The HEMAists Guide to Supplements, Pills, Powders, Protein, and Potables
Don’t Be A Powdermancer
When I first got into fitness in 2008, it was through a community of gamers/geeks/nerds that also enjoyed working out. I was surprised to “discover” the existence of what the community called “Powdermancers.” Powdermancers are those that spend lots of money on pills, powders, protein and weird liquids in order to be healthier/fitter/stronger. They are like the alchemists of old mixing their potions and remedies, and unfortunately, in many cases, they are doing this before they have the basics of solid nutrition, and exercise habits taken care of. You may see me refer to this as “majoring in the minors.”
In the end, supplements are intended to be “supplementary” to a consistently high-quality diet. There is no “magic bullet,” other than exercising regularly, eating lean protein, vegetables, fruit, fueling your recovery with solid sources of carbohydrates, adding in healthy fat choices for joint and hormonal support, and getting lots of sleep.
- Don’t Be A Powdermancer
- What Are Supplements?
- What supplements are required?
- What supplements are helpful for most everybody?
- What about supplements that can help with my HEMA performance?
- What supplements are situational?
- What about fat burning supplements?
- What about X supplement that does Y that you forgot to mention?
- Chuck’s Example
This is not medical advice whatsoever. Do not take any supplements without first consulting with your doctor. If you don’t have a doctor that understands sports nutrition and exercise, telemedicine is a new thing. If that interests you, the doctor (and friend) that I’ve quoted in this article, Dr. Spencer Nadolsky now works with patients online. https://www.steadymd.com/lifting
What Are Supplements?
Supplements can include things like vitamins, minerals, nutrients, powdered versions of food (like protein powder), herbs, and even drug-like compounds. Since the supplement industry is a bit like the Wild West with being unregulated, please take caution. For example, a company can put “Proprietary blend” on their product and not have to list the specific ingredients and their amounts. As a result, manufacturers have snuck things like meth and steroids into their mixes. Let the buyer beware.
Outside of unwanted or unknown ingredients, supplements with known ingredients can also cause you harm through over-consumption (some minerals and vitamins can build up in the body and actually do you permanent harm, aka kill you), or interact with your medication, or even through contamination if buying from a supplier of ill-repute.
“The dose makes the poison.” – Paracelsus
So please, if you are going to take *any* supplements at all, please discuss them with your doctor and ensure that:
- You’ve taken care of everything else on the nutrition priority pyramid.
- there is a need for you to take them (addressing an excess and/or deficiency, for convenience, for the specific effect).
Since this topic can be highly controversial, and I often get questions asking “Which supplements should I take?”, I’ve broken down some common supplements that may help you toward your goals, but please do heed my above warnings. I take no responsibility for your irresponsibility.
What supplements are required?
None. Again, there are plenty of people that will have great results and achieve lasting, lifelong fitness without ever taking a single supplement. No supplement is going to make up for a poor exercise and nutrition habits. Supplements are for addressing a specific deficiency uncovered under a doctor’s supervision, for convenience or an expensive insurance policy for your nutrition “just in case.”
What supplements are helpful for most everybody?
Protein powder is just powdered food. It can be a cheap and convenient way to get additional protein in your diet (especially when traveling!). It can come from multiple sources such as milk, beef, rice, pea, hemp, or egg. Some protein sources are faster digesting (whey) and are great for workout recovery, while other protein sources are slower digesting (casein) which are great for meal replacement.
Why would you want more protein in your diet? Protein is literally the building block of our muscles. Protein from our diet allows us to not only build more muscle but protein is also required to recover from exercise, as well as to ensure that you don’t break down your existing muscle for energy.
Aside from those things, protein also makes you feel fuller than other nutrients, especially if you eat it with other things like fat or fiber to slow digestion.
Creatine is literally the most researched sports nutrition supplement on the planet. It’s a legal performance enhancing aid (not a drug, not a steroid), and it also has some neuroprotective properties. It is considered remarkably safe for most people. Creatine already naturally occurs in our bodies and is a molecule that’s produced to aid with energy at the cellular level during intense stress. This means that creatine improves your power output (run faster, jump higher, lift heavier, fight harder). Creatine’s main dietary source in our diets is from meat, so if you aren’t a meat eater, you may see a larger benefit from it compared to someone that is.
Some pre-workout supplements may include it, but it doesn’t matter when you take it because your body’s stores of creatine build up over time. Just take 5g per day of Creatine Monohydrate, every day. Your scale weight may jump up some as a result but that’s normal.
