Right here, right now—we’re going to tackle fitness supplements from five angles: (1) Some cautions, (2) The basic kinds of fitness supplements, (3) what kind not to get, (4) how you can basically make your own supplements without buying them from special supplement companies, and (5) my personal supplement recommendations.
Some Cautions About Fitness Supplements
Caution #1 — The fitness industry is under heavy investigation by the federal government.
If you’re interested, you can read these articles in The New York Times and PBS, which highlight how most supplement companies proffer “pills and powders” that induce a placebo effect and create a mental addiction on a chemical that isn’t even clinically effective.
Caution #2 — Most fitness models you see endorsing supplements are on steroids (even the women).
If you look at any “muscle magazine” in an airport, or supplement advertisement on the internet, you’ll see someone with an absurd amount of muscle and 5% body fat telling you that they got that way by doing old-fashioned hard work and taking their special sponsored brand of Branch Chain Amino Acids. It’s a lie. They got that way by injecting anabolic steroids into their bloodstream and working out for 2 hours a day. If you look at any modern bodybuilder or model who looks like he or she has an unattainable body, it’s because they have an unattainable body. They’re not doing old-fashioned hard work, and they probably don’t even use the brand they promote. This is how they make their money — by getting in really good shape by using steroids, and then telling the public that they used Company ABC’s product to get that way.
Another important thing to remember — when you see someone in a photo who is in great shape, even the best models don’t look like that all the time — even the ones on steroids. Usually what they do is they starve themselves for 3 months or so while maintaining their muscle (because they are on steroids) and go to a photo shoot on the verge of passing out from dehydration. So, any muscle building or fat burning supplements are sold by images of people that don’t actually maintain that level of fat loss. Just so you know.
Caution #3 — You don’t ever need a supplement — despite what companies tell you.
People got in really good shape before supplements. Supplement companies have all these sales pitches that make it sound like you can get a free lunch with working out and eating — like if you just take their supplement, it will make your workouts twice as effective and your calorie deficit twice as big. But the danger in this is that you end up using supplements to compensate for willpower that you could put forward by yourself. So, instead of using a supplement to help you work out twice as hard as you normally could, most people use supplements as a crutch that allows them to put in half the effort and get normal results. In other words, using supplements puts you in a weird position psychologically, because it becomes very tempting to cheat on your diet and workouts because you’re spending cash on supplements.
In reality, supplements are only going to give you a 5-10% edge on your diet and exercise. The only reason most people think they can’t work out without it is because they’ve become psychologically dependent on it, so they use it to give them a 50% edge, when really they could achieve that with their own willpower if they didn’t have that felt dependence. In psychology, they call this “learned helplessness” — and supplements are the means by which a lot of people develop these unnecessary addictions. People in marketing call these “sticky products,” which means customers become addicted to them and make repeat purchases every single month. So, the basic point here is that supplements can put you in a weird mental space in your own posture toward your diet and exercise program, so here are the two situations in which you should use them:
You’re really struggling to get started with fitness, and you need to implement some biological trigger that gets you into “fitness mode.” I get this — I do it with my Pre-Workout supplement. When I take it, it’s less about the chemicals, and more about the feeling of drinking a fitness drink.
You’re already doing a workout program, and are teetering on the edge of quitting, and need to implement a biological trigger or aid to keep you compliant, or to see results that will motivate you to keep going when you can’t.
Caution #4 — There is a huge placebo effect with most supplements.
With many supplements, people begin to perform better just because they’re taking something. This happens all the time with all medicine and habit change — people see change that they want to see, and they manifest change because they want to attribute value to the thing that they paid for. It makes them feel smart for purchasing the product, rather than foolish. So, it’s important to keep in mind that a lot of anecdotal testimonials about supplements aren’t filtered for that placebo effect.
Now, that’s not to say the placebo effect is a ripoff. It’s not. Change is change. Fat loss is fat loss. And if you need a supplement to effect that change, there’s no shame in that. Like I said, that’s the reason I use it many times.
Caution #5 — Fitness companies don’t really tell you what’s in the bottle.
When you look at a supplement bottle ingredient list, most of the time, it doesn’t actually tell you how much of what stuff is in it. It will tell you, “This supplement has 5 grams of Super Mega Muscle Juice Blast XXX.” And then they will list the ingredients in order of weight, from most to least. That’s what they call a “proprietary formula,” which is basically supplement companies hiding behind intellectual property rights in order to scam you.
