In the world of sports supplements it can get very confusing. It seems that every new supplement makes bold promises, and on top of that there are hundreds of blogs, reviews, and “studies” that contradict one another. The truth is, that no matter how you slice it, the supplement world is confusing.
It seems like every week I have a new friend, client, or family member preaching to me about the latest and greatest supplement. Ironically most all these supplements die off at some point. They just can’t withstand the test of time. The initial marketing of these products is always intense! It captivates many people, and convinces them that they have found gold.
You see many times people are so caught up looking for the “next big secret” that they forget to focus on the core foundation.
There are however a handful of supplements that have weathered the storm. These supplements may seem simple to you, but they can be considered the concrete foundation of muscle growth. So instead of me going through and exposing the hundreds of fraud supplements out there, I would rather give you what I consider the 4 most important supplements for muscle growth!


I get it… not the most exciting supplement. I don’t expect many people to take it seriously when I explain to them that staying properly hydrated can boost their performance in the gym substantially. I would even be bold enough to say that this may be the hands-down most important performance supplement.
The main reasons dehydration has an adverse effect on exercise performance can be summarized as follows:
Human Body and Water Intake

  • Reduction in blood volume
  • Decreased skin blood flow
  • Decreased sweat rate
  • Decreased heat dissipation
  • Increased core temperature
  • Increased rate of muscle glycogen use
  • Losses in excess of 5% of body weight can decrease the capacity for work by about 30% (Armstrong et al. 1985; Craig and Cummings 1966; Maughan 1991; Sawka and Pandolf 1990). Imagine going into the gym with only 70% of your capability. This can make a major ding in overloading yourself to the point of adaptation. Not to mention with an increased rate of glycogen utilization your rate of fatigue will be sped up.

    Recommendations: Everyone’s water intake can vary, the size of the person, the intensity of the workout, and the temperature of the training environment are just a few things that play a role in water intake. Below are some recommendations from WebMD
    One to two hours before your workout, drink 15 to 20 ounces of water
    15 minutes before you begin, drink between 8 and 10 ounces of water
    During your workout, drink another 8 ounces every 15 minutes.


    Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for our brains and provide our bodies with adequate energy to perform at high levels. When carbohydrates are eaten they are eventually digested and broken down into smaller sugar molecules called glucose. These glucose molecules are stored in the liver and muscles to be used for fuel (glycogen), especially during physical activity. Carbohydrates can and will improve athletic performance and delay the onset of fatigue.

    In addition to energy, carbohydrates provide a protein sparing effect. With proper glucose levels and reserve glycogen stores, our bodies are less likely to break down protein for energy. This frees up protein to focus on rebuilding tissue.

    The Data: An early study on diet and sports performance demonstrated exercise capacity nearly doubled in a controlled group with higher carbohydrate diets compared to a group on a normal mixed diet. In contrast a third group consuming low carbohydrates showed a substantial decline in exercise capacity compared to the normal mixed diet group. Source: Adapted from Bergstrom, J., Hermansen, L., Hultman, E., Saltin, B. (188)

    Resistance trainers who consumed a relatively lower energy diet containing a moderately low amount of carbohydrate had decreased muscle endurance after 7 days of the diet, on the other hand those who consumed the same amount of energy but with 70% of the energy coming from carbohydrate, maintained their endurance at baseline levels (Walberg et al., 1988).

    Conclusion: Evidence in many studies suggests that carbohydrates are directly associated with sports performance. It is recommended that those looking to increase aerobic capacity or maintain / build muscle, consume a relatively higher amount of carbohydrates in their diet compared to an inactive person.

    Recommendations: Most experts recommend approximately 50% – 70% of your daily caloric intake come from carbohydrates. This will of course depend on the intensity and duration of your training bouts. There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest and acute change in performance by consuming carbs at certain points in the day, such as pre / post workout. Again this is generally anecdotal and lacks enough evidence to support the position.


    Possibly one of the single most studied sports supplements on the market is Creatine.. In addition to being a scientifically backed and proven performance enhancing supplement, there are many misconceptions surrounding it.

