Most days, if I remember, I’ll have a multivitamin with my breakfast, along with two small gelcaps with 1,000 international units of vitamin D (desk monkey, you know) and a probiotic. If I forget, I’ll probably feel no better or worse by midday. If I’m getting sick, I’ll suck on a zinc lozenge and pop a couple caps of vitamin C. If I forget those too, well, whatever. I’ll be fine.
Also, most days, 30 minutes before I exercise, I’ll take a dosage of Assault, or Craze, or Rampage, or C4, or any number of pre-workout pump-up supplements that jack up my heart rate and turn my life into a 45-minute live-action Mastodon song. (Circa Remission, please, none of their poppy newer stuff.) If I forget my dosage, my workout will be sluggish at best, and a disaster at worst: Ten minutes of situps, a sip of water, a heavy sigh, and I’m out of there. When my dosage is right, though, I’ll have an amazing workout followed by roughly 15 minutes of diarrhea. And on the way home, I’ll throw in at least 20 grams of chocolate whey protein in a colored shaker cup.
Go to any gym and you’ll see dozens of dudes (and a handful of women) shaking dozens of different-colored shaker cups that hold liquids blue, red, orange, and brown. Depending on their status, they’re either taking a pre-workout, mid-workout, or post-workout supplement (usually protein), typically a powder mixed with water or milk. I started taking these supplements in college. A buddy of mine got me to try MusclePharm’s Assault—the best pre-workout supps are named after felonies, weapons, or deranged states of mind, I’ve found—and since then, I can barely pick up a weight without Mr. Hyde (actual name) or something like it raging in my bloodstream.
But pre-workout supplements, in particular, can pose serious, possibly lethal risks. An ingredient in Jack3d (actual name) known as DMAA, or dimethylamylamine—originally developed as a nasal decongestant—has been possibly linked to the death of a U.S. soldier; the DoD has pulled Jack3d from GNC shelves on military bases, and the World Anti-Doping Agency banned it as a dietary supplement for international athletes. And yet, Jack3d and other supps with DMAA in it remain on the shelves of civilian GNCs everywhere, and the wrongful death case against USPLabs, who makes the supplement, has been thrown out of court. The FDA, in turn, has no choice but to voice their concerns in strongly worded letters to the companies making these not-drug drugs.
Why? For a more in-depth look, I’d direct you toward a Frontline/NYT documentary released a few weeks ago. But in the broadest terms possible, pharmaceutical drugs (like Viagra) and dietary supplements (like Nite Rider Maximum) are regulated very differently. “Supplements are regulated in a post-market capacity,” FDA spokeswoman Lyndsay Meyer tells me. (Meaning, they’re regulated after they come out, not before.) “But there are things that supplement manufacturers need to do prior to entering the market.” Namely, they must adhere to good manufacturing practices, ensure that the listed ingredients are the actual ingredients, and avoid making medical claims. (A supplement cannot “cure polio,” but can “boost the natural antibodies that fight polio,” or whatever.) But even if those rules are skirted or broken, the FDA hardly has the resources to deal with them, and getting shit products off the market can take months, if not years.
How’d we get here? The supplement industry was effectively deregulated with the mid-’90s passage of the lobbyist-driven and way-too-Orwellian-sounding Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, or DSHEA, which opened the universe of dubious vitamins to shills, frauds, and charlatans. Someone even got to Mel Gibson.
DSHEA allows supplement manufacturers to market anything with established ingredients (those that had been sold in the U.S. before 1994) without evidence that they are safe or effective. And the FDA has been so gutted of power to regulate this heaving behemoth of a business that the most they can do is send letters and make lists of the bad guys. “A lot of products that are marketed for things like bodybuilding or weight loss are found to be tainted with pharmaceutical ingredients,” says Meyer. “In the bodybuilding products, we will find that they contain steroids. With the weight-loss supplements, we’ll find that they contain things like sibutramine.” (Aka the weight-loss supplement Meridia, which caused a few too many strokes and heart failures and was taken off the market. It lives on now in products made by companies like the legit-sounding MyNicKnaxs, LLC, though that company isn’t faring too well, either.) Regardless, thanks to DSHEA, you can now buy your 2,000 IU of vitamin D and your reup of Cobra Labs pre-workout supp The Curse and your Extenze in the same shopping trip.
