If you’re someone who puts a lot of time and energy into their summer shred, you’ve probably considered incorporating thermogenic supplements (also known as “fat-burners”) into your fitness routine. Ready to take the leap? Here are some important dos and don’ts to keep in mind in order to maximize your efforts and help you remain realistic about your results.
To unpack thermogenics, we first have to discuss the concept of thermogenesis. If we break that word into two parts, we have “thermo,” which refers to things related to heat, and “genesis,” which is the creation of something. So, “thermogenic” equals “the creation of heat.”
How does our body create heat? Any time we break down food, stored fat, or stored carbs (a process called “metabolism”), heat is released as a byproduct. Heat is simply a form of energy that gets released because we can’t capture every bit of energy, just like a car can’t use every single drop of gasoline.
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Ever think about why you get hot and sweaty during a workout? You’ve increased the metabolism in your muscles. As they break down more substrate, they release more heat as a byproduct. With this in mind, we generally associate thermogenesis with a state of elevated metabolism. Working out is a thermogenic activity, as it increases energy expenditure and thus creates additional heat.
Therefore, any supplement designed to increase metabolic rate is appropriately named a “thermogenic,” a substance that creates heat by way of increasing metabolic rate. The primary method of action for most thermogenic supplements is by “mimicking” our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). When the SNS is activated, we enter a “fight or flight” state in which our metabolic rate and fat oxidation increase while our appetite becomes suppressed. All-in-all, we’re ready to fight or run for our lives, and we’re also in a prime fat-burning state.
Important Do’s And Don’ts For Using Thermogenics
For many folks, a supplement that can replicate SNS activation is a rather attractive concept—but it’s important to understand best practices for utilizing them.
DO: Be realistic about your results
The safest, most effective, and most legal thermogenic is caffeine. Caffeine is the most widely consumed drug in the world and can be found in coffee, tea, dark chocolate, and of course, virtually every thermogenic supplement on the market—and a handful of studies suggest its usefulness in weight-loss programs. From an evidence-based standpoint, caffeine is, by far, the easiest thermogenic supplement to recommend.
Here’s something to keep in mind, though: While caffeine can be useful for many folks trying to lose weight, it may not increase metabolic rate a ton. At best, caffeine might help you burn an extra hundred calories or so each day.
Caffeine will reduce your appetite, which will likely lead to you consuming less food—perhaps a few hundred calories. Still, it’s important to remember that caffeine is not a magic bullet.
DON’T: supplement too late in the day
It’s possible a thermogenic could hamper your progress by disrupting your sleep. If you take a stimulant (like caffeine) before bed, odds are, you’re going to have a rough night of sleep. Interestingly, multiple studies have found that reduced or poor sleep leads to fat accumulation and/or muscle loss, as well as a reduction in resting metabolic rate. To add fuel to the fire (literally), poor sleep also often increases our appetite for satiating foods, like fast food and donuts.
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I’d recommend not consuming caffeine (or any other thermogenic) within about four hours of bedtime. Getting proper sleep is paramount to improving your body composition, so you need to make sure caffeine isn’t interfering with your sleep schedule.
DO: cycle your supplementation
Whether or not caffeine tolerance impacts its thermogenic aspect is up for debate, but with consistent use (about two to four weeks), you’ll likely require more caffeine intake to “feel” the effects. Interestingly, though, studies have shown that even decaf coffee can promote SNS activation in habitual coffee drinkers, meaning the ritual alone may play a role in your overall response.
Read More: How To Fuel An Intense Workout Without Tons Of Caffeine
To avoid developing a tolerance, take a week off from caffeine every two months or so. The thermogenic impact of this week off may be negligible, but it’s worthwhile to ensure you don’t end up consuming absurd amounts of caffeine every day.
DO: Supplement alongside breakfast and lunch
For most folks interested in thermogenics, I recommend trying 100 to 200 milligrams once or twice a day. I also recommend taking it in the morning and early afternoon (right around mealtimes) so that you’re not getting snack-ish between meals. The source of your caffeine intake probably doesn’t matter; coffee, green tea, or caffeine pills should be fine. I’d recommend avoiding sugary sodas and energy drinks as the additional intake of calories will likely negate any metabolic effects of caffeine.
DO: Make sure the rest of your lifestyle is dialed in
If you really want to see weight-loss results, you’re going to have to combine your thermogenic supplementation with an exercise program and a healthy diet. Weight loss is never an easy process, so it’s important to lean on your lifestyle and remember that supplements are, in fact, meant to be supplementary.
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.