Supplements for Fighters

We all want to maximize our time in the gym. It doesn’t matter if you are a fighter or a weekend warrior; training for optimum performance and desired body composition is always a top priority. We also know that Muay Thai and martial arts training is some of the most intense demanding exercise you can do, so treating your body right means you can train longer, workout harder and hopefully get better results. I’ve been training in Muay Thai and MMA gyms for almost 10 years now and I see plenty of people, even non-fighters putting in some serious time training time, 10-15 hours a week sometimes. Is it possible for your body to recover and perform well while meeting goals with that intensity and volume without supplementation? How much does supplementation help and what are the long-term effects, if any? In this article I will address some of the main issues surrounding supplementation and also give guidelines for smart supplementation.
I’ve dabbled in almost every legal supplement and training method over the years in search of the best way to train hard and get results and what I can tell you is this. If you do not first have a handle of your nutrition and sleep any supplement you take is almost useless.

So let’s start with the basics regarding supplements for fighters:
  • Eat REAL food. It’s simple.  Base meals around meat/poultry/fish/eggs and veggies. For fighters a plate of ½ meat and ½ veggies is a good place to start. Make sure you get plenty of good fats in your meals like coconut oil, avocado, olive oil and pastured butter. Eat 3-4 meals a day.  Don’t starve yourself if you have performance goals. Ditch the sugar! If you train in high intensity exercise like Muay Thai, get some natural smart starches like sweet potato (optimal) or maybe white rice (sub-optimal) in your POST workout meal. Carbohydrate requirements for athletes, while not as high as you might think, vary per individual, but food specifics are another topic for another time. I’ll be writing about in-demand topics for Muay Thai Authority so leave your topic requests in the comments section.
  • Sleep!  8-10 hours a night in a pitch black room (no outside or artificial light). If you can wake up without an alarm clock, that’s even better.
If you can’t do these two simple things, then don’t waste your money on supplements for training and try to fix your lifestyle so you can get the two most crucial things in order that will help your workouts more than anything that comes in a bottle.
Okay, so let’s say you got the eat/sleep thing nailed down. While I still think there is room for improvement in most people in these areas, myself included, you should be feeling pretty good now even if you got if 80% down and now you want to take it to the next level. Yup, I get it; nothing wrong with some smart supplementation.
Supplements are not all bad, but some of them are a huge marketing scam.  Let me break down some common pitfalls with supplements.  You’re going to have to check labels and read fine print, but it’s worth it – it’s your health we are talking about.
What to avoid when choosing supplements:
  1. Be a smart shopper not a scammed consumer. Don’t listen to that store clerk, even if they have muscles and tell you a particular product is legit. I have yet to meet a vitamin store clerk that knows that they are talking about.  They are retail sales people that get paid close to minimum wage to sell things. I was hired at 18 years old by GNC with no health and fitness experience. Case in point. Today I read scientific papers. I listen to podcasts and read blogs from doctors and researchers in the health and wellness field. I have certifications in holistic nutrition. I keep a skeptical mind and am always looking for the latest research to help me make my decisions. I never buy a health product because of a commercial or endorsement and you shouldn’t either.
  1. Skip the artificial sweeteners. You’ll be hard pressed to find a pre or post workout supplement that is made without sucralose, aka Splenda. Sucralose replaced aspartame as the go-to artificial sweetener in many supplements beginning in the late 1990’s.  We know that aspartame is linked to cancer, but many people think sucralose is a safer bet or it’s somehow more natural.  But that couldn’t be farther form the truth.  Sucralose is the final chemical compound created by the addition of chlorine atoms to sucrose molecules through a complex chemical reaction involving a number of highly toxic chemicals. According to the book Sweet Deception, sucralose is made when sugar is treated with trityl chloride, acetic anhydride, hydrogen chlorine, thionyl chloride, and methanol in the presence of dimethylformamide, 4-methylmorpholine, toluene, methyl isobutyl ketone, acetic acid, benzyltriethlyammonium chloride, and sodium methoxide. Sucralose is not natural. There are not enough human or long term studies on sucralose done to determine safety.
As if you need any more reasons to avoid fake sugars, well they can lead to weight GAIN. Studies show that consuming artificially sugars increase appetite and elevate fasting glucose levels which can lead to overeating and weight gain.
I also found Acesulfame K as an ingredient in a popular pre-workout supplement. Asulfame K contains the carcinogen methylene chloride. Long-term exposure to methylene chloride can cause a myriad of health problems. Long term human safety studies on Asulfame K are lacking, but Acesulfame K apparently produced lung tumors, breast tumors, rare types of tumors of other organs (such as the thymus gland), several forms of leukemia and chronic respiratory disease in several rodent studies, even when less than maximum doses were given.
