You’re at the gym, squeezing out one last set of squats, when you see her: that trainer with the cutest workout gear, the shiniest ponytail, and the ever-present shaker bottle. You’ve never tried a protein shake — but now you’re kinda tempted to stop by the nearest smoothie bar.
Pre- and post-workout supplements are becoming ubiquitous, endorsed by everyone from your office accountant to the star of your SoulCycle class. The rise of a friendlier brand of “gym chic,” complete with Lilly Pulitzer water bottles and colorful running shoes, has democratized a world once dominated by weight room bros. Supplements are an inheritance from the old days, adapted for the modern market with vegan protein offerings and formulas “exclusively” for women. But are they right for you?
THINK OF SUPPLEMENTS AS OPTIONAL ADD-ONS
“I get a lot of questions about pre-workouts and protein,” says Caraline Maher, personal trainer, bodybuilding competitor, and Instagram fitness influencer. (Maher is also a supplement brand PEScience athlete, so it’s not surprising that she’s used to fielding a lot of questions on this subject.) “In any instance of someone asking about supplements, I always start with telling them that supplements are not necessary in any form.”
The clue, Maher suggests, is in the name: “They are there to SUPPLEMENT your diet [and] exercise regimen, simply to help you.”
For the majority of Americans, this kind of supplementation really isn’t necessary, according to registered dietician Natalie Allen, an instructor of biomedical sciences at Missouri State University (and team dietician for the school’s athletes). “[Supplements] may help some people with specific issues,” she says — but eating a good diet is more beneficial, especially long-term.
FIND WHAT WORKS FOR YOU
“I always tell people the same thing when I get questions like, ‘What are your macros? [Macros, or macronutrients, are protein, carbs, and fat — consuming these in certain ratios can support a range of physical goals.] What’s your workout routine? What supplements do you take?’” says Maher. Although this information is readily available on her blog, she advises readers to proceed with caution.
“I put disclaimers throughout. Disclaimers saying that these are my specific macros/cardio for my specific body, and even if you are the same age, height, and weight, and your name is even Caraline, these numbers will not work the same for you as they do for me. It is extremely individual.”
In Maher’s case, finding the right supplements has been a matter of trial and error: She uses her specific supplement pre-workout because it doesn’t give her migraines and others do; her preferred protein is one of the few that doesn’t make her nauseated. “Some supplements may not work the same as they do for others,” she says. “You have to find what works for your body.”
TO SUPPLEMENT, OR NOT TO SUPPLEMENT?
“The first thing I do is look at what do you think the supplement is going to help you do, and why do you think you need that?” Allen says.
She suggests reviewing your goals: Are you trying to improve endurance or to build power and strength, for example? Is recovery a factor? You should also consider whether it’s possible to get the ingredients you need from dietary sources, which tend to deliver more nutritional benefits. (Check out our fave foods to eat before, during, and after a workout for inspiration.)
1. Pre-Workout: Generally, these supplements are intended to boost energy, which can help with endurance — for instance, if you’re training for a marathon.
Most pre-workout supplements include caffeine, although you can also consider using natural sources like coffee or tea, provided you also stay on top of your hydration. “Caffeine certainly has its place,” says Allen, noting that numerous studies show it can benefit endurance athletes. But she advises to train with your caffeine intake so your body gets used to it before an event like a race or a soccer game. Nitrates are also thought to help with endurance and are often found in pre-workout supplements — but Allen suggests a more natural source: beets. “You can eat it like a baked potato,” she says.
Maher also acknowledges that you don’t necessarily need a pre-workout supplement, especially “if you are getting through your workouts perfectly fine without being tired or struggling.” But as a matter of personal preference, she loves them. “I’m naturally an energetic person, but deep in [contest] prep when I’m tired and not the most motivated, [PEScience Alphamine and High Volume] are my best friends,” says Maher. (In the lead-up to a bodybuilding competition, athletes undergo a physically and mentally exhausting process that involves strict diet and training plans.)
If energy is a regular issue, Allen suggests assessing your eating habits. Depending on when you hit the gym, you might be able to get a boost from a bedtime or pre-workout snack.
2. Post-Workout: These supplements are mainly about protein and are intended to support strength and muscle gains. “If someone is already getting their daily recommended intake of protein, there is no need for protein powder,” says Maher. “But if they struggle hitting their protein [target], then 100 percent it will definitely help them!”
Allen identifies vegetarian diets as potentially benefiting from protein supplementation. “If you do follow any type of diet that limits a food group, then supplements can be helpful,” she says. “Protein powders can most definitely have their place.” She also points to “people who are trying to gain muscle and they either don’t have the appetite to eat enough protein to gain weight, or they don’t know how to cook it.” However, she advises that protein shakes shouldn’t take the place of dietary sources of nutrition.
Post-workout shakes are most commonly based on whey protein. “Typically I suggest that people mix that with milk, because milk has more of a casein protein,” says Allen. “When you mix those together you get the advantage of the whey protein and the casein protein, and those work in different ways to help you build muscle.” Soy protein powders are also increasingly available if you’d rather keep it plant-based.
“I always suggest getting at least 25-30g protein within a few hours of lifting,” says Maher, adding, “don’t fall for that 20-minute anabolic window BS.” (The “anabolic window” is one of those myths about protein used by weight room bros to justify procrastinating with a shake between workout and shower. Let us speak no further of it.) How much protein you need overall is an individual calculation: Allen suggests a maximum of two grams per kilogram of body weight.