To quote my friend Bryan Krahn:
“The most popular dietary supplements are the ones consumers actually “feel.” While fish oil, Vitamin D3, and curcumin have a lot of supportive evidence, there’s still an element of consumer buy-in required. Because no one ever took fish oil for 3 days and “felt awesome.” Now compare that to creatine monohydrate. A newbie can see effects in the gym in just a few days.”
I’m sure you are familiar with caffeine in some form, be it coffee, energy drinks, tea, pills, soda/pop, etc. It’s a powerful stimulant that enhances fat burning, performance, cognitive function while reducing appetite and risks for some diseases and cancers.
So…that’s lots of benefits. The only real problem is that habitual use results in it becoming less effective over time as your tolerance builds. You may need to do a caffeine “detox” to reset your tolerance. Good luck if you decide to do that. Been there. The 2nd day is the worst.
Do you eat fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines, or albacore tuna a few times per week? No? Then you may want to consider supplementing with fish oil in order to get omega 3 fats in your diet, which helps with your recovery and general heart health.
What about supplements that can help with my HEMA performance?
OK, so if you are looking at this section, I assume you are already going to be (or are already) supplementing with creatine, because that’s the king of performance supplements.
How does Gatorade powder help with HEMA performance? It helps replenish your electrolytes when you sweat, and it contains fast digesting carbohydrates for energy. See the Tournament Hydration guide for more information.
Beta-alanine helps buffer acid in muscles, increasing physical performance in the 60–240-second range, aka, anaerobic exercise, aka what we do in HEMA. Beta-alanine can aid lean-mass gain as well. If you take too much at once, you may feel a tingling sensation called paresthesia. It is a harmless side effect. Personally, I’ve done that accidentally, and it felt like my skeleton was itchy. Just like creatine, taking it doesn’t have a time oriented effect, but builds up in your body. So just take some every day, 2-3g.
Citrulline malate supplementation can prevent fatigue, and give you more energy for both aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Citrulline malate reduces the metabolic byproducts caused by intense exercise. While creatine and beta-alanine are built up in your body, citrulline malate needs to be taken before exercising to have any effect. 8g before exercising, 45mins to 1 hour before is fine. You might want to mix this with something like Sprite Zero, as with 8g, it tastes like licking batteries. It also makes me sweat more than normally.
I don’t generally recommend pre-made pre-workout mixes. As mentioned earlier, they too tend to be proprietary blends. The biggest positive is the convenience, but that comes at a higher cost. It’s better, and cheaper to make your own, especially so that you are controlling exactly what you are putting in your body and in what amounts. Some companies have gotten into trouble for false ingredient and label claims, as well as including banned substances in their “proprietary blends”.
Want an easy custom mix? Have some caffeine, then sip at a mixture of creatine (5g), beta alanine (3g), and citrulline malate (8g) about an hour before exercise.
What supplements are situational?
Multivitamins are incredibly popular, but also rather overrated.
To quote my friend Dr. Spencer Nadolsky:
“Taking one pill to fix an array of dietary scarcities sounds like a great idea, but there are several issues with this strategy. There’s just not enough room in a single capsule for everything your body needs. Not only that, but manufacturers tend to pack them full of vitamins already present in the diet, like vitamin C and A, while skimping on the supplements you need, like vitamin D and magnesium.”
So, with that said, I wouldn’t recommend one *unless* you have a restricted diet that cannot be modified. If that’s the case, you may be at risk for nutrient deficiencies. Check with your doctor to get tested to see exactly what those deficiencies are, and to find a multivitamin that actually addresses those.
As we aren’t sure if loading up on supplements is as effective as getting nutrients from whole foods, an alternative would be a powdered greens supplement. I use this when traveling when access to a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables is limited. When I’m also working with clients that don’t like many vegetables at all, I recommend this as well as a stop-gap measure.
Do you live in a tropical climate? Or do you live somewhere with lots of sunshine AND work outdoors? No? Then you may not be getting enough vitamin D, which is important for your general health. Don’t just add vitamin D, but find out if you are deficient. You’ll notice that “don’t just add X supplement, see if you have a deficiency” is a trend for this entire article.
Having a low level of iron is called anemia, and it can cause fatigue. Women are more likely to be iron deficient than men. So if you feel tired all of the time, it may be worth looking into. Overdosing iron can have FATAL consequences and it’s better to make dietary changes rather than going right to supplementing. See a doctor, seriously.
If you are following a plant based diet, you may be more likely to be deficient in vitamin b12, vitamin D, and iron. Rather than just automatically supplementing these, mention it to your doctor, and find out. Also, consider creatine if you haven’t already done so!
