The sports supplement industry topped a $40 billion global market size in 2021, while the average health-conscious Millennial dumped $56/month into these “miracle” pills ‘n powders.
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But how’s this for a hot take: most of your favorite sports supplements are pure trash — or at least not as effective as their intentionally misleading labels suggest.
(There, we said it.)
Many slimeball supplement companies prey on naive consumers at wit’s end, knowing damn well they’re fudging the numbers or putting a more glamorous spin on their products.
Ready those pitchforks because we’re stirring up a little controversy here.
7 Supplements That Just Don’t Work (or Are Hit or Miss)
“But (totally overblown fitness YouTuber or retired-bodybuilder-turned-Instagram-influencer) wouldn’t lie to me.” Wrong, but money talks and online personalities don’t care to research.
But the real menace here is actually everyone’s favorite scapegoat — the federal government, particularly the Food & Drug Administration.
The FDA has such lax monitoring guidelines that many shady supplements will fly stealthily under their radar until consumers raise serious concerns about its safety or branding.
(The FDA also dedicates a whole-ass database to supplements flagged for unapproved ingredients or improper manufacturing, which is a whole ‘nother issue.)
That’s why we end up with sports supplements like these, which are almost always bogus or at the very least not as impressive as advertised:
Doesn’t Work — ZMA (Zinc Magnesium Aspartate)
To be completely clear, both zinc and magnesium are legitimate micronutrients that our bodies need to function properly.
Zinc partially controls the immune system and metabolism, while magnesium plays a hand in muscular health. ZMA also combines a wild card micro in its original formula — vitamin B6.
A breakthrough study published in the Journal of Exercise Physiology in 1998 hailed ZMA as an unsung hero and the future of sports supplements.
During spring practice, division II football players taking ZMA for eight weeks significantly increased their IGF-1, free testosterone, and strength levels versus the placebo group.
The only problem: it’s still the only study to date that proves ZMA’s effectiveness. Oh, and readers sussed out one of the study’s two authors and realized he was a stakeholder in the company with a ZMA patent pending (hmm…).
Future studies from 2004 and 2009 couldn’t back up its claims of increasing testosterone, strength, or size in healthy people, either. Separately, zinc and magnesium have their perks, but ZMA is a total bust.
Doesn’t Work — HGH Boosters
HGH, or human growth hormone, is a natural hormone produced in the pituitary gland to build new tissues (anabolism) and metabolize (break down) fat. Why, yes, HGH is one of the ‘roids PED-users inject into their asscheek at the gym.
Theoretically, an HGH-boosting supplement should rev your pituitary gland to increase your body’s natural production of the hormone for growth.
Except, there’s very little (if any) evidence to support this idea. The only anomaly is a single 2020 clinical trial of an unnamed amino acid supplement that surged HGH levels by 682% post-ingestion, though the levels appear to level off after 120 minutes.
Don’t get us wrong; there are natural ways to boost your HGH production for growth. But you won’t find your answer at the bottom of one of these bottles.
Hit or Miss — Testosterone Boosters
Testosterone boosters are yet another letdown — the logic is there, but the science is a bit shaky. This “male” sex hormone, predominantly found in men, is the unofficial king of lean gains and low body-fat percentages.
Now, before we toss T-boosters into the dumpster and set it ablaze, we want to clarify: the legitimacy of testosterone replacement therapies isn’t up for much debate.
Studies — like this doozy published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism — artificially spiked T levels in 65-and-up men to that of young men through a patch. After three months, the participants shed 3kg of fat mass and packed on 1.9kg of lean mass.
Then, there’s the Wish.com version of real testosterone: T-boosters.
In 2020, researchers analyzed 50 testosterone-boosting supplements to determine their role in testosterone and strength surges — a claim made by 90% of them. On top of being rich in vitamins B12 (1,291%) and B6 (807.6%), just a quarter of them had evidence-backing.
However, that’s not to say all T-boosting supplements are complete and total duds. Research also links fenugreek, a known-T-booster and common ingredient in these supplements, to 46% testosterone spikes in 90% of male volunteers.
