With so many sports supplements out there, it’s hard to know which ones are legit. Let’s deep dive into the top four.
Creatine is regularly named as the most research-tested (and proven) supplement out there for strength and power athletes. Although it’s a totally natural substance, it wasn’t officially discovered until 1832. It has been subject of research ever since, and as a result there are more than 500 studies on creatine.
What is creatine?
Creatine is a naturally occurring substance that is stored in our muscles and some organs. We can get it from eating meat, but it’s much easier and more effective to take it via supplement form. And with 70% of those 500+ studies showing big benefits (and none of them showing any detrimental effects), it’s a no-brainer.
Creatine works by giving your muscles extra power when they have used up their stores of ATP (their primary energy source), by increasing your body’s natural capacity to produce ATP. Long story short, creatine in supplement form gives you power, strength, energy, and even better muscle pumps during relatively short bursts of training. This makes it particularly useful for strength training, HIIT, and team sports.
The most widely available form of creatine is creatine monohydrate, and you’ll be pleased to hear that this most basic form is also the best. Buy any quality creatine monohydrate (in powder, capsule, or tablet form) and just take 5g a day.
The science of creatine
There have been so many individual studies, research papers, reviews and meta-analyses done into the benefits of creatine for athletic people. This meta-analysis, from 2017, concluded that creatine supplementation during resistance training does improve lean tissue mass and some muscular strength measures (compared with resistance training without creatine) in older adults. (1)
A meta-analysis from 2019 looked at the effects of creatine supplementation on football players (2) and found that creatine improved performance in a number of physical tests, especially those relating to anaerobic power.
BCAA stands for branch chain amino acids, 3 of the 9 essential amino acids that your body can’t make from any other compound (so you need to get it from food or supplements).
What are branch chain amino acids
Protein is made of amino acids, and 9 of them are considered “essential” (because your body can’t make them from anything else). 3 of the essential amino acids are branch chained – hence being called BCAAs. These are leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
Do you need branch chain amino acids?
Of all the amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine have specific anabolic properties so they are particularly useful for strength athletes. But do you really need to get them in specific supplement form? A healthy, well-rounded diet with protein from lots of different foods should cover all your amino acid bases. And if you add a good protein powder into the mix, you really should be getting enough BCAAs anyway. But if you struggle to get enough protein, or if you eat a vegan or vegetarian diet, it might be smart to add a BCAA supplement.
Whey protein is probably the best-known sports supplement on the planet – even people who don’t train know that protein shakes exist. But what does science say about whey protein powder in particular?
What are the different types of whey protein
There are lots of types of protein powder (including vegan proteins) but whey protein remains the most widely available and most effective due to its levels of essential amino acids. Within whey protein, you can get whey protein concentrate (WPC), whey protein isolate (WPI) and whey protein hydrolysate (WPH). The differences lie in the filtration methods, which render WPI slightly higher in protein and lower in carbs and fat. For most of us, WPC is a more than adequate way to get more protein in to our diets.
There have been loads of studies done on whey protein supplementation for athletic adults and also for people who don’t train (after all, we all need protein). This 2017 double-blind study looked at how whey protein enhances whole body protein metabolism and recovery after strength training. (3)
Why is whey protein a good supplement
There is nothing inherently special about whey protein as a supplement. It is just a very convenient way to get more protein into your diet (without extra carbohydrate or fat macros). If you honestly find it easy to get optimal amounts of protein into your day – from a variety of sources to ensure the spectrum of amino acids – then carry on as you are.
But most of us struggle to get enough protein in, especially on busy days or when we rush from work to training and back again. That’s why whey protein is a useful nutritional tool. One scoop of WPC will give you 23g+ protein with minimal carbohydrates or fats. No fuss, no mess, no meal prep. Job done!
If any sports supplement category deserves a healthy dose of scepticism, it’s “pre workouts”. Pre-workout supplements are so varied in quality, format, and dosage with some being little more than a mishmash of micro dosed cheap ingredients.
However, there are a few ingredients that you’ll commonly find in pre-workouts which really do work. And one of the most effective is beta alanine.
What is beta alanine?
Beta alanine is one of the non-essential amino acids. Together with histidine, it produces carnosine in your body which is stored in the muscles where it helps improve athletic performance. This 2017 meta-analysis found increases in exercise capacity across the board when subjects supplemented with beta alanine. (4)
How does beta alanine work
Our muscles need carnosine for power and endurance. But we typically have low levels of beta alanine (without supplementation) which limits how much carnosine our bodies can produce.
Supplementing with beta alanine helps by increasing the amount of carnosine in our body, which in turn means we can buffer lactic acid to train for longer with more intensity.
4 science-backed sports supplements
You don’t need to over-complicate your supplement stack. Creatine monohydrate, a quality whey protein, beta alanine and maybe a BCAA supplement to get enough of those essential amino acids especially on training days is plenty.