Top Supplements For Strength
By Dain Wallis
As a Nutrition Coach and Strongman competitor, I’m constantly being asked about the best supplements for increasing strength. Before delving into such a topic, it’s important to understand the reality of investing in supplements:
Supplements do not make you stronger, nor are supplements a substitute for adequate sleep, an intelligent training plan or a healthy diet. Supplements are beneficial only when these first three items are in line and under control. Without a solid foundation, there is nothing to actually “supplement”; you’ll be buying pills and powders and flushing them down the toilet.
With this in mind, there are a handful of supplements that can help dedicated individuals more efficiently chase their goal of increasing strength.
The Obvious Kings: Creatine and Protein Supplementation
If you’re trying to gain strength and you haven’t yet considered creatine, you failed the test by simply forgetting to write down your name. Creatine is arguably the most well-research supplement on the planet. It’s something that our bodies produce naturally, it’s something we get in the diet from animal sources and it’s nothing but beneficial to overall health, both physically and cognitively. Although some will get more benefit from creatine than others (depending on genetics and diet; non-meat eaters stand to benefit the most), it is a supplement will enable you to super-compensate your tissues with the material that supplies your cells with energy required for the first 5 seconds of a heavy lift. Supplement with at least 5g daily, but if you feel like getting crazy and supplementing with more, I won’t blame you.
Muscles produce strength. Muscles are made of amino acids. Protein is made of amino acids. Ingesting protein decreases muscle breakdown and increases synthesis. Around workouts, taking a protein supplement like whey protein will enter the blood stream faster than whole food sources and will more effectively support your goals of preserving and growing muscle tissue. Furthermore, a 70kg male will turnover approximately 400g of protein daily. Does this mean you need to consumed 400g of protein daily? Absolutely not, but the more you consume the more you’ll support this turnover. Maintaining and growing lean muscle mass is the foundation of strength, and you can do this by consuming at least 1g or protein per pound of body weight daily and by consuming a minimum of 20g of protein every 3-4 hours.
Myth alert! Can the human body absorb more than 30g of protein in a meal? Absolutely it can; refer to the information above about daily protein turnover. The myth that the body cannot absorb more than 30g of protein per meal comes from the fact that muscle protein synthesis peaks at 20-30g per meal, but any amount of protein consumed on top of this is still absorbed and goes towards preventing further muscle breakdown, which is still extremely valuable.
The Overhyped and Abused: Caffeine
Although it’s true that caffeine is an ergogenic aid, this applies to muscular endurance, not muscular strength. Consuming caffeine pre-workout in an attempt to increase 1-RM strength is an exercise in futility- you may feel jacked up, but you are no stronger. Furthermore, if consumed later in the day, caffeine can negatively affect sleep quality which is detrimental to recovery, impairing important hormone production and limiting repair to muscle damage. To take things one step further, chronic overconsumption of caffeine will lead to tolerance and performance decreases brought on by adrenal fatigue. If you are using caffeine every training session, you’re stunting your gains.
The Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
This is cherry-picking a bit given that all animal protein sources contain the requisite BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine and valine) to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and to prevent breakdown. However, these supplemental protein building-blocks can be used strategically to keep lean mass high while keeping fat mass low, which in the long run can contribute to improved relative strength.
BCAAs enter the bloodstream quicker than protein supplements like whey. This makes BCAAs an excellent peri-workout beverage (easy on the gut during workouts), that has been shown to decrease muscle degradation and improve recovery post-workout. BCAAs are also an excellent tool for any athlete looking to lose body fat while simultaneously building muscle by drinking BCAAs between meals.
Note: BCAAS are not to be confused with glutamine. This amino does not help build muscle. It is a waste of money unless you have intestinal issues (in which case, glutamine can help).
The Anti-inflammatory: Fish oil
Perhaps my favourite under-the-radar supplement for building strength, fish oil is important because it can help reduce systemic inflammation. The standard North American diet is incredibly high in Omega-6 fatty acids, so supplementing with Omega-3 fish oil can help balance this ratio and reduce inflammation. When inflammation is reduced, cells communicate more freely and the environment is set for optimal strength development. Furthermore, lower inflammation results in less joint pain, which results in better movement and better workouts.
To add to this, studies indicate that high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids alone can lead to increased muscle protein synthesis, although the mechanism is unknown: possibly by changing the lipid fluidity of cell membranes to allow enhanced nutrient exchange, altered expression of amino acid transporters or due to the reduction in inflammation itself. In any case, we know that Omega-3s do excellent things for the body so the more you have in the diet, the better your chances are of getting strong.
