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To Supplement or Not to Supplement; That is the Question

Some fitness adherents are supplement crazy and spend money like a Vegas drunk with a big roll trying to impress girls he barely knows. I know lots of folks who admit to spending hundreds of bucks each month on the newest, latest dietary or supplement craze. A subtler shade of this same affliction is the cutting-edge Elite who also purchase lots of supplements and spend lots of disposable income on nutritional supplements of some type or another, the newer the better for this crew. Both ends of the fitness feeding chain are seduced by supplements that promise everything and deliver very little. There is something intrinsic and rooted deep in the human psyche that eternally searches for a miracle pill, potion, compound, substance or procedure that will do one of three things: make you lean, make you muscular and make you look and feel decades younger than your actual chronologic age.

Apparently there is no finite number of times you can get burned before you wise up and quit looking. If a magical pill or potion existed that delivered the mail on any of these three counts, believe me, you'd hear all about it all the time. Since the days of Ponce de' Leon stumbling around the malaria-ridden Florida everglades looking for the Fountain of Youth, people have sought physical shortcuts through chemistry to eliminate the gut-busting physical effort and fierce disciplined denial required to self-administer a successful physical renovation. John Parrillo, my nutritional Guru, always says that the regimented use of regular food, the kind you purchase off the shelf in the grocery store, will get you 80-85% of the "way there," there being a significant increase in muscle mass and a dramatically decreased body fat percentile. Obtain the twin titan attributes: more muscle/less body fat, and guess what? You'll look decades younger than your chronological reality so number three is a free bonus when you become leaner and more muscular.

Supplement makers and exercise equipment makers, who proclaim extraordinary results that defy rational expectations, play to people's eternal demand for some blasted substance or another to magically allow the acquisition of a fat-free muscular body. Would it not be great to pop a pill and make it all go away? Unfortunately this defies reality, and a reality check reveals that nutritional supplements are vastly overrated. Supplements are meant to supplement not replace regular foods. Steer clear of anyone who tells you how easy the physical transformation process can be made by the use of their product or system. Read the small print: most of these miracle products and systems shown on TV infomercials are all forced to run legal disclaimers--you'll see it flash by along the bottom, too speedy to really read--they all basically say the same thing: "results are not ordinary and for dramatic results a sensible calorie-restrictive diet plan and a vigorous exercise plan need also be followed."

Put another way, if you had it together and went on a sensible, calories-restrictive diet and got your rear end in gear and exercised intensely, you'd make just as much progress with or without the miracle product. If you dieted properly using foods purchased from the local food mart and start hitting cardio and lifting with requisite ferocity, the magic beans the witch sold you are superfluous. Save your money; get food selections under control, multiple meals are a must, meal timing is important, overall food volume and content need to be squared away. Nail it down on all levels and you'll get 90% of the way "there" in eight weeks. No hype, just plain fact, based on decades of widespread empirical date gathered in the athletic trenches. We know what works when it comes to triggering a physical transformation -- but the price of admission is high and most folks have neither the inclination nor pain-tolerance to close the deal.

More confirmation of the basic truths came while reading Rehan Jalali's Six Pack Diet Plan. Rehan has a great grasp of the cold realities imposed by science and biology and logic, especially where nutritional products are considered. Results that fitness hucksters ascribe to their products are biologically, physiologically and scientifically impossible! With every page I turned, my science knowledge base was clarified and mostly reaffirmed by Rehan. Correctly used supplements (the right ones taken at the right time in the right amount) can add 10-15% to the final finished physical product. Nothing wrong with that! But let's try and get as close as we can to the goal before we start spending big bucks on supplements. The first order of business is getting control of the eating schedule. Makes perfect sense to spread out the day's calories, more feedings per day lessens the digestive burden. Clean up the food selections and try and match calories needed to exercise expenditure. Once you are training consistently and once you are using a multiple-meal eating schedule (and making good selections) the addition of core supplements will be timely and appropriate and likely blast you through to the next level.

The most basic nutritional supplement for all hardcore weight trainers is supplemental protein in powder form. Purchase a tub for $30 to $40; take the money out of your grocery money with all the dough you save by not buying ice cream, pie, frozen pizzas or candy. If you weight train as hard as you're supposed to, consuming a protein-rich liquid shake immediately after an intense session will actually accelerate results and speed up the recovery process. Every Purposefully Primitive weight trainer must have a canister or tub of protein powder on hand. The price per serving has plummeted, the potency has skyrocketed and it makes so much sense to supplement with amino-rich protein powder -- so easy to prepare and tasty. Mixing a fine-tasting protein shake with cold water is easy and within 30-seconds you are drinking a pre-digested concoction that delivers 35 to 45 grams of high biologic whey protein with scant 4-8 carbohydrate grams and no sugar or fat. Protein powder is the number one indispensable single supplement for the serious and savage weight trainer. On the other hand if you just loaf through your sporadic training protein supplementation would be a total waste of money. Vitamin and mineral tablets are also advisable; my other core supplement is the "sport nutrition bar" in all its various guises. I love the portability of bars in a wrapper. I can stash them anywhere: glove compartment, gym bag, desk drawer, file cabinet, boat, what have you. That way, anytime I get hungry, at the very least I can grab a bar and consume a product that, on average, provides 20 grams of protein, 40 grams of carbs, 5 to 15 grams of sugar and 3 to 5 grams of fat. Nice statistics for a 70 gram bar. With 250 clean calories, a bar (or two) makes an excellent meal-in-a-pinch. I buy them by the box.

Taste has gotten so much better over the years! There are so many varieties of bars available that there is no reason not to be able to find a taste that appeals to you. I eat 2-3 bars every day and more if I'm in the deep woods or out walking around. I love my sport nutrition bars. I could recommend also recommend creatine monohydrate for competitive athletes. Ditto for beef liver amino acid tabs; these are great for women subject to iron deficiency anemia. Supplements are meant to supplement not supplant. Square away the food basics and make a commitment to bust your butt in the gym. Buy some whey protein and a box or two of bars. Settle in for the long haul.

Marty Gallagher is a former fitness columnist for He is also a former national and world champion powerlifter. Marty's articles have been published in such magazines as EAS' Muscle Media, Muscle & Fitness, and Powerlifting USA. His website,, assimilates years of accumulated knowledge from the athletic elite and makes them accessible to the common person. The "Purposeful Primitive" way has been proven effective time after time after time for weight loss, building muscle, increasing strength, and improving health.


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