Workout Supplements: What Supplements Should I Take?
By: Vanessa Phillips, BSc, MSc (Nutritional Science)
Edited by the JM Nutrition Team
In this post:
Information on various bodybuilding & workout supplements
What is the best protein powder?
What is the best pre-workout drink?
Best post-workout supplements & best recovery supplements
Best workout supplements
What are the best collagen supplements?
Over the years in our nutritional counselling practice, our registered nutritionists and registered dietitians have been asked a great many questions on strength training, bodybuilding and workout supplements such as protein powder, creatine and collagen.
Here are the top 5 questions that our sports nutritionists and dietitians have been asked, followed by their answers.
What is the best protein powder?
There are some important considerations when selecting protein powder as it pertains to your specific goal.
Besides machines, weights and buff bodies, there’s another feature you’ll likely spot in every corner at the gym: shaker bottles with protein drinks.
Protein is an essential macronutrient that provides a wide variety of amino acids, which are critical to how the body functions. When we consider its role in the fitness industry, protein is crucial for both development and maintenance of muscle mass as well as recovery after exercise.
In addition, protein powders offer an easy and effective way to quickly consume the desired amount of protein, both before and after a workout.
Understanding protein powders as workout supplements
While there are hundreds of protein powder options available, and choosing a protein powder may appear as simple as selecting your favourite flavour, there are a number of considerations to take into account, such as:
What is the base protein?
How much protein does it contain?
What other ingredients does it contain?
What flavouring agents are used?
Base protein: whey, casein & plant-based
When it comes to the base protein, there are three: whey (isolate and concentrate), casein and plant-based.
Both, whey and casein are derived from milk, while plant-based options are often made from a variety of pea, quinoa, flax, soy, chia, brown rice and hemp extracts.
Whey protein isolate vs concentrate
Furthermore, the difference between whey isolate and concentrate is that isolate is more refined, which provides a greater amount of protein with less fat, lactose and carbs per serving. For this reason, it is more expensive than the concentrate option. Therefore, selecting isolate versus concentrate depends on your budget and your specific needs: lower carb, lactose and fat.
Whey vs casein
What’s more, whey protein is a fast digesting protein, which is more desirable for pre- and post-workout nutrition.
Casein, on the other hand, digests more slowly, which is why it is often consumed as a meal replacement or before bed to promote recovery (1).
It’s also important to note that casein, due to its slower digestion rate, can cause bloating and flatulence in some people. As a result, it may not be the ideal workout supplement if you are prone to these issues.
Related: Hard to Digest Foods: Are You Ready For Some Surprises?
Plant-based protein usually contains a blend of different types of proteins because it often doesn’t contain all of the essential amino acids in one source. Pea, quinoa and soy options, however, do.
Plant-based protein powder considerations
Next, it’s important to look at the amount of protein per portion. Typically, digestion of around 20g of protein takes approximately 1.5 hours. Consuming more than this in a serving may result in the excess protein being eliminated.
While that may be considered wasteful, there’s also a risk that this excess protein may pose to health. Higher levels of amino acids may be fermented by gut bacteria in the distal part of the colon, which may cause several problems. Fermentation of amino acids results in the release of acidic compounds, which is not a favourable environment within the colon. Gut bacteria and digestive function are best under conditions where the pH is higher, or more basic.
Plant-based protein powder ingredients
Equally important are the ingredients, when selecting your protein powder.
The type of protein should be the very first ingredient on the list, and any products that contain artificial ingredients, fillers or thickeners should be avoided.
If you see dextrin, vegetable oils, gums, or gluten in your protein powder, it’s best to find another one. These are often less beneficial to your health, so try to avoid them.
Additionally, artificial sweeteners are one of the most common ingredients in protein powders. Sucralose, aspartame and saccharin have been shown to cause side effects such as headaches, digestive issues and even weight gain. Natural sweeteners such as monk fruit and stevia form much better options.
Vega vs Kaha vs Kaizen
Vega is perhaps one of the top-selling plant-based protein brands, while Kaha is a leading natural whey protein option.
