We here at The Box would like you to know that we’re proudly pro-choice. No, no — we’re not getting political. We simply respect that everyone has opinions and feelings and that sometimes those opinions and feelings can get heated, particularly when we start talking about supplements. So we’re just laying it out here right upfront: You get to choose whether you take supplements or not. In fact, you get to choose whether you read this article or not. Click on another if you want; there’s lots of other good stuff on our website. No one — certainly not us here at The Box — can make you do anything you don’t want to do.
Cool? OK. Now, assuming you make the choice to investigate adding supplements to your diet, here’s what you need to know. CrossFit, being all about “keep your bucket nearby” workouts that are geared toward maximizing strength, power, speed and endurance in the shortest amount of time possible, is going to place your body under a sizable amount of stress. That stress can only be managed, and improvements in performance will only be achieved, if you keep your body on a proper nutritional program.
So far, so not controversial, right? Well, get this. While a well-balanced diet chock-full of whole foods is an optimal way to obtain the nutrients and antioxidants needed to support training, there are certain research-proven supplements that provide benefits above and beyond what a fork and knife can deliver. The right supplements taken at the right times can flood your body with the necessary nutrients and compounds at a dose and speed that whole foods simply can’t match. But we also understand that it’s easy to get overwhelmed and misled by the dizzying array of liquids, powders and pills available. That’s why we separated the science from the sales pitch to put together this ultimate guide to supplementing around workouts. The best part? We’ve created a tiered system of recommendations, allowing you even greater choice.
The primary goal before workouts is twofold: You want to provide your body with enough fuel to carry it through the workout, and you want to create an environment that’s friendly to muscle tissue. The act of working out breaks down muscles; it’s the process of repairing them that makes them stronger and adapted to exercise. But if the nutrients necessary to rebuild them aren’t present throughout the workout, you risk leaving muscle tissue high and dry. Protein is the main nutrient required to keep muscles healthy, and while you can certainly get your daily amount via grass-fed meat and free-range poultry, timing the consumption of whole foods around workouts is problematic. It takes the body a long time to digest a hunk of meat, so you’ll either end up with a lump of undigested food in your stomach, making those handstand push-ups a nauseating affair, or you’ll have digested the food too early to provide any benefit during your workout. The answer is easily found with supplements, starting with a high-quality protein powder blend.
Protein Powder Blend
Everyone who expects their body to perform at a high level — not just muscleheads — can benefit from the quick hit of preworkout amino acids provided by a protein powder. That’s because any form of resistance exercise, including clean-and-jerks and everyone’s favorite burpees, breaks down muscle. By supplying your body with a flood of amino acids, you can help put the brakes on any excessive breakdown that can limit fitness gains.
A protein powder blend that includes whey, casein and even soy or egg is the best bet before getting your butt kicked because each of those proteins digests at a different rate. Whey is fast, casein (the other milk protein) is slow, and soy and egg are somewhere in the middle. Taking all of them together ensures that you have enough aminos circulating through your body to keep you going through the most miserable chipper. Whey protein is also the best source of leucine, the most important amino acid for stimulating the muscle protein synthesis you need for a faster, leaner you.
Dose: About 30 minutes before a stomach-churning workout, take 20 to 30 grams of protein powder mixed with water or fruit juice.
Need to Know: Whey protein isolate is nearly pure protein, meaning that it contains virtually no lactose, making it safe even for those who have trouble digesting the dairy carbohydrate.
Good for more than just helping you shake off the morning haze, caffeine is a proven way to rev up your WODs. This research-proven benefit was again borne out in a Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study that found that exercisers who consumed caffeine before a workout were able to complete more reps of a given exercise and experienced less muscle soreness afterward than those who skipped the pick-me-up. Caffeine’s power to boost muscular strength and endurance is largely attributed to its stimulation of the central nervous system. A dose of caffeine crowds out a calming brain chemical called adenosine, meaning it can make you feel more dialed in during exercise and reduce how hard it seems. But think beyond a venti for your performance-boosting caffeine. Chemicals like cholorogenic acid, found in coffee, impair some of the peppy boost caffeine provides. What’s more, depending on the preparation method, brand and variety, the caffeine content in a mug of java can vary greatly so you can never be sure how much you’re actually getting. Supplements like the easily attainable caffeine anhydrous (found in such late-night study aids as NoDoz), on the other hand, provide you with caffeine doses that are more dependable.
