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Sports Supplementation 101– Protein, BCAA’s, Creatine, & Pre Workouts explained

Posted Oct 25 2012 1:53pm

Let’s talk supplements.  Walk into any vitamin or health food store and you will feel absolutely overwhelmed. I know I sometimes still do.  There seems to be a supplement for every ailment and every physical goal you could possibly think of.   The supplement world is highly unregulated, and therefore, tends to give people the “snake oil” feeling of wasting their money on fancy pills with false hopes, and rightfully so.  Many claims are unsupported, some supplements even dangerous. However, there are some that have been scientifically proven safe and beneficial when it comes to exercise performance and recovery. 

Lately, I’ve had a lot of people ask me why I take the supplements I do.  Most assume it’s because of the blog/PR work I’ve done with GNC and that it’s just an advertising front, but that is simply not true.  I’ll be the first to admit that I have some vices that borderline possible unhealthy (caffeine! ) but when it comes to my sports supplements, I have done my research and have made the informed decision to take a few supplements based on my needs.  So I wanted to share why* I* take what I take, and maybe give a little insight to some who have been wondering what some of these supplements do.  (This is not a sponsored post, just something I wanted to share.)  This, of course, is going to come with a little bit of anatomy and exercise physiology lesson. But don’t worry; I’ll break it down as simply as I possibly can.
But before we begin, first let’s preface this with the following:  I am an ACSM certified Health Fitness Specialist.  I did spend years slaving away towards a bachelor’s degree in exercise and sport science.  HOWEVER, I am *not* a registered dietician or nutritionist.  Therefore, I can tell you why I eat/take the supplements/follow the nutrition guidelines I choose to, however, I am not suggesting you do the same.   For specific suggestions catered towards you, your goals, and your diet, please consult a registered dietician and/or your physician.  (And, with all of that said, if a “personal trainer” who is NOT a registered dietician ever tries to give you a specific diet plan: run. Run far away.  It is out of our scope of practice and actually against the law. A personal trainer laying down the fundamentals of nutrition…like, apple good, potato chip bad: OK. Specific diet or meal plans for you to follow: big no no.  And that’s your fitness PSA/soap box spiel for the day).  I hate that I have to preface this post with an entire paragraph (long one at that) dedicated to a disclaimer, but unfortunately in the fitness world, “experts” ( I use that term loosely and with sarcasm) are a dime a dozen.  There is A LOT of misinformation out there (you should hear me yell at my computer screen with some of the things I read in health and fitness blogs/online articles), and frankly, we ALL need to protect ourselves, health seekers and professionals alike.  Do your own research, and make your own informed decisions.

Now, while it may seem like another disclaimer, it’s just a simple statement of the truth: not everyone needs supplements. This goes for vitamins, minerals, protein, you name it.  In theory, the average person gets exactly what they need to meet their RDA’s (recommended daily allowance) from both a well-balanced diet and the body’s ability to produce what is needed.   And, since I mentioned GNC earlier, I would love to share with you one of the most impressive and influential moments I’ve *ever* had while dealing with a company that I’ve done promotional work with.  While at dinner with some of GNC’s employees at the CrossFit games this summer, one of the PR guys flat out said “we believe that not everyone needs nor should take our products. It’s designed for those who are looking for or need a little extra”.  I’m paraphrasing, of course, because that was in July and it’s now almost November, and I’m hard pressed to remember what I even had for lunch yesterday, but you get the idea.  I completely respect that sentiment, especially coming from someone who essentially profits from selling these products.  And I whole heartedly agree.   To reiterate: Not everyone needs supplements. But some do. So, let’s finally get on with the ex-phys lesson: (has anyone followed me thus far?). Again, there is a ton of detail I’m going to leave out, as I’m sure you didn’t come here for a lecture on fascinating topics such as cellular homeostasis and my all-time favorite, the Krebs cycle, so we will only cover what is necessary from an exercise “why am I taking this?” point of view. 

Protein is vital for building and maintaining muscle.  Protein can be used as a form of energy during exercise, but is not a primary source, and ranks far behind carbohydrates and fats as far as efficiency.  So let’s just focus on the fact that protein is necessary for muscle synthesis and repair.
Now, the way I explain resistance training to all of my clients is this: when you lift to fatigue, you are essentially creating teeny tiny tears in your muscle fibers.  When you are done exercising, your body goes to work on repairing those microscopic tears.  Except each time you do this, the body not only repairs the muscle, but makes it a little stronger and bigger.  So you lift again, and in theory have to work a little harder to fatigue since your muscle is now “reinforced”.  Tear down, build up bigger. Tear down harder, build up even bigger.   You get the idea.  This is how you achieve muscle growth, or hypertrophy.

 So, as established earlier, protein is what the body uses to repair and build those muscles.  If you break down protein into its smallest form, you get what are called “Amino Acids” (which are often referred to the “building blocks of protein”).  Twenty amino acids have been identified as necessary for human growth and metabolism.  Twelve of these are called “Non-essential amino acids”, and can be formed within the body.  The other eight are called “essential amino acids” and cannot be formed within the body, which is why we must obtain them through food or supplementation. Foods high in essential amino acids include meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and milk.  Protein obtained from vegetables and grains are typically incomplete in all of the essential amino acids.

