Energy Supplements to Improve Your Workout: What You Need to Know

Fitness Tips

Energy Supplements to Improve Your Workout: What You Need to Know

The global sports supplement industry is huge, about $27.8 billion according to P&S Market Research, and it’s growing at a rapid pace. It’s impossible not to notice how popular these pills, powders, and drinks have become. It seems like nearly every person visiting the gym these days is touting their supplement of choice, which they swear by on their grandmother’s grave.

From an outsider’s point-of-view, the whole supplement trend probably seems a bit like selling snake oil, and you can’t really blame them for having that sentiment.

After all, there are a lot of different supplements out there and they all claim to do something different or better than the competition. It can be overwhelming how many of these products are on the shelves today and how frequently we’re exposed to ads for weight loss solutions, workout enhancers, muscle boosters, and others. The abundance of supplements on the market makes it impossible for the average person to decipher the good from the bad without doing a lot of research beforehand.

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Even with the proper research, one look at the ingredients on your run-of-the-mill protein supplement can have you feeling like you studied for the wrong test. They are littered with the complex names of amino acids and other ingredients, which makes these supplements seem more like a chemistry textbook than an ingestible product. It is actually somewhat ironic how many health-conscious individuals, who pay close attention to their diet, caloric intake, etc., seem to skip this practice when it comes to their supplement choices.

Bottom line: if you ask most people what’s in their workout supplement, they can’t tell you.

There are two reasons for this. First, they simply don’t know. They haven’t taken the time to fully investigate their protein product because it was recommended by a trusted friend or fitness instructor, and thus regarded as safe and healthy.

The second reason is because the regulation of protein supplements is inconsistent. For example, many protein brands fail to disclose that the product contains simple sugars, or they list zero sugars and instead use a potentially harmful artificial sweetener.

Luckily, there are companies out there that are filling the void for transparent, clean and additive free supplements, and are beginning to use healthier alternatives to artificial sweeteners. Not only are there many different brands and products on the market, there are also many different types of products as well. Even when only looking at supplements to improve workouts, there are still choices between pre-workout or post-workout, pills versus powders, whey or casein, isolate, concentrate, or hydrolyzed and so on.

To dispel your confusion and make it easier to separate the good from the bad, here is a brief breakdown of some of these common choices.

When to Take an Energy Supplement – Pre-Workout, Post-Workout, or During?

The pre or post-workout debate is popular amongst supplement consumers, usually in the context of “which is better?” or “which gives me the most gains?” Truthfully, there’s not really a better or best scenario.

There is value in both sides, as consuming a meal prior and after a workout are both essential for maximizing energy levels and optimizing your body’s critical restoration period. Since they are both important steps to improving your workout, deciding between a pre or post-workout supplement really depends on what’s easiest for you.

For example, if you hit the gym first thing in the morning or are under a time crunch that doesn’t allow you to eat an hour or two before your workout, a pre-workout supplement is highly recommended. Working out on an empty stomach reduces your energy levels dramatically, which leads to a shorter and less intense workout. In fact, some fitness buffs will put off a scheduled workout until they’ve ingested proper pre-workout nutrition; that’s how important it is to the success of the workout.

Post-workout nutrition is equally as important, especially if you’re striving for peak results from your weight lifting. When you have an intense workout, you’re essentially tearing down your muscles, which is why you leave the gym feeling exhausted and weak. In the post-workout stages, your body increases its protein breakdown, while protein synthesis stays about the same. In other words, your body is using more protein than it’s capable of producing at that time. Thus, your body needs a little bit of a boost.

Post-workout nutrition is important to not only improve the gains created that day, but also to prepare the body and your muscles for the next workout. The other thing that occurs as a result of working out is depleted or decreased glycogen levels, and if they aren’t restored properly, your body is not going to be as energized during the next workout. Lower energy means a shorter workout and fewer gains.

A post-workout supplement, especially in the form of a powder, is highly advantageous because it’s digested (as well as ingested) and absorbed quickly. This means you can begin replenishing glycogen stores, enhancing protein synthesis, and curbing protein breakdown even faster. A lot of people choose a post-workout product for this reason and because it can be hard to have that vital small meal directly after the workout.

Any type of supplement that recommends taking it during your workout is likely bogus. If you have proper pre-workout nutrition or a supplement and a meal lined up for after your workout, there’s no need to be eating or supplementing in the middle of your routine. The last thing you want is to be relying too heavily on supplements, so stick with water.

Battle Royale – Pills, Powders, or Drinks?

