The Complete Guide to Powerlifting Supplementation

Powerlifting and Bodybuilding Supplements

As a starting point I’ll tell you that I have rarely used non-essential supplements throughout my time weightlifting.

Absolutely none of them are critical and if you would rather spend your money on other things then do.

If I get a pint for £5 in London I think I’ve done alright which is mental. If I come away from dinner spending less than £40 the same occurs.

Alright I’m quite frugal. But that’s not the point. The point is living is expensive. And supplements are exactly that. A supplement.

supplementary

Something that is supplementary is extra. Additional. It can only enhance. And for the most of us that isn’t important enough to spend an extra £50-100 per month.

But if you think the 1-2% is worth it and have the purchasing power to do so, then this guide to powerlifting supplementation should help you spend your hard earned cash properly.

What supplements help build muscle?

Supplement Primary Use Effectiveness Cost QfS Recommends
Creatine ATP energy increase 5 £ Yes
BCAA’s Promote protein synthesis 3 ££ No
Whey Protein Muscle growth & repair 4 £££ Yes
Vegan Protein Muscle growth & repair 4 ££££ Yes
Melatonin Sleep & recovery 3 ££ Yes
Beta Alanine Carnosine production 3 ££ No
Pre-Workout Formula Stimulation 3 £££ Yes

When discussing the best supplements to build muscle, it’s important to breakdown how that occurs.

If you haven’t already, I would recommend reading this guide to hypertrophy so you can see how muscle is built from a physiological perspective.
But to gain muscle, the following needs to be true:

  1. To be in a caloric surplus (You should read this guide on bulking for beginners)
  2. Adequate protein intake (typically 0.8g / lb of bodyweight)
  3. Quality sleep and recovery
  4. Sufficient hypertrophy based volume

So you need to eat enough good quality food, with an emphasis on how much protein you eat. And the quality of your protein source does matter.

Recovery is absolutely essential and sleep is the most efficient way to do so. It’s not just the amount of sleep that counts, but the quality of it.

So to optimise your muscle growth you need to sleep. Any supplement that can help with that will be beneficial.

Lastly you need to cram enough overall volume in (under your Maximum Recoverable Volume – MRV). If you feel you’re reaching your limits, any supplementation that allows you to train that little bit harder will be beneficial to muscle growth.

But don’t become reliant on it.

Creatine

Creatine increases the amount of ATP energy your muscles can produce. In short this means your body has more energy for short, explosive lifts.

Now Read: The 7 Best Creatine Supplements

BCAAs

Branch chain amino acids are the building blocks of protein and muscle in your body. They can aid with recovery, reducing DOMS and initiating protein synthesis.

However they aren’t 100% effective as you’ll find out later on.

Now Read: 7 Best BCAAs in 2019

Whey Protein

Chocolate whey protein in a glass
Chocolate whey protein powder in a glass

Usually a complete protein source (containing all essential amino acids) that can be 90%+ protein content. Good value and (from a reputable brand) usually high quality.

What it lacks is the vitamins and nutrients that proper food will give you.

But it’s very effective.

Vegan Protein

Been around for significantly less time than its whey counterpart, so it makes sense that the quality and taste typically aren’t as good and the price is higher.

Vegan protein powders are usually blends and almost never a complete protein source.

So they are less effective.

Melatonin

A hormone released by the pineal gland that regulates sleep-wake cycles. It is certainly effective and from personal use the sleeps and deep.

And the dreams are properly fitful.

But recovery wise, the more you can sleep and the better quality it is, the better chance you have.

Beta-Alanine

A naturally occurring, non-essential amino acid. A component of peptides carnosine and anserine and can be tremendous for concentration and cognitive / athletic performance.

But it’s largely untested at very high doses so be wary.

Pre-Workout

Pre-workouts (as we’ll cover later in more depth, don’t worry) are typically a blend of BCAAs, caffeine, other stimulants, creatine and vasodilators designed to improve your performance.

They do work. You’ll get a buzz and an increase in your existing energy levels.

But there are some drawbacks we’ll go on to cover.

What are the best supplements for strength?

