Supplements are one of the biggest topics in the health and fitness industry. Yet, there’s also a lot of confusion due to misinformation and false advertising. Because of this, they’ve also become one of the most searched terms in the fitness genre as people try to understand which are useful, which aren’t, and which are potentially dangerous.
In this article, I’m going to cover everything you need to know about supplements to finally put your mind at ease. I know that many of you will have already researched into the area, but for those who haven’t, I’ve got you covered. Even if you’ve looked into supplements, it seems like each article says something different – either because they’re confused themselves or are being paid to promote particular products.
Thankfully, I’m completely unbiased. The only loyalty I owe is to you and the truth.
Table of Contents
What are supplements?
One of the biggest problems with many supplements is that the company promoting them will say that you ‘need’ them. Without their latest product, you’re wasting your time. You won’t get as big as you want, as lean as you want, as toned as you want, as ripped as you want, or as strong as you want. For just one easy payment, you can have the body of your dreams.
Unfortunately, magic pills like that don’t exist. The closest we have to that is steroids, and they’re an entirely different ballpark.
Supplements are by name and nature, supplemental to our lives. They shouldn’t replace a healthy diet and hard training, but they can give us that little bit extra or fill in the gaps that may be missing.
For example, we can get creatine naturally in our diet, but by supplementing, we can increase these levels, improve our power output, and boost our strength. Can we still get great results without creatine? Of course, but supplementing can give us that little bit extra.
Are supplements necessary for bodyweight training?
Not at all. The only necessary components of any health and fitness journey are patience, good nutrition, sleep and a commitment to training. Everything else is just a bonus.
As well as this, there are no supplements that are specifically useful for bodyweight training. Calisthenics is still strength training and to your body, it’s all the same. The same supplements that are useful for building strength and muscle will be useful for bodyweight training.
However, the harder that you train, and the faster you’d like to see results, then the more important supplements will become.
If you want the best and already have the rest of your lifestyle in check, then supplements can help to get you that extra 10%.
What are the best supplements for calisthenics?
There are three areas that we can separate training: pre-workout, intra-workout, and post-workout.
Pre-workouts will help to boost your energy, improve your focus, and get you geared up for the session ahead; intra-workouts will help to sustain your energy and prevent it from dropping, and post-workouts will help you to recover as quickly and effectively as possible.
Caffeine is the number one driver behind any effective pre-workout. That buzz, that drive, that bump you get from pre-workout will be primarily coming from caffeine. It can also help with your muscular endurance, your perceptions of pain, and even your mood.
Depending on your sensitivity, anywhere from 100mg-300mg is recommended, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that more is better as overconsumption can mean heightened anxiety, shakes, and energy crashes.
Taurine helps to increase blood flow which helps your muscles to perform at a higher level and delay exhaustion. It can also help with recovery as blood carries the necessary nutrients needed to help the muscles grow bigger and stronger.
Beta-alanine helps with carnosine production which can prevent acid build-up in the muscles, helping with muscular endurance and overall capabilities. Handily, carnosine also doubles up as an antioxidant. Beta-alanine is also the ingredient which provides the ‘tingles’ often associated with pre-workouts.
Creatine is a supplement that needs to be supplemented over the long-term in order to have an effect. However, it’s cheap, useful, and comes with minimal side effects. Specifically, creatine increases ATP production which helps us to grow stronger by rapidly producing energy during short-burst activity. Aim for monohydrate as this is the most effective.
Found in high amounts in beetroot, nitrates help to increase blood flow and reduce the oxygen cost of exercise which in turn helps to prevent against exhaustion.
L-Citrulline turns to L-arginine in the kidneys after supplementation and is actually a more effective way to increase l-arginine levels than direct supplementation. The main advantages of l-citrulline are that it can help to reduce fatigue and improve power output.
L-Tyrosine helps to produce noradrenaline and dopamine which can reduce stress in acute stressors, improve cognition, and boost your mood.
Lastly, vitamin-c isn’t just good for your immune system, it can also help to improve your blood flow and energy levels whilst reducing muscle damage.
You may also want to have a shake containing a slow-digesting protein such as casein or a whole food protein so that the protein is drip-fed to your muscles throughout your workout.
During your workout, you don’t need much. The only recommended supplement would be a glucose-based drink such as Gatorade or Lucozade. These help to provide fast-digesting energy when your body needs it.
Some people also suggest BCAAs. However, BCAAs have been proven to be useless if your protein for the rest of the day is at a good level. If you’re training fasted, then BCAAs can help. However, if you’ve eaten before or had a good dose of protein already, then there is no need for BCAAs.
Once your workout is finished, the focus should be on both protein and carbohydrates. Protein is the obvious recommendation to help your muscles grow and recover whilst carbohydrates help to replenish lost glycogen and also, provide energy for the rebuilding process.
The best sources of protein will be fast-digesting which is why whey powders are so heavily recommended. Pea and soy are also good alternative sources if you are dairy intolerant or vegan. Fast-digesting carbs such as glucose are also recommended.
However, protein supplements and shakes are used for optimal results.
A good meal with a large source of protein and a good carbohydrate content may suffice for many people.
It’s important to note that whole foods should take precedent over supplements as they tend to be more filling and contain more nutrients.
Which supplements should I buy?
When it comes to buying pre-made products, it can be a tricky task understanding which are worth your money and which are just good marketing. Always look for the products containing solid amounts of the products listed above.
If they list any ingredients which you aren’t sure about, then consult Examine – a non-biased research-based source of information for everything regarding health and fitness in relation to nutrition and supplementation. They also list how much of each ingredient is necessary to have an effect which is crucial. For instance, a supplement may say it contains Leucine, but only 1g of it. If you need 2.5g of Leucine to have the desired outcome, then that 1g of Leucine isn’t going to help.
The best products will tend to be the ones with a transparent ingredients list. Anything that doesn’t show you what’s in it (or how much of each ingredient is in it) should not be risked.
As well as this, certain products may work better for some than others. Case in point: Grenade’s 50. Calibre. Some people think this is the best workout ever made, providing ridiculous pumps, endless energy, and extreme focus. Yet, others think it’s a bit too intense, and this intensity means they can’t focus, they get energy crashes, and feel too unsettled to exercise properly.
Therefore, supplements really are a bit of trial and error. However, with the help of the advice above, you can already whittle down a large portion of the market saving you both time and money.
Due to the diverse nature of supplements, I can’t recommend a particular one. Yet, I can recommend what to look for.
Aim for supplements with the most bang for your buck. That means no added ingredients that don’t work and only exist to look good on the packaging. These added ingredients at the least will be a waste of money but have the potential to really affect your health. You want results, not marketing gimmicks.
Anyway, the real results come from hard training and nutrition. Supplements won’t cause you to wake up in the morning with a six-pack or a 50-inch chest, but they can give you that extra edge if used correctly. Equally, without supplements, you can still make fantastic progress.
Don’t do things because you can, do them because you should. Train smart. Eat smart. Shop smart.
Founder of calisthenics-101.co.uk. Training calisthenics since 2012.
Currently working on: 30 second one-arm handstand, muscle-up 360, straddle planche.