    I do want to discuss just a handful of these myths, but before we do that, lets talk about what Creatine is and why it can be important for athletes and weight trainers.

    Creatine 101
    Creatine is a compound found naturally accuring in the human body, specifically the muscle cell. Creatine can be synthesized by the body and obtained through our diets. Good sources of dietary creatine would be fish and beef.

    Creatine can be found in 2 forms within the body, free floating creatine, or creatine phosphate (CP). CP is simply creatine with a phosphate attached to it. During muscle contraction, Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) breaks down and utilizes part of its phosphate group turning it into an Adenosine Diphosphate (ADP). This is where CP comes into play. CP lends its phosphate to the ADP to recreate the ATP.

    Long story short, a fully creatine saturated cell can increase your first 5 seconds of work to around 10+ seconds of work. For athletes such as Bodybuilders and PowerLifters, this can greatly benefit their training.

    FACT: Supplemental creatine, specifically creatine monohydrate, is one of the single most scientifically studied sports supplements in history. Creatine has been proven to increase sports performance in numerous clinical studies.

    Unfortunately, there has been a lot of negative press surrounding this supplement. Here are just a few myths regarding creatine.

    MYTH 1: Creatine harms your kidneys and liver.

    Through several anecdotal reports, this myth has widely spread. The truth is, that if you do not have a pre existing kidney or liver problem, creatine will most likely cause 0 harm.
    In one study which tracked healthy athletes over a five-year period, football players who used creatine at levels up to 16g of creatine per day showed no effect on markers of renal or kidney stress. In another study conducted by Dr. Kerry Kuehl at the Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland and presented at the 2000 annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, the kidney function of 36 healthy male and female athletes who consumed 10g of creatine per day was examined. After twelve weeks, Dr. Kuehl found that creatine did not adversely affect kidney function.

    There is no evidence to support claims that supplemental creatine in healthy individuals, especially active ones, causes in such kidney or liver distress.

    MYTH 2: Creatine Causes Excess Water Retention.

    A recent double blind placebo study was done on subjects that supplemented with Creatine for 3 months. At the end of these study there was no substantial differences in body water. The creatine group did however show an increase in fat free mass and total body mass.
    Once again this myth stems from anecdotal evidence. It is however possible that other factors can lead to water retention or a “soft puffy look” such as the clients diet, or hydration.

    MYTH 3: Excessive Cramping Due To Creatine

    There is no clinical study that suggests that creatine is associated with cramping. On the contrary there is clinical evidence to support that creatine IS NOT associated with muscle cramps.

    One study followed 16 men that either used a creatine supplement or a placebo. Under certain dehydrated environments the on set of muscle cramps was the same in both groups. In addition another study conducted at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, showed that 61 of their athletes supplementing with creatine showed no effects on muscle cramps.

    Conclusion: There are many myths surrounding this supplement that have clearly been taken out of context. As of now all the clinical and scientific evidence points to creatine as a benificial and none dangerous sports supplement.

    RecCreatine Powderommendations: Dosage of creatine can vary depending on your goals. In regards to athletic performance, it is recommended 5-20g daily. There is some evidence to suggest post workout is ideal for creatine supplementation. Being that its stored in the muscle cell, and cells tend to be sensitive to nutrient uptake immediately following and exercise bout.
    For more specific dosages you can visit the MayoClinic website which is sited in the references below.


    Approximatly 18-20% of our bodies is comprised of Protein. Protein comes in a close 2nd to water in overall body composition. There is protein found in each of the trillions of cells in the human body. There could be no life without it. Even the word protein stems from the greek word proteios, which means “primary” or “holding the first place of”.
    Protein, like carbohydrates and fats, is a macro-nutrient. Like Carbohydrates each gram of protein provides roughly 4 calories. Protein is responsible for many different functions, but in the sports performance world we are primarily concerned with its ability to repair, build, and maintain muscle tissue.

