Why I Don’t Use Exercise Supplements

The world of exercise supplements is full of lies. There’s the obvious bullshit cashing in on pop culture and the gullibility of the masses, like the stuff endorsed by Jillian Michaels or “The Situation.” But there’s also the more subversive lies, the ones that are “backed by science” which sometimes manage to mislead even the most savvy exercise enthusiasts.

We all know that statistics are easy to manipulate, and studies are constantly surfacing that contradict older studies, yet many people still fall victim to misleading claims from supplement companies.

Why?

Because people want a shortcut.

Don’t Believe the Hype
All supplement claims are based more on hype than evidence. The next time you read a positive supplement review, check to see if the magazine or website that you read it on happens to sell the product or receive sponsorship from the product’s manufacturer. As for other claims? Don’t underestimate the power of the placebo effect. A lot of people tend to just see what they want to see. Besides, once you’ve spent your money on a product, it’s harder to admit you were mistaken.

There are a couple of supplements that might actually have some impact on your training (ya know, like, if you’re a pro athlete or something), so let’s take a look at the few that are even worth disputing. The first of them is something most Americans are already using.

Caffeine
Anyone who’s had a strong cup of coffee knows that caffeine can give you a temporary boost. Your heart speeds up, your pupils dilate and you feel a sense of heightened awareness. There are numerous studies that have concluded that large amounts of caffeine can help endurance athletes, but hey, studies can be shown to “prove” just about anything.

I’ve tried using caffeine before running but never observed any significant benefits from it, so I don’t anymore. If I’m putting a potentially harmful chemical into my body, it might as well give me some sort of benefit that I can feel.

Protein Powders
Even though they taste bad and give most people a stomach ache, protein powders are among the top selling exercise supplements in the world. The rhetoric about how you’ve got to get tons of protein to grow is so powerful that it makes most people ignore the taste (and their irritable bowels) while they continue to shovel scoop after scoop of this crap into their bodies. Oh, and if you don’t have your protein shake immediately following your workout, you’ve just wasted your entire life.

Of course you need protein to synthesize muscle growth, but you can get plenty of it by eating real food. A 6-oz. steak has over 50 grams of protein, plus it feels a hell of a lot better in my belly than a shaker full of sludgy water.

Creatine
Creatine is a substance that is naturally found in the body (it’s actually a fuel source used during muscle contraction), by supplementing with it, you’re simply stocking up on extra so that you don’t run out as quickly (I know it’s a bit more complicated than that, but I’m trying to keep this brief). Studies have shown creatine to be effective in producing short-term strength gains and it will give you “the pump” – your muscles will swell up and retain water, making you a little stronger and bulkier.

After the “loading phase” in which you’re directed to take creatine several times a day, you drop down to a simple once-a-day dosage. Even though my chest got puffed up and I added a few pounds to my deadlift while taking creatine, after several weeks when I cycled off (the long term effects of ongoing creatine use are still unknown and potentially dangerous), all of the strength and mass I gained while taking the supplement went away with it. That’s still more than I can say for the other supplements on this list though; at least creatine actually helped my strength while I was using it.

Amino Acids (Glutamine, BCAA’s, etc.)
Amino acids are often referred to as the “building blocks of muscle” so it would make sense that adding them into your beverage in the form of a powder would mean more muscle. At least that’s what I thought when I started supplementing with glutamine ten years ago. However, after several weeks the only difference I noticed was that I had less money in my checking account (it also made my smoothies taste chalky). Remember that steak with its real-food protein goodness? It has all the amino acids you’ll need.

See For Yourself
I came to these conclusions after my own personal experiments with supplements over the years, but if you’re the type of person who just has to see for yourself, there’s no substitute for firsthand knowledge. Obviously there are a lot of people who disagree with my views, as the exercise supplement business continues to be a multi-million dollar industry.

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  • Minataja

    Protein powder doesn’t magically add any more muscle than any other good protein source. It is simply a supplement, that can aid to increase protein in ones diet without adding too much calories. It isn’t superior to regular food, really. It can help to quickly supplement a meal to increase protein content, but any more than about 2g of protein per kg of bodyweight doesn’t have sizable effects anyways.
    For the price of protein powder you can buy a lot of healthy food. But sometimes people don’t have time or are frankly too lazy to cook something healthy up.
    True thing, none of these supplements are an requirement for optimal muscle gain and fitness.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Protein powder definitely isn’t a requirement to gain muscle!  I’d actually go a step further and say that it is a detriment. 

  • http://twitter.com/JoeSputnikPI Rich Cook

    I’m curious what your  opinion is on the supplements, etc. that Tim Ferriss recommends in The Four Hour Body (I assume you’ve read it or at least know of it).  He recommends the PAGG stack and other things and gives lots of anecdotal evidence from his personal experience.

