When it comes to supplements, most people either take nothing at all or far too many!
And most serious grapplers go through a phase of taking tons of supplements in hopes of boosting their jiu-jitsu game.
I went supplement-crazy myself about 8 years ago. I was taking at least 50 pills and tablets each day, including thrice-daily multivitamins… Selenium… Reishi extract… Chromium picolinate…Turmeric extract… Branched chain amino acids… Phosphatidyl serine… Etc. Etc. Etc. The list went on and on. And I continued taking all these supplements for about 6 months.
So what was the effect of all these supplements? Did I get bigger? Stronger? Faster? Did my jiu-jitsu game jump up a full belt level?
No! Despite the placebo effect (more on that later) I didn’t notice ANY improvements to my strength, energy levels or recovery times.
But I did spend oodles of money on various pills, tablets and powders…
Probably the only real effect was that my urine became very expensive!
Why do so many people take so many different kinds of supplements? Here’s a few reasons off the top of my head:
1 – Wishful Thinking. Wouldn’t it just be easier if you could pop a few pills every day rather than doing the hard work to maintain a healthy diet, putting in time under heavy iron and doing cardio,
2 – Advertising. Bodybuilding magazines and fitness websites exist in order to sell supplements. I’ve followed this industry for the last 20 years and there’s ALWAYS the next best thing. Last week it was fermented Siberian yak toenail clippings, and this week it’s 2,3-dimethyl-nitro-killyouquick.
These magazines and websites wouldn’t exist if they didn’t sell supplements. It’s the advertising revenue that keeps them afloat and provides them with a reason for being.
But it’s not only the advertisements themselves – you can’t trust the ‘articles’ either. Even if they’re not getting kickbacks directly for endorsing various products, the authors of these articles are financially tied to the well-being of the magazine or website.
3 – The Placebo Effect. The placebo effect is known from medicine when a doctor ‘prescribes’ sugar pills to a patient and that person then experiences all sorts of positive results and improvements.
Basically a placebo is a drug (or a supplement) that works just because you think it’s going to work, not because of anything about the drug itself.
Scientific American summed it up by saying “belief is powerful medicine, even if the treatment itself is a sham.”
And every study that has ever looked for a placebo effect has found one…
The placebo effect is huge when it comes to sports supplements. For example, there’s nothing more convincing than a friend who swears that a certain new product is ‘the bomb’ and urges you to try it too!
If someone tells you that extract of Saccharum edule helped 50 lbs onto their bench press then you might just want to rush out and buy yourself a bucket of that supplement too. But Saccharum edule extract is just another name for table sugar….
4 – Faulty Research. The wild claims made by the supplement companies and their cronies are usually backed up by so-called ‘research.’ But when you look at it more closely, this research is usually a just a single study (or a cherry-picked selection of studies which all back up the claims being made).
But a single study proves nothing! And what’s even worse is that these studies are often small, poorly designed and improperly controlled experiments that nobody else has ever managed to duplicate.
And, by the way, the same people who did the study also own the company making the supplement…
That’s why in science nothing is ever proven until many different and unbiased researchers have found the same result.
I’ve spent enough time in academia and doing research to know how easy it would be for an unscrupulous individual to tamper with the results of a study to make it ‘prove’ whatever they want it to prove.
I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. When it comes to claims about sports supplements I urge EXTREME SKEPTICISM!!! Distrust everybody
So, are there any good supplements you should be taking?
I recently had a conversation with Dr. Krista Scott-Dixon Ph.D. on the topic of the science behind supplements. We were trying to figure out which sports supplements have rock-solid track records.
(By the way, Krista is the research director for the Healthy Food Bank and runs the strength training site Stumptuous.com. So she knows her nutrition inside-out. And she also trains and competes in BJJ and grappling!)
Here’s Krista’s feedback about some of the supplements which have strong evidence for really working in a sports-enhancement context (plus my own comments)!
In order of preference, the supplements that have real science behind them are the following:
1. Colourful fruits and veggies (e.g. dark berries, dark leafy greens, beets, red grapefruit, etc.),
Stephan’s note: Absolutely!!! The people I know who eat the least vegetables tend to have the MOST health problems. And just for the record, potatoes and rice don’t count as vegetables…
2. Protein from varied sources – check (baseline 0.75 g/lb day for average people; 1 g/lb per day for athletes).
Stephan’s Note: that means if you’re an actively training 200 lb grappler then you should be consuming about 200 grams of protein every day.
3. Fish oil – yes, very useful. (5-15 g daily)
Stephan’s note: this is a LOT more fish oil than most people take. Some recent studies suggest that you should be taking 900 mg of DHA, which is a component of fish oil, daily. But the average fish oil capsule only contains about 100 mg of DHA, which means that you have to take about 9 capsules a day to get your DHA…
4. Vitamin D – 2000-4000 IU daily in the winter, purposeful sun exposure in summer.
Stephan’s note: in the winter months I take about four vitamin D tablets a day, which works out to 4000 IU. You definitely need Vitamin D if you live in northern climes, but don’t overdo it with this one – it IS possible to poison yourself with this vitamin if you take too much of it.
5. Creatine for athletes doing strength/power work.
Stephan’s note: I personally don’t take creatine all that often unless I’m trying to get ready for a specific event. Also note that some people don’t respond to creatine, but for most people supplementing with 2 grams a day for a month will add about 5 lbs and a fair bit of strength if they’re also weightlifting at the same time.
6. Caffeine in SMALL doses (50-100 mg, about 1/2 to 3/4 cup coffee), 1 hour before training.
Stephan’s note: I don’t drink coffee, but if you’ve ever met me then you know that I’ve got a thing for dark chocolate. So I guess I’m ‘supplementing’ with caffeine in my own way
There are other supplements of course. For example, BCAAs (Branch Chain Amino Acids) are definitely well corroborated, but if folks get the first four items I mentioned right (or, frankly, even just the first two items), then things like BCAA are really just gravy. In my experience, almost nobody, even athletes, is really even doing #1 and #2 properly. Anyone who nails #1 and #2 consistently and correctly should see a significant increase in performance, wellbeing, and recovery.
And the big one, that trumps pretty much all others: SLEEP. If you get 30-60 min more sleep per night consistently, it kicks the ass of nearly any supplement! For the dudes in your audience, sleep bumps up regular endogeneous testosterone production more than just about anything else.”
P.S. If you want more information on this topic here’s one more article on Grapplearts that was extremely controversial: Supplements in BJJ – Why Everyone is Lying to You