When it comes to attaining fitness goals like weight loss or building muscle and strength, your workout routine and nutrition is of the utmost importance. Fine-tuning one's diet and training is the key to driving better results, but there are times when you want that extra oomph, you know? Something that will help give you that edge you need to improve your athletic performance and recovery to maximize your hard work at the gym. Although good nutrition helps with this (and should be your main priority), supplements can help give your workouts the support you need.
We're not here to tell you that you need to buy the latest and greatest post and pre-workout supplements to achieve a huge breakthrough in your training. Supplements aren't magic pills. If your diet and nutrition aren't in check, then they'll be useless. So, instead of telling you that you need them or giving you a straightforward answer yes or no, we've laid out the facts for you about pre and post-workout supplements. That way you can decide for yourself if you should add any supplements into your pantry or not.
What are pre and post-workout supplements?
Let's take a step back and look at what supplements are first. A dietary supplement is a term used to describe a blend consisting of a concentrated dosage of essential nutrients, either vitamins, minerals, protein, or antioxidants. More specifically, sports supplements consist of a blend of essential nutrients, amongst other things, that are designed to either boost energy levels, enhance athletic performance, or improve muscle recovery to promote better muscle growth and fat loss.
Post-workout supplements are typically taken 15 minutes to an hour after a high-intensity workout as a way to reduce muscle breakdown and improve recovery in an effort to maximize muscle building. The most popular are...
- Protein powder
This is probably the king of all supplements due to its popularity and versatility! There are several different types of protein powders, but most lifters and bodybuilders typically consume whey protein isolate post-workout. Aside from containing high-quality protein, most (if not all) also contain other essential amino acids that are needed to help promote protein synthesis thus helping those wanting to increase muscle mass. But not only lifters consume this supplement! It's also ideal for those who don't get enough protein from natural protein sources (meat, dairy, poultry, seafood). So, it's not only used for post-workout, others like to include it in their morning protein shakes or consume casein (slow-digesting protein) protein powder at night. It’s also extremely versatile and can be used to create high-protein snacks and for baking.
- Creatine monohydrate
This supplement is the most researched, but not as popular as protein powder. It's commonly used amongst bodybuilders, lifters, and anyone with goals to build strength. Creatine enhances one's training performance by helping your body create more ATP - the main energy store for high-intensity training. So, it assists with rapid ATP synthesis, rapid recovery to assist with building more strength and muscle.
- BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids)
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and BCAA's contain three of the nine most essential amino acids responsible for promoting protein synthesis and reducing the breakdown of muscle tissue. The three BCAA's are - leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They're known to preserve muscle glycogen stores and accelerate protein synthesis to help reduce muscle protein breakdown. This is what makes it a popular post-workout supplement, but some also take it during their workouts for a small energy boost.
This is one of the essential amino acids that is the most abundant in the body. It helps rev up the release of the growth hormone and helps the synthesis of protein (as we know reduces muscle wasting). Those who take it use it as a way to supplement their goals to build muscle mass and speed up recovery.
Pre-workout supplements, as you might have guessed by now, are taken before intense exercise as a way to boost energy levels and support better performance. Unlike post-workout supplements, there aren't many popular supplements taken before a workout, aside from caffeine. This could be from an energy drink, or most popularly, a pre-workout powder. Pre-workout powders contain ingredients like caffeine, beta-alanine, L-citrulline, and sometimes creatine, to help increase energy and focus to promote better performance. L-citrulline and Beta-Alanine can also be taken as a pre-workout alone, but most prefer to buy a pre-workout blend with optimal doses of each of those amino acids. Other supplements might take before a workout are creatine, protein powder, and BCAA's.
We essentially gave you a breakdown of the most popular pre-workout and post-workout supplements and how they can help improve your training and recovery, but those aren't the benefits we are going to be discussing...
All the supplements above contain ingredients that you can get from whole foods. The best protein comes from meat, poultry, and seafood, which also contain most (if not all) essential amino acids. Our bodies also create creatine from those same protein sources. Pre-workouts contain caffeine, so why not just have a cup of coffee before your workout? Or get all these other nutrients from natural sources? The priority should always be nutritious whole foods, but that doesn't mean supplements should be thrown out the window. Here are the three main benefits/reasons you may want to include sports supplements in your diet...
