The ultimate guide to supplements

When you've finally settled into your routine and are training regularly, you'll start hearing about supplements you can take to increase your performance, recovery, and response to various types of exercise. The industry has exploded to the point where it is worth billions, and companies are constantly marketing products in new ways that promise to activate new muscles and make you bigger and stronger than ever before.

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Basically, supplements are meant to either allow you to produce more force and lift more, or aid your muscles to re-build themselves efficiently, forming new fibers – which is important when you consider the microscopic tears that take place on a cellular level when lifting weights or performing at a high intensity.

According to a recent article, it is stated that “it is clear that carbohydrate (but not fat) still remains king and that carefully chosen ergogenic aids (e.g. caffeine, creatine, sodium bicarbonate, beta-alanine, nitrates) can all promote performance in the correct exercise setting.” Thus, by using supplements that work, people can maximize their training sessions and see more progress in a shorter amount of time.

As with everything though, there’s a lot out there that’s akin to snake oil. The trick is to know exactly what works, and why, and what’s simply smoke and mirrors in the realm of the moneymaking machine.  

We have consulted with professionals and researched what you should be taking if you are interested in supplements, coupled with recommendations on supplements that may be a waste of your time.

Essentially, the “food first” approach is the absolute ultimate ideal  when it comes to merging training with nutrition, but there are the extras that can give you an extra boost, and are safe to use when taken responsibly.

 Supplements That Work

Do supplements work?

Short answer - yes, some do. 

But it all depends on what you’re putting into your body and how you’re using them. It’s easy to overdo it, which could mean you’ll get the opposite of the desired effect. But when used in moderation, supplementation can definitely improve performance and boost your exercise regime to the next level.

Below, we’ll have a look at supplements that do work.

Caffeine is a powerful stimulant, and it can be used to improve physical strength and endurance. Studies show that “it is classified as a Nootropic because it sensitizes neurons and provides mental stimulation.” What is true is that caffeine is widely regarded as being beneficial to overall performance, promotion of fat loss, and to have a positive psychological effect as well. Here, it is described as an adenosine receptor antagonist and modifier of muscle contractility is the reduced perception of effort, fatigue or pain associated with exercise. Thus, it is without a doubt an ally when you are training.

One of DNAFit’s genetic markers on the nutrition side is caffeine sensitivity. Where we are able to tell you how sensitive you are to caffeine, thus showing how you can make appropriate modifications and use caffeine to your advantage.


Probably the most popular booster supplement, creatine is the next in the list as it is associated with enhancing athletic performance and a study shows how it “stimulates protein synthesis, which can make you build muscle much faster. People who paired creatine with resistance training put on lean muscle mass anywhere from 15%-200% faster than people who did the same workouts with placebo.” This is because it is made from three amino acids: arginine, glycine and methionine, promoting muscle building.

If that weren’t enough, creatine is also a nootropic. Studies show that it “enhances memory and delays mental fatigue.” Another essential aspect of training and remaining focused throughout.   


Beta-alanine is known to increase performance of a single competition, and also support the training process. A study some support for the “benefits of beta-alanine supplementation on high-intensity exercise and a potential additive effect when combined with bicarbonate supplementation.” It is widely used by athletes who are looking for that edge, without intense side effects, other than slight irritation.  


Protein is the macronutrient needed if you want to bulk up, and the best way to obtain this is post-workout with a whey protein shake. Most, but not all studies have shown that “supplementation of whey alone or with carbohydrates immediately after and possibly before and during resistance exercise can enhance the muscle hypertrophy response to resistance training in healthy adults.” It is the pinnacle of supplements and gives your body an adequate amount of nutrients in a short space of time. This is why a whey protein shake to aid recovery and build muscle is highly recommended to people who train regularly and need an extra protein boost.


A vitamin from the sun, emerging evidence suggests that “vitamin D may play a regulatory role in muscle regeneration and subsequent hypertrophy following damaging forms of exercise.” It is now clear that both innate and acquired immune function, cardiovascular health and even muscle growth and repair may be regulated by vitamin D. As the science has grown, so too has the importance placed on vitamin D.