    My other question is born of my skepticism: what if you can’t get (due to work time, cooking ability, etc.) to get the amount/quality of real/good foods. I’ve always heard that supplements fill in the gaps in our diet. I feel like the ‘reasons’ for not getting enough high-quality food are just excuses and laziness (on my part, I mean) but wonder about the validity. What is your perspective on supplements to fill in the gaps in our diet?

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeremiah.boothe Jeremiah Boothe

    Hey Al!  Great article

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeremiah.boothe Jeremiah Boothe

    Hey Al!  Great article.  I too have spent way too much cash on supplements thinking they were the key to strength and mass gains only to be severely disappointed and broke.  As another person on here said and I totally agree with is that we have to understand what kind of animal we ar@AlKavadlo:disqus and where we came from and how we ate to really understand the types of food we evolved to handle.  Once I cut out the garbage including the heavily processed supplements and adopted the philosophy of eating almost 100% foods that were pulled out of the ground or came off a tree I have made tremendous gains in strength, stamina, and energy.   Anyway the point is I have spent at least a few thousand dollars or more in my lifetime on supplements and I have no lasting strength or muscle gains to show for it.  All of mine come from when I have eaten the healthiest and truly most natural diet I can.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Hey Rich – I am personally opposed to ALL dietary exercise supplements.  To quote Herman Hesse, “If a man has nothing to eat, fasting is the most intelligent thing he can do.”

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Jeremiah!  Keep eating real food!

  • Sandip

    woh….guess what i was about to take a supplement thats supermass 600 whey…..but i really have changed mah mind after reading all your 
    comments……thnks a lot 

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks for the comment!  Glad to have saved you from having to stomach that sludge!

  • Dan

    If I’m to adhere to the Buddhist principle of believing only what agrees with my reason, I must say that I have no trouble at all believing that glutamine supports strength and muscle mass in exactly the way that various studies claim it does. I took it in 2006 when my sole physical goal was to become as big and strong as possible. It was as if all my hard training and disciplined eating up to that point had turned my body into a well-oiled lock, just waiting for the key that was glutamine. The sense of being borderline-sick that sometimes occurs after a brutal workout was vastly diminished. My muscles stayed sore for a dramatically shorter time than before, and got bigger and stronger more quickly.

    It’s obviously good to be skeptical of studies, especially when those funding them stand to win or lose by the results, but it’s dogmatic and unfair to dismiss any individual study out of hand. I have not closely examined the claims that glutamine supplements inhibited wasting syndrome in bedridden patients, or that it enhanced the strength training program of the University of Washington football team, but based on my own experience, I have little trouble believing these things.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Hey Dan – If you feel like you are getting results from glutamine supplementation then you have my blessing to go ahead with it. I personally did not feel any notable changes when I used it.

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  • http://www.nutrahealthsupply.com/ Bodybuilder Supplements

    I really agree with your sharing that exercise supplements is full of lies. All types of exercise supplements use can damage human body at internally and many times it leads to death so anybody can’t use exercise supplements for healthy fitness that’s my suggestion to all people.

  • Make-a-Difference ;>

    Congrats on your work here Al! 

    My 2 cents as a fitness nut since 1978  (footballl, powerlifting, MTB, running,  and Kite surfing) + a healthy life coach is simple: Smart training cycles + eating enough good food + enough good rest is about all you need to progress.   

    The most common mistake I see from motivated newbies are over-training & undereating & under-resting:

    ex:new trainees who come into the gym with a 6 day double spit wortkout that they saw in one of the Supplement mags….oooops  I mean Fitness Mags :->

     To gain mass you need more healthy calories than you burn and to allow your body time to recover.

    But wait some say, Mr Olympia (A.ka. Mr Steriod with great gentics 6 hard training) trains 6 X a week…..yes becuase he is on the juice and so recovers faster until he totally f____ks up his hormonal system, gets bitch tits and can not get it up with the ladies.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks!  I concur!

  • Branl

    I always think vitamins are pretty crap, And I also think the sources of the tablets are in it for profit, Nothing beats a nice good meal.  You cant take all the vitamins they like, but a good healthy meals is perfect.
    If you go into Holland and barrett they have shelf fall of vitamins, its a complete joke.  Even cod liver oil in my view is a joke, it pretty crap, I would rather just eat fish.

    The perfect combo- eating, strength training, and some form of raising you heart beat regardless of what it is.

    To many choices in life really cause havoc on our minds. I think we need to take  some learning from the past, old time. 

  • Branl

    Indoctrinated Al since we were born into a false and corrupt society, money rules over human life were ever you go, as long as the elite rich control the money flow, then there will always be people making profit from anything in this life. It filters down through the system.