Do these things sound like performance-enhancing drugs? Definitely. And true, many sporting bodies have banned their selective use for athletes. But comparing what Peyton Manning was (possibly) injecting into his body to a bunch of plants smashed into a pill like Growth Factor 9 is like comparing gasoline to apple juice. Human growth hormone and anabolic steroids are pharmaceuticals, and illegal without a prescription. Whereas any product made up of a bunch of leaves that claims to be able to increase your HGH levels based off of non-peer-reviewed studies more than likely cannot, and is stupid; any product that tells you it can boost testosterone with, like, extracts or natural ingredients or other jargon farted out of a Whole Foods aisle also cannot. Some of these things are actively dangerous. Almost all of them are a waste of money.
“The supplements industry has no interest in your bodybuilding, and has no interest in your health,” says Duffy Gaver, a California-based trainer. (He trained Chris Hemsworth for his role in Thor, so.) “The fitness industry is about 10 percent fitness and 90 percent industry. It is not here to get you in shape; it is here to get money out of your pocket.” How much money? They’re hoping to clear 60 billion by 2021.
Some of that money will be mine. It’s hard to quantify how much cash I’ve dropped at GNC, but since college, I’ve downed a steady stream of mild-grade stimulants with silly names, chased with protein shakes that cause me to bloat like a porpoise from both within and without. Why? Well, because, at least for me, they “work.” They’re a part of my routine, and they keep me disciplined, and thus help me stay in half-decent shape. I’m a weak human being with low motivation. I am the target market.
Now that you’re an expert, let’s do a quick category breakdown, arranged by decreasing level of bodily value.
This post-workout cheese byproduct is designed to maximize your “anabolic window,” i.e. the roughly 30-minute period after hitting the weights when your body is primed to turn nutrients into LEAN MUSCLE. The anabolic window’s very existence has been debated for years, and in some corners has been dispelled as bro science. Regardless, protein shakes can be very useful, namely as meal replacements. “There’s no nutritional value in a missed meal,” as Gaver puts it. “If you’re a busy guy and you’re trying to put on mass and you’re not going to get to lunch—or you’re going to miss breakfast—that’s not going to help you. Instead of missing the meal, have a protein shake.” Chicken is still better, though.
Casein is a powdery milk byproduct and slow-digesting protein that you take right before bed; at least one study ties it to increased protein synthesis in the body, ultimately resulting in more gainz. It mostly tastes like chalk. None nearby? Chug some whole milk.
Naturally produced in our livers and otherwise found in red meat, this acid byproduct of amino acids has been mistaken for anabolic steroids in at least four separate conversations I’ve had. In short, it floods your muscles with water, allowing you to suddenly be a little stronger; a review of several studies in 2003 concluded that it can probably increase maximum power and sprint performance. Drink plenty of fluids, though, as it can cause dehydration.
It’s like three Red Bulls in one, with an added cacophony of amino acids and vitamins. Most pre-workout supplements (and fat-burners, for that matter) hide their ingredients in something called a “proprietary blend” on the back of the label, which lets manufacturers avoid telling you exactly how much caffeine or taurine or sawdust is actually in their product. Some, undeterred by pending criminal charges and FDA warning letters, continue to haunt shelves in new forms despite having a “methamphetamine-like compound.” What is dead may never die.
Side effects of these include: face-burning, screaming in the shower, anal discharge, and an aged-Kool-Aid aftertaste. As Gaver says, “You don’t need to eat powder to make you kick ass.” If you’ve got chicken legs like I do, though, they might help your leg press a little.
Want to lose weight? Pick up a salad fork like a normal human, because most of these things are glorified caffeine pills that end up causing liver failure with their “green tea extracts” and other Shaman-endorsed medical remedies. One of the most popular fat-burner ingredients for a long time, ephedra, was eventually taken off the market in such products as Hydroxycut due to its predilection to cause sudden death. (The World Anti-Doping Agency has since banned it.) Hydroxycut came back with a retooled formula in 2009, though, consisting of caffeine, Cumin extract (?), wild olive extract (??), and something called “Lady’s mantle extract.” What is dead may never die.
Look, you don’t need any of this stuff. Chances are, you just need a good playlist. Next time you’re in your local GNC, swipe a Snickers and leave. At least you pretty much know what’s in it.
Ben Radding is a staff writer at PCMag, used to work for Men’s Fitness, and tweets from @raddingbot.
Adequate Man is Deadspin’s new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.