In the pursuit of strengthening our bodies and better health, we often let our workouts stagnate....
What Supplements Do You Need for Workout Recovery?
The title of this article is a little misleading. When it comes to recovery after your workouts, you technically don't need any kind of supplement. As long as you're eating enough calories and have a high enough protein intake, your body can handle recovery on its own.
That said, there are supplements that can aid in the recovery process, help you recover faster, and help your body build muscle more efficiently. No supplement can take the place of a well-rounded diet, but they can fill in gaps, account for shortcomings, and enhance bodily processes.
When it comes to recovering after a workout, there are a few categories of supplements that can be helpful. Let's break down some of these categories, what they do, and who could benefit from taking them.
Protein is the cornerstone of any recovery routine. Protein powders are fairly cheap and easily accessible. As far as recovering after a workout goes, protein is the main ingredient your body needs to repair your muscles and facilitate the growth and recovery process.
Our bodies metabolize protein and break it down into a variety of amino acids, which are the building blocks of innumerable bodily functions. Consuming adequate levels of protein each day helps your body fuel these processes and gives you the materials you need to cultivate muscle growth.
There are a variety of types of protein and they serve different purposes, which you can read about here, but if workout recovery is one of your core goals, then you should try to ensure that your total daily protein intake is about 0.7 grams to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.
With protein, you can't go wrong with something like Optimum Nutrition's Gold Standard Whey. It's fairly affordable, contains a high protein by volume, and blends well so that you're not dealing with a bunch of chunks in your protein shakes. Other brands I really like and advise checking out include Transparent Labs, Jacked Factory, and BSN.
Depending upon what flavors you like, how you consume your protein (i.e. mixed with water vs blended into a shake), and what types of protein you prefer (whey, casein, hemp, egg, etc), you may want to experiment around to figure out which protein brands you like best.
Amino Acids/ BCAAs
As mentioned in the section on protein, amino acids are the building blocks of dozens of bodily functions. When you consume protein, your body is breaking that protein down into its constituent amino acids. By extension, it makes sense to take an amino acid supplement.
Though amino acids and protein have similar end goals, they both have their place in your diet. You can't quite swap one out for the other. Instead, they should be thought of as working well together as allies to achieve the same result.
The most common type of amino acid supplements to take after your workouts are BCAAs– branched-chain amino acids. BCAAs fuel your skeletal muscles during training. Supplementing with BCAAs helps with glycogen storage, which is the primary fuel your muscles use for energy production. As a result, BCAAs help with recovery after a workout, but can also help with sustaining energy during a workout. Plus, abundant glycogen stores keep your body from breaking down muscle protein for energy instead.
One specific amino acid product designed for recovery and backed up by significant clinical research is Amino Co's Heal product. In my own experience, Amino Co Heal helped shorten my recovery time and reduce post-workout soreness significantly.
Glutamine/ Micronized GLUtamine
Also under the umbrella of amino acids and worthy of its own callout is glutamine. You can find glutamine and micronized glutamine supplements such as this one in most supplement shops.
Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in your body. It's also needed to make other amino acids and glucose. Research suggests that glutamine supplements might also help gut function, immune function, and other processes, especially in times of stress when the body uses more glutamine.
Creatine is a naturally-occurring energy source that your body uses for muscle contractions. For people who consume meat, about half of the creatine in your body comes from your diet and the other half is produced by your kidneys.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, "About 95% of creatine is stored in the skeletal muscle of your body and is used during physical activity. Creatine helps to maintain a continuous supply of energy to working muscles by keeping production up in working muscles. Small amounts are also found in your heart, brain and other tissues."
Research suggests that creatine supplements may:
- Improve your exercise performance.
- Help your recovery after intense exercise.
- Prevent and/or reduce the severity of injury.
- Help athletes tolerate heavy training loads.
- Increase your fat-free muscle mass during training.
My advice with a creatine supplement, if you choose to take it, is to (a) not go too fancy and (b) only take the recommended amount. You can find decent creatine supplements that are fairly cheap and don't have to go overboard with fancy flavors and blends to still benefit.
Another type of supplement that's rising in popularity for recovery is ZMA, which is a compound of primarily Zinc and Magnesium Aspartate, and usually some vitamin B6.
These supplements are thought to improve sleep quality (which is absolutely necessary for any kind of workout recovery) and the zinc and magnesium contents are thought to also help with muscle recovery.
Speaking anecdotally, I've taken ZMA and felt like, at the very least, it did help me get more restful sleep. I clarify that this is anecdotal because when it comes to controlled studies and lab research, there's not much data to back up the efficacy of taking ZMA as a part of your supplement routine.
Still, in my opinion, it's worth giving it a try. Optimum Nutrition makes a ZMA supplement that's affordable and highly reviewed by folks who have taken it. One important thing to note about ZMA is that zinc and magnesium can be hard to digest and could also interfere with medications like antibiotics, so if you take any prescription medication, please consult your doctor or pharmacist before adding ZMA to your workout recovery routine.
In addition to the individual supplements discussed above, there are also post-workout supplements that purport to aid in the recovery and muscle growth process. A lot of them are quite good and flavored in a way that makes them enjoyable to drink– I've used Jacked Factory's post-workout blend for a while now (still waiting for you all to make me an affiliate so I can link to it and earn money, Jacked Factory).
The thing to note about post-workout blends is that they're usually just combinations of creatine, amino acids, and electrolytes. If you find one that uses a lot of proprietary blends, it can be hard to know how much you're getting of each ingredient, so it may not always be wise to stack other recovery supplements on top of them.
An Important Note on REcovery
As mentioned at the top of this article, supplements cannot take the place of your body's natural processes. When it comes to recovering after your workouts, make sure you're getting plenty of water, plenty of sleep, and that you have enough protein (not just from protein powder) in your diet.
If you're not staying hydrated, resting adequately, and eating a well-rounded diet, no amount of guzzling supplements is going to help you reach your fitness goals.