Stevia is a more natural choice of sweetener, and some supplements are using it now, in moderation it has no known side effects and has some health benefits in moderation.
Want something sweet?  Eat a banana after your workout. Ditch the fake stuff.
  1. Know your whey. While protein is an important part of an athlete’s diet the decision to supplement with it should be made intelligently. You should be aware of exactly what is in that powder in your shaker and why. Whey protein usually comes in two forms isolate and concentrate. Isolate is sometimes referred to a purer but it is actually more processed. It’s considered purer by the body building community because it has more protein per gram with no fat or carbohydrate. It is often lactose free or only contains a trace amount of lactose. Concentrate is less processed, but will contain some lactose. If you are lactose intolerant go with the isolate, if you are not either is fine. If you’re not lactose intolerant the concentrate has more whole food health benefits. Many brands have a blend of both. My personal choice if I do a protein shake is a grass-fed whey protein concentrate. Grass-fed cows produce dairy with more health benefits.
Protein shakes should NOT take the place of real food or meals, but I suggest 1-2 servings (scoops) of whey (or egg or pea, etc.) per day for athletes and general population because most people have a hard time getting enough protein for their goals of fat loss and lean muscle gain.
  1. Getting buzzzzzzed. How much caffeine do you really need?  Okay don’t get me wrong I love coffee just as much as the next person and I’m not without vices, but when you take a pre-workout supplement with a 20,000 mg “proprietary blend” of 30 plus different ingredients and get jacked on an undisclosed amount of uppers that doesn’t seem smart to me.  Sure have a plain black coffee before training or a cup of green tea; caffeine used smartly by its self is not dangerous, but downing a bunch of powdered or canned energy drinks is not smart. Get more sleep instead.  See it all goes back to eating and sleeping right.
  1. You don’t need a multi.
You are eating real food right?  You are eating your veggies and meats and good fats right?  Well then you don’t probably don’t need a synthetic vitamin. Sure, there are some good whole food vitamin supplements. I recommend them to people that eat crappy and simply can’t or won’t change their diet, but they are very expensive and you will do better to spend that money on quality food and make an effort to feed yourself regularly with those whole, organic quality foods. Unless you are pregnant, wanting to get pregnant, have vitamin several deficiencies (get tested) that can’t be remedied with diet change, or are elderly, you probably don’t
6. Creatine for fighters?
Creatine is a nitrogenous organic acid that occurs naturally in the body and helps to supply energy to all cells in the body, primarily muscle. Creatine is one of the main components involved in the formation of Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which is the type of energy needed for short max effort bursts of energy. If you eat a meat based diet you have some good creatine stores in your muscles already. As an athletic aid creatine is used to increase high-intensity athletic performance. It does not increase aerobic performance but can increase muscle growth and short bursts of high intensity training (anerobic) like sprints and Olympic weightlifting.
The concept behind creatine supplementation is that saturating your muscles with creatine allows you to do more maximal work in a workout. Your body would then respond by adapting i.e. muscles getting bigger, stronger, faster, etc. The initial increase in muscle size is mainly due to the fact that creatine supplementation draws extra water into muscle cells, making them appear bigger. Since creatine draws water to your muscles, using this product while cutting weight is not a wise decision. If you are too small for your weight class creatine supplementation may be for you, but most fighters are trying to get leaner, not bigger. The bottom line is that slight extra edge that creatine gives you is not much compared to eating and sleeping well. Fighters are not in a sport like power-lifting where adding 1 kg to your back squat is the difference between the gold and silver. Muay Thai is more about timing, skills, experience and confidence.  If you want to bulk up, sure, use some creatine it’s a decent supplement, but it won’t make you a world champion fighter.
What to consider when choosing supplements:
  1. Omega 3’s
Unless you have been living under a rock for the last 5 years you have probably hear of omega 3’s.  They are the essential fats found in abundance in fish, which is why it’s a good idea to eat fatty wild caught fish 2-3 times a week. Omega 3’s help reduce systemic inflammation which helps athletes recover and stay healthy.
Our ancestors used to get plenty of omega 3’s in grass-fed meat and wild caught fish. But most of us don’t eat these foods anymore. We eat commercial raised meat and produce grown in depleted soil and our diets are not as nutrient dense as they used to be. It doesn’t help that when people diet they try to cut out fat and then they get even less of these essential nutrients.
There is also a delicate omega 6 to 3 ratio.  It should be about 2:1 or maybe 3:1 but certainly not 22:1 which is what you get is you eat a Standard American Diet (SAD). So the trick is not to over supplement with omega 3’s but to avoid omega 6 from vegetable oils (canola, corn, safflower, sunflower, peanut, etc) and supplement wisely with omega 3. That should swing the ratio back to a respectable level. Over consuming nuts and commercially raised meat can also raise omega 6 levels.
