It happened just the other day. A fellow gym rat cornered me at the drinking fountain and started complaining about a supplement he just bought at GNC that hadn’t done squat. He shelled out something like 50 bucks for the stuff because the pasty-faced clerk told him it would “promote anabolism”. After quizzing him on how he was using the product, I found out that a), he had only been using it for three days and b), he was using about five or six other pills, powders, and concoctions at the same time, many of which were supposed to do the same thing as the one he had just started taking!
I patiently explained to him while I held him in a headlock that to really give a new supplement a fair chance, he should use it for at least two weeks and that he should stop taking everything else so that he’d be able to fairly judge the effects of said supplement. Then, I drew an analogy for him: Let’s say your doctor is treating you for high-blood pressure. He has you on a medication. Lo and behold, a new, improved medication comes out. Now, unless the doctor’s last name is Kevorkian, he’s not going to have you take both meds at the same time. Rather, he would take you off medication A, put you on B, and see how you responded. Then, after a fair trial period, he’d figure out which one worked the best for you.
He grunted his affirmation and I let him fall to the ground.
My oxygen-deprived friend is representative of a lot of bodybuilders, many of whom are extremely intelligent yet who fail, for some reason, to apply their intelligence to their use of supplementation. Amazingly, very few bodybuilders bother to run any kind of objective tests on new supplements. They simply try them for a few days and either assume it’s working and keep on taking it, or they don’t feel anything incredible and life-changing happening after taking if for a day and they quit.
Of course, there are also the “Placebo Pauls,” who’ll swear they’re experiencing everything shy of spontaneous, rapid-fire orgasms whenever they so much as pull out the wad of cotton from the top of a pill bottle.
If you had unlimited time, unlimited funds, and unlimited patience, you could test a supplement’s effectiveness by running blood tests and doing double-blind studies using yourself as the lab rat, but obviously, that’s not going to happen. Still, there are ways to tell if supplements are working. Certain categories of products are supposed to elicit a very distinct response. Others might tell you they’re working by some of the side effects they cause.
To really give a supplement a fair chance, you should stop taking all other supplements with the possible exception of meal replacements or protein powders in general (after all, protein is just food). Then, you should start taking the new supplement per label instructions (and if that doesn’t work, cautiously experiment with “upping” the doseage). Do your best to eat regularly, sleep adequately, and train religiously. Weigh yourself every four days at the same time of day. Most importantly, keep a log and note training poundages and feelings.
With all that in mind, I’ve broken down the entire gambit of bodybuilding supplements and put them in seven categories. I’ve briefly explained what each category is supposed to do; what you might expect to feel; and what the long-term effect(s) might be. In one case, I’ve even added a little experiment you can do to see if you’re getting your money’s worth.
First, the seven categories:
- Testosterone boosters
- Thermogenic agents
- Anti-catabolic formulations
- Cell volumizers
- Therapeutic fats
- Neurotransmitter facilitators
(You’ll probably notice that I didn’t include the category of vitamins and minerals. Granted, they’re important to overall health, but taking them in any quantity is unlikely to cause drug-like effects. Besides, they’re far too comprehensive a subject to even begin to discuss.)
Osmo’s Androstenedione, Biotest’s Tribex-500, and EAS’ Andro-6
Obviously, testosterone boosters are designed to either directly or indirectly affect androgen levels in the body. Some supposedly do it directly by supplying a testosterone precursor (any of the androstenedione formulations on the market), and others do it indirectly by increasing levels of luteinizing hormone and manipulating the body’s feedback systems (Tribex-500).
Regardless, people expect to feel differently after just one or two pills. Trouble is, nothing works that quickly. Even steroids take several days to kick in.
What you should feel: After a few days, you might notice you have trouble falling asleep at night. You might have increased facial hair growth, increased aggressiveness or irritability, and an increased sex drive. And, then again, you might not feel anything particularly different.
What you should see: Your strength will not go up immediately, but you will notice faster-than-normal strength increases. You might begin to lean out, even though you haven’t changed anything else about your program. Unproductive or “bad” workouts will become few and far between. Assuming that you’re eating and training properly, you’ll add muscle.
