I’ve been very fortunate to have been in the strength & conditioning field for over 33 years. During that time I have been on every level of coaching, from High School and college athletics to strength and conditioning in the NBA for over 11 years. I have also worked with some very high level athletes that were the best at what they do night in and night out. The intensity that most of the athletes exhibited was nothing short of phenomenal both in their training and at their sport. In the time that I have been involved in strength and conditioning (over 3 decades) I thought that I had seen it all; then along came Crossfit.
You would have to have been living in a cave if you haven’t heard of Crossfit and the popularity behind it. In my opinion Crossfit is the Bodybuilding of the 70’s and 80’s. How would I know? Because that’s when I was a bodybuilder and we trained as a community; meaning we ate together, worked out together, and even hung out together. Back in the “Golden” era of bodybuilding it was the 3 basic lifts; the back squat, bench press, and the dead-lift and not a lot of variation off of those lifts either. We choose those lifts because that’s what the Power Lifters performed in their training and sport to get bigger and stronger.
When bodybuilding came along, Olympic lifting (lifts consisting of the Snatch plus the Clean & Jerk) faded to some degree. Now because of Crossfit, Olympic lifting has made it’s way back almost to the forefront and it has made people realize just how special and important these lifts are when dealing with speed and explosiveness.
It’s been my quest as a professional in strength & conditioning for over 33 years to seek as much wisdom as possible. As I’ve observed the Crossfit athletes for a while now, I’m amazed at what they do day in and day out and especially at the “blind entry” competitions with the Crossfit athletes having no idea what they will be doing the day of an event! I have even incorporated some of the Crossfit movements into my own training and with the athletes and clients that I work with.
The functional movements which Crossfit exemplifies are explosive and intense. The time in which to complete the task, or (WOD) Work-Out of the Day, is of the upmost importance, and training in a community setting makes it even more demanding and challenging. For those involved and live the Crossfit life-style, you know what I’m talking about.
What I can’t figure out about Crossfit, however, is just why nutritional supplementation has not caught on the way it did and is with bodybuilding. I’ve been to speak to and visit Cross-Fit Gyms in my area on several occasions and there are no signs of supplements for sale anywhere, and if anyone needs supplementation as intense as these WOD’s are then the Crossfit athletes do!
Now don’t get me wrong, Crossfit is concerned about good nutrition. Just look how popular the Paleo Diet is with its athletes. But we’re talking about nutritional supplementation, and that’s another area where performance can be improved. I believe that if you can do anything to improve yourself as a person, in your profession, or as an athlete, you should do it the right and ethical way without hesitation.
So let me ask you this;
Which of the following potential strategies produce significant gains in performance or body composition in the least amount of time?
A. Changes in Training
B. Changes in Diet
C. Implementation of Supplements
D. They all work equally well.
The answer is C. Changes in your training may take weeks or months before you see a performance difference and changes in your diet the same amount of time. However, the implementation of nutritional supplementation can be immediate in terms of results in performance.
Not everyone can be a Rich Froning or Annie Thorisdottir (Champions of Crossfit) but your drive, hard work and determination to get you to that level can be aided by the right kind of supplementation. I often ask, “If it can only help by 1% would you take nutritional supplements?” I know I would. However, the right kind of supplementation is the key. Below are what I believe to be the Top 7 nutritional supplements to aid you in your training, competition and in your recovery. In other words, the supplements that will give you “the most bang for your buck.”
HOW I SELECTED THE TOP 7 SUPPLEMENTS
- FOR INCREASE of STRENGTH (the ability to exert force)
- FOR INCREASE of SPEED / POWER (the amount of time it takes to do work)
- FOR INCREASE of ENERGY (the capacity for vigorous activity; the amount of available power)
- FOR JOINT INTEGRITY (a healthy joint free of pain or pain that is manageable)
Wouldn’t you say that all of the above are critical for all the elements of Crossfit? So let’s move on to the Supplements that will help provide these increases:
(These are not in order of importance so select what fits your needs)
- BETA-ALANINE: Research shows that Beta-Alanine improves power out-put by buffering the accumulation of hydrogen-ions. What this simply means is that muscular acidosis (the accumulation of acids in the body, mainly lactic acid) is held at bay or helps reduce the time of build-up.
Dr. Jose Antonio of the ISSN states that sprint animals such as lions, tigers and cheetahs produce very high levels of lactic acid so to counter that build-up they also produce high levels of Carnosine, the body’s natural lactic acid buffer. If these sprint animals could take Beta Alanine by themselves, it would hold back the lactic acid build-up even more. Humans can take Beta-Alanine and by doing so it builds up the body’s own Carnosine levels.