Choose a 3rd party tested brand of fish oil.  I like Nordic Naturals.  Take 1-3 with each meal depending on your weight and current diet and avoid eating loads of omega 6. Krill oil is also a good source of omega 3’s – either is a good bet.
  1. BCAA’s
These are branched chain amino acids; leucine, isoleucine, and valine which are 3 of the eight essential amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
BCAA’s helps athletes build muscle, prevent muscle breakdown and aid in recovery. It’s hard to shove turkey in your mouth right before or after a hard workout, so some powdered BCAA’s are a good bet.
Look for the BCAA’s that are sweetened with a natural sweetener, like stevia.  About 15 minutes before a workout mix 5-10 grams (a bit less if you’re a featherweight female a little more if you are a heavyweight) in a bit of water and chug. No, it will not taste yummy.  Get used to BCAA’S tasting like chalk if you want its benefits
You may also use BCAA’s post workout if you had a particularly grueling, long session or if just forgot to take it before, there are benefits in taking it before or after. Wait 15 minutes after consuming BCAA’s before consuming other protein foods or powders.
  1. Vitamin D3
Chances are you don’t get enough sun. Most of us don’t these days. We work and train indoors unless we are some of the lucky few.  Studies show that athletes benefit from vitamin D supplementation. Emerging evidence is finding that adequate vitamin D intake reduces risk for conditions such as stress fracture, total body inflammation, infectious illness, and impaired muscle function. It’s important to get your vitamin D levels checked by your doctor, but most everyone will benefit from a modest 2,000 IU’s of vitamin d3 daily.
  1. Adaptogens
An adaptogen is an herbal supplement derived from plants. Adaptogens help the body fight stress, increase immune function and can balance hormones. Chinese medicine has been using adaptogens for centuries, but Western medicine is just starting to do research on these products. Some adaptogens you might have heard of are Rhodiola Rosea, Ashwagandha, American and Siberian Ginseng, and Schisandra. Some adaptogens have specifically been proved to increase physical performance and recovery under high-stress training. However you don’t just want to run out to your local vitamin store and get a bunch of herbs.  Herbs are medicine and side effects can occur from improper use and dosages.  My advice would be to go with a adaptogen that has tons of peer reviewed research behind it.  The only one I know of is Protandim.  Now, I don’t want to make this article about me selling stuff, but if you are interested in some quality stress reduction and recovery check out the link to it on my website: http://www.function5fitness.com
  1. Magnesium
Our ancestral diet contained much larger quantities of vital nutrients than we get today. Magnesium is one of those nutrients that we now lack with our standard diet.  The RDA for Magnesium is 300-400 but if you look at a typical meat and plant based ancestral diet the more accurate amount is 1,200 to 2,000 mg daily.  There is a huge lack of green leafy veggies in our diets, so perhaps this is one reason for our magnesium deficiency.  Magnesium also plays a role in relaxing our bodies, so taken before bed it can be a nice way to unwind. There are also reports of magnesium supplementation helping athletes avoid cramping. In the Muay Thai Authority tryouts last weekend. I was one of the only athletes that didn’t cramp up during the grueling tryouts. I take my magnesium daily.  I recommend a “fizzy” kind that dissolves in liquid, I like Natural Calm.  Take 400-600 mg at night, titrate up slowly or you may experience a laxative effect. Read the label. You were warned!
To Sum Up:
  • Just eat real food. No, sorry Cliff bars are not real food.
  • Sleep, a lot.
  • Choose supplements smartly, adding each one to your regimen one at a time so you can notice what it does for you and make adjustments as needed.
  • Read labels!  If you don’t know what’s in it or what that particular ingredient is for then, you need to research more and reconsider the purchase.

  • J. Shi

    Hey! I’m honestly glad I found your blog here. I’ve been training Muay Thai for a few months now, and I really felt like I’ve found my calling. After reading through your articles, I’m even more determined than ever. Here’s a question: My knees have always been bad, and I wonder if taking glucosamine helps to make it better.

    • thanks for reading! you can try glucosamine, some ppl experience results, some don’t – it takes about 3-4 weeks to notice. I would also recommend fish oil, a clean diet and Dr. Mercola’s joint formula for knees if glucosamine doesn’t do it for you. I prefer Dr. M’s formula.

  • Cedric

    Great post with a lot of technical information and I can say that I totally agree with my own experience. I have tried a wide spectrum of supplements and complements and for results I have only experienced like a big loss of money and pain in the wallet… I take care of my nutrition but not as strictly as described in your posts and I have theimpression that the big difference between synthetic supplements and natural food is the bioavailability, I just had the feeling that the supplements I kept taking were being eliminated by my kidneys and had no effect at all on my body…

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