Dose: Ingesting 200 to 300 milligrams will help most people bang out a few extra box jumps and reduce post-training muscle owies. Start in the lower range of this dose and work up from there to find the amount that jazzes up your workouts without the unwanted jittery side effects.
Need to Know: If you want to kick your workout up a notch with the help of a caffeine buzz, do so 45 to 60 minutes before the sufferfest begins. Caffeine can take that long to peak in your blood, so if you take this stimulant too close to a workout that lasts no more than an hour, you won’t reap its research-proven powers. If you’re an everyday coffee drinker who has developed somewhat of a caffeine tolerance, try tapering down how much you drink for a few days before a big workout so you can experience an even bigger exercise kick from your preworkout caffeine supplement.
Even the most confirmed supplement-phobe can have little to say against creatine. One of the most studied compounds on the supplement market, the snowy powder has a solid track record in research circles as a legal means to improve strength gains and increase lean body mass. Creatine — a compound produced naturally in the body — increases the body’s ability to rapidly create energy called ATP, which is needed for muscle contraction. Taking supplemental creatine ensures you have enough of the compound in your body, which, in turn, lets you contract your muscles more (meaning hitting more reps), producing faster results from your workouts. And while research shows creatine is very effective for high-intensity training and the explosive activities synonymous with CrossFit, research from Texas Christian University found that those who engage in endurance exercise also benefit from creatine because it raises the threshold at which the lactic-acid “burn” causes fatigue.
And creatine’s not just for before workouts. A recent study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that people who took creatine after training with weights for four weeks experienced greater improvements in lean body mass and strength than those who supplemented before pumping iron. To cover all your bases, we recommend taking it before and after workouts.
Dose: Take 2 to 5 grams of creatine monohydrate immediately before and after workouts. If you’re interested in trying another type, like creatine hydrochloride, follow label directions on the product you choose.
Need to Know: Blending creatine into your postworkout shake is ideal because the insulin spike caused by those fast-digesting carbohydrates (see Page 48) helps drive it into your muscles.
Who would have thought that a Paleo-friendly root vegetable would turn out to contain one of the hottest sports supplements? A number of recent studies show that this concentrated beet extract, chemically known as trimethylglycine, can give you wings by delivering a high dose of its naturally occurring nitrates. In the body, these nitrates are converted into nitric oxide, a gas that widens blood vessels, thereby helping deliver more oxygen to muscles during workouts, which in turn allows for more efficient muscular energy production. Take 1.5 to 2 grams of betaine before and after workouts.
Research is piling up that taking this amino acid can improve workouts. Take, for instance, a 2014 study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, which discovered that daily beta-alanine supplementation improved explosive and repeated jump performance in elite athletes. It appears that beta-alanine works by contributing to the production of a compound in muscles called carnosine, which functions to reduce the fatiguing affects of lactic acid during all-out workouts. The upshot is that you can squeak out a few extra reps during the latter parts of a WOD, which ultimately contributes to overall improved strength and power. Take 2 grams of beta-alanine about 30 minutes before working out. You also can repeat this dose after hitting the shower.
Ever heard a musclehead brag about his pump? Well, citrulline increases pump. And before you dismiss it as a globo-gym thing, pump is actually just the result of increased blood flow to muscles. That’s a good thing whether you’re doing biceps curls or burpees because blood is what carries oxygen and critical nutrients to those hardworking muscles, making sure they’re getting what they need to perform optimally. We recommend taking citrulline rather than arginine, another amino acid that’s prominently involved in nitric-oxide — and therefore pump — production because arginine can get detoured to the intestines or other tissues. Take 6 grams of citrulline malate 30 to 60 minutes before working out.
Most people don’t require anything beyond a little H2O in the middle of a workout. But some workouts are special, either because they’re extremely long or extremely taxing, so for those, we present these options.
Sports Drinks, Gels or Chews
In sports-nutrition-research circles, it’s generally believed that exercise lasting an hour or less doesn’t require additional fuel beyond water because most people have enough stored glycogen to keep their muscles going strong for that length of time. But a large review of studies in the journal Sports Medicine postulates that following this advice could be keeping you from finishing your last set of pull-ups with zeal. Researchers from the Netherlands found that carbohydrate ingestion during shorter bouts of high-intensity exercise lasting only 45 to 60 minutes also can bolster performance. The current theory is that because your carbohydrate stores are unlikely to be significantly drained to the point that you would begin feeling sluggish during this time frame, the performance boost more likely hails from the stimulation of your central nervous system, which lowers the perceived effort of exercise, making it feel easier than it actually is. Further, in a Brazilian study, athletes who ate a carb supplement while doing high-intensity intermittent training had less DNA muscle tissue damage and inflammation 80 minutes later than those who took a placebo.
