Kamal Patel is a director of Examine.com, the research-based resource on supplementation and nutrition, and a nutrition researcher with an MPH and MBA from Johns Hopkins University. He is based in San Francisco, California.
We all want to have the most effective session every time we work out. It’s the only way to keep pushing your body forwards so that you get either stronger, leaner or fitter, depending on your training goal. While a varied and nutritious diet and high-quality sleep are essential in allowing you to attach every single workout as hard as possible, there are some supplements that can help you gain an even greater edge so you can perform harder for longer to build a better body.
Here’s all you need to know, starting with our suggested supplement stacks, and then the details of each individual ingredient.
Supplement stacking for weight training
For weightlifters that want to improve muscle growth and function, take 5g of creatine with any meal of the day and nitrates from 500g of your vegetable of choice with a pre-workout meal.
You can use 400mg-600mg of caffeine 30 minutes pre-workout but no more than twice a week. Whenever you take caffeine, you can also take 200mg-400mg of L-theanine for improved attention and focus. After using this stack for a month, consider adding a cholinergic, such as alpha-GPC (300mg) or CDP-choline (1,000mg) taken with caffeine and L-theanine.
Supplement stacking for sport or endurance cardio
For people exercising or competing longer than an hour and requiring both alertness and endurance take 5g of creatjne with any meal of the day, nitrates from 500g of vegetables in a pre-workout meal, and 50g-75g of carbohydrates consumed steadily during the sport or exercise. You can also add 10g of BCAAs to your drink which you sip throughout, or 5g of beta-alanine.
Supplement stacking for high-intensity cardio
For people doing high-intensity training take 5g of creatine with any meal of the day, 500g of nitrates from vegetables in a pre-workout meal, and 50g to 75g of carbohydrates during the workout. Adding 5g of beta- alanine is also an option. Carbohydrates, specifically sugars, are quickly absorbed by the body causing an increase in insulin levels and providing more readily usable energy. This improves physical performance, which is why you’ll see athletes sipping on a sugary drink during their workout. The fewer carbohydrates you consume in your regular diet, the more effective this performance-enhancing effect will be.
Creatine is a source of ATP, the main energy supply for your cells. Supplementing creatine monohydrate increases your body’s creatine stores, which are located primarily in the muscles. Creatine improves the ability of muscle cells to react to intense stressors, such as lifting weights.
Creatine has a lot of strong evidence for both its safety and its ability to improve muscular power output. It also increases anaerobic endurance by acting as fuel for your cells. Muscle cells will use creatine for energy before burning glucose, which helps your muscles perform under pressure and knock out those last few reps. Creatine supplementation causes a slight water weight gain in the first few weeks of supplementation, but creatine’s ability to improve performance will cancel out the temporary disadvantages of increased water weight.
After prolonged creatine supplementation, the water weight will be replaced with muscle. Creatine is safe and cheap. Its only potential side-effects are nausea, cramping, and diarrhea from too large a dose. The benefits it provides for muscle growth and general physical performance make it standard in any performance-enhancing supplement.
How to take it The best way to supplement creatine is to take creatine monohydrate. Other forms of creatine may be more expensive, but studies have not found them to be more effective than creatine monohydrate. If you are particularly sensitive to creatine’s digestive side-effects, which include nausea and cramping, consider supplementing micronised creatine, which may be gentler on the digestive system.
Creatine should be consumed with water. The standard daily dose for creatine is 5g. This is enough to improve power output. People with more muscle mass may benefit from a higher daily dose, as much as 10g, but this claim is not fully supported by the evidence. To supplement 10g, split it into two doses of 5 g, taken twice a day. Loading creatine means taking a high dose of creatine for a short period of time before moving down to a smaller maintenance dose, which can be taken indefinitely. This is not necessary for effective supplementation. Though loading may result in benefits appearing slightly faster, results normalise after a few weeks.
Some people are creatine non-responders, which means creatine is unable to pass from their blood to their muscles. More research is needed to find a proven way to circumvent creatine non-response. Some evidence suggests it helps to take creatine with a meal high in both protein and carbohydrates, close to the time of actual muscle contraction. If you experience creatine non-response, consider taking creatine with a meal either before or after a workout. If you respond to creatine, you don’t have to worry about timing supplementation, though you will probably want to take it with a meal to lower the risk of an upset stomach.
Nitrates are a compound found in leafy green vegetables and beetroot. Nitrates break down into nitrites, which circulate in the body and are turned into nitric oxide (NO) as needed. Elevated NO levels during exercise provide a variety of benefits. Nitrate supplementation has been shown to improve anaerobic and aerobic endurance, blood flow, and work output, resulting in increased muscle recovery between bouts of exercise.
Nitrates improve the body’s ability to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP) from the food you eat. High levels of circulating nitrite help the mitochondria in cells produce ATP more efficiently. Unfortunately, selling a nitrate supplement with a dose high enough to cause these effects is not legal. This is due to the regulation surrounding sodium nitrate, a food additive frequently added to meat products. Instead, nitrate supplementation should take place in the form of a pre-workout meal incorporating leafy greens or beetroot. Beetroot extract supplements will not provide enough nitrates to affect exercise performance.
How to take it Nitrates are best supplemented through food products like leafy greens or beets, one to two hours before exercise. Consuming these foods in a liquid form, such as through a shake, juice, or puree, will increase the rate of nitrate absorption, since solid food particles take longer to digest. The optimal nitrate dose is in the range of 6.4mg to 12.8mg per kilogram of bodyweight. Consuming 500g of beets, radishes, or any leafy green vegetable, including lettuce, rocket, spinach, crown daisy, and swiss chard will provide enough nitrates for you to enjoy the benefits during your next workout. People taking the blood thinner warfarin should consult with their doctor before consuming high levels of some leafy greens, due to the vitamin K content. Take care to avoid spitting frequently during your workout, since saliva is a necessary intermediary step in activating dietary nitrate. Mouthwash should also be avoided.
