Beginner's Guide to Choosing the Right Workout Supplements

"Are workout supplements necessary?"

"Which workout supplements actually work?"

"Which are best for promoting muscle gain or weight loss?"

These are all good questions everyone should ask before buying and using any kind of dietary supplement. The fitness world is filled with a vast amount of supplements in the market claiming to do different things like increase athletic performance, energy, aid in muscle building, and some even claim to accelerate fat loss! All those claims aside, here's the first thing you should know about workout supplements: They can enhance your ability to gain muscle, strength, and lose overall body fat, but that is if you’re practicing good nutrition and training regularly. If they didn't work, so many avid gym-goers and bodybuilders wouldn't use them!

Although supplementation can be a useful tool, it can be hard to find which supplements are actually worth it and safe because of all the different kinds and claims! With our team's extensive research and knowledge of supplements and how they work, we've put together a guide on how to choose the right workout supplements. We'll give you the facts on the most popular and best supplements, and whether they do as they claim. Plus, tips on what to avoid... By the end of this, you'll have a better understanding of popular workout supplements to make an informed decision on which ones, if any, are right for you!

Popular workout supplements

To choose the right supplements you must know what you're going to be using them for - What are your fitness goals? Knowing your purpose for using it and the purpose of the supplement will help you determine which one you might want to give a shot. Every supplement has a different purpose. Pre-workout supplements, supplements you take before your workout, are designed to help with your performance. Post-workout supplements, supplements you take after working out, are designed to help boost muscle recovery in order to promote effective muscle growth. Other dietary supplements are used as a way to ensure your body is getting enough of the right nutrients to promote better body functionality. So it really depends on what exactly you're looking for, is it filling in a small nutrient deficiency? Need a boost in performance or recovery?

Once you know what you need for your specific goals, then you just have to look at the supplements! To help, here’s the breakdown of the best supplements:

Protein powder

What it's used for: Muscle growth, recovery, and increase protein intake.

Background: When it comes to protein supplements, this is by far the most popular one! Protein powder is used to help people get an adequate amount of protein in their diet to help build, repair, and maintain muscle. The best quality protein sources come from whole foods - Meat, poultry, fish. Although you should prioritize whole foods, having protein powder can come in handy on the days you didn't eat enough or had a high-intensity workout and need the extra protein boost for optimal muscle recovery. 

So does protein powder actually promote muscle growth? 

Well, research shows that compared to people who simply add extra carbs into their diet, those who took a protein powder supplement had slightly more muscle gain. [1] However, the effects are much larger for those who aren't getting enough protein in their diet. Those already eating a high-protein diet will see a less significant change.

Another thing that determines whether a protein powder is effective or not is the protein powder itself! There are various kinds like whey, casein, soy, pea, and more. The protein source is then combined with other ingredients to improve the flavor, texture, and to enhance the recovery properties. This means that not all protein powders are created equal. Supplement companies can include various filler and negative ingredients that have no positive effect on your training. The key is to look for one that has at least 20-30g of protein per scoop, that's a good indicator that it's mostly protein and fewer fillers and artificial flavors. As far as the type, it depends on your dietary needs and fitness goals. Whey protein and casein protein are effective for muscle building and fat loss because they come from the best natural source - Milk. These two types of protein have more branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), specifically leucine. Leucine is responsible for turning on protein synthesis which promotes recovery. For those who are vegan or plant-based, there are other options like soy protein, pea protein, rice protein, and others. These options are good, but they won't contain as many amino acids as whey or casein. 

Recommended dosage: That depends on your protein intake! The Dietary Reference Intake is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, for athletes, it's recommended to eat 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. To get more accurate results use a macro calculator to help you determine how much protein you need to eat for your specific body and goals. Knowing your protein intake is important because it'll help you figure out how much protein powder you need that day to help you reach your goals. This leads to the next point of when to take it. Most will say that you should down a protein shake after your training, but what matters most is just making sure to hit your recommended protein intake over the course of the day. This means you can incorporate your protein powder into your day at any time, it'll still help with muscle recovery regardless of when you choose to take it.

Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

What it's used for: Enhance performance and recovery 

Background: Branched-chain amino acids are found in most protein sources like meat, poultry, dairy, and fish, which is why some protein powders contain them. But protein powders are used to supplement protein, BCAA supplements are used to supplement important amino acids - leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These amino acids make up about 14% of the amino acids in your muscles and are what help maintain muscle mass. Not only that, but they make for a great substantial fuel source when carbohydrate stores are low because they help preserve glycogen stores (muscles primary fuel used for energy production). Taking BCAA's before or after a workout can help enhance performance by providing the body with a reliable and steady energy source, reduce fatigue, and boost recovery by minimizing muscle protein breakdown.

