Since the dawn of time, humans have been looking for that secret “edge” to be ahead of the competition. Society has pitched us the idea that supplements are the “silver bullet” to muscle growth (hypertrophy). If you’re not growing, then you’re simply not taking enough.
Eh. Maybe, maybe not.
Supplements play a crucial role in supporting micronutrient deficiencies, altering cellular biochemistry, enhancing detoxification, and supporting muscle growth. But make no mistake, there’s a ton of marketing dollars spent around supplements and for a good reason. Forecasts are that it will reach $237 BILLION in yearly revenue by 2027.
Don’t get me wrong … training places a massive burden on the body when it comes to stress and recovery. Therefore, you need numerous tools in your toolbox to ensure you’re adapting effectively.
One of my mentors said, “There used to be these shirts with ‘Live Sore’ blasted right on the front, I guess it’s still even a thing. Soreness isn’t a barometer of a good workout. Constant soreness means you are probably doing something very wrong or just not putting adequate effort into recovery.”
When you train and train hard, you are acutely damaging a lot of systems in the human body. This is not optimal.
“If you are living sore, you are essentially in a chronic state of damage, maybe without recovery or adaptation.” — Dr. Ben House PhD, CISSN, CN, CFMP, FDN, fNMT
Supplements won’t make or break your long-term muscle growth potential. But if you’re really looking to push your physique development, then you need to maximize every possible option.
- Carbs: 25-40g
- Protein: 25-35g
- Fat: 5-10g
- Low-fat/low-fiber meal within 3 hours of training
- Caffeine: 1.3-2.7g per lb of bodyweight
- Consume before 1 pm so that it does not impact your sleep. This may be 11 am for those who are slow metabolizers. I discuss caffeine and CYP1A2 more later in this post.
- L-Theanine: 100-200mg (stack with caffeine)
- Creatine: 3-5g
Pre-workout is fairly simple. If you haven’t eaten in the last 3 hours or so, consume a low-fat and low-fiber meal with a whole food protein source. I suggest something like a 93/7 (93% lean/7% fat) turkey burger with sweet potato fries.
Don’t stuff yourself with too much food … keep it light and easily digestible. Bodybuilding great John Meadows typically recommends cream of rice with chocolate syrup, a tablespoon of almond butter, and some whey isolate. It’s easy to eat, digests quickly, high(er) in carbs, and still contains a solid dose of protein.
Supplementation can quickly become very complex, but we’re going to keep it fairly simple for the sake of this article.
Creatine monohydrate is one of the most well-studied supplements in the history of ergogenic aids, meaning performance, stamina, and recovery enhancers. It’s insanely cheap (< $0.05/serving), available nearly everywhere, and continues to show promise in numerous research venues, such as neurocognitive decline, depression, and dementia.
Caffeine is a no brainer IF you can handle it. I don’t like caffeine for the chronically sleep-deprived (aka most of the American public). Nor do I recommend it for those overstressed or struggling with adrenal or thyroid issues (endocrine-related dysfunction). I think of caffeine as a nice sidekick that we can use when or if it’s needed. However, I don’t like to view it as an “essential” supplement needed to train – that’s a slippery slope and an easy way to get yourself in trouble.
One quick thing about caffeine: If you’ve been down the genetic rabbit hole and had genomic sequencing through popular databases like 23andMe or Ancestry, you know if you possess any alterations in your CYP1A2 enzymatic pathway that affects caffeine metabolism. If you lack this enzyme, your caffeine metabolism will be exceptionally slow, and you’ll likely need to ingest most of your caffeine before noon.
Q: Do I have to eat before training to achieve muscle growth?
A: Technically, no.
Will you maximize your genetic muscular potential? Eh, I would say no based on many personal conversations I’ve had with other experts in the field. Without amino acids in your bloodstream, you are forced to pull them from a non-working muscle to sustain protein synthesis in the working muscle. Thus, it’s a +1/-1 scenario that largely results in a null effect.
Martin Berkhan, founder of Leangains who popularized many of the current intermittent fasting (IF) methodologies, seemed to maintain a substantial amount of muscle mass while training fasted. However, the key piece of that puzzle is how much he had already built before adopting an IF style of eating and training.
Q: Do I have to consume caffeine before I train?
A: Absolutely not. I actually recommend that most people NOT use any form of neurological stimulant because it can easily become a crutch long term. Then, you lose the ability to remain intuitive toward your body’s stimuli.
Q: Why do you stack l-theanine with caffeine?
A: L-theanine is an amino acid typically found in green tea, which has a calming effect when consumed in isolation. However, research has found that when consuming it WITH caffeine, it can help reduce the potential of overstimulation from caffeine that occasionally occurs with high doses, resulting in anxiety, heart palpitations, and muscle twitches.
Q: I usually follow a keto diet, do I have to eat carbs before I train to achieve muscle growth?
A: No, you don’t have to. However, when it comes to lifting weights, you will generally feel better and perform better when you have carbs (aka glucose) already circulating in your bloodstream. Ketogenic diets certainly have their role from a medical standpoint when managing certain conditions like epilepsy. However, from a performance standpoint in high-intensity, short-duration activities, such as weightlifting, it will limit your performance. Research has repeatedly shown this.
Some people feel better when they don’t have carbs in their system before a training session. In this case, those individuals may want to stick with the FAT+PROTEIN approach if carbs make them excessively sleepy.