Now, how much protein does one need per day?  Probably not nearly as much as you may have thought or heard.  According to the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Dietetic Association, and Dieticians of Canada, the average person needs about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (NOT pound.  To determine your weight in kg: take your weight in lbs and divide by 2.2).  Strength training individuals require 2.1 times the RDA, or about 1.6 to 1.7 g protein per KILOGRAM of body weight per day.  Endurance training (hello marathoners!)  individuals need 1.2 to 1.4 g protein per kilogram of body weight per day. *2 So, now you may understand why some people choose to supplement extra protein into their general diet, especially those of us who do not eat the chickens or cows or fish (etc.).  But what about that post workout protein boost you’ve most certainly heard, well, almost everyone in the gym talk about?  What is with those protein shakes?  Studies have shown that the elevation of plasma amino acids (i.e. broken down protein in your blood stream) during recovery stimulates muscle protein synthesis *1   Simply put: protein post workout = faster recovery. Ta da!  Now let’s get a little more in depth. 

  OK so we’ve mentioned already that the smallest form of broken down protein is called amino acids.  Branched Chain amino acids (BCAA) include leucine, isoleucine, and valine, which are all essential amino acids(remember, meaning we need them and our body cannot produce them).  When combined with L-tryptophan (another essential AA), are thought to delay fatigue.  There is convincing evidence that exercise induced increases in the plasma free tryptophan/BCAA ration are associated with increased brain serotonin and the onset of fatigue during prolonged exercise. *3   While studies, scientists, and athletes go back and forth about the conclusiveness of BCAA’s in prolonging exercise or enhancing sports performance, let’s remember what we said above about elevated plasma amino acids helping to stimulate recovery.   Personally, with a lack of animal proteins in my diet, I find supplementing with BCAA’s during and post exercise helps with my recovery as well as insuring I am obtaining more essential amino acids that my particular diet lacks. And speaking of recovery:  there is strong evidence that supplementation with a metabolite of the amino acid leucine (β-hydroxy-β-methylbutyrate, or HMB) does increase fat-free mass and strength.  It acts by decreasing the breakdown of protein that occurs with resistance training.  There appears to be little risk associated with HMB supplementation, and in fact it has been reported to decrease total cholesterol, LDL-C, and systolic blood pressure.*4    CREATINE. 

 I do not take creatine.  However, I am going to cover it in this blog post because a) I’ve had numerous people ask me about it, b) it is one of the few scientifically proven ergogenic aids, and c) Geoff takes it, so it’s in our house.   This is sort of a tricky one to get into without getting too technical.  But basically, creatine is naturally occurring in your body as phosphocreatine (PCr).  Phosphocreatine does a few things, namely it is the very first energy source your body uses (and very, very briefly) before taping into the adenosine triphosphate (ATP) system.   Supplementing with creatine is thought to increase muscle phosphocreatine (the natural stuff) levels, thus enhancing the ATP-PCr system by better maintaining muscle ATP levels.*5   Back in 2000, ACSM published a consensus statement that concluded that when it comes to creatine supplementation, exercise performance in short periods of intense, high power output can be enhanced, particularly with repeated bouts, consistent with the role of PCr in this type of activity.
In super easy terms: In theory, creatine allows you an extra burst of energy before fatigue in short bouts of exercise: one more repetition before failure, another 10 yards of a sprint before failure, etc.
While creatine supplementation appears to have little risk, it doesn’t appear to work for everyone, and has a common side effect of weight gain (typically water weight, but weight none the less). 
Caffeine/pre workouts/thermogenics.
  Caffeine is one of the most widely consumed drugs in the world.   It is known to have metabolic effects on adipose tissue (fat) and skeletal muscle as well as on the central nervous system.   Proven effects include increased mental alertness, increased concentration, elevated mood, decreased fatigue and delayed onset of fatigue, decreased reaction time/faster response, increased free fatty acid mobilization and increased use of muscle triglycerides.   Frankly, I just love the energy it gives me.  A reformed mountain dew addict, I’ve always loved caffeine.  Now, I try to take in some pre-workout to help give me that extra boost to work harder in the gym.  When it comes to pre-workouts and thermogenics (products that increase core body temperature and typically temporarily affect the metabolism), you really do have to be careful. Caffeine alone can cause nervousness, restlessness, insomnia, and tremors.  Other stimulants found in many of the pre workouts can have adverse effects on not only the central nervous system but the cardiovascular system with both blood pressure and heart rates.   Every brand and product is different, so if you choose to take a pre-workout, read your ingredients/content labels, and as always, do your research and make informed decisions.

Obviously, there are countless other sport specific supplements on the market.  The few I have targeted here are some of the most common ones. If you have any specific questions about other supplements, I’d be happy to address them to the best of my knowledge in a future post. Just let me know in a comment below.  I hope this post was helpful!

*While I am an ACSM certified Health Fitness Specialist, all opinions expressed in this post about my experience with these products are my own, and are not a recommendation or endorsement.  PLEASE consult a physician before beginning any supplementation program of your own.
1 - Wolfe, R.R. (2006). Skeletal muscle protein metabolism and resistance exercise.  Journal of Nutrition, 136, 525S-528S.
2 - ACSM & ADA (2000) joint position statement – Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 32, 2130-2145.
3- Davis, J.M. (1995).  Carbohydrates, branched-chain amino acids, and endurance: The central fatigue hypothesis.  International Journal of Sport Nutrition, 5, S29-S38.
4 -Nissen, S.L. & Sharp, R.L. (2003). Effect of dietary supplements on lean mass and strength gains with resistance exercise: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Physiology, 94, 651-659.
5-Costill, D.L., Kenney, W.L. & Wilmore, J.H. (2008).  Physiology of Sport and Exercise. 377-378.   
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