Although it's easy to get BCAAs from natural food sources, it's still very popular to take them as a supplement. That's due to the recovery properties and the sustainable energy it provides, but research is mixed on whether it really works or not. Some research shows that BCAA's helped improve muscle gain and reduce muscle loss. [2] While other research shows that it did not produce muscle gain when taken after training. [3] This doesn't automatically rule BCAA's as ineffective, it could just be that it did not benefit those who already get enough BCAAs from their diet. Those on a plant-based diet can benefit the most from taking BCAA's since they can't get it from high-quality sources like meat and dairy. Other than that, it's hard to tell whether you get enough of the important trio of amino acids, so BCAA's are definitely worth a shot for those that are serious about building muscle and maintaining muscle mass.

Recommended dosage: Adult women should aim to consume a minimum of 9 grams a day, and adult males should aim to consume 12 grams a day. Eating a protein-rich diet usually does the trick, but if you're strength training to gain muscle consider taking 5-7 grams of a BCAA supplement to help either increase your performance or reduce muscle damage and soreness.


What it's used for: Performance, muscle growth, and strength

Background: Creatine is an acid substance that is naturally produced in the body and provides quick energy for muscles and other tissues during intense exercise. Our bodies produce it by eating foods, specifically seafood and red meat, that contain the amino acids glycine and arginine. It is then stored in the muscle cells giving us quick access to it during intense exercise like strength training and sprinting. This is why many lifters and athletes take creatine, specifically creatine monohydrate, as a pre-workout. Taking it beforehand helps the creatine make its way into your muscles to help your body refuel the ATP (adenosine triphosphate, a key energy store) supply faster. Thus reducing fatigue and enhancing performance by allowing lifters to get an extra 1-2 reps. This is why you might find creatine in some pre-workouts, but the amount it contains varies which is why many prefer to supplement with it separately.

So, does creatine help promote muscle growth and strength? ​

It can! In fact, it’s one of the most researched supplements to date and has been proven to be safe and effective. In terms of strength, the extra boost of energy creatine gives you can help you lift heavier, longer thus helping increase strength. 22 studies were reviewed and showed that people who use creating had an approximately 10% increase in strength compared to those that don't. [4] Now, in terms of muscle growth, this has to do with how creatine reacts in the body. It increases the water content in the muscle cells which triggers genes that are responsible for adding muscle size. It also improves nitrogen balance, which is responsible for transforming protein into muscle, and helps reduce protein breakdown which reduces muscle breakdown, in turn helping increase total muscle mass. [5]

Recommended dosage: Up to 5 grams per day is the typical dose. Although you should aim to consume it through diet, it's best to supplement with creatine in order to reap the full benefits of it. Aim to keep your dose between 2-5 grams, but no more than 5. Taking too much creatine can increase water retention which leads to weight gain. It can also cause kidney damage, but that concerns mostly those who have a history of kidney disease or other kidney-related conditions like diabetes.


What it's used for: Enhance performance

Background: Beta-alanine is an amino acid that reduces fatigue and is known for helping improve exercise capacity and performance during high-intensity exercise. It does this by acting as a buffer for hydrogen ions that accumulate in your muscles. When hydrogen ions accumulate in the muscles it can cause muscle fatigue and slow you down, but taking beta-alanine can help you resist fatigue and get through a few more reps. 

Although this supplement is not as researched as others like creatine, some studies do show its potential. One particular study conducted on college wrestlers and football players showed that taking 4 grams of beta-alanine per day for eight weeks increased lean body mass more than a placebo. [6] Another study reported that in a six-week high-intensity interval training program, adding a beta-alanine supplement helped increase lean body mass by about one pound. [7]

Recommended dosage: If high-intensity exercise is something you do regularly then take somewhere between 2-6 grams per day. It's recommended to consume it with a meal for better absorption.


What it's used for: Increase energy and enhance performance

Background: Pre-workouts are a dietary formula that is designed to improve your exercise performance by including caffeine and other performance-boosting ingredients. Every pre-workout powder is created differently (it depends on the brand's formula), but most include caffeine, amino acids, creatine, beetroot juice, and beta-alanine. Although pre-workouts can contain other performance-boosting supplements, be wary about proprietary blends. Pre-workouts labeled as a proprietary blend mean that the amount of each ingredient isn't disclosed. So although it says it contains beta-alanine or other amino acids, it might be in very little amounts that don't really benefit your performance. Look for those that are not proprietary blends that way you know exactly how much you're consuming of each ingredient, so you don't over-consume any supplement. 

