While there are plenty of sports nutrition supplements that you can take every day, all year-round, others require a little more strategy. ‘Cycling’ these supplements—taking them for specific periods of time and then not taking them for specific periods—can benefit your health and actually help you reach your fitness goals more effectively.
So which supps are we talking about—and how do you cycle them, exactly? Read on for expert tips.
Creatine, a natural chemical that our kidneys and liver make from amino acids, helps our muscles produce energy. It also supports muscle protein synthesis by drawing water into our muscles and stimulating a compound called insulin-like growth factor (IGF). One of the most widely-researched sports supplements out there, creatine is used to support strength, power, and muscle growth, says Jim White, R.D., owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios.
You want to use creatine when your training and goals are focused on building strength and muscle (think lots of weight lifting and plyometrics). To keep your body from getting too used to the supplement, White recommends cycling as follows: Take three to five grams of creatine per day for 12 weeks, and then go creatine-free for four weeks. Since creatine makes you retain some water, make sure to drink at least 64 to 96 ounces a day when you take it, he adds.
Our muscles produce a type of creatine called creatine phosphate, but there are a few different types of creatine you’ll find in supplements, like creatine monohydrate and creatine HCL, says Brian St. Pierre, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., Director of Performance Nutrition at Precision Nutrition. Creatine monohydrate is the OG and most researched.
When you’re focused on getting as shredded as possible or training for an endurance event, though, it’s time to cycle off creatine.
HMB, or hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate, is a component of the branched-chain amino acid leucine. HMB works to prevent protein breakdown in our muscles associated with intense exercise. A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that three grams of HMB per day helped athletes make strength, power, and hypertrophy gains even while training vigorously.
Like with creatine, White recommends HMB (it’s usually found in capsule supplements) for exercisers looking to build muscle and strength. Since long-term HMB supplementation hasn’t been thoroughly studied, he suggests cycling between eight weeks of three grams of HMB a day (split into one-gram doses) followed by four weeks of nada. He also suggests cycling off of HMB when your goals are all about endurance or getting shredded.
Caffeine, sometimes identified as ‘trimethylxanthine’ in supplements, stimulates our central nervous system, increasing our heart rate, blood flow, and release of hormones like feel-good endorphins to boost our energy and mental alertness. One of the most widely-used performance supps out there, caffeine has been shown to boost endurance and ward off fatigue.
The issue is, caffeine can be addictive and come along with downsides like anxiousness and trouble sleeping. It’s generally safe to consume 400 milligrams of caffeine per day (that’s about four cups of coffee), but White recommends cycling the stimulant by alternating between one-month periods on and off. Instead of going cold turkey in your ‘off’ months, though, just cut your usual dose in half to avoid withdrawal symptoms like headaches and irritability. You should also slowly lower your dosage during less-demanding training periods.
Thermogenics are supplements designed to boost fat-burning by increasing our body’s production of energy and heat by using stimulants to speed up various processes in our body (like our heart rate). They’re typically found in pill and powder form.
Thermogenics typically contain a mix of metabolism-supporting ingredients like yohimbe, caffeine, green tea extract, and cayenne pepper extract. (Learn more about these popular supplements and their ingredients here.)
Since thermogenics contain a solid dose of caffeine, make sure you factor them into your total daily intake. These supps also affect different people differently, so White urges caution when trying them out. “If someone is taking thermogenics, I always suggest starting at half a dose to gauge how they react,” he says. From there, cycle between months on and off of thermogenics, as you would with other caffeine-containing supplements.
When You Can Skip The Cycle
Protein helps us build muscle and keep cells and organs functioning properly, so consistency is key. White recommends including 20 to 30 grams of protein in each meal and snack. For powder supplements, he likes whey protein because it’s quick and easy for our body to digest, and contains amino acids in amounts that closely reflect our body’s needs for recovery and growth.
Branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, can be found in protein supplements—but many training junkies supplement them separately, too. These three amino acids, which include leucine, isoleucine, and valine, are particularly important for preserving and building muscle mass. (Most supps contain a 2:1:1 ratio of leucine to isoleucine and valine.) Experts often recommend between five and 10 grams both before and after exercise.
Glutamine, the most abundant essential amino acid in our bodies, supports muscle protein synthesis (the process through which muscles repair and grow). Since glutamine also supports the immune system, it’s especially helpful if you train hard and often, says White. You’ll find some glutamine in your whey protein supplement, but you can also take it in powder or capsule form. White recommends up to 20 grams throughout the day.
Reference this guide to keep your supplement cycling game on-point: