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Want results? It starts with exercising regularly and eating for your goals. But once you have a training style that you enjoy and can stick with, and the basics of nutrition in place, you’re ready to upgrade your workouts with a few select supplements.
These are supps that the existing science says can help your workouts be more effective, but make no mistake, they won’t drive you to the gym or bust out the reps for you. Even the best among them are only as good as the effort you put in during your workouts. But when you match a solid training approach with the right supps, they can absolutely help you feel just a little stronger during a workout, recover a bit more effectively afterward, and show up a bit more excited to do the same a day or so later.*
Every Type of Workout
Two supplements that have universal benefits, regardless of the type of workout, are creatine monohydrate and caffeine. I’d recommend both for strength, muscle, fat loss, cardio, sports… you name it. You’ll find them coming in at 1 and 2 on my lists of the best supplements for strength and muscle-focused training and for endurance training.
Why creatine? Because it benefits pretty much anything you’re probably working out to improve: strength and muscle mass, aerobic performance, recovery and more.* It’s hard to come across something creatine can’t help with, which is why I believe everyone should take it.
More people than ever get that part. The next question is usually “when should I take it?” The answer: Don’t overthink it. Don’t worry about “loading,” just take it every day. Looking for a deeper answer? Check out, “Your Complete Guide to Creatine Monohydrate.“
Effective, affordable, safe—what’s not to love about creatine? Support every kind of training with the king of science-backed performance supps.
There’s a good reason caffeine is the most popular stimulant in the world. It’s been shown to boost energy levels before and during a workout, increase fat oxidation (using fat for fuel), and reduce fatigue.* There aren’t many workouts out there that can’t benefit from that trio of benefits, as Jim Stoppani, Ph.D., explains in his article, “4 Reasons Why Caffeine Makes Workouts Better.“
That said, you don’t need to go into every workout feeling like your eyes are buzzing. So while a cup of tea or coffee might be quite adequate for, say, some morning cardio, a pre-workout could be a better fit for the hardest leg workout of your life. And some people just don’t like the feeling of caffeination, no matter the scenario.
Moderate-Intensity Lifting Workouts
A good rule of thumb to follow is any training session that lasts less than an hour, and doesn’t push you to physical extremes, doesn’t require any flashy nutrition or supplementation protocol. Your body is well-equipped to provide fuel, via stored carbohydrates and fat, to maintain exercise intensity during workouts that see you in and out of the gym in around 60 minutes.
No, these workouts aren’t always the most exciting ones, but that’s not the point. They’re the ones you should be knocking out like clockwork, day in and week out, to inch closer to your goals. In the same vein, building nutritional rituals to accompany them can also be helpful in building a healthy foundation.
For example, having a protein shake after every strength workout is a no-brainer to help assist with the recovery process. Especially on harder days, having some carbohydrates with your protein can help restore glycogen and aid in muscle and tissue repair.
A protein shake is a worthy prize after every resistance training workout. Make it part of your ritual to have 20-40 grams within 2 hours of finishing.
High-Intensity, Long-Duration Lifting Workouts
- Carbs: 0.5-1 g per pound of body weight (food or supplements), 2-3 hours before training
- Protein: 30 g, 2-3 hours before training
- Citrulline malate: 6 g, 45-60 min. before training
- Caffeine: 150-300 mg, (depending on tolerance), 45-60 min. before training
These are the classic “leg day”-style workouts that cross the 60-90-minute benchmark with you still working hard and staring down some burnout sets and dropsets. Not every workout should probably be like this, but if you follow popular programs like Shortcut to Size, Maximum Muscle, or the Blueprint to Mass, there could be a few along the way. And if you follow those programs, you kinda like it that way.