If you do buy a supplement, it’s important to know what you’re looking for when you look at an ingredient label, rather than just reading their ad copy on the bottle that says, “Our Super Mega Juice has this ingredient that’s proven to increase performance!” Really? It’s proven? Says you, the guy whose job it is to sell me this stuff? And how do I know that you put as much in a scoop of this stuff that they proved was effective in the study? Sure, it might contain good stuff, but is there a potent enough dose of it in each scoop to spend $40 on a bottle right now? We’ll deal with that more below, but you always need to know what you’re spending your money on, why, what you hope to get out of the money you spend, and who you’re trusting when you spend that money.
Caution #6 — Save yourself the time shopping around, and just buy on Amazon. (You can find Amazon links to all the supplements I personally use below)
Whatever you do, don’t buy your supplements from a GNC or Vitamin Shoppe unless you’re in a bind — their products are marked up on average 25%-50% what you can get on Amazon. And, if you can find deals better than Amazon on other sites, if you have Amazon Prime and get free 2-Day shipping, whatever money you’d save is basically made up for with the free, nearly instant shipping on Amazon. So, unless you have a great reason otherwise, just buy from Amazon.
Caution #7 — Supplements will do nothing for you if you’re not pushing yourself in diet and exercise.
A lot of people get stuck on supplements and fall into a bad place with their diet and exercise, but keep taking workout supplements. Then, they’re taking these supplements that are only useful for the sole purpose of optimizing extreme commitments for a lifestyle that doesn’t utilize those supplements. Taking supplements doesn’t make it as if you’re working out and dieting, even when you’re not working out and dieting. They add maybe 10% effectiveness and efficiency to a program that’s pushing you.
Caution # 8 — Overuse of supplements can tax your liver and kidneys.
This is the case for any orally ingested supplement. That’s why Nyquil warns you not to take more than a couple servings in a 24 hour period because it could damage your liver. It’s also why people who take steroids inject the steroids with a needle — because they’re taking such a high quantity of drugs that if they were to take them orally, their liver and kidney would crap out on them in a few months. Now, don’t let this scare you away from supplements entirely. It just means that (1) if you have liver or kidney issues, you should opt for natural alternatives to synthetic supplements, which I help you think through below, and (2) if you want to take supplements, don’t abuse them or take more than the recommended dosage.
This is extremely tempting for pre-workout users who think that the more pre-workout you take, the more intense and strong you will be. But usually, taking too much pre-workout just sends your brain into a state of overarousal and can actually make you so frantic that you’re distracted and unfocused. I talk more about this in the CORE SERIES article, “Why You’re Not Disciplined,” which you can read at theo.fit/core.
Kinds of Fitness Supplements
Pre-Workout is basically anything you take before your workout in order to get pumped up. No matter what supplement you get, basically the primary psychological ingredient is going to be caffeine. So in the average Pre-Workout, you’re getting 6-8 cups of coffee in a single scoop that you mix in with water.
Now, there are a couple other ingredients people will do a little more than that. If you’ve ever taken a pre-workout supplement that makes your heart beat faster and makes you feel tingles in your skin, those are the effects of something called Beta Alanine, which is proven to help your circulatory system work at a super-optimized level to deliver oxygen to your muscles and to your brain. Basically, 5g dosages of Beta Alanine have been definitively proven to increase exercise performance and focus. Again, we have to remember that this effect can become addictive and actually stunt your mental perspective because it’s so powerful — so you end up with enhanced mental focus, but also diminished mental intensity because you’re depending on a chemical to be disciplined rather than your own willpower.
You can do both — you can use your Pre-Workout to take your 100% effort and bring it to 110% o even 120%. But one way to make sure that what you bring to the table before you take your workout doesn’t slip into lazy dependence on the chemical is to only use Pre-Workout every other month. That way, you ensure that (1) you’re not building up a chemical tolerance to caffeine and Beta Alanine that ultimately makes them ineffective, and (2) you’re not becoming mentally addicted to the edge Pre-Workout gives you that it actually corrodes your own mental commitment to work out hard.
So, that’s Pre-Workout — basically a nutritional supplement that adds intensity to your workout by optimizing your cardiovascular system.
Creatine helps to prevent your body from eating away at your muscle in a calorie deficit, and it helps your body to add muscle faster if you’re in a caloric surplus trying to add muscle. Think of Creatine as the post-workout version of Pre-Workout supplements. The best things you can do for post-workout recovery is eat protein and sleep a good 7-8 hours. But creatine will maximize the results of that. There’s no psychological effects of creatine.
To sum up creatine, it’s scientifically proven to help muscle and strength development and to prevent the loss of muscle and strength (read more about it here), and there are rumors that it’s bad for your liver, but that’s simply untrue (read about that here).
