Coach Jesse Irizarry at JDI Barbell in New York, New York
When someone tells me they don’t take supplements, I usually don’t believe them. Those who fancy themselves as whole food eaters often don’t realize that they are supplementing even if they don’t consume pills or powders. They also are unaware that there are categories to supplementation and they are often misunderstood or overlooked.
Different supplements, of course, have different roles but being unable to identify that categories are where most people fall short in understanding their utility. Understanding these roles and categories will help you decide what to take and when to take it.
So, when new members of my gym ask if they should take supplements I tell them the question isn’t whether they should or not, because they’re already taking something. The question is what needs do they have and what category do they need to focus on.
Considering The Difference
When discussing supplements, the conversation shouldn’t spotlight an individual supplement or if that product is good for you or not. Instead, you should consider what you’re focusing on in health or performance and what category assists those needs.
The categories can include but aren’t limited to: muscle growth, performance (increased or sustained energy, assistance in more output during exercise), recovery or regulation of stress and hormones, digestion, nutrient delivery or focusing, body composition, and sleep quality.
Once you identify what category is in neglect because of diet or lifestyle, can decide which supplement in a particular category makes the most sense, or at least start experimenting. For example, if you want to build muscle mass, you may decide to use protein powder. But within this sub-category, you’ll have to decide what is best for you. For example, whey protein doesn’t sit well with certain people so you may have to decide on an alternative.
Maybe you want to use one thing to aide across multiple categories. If you wanted to gain some muscle mass and wanted to increase energy during workouts, you may decide to use creatine. Although creatine doesn’t directly increase muscle mass it indirectly contributes toward it by increasing your ability to endure, buffer, and recover from stresses. So you take it, you work out harder, you get bigger.
Maybe sleep quality is the limiting factor in overall health or performance so you decide to look into this category and supplement with magnesium or zinc. You can experiment to see which one helps the most. Maybe you decide to take a calming tea elixir before bed–yes, I would consider the use of tea as a supplementation means in this case as well.
You may want to increase fats intake for hormonal regulation or use their nutrient delivery benefit of it and combine with other macronutrients. In this case, you may add MCT oil to whatever beverage or food you’re taking in. All of this is the use and understanding of supplementation to your base diet.
Understanding the Deficiency
With the categories properly defined, you can focus on what you particularly need by seeing where your base diet of whole foods may lack. Everyone who gives their health a second thought has every good intention of sustaining a diet rich with foods that cover every macro and micronutrient need.
While this is a great soundbite for a podcast, it's completely impractical in the lives that most of us actually live. Many of us tend to have to rush from one activity to the next. Even if we prep our meals at home it’s very hard to keep everything stocked and include every food group if we’re not cooking meals throughout the day. Stacking supplements on top of a nutrient rich diet to fill in gaps and address deficiencies is the approach that is more based in reality.
Identifying your deficiencies can be done very systematically by getting blood work done. You could also track your diet and use markers to journal indicators such as mood, recovery, quality of sleep, hunger, cravings, etc. to decide what category you may need assistance in.
In addition at the very least you can become observant to the effects certain foods or increases in certain nutrients have on your body to decide if you want to experiment with a certain supplement to see the effect in increasing a nutrient, vitamin, or mineral.
Focusing on One Variable at a Time
Admittedly, I’m historically the worst at only introducing one variable at a time and have violated this principle in every possible way. This has without a doubt set me back in my own self-understanding of what works for me and what I need.
When you’re deciding to add protein, or take caffeine for your workouts, or increase your fat intake, or take something for joint health, first select only one category to improve at a time and then take just one, maybe two, supplements within that category.
If you start taking multiple supplements at once across many different categories, you may feel better or start gaining muscle or start killing it in the gym, but you will have zero ideas as to what is contributing and what is as good as taking a sugar pill. The result of this method is that you spend much more money than needed for a longer time and extend the learning curve to discover how to optimize your diet and supplementation.
You also need to have a constant of all dietary intake while adding in supplements. If you start taking protein powder but also start eating more nutrient dense food, how will you know how much the protein powder helped? Diet needs to remain constant while one to two things are introduced.
Find the Keys for Your Body
Whatever you take, it shouldn’t be because someone told you to take it because it worked for them—it should be because it is the particular key needed for you and your body.
One thing should be introduced at a time and used alone for at least a few weeks before it is either taken out or left in to have something else stacked on top of it to build the best possible combination. Because that’s all this is, it’s using building blocks to build something better.
Jesse competes in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, and he was also formerly a competitive powerlifter. He was featured in main strength and fitness publications. You can read more of his work on his website.