1. They help fill nutritional gaps
Everyone's diet is different. There are people who live a vegan or more plant-based lifestyle (either for personal or weight loss reasons). Others like bodybuilders, athletes, avid lifters, often follow strict diets - some more than others! This can include following extremely low carb diets like the ketogenic diet or paleo diet, and even high-protein diets. If you follow any diet that contains restrictions, especially ones that eliminate entire food groups, chances are you're missing out on crucial nutrients. Supplementation can help bridge the nutritional gap and enhance the nutrient density of your diet to ensure that your body is getting everything it needs to function correctly.
2. Exercise increases nutrient needs
High-intensity exercise like strength training and endurance training requires a lot of energy. This leads to your body using up most of the nutrients you eat, which means that your body will need more nutrients to function correctly than someone who is sedentary. So, you may be following the RDA (Required Daily Allowance) listed for the foods you eat, but you might still be undereating. That can happen because RDA doesn't consider a person's activity level or health conditions. Unless you're tracking your individual macros, you're most likely undereating and not getting enough nutrients from whole foods. Supplementation can help increase your body's nutrients needs, but if you want to make sure that you absolutely need a certain supplement then consult with your doctor, or nutritionist, and consider tracking your macros to see if you're actually eating enough of the good stuff!
3. They give you optimal doses of what you need when you need it
Having a pre or post-workout meal or snack is ideal, but there are two issues with that... First, most people don't always have time to eat before or after their workout and most don't meal prep. Second, snacks or meals might not contain optimal doses of the ingredients you need to give you sustainable energy or improve recovery. Pre and post-workout supplements usually contain optimal doses of amino acids and other performance and recovery enhancing ingredients. Be wary, not all do! This brings us to our next point...
Supplements can be beneficial for your training and overall health, but there are some downsides to them that you might want to consider...
- They are not FDA-approved:
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulated dietary supplements as foods (not as drugs), they are not FDA-approved. According to the law Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, supplement companies do not need FDA approval prior to marketing and place the responsibility on the companies to ensure their products are safe and claims are factual.  Before you get concerned about this, the FDA investigates and takes necessary steps to remove any supplement products from the market if several complaints have been made. They consistently recall products that make false claims in regards to weight loss and bodybuilding and those with potentially harmful ingredients.
To be safe, always do research beforehand about not only the product you're buying but the company you're buying from. Ensure they're reliable and have a good reputation by reading reviews and checking to see if their products are 3rd party tested. Another good word of advice - avoid companies that have proprietary blends.
- Most companies have proprietary blends:
Nearly half of 100 commercially available exercise supplements have a 'proprietary blend'.  If a company has a proprietary blend listed on their nutrition label, that means that the amounts of each ingredient are not disclosed. Therefore, you won't know exactly how much of each ingredient you're consuming, and if it's in the doses you need to actually reap the benefits it says to claim. It's best to stay away from these blends because you want to ensure that you're getting enough of the nutrient you need to either enhance your performance or recovery.
- Unnecessary fillers:
Some supplement companies, in an effort to improve the flavor and texture of the product, will use a lot of unnecessary ingredients that can have negative effects. For example, some companies use soy lecithin and carrageenan as a thickener, but these ingredients can cause uncomfortable side effects that include digestive problems. Other common ingredients used that can cause digestive issues and even spike cravings are artificial sweeteners like glucose syrup and maltodextrin. Luckily, this can be easily avoided by simply double-checking the nutrition label and ingredients list to ensure the supplement your buying has mostly what you need and very few added ingredients (like natural sweeteners) that enhance the taste experience.
Is a healthy diet enough?
Yes! As always, a well-balanced healthy diet is enough to keep your body functioning at optimal levels and get you results. However, supplements are can be extremely helpful for athletes, lifters, or anyone serious about their fitness. They help give a quick optimal dose of nutrients you need and help fill any nutritional gaps you may have due to diet or high activity levels. But, be aware of sneaky proprietary blends, filler ingredients, and do research on the side effects of the supplements you're interested in taking beforehand so you know what you're walking into!
Bottom line is, Not everyone always has time to have three nutrient-dense meals a day that provides them with everything they need, and on those days, it can be helpful to rely on supplements to give you that boost you need. Just don't rely on supplements too heavily, it's all about finding the right balance that works for you!
So, ask yourself, "Should I take workout supplements? Do I need them?". If you do, consult with your doctor or nutritionist about the supplements you're interested in taking to make sure they're safe for you to consume. And if you're not sure about what supplements to take, here's our >> Beginners Guide to Supplements << to help you find which of the most popular supplements you should take based on your lifestyle and fitness goals!