If you’re serious about fitness, you’ve surely gone down the rabbit hole of trying to create the perfect supplement stack for your goals. It goes without saying that you want the supplements you take to earn their keep in your routine—and you’d probably rather be grinding your way to a new PR than spending hours googling which pills and powders you should have in your gym bag.
That’s where this guide comes in. Whether you’re new to the world of sports supplements, are switching up your fitness goals, or just want to make sure your stack is best serving you, we tapped top experts to share their must-haves for every fitness need. Here, they break down the core sports nutrition supplements for those looking to get ripped, pack on muscle, stay fueled through long-haul endurance exercise, and simply feel fit, healthy, and active.
For Getting Shredded
There’s no getting around it: If you’re in get-shredded mode, what’s on your plate really matters—and you’ve got to pack in the protein and fiber. “Ensuring adequate protein and fiber consumption supports shredding goals by balancing blood sugar levels, minimizing crashes, and improving satiety,” explains The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N., L.D.N., C.P.T.
That said, the right supplement regimen can be massively supportive of your quest for barely-there body fat. Whether you’re considering upgrading your routine or creating one for the first time, consider the following options.
1. Green Tea Extract
Epigallocatechin gallate (a.k.a. EGCG) is a flavonoid found in green tea that may help speed up metabolism and trigger the breakdown of fat molecules, according to Michels. In fact, research suggests just 300 milligrams of EGCG has a notable impact on metabolism—and that it may ultimately influence body fat mass. Since you’d have to drink a heckuva lot of green tea to rack up that much EGCG, taking it in supplement form can be a convenient way to reap its metabolic benefits, Michels suggests. Her recommendations: The Vitamin Shoppe brand Decaffeinated Green Tea Extract, which is standardized to 45 percent EGCG and provides 337 milligrams, and plnt brand Green Tea supplement, which is standardized to 45 percent EGCG and provides 125 milligrams of the antioxidant.
Sometimes referred to as just “carnitine,” l-carnitine is an amino acid that’s become a household name for its role in supporting fat metabolism and weight management, according to Michels. How does it work this magic, you ask? Well, it’s got the important job of transporting fats into mitochondria, the energy-producing organelles found in our cells. This means that having enough carnitine in your body is a non-negotiable if you want to turn fats into energy as efficiently as possible (and that’s something you definitely want if you’re currently working on getting ripped).
Read More: 9 Possible Reasons Why Your Fat Loss Has Plateaued
If you’re wondering whether one measly amino acid can make a difference, the proof is in the pudding: Studies have linked carnitine to greater use of fat for energy during exercise and increased overall energy expenditure (a.k.a. calorie burn).
BodyTech’s L-Carnitine 3,000 contains 3,000 milligrams of l-carnitine in Candy Punch or Peach Mango flavor.
3. Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)
A fatty acid found in meat, dairy, and sunflower oil, CLA might seem like an unlikely candidate for helping you shed fat. After all, it is a fat itself! What’s unique about CLA, though, is that it signals genes in the body to turn off fat storage and turn on the burn, which means it really can support your efforts to get ripped. Michel’s recommendation: The Vitamin Shoppe brand Tonalin CLA, which you can take alongside meals to support body fat reduction and enhance lean mass.
For Packing On Muscle
If building serious muscle is your number-one priority, you’ve got to get serious about calories and protein, says Dr. Jacob Wilson, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., CEO of The Applied Science and Performance Institute and member of The Vitamin Shoppe Wellness Council.
1. Whey Isolate
Considering muscle mass is literally made of protein, it’s no surprise that you’ll need to consume plenty of the stuff in order to grow a body of steel. Michels is a fan of whey isolate proteins, which “support easier digestion, enhanced amino acid absorption, increased muscle protein synthesis, and more efficient recovery.” Whether you’re mixing up a shake on the go, adding protein to your morning coffee (what, you haven’t tried that yet?), or refueling after a training session, you’ve got plenty of delicious and high-quality options to choose from. Two versatile classics: BodyTech Whey Protein Isolate, which comes in a dozen obsession-worthy flavors (think Apple Cinnamon Cereal and Cookies & Cream) and True Athlete Natural Whey Isolate Protein, which is NSF Certified for Sport and uses only natural flavors and sweeteners.