Drawbacks: Most of the Andro products have a big problem with absorption. Furthermore, the effects are so short-lived that you’ll need to take a dose at least three times a day. And, even though it appears that some of the product gets through and gets converted into testosterone, an equal or greater portion may actually get converted into estrogen. Tribex-500 does not contain Andro and works by a different mechanism, so it doesn’t have these shortcomings. Nevertheless, it should be cycled to prevent negative feedback (shutting down your own production of testosterone temporarily).
Champion Nutrition’s Thermadrol and Twinlab’s Ripped Fuel
The supplements that fall under this category are designed to decrease appetite and increase energy expenditure, thereby causing you to lose fat. Some (like Thermadrol) employ herbal equivalents of the famous Ephedrine/Caffeine/Aspirin stack, whereas others contain only one or two of the components (Ripped Fuel). Other products not traditionally sold as thermogenic agents, like yohimbine, also may possess thermogenic properties.
Essentially, these products kill the appetite and in some cases, actually divert calories to muscle. They also help mobilize fat and also cause the body to release norepinephrine, which is a potent nervous system stimulator (the more “hyped” up you are, the more calories you burn).
Even though these products are designed to kill the appetite, I find that it isn’t always the case. If I take them on an empty stomach, I’ll get a big-time drop in blood sugar, but I won’t feel like eating. I know it sounds contradictory, but it’s true. I won’t have a desire to eat, but my mind knows I have to elevate my blood sugar. Others may not experience the same thing; however, if you’re trying to gain muscle while losing fat, you may have to force yourself to eat at regular times.
What you should feel: About 45 minutes after using one of these products, you’ll start to feel warmer. You should have more energy. You may feel slightly euphoric, and your workout intensity may increase.
What you should see: After about two weeks, you should notice a decrease in body fat percentage, which may or may not be accompanied by a loss of body weight. Definition should increase.
Drawbacks: Although it’s not conclusive, there are a number of reported health risks associated with ephedrine abuse. Possible side effects include hypertension, cardiac arrest, and stroke, among other things.
Champion Nutrition’s Cort-Block and Phosphatidyl Serine
Most of these formulations are designed to block or counteract the hormone cortisol. Trouble is, cortisol is essential to life. Exactly why isn’t known for sure. We do know that it facilitates the conversion of protein in muscles and connective tissue into glucose and glycogen, and that’s exactly what bodybuilders are concerned with. Cortisol levels kick in after stress, psychological or physiological. So, if you’re busting your butt in the gym, you cause more cortisol to be released. Unfortunately, this cortisol prevents new muscle from being formed. A classic case of Catch-22.
Cortisol also plays a part in how fat is used or distributed. There’s even a theory that people in high-stress jobs are more often apple-shaped, the direct result of cortisol-induced fat formation around the waist (so that the fat is readily available in times of stress).
And, to make things more complicated, an elevated cortisol level is in fact desirable before an athletic event. The higher the cortisol level before an event, the stronger the correlation with athletic performance. (The cortisol helps mobilize fatty acids for energy.)
Attempting to block or manipulate this hormone is very, very tricky. In fact, in my opinion, it’s beyond the capabilities of the average strength athlete.
What you should feel: Taking a cortisol blocker probably won’t make you feel any differently, but you may feel less achy. However, taking too much can cause serious problems. If you take 800 mg. of phosphatidylserine for more than three days a week, you may find yourself fatigued, emotionally unstable, and suffering from extreme achiness. You may also suffer anorexia and weight loss. Longer periods of abuse might lead to serious consequences.
What you should see: If you manipulate cortisol blockers in exactly the right way which would vary tremendously from individual to individual based on physiology, diet, age, sex, and training habits you might experience quicker muscle growth.
Drawbacks: Unless you manipulate cortisol exactly the right way, you might experience diminished athletic ability.