Kaizen, on the other hand, is less expensive than these two and offers both plant-based and whey concentrate options.
Vega and the Kaizen varieties contain stevia as a sweetener, which some people may find leaves a bitter aftertaste. In contrast, Kaha is sweetened using natural monk fruit extract.
It’s important to pay heed to this information when selecting your workout supplements to ensure they are suitable to your specific needs.
Related: Plant-Based and Vegan Snacks You Can Buy
What is the best pre-workout drink?
It really depends on what you’re looking to achieve in your workout. For example, are you looking for strength or endurance? This is an important distinction because the diet for strength training differs from nutrition for endurance athletes.
Generally speaking, consume a combination of protein and carbohydrates (typically in a ratio of 1:1).
Equally important is the inclusion of a stimulant such as caffeine, along with an energy substrate such as creatine. These may improve performance, reducing fatigue and boosting general exercise capacity.
Be sure to pay heed to your tolerance of these two latter compounds. Caffeine may interfere with sleep if it’s taken before an evening workout, while creatine may cause digestive upset and water retention.
If you’re unsure about your need for a pre-workout drink, stick to an easy-to-digest protein and carb combination that contains around 15g of each macronutrient, and drink it 30-45 minutes before you plan to exercise (2).
Learn about endurance nutrition tips and misconceptions.
What are the best post-workout and/or recovery supplements?
Post-workout and recovery are critical components of sports nutrition. Helping your body recover, refuel and repair helps to yield results across a number of sporting disciplines. In a quest to achieve this, it is important to consider taking workout supplements soon after the completion of the given exercise.
When to take post-workout supplements
A good quality protein, either in the form of a protein powder supplement or meal containing protein, should be consumed within 20 minutes to one hour after the completion of your workout.
During exercise your muscle tissue breaks down. It’s a fact. To rebuild the muscle tissue and for general recovery, consume protein.
In addition, cortisol, the major stress hormone the body produces during exercise, reduces the effectiveness of protein synthesis, which means you require an additional protein source to mitigate the effects. If you don’t have the right levels of protein, your recovery may be hampered. Therefore, supplement as needed.
Learn more about food and supplements that help to reduce stress.
Best workout supplements
Not only useful as a pre-workout supplement, creatine may also boost muscle tissue growth when used as a recovery supplement. It has been shown that casein may improve the inflammatory response that occurs after muscle-damaging exercise, protecting from further damage that is caused by free radicals (3).
Discover more on creatine.
Bovine colostrum has been used to improve immune function, promote tissue growth and improve digestive function. All three of these areas are of interest in the fitness and bodybuilding industry.
Continuous strenuous physical activity (4) has been shown to increase risk of upper respiratory tract infections, induce tissue damage and reduce the optimal functioning of the digestive system.
Bovine colostrum may be used in supplement form to modulate immune response, increase lean muscle mass and promote improved digestive function.
L-glutamine is one of the most widespread amino acids in the body and makes up around 60% of the total amino acid profile within the muscle cells.
Glutamine has been shown to reduce the risk of post-workout muscle soreness by enhancing muscle recovery (5), protect the digestive system and even regulate the immune system. For these reasons it’s one of the most important post-workout supplements to take. Don’t overlook it.
Read more about L-glutamine.
What are the best bodybuilding or workout supplements?
Here are the best or most important bodybuilding or workout supplements:
We often look to coffee for the fatigue-fighting effects it offers, and it’s the caffeine you may benefit from in your workout routine, too.
As a workout supplement, caffeine may help to increase reaction time and reduce fatigue during exercise.
It should optimally be taken in a higher dose approximately 60 minutes before a workout. Lower doses can be taken during a workout with a small amount of carbohydrates.
If you’re looking for increased strength and stamina, creatine monohydrate can be added to your pre-workout supplement routine (6).
Because supplementation increases intramuscular creatine concentrations, it can help the muscles adapt to a training routine at a faster rate.
