Supplements: What do they do, and what should I take?

Ryan ODonnellhealth, nutritionLeave a Comment

I’m writing this post due to several questions that have been put to me personally over the past year or so from members who have approached me in the gym. I’ve heard some variation of the following three questions countless times, so I figured I’d just answer all three to the best of my ability in one spot. The questions are:

“What does (x supplement) do?”
“Should I be taking (x supplement)?”
“Do you take any supplements? Why?”

We’re going to focus on the supplements which I have been asked about the most around the gym and the ones that seem to be the most popular.

Two more things before we dive in:

1. You could write (and people have written: a lengthy article about the different type of protein shakes you can take. Protein in your diet is probably the single most important thing you need to build and maintain muscle, so downing a protein shake post WOD is never a bad idea. Especially if you’re someone who has trouble eating in the aftermath of a devastating workout.

2. I don’t mess with any pre-workout stuff. I used to take NO-Explode when I was in college, but I haven’t touched anything like it since. I took one pre-workout supplement before the first event at Fit Monster in May and my skin felt like it was burning, not fun. Therefore, none of those will be addressed in this post.

Here we go.

Fish Oil (omega-3)

The omega-3 fatty acid is one of two essential fatty acids, meaning it isn’t synthesized by the body and can only come from your diet. The other essential fatty acid is omega-6. Most of us get plenty of omega-6 due to the modern western diet consisting of a lot of corn oil and feedlot animals whose diets consist of high levels of corn. This high level of omega-6 in our diets has resulted in a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 of 16:1 to 20:1 in most individuals. As a species we evolved to consume a diet that was closer to 1:1. Supplementing with fish oil can help balance this out.

There are a wealth of advantages to supplementing with fish oil. It promotes blood vessel dilation, posseses anti-inflammatory effects and anti-coagulant effects, decreases pain and aids in airway dilation. In addition due to their anti-inflammatory effects they’ve been linked to a lower risk of heart disease.

Should you take it? Unless you eat a lot of fish, yes.


BCAAs (branch chain amino acids) are (in a very basic description) the building blocks of your body. They make up a large amount of your muscle mass, are essential in muscle synthesis and even make up your DNA. When protein is used for energy transfer, it is broken down into individual amino acids. During high intensity or long duration exercise, the body can begin to break down amino acids in muscle for energy transfer leading to muscle catabolism (the breakdown of muscle). Therefore, having additional amino acids available during exercise (by taking BCAAs before a training session) can prevent muscle breakdown. It’s also a good idea to take them after a workout to aid in muscle repair and to prevent over training. Additionally, BCAAs have been shown to provide up to 5% of energy transfer during longer duration exercise.

Should you take it? That depends, more likely than not you probably don’t need to. I would say it’s probably a better idea to take them if you work out at a higher volume and have some specific goals in mind (think competitors or athletes using Crossfit to train for another sport). While taking BCAAs probably won’t hurt you, if you’re one of the many who come to the gym to simply stay fit, you probably don’t need to take them.


If you read my blog post about aerobic capacity, you’ll know that creatine is important for energy transfer during short duration, high intensity exercise (sprints or max lifts). The idea of supplementing with creatine is pretty simple, if you have more creatine available in your cells, then you’ll be able to transfer more energy during these short duration high intensity exercises. Which will lead to more reps or perhaps a heavier lift. Here’s a fact: if you lift heavier or do more reps during a training session consistently, your muscles will grow. Something else you should know about creatine, if you take it, you will gain weight. Some will be due to the fact that creatine increases water retention, the rest of the weight (assuming you’re eating correctly) will be due to increased muscle mass.

Should you take it? If you don’t need to take it, don’t. It’s possible for many people to get fitter and build muscle without taking creatine. There are some mild side effects associated with creatine including stomach cramps, nasea and diarrhea, but research shows it’s basically safe. There are some studies which link it to more serious side effects, but this evidence is anecdotal at this point. Lastly, it’s important to actually go to the gym and work out hard if you take creatine. This is one supplement that I can say from experience definitely (at least for me) gets results. However, if you take it and don’t work your ass off you’ll still gain weight, just not the weight you want to gain.


Glutamine isn’t as popular was the other supplements listed in this post, but I’ve been asked about it several times. Glutamine is the most common type of amino acid found in your muscles and it serves several funtions in the body. It is important for removing excess ammonia, aids in immune system function and has been linked to improved brain function as well. Glutamine stores are depleted during times of physical stress, this can include long duration exercise, high intensity training or even after being injured. Because of its role in immune system function depleted glutamine stores have been thought to be a reason why endurance athletes sometimes become sick in the days after a race. Glutamine has also been linked to increased growth hormone production. This is why many body builders and weightlifters take it as it seems to slow muscle catabolism (breakdown) and promote muscle anabolism (build up).

Should you take it? All current research says supplementing with glutamine is safe. However, that data is based on short-term results and we don’t have data which deals with long term effects. Just like with creatine, I would say that most people in the gym don’t need to be taking glutamine.

What do I take?

Depending on the time of the year or where I am in a training cycle I use different supplements. As far as daily suplements go, I take 5g of fish oil and a multivitamin every day. I also drink a protein shake on days I work out, immediately after a training session. At the moment I’m in the midst of a heavy training cycle which combines the work we do in class, plus a bunch of extra weight lifting, plus a bunch of extra aerobic capacity work. So right now I’m also using creatine and glutamine, but I will cycle off of these as soon as this particular training cycle is over. I won’t use them again until I get back on another high volume program. I’ll also add I try to make the most our of my meals. You can use all the supplements you want, but if you’re not eating right, you won’t get the results you’re seeking.


Berardi, John, PhD, and Ryan Andrews, MS, MA, RD. The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition. Second ed. N.p.: Precision Nutrition, 2016. Print.

Bodybuildingcom. “BCAA’S: The Building Blocks Of Muscle!” N.p., 16 Mar. 2016. Web. 17 Sept. 2016.

LayneNorton. “BCAAs: The Many Benefits Of Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplements.” N.p., 30 Mar. 2016. Web. 17 Sept. 2016.

Nordqvist, Joseph. “Creatine: Benefits and Health Risks.” Medical News Today. MediLexicon International, 13 Apr. 2016. Web. 17 Sept. 2016.

Risher, Brittany. “Creatine: What It Is, What It Does, and Its Side Effects.” Men’s Health. N.p., 25 Aug. 2016. Web. 17 Sept. 2016.

Staff, By Mayo Clinic. “Heart Disease.” Omega-3 in Fish: How Eating Fish Helps Your Heart. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Sept. 2016.

Hajoway, Mike. “Glutamine: A Secret To Gaining Muscle!” N.p., 27 Apr. 2006. Web. 17 Sept. 2016.

Ehrlich, Steven. “Glutamine.” University of Maryland Medical Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Sept. 2016.

Title image from:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.