Supplement Primary Use Effectiveness Cost QfS Recommends
Creatine ATP energy increase 5 £ Yes
Caffeine Stimulation 4 £ Yes
BCAA’s Promote protein synthesis 3 £££ No
Glutamine Energy production 3 ££ No
Fish oil Anti-inflammatory 3 £ No
Beta Alanine Carnosine production 3 ££ No
Vitamin D3 Muscle strength 2.5 £ Yes
Glucosamine Reduce joint pain 3 ££ No

There are subtle differences in supplementation between building muscle and strength. Your body has slightly different requirements and there are some useful extras you may not be aware of.

As a starting point. to get stronger you don’t have to build muscle. But it does help. All other things being equal, weight does move weight.

But there are a lot of us who don’t want to gain weight, just strength. And that’s where supplementation becomes incredibly useful.
To gain strength:

  1. You must at least be in a caloric maintenance and eat enough protein to recover
  2. Intensity must increase (I suggest this guide to periodisation if you’re unsure about intensity compared to volume)
  3. Volume decreases over time
  4. Rest and recovery is equally important

So the supplementation that would have a positive impact would increase ATP energy (Adenosine Triphosphate), alleviate any potential joint pain, increase the focus of your workout’s and improve the quality of your rest and recovery.

I won’t cover everything again, but the additional more strentgh specific supplements are below.

3 different coloured supplement pills
Supplements in pill form

Glutamine

Glutamine is a vital amino acid that assists with protein synthesis (when combined with all essential amino acids) and helps improve your immune system.

It has a special role in digestion and intestinal health, so it’s excellent if you’ve increased your calories on a bulk. L-glutamine can also increase energy production.

Ideal for strength training then.

Fish oil

Derived from the tissues of oily fish (I suppose sort of obviously), fish oil contains the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid.
It helps reduce inflammation and hypertriglyceridemia, so aides those with high levels of cholestrol by decreasing the levels of triglycerides.

Smashing for overall joint health.

Vitamin D3

Sunshine in a convenient tablet.

Fantastic through the Winter months or for those in shite climates, it’s a fat soluble molecule that helps your body absorb calcium and phosphorus.

If your level of vitamin D3 is low typically your bones and muscles will be more prone to injury.

So not ideal for heavy training then.

It’s also been used to combat depression like symptoms in certain places.

Who doesn’t love the sun.

Glucosamine

Glucosamine is a naturally occurring molecule in your body primarily used to treat bone and joint disorders.

Glucosamine sulfate is used to alleviate joint pain, particularly for people with osteoarthritis.

Heavy training comes with drawbacks and your body will suffer.

It’s typically taken with chondroitin and if you suffer from the above I can’t recommend them enough.

Are BCAAs effective?

When it comes to branched chain amino acids it’s hard to be completely confident when it comes to their effectiveness because there’s so much conflicting literature on the subject.

The key is to filter out the irrelevant content and drilldown into numerous and reputable sources. Ideally from within the last few years and with significant size test groups to prove or disprove your hypothesis.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and muscle. There are 22 in all and 9 essential ones that are body can’t produce. Therefore we have to ingest them through various sources.

3 of them (leucine, isoleucine and valine) make up the supplemental BCAAs, which makes them instantly inferior to complete protein sources that contain all of them – eggs, whey or meat.
Around 15% of the protein in chicken is actually made from BCAAs.

Theoretically, increasing the uptake of these 3 should enhance protein synthesis. Great.

However.
Research suggests you are limited by uptake of ALL essential amino acids. So if you increase your consumption of these 3, but none of the other essential ones, you won’t be able to increase recovery or muscle growth potential.

This particular study concluded that the claim that consumption of dietary BCAAs stimulates muscle protein synthesis OR produces an anabolic response in human subjects is unwarranted.

However there is evidence to suggest that the level of DOMS (muscle soreness) can be drastically reduced with BCAA supplementation.

So administering BCAAs before and after damaging resistance training can accelerate recovery and reduce the effects of muscle damage.

So if you suffer from DOMS and feel any additional recovery would be beneficial to your training, BCAAs could give you the extra 1%.