Meal Replacement (MRP):
Biotest’s Grow!, EAS’ Myoplex, and MET-Rx
Despite the elaborate marketing strategies employed, MRPs are nothing more than food. Granted, their wonderful, because where else could you get so much protein in a convenient, relatively affordable, easily-digestible form.
Unless you live at home, have a personal chef who prepares six meals for you each day, you probably would benefit from using MRPs.
What you should feel: You probably won’t feel any differently, unless your body has adjusted to a relatively low protein intake. In that case, you may feel slightly higher feelings of energy.
What you should see: You won’t see any immediate big differences, but MRPs allow you to keep constant the most important thing in your bodybuilding efforts your diet. If you eat two or three servings a day, in addition to eating three “normal” meals, and if you train right, you can’t help but make some progress.
Drawbacks: Nothing really, except for the cost of eating two or three of these things a day. Of course, some people react negatively to ingesting so much protein in one sitting. Those individuals might want to use smaller portions until their digestive systems adjust.
EAS’ Phosphagen, Biotest’s Creatine, Champion’s Creatine Xtreme, and About a Billion Other Brands
A few years back, a scientist named Haussinger noted that critically ill patients almost always suffer from something called proteolysis. In other words, the protein in their cells breaks down. After looking into it, he theorized that this cell shrinkage occurred secondary to cellular hydration. If cells were low in fluid, protein breakdown occurred. If cells were high in fluid, the cell churned along, pumping out extra protein. Haussinger called this “cell volumization”.
Well, somewhere along the way, a bodybuilding scientist made a huge deductive leap, across a very, very, deep chasm, and speculated that since creatine results in a great deal of fluid gain, this fluid must be leaching directly into muscle cells, thereby forcing them to pump out more proteins and consequently become bigger. Therefore, he reasoned, creatine must be a cell volumizer and must therefore be causing increased protein synthesis.
No one knows for sure if this really happens, but we’re stuck with the label. When you come down to it, we don’t know if creatine causes water to be stored in the muscle, outside the muscle, or in the muscle’s wallet.
What we do know about creatine is that it increases anaerobic ATP production by about 5%, thereby increasing work capacity. Whereas you might only have been able to do 6 reps of a particular exercise with a certain weight, you might now exceed that total by two or three.
There appear to be a couple of ways to use creatine. You can either go the standard route: take 5 grams four or five times a day for five days (the much heralded “loading phase”), followed by a subsequent maintenance dosage of 5 grams a day; or you can simply start out by taking 5 grams a day (after about three or four weeks, your muscles will contain the same amount of added creatine as if you had done the five-day loading phase.)
What you should feel: Creatine won’t really make you feel any differently, but you’ll start to feel bulkier in just a few days (assuming you did the loading phase). You may feel a bit more pectoral heaviness as you walk down the stairs.
What you should see: The scale will show that you’ve probably added between 3 and 9 pounds of water weight. Your muscle bellies will look more rounded.
Drawbacks: Added bulk isn’t a good thing in endurance sports, and creatine has been implicated in muscle pulls.
Flax Seed Oil, Borage Oil, MCT Oil, and CLA
Just about all our modern-day foods are processed, so getting healthful levels of certain fats is all but impossible without supplementation. Getting proper amounts might have beneficial effects on overall health, including helping ensure higher testosterone levels, improving cholesterol readings, and even helping you become leaner. Some of all of these effects may be mediated by the production of fatty-acid controlled hormones called eicosanoids.
Taking supplemental doses of flax or borage oil is probably a good idea so that you’ll be sure to get your fair share of the essential fatty acids contained in these oils. Of course, just the act of adding fat to a meal may have profound effects. Proper amounts of fat improve insulin resistance, making it less likely you’ll store carbs as fat. Furthermore, they’ll help stabilize blood sugar levels which will improve athletic performance and biological performance.
There are also special categories of fats that deserve a look. Conjugate linoleic acid, or CLA, had dynamite results in the laboratory, on rats, but when researchers attempted to duplicate the results on humans, the results didn’t pan out. Still, maybe we haven’t found the right isomer, or the right purity. I do believe it’s a healthful fat, potentially with some powerful cancer-fighting abilities, but it may not do much to build muscle mass.
Medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs, are interesting in that they’re not absorbed the same way as fat. The theory is that these medium-chain fats are better used for energy, but they’re derived from octanoic and decanoic acid from palm or coconut oil. These oils are highly saturated and may contribute to clogged arteries.
What you should feel: If you’re deficient in essential fatty acids, taking in an extra two or three teaspoons a day might make you feel “better,” but generally, they won’t make you feel too much different. However, if you add them to your breakfast or protein shakes, you may help slow their absorption, improve their glycemic index, and prevent you from feeling tired or sleepy in-between meals.
What you should see: Again, you won’t notice much unless you have a deficiency. In that case, you’ll see improved skin and possibly accelerated muscle growth and overall better health.
Drawbacks: There’s always a chance of taking in too much fat and upsetting the ratio of essential fatty acids which, in turn, might negatively affect eicosanoid production. This won’t happen, though, if you keep your intake of flax or borage to about a tablespoon or less a day.
Biotest’s Power Drive, EAS’ Neurogain, SNAC SYSTEM’S Vitalyze
Neurotransmitter formulas are a new category of supplementation. Essentially, neurotransmitters are the hormones and chemicals that are responsible, to a large degree, for how well you think, how well you feel, and how well you use your muscles. The neurotransmitters we’re interested in are known as dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine, collectively known as catecholamines. Now, if you could somehow increase levels of these neurotransmitters, a whole lot of good things can happen. Among them are:
- Increased muscle motor unit recruitment (which means increased strength, and all other conditions being satisfactory, bigger muscles
- Possible increase in testosterone (as levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine increase, so do testosterone levels)
- Increased energy and an almost euphoric sense of well-being
- Improved coordination
- Increased endurance
- Improved concentration
- Improved memory
- Possible increased pain threshold
The good thing about neurotransmitters is that they work quickly. Generally, strength increases occur within 30 minutes to an hour after taking them.
What you should feel: Taking a neurotransmitter won’t necessarily effect you like taking a couple of hits of ephedrine. In fact, you may not feel particularly “energized” at all. However, if you’re in bad mood, taking a neurotransmitter might help stabilize your emotions. Furthermore, you might feel increased focus.
What you should see: You should see an increase in strength. Unlike creatine, an effective neurotransmitter should help you do more reps and more weight. And, doing more work will, in the short and long run, lead to additional muscle mass.
The following is a simple test devised by Charles Poliquin to evaluate the effectiveness of neurotransmitters:
Strength Test for Neurotransmitter Facilitators
Workout 1: No Pre-Workout Stimulant
(Weight Reps Tonnage)
240 10 2400
250 8 2000
260 6 1560
Total Reps: 24
Total Tonnage: 5960
Average Reps: 8
Average Weight: 248.3
Workout 2: Pre-Workout Stimulant Used
(Weight Reps Tonnage)
45 11 2205
255 9 2040
265 7 2080
Total Reps: 27
Total Tonnage: 6845
Average Reps: 9
Average Weight: 253.5
Using this test, we see that this supplement had a big effect! This particular individual was able to use more weight and do more reps. Furthermore, his average intensity went up about 2% (weights x reps/total reps = average intensity).
Drawbacks: Right now, there are no known drawbacks to the use of neurotransmitter formulations. You should, however, stay away from formulations that contain St. John’s Wort, which paradoxically, negate some of the effects of the neurotransmitter.
A Final Thought
Most bodybuilders spend a lot of money on supplements. Some buy them without even thinking about what the supplements are supposed to do or how the user is supposed to feel after taking them. Maybe, for these people, the brightly colored bottles and pills offer nothing more than hope hope that this product will finally be the one that lets them power through their workouts, chisel their body fat percentage down to a single digit, and overcome all the shortcomings that nature so cruelly dumped on them.
Well, maybe that’s good enough for some people. I need more than broken promises. I need to know something works.