Dietary protein is a term used to refer to any food or supplemental source of protein. Protein is important for muscle growth and exercise due to the mass of amino acids required to build muscle, and also due to the activity of specific amino acids like leucine which can act to promote muscle protein synthesis. For maximal improvements in muscle growth and exercise performance, consume a sufficient amount of protein each day from food. If your food intake does not cover your protein needs, then supplemental protein such as whey or casein protein can be used.
How to take it Dietary protein for muscle gain and improving exercise performance is not dependent on when you eat protein; the major factor at play is how much protein you consume over the course of a day. The only time protein timing appears to be relevant is if working out fasted, such as exercising in the morning. In such a situation, it is advised to have some protein before you exercise. All other times see no major benefit with dietary protein timing.
Carbohydrates, specifically sugars, are quickly absorbed by the body causing an increase in insulin levels and providing more readily usable energy. This improves physical performance, which is why you’ll see athletes sipping on a sugary drink during their workout. The fewer carbohydrates you consume in your regular diet, the more effective this performance-enhancing effect will be.
Carbohydrates help you perform at your best. Like creatine, they provide energy for your muscles. In fact, studies have found 50g to 75g of carbohydrates provides a benefit similar to supplementing 5g of creatine. A drink that provides your body with glucose or sucrose will improve anaerobic exercise performance, such as lifting weights or sprinting. Anaerobic exercise is any exercise intense enough to trigger the production of lactic acid in your muscles.
Insulin, which is released after carbohydrate consumption, improves the effects of nitric oxide and provides benefits for blood flow. Both of these effects contribute to peak physical performance. Carbohydrates during exercise are not for everyone. They are beneficial during high-intensity acute training and long-endurance events, but mild intensity and duration exercise can be sufficiently fuelled by a small carbohydrate-containing whole meal a few hours before the workout.
How to take it When lifting weights, start drinking your pre-workout shake or juice about 15 to 30 minutes before you get to the gym. Leave yourself half of your drink to sip on during the rest of the workout.
Ideally, your carbohydrate drink should consist of mostly glucose with a bit of fructose, but a glucose and fructose mix will also work. Aim for 50g to 75g total, though you may need more if your workout lasts longer than 90 minutes. A sports drink is an effective way to get these carbohydrates, and usually preferred over options such as soda which, due to carbonation and acidity, may cause gastrointestinal upset during exercise. Athletes should be careful to not overdo their carbohydrate consumption, particularly before a game or competition. Too many carbohydrates at once may cause temporary refractory hypoglycemia, which is characterised by a short period of low blood sugar and could hurt sports performance. Too many carbohydrates in too little water can also cause gastrointestinal discomfort in some people.
It’s also very important to try new supplements and pre-workout drinks during practice before bringing them to the big game. You don’t want to find out you’d be more comfortable with a lower dose when you’re about to step onto the field. The benefits of carbohydrates depend a lot on your regular diet. People with high-carbohydrate diets will not see as much improvement in their workout from a carbohydrate drink. Similarly, eating a high-carbohydrate meal before exercise will render a workout drink unnecessary. People that eat a low-carbohydrate diet, however, will experience significant benefits.
Beta-alanine is an amino acid that when consumed binds with another amino acid, L-histidine, to create a compound called carnosine. This acts as a buffer for acidity and delays muscle fatigue. Essentially, beta-alanine supplementation will improve your endurance, but there’s a catch. Beta-alanine only works this way for intense exercise, in which lactic acid kicks in after about a minute. Imagine running a fast lap around the track or doing a volume set of squats that feels like the longest 60 seconds of your life. Athletes that train in the 60 second to 240 second range will experience the most benefits from beta-alanine supplementation.
How to take it The standard dosage for beta alanine is in the range of 2g to 5 g. If you have a long workout planned, aim for the higher end of the range. Beta-alanine can be taken at any time of day, but it may be better absorbed if taken with a meal. A common side-effect of beta-alanine is paresthesia, or a tingling sensation on the face and skin, which is harmless but unpleasant. Taking smaller doses throughout the day or using time-release capsules can help reduce the prickling sensation.
Caffeine is a popular stimulant. It is well known for its ability to stave off sleep and can also stimulate the body by increasing adrenaline or dopamine. This effect offers significant benefits for muscular power output. Unfortunately, frequent caffeine consumption will quickly dull the power- enhancing effect. Infrequent caffeine use is the key to experiencing the stimulatory effect every time. This is also why caffeine is not recommended as a base supplement. Despite its common usage caffeine is known to interact with a few pharmaceuticals. It should not be used with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), a type of antidepressant, and can interact with dipyridamole and tizanidine, as well as influence lithium levels.
How to take it Caffeine is most effective when supplemented by people unused to caffeine. If you get excited after a cup of coffee, you’ll probably benefit from caffeine’s effects at the gym. To supplement caffeine effectively, take 400mg to 600mg, 30 minutes before a workout, no more than twice a week. You’ll probably want to save caffeine for the hardest workouts of the week.
If you begin to develop a caffeine tolerance, drop down to one dose a week. It may be necessary to stop all caffeine use for at least a month to regain caffeine sensitivity. It’s worth noting that L-theanine, taken alongside caffeine, will improve attention span and focus without interfering with caffeine’s stimulatory effect. It will also reduce the anxiety associated with caffeine supplementation. L-theanine should not be supplemented by itself for performance enhancement, but it is a proven option for combining with stimulants in this stack. To supplement L-theanine, take 200mg at the same time as caffeine.