From whey to ZMA, gym goers are spoiled for choice with pills and powders. Personal trainers need to cut through the marketing jargon for their clients and consider alternatives to these must-haves
Your new personal training client has their gym membership sorted, bought sparkling white trainers and stocked their fridge with good intentions. And then they ask you about supplements.
The supplements industry is big business, mushrooming since late 2000. No longer the preserve of weekend warriors and professional bodybuilders, fitness supplements are now being knocked back by everyday gym goers keen to progress, or simply to fit in amongst those on the gym floor swallowing pills and downing brightly coloured liquids between sets.
Four years ago, supplements produced about $32 billion in revenue. By 2021, estimates double this figure to more $60 billion in 2021, according to the Nutritional Business Journal. Where once supplements had to be hunted down in niche shops, under gym reception counters or obscure websites, now they can be picked up with the weekly shopping at Waitrose.
Quality supplements do work, testified by numerous studies, when taken appropriately and for the right reasons. Some supplements quickly reveal their results whilst others are a slow, subtle burn. Some may have real benefits whereas others offer negligible results that only the hardcore fitness professional may deem worthwhile.
Most personal training clients don't have bottomless wallets, nor should they clear the shelves of a specialist shop expecting to be transformed by pills and powders. It should be remembered that a supplement – “a thing added to something else in order to complete or enhance it” – is just that. It is something supplementing a healthy lifestyle, supporting the commitment made to hard work in the gym and healthy decisions made in the kitchen.
So, when it comes to supplements, what are the ones a client may wish to consider? And, are there more natural alternatives that could easily be integrated into clients' diets without requiring a scoop?
Between 2007 and 2012, world sales in the protein industry doubled to reach £260 million. By next year, it could be worth as much as £8 billion. Increasingly ubiquitous amongst even casual gym members, protein shakes have become as much as a part of some peoples' workouts as the warm-up and bench press. The 45-minute post-workout window is dedicated to mixing a shake before it's “too late”.
Protein shakes take about 30 minutes to reach the muscle after ingestion. This means fast fuel before a workout and, perhaps more importantly, after a workout protein can be quickly delivered to the muscles to promote recovery and growth. Pre-bought or in powder form, protein shakes are portable and prices range from high street bargains to more premium quality.
As a major food group, protein can be found in both meat and plant sources, from chicken breasts to beans. For quick ingestion, a water- or milk-based smoothie with egg whites, peanut butter and Greek yoghurt could provide that post-workout hit of protein. Two Chicks egg whites, for example, is sold in supermarkets and lasts for about a week, no cracking of eggs necessary.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) —leucine, isoleucine and valine — serve as the building blocks of muscle protein. Taken in capsule form, BCAAs can can have an effect pre-, post- and during a workout.
BCAAs can stimulate insulin and growth hormone levels, as well as lowering cortisol levels, promoting muscle growth and fat loss. BCAAs can also boost energy levels and ward off fatigue.
A 6 oz serving of dry-roasted peanuts packs more total BCAAs than any meat sources. Flank steak and canned tuna are also good sources of BCAAs.
Another amino acid, glutamine supports the immune system, helping to prevent illness and speed up recovery after a workout. For easy ingestion, it comes in capsule, powder, and liquid form.
A study from the Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism journal found that glutamine had help improve endurance, warding off fatigue. Other studies have shown that glutamine can preserve muscle tissue when you're trying to shred fat. Plus, just two grams of glutamine can increase growth hormone, making it attractive to those looking to gain muscle mass.
Meat, poultry and seafood are among the best sources of glutamine. Foods that supply higher levels of protein tend to be higher in glutamine. Milk, yoghurt and cheese such as ricotta are also good sources of the amino acid.
Creatine is used in the promotion of lean body mass. Available in powder form, just five grams a day is needed to start seeing results.
As well as increasing muscle cell volume and recovery time after a workout, it can also help athletes train at higher intensity. Creatine also raises glycogen levels, which means those that take it experience a more pronounced pump during their workouts. Though it may not have great physiological impact, this does help boost motivation when seeing the workout is 'working'.
Game is the richest dietary source of creatine. Take your pick from rabbit, venison, and elk to wild boar, ostrich and buffalo.
ZMA is a mineral supplement, delivering zinc and magnesium and vitamin B6. Zinc promotes muscle recovery and growth. Magnesium is important for a healthy cardiovascular and skeletal system. Taken in tablet form, ZMA should not be consumed with food due to poor absorption.
A study performed at Western Washington University (Bellingham) found ZMA could increase testosterone levels by more than 30%, could lead to significantly greater gains in strength and power, and better sleep quality.
Magnesium, zinc and B6 can be found in natural food sources. Shellfish are great sources of zinc; magnesium can be found in bananas and brown rice; and salmon and turkey will deliver that B6.
Fish oil is a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids as well as essential fatty acids. A good fish oil should include EPA and DHA. Fish oil can be taken in liquid form – if you can stand the taste – or the more palatable pill form.
As well as supporting brain, nerve, and visual functions, fish oil can improve joint flexibility and bone strength. Fish oil can also support the levels of serotonin in the body, which is often termed the "feel-good" hormone, meaning fish oil can make you happier and less prone to stress and depression.
Flaxseed oil is being heavily promoted as an alternative to fish oil. You could also try walnut oil. Both have flavours that will compliment your cooking, making it easier to work into everyday dinners.
Consider your personal training clients' goals before advising on supplements. Whereas one client may have the gym experience and budget to justify the use of certain supplements, others may find less affordable or not even necessary to achieve their fitness goals. Supplements certainly have their merits - protein shakes are cheaper, quicker and easier than preparing chicken breasts every day, for example - but many of the benefits can be found in everyday foods that can easily be factored into a client's diet.