This could be a 4-part series in itself. However, I’ll skip on some details to get to:
- which supplements actually work
- which don’t
- and which are actually worth investing in.
A brief point to consider before I go into this: If you don’t have the foundations discussed in part I in place, don’t worry about supplements. Sort those foundations out first.
Ok, let’s start with what supplements can enhance training performance. Here’s the ones that are actually going to work:
Supplementation for Performance
Most effective supplement out there. Most researched supplement out there. It works. It’s safe. Take it.
Don’t believe the bullshit claims that it’s dangerous. Whoever says that is completely ignorant of the facts or is just some crazy scaremongerer. Top dog at the International Society of Sports Nutrition, Dr. Jose Antonio, even revealed on the podcast recently that he’s been giving it to his two daughters since the age of 6. How awesome is that? (You can listen to that episode here).
Virtually everyone should be on a daily dose of 3-5 g/d. depending on size. No need to cycle it or come off it. Take it everyday even when not training.
Caffeine has plenty of research behind it showing it to aid certain types of activities. The ISSN position stand on caffeine supplementation, concluded that it is beneficial for high-intensity exercise, including sports that are categorised as being intermittent in nature within a period of prolonged duration. MMA and boxing fit the bill here.
Doses of ~3-6 mg/kg have been shown to be effective. So for a 75kg guy you’re looking at somewhere in the range of 225-450mg. Test and see what works best for you. Personally, I’d keep the intake for earlier sessions as I don’t think the benefits are worth disrupting sleep over. Sleep is king.
While you can use coffee, caffeine exerts a greater ergogenic effect when consumed in an anhydrous state. Hence why I go with the powder above.
Sodium bicarb helps buffer lactic acid and so is great for intense anaerobic sessions. 25g about 30-60 minutes beforehand works well. Just be aware some people can have some gut distress or find themselves running to the toilet soon after, so make sure you test your tolerance first before using pre-training.
Oh and the best thing? It’s just common bread soda you see in the baking isles of supermarkets so it’s dirt cheap!
HMB (Beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate) is a metabolite of the branch chain amino acid leucine. This is one of the newer ones and, as a full disclaimer, I haven’t used it with any clients yet so have no anecdotal feedback. While the research is mixed, there certainly seems to be something to it. May be worth looking at,once everything else is in order. I’ll need to do more research on it before giving definitive conclusions.
[Update: Podcast on HMB here: SNR #203: Arthur Lynch – FFM for Strength & HMB vs. Leucine]
Do you need a protein supplement? No, not per se.
If you can get enough protein (we went through what “enough” is in part 2 of this blog series) from real food then that’s awesome.
But if your training as much as most fighters do then that can be hard, not to mention the fact a lot of guys don’t feel like eating after a workout/training session, then it’s nice to have the convenience of a supplement.
There are always lots of questions about protein powders. Usually these are different forms of two main questions:
- Which type of protein should I take?
- Which brand of protein should I buy?
Let’s keep things short and simple:
You want a protein powder that is not laced with fillers and sugar. Generally if it’s labelled as a “weight gainer” or “meal replacement” it’s going to have sugars added. Just go with a “pure” protein powder.
Whey protein is the most cost-effective for the quality you get. If you can tolerate dairy go with a whey protein powder.
If you are intolerant to dairy then a decent bet is a hemp or pea protein. Outside of those, you could just use an essential amino acid powder.
BCAA vs. EAA
In regards to amino acids, the way I think about it is that we need to understand:
- What the person’s overall protein intake/timing looks like, and
- The goal of the supplementation.
Branched chain amino acids (BCAA) are marketed so heavily as a supplement as they can turn on anabolic pathways and so drive protein synthesis (and therefore in theory muscle repair & growth). This is true. BUT what is not often mentioned is that the protein synthesis is limited by the least available essential amino acid at that specific time.
So taking them alone without a high enough availability of the other essential amino acids is going to provide no real boost to protein synthesis. Where you do see an extra increase in protein synthesis would be when there are plenty of the other essential amino acids available too.
So this is where both the timing and intake come in.
If you say take some BCAA first thing in the morning or in isolation after a training session, while they will do much the same job as any protein feeding, you won’t get any extra anabolic effect (vs. protein). But if you take them when there is a good supply of all essential amino acids (say in combination with whey protein or any whole protein source really) then you do get an added boost to protein synthesis.
I cover BCAA’s in this short podcast: SNR #134: Are BCAA’s Worthless?
The alternative way to supplement with amino acids is going with an essential amino acid (EAA) supplement. Most EAA supps contain a relatively high level of BCAA’s anyway (I think about 40%?) so you get enough BCAAs to stimulate protein synthesis above the level that would occur with whole protein intake. You also enough of the other essential amino acids to allow it to happen.
All this to say that, in my opinion, EAAs are a better supplement to go with than BCAA. Although, I’m sure some will disagree with this as this is just my thinking on the topic something there is nothing definitive.
Then we can also consider individual amino acids. The most promising seems to be leucine which has the highest anabolic effect of all the AAs. It can also cause an insulin release independent of glucose so again that could be helpful.
