart health and reduce inflammation. In addition, they provide numerous athletic and physique benefits, such as burning body fat, driving muscle growth and supporting joints.
Upgrade To: Krill oil
Reason: Krill oil is a specific form of omega-3s — derived from tiny crustaceans that reside at the bottom of the food chain. This is important for ecological and health reasons: Krill harvested from Antarctic waters have less contaminants because their food supply and environment are far less tainted than other aquatic sources of omega-3s. In addition, “krill oil is more bioavailable, allowing your body to absorb more omega-3s because krill oil mixes easily with water,” Bucci says. “The phosphatidyl form of omega-3s, more plentiful in krill than other fish sources, is the precise type of omega-3 molecules our bodies use in cell membranes.”
Get Dosed: For best results, take up to 1 gram of krill oil at whole-food meals throughout day, getting a total of up to 2 grams per day.
Supplement: Creatine Monohydrate
Primary Benefits: This amino acid compound has long been the most popular sports supplement for those seeking increases in strength, performance and muscle mass. Creatine works through a few different mechanisms. First, it donates phosphate to your ATP cycle, the form of energy that helps your muscles fire — that’s why you’re able to lift more weight and perform more reps when you supplement creatine. Next, creatine pulls more fluid into muscle cells, which also helps make them stronger, and it boosts IGF-1 to help support longer, more anabolic phases.
Upgrade With: Beta-alanine
Reason: Beta-alanine is an amino acid that significantly strengthens creatine’s benefits. Beta-alanine combines with histidine, another amino acid, to form carnosine, which helps make you stronger and more resistant to fatigue, allowing you to lift more weight for longer periods. “Carnosine is a reservoir for zinc and also a buffer to soak up excess acid produced during intense exercise,” Bucci states. Research shows the combination of creatine and beta-alanine is better than either alone.
Get Dosed: For best results, take 3 to 5 grams of creatine monohydrate before and after workouts for a total of up to 10 grams per day. Combine these doses with 1 to 2 grams of beta-alanine for a total of up to 4 grams per day.
Primary Benefit: Arginine is an amino acid that’s necessary to produce nitric oxide (NO), a gas molecule that allows blood vessels to relax so that more blood, oxygen and nutrients are delivered to working muscle tissue. Arginine also boosts growth hormone levels and insulin release.
Upgrade With: Citrulline
Reason: While you need arginine to support NO production, citrulline may be even more crucial than arginine itself because it converts to arginine, and recent research indicates that citrulline supplementation increases arginine and NO levels more effectively than arginine supplementation. However, research also shows that taking a combination of arginine and citrulline may be even more effective in boosting NO levels than taking either alone.
Get Dosed: To enhance muscle pumps, take 3 to 5 grams of arginine about 30 minutes before weight training. Add 3 grams of citrulline to support maximal arginine production and NO conversion.
Primary Benefits: This stimulant heightens the central nervous system response, allowing you to lift more weight for longer. Caffeine also works as a fat burner, activating the release of stored body fat. When you take caffeine before workouts, your body releases fat that can then be burned as fuel to boost strength and endurance. In addition, caffeine improves focus.
Upgrade With: Green tea extract
Reason: Green tea extract is also an excellent fat burner and a great companion to supplemental caffeine. Green tea burns fat by increasing your body’s metabolic rate, the amount of calories you naturally burn. “It does so because it contains epigallocatechin gallate [EGCG], a thermogenic [fat-burning] catechin, that helps prevent norepinephrine — a stimulating brain hormone that signals cells to burn fat — from being broken down,” Bucci says. While caffeine releases fat from storage, green tea extract helps assure that the fat will be burned as fuel instead of moved back into storage.
Get Dosed: Take 200 to 400 milligrams of caffeine about two hours before your workouts. You can do this by ingesting coffee, strong green tea or anhydrous (dry) caffeine. Add in 500 milligrams of green tea extract standardized for EGCG. “Note that caffeine blocks and reduces creatine uptake into muscles,” Bucci says. Separating caffeine and creatine by an hour dodges this effect.
Supplement: Whey Concentrate
Primary Benefit: This is among the least expensive forms of whey protein, and it’s readily available. When whey protein is processed, many of the carbs and fats are removed, yet some remain in the concentrated form. Generally, concentrated forms derive about 70 percent of their calories from protein. In addition, the protein molecules in concentrates tend to retain their longer amino configurations, making them larger and, often, bioactive. This means that these molecules often play a direct role in physiological processes such as boosting immunity. But they need to be broken down and reconfigured to more directly support muscle building.
Upgrade With: Whey hydrolysates
Reason: “Hydrolysates are proteins broken down into much smaller units of two to three amino acids per piece,” Bucci says. Many of these small molecules are able to be transferred directly into your intestinal cells — more quickly even than single, free-form amino acids — making them available to support muscle tissue and recovery as quickly as possible. Many whey isolate products derive 90 percent or more of their calories from protein. However, they don’t provide as many bioactive proteins as concentrates do. In addition, hydrolysates spur a stronger insulin response, an effect many athletes seek post-workout but may want to avoid at other times of day.
Get Dosed: In a perfect world, you probably want to emphasize hydrolysates around your workouts and other forms of whey throughout the day. Many protein products contain a blend of hydrolysates and concentrates (as well as isolates), and these deliver the advantages of both.