Supplements, as the name suggests, are just that. For the vast majority of people, they are the least important aspect of training / health / fitness. However, because companies can make profit on them, they are advertised as panaceas - you know the adverts I'm referring to. Miracle cures to help you "melt, burn and destroy body fat!".
The truth is that, until you get the basics, supplements will do very little to help lose fat or gain muscle. (An important exception is anabolic steroids, either oral or intravenous - these have a dramatic effect on muscle synthesis, but are powerful compounds that affect the endocrine system and have many potential side effects. They are also illegal in most countries, but are widely used, especially in bodybuilding competitions that are not explicitly designated "natural". I don't condone or condemn anabolics, I just wish that they were more widely discussed so that people can make informed choices and get realistic ideas about both rates of muscle development and total body size. I respect anyone who has made an informed choice. I have chosen not to take them.)
In roughly descending order of importance, the following is a list of the fundamentals to achieve the body you want:
Diet / food choices
The diet cannot be temporary - it must be a gradual and permanent change to healthy choices. What you choose to eat 80% of the time will determine what your body looks like. We all know what food is healthy and what is not - make vegetables and protein (fish, chicken, lean beef etc.) the main components of the diet. The best thing to reduce and, ideally, eliminate, is sugar. Most advice is to reduce fat intake, and whilst I don't disagree that fat contains a lot of calories, it is burned in the body slowly. Sugar on the other hand needs to be dealt with immediately because the body cannot store much. Throughout our evolutionary history, sugar has been a rare treat - found in berries and honey for example. The body has evolved the ability to deal with a little bit of sugar - by raising insulin to turn on the "store this for later" (as fat) signal. It cannot cope with the amount of sugar in modern foods, which is why so many countries are suffering from an "obesity epidemic".
Summary = Avoid sugar, make vegetables and protein the priority.
I think this is the second most important aspect of getting a leaner / more muscular body. It takes longer than many people realise. It's frustrating having to wait for weeks or months (or even years!) to see the changes. I want to be lean now! The minimum period of time to begin to see changes in your body is about six weeks. If you want to change your body dramatically (think obese -> bodybuilder), this will take years. Be patient - as long as you are keeping a weekly record of your weight to get an idea of which direction you're heading (up or down) and adjusting your food as necessary, you will get there. Have faith and think in terms of six week chunks. The fact that it can take a long time to lose fat or gain muscle can actually be a good thing! It means that if you don't make it to the gym for a week, it's no big deal. If you end up pigging out one evening, eating whatever you want, it's no big deal. As long as you don't let it become a habit, it changes nothing. As long as you are eating well for about 5 - 6 days of the week, you'll get there. Don't try to rush the process - for example, eating one tin of tuna per day and going to the gym 7 days a week will not be a successful strategy to "getting ripped in six weeks!". You'll burn out quickly and not be able to hang in for the weeks and months it takes. A small effort over a long period of time will be much more effective than a large amount of effort in a short space of time. Many people fall prey to the latter, hence the term "yo-yo dieting".
Summary = Be patient. Try to enjoy the journey, rather than concentrating on the destination.
I really believe that this is less important than many people realise - certainly less than food choices and patience. There is no doubt that exercise is good for you, but by the looks of any gym, people seem to think that spending hours on a bike, treadmill or elliptical machine is the most effective way to lose weight. If they want to increase their CV (cardiovascular) health, then they are doing the right thing, but for losing weight it's counterproductive. As I've stated before, to lose 1 lb of fat in a week, the person must burn 3500 calories more than they take in. They can achieve this in three ways - by eating 500 calories per day less than usual; by doing about an hour of vigorous exercise per day or a mixture of both. The problem with (aerobic) exercise is twofold - it's tiring and tends to make you hungry - not a good combination if you're trying to eat healthier! People tend to overestimate how many calories they have burned. The best way to use exercise in your body recomposition goals is less often and with higher intensity. The recent BBC Horizon episode explored this and I believe more and more people will accept this and I hope it becomes more mainstream.
My personal experience has been this - running several times per week made me tired and hungry. I didn't really get slimmer - I certainly didn't get more muscular! Going to the gym to lift heavy weights for one hour three times per week (and now only twice per week!) has enabled me to turn the belly into a six pack and gain more muscle size, especially my back, chest and shoulders.
Summary = Vigorous exercise 1 - 3 times per week, ideally resistance exercise such as kettlebells, bodyweight exercises, free weights or machines, when combined with a healthy diet and patience, is the best way to change your body.
Finally, the least important aspect of any healthy lifestyle. In my opinion, there are only two must-have supplements:
- Omega 3 - Fish oil or hemp oil - something like 6g per day (6 standard fish oil tablets or a tablespoon of hemp oil).
- Multivitamin - MyProtein's Alpha Men is a good one.
- Extra Vitamin C
- Extra Vitamin D (especially for those of us in less sunny countries!)
- Protein - just choose the cheapest and look for high protein content (75% or more). Throw a scoop or two into foods like oats, rice pudding or anything that might use milk with to increase the protein content. You could also think about using two different types - whey for fast absorption (think pre and post-workout) and casein for slow absorption (think cottage cheese for a late night snack). The two I use are Impact Whey and Milk Protein Smooth. The latter is a little chalky but makes great Protein Pudding.
- Creatine - just get the cheapest (usually monohydrate). It's cheap and has been shown to increase strength. I personally found that it allowed me to lift about 5% more weight. Don't worry about "loading" phases - just take a few grams every day. It's not going to help with aerobic exercise - only short bursts like sprinting and heavy weightlifting.
Save the money you would use for diet pills and buy healthy food, a set of scales, some kettlebells or a gym membership and a notebook.