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Walk the aisles of any nutrition or health food store, and you’re bound to be overwhelmed in less time than it takes to chug a protein shake. But not all supplements are bunk: Research shows that some can help you work out longer or harder, recover better, and facilitate a host of other benefits. Here are 10 that are worth your time.
1. Creatine monohydrate
Bodybuilders have taken creatine powder for years to help them grow bigger and stronger. But it’s not only for muscle heads: An analysis of 10 studies published earlier this year found that older adults following a strength-training program gained about three extra pounds of muscle over three months when they took creatine powder. Creatine occurs naturally in your body and fuels muscle cells during short bursts of energy, such as lifting heavy weights. A creatine supplement makes more of this fuel available for your muscles, allowing you to complete more reps, said study author Michaela Devries, of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
Who it’s for: Anyone who strength-trains regularly and is looking to gain muscle.
How to take it: Start with 10 grams of creatine monohydrate powder twice a day, recommended Dr. Charlie Seltzer. After five days, lower your dose to 2 grams to 5 grams per day.
The muscle-building compound betaine (beet-ah-een) is naturally found in spinach and whole grains. Men who took betaine as part of a six-week strength program gained muscle size and lowered their body fat percentage, according to a 2013 study. (The placebo group didn’t see any significant effects.) The compound works by increasing protein synthesis in the body, which helps build muscle after tough workouts.
Who it’s for: People who are looking to build bigger muscles, who strength-train regularly and aren’t dieting, said Mike Roussell, a former nutrition researcher and the author of “The 6 Pillars of Nutrition.”
How to take it: Twice a day, take a pill with 1.25 grams betaine.
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3. Fish oil
You’ve surely heard of fish oil’s heart-health benefits. Turns out, the popular supplement may also help you exercise harder, leading to greater weight loss. A landmark study in the American Journal Clinical of Nutrition found that overweight people who took a daily omega-3 fish oil supplement lost more weight than those who took a placebo. “When that research first came out, people talked a lot about fish oil being a weight-loss supplement, but that’s not quite what was going on,” Roussell said. So what happened? “The exercise regimens in the study were heart rate–based, so the subjects had to hit certain heart rate targets during their sessions. The fish oil artificially lowered their heart rate, so they needed to work harder to hit their targets — and thus burned more calories and lost more weight.” You can get the benefits without a heart rate monitor as long as you make sure to work out at your usual effort level, Roussell told Yahoo Health.
Who it’s for: Everyone
How to take it: Recommendations vary, but the study subjects took 2 grams of the omega-3s EPA and DHA. Look for a fish oil that’s at least 50 percent EPA and DHA, which suggests it was processed in a way that makes the fatty acids easier for the body to absorb, Roussell said.
This powerful antioxidant improves oxygen delivery to muscles, which may help you exercise longer than you would be able to otherwise, Roussell said. Quercetin has a small but significant effect on endurance exercise performance, an analysis of 11 studies published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise concluded. Recent rodent studies also show that quercetin helps protect the body’s cellular powerhouses, called mitochondria, from exercise-related fatigue.
Who it’s for: Endurance athletes who exercise for an hour or more at a time.
How to take it: Most studies examined a dose of 1,000 milligrams per day. Many brands sell quercetin pills and powders. The brand FRS also makes quercetin sports drinks, chews, and liquid concentrates.
As you probably learned in the first week of eighth grade biology, ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is the most basic unit of cellular energy. It’s almost seems too simple to be true, but taking an oral ATP supplement can affect muscle strength. “I never actually thought this would work,” Roussell admitted. “But apparently it doesn’t get degraded during the digestive process.” Supplementation with ATP boosts strength gains from weightlifting and increases the number of reps you can do during a workout, studies show. Research released last year in Nutrition & Metabolism also found that ATP might help with muscle recovery. ATP supplementation reduced the strength losses that athletes experienced during a two-week period of hard training, researchers discovered.
Who it’s for: Serious strength athletes — the research is still very new, and most studies have been conducted on healthy men who strength-train regularly.
How to take it: Peak ATP manufactures the patented form of ATP used in most research; take 400 milligrams per day.
6. Whey protein
Whey protein is “the supplement that should be on top of everybody’s list,” Seltzer told Yahoo Health. It has been shown to speed recovery from workouts, build muscle, reduce muscle soreness following exercise, and suppress appetite. “Whey protein is more rapidly absorbed by the body compared to other forms of protein, and it creates more of an insulin response. Insulin is an anabolic [muscle-building] hormone,” Seltzer explained. “Exercise inherently breaks muscle down. But whey protein will help reverse that and allow for faster recovery.” In fact, a 2014 study showed that consuming 20 grams of whey protein following a workout increased muscle protein synthesis by almost 50 percent.
Who it’s for: Anyone
How to take it: Mix 20 grams to 40 grams (about a scoop) into water or a shake after a strength workout. If you’re watching your weight, be sure to include the calories from the protein powder in your daily total. Whey isolate has less fat and calories than other forms, but it’s generally more expensive.
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Racehorses were the first competitors to benefit from beta-alanine supplementation. Later, research showed that it benefits human athletes as well. How? Intense exercise — an Insanity DVD, a soccer game, or a 400-meter run — increases the pH of your cells, making them more acidic. It sounds strange, but don’t worry; it’s a completely normal reaction, albeit one that can grind your workout to a halt. That’s where beta-alanine comes in. Your body converts it to a substance called carnosine, which buffers cellular pH. “When you get accumulation of lactic acid, you get fatigue and burning, so when you have extra beta-alanine or extra carnosine, you can work longer and harder without the acid buildup,” Seltzer said.
Who it’s for: People who do competitive, vigorous exercise.
How to take it: A dose of 1.2 grams per day is most effective, according to a July 2014 study.
One of the most effective sports supplements available is probably in your kitchen cabinet right now. “When taken before exercise, we know that caffeine helps improve performance and power output, decreases symptoms of fatigue, helps you work longer and stronger, and acts as a mental focusing agent,” Seltzer said. Caffeine may be most effective for morning workouts, suggests a small study from Spain published earlier this year. The researchers found that a.m. caffeine ingestion improved bench press and squat speeds — but only to the levels athletes could normally hit in the afternoon without taking the supplement. Consuming caffeine in the afternoon didn’t improve performance, but it did hurt the subjects’ sleep that night.
Who it’s for: Anyone who has a doctor’s clearance; caffeine can increase heart rate and blood pressure.
How to take it: Caffeine pills are best because you can control the amount of the drug, Seltzer said. Start with a low dose of 50 milligrams, and increase up to 300 milligrams, depending on the benefits and side effects you notice.
9. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. The three branched-chain amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine, work together to prevent muscle breakdown. Whey protein does contain some BCAAs, but not enough to meet the needs of most people, Seltzer said. BCAAs don’t have any calories and are easier on the stomach than protein powders, which is why he recommends taking both protein and BCAA supplements. “There’s also some independent evidence that BCAA supplementation can help decrease postworkout muscle soreness and improve muscular recovery,” he added.
Who it’s for: Anyone.
How to take it: Look for a 3:1:1 ratio of leucine to isoleucine to valine. Take 5 grams to 10 grams both before and after workouts.
10. Casein protein
Casein protein is known as a slow protein because it forms a gel in the stomach, releasing the protein to the body slowly over time. This makes it an ideal protein to take before bed, Seltzer said, to stimulate muscle repair while you sleep.
Who it’s for: Anyone, provided you can fit it into your daily calorie count.
How to take it: Stir 25 grams to 40 grams of casein protein powder into water or milk before bedtime.
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