Only people willing to work to the point of discomfort on a regular basis using effective means to produce that discomfort will actually look like they have been other-than-comfortable most of the time. You can thank the muscle magazines for these persistent misconceptions, along with the natural tendency of all normal humans to seek reasons to avoid hard physical exertion. – Mark Rippetoe
Who doesn’t love supplements? Or that feeling of going in to a supplement store and looking at all the shiny things with pictures of muscles, improvised explosive devices, and fierce animals on them. It’s like a candy store for lifters, and if the market is any indication, people like it that way. In the UK alone, the supplement industry is worth more than ninety-one million pounds as of 2009.1
These figures should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with coaching or training noobs. They’re always looking for some silver bullet to get ahead. It is a hard sell to tell people that 99% of it comes down to lifting heavy things, moving quickly, eating right, and sleeping well.
Or, as Rip puts it so succinctly above, being uncomfortable. Even advanced athletes can fall in to this trap, but again, it’s understandable. It ain’t easy to be swole, and between working a full time job, looking after any kids you may have, and paying enough attention to your SO that they don’t mind your weird tendency to consume all your meals in shake form, it can be tempting to optimize your gainzZz by consuming the newest formulation of deer antler fur and pine pollen, or whatever new supplement Tim Ferriss is promising will turn you in to a six-packed-pizza-eating-polyglot-love-machine.
But we all know deep deep down that most of it is garbage. People have been getting jacked for millenia without needing beta-alanine and a peri-workout shake to do it.
Sandow being a notable example,
Eiferman being another,
and the Navvies rounding out the field. Navvies were “expected to be able to lift nearly twenty tons of earth per day onto a wagon, using a shovel. It was acknowledged that the toughest agricultural workers were completely incapable of keeping up with seasoned navvies; it took a year to turn a man into a navvy, a human machine fuelled by meat and beer, the most obdurate specimen of human brawn the world has ever seen, and one of the most universally despised by the rest of society.” 2
While Brunel was lounging in Clifton, the navvies were out, drinking 15 pints of beer a day, eating a ton of meat, and building the rail lines that underpin England to this day.
That’s right. Beer and meat.
For more fun, let’s take a look at the Saxon Trio, some of the first celebrity strongmen on the Vaudeville circuit.
“For breakfast they ate 24 eggs and 3 pounds of smoked bacon; porridge with cream, honey, marmalade and tea with plenty of sugar. At three o’clock they had dinner: ten pounds of meat was consumed with vegetables (but not much potatoes); sweet fruits, raw or cooked, sweet cakes, salads, sweet puddings, cocoa and whipped cream and very sweet tea. Supper, after the show, they had cold meat, smoked fish, much butter, cheese and beer. Following this they had a chat and at one o’clock went to bed.” 3
With a 203kg two hands overhead anyhow, I think Arthur Saxon did alright without beta-alinine. Though he did drink a shake made of stout, gin, egg yolk, and sugar. 4
The point of all this isn’t to suggest we all start replicating the navvy diet, but just to show that even in sub-optimal conditions, the human body is capable of astounding levels of muscular development, strength, and endurance.
So why the supplements? Because some of them do work. If you’ve read my posts in the past, you’ll know that I’m not a fan of the natural for its own sake. There are some supplements out there that you really should explore. However, the supplement industry itself is a clusterfuck of false advertising, snake oil, overhyped data, and broken hopes and dreams.
Part of it is the fault of muscle magazines and websites like T-Nation. Funded largely by companies wanting to advertise supplements, it is extremely unlikely to find an unbiased opinion regarding supplements from either of these sources, or an editorial advising the reader to buy a cheaper option when more expensive ones exist.
In large part though, the fault lies with the failure of regulators. In the UK, supplements merely have to be shown to be safe for human consumption according to the 1990 Food Safety Act5 and the EU’s Food Supplements Directives Act.6 So long as they don’t make medical claims (ie: cures diabetes), companies can say just about anything (ie: burns fat, increases lean mass), and there is little in the way of proof that they need to offer. Things are looser still in the US, and a recent study by the New York Attorney General’s Office found 79% of supplements tested lacked the primary ingredient on the label.7
Even more insidious is protein spiking.
