The simplest answer is…you don’t. If you’re already eating a healthy diet that has plenty of protein and antioxidants, then you probably don’t need any of the wide variety of products sold as “fitness supplements.” I view these very similarly to the vitamin aisle at the pharmacy or grocery store. If you’re already eating a healthy balanced diet, then you probably don’t need any vitamin supplements. They can be expensive, complicated, and often their health claims are difficult to prove. Still, I often take vitamins for the same reason I use some fitness supplements and that is because I’m often in a hurry and I like a little extra insurance or convenience.
When it comes to deciphering all the different kinds of supplements out there, I like to keep it as simple as I can and think of them in terms of when I’d use them. They fall into 3 main categories for me…
- Pre-workout – these are supplements that claim to help improve your workout performance so that you get more out of that time.
- Post-workout – these claim to help with that after-workout soreness or DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness)
- Protein supplements – These can be taken any time and help add protein to the diet.
There are others, but most of them aren’t for people just trying to get into shape and are more for the serious bodybuilder or endurance athletes. I also am leaving out hydration supplements, like gatorade, on purpose as well because most people are already familiar with those and unless you’re working out longer than an hour a day or in really hot conditions or you have special circumstances, water is probably fine. So, on to the deeper dive.
Pre-workouts generally are a powder you mix with 8oz or so of water and drink about a half hour before working out. For most, the biggest, most effective ingredient is caffeine, which wakes you up and gives you a boost of energy to get moving. I could drink a cup of coffee instead, but pre-workout powders generally sit better in my stomach during a workout than coffee does. I use one of these for most of my 5am morning workouts and I have noticed a difference on the days I don’t drink it versus the days I do. It actually does help me put in more effort during my workout.
I’m not as sold on post-workouts. Many of these contain BCAA’s (Branch Chain Amino Acids) which is a fancy way of saying that they contain a broken down form of protein. Most experts aren’t sure if this is better or worse than just using protein. They will often have some kind of antioxident mixed in, like berry juices or pomegranate and the ingredients can sound very exotic. The idea is that drinking this gives muscles a quick jolt of just what they need to rebuild tears after a weightlifting workout. Tiny tears in muscle fibers are a good thing because the body repairs those muscles stronger, but sometimes they can lead to delayed onset muscle soreness the next day or day after. In my own experience, I don’t see a huge difference between taking one of these or simply eating or drinking plan old protein after a workout, except when it comes to cost.
Protein powders, however, are a staple for me. Mainly, it’s because they’re convenient. I can mix protein powder with water or almond milk and get a serving of protein even if I’m on the go. I mainly use them if I’m traveling or for a morning smoothie before I work out. I can toss in ice, frozen fruit, and even spinach or kale (I don’t taste it) and really get a solid meal in before my workout and it sits better in my stomach than eating a regular meal. I use vegan protein powders for convenience and kosher reasons and I find a pea protein blend to be the best for me. If you’re already eating a serving of protein at regular intervals before and after you work out, you probably don’t need protein powder, but it’s one small way I make my own life a little easier in the mornings or if I’m on the road.
I’m going to share reviews of some of these supplements that I’ve tried and what I liked and what I didn’t, but for now, if you’re looking for kosher fitness supplements, I often use koshervitamins.com. (I do not get anything from them for promoting them or their products.)