Other than that, pre-workouts are an excellent tool used when you need an extra boost of caffeine to wake you up and supercharge your workout!

Recommended dosage: It depends on the type of pre-workout you take! It's best to follow the product directions and take the amount of caffeine that fits you best. If you're a heavy coffee drinker then opt for a smaller dosage, if you're not then just don't exceed taking 300mg of caffeine.


What it's used for: Recovery and muscle growth

How it works: L-glutamine is an essential amino acid that is critical for muscle recovery. It's a popular bodybuilding supplement because increasing the supply of glutamine in the body can speed up recovery for effective muscle growth. The reason one might want to do that is because L-glutamine is essential for immune purposes so oftentimes other tissues need it and leach into muscle stores to get it. Therefore supplementing with glutamine will help decrease the chances of it being depleted under conditions of stress which can be caused by intense training. In fact, intense training sessions can reduce glutamine by as much as 50%! Glutamine supplementation can help increase L-glutamine in the body which will help ensure that enough is circulating in the muscle tissue for optimal muscle recovery. 

Does it actually help?​

Although L-glutamine is a very important EAA that aids with recovery, there is not much research or studies to prove that it does. On the contrary, some studies suggest that it failed to enhance high-intensity exercise, but nothing is said specifically about recovery. [8]

Dosage recommendation: It's recommended to get 3-6 grams of L-glutamine through foods you eat (mostly protein sources). If supplementing, taking between that same range is considered safe for daily use.

Omega-3 Fish Oil

What it's used for: Recovery

How it works: There are many health benefits that are derived from omega-3 fatty acids, whether it be from fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, or a supplement. Although natural food sources should be first priority, omega-3 supplements are ideal to take because they provide the perfect ratio of these fatty acids and in the most concentrated way possible. Omega-3 supplements are commonly known to help improve cardiovascular health, but many gym-goers and lifters take these supplements for another health benefit they provide... Reducing inflammation. Delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, is common among lifters, athletes, and gym-goers, it's caused by inflammation in the muscle cells which can hinder exercise performance. Supplementing with omega-3's has shown to help reduce muscle damage and inflammation after strength training and other high-intensity exercises. In one particular study, 21 men performed bicep curls after 8 weeks of taking 2,400 mg of omega-3 fish oil (it specifically had 600 mg of EPA and 260 mg of DHA) daily. The results found that the fish oil halted the development of DOMS and prevented temporary muscle strength loss, compared to a group with a placebo. [8] 

Dosage recommendation: The World Health Organization and the U.S Department of Health and Human Services recommend a minimum of 250–500 mg of combined EPA and DHA omega-3 fish oil each day for healthy adults. [9]

What to avoid

All the popular supplements mentioned above are popular for a reason, they have helped lifters, gym-goers, and athletes in one way or another. They might not all be the right fit for you, but knowing the right information about these popular workout supplements can help you decide which ones you should take that best align with your training and fitness goal. But there's another thing to consider... What to avoid. Knowing what to avoid will help you save some money you might've spent on supplements that mask themselves to be as "good" when in reality they're bad. 

Three supplements you should avoid completely are...

  • Fat burners and other weight loss products: These types of products falsely state that they burn fat or aid in weight loss. In reality, they are loaded with stimulants that can interfere with your insulin levels and hunger signals. They won't help you burn fat or lose weight, they'll just cause serious negative side effects if taken frequently. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration states that they are not legal dietary supplements and carry significant risks to consumers. [10]
  • Testosterone boosters:  These supplements are often taken by those weightlifting to gain muscle and strength, but hormonal products like this should be avoided. Unless you have existing testosterone or other hormonal problems, you don't need any boosters.
  • Water pills (Diuretics): They claim to flush sodium and water out of your body, and although they are used to treat certain health conditions like high blood pressure, many use them as a way to lose weight. Avoid these pills at all costs. They can cause severe dehydration and damage the kidneys. Plus, any weight lost due to the pills will most likely be regained.

Everyone's different, so although one supplement might work for them, there is a chance it won't work for you. Use this information as a guide to help you find what popular workout supplements might be right for you. Just remember, that supplements are used as a tool to get results, they should not be heavily relied on. Your main focus and priority should be eating a healthy balanced diet and exercising regularly, and using supplements when an extra boost is needed to enhance performance or recovery.

At 373 Lab we pride ourselves on creating supplements that will enhance your training performance and recovery by creating formula blends with high-quality ingredients. To give your body what it needs, not what it doesn’t. Check out our collection of supplements and discover why they’re the best – Whey Protein Isolate (Chocolate Cheesecake), BCAA’s (Pineapple Mint), and Pre-Workout (Sour Raspberries).

best workout supplements