Straight Talk on Supplements: BS or the Real Deal?

Guys are constantly bombarded with ads guaranteeing easy gains with an expensive pill or powder. Find out what's legit and what's not, with 40 citations to prove it.

You know those before and after photos in supplement ads that you always thought were BS? Well, now you have proof. Here’s what Rick Schaff (a photographer who does many of those photo shoots) has to say about HIS own involvement with them:

“Some of the before and after photos can be taken on the same dayI have taken some of them on the same day.” [emphasis added] -Rick Schaff (Photographer in the fitness industry)

Watch him saying those words, AND doing a fake before and after in this interview from the movie Bigger, Faster, Stronger.

Supplement Overload

There is SO much noise, hype and glossy “before” and “after” pics out there promoting supplements that it is almost impossible for a man to know what to take for bigger muscles, and less fat.

If you’ll let me, I will clear up the confusion surrounding supplements and give you an authoritative and fundamental guide on the supplements that really are worth your money, and a heads up on BS to avoid.

This will save you a lot of time, money and frustration.

Before and After

Who Regulates Supplements?

Technically speaking the FDA. Practically speaking, NOBODY AT ALL.

Look, you could go in your backyard, dig up a pile of dirt and decide to put it into capsules and market it as the “Organic Fat-Blaster 2000” with out any legal repercussions whatsoever. You could claim that you can lose fat “like magic with my all-natural fat-blasting formula.” (You can’t get more “natural” than a pill full of dirt.)

So long as you put some fine print on the bottle saying “this product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease,” then you can make virtually any claim you like. You would never have to do any research to prove that your product worked. This is all very legal, and it happens every single day in health-food stores in the US.

If you don’t believe me, watch Chris Bell legally make his own bogus supplements in his kitchen with the help of day laborers (also from Bigger, Faster, Stronger). You’ve got to watch it!

What to Take & What’s Fake

Before we get into the nuts and bolts, make sure that you understand the single most important concept in supplementation. SUPPLEMENTS ARE SUPPLEMENTARY.

They provide the EXTRA support for your already healthy lifestyle. If you eat like crap, don’t exercise and don’t sleep, then a million dollars worth of supplements won’t do you any good at all. You will still be fat, skinny, sickly and have poor energy.

But if you already eat right, exercise and get adequate sleep then the RIGHT supplements can really give you an edge and multiply your results. But remember supplements are the EXTRA, NOT the foundation.

1. Creatine

Really Works, Really Cheap, Really Safe.

The Promise
Supplementing with creatine (usually monohydrate) is supposed to allow you lift heavier weights for more reps and this greater stimulus is supposed to result in greater gains in size, strength and power.

The Theory
Your muscles have 3 ways to generate energy – the super short system, the mid-term system and the long term system.

The super short-term system generates the greatest amount of strength and power, but it runs out very quickly (5-30sec). This super short-term energy system is called the “creatine phosphate” system or C-P.

Muscles run on stuff called ATP, or adenosine triphosphate. Think of it as an “A” with 3P’s, or A-P-P-P. When you break off the 3rd “P” this releases stored energy and powers muscular contraction. After this reaction you end up with A-P-P + P. The A-P-P (adenosine diphosphate) won’t power muscular contraction any more.

Muscles have a very limited amount of ATP in them, so the C-P system donates a “P” to the A-P-P. This turns the useless A-P-P back into A-P-P-P (ATP), and the C-P back into plain old “C.” This allows the muscles to keep working at maximal intensity for a longer period of time.

If you can get more creatine into the muscle to make more C-P, then this super short-term power system will work even better and longer than it would normally. This should result in better athletic performances and better progress in your physique.


The Research
First of all creatine supplementation is COMPLETELY safe (1 – 8). Some skinny-fat researchers bitch about the fact that there are no 10 year safety studies, but you know what? If its been proven safe repeatedly over a 5 year period what’s really going to happen in 10?