If you really want to level up your protein game, a hydrolyzed whey isolate protein powder contains protein that’s already been broken down into smaller amino acid chains, which makes it even easier for your body to put to work in building up your muscle mass. BodyTech Elite’s Hydrolyzed Whey Protein Isolate contains 30 grams of fast-digesting protein.
Creatine is one of the most well-researched sports supplements on the face of the planet—and it’s a must-have for anyone working out to build as much muscle as possible. “Creatine is a compound made from three amino acids (methionine, glycine, and arginine) that aids in increasing muscle performance by promoting a faster regeneration of ATP, a.k.a. energy, within our cells and muscles between bouts of lifting,” explains Michels. “It’s one of the most popular sports nutrition supplements for supporting muscle growth and gains.” Basically, the more energy your muscles have available, the more work they can churn out and the bigger and stronger they can become.
Read More: 6 Factors That Impact Your Body’s Creatine Stores
Since creatine can cause digestive upset in some people, Michels recommends trying Kre-Alkalyn (check out True Athlete Kre-Alkalyn Powder), a buffered form of creatine that tends to be easier on your system. You can also opt for creatine hydrochloride, which has improved solubility compared to standard creatine monohydrate, making it easier on the GI tract. Give BodyTech Creatine HCl a shot if you want to go that route.
3. A Meal Replacement Shake
Since ample calories is so crucial for packing on the size (after all, your muscles need plenty of available fuel in order to grow), meal replacement shakes can be really helpful for anyone struggling to get enough food on their plate to really bulk up. Whether you need something to hold you over until you can get into the kitchen or want to ramp up your overall calorie intake in a quick and easy way, these supplements get the job done. Wilson recommends looking for a meal replacement that’s lower in sugar and has a balanced ratio of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and fiber.
One popular option: BodyTech Elite Elite Food MRP, which provides eight grams of carbs, a gram of sugar and fiber, two grams of fat, and 24 grams of protein in every serving. Instead of the usual whey, it’s made with a blend of different proteins from whole foods like salmon, chicken, and peas.
For Fueling Endurance Training
If you’re heading out for a long-haul run or want to put in overtime at the gym, you need to fuel your body’s ability to go and go and go. Supporting endurance performance is definitely both an art and a science (just ask any marathoner who’s bonked or been struck by the trots mid-race), so be prepared to experiment! Get started with the following endurance training staples.
Both Michels and Wilson agree that electrolytes are pretty much nonnegotiable for anyone exercising for extended periods of time. “Electrolytes are required for many body processes, including conducting nerve impulses, contracting muscles, and regulating fluid balance,” Michels explains. “We lose electrolytes through sweat, so replacing these nutrients becomes vital during long bouts of exercise.”
Read More: Signs You Might Actually Need More Salt In Your Diet
Since we can lose up to 500 milligrams of sodium per cup of sweat we produce, it’s the top priority for any endurance athlete, according to Michels. Beyond that, we lose the most chloride, then potassium, then magnesium, and then finally calcium.
While the thought of loading up on salt might not sound like the healthiest thing to do, in this case, it is! Michels recommends looking for an electrolyte formula that contains between a 2:1 and 3:1 ratio of sodium to potassium. A couple of solid options: XTEND Healthy Hydration powder and Liquid IV Hydration Multiplier Electrolyte Drink Mix.
The branched-chain amino acids (which are leucine, isoleucine, and valine) are famous for their roles in muscle performance and recovery. Instead of being processed in the liver like other amino acids, the BCAAs skip that step and make a beeline for your muscles, where they jumpstart the process of building muscle (called muscle protein synthesis) and can even help produce cellular energy to keep your body firing on all cylinders. You need them to support healthy muscle contractions, says Wilson.
Since our body can’t produce the BCAAs on its own and because they become depleted during longer bouts of exercise, endurance athletes need to restock their bodies on these important aminos in order to continue performing and to recover properly, suggests Michels.
Your move: Plan to incorporate three to five grams of BCAAs into your endurance fueling plan, Wilson suggests. Check out BodyTech BCAAs + Glutamine powder, which provides four grams of the BCAAs plus two grams of glutamine, an amino acid known to help ward off muscle breakdown.
