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Bodybuilding is a field of endeavor filled with woo. Many bodybuilders don't understand science, and consider anecdotal evidence and personal recommendation good enough to try something out and then advocate it to others if they gained while on it.
Bodybuilders understand "no pain, no gain" and have no problem working hard. The trouble is how to work smart as well.
Dietary supplements are a lucrative industry and include substances like creatine, amino acids and protein supplements, plant sterols (sold as legal purported alternatives to anabolic steroids, which are illegal), packets of high-dosage vitamin pills claimed to have "anabolic" or "metabolic" abilities, anti-oxidants, and (before their inclusion in bodybuilding supplements was banned), mixes containing ephedrine (often as an "ECA stack").
As a general principle, anything sold OTC at the mall promising to deliver results in line with or exceeding drugs is suspect. Besides speed (see ECA above), most lack proven or even plausible mechanism. Some are happily pitching megadose broscience while others are hazardous levels of a stimulant and others would be royally hazardous if their mechanism did work (such as telomerase activators or edible "low T" treatments). These categories will overlap. Do not expect much help from the hourly employee at GNC whose job is to sell you stuff.
Chemicals like clenbuterol and albuterol are quite popular weight loss drugs now, as they can be bought as grey-market "research chemicals" or through foreign "prescription" websites (While many of these are havens for bodybuilders, it is worth noting that both clenbuterol and albuterol have legitimate therapeutic uses, primarily in the treatment of asthma), have anti-catabolic and mildly anabolic (in layman's terms, muscle preserving and muscle building) properties and are even more powerful than ephedrine. These are powerful stimulants, and come with the general side effects associated with such. Both are banned for any semi-serious sporting competition, and both can be very dangerous if mishandled. However, while dangerous, they do work as advertised, causing huge increases in metabolic function and quantifiable increases in physical endurance, albeit both at a price. Long-term use can easily nuke the thyroid, and overdoses can be lethal. The biggest problems with these sorts of things for bodybuilding use, however, is that once you go off, the weight comes back, because you're not teaching yourself how to lose weight in a safe, natural manner with diet and exercise, but rather resorting to dangerous chemical stimulants. This means the fat loss seen with these drugs is rarely permanent.
Another problem with body building supplements is that they are often adulterated with anabolic steroids or aromatase inhibitors, which are not listed on the labels because they are illegal without a prescription.
Pre-workout drinks are quite popular now, and often claim numerous benefits such as "SKIN RIPPING PUMP" and "INCREASED TESTOSTERONE." More often than not, the only really effective ingredient in these drinks is the high doses of caffeine, which is an effective stimulant. The other stuff is almost always of dubious, at best, effectiveness. The ingredients purported to give a pump (i.e., increased blood flow and vascularity of muscle tissue), do no such thing, and any results people notice are likely because they're working harder due to ingesting huge amounts of caffeine. If you want to get hyped up before the gym, the cheapest solution is to drink a big cup of coffee. If you absolutely can't stand that, a reasonable substitute can be made with bulk caffeine powder and gatorade mix.
In general, protein powders are effective, in that they do contain high levels of easily consumed protein and calories, which helps in building muscle. Protein (whey, casein, soy, etc.) powders are used for lots of other purposes besides bodybuilding. Mountain climbers carry them, since they are easy to pack and high in calories and protein for their weight. They're also used for the treatment of starvation, as starving people cannot usually digest solid food. However, the claims of these products are often wildly exaggerated, if not outright false. Simply taking a shake a day will not turn you into the Incredible Hulk, but they are cheaper than peanut butter or tuna; two scoops of powder can easily equal the same daily protein consumption of the average person, and a few additives (sugars) can be beneficial in adding quick calories post-workout.
It's worth noting that protein powders are made of regular foods and their byproducts, and therefore the nutritional and physiological benefits are well understood. The same cannot be said about many other supplements.
In the US, they are "regulated" by the FDA as "food," and are thus not required to demonstrate their safety before hitting the market. These products can be found in any health food store, and are often those stores' highest markup and biggest selling items.
A number of people use an ECA stack (ephedrine:caffeine:aspirin) in the order of 1:10:10 or 1:10:15,stack to lose weight faster, however the effects are often small and not much evidence is out there to confirm that it can help you lose fat. It is banned in many countries because too much ephedrine explodes your heart.
Taking creatine supplements does result in temporarily increased muscle size, but does not add any actual muscle mass. Creatine has this effect because it enables the muscles to retain more water, which leads to a temporary increase in size, an effect which goes away as the creatine is excreted. Creatine supplementation can also give small increases to anaerobic performance, allowing more intense workouts which in theory should accelerate weight and strength gains.
On the illegal side, anabolic steroids and human growth hormone (HGH) can be very effective, but could have serious side effects if abused or if a course of PCT (post cycle therapy) is not followed. Steroids and HGH are the only substances that actually will do what most others claim. Some of the side effects of steroids include irritability, cystic acne, gynecomastia (breast enlargement) in men, and clitoral hypertrophy in women.
High dose anti-oxidant pills appear to be worse than useless. Yes, that's right, anti-oxidants hinder muscle strength. This appears to be because muscles require a certain level of oxidative stress in order to build over time.
Most of the other supplements might as well be as good as flushing your money down the toilet.
These products also include such things as electronic devices (sold on late night TV infomercials) purported to build muscle. Electrical stimulation is a valid therapy when used to prevent unused muscles from atrophying — such as can happen when a patient is immobilized and otherwise unable to exercise the muscle, but the devices seen advertised on TV will provide little more than minor cosmetic results. Adverts may show models with six-packs that could stop bullets, but they certainly did not get them from wearing an electrified corset. Any electrical stimulation device capable of providing substantial muscle mass and tone would require a painfully high and possibly dangerous electrical current. Also, a sensible diet and an exercise regimen kind of helps. Real bodybuilders don't go near these, but athletes who work out with a TV remote in one hand and in the other a bowl of Cheetos, are the intended market of these devices. From a scientific study on electrical muscle stimulation (EMS):
“”Companies claim that EMS is an easy and painless method for improving muscle strength, body composition, and appearance. These claims were unsubstantiated in the current study. Several factors, including the poor quality of the stimulator itself, probably combined to produce the results seen in this study. Subjects tolerated EMS amplitudes that produced discomfort but still were not able to achieve a muscular contraction of sufficient intensity to induce strength gains. Additionally, although manufacturers claim that workouts can be conducted quickly, workouts in the current study averaged 45 minutes in duration. Workouts using units with fewer stimulation channels would take even longer. Thus, EMS used under the conditions studied here does not appear to be a pain-free, quick method to increase muscular strength and is not recommended for the apparently healthy consumer.
There's always a plethora of new and exciting exercise devices hitting the market. While some may be effective, the question we must ask is "what can this do that weights or cardio can't?" The answer, more often than not, is nothing. Money is best spent on some good running shoes and a gym membership.
- Scientific and Regulatory Perspectives in Herbal and Dietary Supplement Associated Hepatotoxicity in the United States by Mark I. Avigan et al. Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2016 Mar; 17(3): 331. doi:10.3390/ijms17030331.
- The Relative Safety of Ephedra Compared with Other Herbal Products by Stephen Bent et al. (18 March 2003). Ann. Int. Med. Vol 138, No. 6.
- For athletes, antioxidant pills may not help performance: Some supplements can blunt the positive effects of exercise training by Laura Beil, Science News (February 24, 2015).
- Effects of Electrical Muscle Stimulation on Body Composition, Muscle Strength, and Physical Appearance by John P. Porcari et al. (2002) Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 16(2), 165–172.