The Thinking Man’s Guide to Bodybuilding Supplements

I’ve been lifting weights for about 25 years. I am passionate about training, and it’s hard for me to even imagine a life without regular visits to the gym. I agree with this quote from Socrates:

“It is a disgrace to grow old through sheer carelessness before seeing what manner of man you may become by developing your bodily strength and beauty to their highest limit. But you cannot see that, if you are careless; for it will not come of its own accord.”

I also like the wisdom of modern-day “philosopher” Henry Rollins:

“The Iron will always kick you in the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver, always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.”

I don’t regret the hours I have invested in the gym. But here are a few things I would do differently if I could go back and start my training all over again. The #1 change I would make is this: I would have spent much, much less money on supplements. Let me first share a little about my history with these products.

Arnold Schwarzenegger biceps fles

Confessions of a Former Supplement Addict

I was a teenager when I saw my first advertisement for a bodybuilding supplement. The short television commercial showed Lou Ferrigno drinking something out of a blender. That began my obsession with “muscle building” potions. I started drinking protein shakes before football practice and workouts.

I experimented with different supplements through my high school and college years. Most of the stuff I used did not help me one bit as far as size and strength goes. Sometimes my taste buds were assaulted along with my wallet. I remember trying an amino acid blend that had a thick, syrupy consistency to it. I still grimace when I think about the taste, and that was over twenty years ago. But I believed the ads I was reading in bodybuilding magazines and was always eager to try the next “breakthrough.”

The real spending happened in the 90’s. I had a steady paycheck and could afford to buy/read bodybuilding magazines every month. I was particularly devoted to a publication that came out a year or two before I graduated college. It started out well but eventually became a glorified advertisement machine for a supplement company. I tried several of their recommended “cutting edge” products, most of which were a waste of money.

An entirely new kind of supplement came out by the mid-90’s: prohormones. These compounds were supposedly safe, legal alternatives to anabolic steroids. I tried several of them, but none of them made any differences as far as helping to build muscle. I would later learn that some of these substances had a tendency to convert to estrogen after ingestion—not exactly what I had in mind when I took them.

I finally learned my expensive lesson somewhere along the way. I now stick to just a few basic supplements and ignore at least 95% of the stuff that’s currently being marketed.

I don’t want young or inexperienced trainees to repeat my mistakes, which is why I’ve written this article. I want to give you some pointers for building muscle without getting ripped off. An article like this would have literally saved me thousands of dollars if I had been able to read it 25 years ago.

A Little Background Mixed with a Libertarian Rant

The supplement industry is largely unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Powerful lobbyists have quelled most legislative attempts to change this. This is fine by me, since some government decisions are sometimes based on knee-jerk reactions instead of science.

I’ll give you an example: twenty years ago I read about a “dirt cheap” fat burner called the ECA stack (ephedrine, caffeine and aspirin). It’s one of the few things I’ve ever used that truly impressed me—it annihilated my appetite and gave me a nice energy boost. Supplement companies eventually caught on and started producing the herbal equivalent of the ECA stack (ma huang with caffeine). Unfortunately a few people chose to use this powerful stimulant before training in the heat of summer. There were some fatal heat strokes, and the FDA quickly banned all supplements containing ephedrine/ephedra. These deaths were tragic, of course, but the FDA made decisions based on a few highly publicized cases instead of the drug’s overall safety record.

Here’s another example—anabolic steroids. Many believe they are illegal because of “dangerous side effects.” Not true. The government criminalized steroids in the early 90’s after the Olympics and baseball were scandalized by their use. Why should professional sports issues be an issue of public policy/safety? I have no idea. I currently live in an Asian country where steroids are legal. I haven’t seen any detrimental effect on the public. The only real difference is a few more jacked guys in the gym who can speak openly about what they used to get in that condition.

Our government makes some strange decisions. The production, distribution, and consumption of tobacco are perfectly legal. You can walk into almost any store and buy cigarettes, which are both addictive and deadly. But take a drug to add some muscle and you might find yourself on the wrong side of a jail cell. Makes perfect sense to me.

It seems government intervention usually means banning anything that actually works. So I’m fine with bureaucrats having limited influence on what vitamins and supplements I can consume. But there’s a trade-off that comes with this freedom: we have the modern-day equivalent of snake oil salesmen—dubious claims of faster recovering, more energy, bigger muscles, increased testosterone, and all around physical awesomeness. And it’s all perfectly legal, provided the manufacturers include certain disclaimers on the label (it usually goes like this: “These claims have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration”).

Would You Trust a Used Car Salesman?

I often say shopping for bodybuilding supplements is a lot like buying a used car. Believe everything you hear/read and you’ll waste money as quickly as you can click “order.” Make your purchases based on science (and a healthy dose of skepticism) and you’ll have plenty of money left over for more important things.

Don’t expect government agencies or a corrupt commercial industry to protect your health or your money. Take responsibility for your own decisions—there’s a wealth of research available online if you’ll just take the time to find it.

Here are a few things you need to know before buying bodybuilding supplements:

  • Genetics, proper training, nutrition, and adequate rest will ultimately determine your gains in the gym. You obviously can’t control your genetics. But you can and should adjust one or all of the last three variables if you aren’t satisfied with your progress.
  • The only thing that works like steroids is . . . well . . . steroids. Any promise of “steroid-like” gains is a blatant lie. Take it from someone who has observed/compared natural and “pharmaceutically assisted” trainees for years.
  • I’ve yet to find any credible evidence for the efficacy of “testosterone boosters” of any kind.
  • Caffeine is the active ingredient in most “pre workout” and diet supplements. A cup of coffee will probably have the same effect (and cost less).
  • Protein shakes are fine for convenience, but don’t obsess over the brand or the timing of your protein drinks. Such minutiae are about as important as the length of socks you wear while training.
  • The supplement industry occasionally produces something useful. Creatine monohydrate and whey protein were the highlights of the 90’s. We’ve learned a great deal about the importance of fish oil over the last decade.

Now I’ll give you some specific tips for wise supplement shopping:

  • Don’t be the first to spend your money when a new “muscle building formula” comes out. Wait a couple of years—time and research will either verify or dispel the efficacy of new products. I could easily name at least three or four “fat burning extracts” that have come and gone over the past few years.
  • Base your decisions on research, not anecdotal evidence. Don’t buy something based on the testimony of a bunch of anonymous posters on bodybuilding forums. Don’t even buy something because your buddy at the gym swears by it. The placebo effect is very real.
  • Never sign up for a “free trial” that involves giving your credit card number. This is almost always a ploy to set you up for auto ordering/billing.
  • If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Stick to the basics: creatine monohydrate, protein powder, a multivitamin, and fish oil.

Final thoughts

I don’t hate supplements—I take some form of vitamin almost every day. But I’ve learned how to make informed decisions and spend my money wisely. I hope you’ll do the same.

See you at the gym.

About the author:
Kevin is a pastor, author, and gym rat. You can read more of his articles at

Kevin Sanders

Kevin Sanders is a pastor, author, and fitness enthusiast.

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