Date: 2006-Jan-23
Author: Mike Orr <>

It's hard to find information about supplements except from the manufacturer or the magazines they sponsor. And each manufacturer accuses the others (without naming them) of making inflated claims and cutting corners in quality. Whom do you believe? Someday an independent lab a la Consumers' Union might appear to verify the claims and compare similar substances scientifically, but for now you have to go by comparing the claims against what users say does/doesn't work for them. Discussion forums like provide a good way to compare a lot of people's experience at once. I wrote this page in 2002 to cover what I knew. I'm making it more general in 2006 because I haven't bought supplements for two years (except vitamins and glucosamine) so I can't compare the latest products to the earlier ones.

Protein powder is covered in the Food section. Testosterone boosters (tribulus, pro-hormones, steroids) are covered in the Testosterone section.

Health supplements

Those vitamins and trace minerals help the body in a myriad ways that are especially important for those working out. Otherwise you're building one side of the building while letting it decay on the other side. If you're not sure you're getting all the necessary vitamins and minerals from food, a daily multivitamin gets all the bases covered. That doesn't mean you have to take it every day, just regularly.

For cramps, which I get a lot, calcium and potassium help. But you can get those from milk and bananas. I once bought a bottle of potassium only to discover that a single banana has as much potassium as four pills, and is cheaper too.

Glucosamine makes for more fluid in the joints and is thus a good supplement for injury prevention.

Fat loss

There are two kinds of fat-loss supplements: ephedra-based and non-ephedra. The ephedra ones are much better, but were banned in the US around 2003 after a few heart-attack deaths were linked to them, then in 2005 the ban was overturned, but they are still hard to find. That leaves supplements that are based on caffeine, green tea, etc. Most of these work similar to the caffeine in your coffee: raise the metabolism and core body temperature. They may make you jittery though. Ephedra suppresses the appetite somewhat and makes it easier to reach a higher heart rate in aerobics. The safety problems are a result of not reading the label, which says to avoid it if you have heart disease or high blood pressure, not to take more than 4/day, and to beware of the accumulative effect with other ephedrine products. Because it's easy to raise the heart rate, it's easy to get it into the danger zone (above 180 bpm or so) for an extended period of time and thus induce a heart attack. So watch those heart meters on the aerobics machines! The manufacturers have not stood still and continue coming out with new non-ephedra products, but I haven't heard anything as to whether any are especially good. Also note that these stimulants may cut into sleep time, so one should stop every few days and sleep in to get back into balance. Fat loss supplements are better between mass-gaining periods rather than during, because it's difficult to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously, so the supplement can't work to its full potential.

To make things confusing, ephedrine is the chemical, ephedra is the plant it comes from, but ephedra is also the generic name for the ephedrine/caffeine supplement. Pseudoephedrine is a different but related chemical. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about all this.


Creatine (creatine monohydrate) provides extra energy for the muscles so they can pump out a few extra reps. Since the last and most difficult reps are the most critical ones for bodybuilding, this can play a significant role. Creatine can also help in running longer and other aerobic exercises. The "C" in ATP-PC is creatine (aerobics section), so I assume that's what creatine supplements add to. In that case, creatine provides additional energy for the highest-intensity explosive movements, which is what weightlifting is. Creatine helps some people significantly but others not at all; it depends on how close your body's natural creatine production is to the optimal level.

Creatine comes both in a powder and a liquid. The powder is high maintenance: you have to mix it with a high-sugar low-acid juice like grape juice, and drink it a few times a day for the first week (the "loading phase"); then once a day. high-sugar juice) a few times a day for the first week (the "loading phase"); then you go down to once a day. This proves to be a total pain when you carry the grape juice in your backpack to work and it leaks. Then you miss a dose or two and wonder if you've just blown it and have to start over, but because the effects aren't visible you can't tell. And it breaks down quickly so you don't know whether the jar you've stored away is good or not. I use the liquid creatine instead because it avoids all these hassles. It's premixed and you just take it half an hour before you work out, and don't bother on days you don't work out. Creatine promotes water retention, which is not unhealthy but makes you look heavier on the scale and less ripped ("cut").


Glutamine is one of the amino acids required to build protein, so it's in protein powder. But it's also sold separately because it's one of the aminos most necessary after tearing the muscles down during workouts. Fortunately it doesn't have the disgusting taste of protein powder: the taste is pretty neutral. A common practice is to take it half an hour before and half an hour after working out.