Below are some supplements that have some evidence for their positive effect, but are listed and linked to their examine.com page for the sake of brevity.
Curcumin is an anti-inflammatory found in turmeric and ginger. Some anti-cancer properties needs black pepper to be properly absorbed. https://examine.com/supplements/curcumin/
Melatonin is a hormone secreted in the brain that regulates sleep, so supplementing it helps you fall asleep and stay asleep without being habit forming. https://examine.com/supplements/melatonin/
Zinc is an essential mineral involved in regulating many enzymes. It is an antioxidant and immune-boosting supplement. Zinc is most commonly supplemented to reduce the frequency of illness and to support optimal levels of testosterone. If you sweat a lot, you may be deficient. https://examine.com/supplements/zinc/
Magnesium deficiencies are common in the western world, as grains are poor sources of it compared to foods like nuts and leafy vegetables. Your body only absorbs what it needs, but if you take in too much, you’ll have cramps and bathroom issues. https://examine.com/supplements/magnesium/
Calcium is used to support bone health primarily, useful to supplement if you don’t eat lots of dairy. https://examine.com/supplements/calcium/
Glucosamine HCI + MSM
Glucosamine comes from the shells of shellfish, and is used in joint support.
What about fat burning supplements?
Unfortunately, there are no legal fat burning supplements in US that actually work, at least in the way that their ads claim they do!
Check examine.com for a list of supplements that are thermogenics (produce heat through metabolic stimulation). As mentioned earlier, many of these are dangerous even in small doses. I’d recommend *not* taking any of these for the express purpose of burning fat.
Your best bet is to build up your tolerance for really spicy food. (only semi serious)
What about X supplement that does Y that you forgot to mention?
As mentioned above, examine.com is a great reference to look at the research summary for most supplements. One specific thing that you want to pay attention to is that the research may show that a supplement has an effect, but look at the magnitude of that effect.
Yeah, in writing this, it looks like I take lots of supplements. Most of the things I buy last me for a few months. This is just my example, not “the” example to follow. I also have my nutrition entirely on point, and I train 6 days a week, with most days being twice a day. I view much of the supplements I take as an insurance policy. I don’t recommend that you base ANY decision about supplements on what I’m doing or taking!
Fish oil, Vitamin D, Glucosamine HCI + MSM, Curcumin, probiotic
Lots of caffeine, creatine (5g), beta-alanine (3g), citrulline malate (8g), about 30mins-1hour before my workout.
Mid/post workout: Protein powder, Gatorade powder (see tournament hydration guide, I use these guidelines for all exercise, not just tournaments).
To support rest and recovery: Magnesium, zinc, melatonin
Protein powder, greens Powder and psyllium husk powder.
Where to buy
I get my fish oil, vitamin d, glucosamine, and Gatorade powder from Sam’s Club. My protein I buy from MyProtein, and everything else is from Amazon. None of these are affiliate links or anything. If you need any recommendations for supplements that I’m *not* taking but you are considering, please join the Facebook group, ask, and I’d be happy to help you!
From Sam’s Club
No supplements are required. Take care of your calorie needs, macronutrients, micronutrients, meal timing/frequency with whole and fresh foods first before considering supplements. Supplements may be unnecessary unless you are specifically working with your doctor to address a deficiency. On the contrary, some supplements are for the sake of convenience, or for athletic performance. Even so, your doctor should be aware of your supplement usage.
Most people can benefit from protein, caffeine, and creatine. Caffeine and creatine will help your martial arts both energy/performance wise, and protein as a supplement will help you to ensure that you have adequate dietary protein for recovery and muscle maintenance/building.
There are some specific supplements, in addition to those 3, that will also help with HEMA specific performance (or any anaerobic exercise performance in general), and those are beta-alanine, citrulline malate, and Gatorade powder. While creatine and beta-alanine don’t require specific timing to be effective, mixing those 3 makes a great pre-workout drink that tastes like gritty, liquid smarties candy.
Outside of those things, out of the billion supplements, you might encounter, the remainder of supplements are situational, are placebo, or exist for supplement companies to make you overpay for caffeine combined with a “proprietary blend” that could be anything and is likely the cheapest filler they could find.
Please work with your doctor before taking any supplements. Just because someone else you know takes a supplement, doesn’t mean that it’s right for you.
Dr Spencer Nadolsky on supplements, http://www.performbetter.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/PBOnePieceView?storeId=10151&catalogId=10751&pagename=495
Berardi, J., Ph.D. (2016). The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition (3rd ed.). Precision Nutrition.