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Pills, powders, and drinks are three popular means of energy supplement consumption. Many people chalk it up to personal preference, but there are distinct differences between each vessel that make some better than others.

Powders

By far the most popular form of supplement products. As mentioned above, powders are great because they’re quickly digested, meaning you can get that pre-workout energy boost or post-workout recovery faster. Powders are also convenient to purchase. You can buy a large container and not have to worry about restocking for some time, whereas energy supplement drinks and pills need to be replenished more often.

The biggest drawback about supplement powders is that many companies pack them with unnecessary ingredients, such as artificial sweeteners. These are designed to make the supplement taste better when mixed with water, but are also potentially dangerous. Thus, some people choose supplement pills because these products are free from artificial sweeteners. However, it is easy to find a clean powder product that does not contain harmful ingredients.

Pills

Pills have become more popular as people move away from potentially dangerous powders. They are very transportable, and you don’t need to fuss with the mess and daily cleanup of protein powder. However, because they are pills, they are limited. They simply cannot pack the same volume or quality into them as a powder can.

Pill supplements primarily come in the pre-workout form and are specially formulated to give energy, which is beneficial towards helping you complete your fitness regimen. However, they don’t have some of the added benefits of essential amino acids, Creatine, or other helpful ingredients.

Drinks

Pre-mixed, pre-packaged supplement energy drinks are the least utilized means of consumption. Not only do you run into the same issue of unwanted ingredients like artificial sweeteners, but they are also expensive, especially if you consume them routinely.

Where energy supplement drinks have found their niche, so to speak, is that a lot of gyms will sell them at their front desk or drink bar. They are a convenience to those too rushed to mix their protein shake. That, however, is the only scenario where these drinks are useful, and even in that case, you’re probably better off simply sticking to water.

The “More IS More” Mentality

People often adopt an attitude that more supplements means more muscles and more gains. This mentality is pushed by supplement brands and their promotional “experts” for one reason: money.

The more of a supplement you’re consuming in a day, the more you have to buy. Not only is the more-is-more belief not true, but consuming too many of these supplements can have damaging effects on the body.

Aside from being a waste of money, you’re going to be ingesting too much of the same things. While supplement powders and similar products have amino acids and healthy vitamins, consuming too many of these means you’re going to have too much for your body to process. It will have to find alternative, often damaging, ways to eliminate the surplus.

In a similar fashion, taking too many supplements also means consuming a lot of the added, processed “junk” in these products. Some of these have to be processed by your liver and can have major negative effects.

The other downside to consuming too many supplements is your body is going to start relying on them to make gains. Your body gets used to having these supplements, so if you stop ingesting them in the same amounts, it won’t be able to maintain your muscle growth or produce more muscle without them. If you have ever heard of “creatine cycling," this is the exact reason why; bodybuilders will take creatine off and on in order to limit their body’s reliance on it.

The Final Decision: Snake Oil or the Real Thing?

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The answer is a little of both.

Taking an energy or protein supplement prior to or after working out does have tremendous benefits for increasing energy levels, improving your body’s ability to work out, and stimulating muscle growth. In that respect, they are the real thing, as long as you do the necessary research, find a product that is clean (no fillers, additives, chemicals etc.) and use them properly.

At the same time, there are many inconsistencies with how these products are made, marketed, and used. The reason they’ve become so popular over the past decade is that people treat them like a necessary component of working out. People hoist their supplements on their shoulders and praise them for being the miracle shortcut towards big gains.

It’s this false mentality that has bred a number of misconceptions, especially in how frequently they’re used and what exactly they do for the body. It’s absolutely vital to remember that these products are supplements, which means they are an extra, an add-on, and NOT, as some people treat them, a replacement or cornerstone of a healthy nutrition plan.

A lot of people are blinded by the promise of boosted energy and shortcuts to massive muscle growth and do not even stop to think about what is actually in that shaker cup. When you consider the harmful fillers and additives that some supplements have in them, that is an incredibly unhealthy practice that some of us are committing every time we reach for a supplement.

With the unfortunately limited regulations on supplement brands, it falls on us, the consumers, to do the proper research and be vigilant when it comes to separating the good from the bad and maintaining safe and sensible consumption of supplements.

Author Information

Phil Slater
Phil Slater's picture

Phil Slater is a blogger, nutrition expert and fitness enthusiast who writes about all things relating to health and fitness. Phil is the General Manager of Predator Nutrition in the United Kingdom. Over the years, Phil has helped many of his clients live happier and healthier lives by helping them achieve their fitness goals.

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