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What Supplements Do I Need If I’m Just Starting to Exercise?

I’m on my sixth glass of pre-workout. Will I be totally yoked by lunch or dinner?

The process of learning how to make physical fitness improvements is daunting enough even when you’re not navigating through the incessant barrage of advertisements insisting that purchasing nutritional supplements isn’t only the optimal way to accelerate your progress, but that substantive improvements are a near impossibility if you try to go it alone without any supplementation at all. 

I remember staring for hours at the graphs on the sides of a $40 bottle of Muscletech’s Nitro-Tech protein, as well as its Cell-Tech creatine sibling (which, of course, was another 35 bucks). Based on the results of the Muscletech “study,” the graphs illustrated how I should expect to achieve very little in the way of muscular gains without supplementing with protein, but that I could quadruple my gains by opting to use Nitro-Tech protein, and that I could further magnify those impressive gains with Cell-Tech creatine. Eventually, I forked over the $75 — which probably represented an entire day’s worth of my Bally Total Fitness receptionist salary back then — to acquire these two bottles of muscle-exploding formula as the keys to unlocking an otherworldly physique.

What was the outcome? 

On the front end, the expensive supplements tasted terrible, and on the back end, I continued lifting the same as I always had while making no appreciable gains in either size or strength over and above the improvements that were already in progress. To this day, I feel like a sucker, having fallen prey to advertising that suggested that these supplements could transform me into Mr. Olympia within the span of a month.

So why shouldn’t I be taking supplements right from the very beginning?

If you’re not in great shape and you’re just beginning to work out, consistency is the key. You’re going to make exponential improvements within the first few months, and if you take supplements straight away, you’ll have absolutely no way of isolating the benefits of the supplements over and above your cleaned-up nutrition plan — let alone how much those supplements are legitimately boosting your performance over and above your body’s natural process of rebuilding itself even stronger after you’ve torn it down through training. 

There’s also the chance that the supplement could be dirty. Case in point: I remember when I filmed a bunch of crude training videos with Kurt Angle for The Burn Machine. In between takes, Angle explained to me that he was in the process of training for a crack at qualifying for the 2012 Olympics, and that he couldn’t risk taking any supplements whatsoever other than those created by his own company. The reason he gave me was because some supplement makers illegally slide steroids and similar hormone-based muscle boosters into their products to give them an unfair advantage in the marketplace. 

This is another case of something probably being too good to be true if it has that appearance to it.

What should I take instead?

Assuming that you’ve cleaned up your diet and eliminated everything that’s clearly detrimental to you, you can start by taking a complete daily multivitamin. So many of your body’s chemical processes are reliant upon the processes regulated by vitamins. 

Is all of the vitamin content on the bottle absorbed? Almost certainly not. In fact, many people will go so far as to say that you eliminate the majority of your multivitamin-derived content in your urine, resulting in your urine becoming expensive. If we presume this is true, we should still consider two things: 1) the per-day cost of a multivitamin in actual dollars is probably less than 10 cents for most people; and 2) even if all of those theoretical 100 percent marks in the daily-value column are closer to 20 percent, I’d still proffer that 20 percent is better than nothing, particularly when your health is on the line.

Also, you can use the minerals contained within your multivitamins to pull off this cool trick that 21-time natural bodybuilding world champion Ron Williams once showed me to demonstrate the ability of minerals to conduct electricity. Pretty cool, eh?

Aside from the multivitamins, I’d suggest a protein supplement providing you with no more than 40 additional grams of protein daily. If your diet is clean, these 40 grams of protein will only increase your daily calorie count by 160, and they’re likely to safely and comfortably propel your protein intake into a range that can ensure that your muscles are maximizing their rebuilding process after enduring everything you subjected them to during your workouts.

Just those two things? Nothing else? No creatine, sports drinks or pre-workout?

The active ingredient in most pre-workout is simply an alarming amount of caffeine, and the value of sports drinks doesn’t kick in from a recovery standpoint until you’ve moved past the one-hour mark of an hour-plus-long cardio session. Creatine is more of a fine-tuning supplement to help your muscles recover quickly and to help you gain maybe one or two extra reps per lift — or a couple extra seconds per sprint — by providing you with more ATP during your training. Ideally, you’d turn to creatine only after you’ve already nailed your nutrition and your training form.

Speaking of your training form, don’t be afraid to work closely and carefully with a reputable personal trainer at least the first few times you visit the gym. Taking supplements without learning how to train is like paying your tuition and never going to class. I can’t imagine there’d be many things more frustrating to a gym rookie than thinking you’ve purchased the legal equivalent of Super Soldier Serum and will soon be flexing your Captain America muscles, only to see your money go to waste because you never learned how to train like Chris Evans.