Protein is simply the kind of cell that exist in food that your body can use to rebuild your muscles after you’ve worked out. If you ate 0g of protein every day for the rest of your life, your body would cannibalize itself and you’d die. There’s a reason anorexic and bulimic people lose muscle — because they never metabolize or fully digest protein — and therefore their body turns on their muscle mass, which is the foundation of their immune system, in order to get energy to live.
When you’re in a calorie deficit, your body is never more tempted to cannibalize your muscle for energy. This is why many people who want to get in shape and try to run and achieve a caloric deficit, but don’t lift weights or eat protein, just end up looking smaller. But they’re not necessarily healthier.
But, it’s really hard to eat all the protein you need — I recommend at least 1g of protein per pound of lean body mass while weight lifting in a calorie deficit. So, people take protein powders — which most commonly are just dehydrated and powdered milk. Now, milk protein is about 20% Whey Protein, which your body uses to build muscle very quickly, and about 80% Casein protein, which your body takes a long time to digest, but which aids in long-term muscle recovery. Most protein is Whey Protein, which is basically protein that’s been powdered and filtered into only the fast-acting stuff. But you can get protein from anything — there’s pea protein, vegan protein, soy protein, bone protein — you name it, they sell it. And it’s all pretty much the same. The only reason you might want to use Whey Protein is that it is metabolized — or, absorbed — by your body faster than other proteins.
Multivitamins are sold on the common myth that they help you live longer. But there are three reasons you actually shouldn’t take them: (1) One epidemiological study showed that those who take multivitamins tend to die earlier than people who don’t, (2) The supplement industry is so unregulated that there is no way to control for whether the vitamins they say are in the pills are really in the pills, and (3) vitamins for food are much more bioavailable than those in pills — for instance, if you were to eat 100mg of vitamin C from an orange, and 100mg C from a pill, your body would digest and utilize a higher percentage of the vitamins from the food. You can read more about these studies at a couple articles I provide in the show notes, one of them from the Bekeley Wellness Center (here, and here).
I will, however, recommend one multivitamin pill and then not deal with it again below — and that is a supplement by a company called Legion Athletics. They sort of admit that it’s impossible to get all the nutrients in a single pill that people say you can get. So what they do is this — they put what you would normally be told you’re getting in a multivitamin pill, crush down the real food versions of those vitamins, and basically put that crushed real food in eight god-awful horse pills that you have to choke down to really get all the nutrients you need.
So, if you’re really looking to take a supplement that gives you “nutritional insurnace” without having to focus too much on eating certain foods with certain vitamins, then I’d say legion is the way to go — and, that product is linked in the show notes.
Greens Supplement Explanation
Greens supplements fall under the same category of multivitamins. There’s a lot of scammy stuff out there, and most of the promises that come from green supplements are really ambiguous and sound like hocus pocus. Greens Supplements are essentially a whole class of supplements that emerged from a single image of drinking a “greens shake” in the morning and thinking that’s somehow extremely healthy, rather than just a way to destroy your bowels.
So, if you want to feel like a yogi and balance your chi, then knock yourself out and buy a $100 bag of “Athletic Greens” (Don’t). Or, if you are a super health-image-oriented person, that same company that makes the multivitamin — Legion — makes a Greens Supplement called Genesis (click here to get it) that’s cheaper and more modest.
There is this supplement people often take called BCAA’s — that’s Branch Chain Amino Acids. Essentially, these are different proteins that are meant to help the Whey Protein you take be more effective. Think of using Whey Protein as using basic gas, and adding BCAA’s as making it Premium. Two of the primary amino acids are called Leucine and Casein, which are really helpful to supplement when trying to prevent muscle loss — especially if you’re getting older and losing muscle mass (Read about Leucine here, and Casein here).
BCAA’s are great to take if you’re over approach age 50 and really pushing the line on your calorie deficit while lifting weights, but only if you have a very expendable budget. If you’re tight on budget, they’re not worth it at all — better to spend your money on basic whey protein supplements, or pre-workout with creatine in it, which I’ll get to more below.
A nootropic is a brain-optimizer. All I’ll say is this: Nootropics won’t do anything for you if you don’t suffer from brain fog. If you have the ability to sit down and focus, you don’t need a nootropic. But if you suffer from a constant lack of ability to stimulate mental energy or clarity, they can be helpful. Here are two kinds of nootropics to stay away from — one is too weak, and the other is too strong. Fish oils are generally too weak to significantly improve brain performance if you suffer from severe mental fog, and the other end is adderall, which you should only get from your doctor if you truly suffer from ADHD.
Now, the middle ground — for those who struggle to focus but don’t have ADHD — I recommend a nootropic called Ascend, which has a really impressive scientific board of advisors behind its production. But currently, it’s out of stock. So, your second best bet is Onnit’s Alpha Brain, which has mixed reviews, but I’ve heard good things from friends — they say it increases your focus but can sometimes make you a bit nauseous. I think if you have a strong stomach for that kind of stuff, you’ll be okay. You can get it here (click here).
