I've mentioned this before in previous articles, but the supplement industry is a shady industry. They regularly make claims that have no scientific backing and have never been proven to be true. Even if a supplement company does cite a clinical study as proof of their claims, it's possible that they misinterpreted the study, or the study was funded by the supplement company so that they could skew the findings in their favor.
Post-workout supplements are no exception. Many companies load a ton of ingredients into their post-workout supplements and charge a ton of money for them, however very few of the ingredients are actually effective. In many cases, you are better off buying the effective ingredients by themselves and making your own post-workout drink.
So, which supplements are actually effective in a post-workout supplement and which ones are a waste of money? Here is a breakdown of the most commonly used ingredients in a post-workout supplement in order of their effectiveness (most effective to least effective):
Protein Powder - Protein powder is a great post-workout supplement, especially whey protein powders. Studies have shown that a leucine-rich meal after a workout helps protein synthesis and whey protein is particularly high in leucine. It also contains a great amino acid profile and is quickly absorbed by the body. After an intense strength training workout, it is advantageous to take a quickly absorbed leucine-rich protein to help repair the damage that you just did to your muscles. Ideally, you'll want to take the protein no more than 30-45 minutes immediately following your workout. You should aim for around 40g of protein, although you can certainly take more or less depending on your daily protein goals.
Creatine - Creatine has been proven in hundreds of studies to increase muscle strength and size, improve muscle recovery, and even enhance your brain function. Creatine can be found naturally in the skeletal muscle of meat and fish. However, heat degrades the creatine so you'll need to eat a lot of meat to get an effective amount of creatine. Therefore many people choose to just take a creatine supplement instead. If you choose to supplement with creatine, you should aim for around 5g per day in order to be most effective. There are some people that claim that you can take up to 10g, however you're going to see some diminishing effects the more over 5g that you take. There have been some myths about harmful side-effects of creatine, but many of these myths have been de-bunked. Creatine can be taken at any time of the day, however research shows that post-workout is the optimal time.
Beta-Alanine - Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid (meaning that our bodies can create it, so we don't have to consume it). Your body turns beta-alanine into a compound called carnosine, which isn't involved in protein synthesis, but does help increase muscle endurance. Beta-Alanine also gives you that tingling feeling that's most commonly associated with pre-workouts. There is no ideal time to take beta-alanine, what's important is how much you take. You should take at least 5g in order to see the benefits of beta-alanine and most pre and post workout supplements contain far less than this amount per serving. In many cases, you are better off just buying beta-alanine by itself to ensure that you are getting 5g per day.
Dextrose - Dextrose is a sugar made from corn. The reason that many recommend taking dextrose with your post-workout shake is because it will give your body a greater insulin spike, which is a good thing after an intense weight training session. Consuming protein after a workout will cause an insulin spike by itself, however adding dextrose to the mix will cause an even greater spike and trigger your body to start storing the nutrients that you're giving it. Because your muscles just went through a lot of damage during your training, they take the front seat when it comes to delivering nutrients to your body, so the protein and carbs that you just consumed go straight to your muscles to be used. This helps jump start the healing process quickly. Keep in mind that not all sugars will have this effect on the body. Fructose, found in fruits and fruit juices, does NOT restore muscle glycogen but instead only restores liver glycogen, which offers no benefit to your muscles at all. Also keep in mind that dextrose is a carb and adding it to your post-workout shake will significantly increase your carb macros for the day. For more info about using dextrose in your post-workout shake, check out this article from Bodybuilding.com.
BCAA's - BCAA's (Branched Chain Amino Acids) are one of the most common and, in my opinion, most overrated post-workout supplements recommended today. BCAA's consist of 3 essential amino acids: Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. Leucine has been shown to directly stimulate protein synthesis and is really the most important of the 3 amino acids. You'll find a high amount of these amino acids in high quality proteins like meat, eggs, and whey protein. The fact is that if you're eating enough protein each day, then you're already getting enough BCAA's from food and you don't need to supplement with additional BCAA's. The only exception to this is fasted training. Fasted training means training when your insulin levels are at their baseline - which is different than just training on an empty stomach. Even after your body has digested all of the food that you consumed, it can take many more hours for your insulin to go back to its baseline level. Fasted training is a great way to get lean quickly, however fasted training also causes an increase in muscle breakdown. However, leucine (one of the 3 amino acids in BCAA's) can help suppress muscle breakdown when training in a fasted state. This is when BCAA's can help you - well, mainly just leucine. You'll need about 3-5g of leucine to effectively counteract the muscle loss that comes with fasted training. Because of this, you may find it more beneficial to just buy leucine by itself than a BCAA supplement. Another alternative to leucine is HMB (β-Hydroxy β-methylbutyric acid) which is metabolized into leucine in the body.
Glutamine - Glutamine is another amino acid that has been misconstrued by the supplement industry as a helpful ingredient in muscle growth. The fact is that glutamine does play an important role in protein synthesis. However, there is no research to indicate that an increase in glutamine will result in an increase in protein synthesis. So, even though glutamine is used to build muscle, that doesn't mean that if you take more glutamine that you'll build more muscle. There's a disconnect that many supplement companies overlook in order to sell you more supplements that you likely don't need. Although glutamine doesn't help you build more muscle, there are studies that show that it can help with overtraining and help your immune system. So, there is some value in taking a glutamine supplement, but muscle growth isn't one of them.
There are some other less common post-workout supplements that I won't go into too much detail in this article, but you can look them up on your own if you are interested. Those include L-Carnitine, Corosolic Acid (aka Banaba Leaf Extract), and Betaine. Hopefully this article gives you a good insight into which post-workout supplements are beneficial and which ones are overly hyped. Many people, myself included, find it more beneficial to build your own post-workout shake and include the ingredients that we know to be helpful than to buy one that could be loaded with over-hyped, useless, and expensive ingredients.
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