Dosing Protocols: 1.6 grams per day and takes 2 weeks to feel the effects. Beta Alanine can also build lean body mass (LBM) because one is able to train longer and harder.
For Crossfit this means: training longer and harder at each WOD session and just who wouldn’t want that!
- FISH OIL: So why would I put fish oil on my list? Dr. Hector Lopez, chief medical officer for Applied Health Sciences (speaking at the 10th annual ISSN conference in Colorado Springs) stated at that conference that there are “4 Core Mechanisms” for Fish Oil applications in athletes.
MULTI ORGAN SYSTEM SUPPORT
HELPS WITH CARDIO HEALTH / BRAIN MOOD / AND IS NEUROPROTECTIVE
HELPS CONTROL INFLAMATION
HELPS WITH TISSUE
REPAIR AND RECOVERY
PROMOTES METABOLIC WELLNESS
PROMOTES HEALTHY BODY COMP
ANTI-CATABOLIC / PRO-ANABOLIC
*HELPS MAINTAIN mTOR PATHWAYS
*mTor helps control cell growth in response to nutrients and also helps with cell energy and stress.
Dr. Lopez also stated that Fish Oils also:
- Aids in improving Insulin Function
- Lowers Triglyceride levels by 30%
- Lowers Blood Pressure
- Ups the good cholesterol HDL’s
- Helps improve blood flow
- Promotes Fat Loss
- Promotes Healthy Joints
For Crossfit this means: Joint support / a supplement that will help control inflammation after a long grueling WOD and will aid in keeping your body in an anabolic state throughout the day!
- PROTEIN: Lem Taylor, PhD assistant Professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and President of the ISSN speaking at a ISSN Europa University conference in Hartford Conn. in June of this year, stated that the body is always on a “Roller-Coaster Ride” going between a Catabolic State which results in muscular breakdown and a Anabolic State where one is promoting muscular tissue building and repair.
Believe it or not, the body favors Catabolism. High volume training combined with high intense training = the need for more protein to help start the Anabolic process.
One reason why Protein is so very important to Crossfit is that new research indicates that taking in carbohydrate soon after resistance exercise may not be as necessary for stimulating added muscle protein synthesis (MPS) or improved protein balance if ample protein has already been ingested. So then, if you are one who is following a strict Paleo Diet where most of your carbohydrates are coming from fruits and vegetables, this revelation is very good news!
Whey or Casein? Whey simply has greater Amino Acid kinetics leading to Greater MPS so one would need this type of fuel right after a grueling WOD. Casein on the other hand has a slower Amino Acid response time. Because of this slower response time, Casein is a great protein to take right before bed. This can also lead to a better anabolic response time right after waking in the morning when catabolism can be high because of fasting through the night. Why do you think they call it breakfast? Yep - because you’re breaking a fast!
HOW MUCH PROTEIN PER MEAL? Some studies suggest:
- Smaller athlete: 20 grams per meal
- Moderate size athlete: 20-25 grams per meal
- Larger athlete: 25 grams or even greater
HOW MUCH PROTEIN EACH DAY? The ISSN Recommends 1.4 to 2.0 grams of protein per KG of body weight for both men and women.
For Crossfit this Means: As we have discussed, greater protein synthesis. Slows and blocks breakdown (catabolism) after your WOD. Enhances lean body mass, strength and speeds up recovery and repair.
- BRANCH CHAIN AMINO ACIDS (BCAA’s):
Usually the National Strength & Conditioning Journal that I receive each month doesn’t have much information on supplementation of any kind. However when I received the August 2012 edition, I was surprised to see a 9 page spread on Amino Acids and their effects on muscle and how they can affect sport performance! So I thought that I would cut through all the detailed “big word” stuff and give you the highlights and a summary of what the science says about one of the most popular supplements on the market.
ESSENTIAL AMINO ACIDS / A REVIEW
There are a total of 20 amino acids which are comprised of 9 essential amino acids (EAA) and 11 non-essential amino acids (NEAA’s). EAA’s cannot be produced in the body so they must be consumed in the diet. Foods that have the highest percentage of EAA’s are generally found in meats and dairy products by which results in greater hypertrophy and protein synthesis after resistance training than a vegetarian protein matched meal.
BRANCHED CHAIN AMINO ACIDS / A REVIEW
The 3 Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s) are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They are unique among the EAA’s for their roles in protein metabolism, blood glucose and insulin regulation. Their names are derived from their chemical structure due to their side chains being comprised of branching methyl groups.