If you’re expecting a completely natural HGH boost, prepare to be disappointed.
Hit or Miss — Glutamine
Glutamine is one of the most widespread amino acids in the human body, controlling the immune system’s functioning and gut health.
The often-polarizing amino acid made its rounds on online forums spurring a three-sided tug-of-war between those who swear it builds muscle and burns fat, those who say it does no such thing, and those who believe it lessens post-workout fatigue.
But research lands this baby smack-dab in the middle.
A study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism took the side of that third group. Researchers measured knee extensor peak torque during the leg extension and muscle soreness in the 24–72 hours after training.
The group dosing with glutamine daily not only exhibited greater peak torque, but they also rated their muscle soreness much lower than the maltodextrin (or placebo) group. Other studies crown glutamine as the “anti-fatigue” amino acid.
Yet, that’s where the benefits come to a grinding halt. Study after study after study proves that the link between glutamine and increased muscle, strength, and performance is non-existent (*sad trombone noises*).
Glutamine is a superstar supplement for muscle recovery, but that’s about it.
Hit or Miss — CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid)
CLA, or Conjugated Linoleic Acid, is a fatty acid originating in meat and dairy and the leading ingredient in some of the most popular weight loss supplements lining the shelves.
Hailed as a metabolism-booster and body-fat-eliminator, CLA is widely misunderstood.
A 2007 meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition combed through the results of 18 CLA-centric studies. Compared to the placebo group, participants using CLA on the ‘reg averaged 0.11lb of fat mass per week, though results plateaued at about six months.
Another study didn’t find a link between CLA and an ignited metabolism. However, it did report a modest 2.2lb of weight loss spanning the six-month pre, mid, and post-holiday season.
But any claims that CLA triggers life-changing weight loss, rapid metabolisms, or belly fat reduction are either intentionally or intentionally inaccurate.
Hit or Miss — BCAAs (Branched-Chain Amino Acids)
BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids, are a blend of three “essential” amino acids and the building blocks of protein: valine, isoleucine, and leucine.
The BCAA craze still runs rampant to this day. But like many of the other sports supplements on this list, the true positives of BCAAs flip-flop depending on the study.
This randomized control trial from the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness linked pre-workout BCAAs to less muscle soreness in the four days post-training, while this 2019 meta-analysis of eight studies yielded similar results.
Another trial of cyclists in 1997 showed the BCAAs could lower the rating of perceived exertion (or RPE) by 7% and mental fatigue by 15% more than the placebo in an hour-long session.
Yet, opposing research from 2018 could not link BCAAs to improved athletic performance on the vertical jump or jump squat or the same recovery results when paired with a high-protein diet.
If nothing else, experts connect BCAAs to somewhat reduced fatigue and faster recovery.
Hit or Miss — Pre-Workout
Pre-workout is like the Holy Grail of the fitness industry, with many declaring it the undisputed strength, size, power, and performance-boosting king.
These powders and drinks are loaded with ingredients like caffeine, citrulline malate, and beta-alanine to create an energy burst pre-training to maximize your time in the gym.
But scientists don’t yet agree on how beneficial they are.
A study released in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition pit a caffeinated, non-caffeinated, and pure placebo group against one another for a 3RM test and squat training.
All three groups became energetic, fatigued, and focused at similar rates. Actually, the only real difference was a slight boost (+5–9%) in concentric force for men in the pre-workout groups.
We labeled pre-workout “hit or miss” because it depends on the ingredients.
Research backs the idea that caffeine — one of the leading ingredients — can increase aerobic performance, delay fatigue, and increase mental concentration (2019 systematic review). Pre-workouts also include BCAAs, creatine, and beta-alanine (discussed later).
Although pre-workout won’t turn a lame workout into a killer one, the slight increases in power and endurance could be monumental months from now.
3 Supplements That Are Scientifically Proven
We roasted seven supplements proven to be flukes, shams, or bogus (or at least not these “miracle” supplements we all assumed). Now, we’ll about-face from the Negative Nancy vibes to present the three supplements that do work:
Creatine is one of the rare sports supplements proven effective time and time again, with literally hundreds of studies singing high praises for this amino acid.