Fat Burner Explanation
You have to be really careful with fat burners, because back in the 90’s and early 2000’s, Hydroxycut was basically giving people these liver-destroying amphetamines that would absolutely cause fat loss, and also take a decade off your life. So, stay away from Hydroxycut and any stimulant-based fat burner. There are some herbs and roots that do two things: (1) They suppress your appetite, making your calorie deficit easier to hit, and (2) they have what’s called a “thermogenic effect,” which means that it makes your body more inefficient at using energy, thus requiring more calories to burn to maintain your body, thereby essentially raising your BMR and your TDEE.
So, that’s great — but we need to make a distinction between “fat burners” that help you lose weight by basically poisoning you, and those that are just naturally and functionally assist your diet and exercise. I’ll recommend a few of those below.
Testosterone Pill Explanation
Some people will sell you testosterone supplements — this is, 100% of the time, a scam. Testosterone does assist in building muscle and losing fat, which is why men generally are more muscular than women, but it’s currently regulated to the point where you can’t take a pill-form and see any significant changes. The only way to raise your testosterone levels in a way that effects real change in your body is to take enough that you actually have to inject it. And there are two reasons for this. One is that you want to be a roid monster and take steroids in an attempt to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is currently illegal in the United States, but there are certainly ways of doing it. The second reason to get injectable testosterone is through your doctor — if you have what they call “Low T levels,” meaning you have low testosterone levels causing brain fog, fatigue, and depression. You can get tested for this by your doctor, and receive what’s called TRT — testosterone replacement thereapy. This will give you medically administered testosterone shots that you can use to bring your testosterone to a normal level. Most guys approaching 50 who feel mental fog and depression should consider this as a great way to assist your fitness attempts.
However, don’t buy testosterone pills. They are either (1) not enough to cause any significant difference in your body, or (2) liver-damaging. Just don’t buy T-Pills at all. It’s not worth it, and science simply has not given us anything besides anabolic steroids to cause any noticeable change.
Here are natural, do-it-yourself alternatives to the powders and pills you can buy. If you’re interested in skimming right to my supplement recommendations, scroll down to find both my budget-level supplements (for those on the Dave Ramsey program) and premium-level recommendations.
Work out fasted with coffee.
Eat red meat — especially wild game like venison, elk, boar, bison, stuff like that.
Chicken breast or egg whites.
If you regularly eat red meat and broccoli, you’ll be fine. The only thing you might need to supplement is vitamin D — a lot of people are realizing that emotional (check out the book The Depression Cure) and physical dysfunctions (check out this amazing article) are resulting from a vitamin D deficit, so it could be helpful to supplement this (click here for the vitamin D supplement I personally use).
Greens Supplement Recommendations
You don’t need a Greens Supplement alternative — if you really want one, you can go out and get some kale, coconut milk, and chia seeds and get your yogi on. But don’t expect any amazing results beyond feeling like a health nut.
In order to get BCAA’s, just get protein from milk, which contains lots of Casein, and cheese, which contains Leucine. Chicken is also very dense in Leucine. Again, this adds a couple percentage points of optimization to your protein intake — but in reality, that’s what being smart about fitness is: It’s getting every edge we can get, doubling down on it, and adding them all up to get the best results we can.
A good nootropic to boost your brain in the morning is to not eat breakfast, put a tablespoon of grass fed butter in your morning hot coffee (good brands are Kerrygold and Lurpak), and take it with a vitamin D supplement. That will boost your brain like crazy.
Fat Burner Recommendations
The best at-home fat burner is not eating anything. For some reason, for me, only eating one meal a day makes fat loss much easier and more effective. There’s nothing magical to eating once per day, but for some reason, when I do it, I shed fat much faster.
Testosterone Pill Recommendations
The best thing you can do to boost your testosterone is to lift heavy weights (check out this article). If you supplement with vitamin D and lift heavy weights 4-5 times per week, you will drastically increase your testosterone. Also, fat loss increases testosterone — since obesity is correlated with low testosterone levels.
Again, you’re not going to look like Arnold after raising your testosterone levels, but it might be the added vitality and focus you’ve been missing.
Budget Supplements I Recommend
If you want an all-in-one Pre-Workout, Creatine, and Protein in the same powder, it’s quick and dirty, but it gets the job done — check out N. O. Shotgun (I used this for a while and had great results — I might use it again soon).
Expensive Supplements I Recommend
Greens Supplement Recommendations
Fat Burner Recommendations