This article was originally published by Muscle & Performance.
Many of the tried-and-true sports supplements out there can not only boost your workouts, but support your progress and results over time. And as the research on these specific nutrients—and the other nutrients they tag-team with—has evolved, so have the supplements on the market, ensuring you get the biggest bang for your buck. Here are eight of the most popular supplements in fitness enthusiasts’ regimens—and how you can upgrade them to make the most of your routine.
1. Vitamin D
This fat-soluble vitamin is known for supporting health in many different ways. Research shows that diabetics often have low levels of vitamin D, which can support insulin function. “It also helps calcium concentrations in muscle for strong contractions,” says Luke R. Bucci, Ph.D. C.C.N., C.N.S., author of Nutrients as Ergogenic Aids for Sports and Exercise.
Vitamin D3 is particularly beneficial for supporting strength, testosterone levels, immunity, and recovery. “Vitamin D3 controls calcium, which is used as an intracellular messenger, and makes sure there is enough to go around for what cells normally do,” Bucci says. This includes making sure that calcium is available for muscle-contraction cycles. D3 has been shown to be somewhat more effective than D2, and taking it in softgel form helps with absorption.
Dosing: Doses up to 10,000 IU of vitamin D3 per day are safe, but higher doses aren’t necessarily any better than doses between 4,000 and 5,000 IU. “You can check your body status by getting a doctor to order a 25(OH)D blood test,” Bucci says. “You want high-normal ranges to keep vitamin D3 and calcium working for you.”
Try: Nordic Naturals Vitamin D3 is cholecalciferol, the natural, most easily-absorbed and used form of vitamin D. Each softgel provides 1,000 IU of vitamin D3 in organic, extra-virgin olive oil.
2. Whey Protein
Whey protein is a fast-digesting protein source that gets to work almost immediately and provides your body with the amino acids it needs to perform physiological processes and maintain the muscle tissue you’re training. After workouts, whey quickly supplies aminos to start the muscle repair process triggered by intense training.
Upgrade: Casein protein
Your body needs protein before and after workouts, and science has long supported whey’s effectiveness in this regard. Recent research, though, shows that casein, the slow-digesting fraction of milk protein, delivers results equivalent to whey when taken after workouts. Because casein releases amino acids for longer than whey, it continues to stimulate the muscle growth process for longer. Research also shows that a combination of whey and casein consumed after workouts is better than either alone, because it offers the benefits of both immediate and sustained delivery.
Dosing: Take a mix of whey and casein proteins before and after workouts in an amount that serves your protein needs based on what you’ve recently ingested, the intensity of your training, and your body weight. As a rule of thumb, aim for about 0.25 grams of protein for every pound of body weight before and after working out, split evenly between whey and casein. In other words, a 180-pound person would take about 45 grams of protein before and after training, which works out to about one scoop of whey and one scoop of casein.
3. Whey Protein Concentrate
Among the least expensive forms of whey protein, whey protein concentrate is processed so that of the carbs and fats remain in the supplement. (Generally, concentrated forms of whey are about 70 percent protein.) In addition, the protein molecules in concentrates tend to retain their longer amino configurations, so they must be broken down and reconfigured to be utilized for muscle-building.
Upgrade: Whey hydrolysate
“Hydrolysates are proteins broken down into much smaller units of two to three amino acids,” Bucci says. (About 90 percent of the calories in whey hydrolysates come from protein.) These small molecules are able to be transferred directly into your intestinal cells—more quickly even than single, free-form amino acids—so they’re available to support muscle tissue and recovery as quickly as possible. Plus, hydrolysates spur a stronger insulin response, an effect many athletes seek to help shuttle nutrients into the muscles post-workout, but may want to avoid at other times of day.
Dosing: Use whey hydrolysate around your workouts and other forms of whey at other times of day.
Try: Optimum Nutrition Platinum Hydro Whey is made with hydrolyzed whey protein isolates for fast delivery. Each scoop contains 30 grams of protein with just 1 gram of fat and 2 grams of carbs.
4. Multivitamin And Multi-Mineral
A daily multivitamin and multi-mineral provides a range of nutrients to help make sure you don’t have any deficits in your nutrition program. In doing so, it supports immunity, helps you recover from training, and supports muscle growth.
Many athletes and bodybuilders have low levels of some minerals, like zinc and magnesium, even if they take a multi, because those minerals are used during intense exercise. So, while you may take a multivitamin and multi-mineral, it may not necessarily help boost the levels of these minerals—especially if it contains calcium. “Your body preferentially takes in calcium over magnesium and zinc, reducing your absorption of these other minerals,” Bucci says. (Even when you’re already low in them!) ZMA was designed to help you overcome this physiological quirk, while also supporting better sleep, exercise recovery, and performance.