Including an amino acid supplement (either essential amino acids or BCAAs) may be particularly beneficial if training in a fasted state, say first thing in the morning. However, whether a competitive fighter should be training faster regularly is questionable.
The other primary time to use an amino acid supplement is during particularly long, hard training sessions (2hr+), as the period of time between commencing muscle damage and getting access to the post-workout meal gets pushed to limit of what is okay.
Sweating not only causes water loss but also the loss of electrolyte minerals (e.g. sodium, potassium, chloride). In workout where there are high levels of sweat loss, proper rehydration needs to include electrolyte replenishment and not just intake of fluids.
Typical sports drinks contain electrolytes, as does coconut water. Electrolytes are also available as powdered supplements which are handy as you can throw a scoop into any drink at the times you need it. Keep in mind that for lighter, low-intensity workouts there is no real need for taking in electrolytes. Keep it for times when sweat loss is high; high-intensity workouts, those done for long-duration or in high-humidity or heat.
Take some during/after intense sessions that involve lots of sweating. This will become a very important supplement during the rehydration phase of the weight cut that will be outlined in part IV.
As mentioned in part I, I am of the firm belief that you can only get optimal performance once your diet is focused on making you truly healthy. So for that reason I’ll briefly mention some supplements that are more health-based rather than performance-enhancing…
Supplementation for a Healthy Body and Optimal Recovery
This list could get pretty long as there are a LOT of supplements that I use with different individuals.
But for general advice purposes I’m going to omit many of these (e.g. enzymes, probiotics, specific micronutrients, etc.) and simply keep this list to my top 4 essential recommendations that pretty much everyone should be taking. I can talk about specifics in the comments section if are wondering about some of the others.
1. Fat Soluble Vitamins
- Optimising levels and balance of the fat-soluble vitamins was one of the first interventions I introduced with Cian.
- By now, most people will have heard at least something about the importance of vitamin D. The list of beneficial roles it plays in the body is growing by the second. Consider this: EVERY cell in your body has receptors for vitamin D (side note: the only other hormone that has receptors on every cell is thyroid hormone).
- Now combine that with the difficulty we have increasing vitamin D status; it’s nigh on impossible to get enough from food and here in Northern Europe we can’t make it from the sun for most of the year.
- So supplementation is a good idea.
- However, if you’re going to supplement with vitamin D, it’s critical to balance this with vitamin A and vitamin K2 intake as well. SO many people overlook this. Super-high doses of vitamin D without addressing the others may potentially be asking for trouble in the long-term, although this isn’t backed with data yet.
- You can plenty of vitamin A from certain food sources (say eating lamb’s liver every week) but the easiest way to ensure you’re balancing everything is by a synergistic supplement. The one I have been using with clients is ADK by DaVinci Laboratories of Vermont.
- Another often over-looked point is that vitamin D supplementation increases your requirements for magnesium (see #3 below).
2. Fish Oil
I suggest getting a liquid oil that comes in a dark glass bottle. This serves two purposes:
- Being in liquid form, you will be able to notice if the oil has gone rancid. With capsules you won’t.
- A dark glass bottle will prevent the oil becoming oxidised by light and air. Oxidised (rancid) oil is bad news. Clear, plastic bottles make the oil a lot more likely to go rancid.
Also important is the dosage. Don’t fall into the “more is better” trap. While fish oil is great due to its omega 3 content, don’t forget omega 3’s are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). What does this mean? They’re easier to oxidise than say, saturated fatty acids. So adding tons of PUFA into you’re system, especially when inducing the high amounts of inflammation in the body (that a fighter would be), is not the best idea.
Stick to a teaspoon per day (5ml).
3. Magnesium Citrate/Glycinate
Even when eating a diet based on nutrient-dense, whole foods it can be difficult to get enough magnesium in the diet. Considering how many important processes that magnesium is involved in (it’s a lot!) then optimising magnesium intake is crucial for top performance, recovery and health.
A word of warning though. Do NOT buy a magnesium oxide supplement. They are virtually useless as that form is not all that bioavailable. Most regular or cheap supplements branded simply as “magnesium” will more than likely be magnesium oxide when you turn them around and look at the ingredients list.
The form you want is either magnesium citrate (example: this one from NOW Foods) or magnesium glycinate (such as this one). Sometimes you will see glycinate labelled as bis-glycinate or “chelated magnesium”.
Another good option would be a ZMA supplement. This also has the added benefit of containing zinc and vitamin B-6, which are not only synergists to magnesium but also are micronutrients that a number of people may be failing to get optimal levels of.
4. Whole Food Multi
The evidence for multi-vitamin supplementation is mixed at best, and in many cases it doesn’t seem to do all that much. However, for those who wish to use it as an “insurance policy”, as they will be on a reduced intake of food and so by nature on a reduced intake of micronutrients, then I have no issue with them wanting to take one.
So that’s it. The basics on supplements you should know before investing.
Buy The Book
While this article still is largely accurate, it is several years old now. For my most up-to-date (and even more comprehensive) recommendations for combat sport athletes, you can check out my 2023 book: Making Weight, which I co-authored with the world’s number one combat sports dietitan, Jordi Sullivan.
You can find out all the details here.