Whether it be the start of a new year or any other month on the calendar, many of us are constantly looking for an edge to help with our training and fat loss efforts. Fortunately, there’s a myriad of health supplements promising to make us fitter, leaner, and stronger, but most of us know by now that when it comes to getting in shape, there’s simply no substitute for effort and consistency. Still, there are many supplements that can genuinely aid us on our quest to get ripped, run those extra miles, or lift that heavier weight.
Dr Keith Baar, PhD, recently talked to M&F to help unravel some of the complexities around supplements. Baar is a published muscle and tendon scientist and Head of Functional Molecular Biology at the University of California, Davis. As a member of the research team at Momentous Nutrition he says that gaining results is not just about which supplements you choose, but it’s also about when you choose to take them.
1) Understand the Role of Supplements Before Taking Them
The first thing to understand about supplements is that, unfortunately, there is no magic pill that will undo all those bad choices you made before hopping on your fitness journey. On top of that, supplements won’t give you a free pass to be inconsistent with your new exercise and nutritional habits. Think of taking vitamins and minerals, and other supplements, as a way to tune-up a well running car. Dr Baar says that supplements may account for “10 to 20%” of your overall fitness and nutritional efforts. So, while supplement’s aren’t everything, they certainly have a significant role to play when utilized correctly.
2) Don’t Supplement Like an Athlete If You’re Not Training Like One
Baar likens taking supplements to sending a letter or an email. He says that it’s all about getting the destination prepared first. This is because many supplements such as creatine are designed to replace minerals that are lost through exercise. So, if you are not exercising, there’s probably little point in reaching for supplements when a regular diet should be more than adequate to sustain your bodies work or recovery requirements.
“I always tell my students; ‘Look, if you’re gonna sit here for an hour, we’re halfway through the class, and I give you the greatest muscle supplement ever, but you’re sitting on your ass, and you’re not doing anything, all that’s going to happen is that it’s going to go to your liver’. Your liver is going to take out most of it. And then, you’re not going to deliver
anything to your body, you’re not going to get anything to your muscles,” Baar explains. “But, if I just have you do a little bit of exercise, and specifically exercise using the muscles where you want it to go, now what we’re going to do is deliver significantly more of whatever I’ve given you to the muscles that you’ve worked.”
3) Less Is Often More as It Relates to Health Supplements
Most supplements, particularly the well-researched products out there, will come with a suggested dosage. It is important to recognize that taking more than what is suggested on the label won’t necessarily lead to greater results. “People will often take protein too frequently, with the idea that if I keep my amino acid levels in my blood higher, that’s going to lead to a bigger response in my body,” says Baar. “We actually need these fluxes. We need it to go in and out. And, if we don’t ever have time where the amino acid levels are low, you create insulin resistance. So, you actually can have a negative impact from what you think is having a positive effect.”
4) Make the Most of Blood Flow
Whether you’re a keen cyclist who’s just blasted your quads, or you’re simply a regular gym goer feeling the pump, the post exercise window is often viewed as a great time to take supplements. “So, that pump lasts for a couple of hours,” says Baar. “We can feed right around, or right after, our nutrient or exercise. Much more of those nutrients that we’re going to deliver are going to go to the muscles that we just worked … great for skeletal muscle, where there’s a lot of blood flow to the working muscle.”
5) Supplements Compliment But Cannot Replace Whole Foods
When it comes to supplements, it’s not just the price that fluctuates, but the quality too, says Dr Baar, who explains that pharmaceutical-grade supplements often make great sense because they have verifiable stability and will likely last longer in your system. This means that you can tweak the nutritional timing of supplements, as some are slow released, as opposed to real foods that tend to digest more quickly.
Still, regular foods do offer additional benefits. Baar points to the example of a blueberry, since it delivers vitamins but also provided antioxidants. When taking a vitamin pill, you may lose out on the antioxidant aspect, leading to negative effects over time. “How you’re getting it also matters as much as why,” he explains.
6) Timing Can Be Everything
For elite athletes, Dr Baar says that the timing of supplements and nutritional intake could be advantageous. “For the majority of people, it’s not really going to be a big deal, but if you’re going to be a higher-level athlete, and you’re going to take things like beta alanine, for example, (then it matters). Because for beta alanine to have an effect, what we tend to do is split it into three doses a day. So that’s where you have a schedule,” says the health expert, who goes on to explain that dinner time is a good idea as relates to taking creatine. “Because the way that we absorb creatine monophosphate, a lot of it is when there’s higher amounts of nutrients and amino acids, we absorb the creatine better, and we get it into muscle better because the creatine is facilitated by insulin and other things.”
For many hard training athletes, recovery and the repairing of our tendons and joints is essential if we are going to exercise in a way that builds muscle mass. In comparison with muscle however, our tendons receive much less blood flow, explains Dr Baar, and this means that while supplements can aid in recovery, the timing around supplements such as collagen should be approached in a different way.
“If you want to get something into your cartilage, then what you want to be able to do is deliver something like collagen before you do your exercise,” explains Dr Baar. “The way tendons get nutrients is when we pull on them, or when we squish them, we move liquid out. And then, when we relax, liquid comes in. So, if we’re gonna do cyclic loading on our knee, which is going to be great as a stimulus to help our knees to maintain our cartilage, we want to take those nutrients (such as collagen) about 45 minutes to an hour before we’re exercising, because what we’re going to do is we’re going to digest and absorb, it’s going to be sent out to our body, it’s going to get into the liquid around that knee. So now, that period of loading, either squishing cartilage or pulling on a tendon; we are pushing out water, we’re bringing in water, the liquid that we’re bringing in is going to have more of the nutrients. So, that’s how we would use the difference here, when we’re looking at say, something that’s targeted for our connective tissues, like our cartilage, or tendons, ligaments, versus something that’s targeted for muscles.”
7) Does Caffeine Block Other Supplements?
So, we’ve got our training in check, and our dosage and schedules on point, but is it true that caffeine can block or slow the absorption of supplemented vitamins and minerals? “In animals and people, we haven’t seen a negative effect but we can create a negative effect by testing it in the laboratory,” says the published doctor. “So, for the majority of people, it’s not going to be a big deal. If you’re an elite athlete where that extra one or two percent matters, then we would say let’s move (the timing) away from your caffeine. Because, the caffeine might not be as beneficial when it’s taken together (with another supplement). But, we haven’t seen a negative effect when we test it in organisms, people, and rodents. But, we can produce an environment where caffeine definitely has a negative effect on your collagen synthesis rates.”
While other factors such as our age and individual health will determine the correct supplementation and timings, the principles of taking the correct and purest dosage, at the right time, and not thinking of supplements as a replacement for food or a magic pill, could be the kick-start that you need to reach your full potential. Always consult your own health professional as relates to your personal circumstances.
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