  • Branl

    I used to take protein powder until I learnt what rubbish it was and how I was brain washed by many mags, media, health shops, muscle building video etc
    To be honest I can go without meat for a week and it does not bother my body one bit.  I do take vitamin B, but only due to my mood, and feeling down a lot which is part I think of life, in some people.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Good thing you eventually came to your senses!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Yeah – those capsules and pills are a waste!  Good ol’ food is all you need!

  • Rivu

    what about “The Warrior Diet”, do you think it good for an active individual?????

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    I don’t know much about that program but if it encourages you to eat real food and avoid processed crap then it’s okay with me!

  • RobertP

    Al,
    You’re nowhere near old enough yet to discount the benefits of some supplements. As you age, the hormonal and other beneficial secretion processes of the body fade and certain types of supplements will do wonders for you. One example are the digestive enzymes, no point in eating a healthy diet if your digestive assimilation is deficient and the food just sits in your gut and putrifies. You need to be about 50+ before you realize the obvious benefits of that supplementation though. The natural testosterone boosters like tribulus are something that will do wonders for you mentally and physically, it only takes a minuscule t-boost to make a huge difference. Again this is something only the 40-something-plus crowd will notice. There are quite a few others, but I’m not really prepared to write a thesis at this point. The main idea is that when you’r in your prime of life as you are, minimal to no supplementation works, but as you age, you will find more than a few that are truly beneficial in maintaining an active lifestyle and healthy body, and the ones I mentioned don’t cost all that much either.

  • http://www.goldmedalbodies.com/ Andy Fossett

    Truly, we all have different needs at different ages, and even as our goals change.

    For most “healthy” people, supplements aren’t necessary (though they may offer certain benefits in some cases).

    Glad you’ve found what seems to work for you.

  • RobbyTaylor

    Agreed. This post is talking more about supplements that are marketed to increase performance; stuff you would see in bodybuilding magazines and such. Supplements that are for some sort of specific deficiency is a bit different, because, as Andy said, most “healthy” people are just fine without supplementation. I used to take amino acids, but I stopped buying them because the benefits, in my mind, felt as effective as a placebo. I currently take an EcoGreen multivitamin with green superfoods by NOW foods, just to make sure I cover any general bases that I’m missing in my diet, and a Hyaluronic Joint Complex supplement by Source naturals, which I really do feel helps my joints recover and feel stronger. I also give one of the hyaluronic acid tablets to each of my dogs a day; they’re about 10 years old and when they take it regularly they get up and walk more easily and are just generally more playful. I sometimes have a protein shake, not necessarily to try to put on mass (which would require I eat a LOT more), rather simply to get my calorie intake up. I have to eat a lot anyway and it’s just an easy addition, plus post workout it’s nice to have that quick digesting liquid, then I’ll go take a shower then eat an actual meal.

  • urutu

    What about taking some honey and black seed oil al? they are all liquid and natural? do you ever get in touch on them or givin a try?

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Never heard of black seed oil til now. I’m down with raw honey though: http://www.alkavadlo.com/2010/08/31/make-your-own-sports-drink/

  • Costa

    Hi guys,

    Let me give you my opinion on the
    subject.

    You are discussing who is right and who
    is wrong.

    In fact, it may be that Al is right and
    the pharma industry too.

    Let me explain you my point of view.

    I am 57, had been doing a lot of
    calisthenics in my youth without any supplement.

    Now I started again 3 years ago with
    some calisthenics.

    I am trying to get about the volume of
    H.Walker to make it efficient.

    I am a hard gainer, and can tell you
    that if I don’t add some whey supplements, I just burn my beef again.

    As I am MD, I tried to understand the
    stuff better.

    There is some food intolerance in my
    family for sure.

    As to myself, I have a very fast
    transit of small bowel.

    As such proteins are probably gone for
    some portion, without being absorbed, or being processed only
    partially. No true malabsorption, but just a fast transit time.

    This is obviously not the case of
    Herschel Walker for instance. Probably also not the case for Al.

    I love what he says that we don’t need
    any supplements, but in my case it’s just not true.

    Now, of course, it would be different
    if I heeded my food intolerances, and started a treatment.

    But I can tell you, it’s quite
    cumbersome, to avoid all products you are intolerant to.

    To begin with, it’s just a new science,
    and we don’t know yet all the stuff we don’t tolerate.

    It is very common. I suppose most
    people’s digestive system is far from perfect.

    Besides, industry makes the stuff even
    more complicated.

    To give you only one example: commonest
    food intolerance is towards gluten. A protid contained in grains. But
    gluten content of bread has grown tremendously those 30 last years,
    as it is easier to be processed by machines.

    So if unfortunately you are intolerant
    to some foods, as most people are, you can try to do without protein
    supplement. But good luck: it’s really complicated and cumbersome.

    But you can still try it. For instance
    you can cut by 90 % your gluten supply. Eat just rice !

    It has only 10% of the gluten content
    of bread.

    I love calisthenics and all your
    comments !