Dose: If you find you’re often feeling more like a turtle than a cheetah toward the end of your more arduous workouts, you may want to experiment with taking in a touch of fuel to see whether it gives you more power to finish strong. This should be about 30 grams of easily digested sugars like those found in sports drinks, gels or chews about the half-hour mark of your workout.
Need to Know: Formulations of gels and other carb-rich supplements can vary greatly, so you may need to experiment with a few to find one that works best for you.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids
While there’s no question about the importance of supplementing with protein before and after working out, sneaking some amino acids into your water bottle and sipping them mid-WOD can extend and enhance workouts. This is particularly true if those aminos are the branched-chain amino acids. Unlike other amino acids, BCAAs can be used by muscles for fuel. Consuming them during workouts therefore spares glycogen, or stored carbohydrates, allowing you to work out longer. There is also evidence that consuming amino acids may help stimulate the central nervous system to combat fatigue.
BCAAs also help you build muscle. In an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, scientists reported that subjects who consumed 10 grams of an essential amino-acid blend that included leucine (the most critical of the BCAAs) during 60 minutes of exercise experienced high rates of postworkout muscle protein synthesis, the process by which muscle grows.
And they can help recovery, slowing down the rate of muscle-fiber breakdown that occurs when you’re pounding out reps of thrusters. Balancing that physiological equation — less muscle breakdown plus increased muscle growth — will help you reach new levels of strength and power.
Dose: Add 3 to 5 grams of BCAAs to your water bottle and sip during workouts.
As soon as the bumper plates shudder to the ground and the rings stop swinging, your body is in need of some serious refueling. The goal of the postworkout window — generally within an hour of the final rep — is to replace what you used up during the workout and prime the body to recover fast and be ready for the next round of exertion.
Protein Powder Blend
Yes, again. Drinking a protein shake after workouts is critical to deliver amino acids to your weary muscles to kick-start recovery and flip the switch on the muscle-making machinery to improve training results. A study out of the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas found that CrossFitters who took a protein supplement following their WODs for six weeks experienced a significant improvement in certain training adaptations, including muscle power and endurance, than those who did without.
While whey protein has long ruled the roost among fitness fanatics, recent research suggests that turning to a blend of proteins following a workout can boost your fitness gains even more. Case in point: A recent study in The Journal of Nutrition discovered that people who consumed a blend of dairy and soy protein following a bout of resistance exercise experienced muscle protein synthesis for a longer period than those who took in just whey protein. As with before workouts, a mix of fast (whey), moderate (soy or egg) and slow (casein) can prolong the delivery of amino acids to your muscles to keep recovery and growth going in full force for longer.
Dose: To show your muscles some love, consume 20 to 40 grams of a protein powder blend within one hour after workouts. For the best results, seek out a brand that contains a mixture of fast-digesting whey protein isolate, slow-digesting casein and ideally a medium-digesting protein such as soy protein isolate or egg albumen.
Glutamine is the most prevalent amino acid in the body and thus is required for many of the body’s processes. Unfortunately, vigorous training tends to deplete levels, so supplementing with it after workouts is important not just for recovery but also for health. Glutamine is a major fuel for immune cells, so lower levels can put you at increased risk of illnesses like cold or flu. Need we remind you that the more time you spend with the sniffles, the less time you spend in the box? But glutamine is also known to blunt muscle breakdown, speed glycogen refueling and increase growth-hormone levels, making for quicker recovery from hard exercise. Take 5 to 10 grams of glutamine immediately following exercise.
Most often we are told to seek out slow-digesting carbohydrates like whole grains to prevent the spikes in blood sugar that can contribute to fat gain and, eventually, maladies like diabetes. Yet, the postworkout period is a time when you actually want to turn to a source of fast-digesting, high-glycemic carbs like an engineered mixture containing sugars like dextrose. That’s because you want to quickly replenish your spent glycogen — the storage form of carbohydrates and the most important source of fuel for high-intensity exercise. The spike in insulin caused by these quick-digesting carbs also will help drive recovery nutrients (like the amino acids in your protein shake) into your muscles. Try blending 40 to 60 grams of dextrose into your recovery shakes.