Before You Buy Bodybuilding Supplements, Read This


When you skim fitness magazines and gaze upon near-Herculean bros hawking various pills, part of you -- the logical, intelligent consumer -- is, of course, skeptical. You’re too smart to let a snake oil salesman convince you that you’re the next Arnold. You pride yourself in only investing in what works.

And yet, there’s something about those supplement ads, with their perfect models and science-backed claims, that tempts you. Perhaps you’re gullible, or maybe somewhere subconsciously you realize it’s easier to say a supplement failed you, rather than your own willpower, determination, or self-control.

Either way, the sad truth is that most supplements turn out to be nothing more than expensive urine, no matter how convincingly they’re advertised. And while you can get some value out of the right supplements, here are a few things you need to know before you start loading up on tubs of powder and pills with names like "JACKD8000."


What you should know about fitness supplement ads

I learned how supplement marketing works after countless hours interviewing industry experts, both from the perspective of founding a fitness app, and on my own journey from obese nerd to fitness coach.

Almost every supplement ad is some variation of the same formula: first, there’s a cut specimen on display -- either featured solo in all their glory, or (more convincingly) with a miraculous before-and-after picture. This imagery is usually accompanied by a “scientific” study.

But anything that “miraculous” is almost always going to fall into one of the following categories:

  • The person in that ad is a paid actor whose job is to maintain some semblance of a six-pack 365 days a year. There’s a chance he hasn’t even tested the product he’s advertising, and he’s just posing for the photos to pay his bills.
  • The before-and-after picture is carefully timed so the “before” picture is at the peak of what bodybuilders call a “bulking” phase (when they intentionally gain mass and are at their fattest), and the “after” is at the end of their “cutting” phase (when they intentionally lose fat and are at their leanest). A great example of this is the well-known bodybuilder Lee Priest, who’s infamous for shifting ungodly amounts of fat between these two phases. Without any insight into the actual process of cutting and bulking, the photos sell you a story of resistance-free fat loss and muscle gain. The truth is, it actually takes about 20 weeks of solid work and precise food measurement for an experienced professional to transition between the two states.
  • The picture itself is a function of good lighting and water manipulation. If you follow any Instagram fitness accounts or have tried to document your own progress, you’d know that these are the pillars of a likeable and shareable post.
  • This person used the product or supplement, but it wasn’t the root of their transformation.

As for the scientific “study” that comes along with the ad? Probably bullshit. One trick that companies use is to incorporate tiny amounts of compounds that have had limited success in rigorous clinical trials on mice or humans. They’ll add this to the rest of the inactive-but-sciencey-sounding ingredients, and exploit that as the backbone for their marketing fodder. For example, many supplements claim to boost testosterone, yet according to Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, both an obesity specialist and a competitive bodybuilder himself:

“There are no dietary supplements proven to increase testosterone in a clinically meaningful manner. If you see a supplement claiming otherwise, you should be skeptical.”


You can still learn from bodybuilders (just not their supplements)

The average fitness supplement might not work, but it doesn’t mean you should ignore all the information from their prime consumers. Bodybuilders -- more than any other group of people -- are able to change their physiques nearly at will. And that’s powerful.

Bodybuilders can transform at will for three main reasons. The first doesn’t concern most people: they take a copious amount of hormones, like testosterone and T3 (a thyroid hormone). Inundating your body with chemicals is probably not a good idea for the average person, so let’s skip this one.

More actionably, they understand that fitness is a skill, rather than an innate talent. It’s something you can get better at as long as you learn the fundamentals, have a blueprint, and, most importantly, practice. This mindset, above all else, is the reason they’re able to transform.

Finally, they base their fat loss efforts on two major principles: resistance training and a caloric deficit with high protein intake. That’s it. There’s no particular need to subscribe to regimens like low-carb diets or “clean” eating, or multivitamins and plant extracts. While they’re appropriate strategies in certain contexts, they’re really just ways to make the above two components seem a little sexier.

Some supplements can still be useful

All of that said, I’ve learned from training nearly 1,000 people -- many of whom have undergone amazing before-and-after transformations (albeit not overnight) -- that supplements can still be useful… as long as you don’t rely on them as a panacea for your bodybuilding woes. Whey protein, for example, has been shown to reduce hunger. It’s also a low-calorie way to boost protein in your diet, thereby allowing you to stave off muscle loss while keeping your metabolism high.

As far as other supplements that may aid fitness and weight loss, there are only a few that have been shown to actually work. Dr. Nadolsky recommends the following:

  • Vitamin D and Vitamin K: shown to improve to bone health, immune health, testosterone levels, cognitive abilities, and pretty much everything in between
  • Probiotics: balances your gut flora, which has been linked to everything from prevention or reduced severity of IBS to improvements in mood disorders like depression
  • Creatine: helps your body produce energy quickly, which is helpful for intensive workout sessions and supporting strength gains
  • Fish oil: improves cardiovascular health, and has been strongly linked to lower risk of certain illnesses including diabetes and some forms of cancer
  • Berberine: as a natural alternative to managing blood sugar and cholesterol (not to be confused with a Bieber-promoted supplement)

If you’re serious about supporting your health and fitness endeavors in any way you can, I’d consider looking into some of the above. At the end of the day, they’re called “supplements” for a reason; they’ll aid your existing regimen, but they’re not the solution to every challenge you encounter on the way.

Instead of spending money on supplements, spend time on researching the basics of calories, protein, and learning how you can think of fitness as a skill. That way, you can rely on yourself to achieve your goals, rather than pinning your hopes on a little pill.

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Dick Talens is an entrepreneur, fitness writer, and growth hacker (both users and muscles). Follow his gibberish tweets: @DickTalens.