I Don't Feel Anything—Is It Working?
By David Sandler, MS, CSCS*D, RSCC*D, HFD, HFI, FNSCA, FISSN
"Man, that stuff is powerful."
"Dude, I am so amped up for this workout—this stuff is awesome!"
Familiar words heard in every gym across the country. If you or your pals have uttered something similar after taking a supplement, then I ask: Do you know what you took or why you took it?
Remember way back when…long ago when you used supplements, but actually had to wait to see if they did anything?
Ok, you younger folks can bypass this question. Nowadays, everyone wants the quick fix. The judgment of whether something is good or not is no longer realized by the long-term results; rather, it has become something more like, "what can you do for me now," to determine if it is working.
Wait a minute!
If that were true, why do you consume protein, amino acids, creatine, and some of the other regular staples like multi-vitamins and "good for you" foods?
You know they work. You know they take time to work and that you don't get an immediate high from consuming them. It appears a cult following has been created and has begun to sway the world of fitness toward the immediate fix, rather than commitment over the long haul. In fact, this is true not just of supplements, but of exercise and training in general. In the past, we were perfectly fine with putting in good hard work to see results… over time.
Know What You Are Using and How it Makes You Feel
So what happened? And where is the industry heading?
Certain ingredients possess "side effects" that have become part of the quick-fix mentality. In actuality, while those ingredients do possess certain ergogenic or "performance-enhancing" effects, their tingling or the amping up feeling that accompanies may be of little use. However, since those are considered "good" side effects, products often incorporate them into the mix to give the consumer the illusion that the product is working.
Fat Burning, Energy Boosting, or Over Stimulating?
Caffeine, yerba mate, ginseng, and other stimulants play two major roles (among many other) in the ergogenic world. 1) They make you alert and help you focus. BUT, that is only beneficial in small dosages; around 50 to 100mg in non-caffeine users and up to about 300 mg in regular caffeine users based on body size and stimulant tolerance. Anything more generally pushes you the other way, and while it may "light you up," it may also be a negative for training purposes. 2) The other thing many stimulants do is help with overall fat mobilization, which is beneficial for fat-burning during exercise (and to a mild extent when not exercising). The jury is still out on what is considered efficacious for fat burning, but again, over-stimulating is likely not the best answer.
Some other ingredients that boost energy include taurine, Rhodiola rosea, synephrine, tyrosine, and even some B vitamins, and whether or not you directly feel them "working" is based on several factors, including current energy level, current in-blood stimulant level, general fitness level, and tolerance to specific ingredients.
Other ingredients like green tea extract, green coffee bean (HCA), yohimbe, and other synephrine forms help with fat burning. Since some of these can be in either a caffeine form or decaffeinated variety (yes, they still help with fat mobilization), whether or not you feel them may be in part due to that alone, but also in what they may be combined with. Typically fat-burners have some form of stimulant in them. BUT, some do not, and you do not need to feel them to know they are working.
Pump and Circumstance
Probably the most dramatic thing anyone notices in a gym is vascularity. While you may be bouncing off the walls, unless you are literally bouncing off the walls, nobody will notice. But if you have some giant surge of blood coursing through your veins, as if you are mapping the California highway system, that is something of beauty, and people take notice. So much so, some guys tend to base entire routines on it. They also seem to think that specific exercises give pumps and vascular-attacks better than others. And while there may be truth to all of this, specific ingredients may also have something to do with it.
At the heart of the pump issue is arginine and its various forms. There are confounding research reports on dosage and overall efficacy, but nonetheless, it still has the foothold as a pump-booster extraordinaire. Along with arginine trails citrulline (an arginine pre-cursor) and other nitrates to help boost nitric oxide levels (which in itself has ergogenic value) and giving rise to super pumps. Lesser known substances like pycnogenol, glycine proprionyl L-carnitine (GPLC), and glycerol round out the pack and may provide even greater vascular pumps than the usual suspects. And, since I am a fan of carbs and other fun things, sugar and wine (not necessarily together) also can do wonders for your workout, or immediately following.