Dosing: Take your multivitamin and multi-mineral in the morning or earlier in the day with a meal, and take a dose of ZMA (usually about 450 milligrams of magnesium and 30 milligrams of zinc) on an empty stomach before bed. If you’re having a bedtime snack, take your ZMA about 30 minutes before eating or drinking your protein shake (which may be high in calcium), so the zinc and magnesium have time to absorb.
Try: BodyTech ZMA Tech contains 30 milligrams of zinc, 450 milligrams of magnesium, and 10 milligrams of vitamin B6, which has been shown to support muscle strength, size, and recovery when used in conjunction with intense weight training.
5. Fish oil
Fish oil is one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, healthy fats that are scarce in the diets of most Americans, since many of the foods we eat are high in omega-6s. (Omega-3s help support heart health, brain health, and provide numerous athletic and physique benefits, such as supporting muscle and joint health.) Because our omega-6 intake is so high, eating foods high in healthy omega-3s often isn’t enough to correct our imbalance, which is where supplements come in.
Upgrade: Krill oil
Krill oil is derived from tiny crustaceans that reside at the bottom of the food chain, which is important for ecological and health reasons. You see, the krill harvested from Antarctic waters contain fewer contaminants because their food supply and environment are far less tainted than those of other aquatic sources of omega-3s. In addition, “krill oil is more bioavailable, allowing your body to absorb more omega-3s because krill oil mixes easily with water,” Bucci says. “The phosphatidyl form of omega-3s, which is more plentiful in krill than other fish sources, is the precise type of omega-3 molecules our bodies use in cell membranes.”
Dosing: Take up to one gram of krill oil at meals throughout the day, aiming for a total of up to two grams per day.
Try: Natrol Omega-3 Krill Oil is a unique source of cardio-protective omega-3 fatty acids that supports heart, joint, and brain health.
6. Creatine Monohydrate
Creatine monohydrate has long been the most popular sports supplement for those seeking increases in strength, performance, and muscle mass, and works in a few different ways. First, it donates phosphate to the process that produces ATP, the form of energy that helps your muscles fire. Second, it pulls fluid into muscle cells, which helps them function properly so they can grow stronger. And third, it supports our production of insulin-like growth factor-1, a hormone that supports anabolism, the state in which the body grows and builds.
Beta-alanine is an amino acid-like compound that enhances creatine’s benefits. Beta-alanine combines with the amino acid histidine to form carnosine, which reduces the buildup of hydrogen ions in cells to ward of muscle fatigue and boost performance and endurance. “Carnosine is a reservoir for zinc and also a buffer to soak up excess acid produced during intense exercise,” Bucci states. Research shows the combination of creatine and beta-alanine is more effective than either alone.
Dosing: Take three to five grams of creatine monohydrate before and after workouts for a total of up to 10 grams per day. Combine these doses with one to two grams of beta-alanine for a total of up to four grams per day.
Try: AllMax Nutrition Beta Alanine helps ward off muscular fatigue, so you can increase your performance output.
Arginine is an amino acid that’s necessary for the production of nitric oxide, a gas molecule that allows blood vessels to relax so more blood, oxygen, and nutrients can be delivered to working muscle tissue. Arginine also supports growth hormone levels and the release of insulin, both of which also support your results.
You do need arginine to support nitric oxide production, but the amino acid citrulline may be even more crucial because it converts into arginine. In fact, recent research indicates that citrulline supplementation actually boosts arginine and nitric oxide levels more effectively than arginine supplementation. However, research also shows that taking a combination of arginine and citrulline may be even more effective in boosting nitric oxide levels than taking either on its own.
Dosing: To enhance muscle pumps, take three to five grams of arginine and three grams of citrulline about 30 minutes before strength training to support arginine production and nitric oxide conversion.
Try: Kaged Muscle Citrulline powder is designed to support muscle pumps and growth. Each serving contains two grams of pure L-citrulline, which has been shown to be more effective than the commonly used L-citrulline malate.
This stimulant heightens your central nervous system response (think faster heart rate and higher blood pressure) to support mental and physical performance, and support your metabolism.
Upgrade: Green tea extract
Green tea extract is another option for supporting your metabolism. “It does so because it contains epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a thermogenic catechin that helps prevent norepinephrine—a stimulating brain hormone that signals cells to utilize fat—from being broken down,” Bucci says. While caffeine encourages the release of fat from storage, green tea extract helps assure that the fat will be utilized as fuel.
Dosing: Take up to 200 to 400 milligrams of caffeine, whether by drinking coffee, strong tea, or a pre-workout supplement, along with 500 milligrams of green-tea extract standardized for EGCG within two hours of your workouts. “Note that caffeine blocks and reduces creatine uptake into muscles,” Bucci says, so separate your caffeine and creatine intake by an hour to dodge this effect.
Try: The Vitamin Shoppe Green Tea Extract contains 250 milligrams of green tea extract (from 30 percent EGCG) per capsule.