May 192010

I see the red pill, but where's the blue one?

Not exactly a balanced breakfast...

Last time, we began delving into the subject of nutritional supplements. With such a broad spectrum of claims being made, it’s useful to narrow the field a bit this time around, and focus on things that are expressly aimed at folks who work out. That’s still a fairly wide swath, so we’re not going to be able touch on every workout supplement under the sun. If you have something in particular you’re curious about, leave a note in the comments, or send us an email at

Show of hands: Who thinks all this stuff is just a bunch of marketing-fueled malarkey? (Yeah, I still love the word “malarkey.” At some point, I’ll manage to gain some traction with my plan to bring “gadzooks” back into the vernacular, too.)

It’s true that you don’t see an instant and obvious bonus to strength, or stamina, or constitution from taking most supplements (unlike in-game power-ups like quad-damage multipliers, prowess-enhancing potions, or mushrooms that make you three times taller and immune to killer turtles).  I say this as someone who, over the last couple of years, has tried a fairly wide range of pretty far-ranging stuff. What the vast majority do, from a functional standpoint, is allow you to work out a little longer, a little harder, or a little more often. Basically, they allow you to pump up the volume of exercise you do to burn calories and/or improve performance.

Do One. More. Level. Rep.

You’ve all heard me extoll the virtues of picking up heavy things. Thus, picking up heavier things, or the same heavy things more times, is even better, right? Right. We’re not talking about Popeye-esque transformations that will suddenly double or triple the amount we can lift (unless you’re going from the one pound to the three pound weights, cheater), but much more modest buffs.

Think of it as getting a +1 to STR or CON or STA, and not a +9 against Ogres.

One of the most popular compounds that folks reach for before exercise is one that is intimately familiar to anyone who has settled in for a long night of gaming, whether it’s with mouse or dice: caffeine. Yep, the most popular drug in America can perk up your exercise regimen, too. Studies have shown small but measurable improvements for endurance activities, as well as making the effort of exercising feel subjectively less grueling. These may both be a result of caffeine causing the muscles’ glycogen (sugar) energy stores to empty out more slowly, which makes your body turn to fat for energy sooner, but the specific biochemistry is still being wrangled. In any case, having a cup of coffee (or Mana Energy Potion) fifteen minutes or so before exercising may be just the ticket. One thing to be mindful of, however, is that caffeine, being a diuretic, may make you more prone to suffering from stuff like exertion headaches or cause your pulse to become more elevated – make doubly sure to drink plenty of water, and if you start feeling poorly, STOP (or, if you’re as stubborn as I am, at least slow down a little).

In a similar fashion, being able to keep going for a while longer also allows you to get in another game, another lap, another set, or another whatever. This is where the stuff that probably comes most readily to mind when folks think about “exercise support” are various sports drinks, like Gatorade or Powerade, comes in. As we’ve seen before, they do serve their purpose – replenishing the salts and electrolytes lost through sweat, helping with hydration, and, for the varieties that aren’t zero calories, keeping blood sugar and glycogen levels up to support ongoing effort.

There are also a bunch of highly-focused pre-workout supplements that tout their ability to do other stuff to jack up strength. Some get you focused – typically, these involve a combination of caffeine, for the “this is easy!” effect noted above and L-Tyrosine. Much like running into one of the Tyrell Corporation‘s Nexus 6 models, L-Tyrosine is a precursor to the “fight or flight” compounds your brain makes – epinephrine and norepinephrine (along with the brain’s “natural high” chemical, dopamine). Why is this helpful? That whole adrenalin rush thing can boost your peak strength through a combination of factors, primarily by recruiting reluctant portions of your muscles. Others work at the muscle end of the equation, helping your muscles contract more powerfully by supporting the production of acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter inside the muscle itself, which causes them to contract.

Reboot Sooner

We’ve had User Queries (and even a Strength Buff) about protein shakes in the past, so they’ll be given a miss this time around. The stuff that helps proteins get synthesized and put to work doing muscle building, once they’re broken down into through digestion, are amino acids. There are a few benefits to taking branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) directly. They can also be used as an energy source, help manage some desirable endocrine levels (specifically, testosterone and growth hormone) post-exercise (these hormones are what help trigger muscle growth) and decrease soreness. Typically, they come either as tablets, or as a powder mixed into a protein shake, smoothie, or similar concoction to mask the taste. Straight up, BCAAs taste a lot like raw aspirin, which is to say, bitter and awful.

There is a whole bunch of deep biochemistry going on in the “serious supplements” field, figuring out how the body works, and ways to make it work better. As always, read the labels of anything you’re thinking about trying out carefully. If you have any question about taking something new, especially if you might have any kind of sensitivity to the ingredients (or they’re contraindicated by something more important in your daily regimen), check with your doctor or nutritionist before using them.

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