One thing to remember, though, a pump is a pump, and when it is gone, to get it back, you have to do what you did before. This means, in truth, a pump has little overall physiologic value for increasing muscle size, strength, speed, stamina. So while the quick fix is there, the long term data is hard to connect—at least for now. The one hailing caveat that keeps those pump ingredients in my pre-workout mix is the ego-forming presence I feel in the gym and the desire to grind out another set. Since hard work does pay off, perhaps the pump does lead to circumstance.
Beta-alanine takes center stage as a solid performance enhancer. It also is often accompanied by a parasthetic response (or tingling sensation) that puts a giant fence up for some users. While not everyone gets the same side effect, those who do can find it very annoying. For some, the side effect is slight itching, generally around the face, while others get full blown super-itch. I do, but I don't mind it as the efficacy behind it is well established. Beta-alanine helps buffer critical levels of lactic acid allowing for longer duration either within a set or through your workout. In either case, that translates to more work, which means more muscle size and strength. And thus, in my opinion, worth every tingle, itch, scratch, and outchie every time.
I would be remiss if I did not mention niacin, although we did talk about it for pumps. Another side effect of the good stuff is a flushing sensation. Again, not everyone gets this, and some are overly sensitive, but for others who like it, me being one of them, feel like it accompanies the pump and fuels my drive to work harder. Physiologically and when consulting research, there is no correlation between flush factor and performance, other than anecdotal claims by those of us who like the feeling of being lit on fire.
Ingredients That Over-Perform and Under Promote
There are a lot of great compounds out there that many people miss out on simply because they are hoping to feel something happen immediately. They under promote themselves due to their lack-luster ability to increase heart rate, vascularity, or itch factor. Retailers under promote them for the same reason. You miss what I consider essential components of workout-recovery fuel that simply slows your potential gain. Habitual protein users know that the proof is in the pudding, but even they begin to question things over time, especially when a plateau arises. Creatine users meet the same fate. And now with some of the newer ingredients coming out, supplement companies are left with deciding whether or not to add an extra ingredient or two, just to provide a quick fix.
Remember, when working out, since you have already made the commitment to put in the time, help yourself by giving your body the fuel it needs to replenish, recover, and rebuild. Those come from the under promoters such as whey protein, amino acids, and the newest kid on the block, bio-active peptides. Like protein and amino acids, the bio-active components of protein such as those found in Bio-Gro™, won't give you a buzz or have you climbing walls and ripping your skin off. Rather, they will quietly exert their monstrous effects on muscle protein synthesis and recovery, allowing you to get bigger, stronger, and faster. While your competition is worrying about getting fired up for their workout, you should be worried about making your workouts pay-off.
Know Your Results
Bio-active peptides, protein, amino acids, creatine, and beta-alanine round out my top 5. None of them are there for pump, tingle, or itch. On the fat-burning front, I like caffeine, green tea extract, HCA, synephrine, and tyrosine, but again, not for their stimulant effect but rather their ability to help push fat around. For pumps, I am still a fan of arginine, especially when combined with citrulline and some good sugar, but I understand those as a mental motivator, rather than something that increases my overall size and strength.
Ingredients that work, work, whether they come packed with a punch or not. Read the research and look at the cupboard of a seasoned muscle-bound veteran of the iron world, and you will see shelves full of proteins, aminos, and other single and combined ingredient stacks that are designed to provide efficacy in the weight room, not just a buzz. While we all want to find that thing that gives us a little extra oomph in our stride, we know that good ingredients matched with a solid training plan, wins the battle every time.
About the Author
David Sandler, MS, CSCS*D, RSCC*D, HFD, HFI, FNSCA, FISSN, has been a consultant and strength and conditioning coach for the past 25 years and has worked with the nation's top organizations and some of the world's best athletes. He is the Director of Science and Education for iSatori. He is the former Chief Operating Officer of the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Sandler has authored 6 books: Sports Power, Weight Training Fundamentals, The Resistance Band Workout Book, Plyo Power, and Strength Training Everyone, Fundamental Weight Training as well as having developed dozens of exercise videos including three coaching developmental videos. David has published more than 20 scientific articles and abstracts and more than 250 articles in power, strength, and fitness training for various magazines and literature. He is a former powerlifter and three-time US National Bench Press Champion, and his research and passion is with strength and power development.