Intensity and duration are the two primary factors that will determine the type and timing of supplementation. Whether it’s through supplementation or whole foods, a meal containing both carbohydrates (roughly 0.5-1 gram per pound of body weight) and protein (~30 grams) should be consumed 2-3 hours before training. This will help ensure your fuel tank is topped off prior to the start of the workout. Registered dietician and powerlifter Paul Salter gives a window into this prep in his article, “The Ultimate Guide to Leg Day Nutrition.“
About an hour before your workout, I recommend taking 6 grams of citrulline malate, either on its own, in a non-stim pre-workout, or alongside caffeine in a pre-workout supplement. Although it doesn’t receive the hype that other popular supplements like creatine and beta-alanine do—which are both also great—citrulline malate packs a big punch. A single dose taken before a workout has been shown to combat fatigue during high-intensity resistance training, as well as reduce the severity of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) post-workout.*
How much caffeine do you like for workouts? Just a bit, a bit more, or a full-blown blast? However you like it. we’ve got a pre-workout that’s perfect for you.
Optionally, for training sessions that last longer than 90 minutes, sipping on carbs during your workout can help maintain energy levels, as well as provide fuel to working muscles. Here’s the amount that Salter recommends in the article, “Your Guide to Intra-Workout Carbohydrates:”
- Less than 45 minutes: 0 g
- 45-60 minutes: 15-30 g
- 60-90 minutes: 30-50 g
- 90-120+ minutes: 50-75 g
It goes without saying that protein should be a priority post-workout, but have you considered taking some omega-3s with your shake? Omega-3s can help support healthy levels of inflammation and fight off training-induced soreness, leaving you in better shape for your next training session.*
Cardio or Endurance Training
The best thing to take before cardio? It might be some food. The current research shows there’s no added benefit to doing low- to moderate-intensity cardio in a fasted state. That’s why pioneering supplement researcher Darryn Willoughby, Ph.D., recommends at least having some amino acids or protein first. That said, you don’t need to fear it in all situations. For example, your muscles won’t run out of fuel and start devouring themselves if you head out for your morning walk before eating breakfast.
But let’s get more strategic. In addition to caffeine and creatine, if you’re looking to maximize your performance during endurance-type training, taking 6 grams of taurine may help improve aerobic performance and reduce oxidative stress. A study published in 2004 demonstrated significant improvements in maximal oxygen uptake, time to exhaustion, and maximal workload following seven days of taurine supplementation.
This definitely isn’t the only supplement that can benefit endurance athletes, though. You’ll find a few other familiar names from this list in my article, “The Top 7 Supplements to Boost Endurance Performance.“
High-intensity cardio workouts are a battle. They’re the kind where you look for any excuse to stop after one round and leave you with the feeling of your stomach sitting in your throat. But for some of us, this kind of workout is a necessity every once in a while! And as I explain in my article, “The Complete Guide to Losing Weight,” the research backs up its effectiveness for fat-loss and aerobic conditioning.
Because of the unique demands of high-intensity training, taking the right supplements can definitely help in these types of workouts. Nitric oxide (NO) boosters, such as citrulline, pomegranate extract, and beetroot juice taken 30-60 minutes before training have been shown to increase blood flow and delay fatigue during high-intensity exercise.*
Beta-alanine is another supplement that has been shown to improve both workout performance and body composition results from high-intensity exercise. Not coincidentally, NO boosters and beta-alanine—as well as our old friend caffeine—are usually present in the best pre-workout supplements. You can find further ingredients worth considering in the article, “The Complete Guide to Pre-Workout Supplements.“
Just remember that results with beta-alanine don’t come overnight. Like creatine, it needs to be part of your daily ritual for several weeks to be effective. After that, you can cut back to a maintenance dose of around 3 grams. Consistency is key with this one!
For those who just can’t be bothered to eat before a hard training session, consider drinking branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) before and during your workout. These can be utilized immediately for energy, saving your precious muscle mass from being broken down.
Essential amino acids (EAAs), which include the BCAAs and six other amino acids, also work in a similar manner—and perhaps slightly but not significantly better, according to Chris Lockwood, Ph.D., in his article, “BCAA Bashing: Have the Big 3 of Aminos Been Debunked as Muscle Builders?” (Spoiler alert: They haven’t.)
High-intensity exercise doesn’t work on an empty tank. If you can’t eat beforehand, drink aminos to stay hydrated and give your muscles fuel to perform.
Just remember, in all cases above, supplements are only as good as the training efforts you put in. But with the right supplements, you can increase energy levels, extend your workouts, speed up the recovery process, and maximize your training results.*
Want to get serious about your supplements? Check out our in-depth guides:
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.