Demystifying Supplements: The Basics of Protein, Creatine, and BCAAs

Do you remember the first time you set out to get in shape? There was probably an abundance of optimism, a little groaning about cardio, a TON of Googling. Finding a workout plan that seems doable, avoids the things you hate (looking at you, burpees), and works towards the results you want is a monster endeavor. There are so many options to choose from that it can make your head spin.

Figuring out your exercise regimen is downright easy compared to decoding the world of fitness supplements.

By the time you get comfortable with your fitness routine and start to see a reasonable amount of progress, you’re at least peripherally aware of supplements. You know what I’m talking about. There are mystery liquids in blender bottles all across the gym, and whispers of creatine and pre-workout in the locker rooms.

If you want to know more and aren’t sure where to start, consider this your crash course to level one of the supplement game. We’ll cover the basics of protein, BCAAs, and creatine, which are traditionally the most used supplements.

Protein

Adding extra protein into your diet in the form of a powder is the simplest supplementation move to make. Protein powder comes in a variety of flavors, textures, and concentrations, and there’s a lot you can do with it beyond making shakes.

The biggest benefit of protein powder comes from providing your muscles with additional material to build muscle. When you workout, you make gains by training your muscles to be faster or stronger in one way or another, which requires more muscle to be built. Dietary protein often comes from expensive and heavy foods, so protein powder is used to get materials to the muscles economically and efficiently.

Generally, protein is taken once or twice throughout the day, depending on how much is being supplemented. A general rule of thumb is one gram of protein per pound of body weight, though that may vary with your training schedule. You don’t want to take more than 20-25 grams at a time, as your body can’t make metabolic use of a larger dose. So, if you determine that you need 150 grams of protein per day, and you can only get 100 from dietary sources, then supplementing 25 grams twice a day is a good plan for you. One dose should be taken within an hour post-workout, and the other can be taken on its own at some point during the day — just be sure not to combine it with another protein-heavy snack.

Creatine

If you go a little farther down the rabbit hole, especially in strength building circles, you’ll run into talk about creatine. Often praised for its ability to prevent fatigue and increase the intensity of workouts, creatine is one of the most-researched athletic supplements.

Supplementing with creatine saturates your muscle’s stores of the compound phosphocreatine, which can be broken down to help muscles recover faster and be ready to contract again sooner. Because creatine provides the building blocks for additional muscular energy, it’s particularly well-suited to athletes who lift heavy or explosively, use high-intensity interval training, or do other activities involving short, rapid bursts of muscular contraction.

There are few documented negative side effects of supplementing creatine, though certain pre-existing conditions may preclude you from adding it to your diet. If you consult with your doctor and determine you’re a fit candidate for supplementation, you’ll go through three phases: loading, plateau, and rest. In order to build up stores of creatine, you’ll take a higher dose (around 20 grams) for a few days, and then transition to 5-10 grams daily for a few weeks. After plateauing for a while, you’ll take a break from the supplementation so that you don’t permanently disrupt your body’s internal production of creatine. Then, back to your loading phase!

BCAAs

Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) are credited with the ability to increase the rate of muscle build and recovery. BCAA supplements are mixes of three amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Each plays a slightly different role in the process of building muscle, but essentially, they’re all building blocks to help muscle fibers repair and rebuild.

Supplementing BCAAs provides your body with “free agent” versions of the amino acids, meaning that they’re more readily available for your body to use. You can get the same compounds from food or protein powder, but your body has to go through the additional work of breaking down the food to free the compounds. When BCAAs are incorporated before and after your workout, you cut down on the time it takes for muscle recovery to start.

If you load BCAAs before you work out in addition to after, you get the added benefit of decreased fatigue during your athletic endeavors. BCAAs use the same gate into the brain as tryptophan, which usually signals to the brain that the body is getting tired. By delaying that signal, you put off feelings of fatigue just a little longer.

Starting a Supplement Plan

If any of these sound interesting, or you’re ready to take the next step in training, supplements are a great way to get an edge. As with any major diet adjustment, consult with your doctor before making any changes.

Start by picking a supplement and researching the proper dosage for yourself. Make a plan for incorporating the supplement into your routine for a few weeks — you’re not going to get instant results, and you want to give your body some time to adapt. Pay attention to how you feel, if you have any digestive changes or other side effects, and use a workout journal to record progress — sometimes the changes are too gradual to see otherwise.

While you’re trying supplementation out, you might want to go to a fitness expo or request samples from various brands. It can be expensive to purchase supplements, and that’s especially daunting when you run the risk of being stuck with a 2-pound tub of something you really don’t like. Once you’ve tried a couple and settled on one, buy online and try to find a way to save money like using coupons or reaching out to a brand’s social media. Bulk purchasing can cut the cost and lower the environmental impact, as can programs like Amazon’s Subscribe and Save.

Finally, never expect a supplement to make up for motivation or effort. Supplements are just what they sound like — they supplement and support your training to get the best possible results. They will never be a magic bullet or an instant fix. The work is still up to you, as is the commitment, determination, and consistency. That being said, welcome to the world of supplements; do your research and good luck.

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Alexandra Phillips

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