    What Are Amino Acids?
    Amino Acids are what is commonly referred to as the “building blocks of protein”. When protein is broken down into its base form (like when you digest it) it will be divided into its prospective chain of amino acids. Each protein is comprised of a different chain of amino acids.
    There are approximatly 20 Amino Acids, 9 of which are considered essential. They are considered essential because they must be obtained in the diet. We classify proteins based off of their respected amino acid profile. We break them down into 2 catagories, ‘Complete Protein” and “Incomplete Protein”

    Complete Protein: This protein is considered “Complete” because it offers an adequate amount of the 9 essential amino acids. These proteins are the most recommended for optimal muscle repair and synthesis.
    Sources Of Complete Protein

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Cheese
  • Eggs
  • Yogurt
  • Milk
  • Incomplete Protein: These proteins are lacking 1 or more of the 9 essential amino acids in the correct proportions. It is possible to have an “Incomplete Protein” that has all 9 essentials, but for it to be considered “Complete” their proportions must be equal.

    Sources Of Incomplete Protein

  • Grains
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Seeds
  • Peas
  • Corn
  • The fact of the matter is that our bodies are in a constant state of breaking down protein and synthesizing new protein. This is especially the case for athletes and weight trainers. In the gym we are pushing our skeletal muscle to the point at which we achieve protein breakdown.

    This is why consuming the proper amount of protein is so important. Though we experience protein breakdown during our exercise, we have a net protein gain post exercise, assuming the proper amount of protein is consumed.

    Ideally most of our protein sources should be from whole foods such as Beef, Chicken, Eggs, Cheese, Milk, Etc…

    But most athletes will tell you that consuming the optimal amount of protein when you’re training frequently can be a true challenge with whole foods alone. This is why many athletes utilize protein and amino acid supplements as a staple in their training. Though it shouldn’t be considered their primary source of protein, it is a way they can quickly hit their numbers with high quality protein such as Whey.

    Recommendations: In general the CDC and RDA recommends anywhere between 10% – 35% of your daily caloric intake come from Protein. This is a fairly large range and should take in to count your daily activity and exercise. Someone that is inactive would be on the low end of this while an athlete or bodybuilder would be on the higher end.
    Another great way to figure out your protein intake is by taking into count your Fat Free Mass (FFM). Some research suggests for weight lifters, anywhere between 2.1g – 3.1g per kg of FFM is optimal for protein synthesis.

    As mentioned before, the supplement world can be a confusing mess. The goal of this article is to simply get back to the basics. Focus on the supplementation and recommendations that have withstood the test of time and are still to this day considered staples in sports performance and muscle growth.

    Author: C.J. Woodruff, Founder and CEO, The Fitness Trainer Academy
    CJ Woodruff

    Brenner M, et al. The effect of creatine supplementation during resistance training in women. J Strength Cond Res 2000;14(2): 207-213.REFERENCES

    Burke DG, et al. “The effect of 7 days of creatine supplementation on 24-hour urinary creatine excretion.
    J Strength Cond Res 2001;15(1):59-62.Eijnde B, et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2001;33:449-453.
    Greenhaff PL, Steenge GR, Simpson EJ. Protein and carbohydrate-induced augmentation of whole body creatine retention in humans.
    J Appl Physiol 2000;89:1165-71.Guerrero-Ontiveros ML, Walliman T. Creatine supplementation I n health and disease. Effects of chronic creatine ingestion in vivo: down-regulation of the expression of creatine transporter isoforms in skeletal muscle.
    Mol Cell Biochem 1998;184:427-437.Poortmans JR, et al. Long-term oral creatine supplementation does not impair renal function in healthy athletes. Med Sci Sports Exer 1999;31(8):1108-1110.Poortmans JR, Francaux M. Adverse effects of creatine supplementation. Sports Med 2000;30:155-170.
    Vogel RA, et al. Creatine supplementation: effect on supramaximal exercise performance at two levels of acute hypohydration. J Strength Cond Res 2000;14(2) 214-219.
    WebMD On Creatine:
    Sawka, Young, Cadarette, et al. 1985
    Armstrong et al. 1985
    Sawka, Young, Francescone, et al. 1985
    Human Kinetics On Hydration:
    Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: Vegetarian diets. JADA, 2003; 103(6) 748 – 765.
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