A Beginner's Guide to Workout Supplements

The best supplements to take before, during, and after your workout.

When it comes to workout supplements, what you take may not be as important as when you take them. Here’s a simple timing guide to make the most of your fitness program.

Woman taking an exercise break

Before workouts:

Pre-workout nutrition should focus on sustaining energy, increasing performance, and supporting the body’s ability to build muscle and burn fat. Supplements (taken about 30 minutes before you workout) may include:

Creatine monohydrate increases the body’s supply of ATP, a compound that supplies energy to the body. Several studies have found that creatine increases strength and muscle gain when used in conjunction with an exercise regimen.

It’s especially important before performing intense bursts of activity, like sprinting or heavy lifting.

Caffeine improves endurance and performance during workouts, reduces muscle pain, and helps mobilize fat stores. A recent study also found that caffeine prompted otherwise sedentary people to exercise for longer periods of time.

Caffeine anhydrous—or dehydrated caffeine—is the most common supplemental form.

Taurine is an amino acid that’s known for its ability to reduce muscle damage and promote muscle gain. Taken with branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), it also helps reduce muscle soreness after working out.

During workouts:

Hydration is critical, especially during hot weather or extended exercise. Water is best, but well-formulated workout drinks provide energy and replenish electrolytes.

Electrolyte beverages rehydrate the body, and replenish sodium, potassium, and chloride lost during sweating.

Additionally, most offer a source of quick carbs to provide energy and offset fatigue.

Energy drinks are ideal for extended periods of exercise like distance running or biking to improve endurance, provide energy, and assist the body in burning fat stores.

Look for those that contain B-vitamins, green tea, guarana, ginseng, or ginkgo.

L-carnosine helps reduce lactic acid buildup in the muscles, and can also enhance muscle contraction and promote muscle recovery. Several studies have found that carnosine relieves muscle pain and decreases fatigue. If you’re doing a long workout—say a triathlon, bike race, or long climb—consider L-carnosine to reduce lactic acid buildup in the muscles.

After workouts:

Post-workout nutrition is all about recovery and repair; the fact is, muscle strength and building happen after, not during, workouts. During intense exercise, protein is broken down and glycogen stores are depleted. Immediately after working out, liquid meals like smoothies are best, to rehydrate the body, quickly replenish glycogen, and decrease protein breakdown.

Protein is necessary after a strenuous workout to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and inhibit protein breakdown. Whey protein offers a quickly absorbed, easy-to-digest source of amino acids for fast muscle recovery. Look for protein-fortified powders, puddings, and shakes.

BCAAs are absorbed even more quickly than whey protein, since they bypass the liver and go directly to muscles; after workouts, BCAAs inhibit protein breakdown and speed recovery.

Glutamine increases the body’s production of growth hormone, which helps build lean muscles. Glutamine also reduces muscle soreness, speeds recovery, inhibits muscle breakdown, and supports the immune system.

Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) taken after workouts increases lean muscle mass, especially when combined with whey protein; CLA can also be taken before working out, for the same effects.

Lisa Turner is a freelance writer, book author, and nutrition consultant based in Boulder, Colo.

Fat Fighter: Garcinia Cambogia

Want to get the most of your time on the treadmill? A fruit commonly used in Indian cuisine, known as Garcinia cambogia, may help you do just that.

You put in the “sweat equity” with every workout. Want a little more guarantee of return on your investment? Garcinia cambogia helps to boost energy so you can power through your workouts more easily (and it can also help you feel good doing it by boosting mood). And because it causes the body to store less fat and helps release fat stores, it may also help you to look more sculpted and svelte faster than exercise alone.

Scientists began analyzing Garcinia cambogia, a type of tamarind fruit used in Indian cuisine to add a sweet-and-sour flavor to chutneys and curries, more than 40 years ago and quickly identified its active ingredient: hydroxycitric acid, or HCA. Both animal and human studies have demonstrated unique ways in which HCA promotes loss of body fat.

When we eat sugars and carbohydrates, an enzyme known as citrate lyase helps to break down those foods and turn them into fats. Some of these are stored as body fat, and others make up cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood—both of which may be harmful when elevated. HCA reduces levels of this enzyme, blocking the process of fat production.

Instead of being stored as fat, sugars and carbs are converted into glycogen, a fuel that’s stored in the liver and muscles and burned to generate energy. And because the body is producing less fat, it releases existing fat stores to be used as fuel.

The process of raising glycogen levels may also reduce appetite because it signals your body that your fuel tank is full. In addition, HCA has been shown to raise levels of serotonin, the “feel good” neurotransmitter.

Dosage: Take 500–1,000 mg of HCA, three times daily on an empty stomach, 30–60 minutes before each meal. In studies, the higher dose produced more weight loss.

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