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Anatomy of a Supplement, Part 2

By Scott Stevenson, PhD, LAc

In Part One of this article, I outlined how being skeptical of your sources of information can help separate fact from fiction, especially given dietary supplement regulation in the U.S. In this installment, it’s time to take action and focus specifically on exploring the anatomy of the dietary supplements you use and, with enough effort, be your own “supplement guru.”

Be the Best Scientist You Can

Scientists, the good ones at least, must be detail-oriented. Scientific studies contain a good deal of information, and reading just the abstracts won’t cut the mustard if you really want to understand how a study was conducted. To understand the results, you need to read the entire study as best you can, with an eye for any details that are relevant to you. As an example, a seemingly complex study of skeletal muscle molecular biology and protein synthesis was recently bantered about on several bodybuilding boards. Burd and associates found that using an ultra-light load of just 30% of a 1-repetition maximum (1RM) (4 failure sets of unilateral knee extensions) had a more potent effect on elevating muscle protein synthesis and anabolic signaling molecules like myoD and myogenin than failure training with 90% of a 1RM(1).

Taken alone (and reading just the abstract), this finding might convince the casual reader that light training is the way to go. But dig deeper into this study and you’ll find in Table 2 that the low-load sets (“30FAIL”) were all-out efforts to failure (approximately 24 reps) generating over 50% more work than the heavy sets. It’s really no surprise that more work generated a greater cellular response. In fact, when exercise volume (reps x load) was the same, light training didn’t elicit an impressive response at all (Figure 1). Keep digging with a critical mindset — is this relevant to me? — and you might consider the subject population: Are these “recreationally trained subjects,” who average 24 reps with 30% of their 1RM, really similar to you, with years of brutal training under your belt? If you can squat five wheels (495 pounds), do you suspect that converting your training to doing only failure sets with 150 pounds would make your thighs grow? The authors wisely conclude their paper by noting that, as you knew, the rubber really meets the road only after over the long haul: “A training study in which these distinctly different exercise loads … are utilized is clearly warranted to confirm our speculation.”

Go to War with a Veteran, Hug a Guru

Let’s face it: There may be no applicable science to help with some of the ways you supplement or construct your diet: A good scientist and an astute reader of the literature knows its limits. This is where that veteran’s experience, albeit “anecdotal,” can be golden. Someone with five, ten, 20 or more years of gut-wrenching effort in the gym and meticulous training-table habits is very likely to have quite a few helpful opinions.

For example, you won’t find many peer-reviewed double-blinded long term studies of the benefits and side effects of high protein intake for weight trainers(2). You will, however, find thousands of avid lifters who are walking high protein-intake case studies, and even some who have blood-work records (e.g., to examine kidney health). Beyond the experienced veteran, a good coach, or even a “guru,” may have worked with dozens or hundreds of such clients over the years who have been supplementing very similarly to the way you plan to or have been. That veteran coach may have a mother lode of information about potential benefits and risks that could save you years of trial and error.

Be Your Own Supplement Guru, Step by Step

A true bodybuilding guru has been around the block in more ways than one. If you, too, want the “T-shirt” (in XXXL) that proves you’ve been there and done that, here are my suggestions for becoming your own supplement guru.

1) Analyze, but Don’t Overanalyze

Read the science critically; hypothesize; and question scientific authorities, the veterans and even the gurus. But don’t forget that your most informed conclusion about how a supplement works for you comes only after you’ve actually used it. Weigh the health concerns and evidence, but if you find yourself just asking question after question, it may be time to move on.

2) Slow and Steady Wins the Race

The holy grail of bodybuilding (gaining muscle and losing fat simultaneously au naturel) may have been so alluring at some point that it sent you into one of those all-too-common body-dysmorphic tailspins where you begin to alternate between short “bulking” and “cutting” phases, ultimately frustrated because you have zero progress to show for it. Set a goal, pick the dietary, training and supplemental strategy, stick with it for several months (at least), and then change one variable (supplemental or otherwise) and assess its effects.

3) Data, Data and More Data

Keeping meticulous records, such as body weight and composition, training weights (and PR attempts), photos of your physique, a journal of subjective impressions (mood, well-being, etc.), and perhaps even blood work or other medical tests, will help you evaluate the effects of a dietary supplement.

4) Snipers Don’t Use Shotguns

A supplement loaded with dozens of ingredients may be effective, but how will you know which ingredient(s) worked? When possible, add one supplemental ingredient at a time, change nothing else, and give it enough time to work, depending on its proposed effects. For example, a diuretic should show results in hours, whereas a new anabolic agent might require months to make you into the massive hulk the label promises.

5) Shotguns Can Be Effective: Make Your Own

Of course, a carefully integrated blend of ingredients can also make for a phenomenal supplement. But recognize that continued use of that specific winning combination, especially when a proprietary blend is part of the supplement (see Part One – Trust the Supplement Company?), means the product must stay on the market. The alternative is to make your own “proprietary blend.”

As an example, most contest bodybuilders use supplements to aid in fat loss, but relying on an ever-changing crop of fat burners doesn’t lend itself to a consistent season-by-season pre-contest approach. After starting with a particularly effective product as a template, or simply building one from scratch, you’ll find that the research-substantiated and time-tested elements of most fat burners can be purchased individually to create a custom fat-burning cocktail that you can use for years on end and modify as needed, without fear of your favorite product vanishing because it’s been discontinued.

6) You Want the Truth? Go the Extra Mile

The more you want and expect a supplement to work, the more likely it may. One of my favorite examples of the placebo effect is a study from the early 1970s. Varsity athletes at U. Massachusetts, all with at least two years of structured weight training under their belts, volunteered for a weight training “competition.” They were told that that those who made the greatest strength gains would then receive Dianabol, an oral steroid well known to them, to further boost their gains. Compared to the previous seven weeks (the final stretch of the “competition”), training during the next four weeks (when strength gains would normally be slowing greatly(3)) resulted in triple the strength gains or better on the squat, bench and military press simply because they believed that they were geared up on D-bol(4).

You might be asking whether it really matters how a supplement works, as long as it does. Gains are gains, right? True, but if you’d rather not pay for a placebo (or even worse, a nocebo(5)), go the extra mile when feasible, and find a crafty way to sneak the new supplement into your regimen. You might ask a friend or relative you rarely see (or don’t mind avoiding for a couple months) to help you create placebo- and supplement-loaded versions of your post-workout shake. Several month’s daily allotment of pills could be parceled out in mini-sandwich bags, separated into two groups in a way unbeknownst to you (with and without the supplement in question), and consumed with eyes closed, in the dark, or even blindfolded. These examples may seem silly, but they pale in comparison to the efforts taken to truly blind study participants in research studies.

If Not a Guru, at Least a Skeptic

It may be that scanning the scientific literature, reading data tables, and taking your supplements out of unlabelled bottles with your eyes closed really isn’t up your alley. If the “guru’s path” isn’t for you, there is one very simple step you can take to better understand a dietary supplement’s anatomy. Each time you come across a new (and especially an unsupported) piece of information about a dietary supplement, simply ask, Where does that information really come from and why should I believe it? You just might be surprised by what you find out.


  1. Burd, N.A., et al., Low-load high volume resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than high-load low volume resistance exercise in young men. PloS one, 2010. 5(8): p. e12033.
  2. Lowery, L.M. and L. Devia, Dietary protein safety and resistance exercise: what do we really know? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2009. 6: p. 3.
  3. Moritani, T. and H.A. deVries, Neural factors versus hypertrophy in the time course of muscle strength gain. Am J Phys Med, 1979. 58(3): p. 115-30.
  4. Ariel, G. and W. Saville, Anabolic steroids; The physiological effects of placebos. Med Sci Sports, 1972. 4(2): p. 124-126.
  5. Link, J., et al., Placebo/nocebo symptom reporting in a sham herbal supplement trial. Evaluation & the health professions, 2006. 29(4): p. 394-406.