However if you eat enough and have a nutritionally sufficient diet, then BCAAs are likely a waste of money.

But if you’re in a cutting phase of your training, they certainly have their place.

Which Protein is best for Muscle Gain?

Whey protein is the most effective for muscle gain. A good quality whey is typically a complete protein source (where all 9 essential BCAAs are present) that acts quickly in terms of recovery and protein synthesis.

But this question is a little loaded as protein is by no means the be all and end all for muscle gain.

This handy infographic should help you understand the difference between whey and vegan protein sources:

Whey vs Vegan Protein infographic
Whey vs Vegan Protein

As discussed above if you aren’t in a caloric surplus (bulking) you won’t be able to grow muscle.

Whilst proteins and amino acids are the body’s building blocks when it comes to muscle growth. Without a substantial enough amount of carbohydrates and fats to create an energy surplus, you won’t gain muscle.

But as long as you eat a complete enough diet (both macros and nutrients), then a good quality protein source will be effective.

There are various forms of whey protein however:

+ Whey Protein Concentrate: A complete protein source with all essential BCAAs, ideal for repair, recovery and muscle gain. It is low in fats and carbohydrates, hence the name concentrate.

+ Whey Protein Isolate: Isolates are processed further to remove (almost) every trace of fat and lactose. Typically around 90% protein, whey protein isolate usually has the highest protein content.

+ Hydrolysed Whey Protein: Hydrolysed whey is considered a pre-digested form of protein as it has already undergone partial hydrolysis. Which is necessary for the body to absorb protein. Hydrolysed whey doesn’t require as much absorption as the others and is easier to digest.

I typically buy a good quality whey protein concentrate as it tends to be the best value and 70-80% protein.

More than enough.

Now Read: The 10 Best Protein Bars in 2019

Should I use a Weight-Gainer?

For those unaware of what a weight gainer is (even if it is pretty fucking self-explanatory), they are high calorie supplements designed for hard-gainers to gain weight fast.

A serving of weight-gainer can be 1200kcal +. So it will make you gain weight.

And probably pretty quickly.

But I would usually say no to weight gainers.

Not only are they usually jam-packed full of sugars, sweeteners and low quality nutrition, but they’re very expensive. It’s a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

Real food is the best way to gain weight. And you can make your own weight gain supplements.

Nut butters are 600kcal / 100g. Low in sugar and high in protein and fat. Whole milk is also incredibly nutrient dense. 2 bananas, spinach and 2 scoops of protein and you’ve got an easy 1000kcal shake that’s good value and nutrient dense.

Stop being a lazy bastard.

Best pre-workout for Powerlifting?

I keep a pre workout laying around for when I really need it.

I don’t use them for the

But what makes a good pre workout?

1. Caffeine

Coffee beans in a roasting machine
Everyones favourite caffeine supplement – coffee

For: Energy

Why is it good? There are endless studies that highlight just how effective caffeine is at boosting resistance training and endurance related activity.

It reduces your perception of fatigue even in sleep deprived scenarios. But be wary of becoming reliant on it as you can’t always up the dose.

How much should I have? The recommended dose is usually around 3-6mg / kg of bodyweight.

A double espresso has 80mg of caffeine in and a 12oz (large) coffee has around 120mg.

Think about how that effects you before purchasing a pre-workout formula. Then bear in mind there are other ingredients involved.

2. Beta Alanine

For: Endurance and Energy

Why is it good? This amino acid can play a role in increasing your overall training volume. It buffers hydrogen ions which can help with maintaining and even increasing intensity.

It is generally seen as being more useful for endurance athletes and it’s benefits for short, sharp bursts are not particularly clear.

How much should I have? It always varies from person to person, but around 3-6g is probably about right for most people. I recommend starting off with a smaller dosage to allow your body time to adapt.

If you have taken a product with beta alanine in it and have experienced a tingling sensation, this is because you’ve had too much. It’s called paresthesia.

If you fucking hate it (hands up everyone who isn’t weird AF) then split your dose throughout the day. It isn’t necessary right before a workout to be effective.

