“Supplementary Thoughts:” on supplements, performance, and sense of self

Nutritional supplements in capsules and tablets.; Shutterstock ID 713387605; Purchase Order: 2418; Job: supplements; Client/Licensee: spy

This article might be a hard pill to swallow, pun intended. We all want to believe there are supplements out there that can help us lose weight or add muscle easily. The fact that the supplement industry was valued at over $140 billion in 2020 with an expected compound annual growth rate of 8.6% for the next several years adds some perspective. 

To give you a little background, I (Mark) worked at a very well known supplement chain when I was in college. In addition to working there, I have taken virtually every herb, vitamin, powder, or pill you can buy over-the-counter for muscle growth, fat loss, increased performance, better sleep, etc. Even after all I know, all I’ve experienced, there are times I still want to believe that there are over-the-counter supplements that work. 

The hard truth is there is nothing in any supplement store that is going to have a profound effect on any aspect of fitness or diet. If there was, it has been promptly removed from the shelves. Androstenedione (Andro) is a prime example; the stuff Mark McGuire was supposedly taking when he was crushing baseballs over the back wall. A few years after McGuire claimed that’s what he was using (October 2004 to be exact) it was added to the list of banned non-prescription steroid-based drugs when President Bush signed into law the Anabolic Steroid Control Act. Ephedra is another well known substance that was pulled. This stuff was in fat loss pills and, when combined with caffeine, was highly effective. Problem was, in my opinion, that some people think the more you take the better it will work. Unfortunately with this stuff, when you jack up the dose it has some significant health implications. So, the government also banned ephedra in 2004. 

Work on Something Worth Supplementing

When I (Mark) competed in bodybuilding I had a great trainer. He said, “First, we are going to take you as far as we can on diet and workout alone, then we can add in the supplements.” This taught me a lot because I got to experience the impact of having everything dialed in and not wondering if it was the workouts/diet/recovery or supplements. Throughout my years of fitness and competition, this has been the case 100% of the time in my experience. When I had a training plan or consistent workout schedule, ate a particularly clean diet, hit all the needed macros, and got the appropriate sleep & recovery, I excelled in what I was doing. The weight fell off, I got stronger, added lean muscle mass, or increased endurance. There is not one occasion where I look back and can point out a supplement I used that made all the difference. 

Before you invest in any supplements, we (Mark & Megan)I would highly suggest reviewing and analyzing your workout regimen, rest & recovery (most importantly sleep), hydration, and diet. The reason being is a supplement is just that, it is “something that completes or enhances something else when added to it.” So, how do you supplement a poor diet, inconsistent workouts, and lack of sleep? You just don’t. 

Instead of spending $60-100 a month on supplements, you would get more out of spending that money on a nutrition coach, having one or two 1:1 training sessions with a coach, or using a meal delivery service. Spend the money to create an environment around you that is conducive to the goal you want to achieve (Got that from recently reading “Atomic Habits” by James Clear). An example might be: if you are not getting the sleep you need, improve your sleeping environment. Maybe add some blackout curtains, better pillows or sheets, a sound machine, or something that makes you look forward and enjoy jumping in bed and getting some Zzz’s. 

Accept Where You Are to Get to Where You Want to Be

Being honest with yourself is the primary recommendation I (Megan) have for where to start on your path to your goals. Supplements won’t do much if you’re supplementing a person who doesn’t actually exist yet — if you need to work on mobility or technique rather than strength, if your cardio capacity is lower than optimal. Supplements can’t add to what you don’t have currently. And remember — what you are currently able to do is different than what you have capacity for doing long term. So take some time to reflect back at yourself what your current situation is, or have a trusted friend help you do it instead. You can better plan the steps to achieve your goals if you know what you have to start with (and hint hint– this works outside the gym too).

Work on Your (Healthy) Ego Strength

We talked recently on an Instagram post about health ego strength — the ability of a person to ride life’s waves with confidence, to be open to new ideas and caring critique, and to accept that they have room to grow. Supplements can’t replace confidence (see Mandi’s “Coaches Corner” from last month for the experience that breeds that instead). Supplements can’t replace the readiness to learn something new. They can’t force technique fixes either. They enhance our performance that we already have — and our attitude and approach to our fitness and our life is a prime example of that. As someone who takes antidepressant/anxiety meds (Megan) to manage my brain chemistry, I can confidently draw a parallel here. Medication alone would never have brought me to the positive life situation I have today — only that as a compliment to therapy (where I did the real work) enabled me to thrive.

There Are No Shortcuts

Because in the end, there is no easy way out when you have a desired result that requires you to change something about yourself. Whether it’s getting stronger, or running longer, or the myriad things we encounter in our lives outside the gym walls, we practice the tough skills here so we can better use them out there. None of this article is to say that supplements are useless– but rather, remember what Mark’s former coach said: work on the things you’re trying to supplement first, and add the supplements after. Create a firm foundation first. Touch it up later once you know it won’t crumble under the addition of something extra. 

Mark Braithwaite has competed in Bodybuilding, Triathlon, CrossFit, Weightlifting, and Strongman. He is dedicated to maintaining health and overall wellness while navigating the day to day grind and enjoys helping others along their journey.

Photo by Stuart Squier

Megan Nolde has been a member of Shockoe Bottom Performance since May 2019. She’s a fine artist who also works in consulting and for TrueCoach by Xplor Technologies. She has a passion for community and making the world a better place for all of us.