Supplementation plays a key role in making sure you feel and perform your best—in the gym and in life. But pick a poorly engineered product, and the research shows you’ll be doing little more than wasting your hard-earned coin. Creatine, for example, may be your muscle’s best friend—but only if taken in high enough doses to saturate the cell and actually do its job. Otherwise, you might as well be drinking water. We asked the experts for their top supp picks for active women, and how to tell a winning product from a pretender.
Main goals: training performance, muscle hypertrophy
Prime candidates: lovers of the barbell
The details: creatine is a substance that exists naturally in the body, helping to fuel our muscles, particularly during heavy lifts and high intensity work. One of the most well researched supplements, it most commonly presents as a powder to be mixed with liquid pre-training, and has been shown to have serious benefits for both power and strength outputs.
One recent review published in the journal Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry looked at over 500 creatine studies to find that even short-term supplementation resulted in strength gains of up to 15 percent, and improved single effort sprint performance by around five percent.
Take this much: renowned nutritionist, trainer and sports scientist, Rudy Mawer, suggests a 5-7-day period of “loading,” taking 5 g of creatine four times per day. After that, drop the dose back to a single five-gram scoop.
“Loading helps you get the benefits quicker, as you saturate the body’s cells. If you don’t want to load, that’s okay. It normally just takes around 30 days to start feeling the benefits,” says Mawer.
What to look for: while there are numerous strains of creatine on the market (all claiming superior solubility or advantages), nearly all of the studies that demonstrate creatine’s effectiveness use creatine monohydrate. This particular type of creatine has been used for decades and is considered in many circles the “original and the best,” and is by far the most well-researched. Purity is key to effectiveness, so only buy creatine from reputable brands with limited fillers.
Main goals: cell and joint health, hormone regulation, general well-being
Prime candidates: everyone and anyone
The details: omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are a family of essential fatty acids that play a key role in the way the membranes of our cells function. “I like to call it a natural, life-long insurance plan. Omega-3 supplementation can help lower the risk of heart and metabolic diseases, along with improving brain and joint health,” says Mawer.
It also happens to be one of the fatty acids the body is unable to synthesize on its own. The problem? It’s near impossible to ingest the optimal levels through nutrition alone. “If you eat 2-3 portions of oily fish per day, you may be hitting the required dose,” says Mawer.
And that’s where supplementation comes in.
Take this much: while recommendations by key health organizations vary, Mawer says a lot of the research now points to about 3000 mg or 3 g of combined EPA and DHA (the two fatty acids that make up omega-3) per day. Depending on the product you choose, that’s about 5 g of omega-3 or five tablets.
What to look for: the levels of EPA and DHA are key when selecting a brand. “Cheaper brands will sell 1 g of omega-3 with only 300-400 mg of combined EPA and DHA. In other words, only around 30 percent of the tablet will have the crucial fatty acids,” says Mawer.
Opt for higher quality supps, with about 700 mg of combined EPA and DHA, and make sure you check the use-by date. “Omega-3s are prone to going rancid. Once they go bad, they will have a foul smell and become less potent or even harmful,” warns registered holistic nutritionist and women’s hormone specialist, Jenn Pike.
Main goals: general health, immune function, fat loss, training performance
Prime candidates: generally considered a supp vital from the “womb to the tomb,” some pre-existing gut issues may actually be exasperated by probiotics, says Pike. Always check with your doctor.
The details: probotics are a form of live bacteria found naturally in the gut, aiding in digestion and assimilation of nutrients from the food we eat. When particular strains of such bacteria are taken in high enough amounts as a supplement, research has shown a host of benefits: aiding gym performance, strengthening the immune system, and improving general well-being and even body composition.
“In the last couple of decades, fascinating research has come out linking our gut health to almost every aspect of human life and even disease risk, how we store and lose fat, and how we perform or add muscle,” says Mawer.
Take this much: ten to 15 billion CFU (colony forming units) per day is ideal, taken with a meal.
What to look for: similar to omega-3, dosage is important. Most commercial brands or yogurt-based probiotics have one billion CFU or less, warns Mawer.
“It’s also vitally important to look out for the key strains of bacteria, as there are thousands out there. There are quite a few that have beneficial research, but three of the most popular are: Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus GG, Bifidobacterium infantis,” he adds.
Also, avoid brands containing artificial fillers, flavors, or dairy.
Main goals: fill nutritional gaps, performance, immune health
Prime candidates: regular gym goers and dieters
The details: no matter how varied your diet, it’s often unrealistic to consume the volume of food required to ingest all the vitamins and minerals you need for good health and optimal performance. “Research has shown most of us have our “go-to” 20 foods, which make up 90 percent of our diet,” explains Mawer. “Because every different type of fruit and vegetable contains a different vitamin/mineral, we often under consume some of them.”
While multivitamin supplements were once used to fill any dietary gaps, recent research points to their ineffectiveness—and, in Pike’s experience, their potential for harm. “I work with a huge population of women suffering from digestive issues: gas, bloating, and constipation, to name a few, and find the more pills and tablets, especially multivitamins, they try to add to their daily regime the worse their digestion becomes,” says Pike.
A well-designed greens powder mixed with water, your smoothie, or other beverage, carries similar perks to a multivitamin without any of the digestive drawbacks.
Take this much: greens supp should host a wide variety of minerals and nutrients, sourced predominantly from organic plant-based wholefoods. Think upward of 20 different foods, including wheatgrass, spinach, broccoli and kale.
What to look for: look for green supps that contain aquatic plants and algae, such as spirulina and chlorella. These modern day “superfoods” have been shown to fight a multitude of major lifestyle related diseases, help to manage blood glucose levels, and boost your body’s antioxidant levels to help fight free-radicals (the nasty unstable molecules that occur naturally from metabolic processes but cause damage to your cells). A 2010 study published in Nutrition found that participants who took 6.3 g of chlorella per day achieved a 44.4 percent boost in vitamin C and 15.7 percent boost in vitamin E in just six weeks.
5. ZMA or Magnesium
Main goals: recovery
Prime candidates: those suffering muscle soreness or sleepless nights
The details: ZMA supps contain both zinc and magnesium—two vital minerals involved in over 500 chemical processes in the body. “They are both particularly important for active women, as naturally their needs are amplified, and both minerals play a role in that cellular repair process,” says Mawer. While Pike doesn’t necessarily recommend ZMA, she acknowledges the importance of magnesium.
“Magnesium is one of our most critically needed minerals, but also one of our most deficient. It helps with maintaining a healthy mood, sleep, hormone balance, and reducing symptoms of PMS and menstrual cramps,” says Pike.
“The only issue that arises from too much magnesium is looser bowels. If you notice this, keep at the lower end of dosing, around 200mg.”
Take this much: women need slightly less than their male counterpart— approximately 300 mg of magnesium and 20 mg of zinc is sufficient.
What to look for: “As they are raw ingredients, it’s normally a pretty easy purchase without complex rules or tricks, even commercially from mainstream brands,” says Mawer. ZMA should be relatively cheap, so any major price mark-ups should be considered a red flag.