Q: I'm 26 years old and just got back into the gym. Now that my career is in place and money isn't a huge problem, I want to get really serious. I trained pretty hard and consistently from the time I was 16 until I got out of college at 21.I used a lot of supplements back then, but don't think they helped very much. I've talked to some people who think that supplements work wonders and others who say they're all a scam. All I need is food, they say. Who's right? I want to look awesome, but I don't want to shell out my hard-earned cash for garbage. Give it to me straight. Do supplements really work or not?
A: Allow me to preface my answer with a brief discussion of what we mean by work. Do supplements work the same way steroids and other drugs work? The answer is no, with the possible exception of pro-hormones, which I'll get to later. Steroids are powerful drugs designed to do fairly miraculous things; save the life of a severely burned person,restore sexual function to men whose natural testosterone is inadequate, even increase the size of livestock to produce more meat. Supplements don't work miracles. That's the bad news. Now for the good news.
Supplements have come a long way since you were using them. I remember some of the first products I bought in the late '80s. There was a Dynamic Muscle Builder that was mostly starch and sugar; an allegedly cherry-flavored amino acid drink, one teaspoon of which had me gagging and coughing (eventually I figured out it was easier if I held my nose and drank); and a metabolic optimizer that smelled so bizarre, it made me the laughingstock of the film criticism class at which I took it every day. The supplements in those days tasted horrible, and it's questionable whether they provided any benefit. Fads like boron and smilax came and went, promising steroidlike effects and never delivering. I can't blame you for being skeptical if you were one of the thousands who bought those dubious items, but, to paraphrase the cigarette ads, we've come a long way, baby
Around 1992 Met-Rx started the whole trend in meal-replacement powders. Each packet contained a complete meal that could be mixed with water and consumed in just a minute. That was a huge step toward making perfect nutrition accessible to everybody, not just bums who only left their kitchens to go to the gym. Anybody could get his or her meals every two hours. Many other companies now make excellent meal-replacement powders in a wide variety of great-tasting flavors, and a whole generation of athletes thrives on them.
The next big advancement was the introduction of creatine monohydrate in 1993. After loading up on the granular powder, mixed with fruit juice or water, bodybuilders and other athletes found they made concrete gains in strength, bodyweight and power. Creatine allows muscle cells to store more water, which is part of what steroids are believed to do. Everyone from bodybuilders and sprinters to star baseball sluggers swears by creatine.
Next, we had whey protein, which has a higher protein effirating than eggs, the previous standard to which all other protein sources were compared. Thanks to whey, bodybuilders who wanted to increase their protein intake to the magical 1.5 to 2 grams per pound of bodyweight could just mixup a quick shake a few times a day. Previously, getting more protein meant either eating more meat (a hassle and expensive to boot) or drinking weight-gain shakes or meal replacements, which might carry extra carbs and calories that a person who was trying to get or stay lean would definitely not want.
We also have several high-quality bars, which can provide a quick and satisfying meal and can easily be kept in a fanny pack, briefcase or purse. Some of them taste at least as good as a Snicker's or Three Musketeers candy bar, only they're good for you. There are many other useful products as well. L-glutamine is an exciting prospect that promises to elevate GH levels.
The latest and most controversial supplements to hit the scene are the so-called pro-hormones, andro and norandro products, which research shows convert to testosterone and nandrolone in the body. That's where the line between drugs and supplements begins to blur, but many natural bodybuilders are reporting excellent results. Cortisol blockers are another innovation, stopping excess cortisol from catabolizing our precious muscle tissue.
Let me leave you with an example of how much of an impact supplements can have on a hard-training, drug-free individual. My wife, Janet, did two shape-up contests at our gym from June to November 2004. She used protein shakes and supplement bars for the first five-week competition, then added meal replacement shakes, creatine monohydrate, a diet pill a day and L-glutamine for the second five weeks. Her results? How about a total of 10 pounds of muscle gained and 16 pounds of fat lost? Her bodyfat dropped from 25 percent to 12 percent and counting. It should be said that she was not a novice, having trained consistently since 1994, and has never used any performance enhancing drugs. I think those results are outstanding, and I believe that supplements had a lot to do with her success.
Supplements are tools to make good nutrition even better, giving us added nutrients and substrates that would be impossible to glean from food alone. For that reason I say that supplements do indeed work. Is it possible to get results without supplements? Of course it is. To craft a body that isn't just good but great, however, the vast majority of genetically average people need today's supplements.
Supplements are fast approaching the point where proven results will make up for the ill will created by years of scams. There are many excellent products on the market today that can be very beneficial for those of us who strive to be ever bigger, stronger and leaner. Put your doubts aside, keep an open mind, and give them a chance.