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Burning Supplement Questions

We polled our resident supplement expert to answer our readers’ queries on the science of exercise and sports supplementation.

Q: I already take a whey-protein supplement. Do I also need to take branched-chain amino acids?

A: This is a question that we hear quite often, which stands to reason since a lot of whey protein’s benefits are due to its relatively high branched-chain amino acid content. The BCAAs are a group of three amino acids — leucine, isoleucine and valine — which, studies have shown, reduce exercise fatigue, lower cortisol levels and promote anabolism (muscle building). However, to appreciate any ergogenic benefit from BCAAs, supplementation research shows that you must take in a minimum of 3 grams of leucine per serving — and you should take even more if you have a lot of muscle or train intensely or for long durations.

If you take a close look at most whey protein products, you will quickly see that they contain approximately 2 grams of leucine, 1 gram of isoleucine and 1 gram of valine per 20-gram scoop. So if you are only taking a whey-protein supplement with hopes of getting all that the BCAAs have to offer, then you are shortchanging yourself.

What to Take: We recommend taking at least 5 grams of BCAAs every time you drink a protein shake, especially 30 to 60 minutes before and after training or competing.

Q: Are multivitamins necessary?

A: Yes! Vitamins and minerals are essential catalysts for cellular function and nutrient absorption. They support growth and regeneration of various tissues in the body, including bones and muscle. Notably, our vitamin requirements increase when we train or engage in high-intensity sports. To add insult to injury, intense training is commonly coupled with strict dieting, which can exacerbate vitamin deficiencies.

Vitamins and minerals also play direct roles in brain function and neurotransmitter synthesis as well as indirect roles through their involvement in energy metabolism and modulation of the brains blood supply. Further, many vitamins (and a number of minerals) have pivotal roles in mitochondrial function, the major site for energy (ATP) production. In the end, vitamin and mineral deficiencies can have profound effects on focus, energy and metabolism — all of which have been shown to limit exercise and sports performance.

What to Take: Notably, it’s well documented that a large proportion of North Americans are deficient in one or more vitamins and minerals. For men and women who train or compete in sports, we always suggest using a high-quality vitamin and micronutrient supplement formulated specifically for athletes to keep micronutrients topped off even during periods of heavy training and/or dieting. Look for products with high levels of vitamins B, C and D and take as directed.

Q: If my preworkout contains beta-alanine, do I still need the second postworkout dose?

A: Yes! Beta-alanine, a precursor to carnosine (a dipeptide that is concentrated in skeletal muscle) synthesis, has been shown to elevate muscle carnosine levels by more than 60 percent. This is great for athletes, as increased muscle carnosine levels buffer exercise-induced acidosis, resulting in increased power production and work capacity.

Based on an abundance of recent research illustrating its positive effects on muscle performance, most popular preworkout formulas contain beta-alanine. However, doses vary among products and even the best ones contain only 2 to 3 grams of beta-alanine per serving — this is about half of the optimal daily dose.

What to Take: Here are four science-backed points to consider when taking beta-alanine:

Four weeks of beta-alanine supplementation (4 to 6 grams per day) significantly boosts muscle carnosine concentrations, which serve to buffer increases in acidity in exercising muscle.

See Also Preworkout 101

The only substantiated side effect of high dose beta-alanine supplementation is a tingling sensation in the skin (called paresthesia). Paresthesia can be avoided by dividing your daily dose into three or four smaller doses (no more than 1.5 grams each) and taking them throughout the day.

Daily beta-alanine supplementation (4 to 6 grams per day) for at least two to four weeks improves exercise performance, especially when exertion lasts between one and four minutes.

Beta-alanine becomes more effective when stacked with other supplements (such as creatine). This synergy is not immediately apparent and generally becomes noticeable after four weeks of consistent supplementation.


Q: I’m an athlete on a budget but want joint protection. Is taking fish oil sufficient?
A: The omega-3 fatty acids — eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid — in fish oil do provide a moderate level of joint protection, mainly due to their effects on reducing systemic inflammation — as seen in cases of rheumatoid arthritis. The best way to ensure you are getting all the benefits of fish oil is to take at least 1,200 milligrams of EPA and DHA per day, which equates to taking in about 4 grams of fish oil per day (2 grams with breakfast and 2 grams with dinner).

If you want to “level up” on joint protection, we recommend adding glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate to your regimen.

Glucosamine has been shown to increase sulfate uptake and boost synovial fluid production in joints (which provides lubrication and cushioning) and helps generate new cartilage by activating cells called chondrocytes. These actions slow cartilage degeneration, repair connective tissue and keep your joints moving smoothly. For best results take 1.5 to 2 grams per day in three divided doses.

Chondroitin is a primary structural component of joint cartilage and is commonly combined with glucosamine. For advanced weight-training athletes, using this combo is beneficial for helping to avoid joint problems.

What to Take: Taking chondroitin with glucosamine may help you protect your joints. For best results, take 1 to 1.5 grams per day divided into three doses.

What is the best supplement for increasing focus and training intensity?

Assuming that you are not sensitive to stimulants, then there is nothing better than caffeine for increasing focus and training intensity (with few if any side effects). Science supports caffeine as a highly effective ergogenic aid; thus, it stands to reason why most preworkout powders contain high concentrations of it. Many athletes regularly use caffeine prior to training/competition to boost mental focus, combat fatigue and decrease perceived exertion.

Caffeine acts on two levels, centrally (in the brain) and peripherally (in the body). In the brain, caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant that non-selectively blocks adenosine receptors. Normally (i.e., when caffeine isn’t available), adenosine binds to nerve cells and makes them slow down in their activity. Caffeine is structured much like adenosine, so nerve cells readily allow caffeine to bind to their adenosine receptors, thus blocking the inhibitory action of adenosine on nerve activity. As a result, the caffeinated brain is profuse with “hyperactive” nerve cells. This hyperactive neuronal environment is perceived by the pituitary as an emergency, which results in adrenaline release from the anterior pituitary. At the same time, the brain increases the release of dopamine, which gives you the sense of well-being and focus.

See Also 5 Benefits of Caffeine Supplementation

In the body, caffeine inhibits an enzyme called phosphodiesterase. In cells PDE breaks down cyclic adenosine monophosphate, a very important cell-signaling substance (called a second messenger). Caffeine stops the breakdown of cAMP, which prolongs and intensifies the stimulating effects of neurotransmitters and hormones in the body.

What to Take: Research illustrates that 200 to 400 milligrams of caffeine taken 30 to 60 minutes before training will give you the greatest benefits.