It is also part of DNAFit’s panel of genetic markers, whereby we are able to tell you whether you need more of it, and in some cases supplement it.


Finally, beetroot juice. There seems to be good evidence that this supplementation can “enhance sports performance in moderate calibre athletes and individuals among elite athlete populations, with emphasis on adequate supplementation protocols and sports or scenarios which rely on the recruitment of the less-oxidative type II muscle fibres, and local or environmental conditions of hypoxia or acidosis.” This is especially so for endurance athletes running at high altitudes or long distance as the beetroot juice can be an effective booster of performance.

Supplements That Don’t Work


With so much information, it’s easy for things to get a little skewed, based on what works and what doesn't. Previously, we looked at the supplements that do positively impact training and are associated with bigger muscles and better recovery.


When we asked Craig Pickering, Head of Sports Science at DNAFit, he simply stated that apart from the supplements he highlighted as working, “pretty much everything else” doesn't.


What excessive supplementation can also mean is that it causes an imbalance in nutrition, hearkening back to the importance of a “food first” approach. Overloading the body with supplements and not balancing it with adequate nutrition from food sources is one of the main reasons why supplements can have negative, and sometimes even dangerous, side effects.


Glutamine – An interesting article states how “glutamine supplementation results in the glutamine being sequestered by the liver and intestines and released to the body on an as-needed basis.” So, for all of its popularity it may seem like glutamine isn’t essential – although many people take it. Roberts goes on to state that “since the supplemental glutamine spike never reaches the muscles, the increased muscle protein synthesis effect associated with glutamine never actually occurs in people after supplementation.”  


BCAAs are another supplement that are essential to any gymmer’s arsenal, but are they needed? Well, they appear to be unnecessary if your protein intake is already good. A recent study investigated a 7-day supplementation of BCAA (5 g day−1), and found that it “did not increase the running performance during a marathon. Furthermore, BCAA supplementation was ineffective to prevent muscle power loss, muscle damage or perceived muscle pain during a marathon race.”


Betaine is meant to have the same effect as creatine, similar to choline. Livestrong explain how it is used to “induce cellular swelling and improve methylation status, respectively.” Thing is, creatine is simply more effective and reliable than either of these. And if you’re interested in “food first”, eating egg yolks can render supplementation unnecessary.


Nitric Oxide is found in cruciferous vegetables, so it’s pretty pointless to supplement it when it should be part of your healthy diet. According to Jim White, RD, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson, “I recommend making sure optimal NO is produced by consuming essential precursor vitamins and nutrients. This can be done by a healthy, well-balanced diet, with attention to some additional nutrients. Red beets, spinach and other leafy greens, for example, have a large amount of nitrates.”


Pre-workouts are all the rage because they make you focus on workouts and are related to boosting performance. The issue is that the Food Drug Administration issued a warning letter regarding the popular pre-workout supplement Craze that contained a methamphetamine-like compound. Another one, Jack3d, is also banned and athletes can’t use it. The far-reaching health issues that could arise from taking pre-work supplementation too often can affect a number of body functions. This article highlights a few side effects, including “vomiting, tingling/numbness in the face, lips, or extremities, jitters, cramps, headaches, flushed and red skin, trouble sleeping, itching, anxiety, high blood pressure, kidney damage, and chest pain.” Which doesn't sound like it’s worth it.


Testosterone boosters are common because there’s a school of thought that when testosterone is boosted, you’ll perform better, be able to lift heavier, and will get big gains. The issue is that there are possible physical and psychological side effects that may make you think twice about using them. In a review, issues included acne, increases size but not strength, kidney damage, aggression, anaemia, mood swings, depression, and anxiety.  


To end off, Craig’s got a tip that is related to how everyone is unique, stressing the importance of an individualised approach. He notes that supplements can be good, “although it obviously depends on your goals. sprinters probably don’t need much beetroot juice, whilst endurance athletes don’t need much creatine (and carb gels would be a good idea for them).”


Whenever you encounter a new supplement, do your due diligence beforehand, ask yourself what your goals are, and make a decision based on this.

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