Until 2016, LeBron James had never used any sports supplements. Forget common products like protein powders; LeBron didn't even drink any type of caffeine.
But, the desire to continue to push the limits of what he could accomplish led him to work with his team and long-time trainer, Mike Mancias, to take all aspects of his training and nutrition to the next level.
One of those decisions was adding supplements to help get the most out of every training session and maximize recovery. But, the search for safe and effective supplements was so difficult that it resulted in him putting together a team of expert scientists and nutritionists to create Ladder.
For them, creating safer, cleaner, more effective sports supplements meant rethinking the way supplements should be made.
What Are Sports Supplements?
We’ll be the first to tell you that you don’t need sports supplements. Nothing can ever replace a balanced diet and a well-worked out exercise regime. But, as their name says, supplements can add that little something that you may be missing, whether it's because of convenience, time, or gaps in your diet (which we all have).
The right supplements can enhance your athletic performance and fill some nutritional gaps. It’s not every day that we have time to cook fully formed meals, and it’s not every day that we want to. Sometimes you’re on the run, and that’s OK. That’s where the supplements come in.
The best supplements are supported by science, only use ingredients that are tested and safe, and are proven to boost your efforts. And since many sports include extensive pre-testing, choosing a clean supplement is crucial.
Which Sports Supplements Actually Work?
In January 2020, the FDA recalled products of 859 supplement brands because their manufacturing was such that the products came out with decreased identity, purity, strength, and composition.
This is not an outlier. The fact is, the FDA expects supplement manufacturers to make sure their products are high-quality. That self-governance leaves a lot of room for poor quality products to be created, and it means most brands do not pay for any type of third-party testing or verification.
So, before you choose the supplements that can work for you, narrow down that choice to supplements with third-party testing. The gold standard is the NSF Certified for Sport® label, which is carried by less than 1% of all supplements.
This is a label that guarantees the quality and purity of supplements. It’s backed by every professional sports organization. In essence, this label ensures that the supplement you bought won’t harm your health. In this industry, that knowledge is worth something.
Supplements for Strength and Muscle
The International Olympic Committee reviewed the research and approved a list of supplements that have a real effect on athletic performance. The most surprising part? You could count on your fingers the number of ingredients that actually work.
When it comes to building muscle strength and boosting muscle growth, protein is king. Protein supplements boost lean muscle gains because they provide the building blocks for that process, as well as leucine, which acts as a boost for muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
When you lift weights, your muscles break down and then need to repair. MPS helps with recovery and growth.
To maximize MPS, you want to ensure you get enough protein, whether by whole foods or supplementation. With protein supplements, you want to look for products that contain all 9 of the essential amino acids (EAAs), which is also known as a complete protein. While BCAAs are great, without all 9 EAAs, your body can't put the BCAAs to work and maximize MPS.
Both whey and casein proteins are extracted for milk and have complete amino acid profiles. The difference is that whey protein is fast digesting, while casein can take a while. Usually, athletes take casein in the evening to support muscle repair overnight.
Pea protein powder is a great whey alternative if you're sensitive to dairy-based protein or follow a vegan lifestyle.
You can find creatine in beef, chicken, milk, and cheese, but creatine content in these foods is small. To really reap the benefits of this supplement, opt for creatine monohydrate.
Workout Performance Supplements
Pre-workout supplements are meant to boost energy, prevent fatigue, improve strength and power, and increase your endurance times.
The three ingredients with the most research (and listed by the International Olympic Committee) on performance are caffeine, creatine, and beta-alanine.
Caffeine help with strength, endurance, and -- with about 100 mg -- you can reduce the perception of fatigue. It also allows you to train at a higher level even if you’re sleep-deprived, and it boosts mental energy and focus.
Creatine supports weight training and short-burst activities like sprints and intense exercise such as weight training. It does so by supporting your body's natural energy system (also known as ATP). Your body naturally produces creatine, and by taking it in supplemental form, you increase your creatine reserves for improved performance.
Beta-alanine is an amino acid that helps with the production of carnosine, a chemical that your muscles need to fight off fatigue. By producing carnosine, beta-alanine helps you maintain high-intensity performance for a longer period, which results in you being able to do more reps during your hardest sets.
Endurance Sports Supplements
Creatine and caffeine will also help you prolong endurance, but you should never forget the power of mid-workout hydration to keep you going.
Electrolytes and carbs are necessary to prevent your muscles from cramping, so make sure that your hydration supplement contains magnesium, potassium, sodium, and some carbs to help their synthesis.
As stated above, beta-alanine is your best friend when it comes to boosting endurance.
Supplements for Recovery
After a high-intensity workout, your muscles need nutrients to start repair and recovery. This is a crucial time to replenish with a protein powder shake, as protein is essential in muscle recovery. However, you don't need the protein immediately. Research suggests that if you get in protein within 2-4 hours after your workout, then you're giving your body what it needs to bounce back.
The IOC also supports the use of omega-3 fatty acids in muscle recovery. These acids can increase muscle protein synthesis and reduce symptoms of muscle-damaging exercise, aiding recovery.
Other Vitamins Athletes May Consider
Some research has found that the athletes most commonly lack vitamin D, calcium, and iron. Magnesium and zinc are also hard to come by in a regular diet and are often worth supplementing.
Needless to say, all vitamins play a role in healthy body function and top-tier performance abilities, but most of the time you'll get those vitamins from your diet, or your body will produce them.
If you're concerned about deficiencies, your best bet is doing a blood check-up to see if you need a supplement.
If you want to skip the needles, studies show that most people lack magnesium and vitamin D, so you probably won’t go wrong if you supplement these.
Vegan Sports Supplements for Plant-Based Athletes
If you’re a vegan, you’re more likely to be lacking vitamin B-12, as well as protein and creatine. These are nutrients that are harder to find from plant-based sources.
When looking for a vegan protein powder, it's important to remember that not all plant proteins are created equal.
As we mentioned earlier, you need a protein supplement that contains all nine essential amino acids (the EAAs, which includes the BCAAs) Unlike rice and hemp protein supplements, pea protein is a complete protein with nutrition that's similar to whey protein (some amino acids are a little lower, but they can be complemented by other plant protein sources).
If you want to know more about how to buy the best vegan protein powder, you can read about the five things that make the biggest difference.
Banned Sports Supplements and Other Stuff You Should Avoid
It goes without saying that you should avoid steroids. But, there are some supplements that you also need to consider before purchasing.
Here is a complete list of all substances and practices banned in the US, which includes ephedra, the once-popular fat-loss supplement.
Always be wary of products containing stimulants or hormones.
There are also some supplements that are widely used, but without sufficient research to back their benefits.
BCAAs and MCT oils are good examples. BCAAs contain three of the nine amino acids, and while effective, these supplements pale in comparison to protein supplements that contain the full amino acid profiles. As far as MCT oils and their proclaimed effect on weight loss, the jury is still out.
Whichever supplement you decide to use, always read the label. Look out for “proprietary blends” - this is a trick some manufacturers use to include undisclosed substances.
We said it before, but it bears repeating - always, always choose a supplement with the NSF Certified for Sport® label.