You have been exercising regularly for a while. Now you are starting to wonder if you might need to add a few workout supplements to your routine to speed up recovery or improve performance. You may not know what to take since there are a lot of options! Which of the many workout supplements do you really need?
Why Do You Need Workout Supplements?
First, do you even need workout supplements? The short answer is that it depends on your workout. If you are going for a 30-minute walk or doing a light yoga class, then you probably don’t need any additional supplements. You will just need to stay hydrated.
However, if you are weight training, doing high-intensity cardio, or exercising for longer than 30 minutes at a time, you may want to consider a few supplements to help improve your performance and keep you well fueled.
To perform it’s best during your workout, your body needs four nutrients:
- An energy source- carbohydrates. Or fat, if you are on keto.
- Protein- for muscle recovery and repair.
- Water- start hydrated and replace what is lost during exercise.
- Electrolytes- particularly important if you exercise for more than an hour or in the heat.
You may need more or less of these four nutrients depending on the type of workout, the intensity, and the weather.
If your goal is to build muscle and increase performance, you may want to consider a pre-workout supplement. Before you exercise, your body needs to be well-hydrated and have some type of energy source to burn. Your pre-workout supplement routine should focus on these two factors. Here is what you want to look for:
There are many different pre-workout blends available on the market. These products include a variety of ingredients, such as creatine, branched-chain amino acids, quick-acting carbohydrates, caffeine, beta-alanine, and other nutrients found to help support intense physical activity, provide energy, or muscle function.
Many of these ingredients are backed by science as performance enhancers. Here are a few highlights and benefits of a few common ingredients in pre-workout blends:
- Creatine. Creatine is a popular supplement among weight training athletes that can increase muscle and strength gain. Regular use of creatine has been found to increase strength by 5-15%.
- Quick-acting carbohydrates. Quick-acting carbohydrates, like glucose, provide energy for your workouts. But, if you are on keto, that is not an option. As an alternative, consider taking MCT oil before a workout instead, which also helps provide quick-energy.
- Caffeine. Caffeine has been extensively studied for making exercise easier, delaying fatigue, and increasing performance, particularly for cardiovascular exercise. If you are weight training, you may not see as much of an effect with caffeine. Tolerance to caffeine depends on the person. If you already know too much caffeine makes you jittery, then limit your intake to 150mg or less.
- Beta-alanine. Beta-alanine is an amino acid that helps delay fatigue during high-intensity exercise. It neutralizes the muscle burning sensation, so you can workout harder.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids
Certain amino acids called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) have been found to be beneficial for muscle building and recovery. When taken before a workout, they help reduce fatigue and increase muscle synthesis.
A 2017 study gave weight training subjects either 0.087 g/kg of BCAAs or a placebo before a squat workout. Those who received the BCAAs had increased strength and reported decreased muscle soreness compared to the placebo group.
Hydration and Electrolytes
Although water is technically not a “supplement,” it is critical that you be well-hydrated before you start your workout. If you are not exercising in the heat or extreme temperatures, you want to drink between 8-12 ounces of water one to two hours before you start.
If you haven’t exercised for at least 12 hours, it’s not too hot, and you are well-hydrated, you don’t need to add electrolytes to your pre-workout supplement routine. If you are dehydrated, planning on a workout longer than an hour, or it is very hot, you may want to consider adding an electrolyte powder to your pre-workout water.
Once you are done with your workout, support muscle repair, and recovery. Here are a few muscle recovery supplements you may want to consider:
After your workout, your main focus is to provide fuel so that your muscles can repair themselves and become stronger. Without proper fuel after your workout, your muscles will start to break down, which is the last thing you want!
Whey protein is hands down the best post-workout muscle recovery supplement. Whey contains all nine essential amino acids and is also rich in BCAAs. It has been extensively studied for its ability to support muscle recovery, increase lean body mass, and encourage fat loss.
Whey protein isolate is the most concentrated form of whey protein with the least amount of carbohydrates and fat. Aim to get 20-30 grams within an hour of your workout for optimal muscle refueling.
Branched-chain Amino Acids
If you are supplementing with BCAAs before your workout, you don’t need to take more after you’re done exercising, particularly if you are choosing to take whey, which is rich in BCAAs.
BCAAs are a critical muscle recovery supplement. There are three BCAAS: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Leucine, in particular, has been found to be critical for muscle repair and recovery as it stimulates the release of muscle building hormones.
A 2010 study evaluated the impact of BCAAs on muscle soreness after a squat workout. Participants drank either a BCAA solution or a placebo beverage before completing seven sets of 20 squats each. The reported soreness three days after the workout in the BCAA group was significantly less compared to the placebo group. The BCAA group also retained more muscle strength.
If you are taking whey protein after your workout, you don’t need BCAAs. Choose the one product that works best for you.
Hydration and Electrolytes
Although you should hydrate during your workout, if possible, you will also need to drink more water after you exercise.
Ideally, post-workout hydration is based on how much water you have lost. If you can weigh yourself before and after, you can gauge how much you need. You want to drink 24 ounces of water for every pound lost during exercise.
If your exercise isn’t that intense, or you haven’t lost any weight, consider drinking an additional 16-24 ounces of fluid on an exercise day to help stay hydrated. If you exercised in hot weather, consider adding an electrolyte powder to your water as well.
Choosing the Best Workout Supplements for You
Now that you are aware of a few options for pre- and post-workout supplements, how do you choose what’s best for you?
First, figure out your primary goal. If you are focused on building muscle, you need BCAAs and whey protein; they allow you to work out harder and support muscle repair.
If your primary goal is weight loss, you may want to drop the BCAAs, as they provide additional calories. Consider taking whey protein after your workout.
Finally, if you just want to improve your fitness level, a pre-workout blend with caffeine and whey protein can help you reach your goals.
Hydration is critically important for all types of exercise, especially if you are doing high-intensity cardio or exercising in the heat.
Finding your ideal pre-workout and muscle recovery supplements may take a bit of experimentation. The best way to figure out what works for you is to evaluate how you feel before, during, and after your workout when you take the supplement. If you find it does help you work out harder or feel less sore after you exercise, keep taking it!