Creatine DOES improve performance in short term activities, and can help you become bigger, faster stronger and even leaner (indirectly).(11-14) A lot of skinny-fat researchers bemoan the fact that creatine doesn’t enhance performance in aerobic/endurance activity. Well, its NOT supposed to. Not to mention that aerobic exercise shrinks muscles, makes you weaker, flabbier, and slower, and is a ridiculously inefficient way to improve fitness levels – why would anyone want to do aerobics in the first place?

There’s more! Creatine also seems to be good for your brain – improving both alertness and cognitive function. (9-10)

The Verdict
Its works. However, most supplement manufacturers grossly exaggerate its efficacy. If you are a little skinny guy, taking it will not turn you into a beefcake in 6 months. It will provide slightly faster progress – maybe you’ll crank out an extra rep or two with a heavy load, or pack on a few extra pounds of muscle over the course of a year.

For most people slightly better is worth $20 every 3months.

Yeah, its actually really cheap if you take it the smart way. You don’t need anything fancy – that’s just marketing fluff. All you want is about 5g of pure micro ionized (finely powdered) creatine monohydrate in your Gatorade or workout recovery drink. Take this during and/or after your workout. This will ensure maximal absorbance and results, otherwise it will mostly just become expensive urine.

NO Xplode

2. Nitrous Oxide Boosters

“The Biggest scam in supplement history.” – David Barr, Ph. D. (Nutrition Researcher and Strength Coach extraordinaire, and author of The Anabolic Index)

The Promise
NO Boosters are supposed to dilate your blood vessels thereby stimulating extra blood flow to your muscles and increasing size, strength and performance.

The Theory
Arginine -> Nitric Oxide -> Vasodilation (blood vessel dilation) -> Nutrient Delivery -> Muscle Growth and Strength (15)

The Research
No statistically significant difference when compared to placebo. That is researchers gave people arginine and carb drinks and carb only drinks and there was no difference in blood flow or glucose uptake (what you really want) in a fasted state or an exercised state. (16-22)

At doses of 10g or higher arginine starts to make people sick to their stomach. But arginine doesn’t cause any vasodilation until you hit the 30g mark. That must be done with an IV because you would simply vomit the 30g if taken by mouth. To make that worse, you would actually need to ingest 43g orally to get the same effect as 30g in an IV. (21-24)

Sugar, arginine, caffeine and food coloring are cheap! You can get a really nice profit margin when you sell a bottle of ingredients worth $1 or so for $67.

The Verdict
LOAD OF CRAP! Save your money and invest in…

3. Carb and Protein Recovery Drink

Using recovery nutrition, you can recover nearly a day earlier that you otherwise would have!” – Dr. John Berardi (An extremely well respected sports nutritionist, and author of The Metabolism Advantage)

The Promise
Recovery drinks are supposed to help you recover – faster gains, less soreness and better subsequent performance (in the gym or in sport).

The Theory
After a workout your muscle’s glycogen stores are low and your broken down muscles are losing protein. If you can get your insulin levels to surge right after a workout then you can replace the glycogen and jump-start the recovery process – less soreness, less fatigue and much better gains.

The Research
While arginine is bullshit, insulin is legit. It’s the real vasodilator and you can summon it at will with nothing more than a drink of simple carbs. And you can get an even bigger surge in insulin if you throw some protein into the mix. (27, 28)

People gain more muscle and lose more fat with recovery drinks than they do without them. This is because insulin is like a nutrient shepherd – it directs nutrients to where they are needed in the body. If you’re sitting on your butt at the computer, they aren’t needed anywhere so insulin will just drive nutrients into your fat cells.

BUT, if you’ve just worked out, then insulin will drive carbs and amino acids to your muscles and get the recovery process going within the first hour instead of having to wait for 24 hours for it to begin. (25, 26, 29-31)

The Verdict
If you were only going to use one supplement this should be it. This will really unlock new potential for your physique whether you are looking to drop fat or build muscle.