3. Creatine

For: Energy muscle saturation

Why is it good? Creatine increases the amount of ATP energy your muscles can produce. In short this means your body has more energy for short, explosive lifts.

Creatine is literally a PED. There are hundreds of studies that prove its effectiveness for weightlifting.

And almost every sports scientist will tell you it’s the number 1 (legal) strength building supplement.

How much should I take? A lot of manufacturers will tell you to ‘load’ with creatine.

I.e. take a lot at the beginning so your body feels the effects of the increased substrate (energy source) saturation.

I almost never trust a manufacturer where the advice requires you to use their product much faster. A teaspoon a day (5g or so) is ample for long-term benefits.

4. Citrulline

For? Increasing blood flow to oxygen supply to muscles

Why is it good? Citrulline is an amino acid that increases the transfer of oxygen to your muscles.

Various studies highlight it’s effectiveness in importing performance for both endurance based and short-term exercise.

Like with any amino acid, it’s effectiveness is based on aiding protein synthesis. So your DOMs (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) could be less painful.

Woman squatting low with chalk and an earring
It’s going to hurt – so beware of DOMS

How much should I take? There are two types of citrulline – L and Malate. But 6-8g for either is the usual dose you should aim for.

If you’re an endurance athlete, then citrulline L will be more effective. If you’re a weightlifter, then citrulline malate is your compadre.

Like with anything, start off with a smaller dose and then up it.

It is important to note however that amino acids are only effective when complete. I.e. your body needs all 9 essential ones that it can’t produce to thrive.

If you already eat a diet with enough complete proteins, you probably don’t need BCAAs.

5. Sodium Bicarbonate

Baking soda in a jar and on a spoon by water
Baking Soda – otherwise known as bicarbonate of soda

For? Reducing the muscular burning sensation in intense activities or high-rep sets

Why is it good? Sodium bicarbonate helps fight acid buildup in the body. For hypertrophy based sets or HIIT, there are proven benefits.

Arguably less so for endurance athletes, but if you’re on this page I bet you never do anything for more than 30 minutes you lazy bastard.

(It’s alright I’m with you)!

How much should I take? 300mg / kg I’d the recommended dose.

Don’t forget, you could literally just use fucking baking soda. So if it’s not in your supplement, then just eat some.

If you’re salt sensitive then probably be careful…

I don’t think any weightlifting focused individual needs anything else from a pre-workout.

If your diet lacks complete proteins (more relevant for some vegans – not at all throwing shade), then BCAAs can be beneficial for recovery and protein synthesis.

But they’re not necessary in a pre-workout.

Nitrates have genuine benefits when it comes to oxygen supply. But that’s more for endurance nerds.

Anyway beetroot juice is disgusting but fine.

Joint health supplements for Weightlifting

Ironically weight training is actually incredibly beneficial for joint health.

Joint health usually gets worse with age and weightlifters, bodybuilders and powerlifters can all suffer.

Now Read: Bodybuilding vs Powerlifting

Generally a well thought out dynamic warm-up will be your best weapon against joint degradation.

But if you need some supplementation, then the below are all effective:

Glucosamine

As discussed above, glucosamine is an amino sugar that helps build out the cartilage surrounding joints.

Chondroitin

Is a gel forming polysaccharide that not encourages cartilage’s resistance, but also the construction of it.

The loss of cartilage in joints can lead to extreme pain, especially for those with osteoarthritis.

I’ve seen numerous studies advocating the use of both of the above for joint health. It is hoped these sulfate supplements can take the place of certain drugs to an extent.

But if you have joint issues and don’t warm up or consult a physician, sulfated can’t save you.

Take care of yourself you berk.

Example supplement stack for Powerlifters

Multi-coloured supplement pills
A supplement stack shouldn’t involve too much of these

Essential

Creatine

Protein (whey or vegan)

Nice to haves

Pre workout

Vitamin D3

Melatonin (Zinc and magnesium form)

Joint supplements

BCAAs

Fish oil

Don’t waste your money

Fat strippers

Diet proteins

Low quality protein sources (cheap, sub 70% protein)

Weight gainers