The scoop on workout supplements

April 10, 2023


Graphic illustrations by Amishi Chandra

Various workout supplements, taken before and after workout sessions, seek to improve physical prowess by boosting energy and athletic performance and aid in muscle growth and recovery.

Intense physical exertion during a weightlifting session is incredibly taxing on not just one’s muscles, but their sinews, joints and cardiovascular structure too. Various workout supplements, taken before and after workout sessions, seek to improve physical prowess by boosting energy and athletic performance and aid in muscle growth and recovery. Yet these substances aren’t only used by professional athletes — they’ve been adopted by the general public, and now appear on the shelves of most local supermarkets, prompting curiosity about what they actually do.

Preparing with pre-workout

Pre-workout supplements are popular among both recreational and professional athletes. These powders are meant to be taken prior to exercise and generally contain a mix of ingredients such as caffeine, creatine and amino acids. Although a mix of various pre-workout supplements are typically popular among athletes, those who wish to focus on a particular muscle group take individual supplements. 

Caffeine is a primary ingredient in a varying number of pre-workout supplements, as it is quickly absorbed and peaks in the bloodstream within 60 minutes of ingestion. Caffeine boosts mental alertness and sharpens cognition, ultimately improving one’s performance during endurance, power and resistance exercises. 

“I use caffeine in the form of energy drinks,” junior Manasa Gudapati said. “Celsius energy drinks give me extra energy boosts that help me power through my workouts.” 

When taken in doses between 100 and 400 milligrams, caffeine has thermogenic properties, meaning it boosts metabolism and allows one’s body to burn maximum calories during a workout or throughout the day. The FDA recommends less than 400 milligrams of caffeine a day for adults; excessively high dosages may lead to side effects which can affect day-to-day living and lead to health problems. 

There are 20 different amino acids which aid the growth and repairing of muscles, decrease muscle soreness and help in energy production. Beta-alanine, a popular supplement, is an amino acid which one can obtain through consumption of foods such as poultry or meat. This amino acid is used to synthesize carnosine, a molecule that is stored in muscles and helps improve athletic performance. 

“Performance improvement is seen with these supplements, but not as much as you would see with caffeine or creatine monohydrate.” said Sebastian Zorn, Director of Sports Nutrition with football at Stanford University. “Even those have at best 5-8% performance improvement when dosed correctly.”

Athletes, especially weightlifters, use creatine monohydrate, a supplement that reduces recovery time and increases energy. It is formed of three amino acids: L-arginine, L-methionine and glycine. Creatine increases water retention in muscles, making them appear bigger, explaining its popularity among bodybuilders. It also helps with increasing power and short bursts of energy.

“Creatine has helped make my workouts feel more fluent and cut down my recovery time by a lot,” junior Shaumik Kalwit said. 

 Creatine is meant to be taken while drinking a gallon of water a day or else it may negatively affect one’s digestive system. 

“Some people claim that you have to cycle on and off creatine because it’s bad for your kidneys,” said Dr. Matthew Kaufman, a physical medicine and rehabilitation resident at Stanford University. “That’s actually not true — studies have shown that you can take creatine indefinitely and nothing too bad with the kidneys is going to happen, unless you have a pre-existing kidney disease.”

These ingredients in pre-workout supplements have been scientifically proven to support athletic performance. However, these supplements are not completely risk free. For example, pre-workout frequently contains artificial sweeteners, which should be taken in moderation to avoid digestive problems. Excessive intake of caffeine can also lead to side effects, such as increased blood pressure, impaired sleep and stress. If one has existing health conditions, it is crucial to consult with a medical professional before using pre-workout supplements. Pre-workout supplements are not recommended for daily use, as one may build up a tolerance to the ingredients, lessening the effectiveness. It’s suggested to take these supplements only before an especially tough workout where one may need an extra boost of energy. 

Repairing with post-workout

Upon the completion of strenuous strength training or an explosive high-intensity workout session, targeted muscles are peppered with microscopic rips and tears in their fibers. These damaged muscle cells stimulate the body to repair and strengthen the existing muscle through a process known as muscle protein synthesis. The body requires nutrients to recuperate from physical exhaustion — here’s where post-workout supplements come into assistance. 

The vast majority of post-workout supplements on the market today have one commonality: protein. When digested by the body, protein is broken down into its component amino acids, which are transported to muscle cells and synthesized into muscle protein, or protein-constituting muscle cells, in a complicated process known as MPS which makes muscles bigger and stronger. 

For this reason, powdered protein supplements are often consumed in smoothies or shakes and provide users with a convenient source of protein for the body to repair and build muscle tissue. In fact, a landmark 2018 study published under the National Library of Medicine conducted by Robert Morton et al. found that supplement users were associated with a 3.24-pound increase in muscle strength compared with placebo groups. 

“The average individual loses around 400 grams of nitrogen daily from normal everyday activity,” said Sebastian Zorn, Director of Sports Nutrition with football at Stanford University. “This needs to be replaced and an additional surplus ingested to build muscle mass, so the daily Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is anywhere from 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight for the average person to 2.2 grams for the elite athlete looking to gain lean body mass.”

This makes it especially important for athletes undergoing a rigorous training routine to meet their demanding daily RDA for protein. Such athletes may find protein powders an accessible way to supplement protein into their diets while restricting their caloric intake. 

  “Normal days during my athletic season consist of workout sessions on top of regular practices,” senior and football player Andrew Hahm said. “Protein powders give me a convenient way to supplement my daily protein recommendation without spending too much time preparing natural foods amid an already hectic schedule.” 

Protein powders are used by the general public, recreational exercisers and fitness fanatics alike. Contrary to popular preconceptions, protein powder also sees great use in areas outside resistance and sports training such as in forms of cardio exercise.

“I don’t train religiously for a sport and still find use for protein supplements after my workouts,” senior Krisalyn Satriya said. “I used to feel sluggish after my workouts, but taking protein keeps me from feeling hungry for the rest of the day after my workout adrenaline wears off.” 

Popular manufacturers of store-bought brands derive their protein from plants and animals. Whey protein comes from milk, meaning it is animal-derived and a complete protein, or a source of the nine essential amino acids necessary in the human diet. It is richly concentrated, absorbs quickly into the bloodstream and gives the user a sense of fullness. Also derived from milk is casein protein. Unlike whey, it is digested slowly and best taken before bedtime.

On the other hand, plant-based proteins, derived from peas, brown rice, chia seeds and more, are great for those with dietary restrictions. Commercial plant-based brands also come with a host of vitamins, fibers, and probiotics, making them a great supplement for nutrients beyond protein. Compared to animal proteins, plant-based protein powders come with less protein and generally aren’t complete. 

“Still, the volume of protein taken matters more than the type,” Zorn said. “Where protein comes from isn’t as important — what’s more important is obtaining enough protein consistently throughout the day. For timing around workouts, getting carbohydrates and fluids within one hour of the workout is crucial.”

Although protein supplements can serve as a convenient source for one’s daily protein intake, it’s important to recognize that it is entirely possible, and normal even, to obtain one’s protein from natural foods alone. Experts agree that adolescents and young adults should get their protein from whole food sources such as poultry, dairy, beans and lentils. In short, post-workout supplements with protein should be used as what they are — supplements, and not replacements. 

“As a whole, pre- and post-workout supplements do help if you’re training and recovering correctly,” Zorn said. “But ultimately, getting adequate sleep, adequate food and nutrient volume throughout the day and hydrating before, during and after training are all going to have a significantly greater effect on performance than any given supplement.”


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