Because we’d be here forever rattling off study after study, here’s an overview of the scientific proof backing creatine:
- Increase muscular strength by 8% than the placebo group (2003 review)
- Slightly higher increases in muscle thickness (2020 study)
- A 5–15% boost in power and 1–5% increase in single-sprint performance (2003 review)
- Total body weight boosts of 1.7kg plus water weight in four weeks — without gaining significant fat (2003 clinical trial)
How does it work?
In simple terms, creatine allows the body to regenerate ATP (energy) to maximize weight training performance. It also sucks water into the muscle cells, which is the only time in your life that you’ll be happy to feel and look bloated — creating a swollen, more muscular appearance.
Results will vary depending on whether you have naturally high creatine and your dosage.
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Whey protein seems like the Captain Obvious answer, but it’s also not mighty enough to replace an otherwise protein-rich diet. Your body absorbs more amino acids to repair muscles after training by supplementing with protein, creating thicker and more plentiful muscle fibers.
A review of 22 clinical trials published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition put protein supplements on a much-deserved pedestal. Those eating 1.2g/kg of protein plus 50g of supplemented protein significantly increased their 1RMs, fat-free mass, and muscle size.
A scoop of whey protein — which could contain as much as 80–95% pure protein — can make a goal of 1.2–1.7g/kg of daily protein far less steep, whereas whole foods may also increase your carb and fat intake.
Again, a straight whey protein diet will turn you into a fart machine and may also deprive you of other nutrients. But it’s a genius call if your appetite blows or you’re clean-bulking.
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Beta-alanine is one of those supplements you may not know by name because it goes undetected by consumers who don’t read the labels. (Hint: it’s in most pre-workout powders.)
The human body creates this non-essential amino acid in the liver. As one of the primary ingredients in carnosine (which boosts high-intensity exercise), beta-alanine serves as a buffer lauded for its ability to delay fatigue and resist lactic acid-build-up (for a little while).
Like creatine, beta-alanine leaves a trail of positive studies in its wake.
One study from the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition analyzed the effects of five weeks of beta-alanine supplementation on strength gains. The beta-alanine group struck gold, averaging substantial increases in 1RM power and maximum power.
A study of PE students also connects this lesser-known supplement to increased VO2 max (endurance) and a significantly lower blood lactate level compared to the placebo group.
Theoretically, the longer your workouts last and the slower lactic acid builds up, the more work your muscles can complete, which equals gains.
We Hate to Break It to You, But …
Supplements are just that: supplements. “In addition to,” “the finish touches,” “a companion,” no matter how you phrase it, sports supplements will never replace a balanced diet or a strategic training regimen matching your goals.
But until the FDA steps up its game or well-known fitness personalities begin calling out these hit or miss or bogus supplements, we’ll forever be at a standstill.
The onus is on you, which is fancy legal speak for “it’s your job to do your due diligence.”
Supplements branded with “rated #1 in America” might’ve surveyed 100 Americans, with 51 ranking it above their competitors. And, any random statistics on the label — like 15% more muscle gains — represent the best-case scenario.
A few parting thoughts: Assume the supplement doesn’t work until you find enough research to prove it does (and reliably often enough to make an impact). And, assume that any results will be a fraction of those concluded in studies.
But, don’t forget that some of your fellow consumers would also wait in line for hours to buy a bridge in Brooklyn. The placebo effect is ridiculously powerful, which is why even the s**tiest and phoniest supplements have their diehard-backers saying, “IDK, it works for me.”
On the topic of influencers and web personalities, follow the money. Do you really think they’re posing with that tub of suspicious powder because it gave them their jacked physique? Or do you think the company is paying them to peddle their products and earn commissions?
Unless they’re backing their claims with a slew of trusted studies, like Jeff Nippard, then assume they’re taking advantage of you or at least being intentionally misleading.
Want to see what supplements we recommend? Here are our picks for the top 5 best supplements for building an aesthetic physique.