Personally I use a brand called “SURGE and I recommend it to all of my clients. I don’t get any money for my endorsement, but I think it’s the best product on the market. It will run you about $2.10 per serving.

Fat burners

4. Fat Burners

The Promise
One manufacturer claims “5x Faster Fat-loss Than With Diet and Exercise Alone.”

The Theory
Most fat burners run off of the theory that there are substances that you can take that will cause your body to waste energy (calories) on making extra heat. These are called “thermogenic” compounds.

There are also compounds that claim to act on the signaling molecules that are involved in fat-burning. Some claim to excite the alpha-receptors (the fat releasing ones) and inhibit the beta-receptors (the fat storing ones). Others claim to stimulate the release of HSL (hormone sensitive lipase). HSL is really important in getting the fat out of the fat-cell and into your blood stream so you can use it for energy.

The Research
I will not even dignify the claim “5x Faster Fat-Loss” with a research discussion.

The claim “burn fat 5x faster than diet and exercise alone” is complete and utter bullshit. With no fat burner I can get a client to drop 3-4lbs of fat per week on a very aggressive fat-loss plan that utilizes diet and exercise.

So, taking a pill will result in 15-20lbs of fat-loss per week? Come on.

These people are saying that I could take a 190lb client from 20% body-fat to 5% body-fat in as little at TEN DAYS and no more than FOURTEEN with this magic fat burner pill? Do monkeys fly out of my ass?

The Verdict
SURPRISE! I actually use them myself, and occasionally recommend them to clients. When I want to get extra lean I almost always use some sort of “fat-burner” product, NOT because it burns fat, but because they have caffeine and often yohimbe in them – both stimulants.

I really dislike the taste of coffee, and one cup of coffee is more caffeine than I can handle. I just use low doses of the “fat burner” to help curb my appetite and keep my energy levels up at normal. But, there is no magic in a fat-burner. Some people need that boost and most people don’t, but most could just get it from coffee.

5. Fish Oil

Fish oil should be one of your staple supplements, regardless of your goals.” – (Mike Rousell, world class nutritionist, Ph.D. candidate, and contributor to Men’s Health Power Training)

The Promise
Everything – better fat loss, better heart health, improved joint health, and even better skin.

The Theory
There are lots of them, but many focus on the fact that Western diets are deficient in Omega-3 fatty acids, and over-abundant with Omega-6 fatty acids. This imbalance seems to cause inflammation and promote a lot of the diseases that we in the industrialized world suffer from.

But, there really isn’t a lot of consensus on how it works.

The Research
While there isn’t consensus on the HOW, there is consensus on IF it works. It works. It really lives up to its hype.

  • Better fat-loss? Yes, there is a lot of research where people did nothing other than replace some of the fat in their diet with fish oil and dropped significantly more body-fat than the placebo group. (32-38)
  • Better joint health? Maybe. Mostly just anecdotal.
  • Better heart health? Yes, lots of research here too. (39-40)
  • Better skin? Maybe, this too is mostly anecdotal.

The Verdict
Take it every day. It’s the fat-burner that actually seems to work.

The Take Home

Most supplement ads are just hype. However, that does NOT mean that ALL supplements are worthless. There are a few foundational supplements that really work and can really help to maximize your results. Take advantage of them and ignore the snake oil.


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Josef Brandenburg

Josef Brandenburg is a Washington D.C.-area fitness expert with 16 years of experience and co-author of the international best-selling book "Results Fitness." In 2004, he started True 180 Fitness (formerly The Body You Want) personal training program, which specializes in helping you get the body you want in the time you have available. Josef holds certifications from Precision Nutrition, American Council on Exercise, National Academy of Sports Medicine, Functional Movement Systems, Corrective High Performance Kinesiology, and the National College of Exercise Professionals. Learn more about Josef on his blog, follow him on Twitter and Facebook.