Supplement Stacking 101: The Basics
When considering supplements as a part of your fitness regimen, there are a couple of core facts to ponder upfront.
- Supplements can help jump-start your physical goals.
- Supplements are not a replacement for proper nutrition; they're designed to fill in the gaps in a healthy diet.
- You can optimize the impact of your exercise regimen by stacking your supplements.
What Are Supplement Stacks?
In fitness and bodybuilding, a supplement stack is a group of supplements that work together to enhance performance. The different ingredients included in a stack complement each other to improve energy, endurance, and recovery. As a general rule, stacks are typically categorized into three groups:
- Pre-workout stack: These products provide needed energy for your workout. A pre-workout supplement may include such ingredients as caffeine and creatine.
- Intra-workout stack: An intra-workout supplement may contain branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) which bypass digestion and go directly to the muscle cells to be used as an energy source.
- Post-workout stack: These products help replenish your body after exercise and aid in muscle growth and post-exercise recovery.
Though you may be wondering what the best supplement stacks for beginners are, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for nutrition problems. Just as it's always a good idea to consult your doctor before making major lifestyle changes, it's also a good idea to consult a registered dietitian (RD) before you start a supplement stacking routine.
Need the motivation to see an RD? Try this: A session with an RD could save you money on certain supplements your body may not need and highlight any nutritional deficiencies you did not knew existed.
Benefits & Risks
As with just about everything in life, there are benefits and risks associated with supplement stacking. (Good reason to talk to your doctor before beginning.) It's also a strong motivating point for discussing with a registered dietician about your eating habits and how you plan to structure your supplement stacks.
That aside, let's look at some general benefits and risks, pros and cons of supplement stacking.
- Can lead to improve strength levels in the weight room
- Can aid in meal timing and planning
- May increase your immune response
- Easier to meet your nutrition goals for each day
- Improved recovery between training sessions
- Can prompt an increase in protein synthesis
- May cause overstimulation
- May experience a crash in energy levels after a workout
- If careless, can lead to dehydration
- Some report insomnia
- Can increase blood pressure
- Some may increase chances of kidney damage, GI problems, headaches, and liver damage
- Unnecessary spending $$$
- Some supplements may interfere with prescription medications (Another reason to consult your doctor first.)
The trick is to build the right stack for the goals you've set.
Let Your Goals Be Your Guide
When choosing the supplements that will make up your stack, make sure you're putting together supplements with ingredients that will complement each other. You don't want your supplement ingredients to have a philosophical disagreement in your gut. (Yet another motivation to read the labels and consult an RD before starting.)
Your supplement stack should be based on the goals you've set. Here are a few examples:
Goal: Weight Loss
Muscle activity aids in burning calories, so you want to entice your body to use fat as a fuel source. Some supplement ingredients to consider:
- Caffeine: Essentially sends the cells' metabolic processes into "hyperdrive." An elevated metabolic rate helps burn more calories.
- Yohimbine: Taken pre-exercise, may ramp up fat-releasing activity in the cells.
- Synephrine: Works by stimulating increased production of catecholamines, which help convert stored fat into usable energy.
- Capsaicins: These compounds give peppers their heat and spice. They aid weight loss by increasing energy expenditure through increased metabolic rates.
Goal: Muscle Building
To build muscle, you have to put your body in an anabolic (net-positive) state through proper training, nutrition and base supplementation. Here are a few supplements that can help get your muscle-building in line:
- Creatine: Effective in boosting muscle strength and increasing size through increased ATP production within the muscle cells.
- Whey Protein: This complete protein source is a rich in branched-chain amino acids which your muscles use for tissue repair and recovery.
- Beta-Alanine: Aids in improving your training performance by being a lactic-acid buffer during your workouts.
- Multi-Vitamin: No nutrition is complete without a well-rounded Multi supplement. These help fill in the micronutrient gaps within your daily diet. Everyone can benefit from taking a Multi, regardless of the physical goal.
Goal: Boost Focus
Add one or more of the following ingredients to improve your mental energy, increase your focus, and manage the stresses of everyday life a bit better:
- L-Theanine: A non-essential amino acid found in black and green tea. It can perk up your attention, impart a sense of alertness, and boost your mental energy without the feeling of being overstimulated.
- Ahiflower Oil: This plant-based, omega-3 fatty acid is an essential nutrient for cognitive health.
- Vitamin D: Technically a hormone, Vitamin D is imperative for the nervous and immune system. It is paramount for glucose metabolism and neuromuscular function within the body.
Goal: Increase Energy
Enhancing your energy levels and drive translate into greater strength in and out of the weight room. Supplemental stacks for increased energy may work best with one or more of these ingredients:
- Caffeine: No self-respecting energy stack would be without caffeine. This is the most widely-used central nervous system stimulant in the world.
- Tyrosine: L-Tyrosine is an amino acid used to produce hormones for the thyroid and certain neurotransmitters. These hormones help reduce fatigue during workouts.
- COQ-10: Coenzyme Q10 is critical for the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in the body. Muscles need ATP to contract. ATP is the energy currency for your muscle cells.
For Best Results, Monitor Yourself
The best way to comprehensively monitor your health and any potential problems related to supplement stacking is to assess your blood values routinely. (And one more reason to consult your doctor.) Not only can your doctor monitor your tolerance for supplement stacking, but routine blood lab work can also pinpoint problem areas that may indicate the early onset of disease.
It's also a good idea to share your lab results with your Registered Dietician. When selecting your RD, ask if the functional interpretation of lab results is one of his or her specialties. If not, find one that is. Looking at lab work results from a functional standpoint views the body's systems as a whole and evaluates how they relate to one another. This can provide an edge in recognizing chronic disorders and as a basis for preventative care.