Sports supplements, such as protein shakes, used to be something that only male bodybuilders would pack in their gym bags. Nowadays you'll find them marketed in mainstream media targeting both male and female fitness fanatics. Once found only in health shops, you'll even spot them in supermarkets among the regular milkshakes and yogurt drinks.
Each product on the market touts its own set of benefits - whether it's reducing recovery time, assisting with muscle building or boosting energy before an intense work out. If you don't know your BCAAs from your creatine, then consider this post a brief introduction...
What are they for?
The typical western diet is very carb heavy (pasta, bread, potatoes, white rice, sugary drinks etc.) and as such, isn't conducive for strength training/fat loss. Protein shakes provide a convenient way of boosting protein intake to aid with muscle repair after tough workouts (that said, they should not be thought of as a substitute for protein rich foods, such as nuts, seeds, meat, fish, beans, eggs etc.).
Even for those who watch their macro-nutrient ratios, eat loads of protein rich foods, plan their meals accordingly, prep them at weekends and cook their food from scratch, it can still be difficult to cram in enough protein to keep up with vigorous strength training programs. This is why many fitness fans turn to protein shakes as means of a post workout snack or even as a way of boosting protein in their deserts and breakfast smoothies.
Ready-made or powdered?
Protein shakes come in a variety of formats. Some are ready made, like the ones you'll often find in supermarkets, while others come in powdered form in large tubs or resealable foil packages with plastic scoops. Powdered shakes can be mixed in either a shaker cup or a blender.
My advice would be to buy the powdered form as this offers a number of advantages:
- With powder you can choose whether to mix a scoop of powder with either water or milk.
- Choosing a powder that tastes great with water is ideal if you want to pack in the protein without adding in too many additional calories.
- If you want to use milk then you have a wide variety of options milk: full fat, semi-skimmed, skimmed cow's milk, or nut milks, such as almond or hazelnut.
- Pre-made protein shakes often contain a high amount of sugar and preservatives to boost their shelf life - a high quality protein powder will not.
- You can also choose how much water/milk you mix it with depending on how thick you want your shake to be.
- You can make protein smoothies in a blender using a scoop of your chosen protein powder, along with natural yogurt, fruit, vegetables, grasses, seeds and nuts.
Whey, casein or plant-based?
The majority of protein shakes are whey or casein based, or a blend of both. Both whey and casein are proteins derived from cow's milk, which is made up of 20% whey protein and 80% casein protein. They have the advantage of containing the full range of amino acids.
Whey protein shakes are probably the cheapest to produce (and therefore, often the most affordable), as whey is a by-product from the production of cheese. Sceptics would argue that the marketing behind whey protein is merely a ploy from the dairy industry to make profit from their waste products. Nevertheless, the advantage of whey is that it can be digested quickly and easily by the majority of people, making it highly effective for delivering protein to the muscles quickly after working out.
Casein takes longer to digest so it's slowly released into the body, providing amino acids for a prolonged period - great for muscle growth. It's optimal to combine the two in order to get the benefits of each. Many high quality whey based protein powders will contain a blend of whey and casein or alternatively, you could use a whey protein powder in the morning or just after a workout, and have a casein shake before bed.
If you are vegan or sensitive to dairy, then obviously you'll be looking for a plant based protein powder. Fortunately, in recent years the plant based protein powder market has exploded with a variety of different blends and sources, including pea, hemp and brown rice.
Should I take a protein shake?
Protein supplements are widely available, affordable and safe (although I still advise that you stick to reputable brands, such as MaxiNutrition). They're beneficial for anyone who regularly works out at a high intensity and/or uses resistance/weights, as protein will help repair muscles and encourage growth.
I'd recommend that you track your food, particularly your macro-nutrient ratios, to see if you could use additional protein. As I always say on here, no ladies - they will not turn you into bulky balloon animals and neither will lifting weights, so go for it!
What is it?
Creatine is found in foods like meat and fish, and is a non-essential dietary compound. It's made naturally by your liver and is stored is muscle cells as nature's way of powering you though short bursts of intense exercise (running away from predators in our cave man days).
The idea of taking it as a supplement (a powder, added to water), is to boost the stores of creatine in the muscles, for use in high intensity exercise (such as HIIT) or weight training.
Should I use it?
Creatine has many benefits for rigorous training but isn't really required if you're just doing a few gym classes a week. It's also not recommended for anyone with kidney problems, liver disease or diabetes. If your pregnant or breastfeeding, steer clear of it too. Some people find it upsets their stomachs a little too.
How do I use it?
Before taking creatine, you'll need to familiarise yourself with the process of 'cycling' your intake, between loading, maintenance and break phases. This, along with the dosage amounts should be explained clearly on packaging. You'll also needed to really up your consumption of water as it can increase the risk of dehydration.
What are they?
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are essential amino acids, or more precisely, the three amino acids: Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine, which can account for about 33% of muscle tissue. They are essential in that our body doesn't make them so we have to include them in our diets.
These amino acids help prevent fatigue if taken before a workout and can also prevent muscle breakdown when taken first thing in the morning or just before/during a workout.
Do I need them?
If your diet is lacking in a substantial amount of protein and you're regularly lifting weights or training at a high intensity, then you may find supplementing with BCAAs beneficial.
How do I take them?
Most often you'll find BCAAs as either a standalone powder or included in a good quality protein powder. Personally I find it much more cost effective to have it included in my protein shake, it also saves having to mix yet another powder/water drink.
What are they?
Pre-workout supplements are usually powders that you can mix with water but can also come in the form of liquid shots. Taken about 20-30 minutes before a workout, their aim is to boost your energy and focus before you workout, so that you can push yourself further, for more reps in and workout at a higher intensity. Some people swear by them for helping them smash their personal bests, even on their most tiresome of days.
Are they dangerous?
They contain a heck of lot of stimulants, including very high amounts of caffeine (so if you're sensitive to caffeine or suffer with insomnia, these are best avoided). Often they also contain beta-alanine. This is an effective stimulant and can also help delay muscle fatigue, but it can cause a flushed, itchy, pins and needles feeling all over the body when it first kicks in. Although it's harmless, some people (myself included) find this really unpleasant and off putting rather than stimulating. Others find that they build up tolerance to it and stop getting the reaction after a few uses.
Aren't they illegal?
There's been a lot of bad press surrounding pre-workouts, largely as a result of lawsuits involving particular brands of pre-workouts which contained a substance called dimethylamylamine, or DMAA. Side effects include high blood pressure, tremors, heart attacks, shortness of breath, tightening of the chest. Consumption of the substance has also been linked with deaths in the US military and even a marathon runner. It's now banned in the UK, US, Canada and Australia.
Should I try a pre-workout?
If you fancy trying one of these products, I cannot over emphasise enough the importance of sticking to the recommended dose and buying from a well-known brand. A handy tip: take it when you get to the gym - not before you drive to the gym, they can make some individuals, especially those taking them for first time, a little frantic and anxious while driving. Even if it doesn't have this effect on you, you don't want to waste your energy boost by sitting at traffic lights!
This has been a brief crash course on supplements, intended for anyone, who like myself a few years ago, hadn't heard of half of the supplements offered by health shops and website. These four tend to be the most commonly used by athletes, sports people and fitness fans.
Before taking any supplements, be sure to do plenty of research from a wide range of sources on the uses, side effects and dosage. Please also consider any health conditions, dietary requirements and any medication you may be taking. If you're unsure, consult a registered health professional.
Disclosure: This post was commissioned by MaxiNutrition but all research and opinions are my own.