How To Choose Exercise/Bodybuilding Supplements, Part 2: Supplements That Really Work

Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - 10:19am

By Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD

In the first part of this article, I covered some of the basics about being a smart consumer of exercise and bodybuilding supplements. I was pretty hard on the pills and potionsagain, most of them don’t work, or don’t work as well as a really good nutrition and activity plan. I hate to whack a deceased equine, but it’s worth saying again: There is no magic supplement, and nothing takes the place of eating and training properly. When I have a trainee who wants to supplement, I insist that they begin by increasing their consumption of antioxidant-rich colorful fruits and vegetables before purchasing anything else.

Which supplements should you buy?

Okay, you’re duly warned. Now, what is worth buying? For one thing, I don’t put much faith in supplements that claim to add muscle and burn fat. In my opinion, focusing your supplementation plan on recovery from a training workload is a much more useful and, more importantly, more attainable goal. There are a lot more supplements that actually do work to enhance the body’s natural recovery processes. If you don’t recover then you don’t make progress, period.

1.   Protein powder - a basic supplement standby

Protein powder is the good old basic supplement standby. It’s a convenient, portable, high quality source of protein. Read the label carefully to make sure that you’re getting protein and not much elseyou don’t want a lot of sugary junk and chemicals in there. I prefer the natural, unflavored types as this gives me a lot of flexibility in protein shake recipes. I also find the sweetened types rather unnatural. (If you’re accustomed to eating properly with lots of fruit and veggies and without too many sweet things, you’re also likely to have sensitive taste buds.) Whey is the most common form of protein powder, but you can also get egg, casein, soy, and even rice protein. If you can tolerate the dairy, then whey is probably the best bet.

2.   Caffeine supplements and exercise:in moderation and with caution

Yep, caffeine, that old work-horse from the pushers at the local coffee shop can add zest to your workout, increasing both power and duration of training if taken beforehand. Coffees and teas can vary in their caffeine content, so if you’d like to be sure how much you’re getting, consider taking a measured dose instead (you can easily find caffeine pills at the drugstore, ironically in the sleeping pill section). Caffeine also has a temporary appetite suppressant effect, which you may find useful if you are trying to cut calories. But be aware that if you are prone to blood sugar swings, caffeine can exacerbate this tendency, leaving you faint and shaky after an hour or so. Keep the dose moderate and have some carbs handy just in case. Also, don’t combine caffeine with other stimulant drugs. Caffeine may be common, but it’s still a drug, and all drugs demand respect. For a great morning workout boost, combine 1 cup milk, a couple of scoops of whey, and 1 cup of strong coffee. Zowie! 

For more information on taking caffeine to improve your performance see the following article from TheDietChannel: Caffeine & Exercise: Does Caffeine Enhance Performance?

3.   Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate supplements to aid tissue repair

Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate helps with tissue repair. Exercise puts demands on our connective tissue, such as the articular surfaces of joints. The body does a great job of remodeling the connective tissue as it’s damaged, but it takes time, and the rebuilding process slows down as we age.

4.    Omega-6 and omega-3 supplements to control inflammation as a result of overuse during exercise

Essential fatty acids, namely the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, help with a number of important metabolic functions. One of the most important, especially for the omega-3s, is controlling inflammation that can occur as a result of overuse (for example, when training hard). There is also evidence that consumption of omega-3s may aid in fat loss. You can get omega-3s naturally in oily fish (such as salmon and mackerel), or via a fatty acid supplement such as pumpkin seed, hemp, flax or fish oil.

5.   Creatine supplements may help with intense, short bursts of exercise

A substance that naturally occurs in red meat, creatine increases the concentration of phosphocreatine (PCr), which then makes ATP more available for the body to use (PCr is part of the ATP energy cycle). Since ATP is the fuel used during brief bouts of activity (such as kicking a ball), creatine appears to lend the most benefit to intense, shorter-duration forms of exercise such as weight training. It doesn’t appear to help endurance performance much. Creatine is not in itself anabolic. Not everyone responds equally to creatine; vegetarians who don’t eat red meat tend to see the most improvement. Creatine can cause gastrointestinal problems, cramping and weight gain from water retention.

Those are the basics. In the next part of this article, I’ll cover some of the lesser-known supplements that are gaining support in the nutritional literature.


Connor, William E. “Importance of n-3 fatty acids in health and disease.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 71 no.1 (January 2000): 171S-175S.

Graham, T.E. “Caffeine and exercise: metabolism, endurance and performance.” Sports Medicine 31 no.11 (2001):785-807.

Juhn, Mark S. “Popular sports supplements and ergogenic aids.” Sports Medicine 33 no.12 (2003): 921-939.

Usha P.R.; Naidu M.U.R. “Randomised, Double-Blind, Parallel, Placebo-Controlled Study of Oral Glucosamine, Methylsulfonylmethane and their Combination in Osteoarthritis.” Clinical Drug Investigation 24 no.6 (2004): 353-363.

Verbruggen, G. “Chondroprotective drugs in degenerative joint diseases.” Rheumatology 45 no.2 (2006):129-138.