Please note that supplementing with fish oil isn’t necessary if your diet is amazing and includes fatty fish several times per week while also limiting consumption of processed foods that contain inflammatory omega-6 oils. Fish oil is also useless if you continue to eat a diet high in inflammatory foods, as even high amounts won’t be enough to balance to an ideal ratio. Adding 1-2g of total fish oil daily (ie, 1-2 caps) is likely useless; aim for 1-2g of EPA and 1-1.5g of DHA daily, which yes, is about 10-15 standard fish oil caps.
The Wastes of Money: T-Boosters and NO Supplements
There are tons of things marketed to increase testosterone with no apparent consistency in what works and what doesn’t. Certain compounds, like Tribulus terrestris, can increase libido but this doesn’t equate to a rise in testosterone: the two can be independent of each other. There are some newer compounds being researched that have some promise (ashwagandha, bulbine, etc.) but the vast majority of T-boosters are a waste of money. Zinc citrate (as explained below) is far more important for testosterone production.
Nitric oxide is important in the human body, but nitric-oxide supplements (mostly based on arginine) have unreliable benefits: they can make you feel like you’re getting a better pump, but this has nothing to do with strength. Save your money and stick to the supplements that work.
Although all micronutrients are important, there are 4 that stand to be supplemented more than others for specific reasons:
ZMA (Magnesium and zinc): Magnesium is used by every cell in the human body and plays a critical role in maintaining muscle function and generating ATP for energy. It’s also lost readily through sweat, so athletes have a higher magnesium demand than the rest of the population. Zinc is required for the body to produce testosterone, growth hormone and IGF-1; the more zinc available, the more anabolic hormones you can produce. Given that magnesium is also a natural relaxant and sleep aid, this combination is perfect to take before bed to maximize recovery. I personally prefer buying my magnesium and zinc supplements separately so that I can regulate the dosage as I please and cherry pick the compounds with the best absorption (magnesium bisglycinate and zinc citrate), but there are some good ZMA supplements out there if you prefer.
Bonus for women, Vitamins B5 & B6: Women who train intensely rely heavily on their adrenals for recovery (due to a lack of testicles). B5 & B6 supplementation will allow women to train harder and help prevent under-recovering and overreaching.
Vitamin D: There’s been some interesting research popping up about Vitamin D and muscular strength and the bottom line is that if you’re deficient in vitamin D, you won’t be able to maximize your strength potential. If you live in a warm climate year-round you might not need supplementation, but athletes in Northern countries should absolutely be supplementing during the winter months. 2,000iu/day is a good place to start, but you can be more aggressive if you know you’re deficient.
Vitamin C: Although it is fairly easy to get enough vitamin C through whole foods, many people do a poor job with fruits and vegetables, and in turn Vitamin C intake will suffer. Vitamin C is essential for:
- The growth and repair of all tissues in the body
- Protecting the immune system and helping athletes recover from intense training
- Supporting hormonal ratios and getting testosterone high
If you aren’t consistent with your fruit & veg intake, a Vitamin C supplement is paramount; 500-1000mg per day is a good start!
What about Multivitamins you ask? Most MVs contain high amounts of the things you don’t need with little of what is important. If you have specific goals and need specific vitamins and minerals, don’t rely on a generic 1-size-fits-all pill. For best results, put your money into the individual micronutrients that are most important for you.
In a nutshell
- Get more than 7 hours of quality sleep every night, eat a diet rich in whole foods and train appropriately for your goals
- Consider supplementing with:
- Supplemental protein (if you aren’t meeting daily protein requirements)
- Fish oil (especially if you don’t eat fish several times a week)
- Zinc, magnesium, Vitamin D and Vitamin C
- Vitamins B5 and B6 (for women)
- Don’t waste your money on:
- NO supplements
- Testosterone Boosters
Athletes are constantly being inundated with new types of supplements but if a simple pill could magically produce strength, we’d all be taking it by now. If your focus is on trying to find some magic bullet, you’re wasting the energy you could be putting into better training and more efficient recovery. Hammer the basics, use supplements only when they have a proven direct impact on your specific goals, and you’ll be chasing strength gains as efficiently as possible.
Dain Wallis is a Nutrition & Strength Coach from Toronto, Canada, as well as a competitive Strongman in the 175 weight class. A graduate of the Physical & Health Education program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Dain holds a CSCS and is one of only 100 people worldwide with the Pn2 Advanced Nutrition Coaching certification. A Body IO® Coach as well as a contributor for several media outlets including Bodybuilding.com and The Huffington Post, Dain specializes in helping athletes achieve optimal body composition while continuing to drive health and performance. Dain placed Top-5 at the 2015 Arnold Strongman World Championships while coaching a fellow competitor to a Top-10 finish and is passionate about improving the overall quality of competition in the sport of Strongman.
If you are interested in training and/or nutrition services from Dain fill out the form HERE
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