This will come as no surprise to long-distance devotees, but carbs are a must if you want to keep truckin’ without hitting the wall. “Our quickest energy source is carbohydrates so, naturally, most endurance athletes use a carbohydrate fueling method,” Michels explains. “The general rule of thumb is that endurance athletes need between 30 and 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour after 60 to 90 minutes of exercise.” While you could pack actual food with you, many athletes opt for drink powders, gels, chews, and other supplements specifically formulated to provide that jolt of energy endurance fanatics need when they’re on the move.
Michels recommends trying out a few different options in order to figure out what gives you maximum energy with minimum digestive upset. A few of her go-to’s: HD Muscle CarbHD Performance + Recovery powder, GU Energy Gels, and Honey Stinger Organic Energy Chews.
For General Fitness
If you keep your exercise routine pretty casual and simply want to feel as healthy and strong as possible for as long as possible, your supplement priorities are all about longevity! For this crew, the experts recommend thinking holistically about how you can support an active lifestyle for years to come.
1. A Protein Powder or Meal Replacement Shake
The right nutrition goes a long way in keeping you moving (and feeling good doing it). That’s why the experts recommend adding a protein powder or all-in-one shake to your daily routine. “Dietary proteins help promote a variety of health benefits including muscle recovery, satiety, and healthy weight management,” explains Wilson.
If you’re simply looking for an extra boost throughout the day or after a workout, stick with a simple protein. “Protein powders such as whey protein—in a dosage of 15 to 30 grams—are usually the most popular and effective for general health,” Wilson suggests. And if whey isn’t your jam for any reason, you can opt for a plant-based protein such as KOS Organic Plant Protein or GHOST Vegan Protein.
That said, if you want to round out your overall nutrition or sometimes skip out on sit-down meals, a meal replacement (or “all-in-one”) shake might be your best bet. “These options include whole food ingredients such as plant-based protein, fiber, antioxidants, and other vital nutrients for an easy way to cover baseline nutrient needs to support general health and fitness,” explains Michels.” She loves the plnt brand Organic Vegan All-In-One Shake.
Collagen has become a popular supplement amongst people with a wide variety of health, fitness, and beauty goals—and it makes sense that it’s such a multitasker considering collagen is the most abundant protein in the body. “It helps to provide structure to the bones, ligaments, tendons, joints, muscles, hair, skin, nails, eyes, blood vessels, and gut,” Michels says.
Because of its roles in the tissues that make up our joints and muscles, collagen has become a gym-goer’s staple. It’s also important to note here that our collagen production naturally decreases as we age, which makes supplementing with the stuff especially beneficial for anyone who wants to maintain a high degree of health and fitness throughout their entire life, according to Michels.
Read More: 6 Delicious Drinks To Make With Flavored Collagen Powders
The Vitamin Shoppe brand Multi-Source Collagen is a versatile option you can add to your coffee, post-workout shakes, soup recipes, and more. Primal Kitchen’s Collagen Fuel, meanwhile, comes in a couple of satisfying flavors for those looking for something with a little extra pizazz.
3. Something To Support Calm
While supplements that support relaxation and a healthy stress response might not seem like top priorities for fitness, hear us out on this one. Ultimately, exercise is a stressor on your body—and your workouts are only as good for you as you are able to hit the gym with decent energy and recover well. For that reason, Wilson suggests that incorporating something to promote a sense of calm can really move the needle for anyone trying to survive the hustle and bustle of daily life and stay fit while doing it.
“In our ever more demanding society, stress management is vital,” he says. There are a number of different herbs and nutrients you can take in supplement form to throw your body a bone here, but his top three are the adaptogenic herb ashwagandha, the mineral magnesium, and the amino acid l-theanine. Try 100 to 300 milligrams of ashwagandha (which has proven highly effective at promoting healthy cortisol and stress levels), 100 to 400 milligrams of magnesium (the glycinate and citrate forms are a favorite for helping you chill), and/or 100 to 200 milligrams of l-theanine (which is what makes a cup of green tea oh so soothing).
A few solid product options: Vthrive by The Vitamin Shoppe KSM-66 Ashwagandha, Natural Vitality Calm Magnesium Powder, and The Vitamin Shoppe brand L-Theanine.