- Liquid Carbs: 20-30g
- Creatine: 3-5mg
- Sodium: 500-1,500mg
- Potassium: 500-1,500mg
- Whey (Concentrate or Isolate): 20-30g (**Context dependent)
Now, this is where we’ll start to get into more of the subtleties of supplementation.
If you’ve just consumed a pre-workout meal within an hour or two of training, then liquid intra-workout carbohydrates likely aren’t necessary, unless your workout approaches more than 90-120 minutes.
However, if you’re training 3-5 hours after a meal (say after work when your last meal was at lunch), then intra-workout carbs may be more beneficial to keep your blood sugar stable and allow you to train harder for longer. Carbohydrate oxidation (aka the rate at which they’re used up for energy) is maximized at roughly 1 gram per minute. So, realistically you only need about 20-30 grams of carbs with this strategy.
Even if you’re pushing a large caloric deficit, I still believe a few grams of carbohydrates (10-15g) during training can help you really push the intensity. Don’t be afraid to spend the additional 40-50 calories during your workout on the intra-workout beverage because it really aids your ability to push through hard sets.
Like the carb discussion above, if you haven’t eaten for 3-4 hours, you’ll need amino acids in your bloodstream. You will also need some carbohydrates to help stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Whey is typically advocated after a training session, but as I mentioned in the Q&A in the pre-workout section, you need circulating amino acids. Otherwise, you’ll be pulling from hard-earned muscle.
Thus, the simple solution is to add a shake just before training if you don’t enjoy drinking it while you train. Or, make two shaker bottles – 1 with whey and the other with a carb and electrolyte mixture. The electrolytes are added to enhance hydration DURING the session, which can play a role in muscle protein synthesis (aka muscle growth and repair) and recovery after the session.
Q: What if I don’t want any carbs in my intra-workout beverage?
A: Easy fix – sub the liquid carb source with any low/no-calorie water flavoring but keep in the electrolytes for hydration.
Q: What kind of carbs do you recommend for intra-workout? Are there specific brands I need?
A: Ideally, you want something that is glucose-based. Soda will NOT work. Since many are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, they are not an ideal option for your liver in the long run. Numerous sports drinks are on the market, so do some research and find one you like.
- Creatine: 3-5g (if not ingested with the pre-workout meal)
- Protein: 25-35g
- Carbs: 25-100g, depending on goals, training volume, insulin sensitivity, and individual tolerance
- Fat: 5-15g
If you ingested a meal within 2-3 hours of training, there is NO reason to consume a protein shake or meal.
Digestion of a mixed macronutrient meal takes roughly 3-5 hours, so you’ll still have sufficient amino acids in your bloodstream if you ate a full meal 2 hours before your session. Simply wait 20-60 minutes until you get hungry, and then consume another whole food meal or a Super Shake.
This meal should be fairly high in carbohydrates because you’ll be most insulin-sensitive. You will also have the greatest chance of storing the carbohydrates in muscle as glycogen for future training sessions. For my clients focused on maintaining a caloric deficit, this is likely going to be the largest meal for them. I provide the most “caloric leniency” for these meals. In other words, they can sprinkle in more treats or meals out with friends because the extra calories will be put to good use. However, keep in mind that the workout needs to be moderate to high-intensity in order to stimulate the appropriate metabolic conditions, which will put those calories to use.
Q: I thought protein shakes were important after training? What about the ‘anabolic window’ and all that?
A: Good question! Marketing has heavily influenced consumers’ thought processes behind the need for protein in a fast-digesting liquid form commonly found in whey concentrate or isolate.
The anabolic window, as it’s more commonly referred to, is more than likely an “anabolic garage door.” It stays open for much longer than we realize and is actually around for 24-72 hours in novice lifters.
In other words, a new lifter will stay sensitive to protein and additional nutrients for up to 72 hours following a workout. Now, that will slowly decrease over time as they adapt to training, but the leeway you have with consuming nutrients after training is actually much larger than most realize.
On a related note, I’m not a huge fan of protein shakes immediately after training. Some research indicates that there are less than ideal changes to the gut microbiome due to the stress of training and consuming a liquid protein source. Since it doesn’t require chewing and the immune system is already in a heightened state, it is likely not the best idea.
Seriously … you barely talked about supplements and muscle growth?!
This is article is primarily focused on MAXIMIZING hypertrophy (aka muscle growth), which is primarily accomplished through the following:
- Adequate calories (quantity)
- Prioritizing real food (quality)
- Distribution of nutrients around activity windows (timing)
- Maximizing the intracellular environment with a select few supplements. These have been well-studied and shown to produce positive results on performance in humans in multiple randomized placebo-controlled trials. This is the gold standard for research.
This article does NOT cover the immense amount of data on micronutrients, health, and other supplements needed to maximize wellness. That’s another article for another time! Keep in mind, wellness and performance are not the same thing.
One of my professors noted, “Performance is where health goes to die.” What you do to become elite in the performance world does not carry over to optimal health.
With that in mind, I want to leave you with one final thought regarding supplements. They will NEVER replace the immense benefits that whole foods offer when consumed in a varied and diverse diet:
“We propose that the additive and synergistic effects of phytochemicals in fruit and vegetables are responsible for their potent antioxidant and anticancer activities, and that the benefit of a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is attributed to the complex mixture of phytochemicals (more than 8,000) present in whole foods.” — Liu, 2003
Muscle Growth Fundamentals > Supplementals
Play the long-term game and get the basics right. Supplements are only helpful with muscle growth IF you have the necessary nutritional and lifestyle pieces of the puzzle in place.