Protein spiking is where a protein manufacturer adds amino acids that are cheaper than the base protein powder it’s actually selling in order to increase the product’s nitrogen content. When this is done, the company is able to lower the cost of goods. A basic test for total nitrogen is often used to quantify the amount of protein per serving, and this test can be cheated by using cheap amino acids to spike the nitrogen content. The problem is that the inclusion of odd amino acids usually has nothing to do with increasing the performance of the whole protein itself, and it usually makes key ratios such as BCAA content go down, which is a total rip-off.8
So what’s a lifter to do? If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that my usual answer is to look at the evidence, but really, that’s what I’m paid to do so you don’t have to. Thus, for the next few weeks, we will be looking at what supplements actually work, with a focus on getting the best bang for your buck. In this first installment, we’ll be getting to my personal favorite organic acid, creatine.
Good ol’ creatine. A performance enhancer, muscle builder, and nootropic. I think Kurtis Frank puts it best: “If humans didn’t make any in the body, this thing would be a vitamin.”9 It is the most studied sports supplement in existence, and yet I still have to hear an earful from my mother every time she finds out I’m using it.
It is, however, not a steroid (organic chemistry 101 people), it doesn’t cause kidney damage even in populations with a single kidney,10 it doesn’t cause cancer and in fact lessens the side effects of the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin,11 and it probably won’t make you go bald. Probably.
In layman’s terms, creatine works by facilitating the body’s production of ATP. ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, is the most easily accessed form of cellular energy. When a phosphate group is cleaved from ATP, it is converted into adenosine diphosphate, or ADP, and energy is released. You know that gassed feeling you get when you’re on rep 4 or 5 of a heavy set? It comes from a lack of ATP. Creatine, when stored in the body as creatine phosphate, provides a readily accessible phosphate group for the conversion of ADP back in to ATP.
- Increases power output.12
- Increases neuromuscular function (as measured by peak torque [+34%] and time to reach peak torque [-54.7%].13
- Increases muscular endurance in trained athletes.14
- Increases testosterone when combined with weight training more than weight training on its own.15
- Decreases cortisol when combined with weight training more than weight training on its own.16
So I think it’s safe to say that you should be getting your hands on some. Of especial interest to weightlifters should be point 2, since a reduction of time to reach peak torque can do loads for helping your snatch and clean.
Luckily for you, the most effective form of creatine also happens to be the cheapest. None of the fancy creatines advertised on T-Nation or in muscle magazines has ever been shown to be more effective than creatine monohydrate.17 Ordering online, you can get a 1 kilo bag of the stuff that should last more than half a year, and will come out to .05 pence per 5g serving.
A lot is made out of loading protocols and the need to cycle, but most of it is horseshit invented by supplement manufacturers looking for a marketing gimmick. Since people cycle steroids, perhaps they thought that telling people they had to cycle creatine as well because “omg the gainzZz” seemed like a good ploy. If you really want to load, or are a vegetarian, .3g per kg bodyweight a day for a week should do it. Otherwise, 5g daily, taken with a meal, is adequate.
That about covers it for this installment. In part two, we’ll be looking at protein supplements and vitamin D. If you’d like to suggest a supplement for part three, hit us up on our facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/BristolWeightliftingClub
1. Soteriou, Helen. Muscle supplement industry going mainstream. BBC News, 15th February, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12277808
3, 4. Gaudreau, Leo. THE SAXON TRIO: What they ate & how they trained. Muscle Power Magazine, date unknown.
5. Vitamins and Supplements – UK – September 2014. Retrieved from: http://store.mintel.com/vitamins-and-supplements-uk-september-2014 March 3rd, 2015
7. Salzberg, Steven. A Really Bad Week for the Supplements Indusry. Forbes Online, February 2nd, 2015
10. Gualano B., et al. Effect of short-term high-dose creatine supplementation on measured GFR in a young man with a single kidney. Am J Kidney Dis. (2010)
11. Santos RV., et al. Chronic supplementation of creatine and vitamins C and E increases survival and improves biochemical parameters after Doxorubicin treatment in rats. Clin Exp Pharmacol Physiol. (2007)
12. Kendall KL et al. Effects of four weeks of high-intensity interval training and creatine supplementation on critical power and anaerobic working capacity in college-aged men.
13. Bazzucchi I., et al. Effect of short-term creatine supplementation on neuromuscular function. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Oct;41(10):1934-41.
14. Chilibeck PD., et al. Effect of in-season creatine supplementation on body composition and performance in rugby union football players.
15, 16. Arazi H., et al Effects of short term creatine supplementation and resistance exercises on resting hormonal and cardiovascular responses Science & Sports