Creatine has also been shown to reduce post-workout muscle soreness–a significant benefit for those who engage in strenuous workouts. In addition, it has protective effects against exercise-induced injury and has a great safety profile (7).
Creatine should be taken around an hour before your workout with a portion of carbohydrates.
As a precursor to Carnosine, beta alanine acts as a buffer to reduce the effects of lactic acid. In doing so, it improves time to fatigue. As a result, it’s a great workout supplement.
Beta alanine can be used alongside creatine. It’s best taken with a small amount of carbohydrates.
Beet juice powder has become a popular pre-workout supplement as it contains healthy levels of nitrates, which have been suggested to improve endurance by boosting the delivery of nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood to working muscles.
Sodium bicarb acts as a buffer to acid production. It has been suggested that it helps to balance electrolyte levels, potentially improving recovery times (8).
Sodium bicarb should be taken around 1-2 hours before a workout, preferably with a carbohydrate-containing meal.
What are the best collagen supplements?
Collagen has become popular in recent years because it is suspected that increasing its intake can help to replace collagen in the body.
Furthermore, collagen is an important compound in the body as it is the most widely distributed protein that is responsible for several functions relating to the structural composition of tissues. This is important because the body’s ability to make its own collagen decreases as we age.
Interest in collagen as it relates to the fitness and bodybuilding industry is in its role as a contributor to the connective tissue that is found in muscles. A few small-scale clinical trials have found positive effects on body composition and increased muscle strength when taking collagen as part of a resistance training routine (9).
Collagen peptides: best collagen supplement
Collagen peptides are the most effective form to take as a workout supplement. Essentially, this means that the collagen has been broken down or hydrolyzed into its building blocks, which makes it easier for the body to absorb.
Other forms may first need to be broken down by the body before absorption can take place, which increases the risk of loss of some of the nutrients.
Important to note is that collagen is not a complete protein in that it doesn’t contain all 9 essential amino acids. To make the most of your collagen peptide supplement, pair it with another form of protein to reap the optimal benefits.
If you’re considering taking workout supplements, we strongly recommend to use the information found here as a good starting point to help you achieve your individual goal(s).
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1. Dangin, M., et al. Influence of the Protein Digestion Rate on Protein Turnover in Young and Elderly Subjects. J Nutr. 2002 Oct; 132(10):3228S-33S.
2. Naclerio, F., et al. Effects of protein–carbohydrate supplementation on immunity and resistance training outcomes: a double-blind, randomized, controlled clinical trial. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2017. 117:267–277.
3. Kim J., et al. Role of creatine supplementation in exercise-induced muscle damage: A mini review. J Exerc Rehabil. 2015. 11(5):244‐250.
4. Jones, A., et al. Influence of 4 weeks of bovine colostrum supplementation on neutrophil and mucosal immune responses to prolonged cycling. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 25(6), 788–796.
5. Legault Z, Bagnall N, Kimmerly DS. The Influence of Oral L-Glutamine Supplementation on Muscle Strength Recovery and Soreness Following Unilateral Knee Extension Eccentric Exercise. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2015;25(5):417‐426.
6. Buford, T., et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: creatine supplementation and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2007; 4: 6.
7. Kreider, R., et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017. 14, 18.
8. Koozehchian, M., et al. Effects of Creatine and Sodium Bicarbonate Supplementation on Exercise Performance in Elite Taekwondo Players. The FASEB Journal. 34:S1.
9. Zdzieblik, D., et al. Collagen peptide supplementation in combination with resistance training improves body composition and increases muscle strength in elderly sarcopenic men: a randomized controlled trial. Br J Nutr. 2015 Oct 28; 114(8): 1237–1245.
Vanessa Phillips is a nutritional therapy practitioner and sports nutritionist who specializes in sports supplementation. She has over 11 years of experience in the nutrition, health and wellness sector.
When counselling, Vanessa uses macronutrient distribution to optimize her clients’ individual requirements when it comes to enhancing their athletic capacity.
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JM Nutrition is a nutritional counselling service by registered dietitians and nutritionists operating out of downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada, with locations across Ontario and Nova Scotia.