Orally ingested, BCAA’s get into the blood stream quickly exposing muscle to high concentrations of these amino acids and making them very unique regulators of skeletal muscle protein synthesis. Research has found that BCAA’s were able to stimulate skeletal muscle protein synthesis to the very same degree as all 9 EAA’s. Research also found that of all the BCAA’s only leucine was able to independently stimulate protein synthesis. It is well known that intense exercise can induce a net negative protein balance in response to both endurance type training and resistance training. Research however has found that BCAA’s and mainly leucine could turn a negative balance into a positive protein balance after intense exercise.
It has also been found that EAA’s combined with once again leucine could do the very same thing! In accordance with all the data, BCAA supplementation combined with resistance training has been demonstrated to increase lean body mass, increase strength and decrease body fat.
BCAA’s FOR ENHANCED ENDURANCE PERFORMANCE:
Research has also shown that BCAA’s lowers rate of perceived exertion and enhances endurance performance. How does this work? (I’ll try to make this as simple as I can). During endurance exercise, plasma fatty acids increase in circulation and when this happens tryptophan is displaced from the albumin carrier protein. This leads to tryptophan conversion to serotonin in the brain which leads to central fatigue. BCAA supplementation simply decreases the tryptophan: BCAA ratio during endurance training or exercise. Although the data is not consistent, BCAA’s may increase time to exhaustion during prolong cycling. For elite endurance athletes who train up to or above 12 times per week, rapid glycogen replenishment is very important. BCAA’s combined with carbohydrates immediately after exercise been found to increase insulin response which causes a greater rate of glycogen replenishment.
Cross-Fit people listen up: It should be noted that studies have also shown that a combination of EAA’s and BCAA’s may help speed repair from high volume training and prevent against over-training!
Ball State University researchers found that when combining weight training with BCAA’s, cortisol levels were reduced. What happens when cortisol levels are high one may ask?
- Body fat storage increases
- Protein in the muscle is broken down
- Insulin becomes more resistant
- The body uses glucose (sugar) less efficiently
High cortisol levels also lead to leptin resistance and when this occurs the leptin resistance encourages higher cortisol levels. This becomes a vicious cycle with weight gain being the main result.
There is some very powerful and promising research that has been done at the University of Illinois on “partitioning” which allows the body to burn fat and build muscle at the same time. The BCAA’s take energy from the stored fat and provide it to the muscle to be used for new growth! The University gives credit to the BCAA’s and mainly leucine as the reason for these results.
For Crossfit this means: Stimulate and aid Protein Synthesis, enhance endurance and aid aerobic threshold, increase strength, increase lean body mass and decrease body fat, reduce cortisol levels and possibly take energy from stored fat and provide it to needed muscle!
- CREATINE: There are simply just too many positive studies on Creatine for Crossfit athletes not to take it. The majority of these studies (about 70%) indicate that Creatine supplementation promotes a statistical significant improvement in exercise capacity. This means that 95 times out of 100 if you take Creatine, you will experience an improvement in exercise performance.
Short Term Supplementation has reported to improve maxes in speed & power by 5 to 15%. Long Term Supplementation has reported to improve strength by as much as 5-15% also. All studies indicate increases in body mass by 1-2 Kilograms in the very first week of loading and 2-4 pounds of Muscle Mass during 4-12 weeks of training.
Dr. Darren Candow, Associate professor at the University of Regina, speaking on the effects of Creatine application strategies muscle and bone biology during the 8th Annual ISSN Conference, also reinforced how Creatine improves strength, power, muscle mass, delays the onset of neuromuscular fatigue and there is new research that Creatine may even have some antinflamation properties.
Side Effects: The only clinical side effects in the science and medical literature have been weight gain. However a number of anecdotally reported side effects reported in popular literature have been gastrointestinal distress, muscle cramping, dehydration and muscular strains/pulls and even reported cases of anterior compartment syndrome (pressure or reduced blood flow to the upper leg). In the ISSN “Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements,” states that “furthermore, over the last few years a number of studies have attempted to assess the medical safety of Creatine. These studies have indicated that Creatine is not associated with any of these anecdotally reported problems and that Creatine does not increase the likelihood of developing anterior compartment syndrome. In fact, there is recent evidence that Creatine may lessen heat stress and reduce the chances of musculoskeletal injuries among athletes in and during intense training.”
I like what Dr. Jose Antonio states about Creatine. “So let’s see if I’ve got this right, children as young as infants take Creatine for muscular dystrophy and cancer.” “Kids with traumatic brain injuries are prescribed Creatine, but if a high school or college athlete wants to take Creatine---then all HELL breaks loose!” Something to ponder.
For Crossfit this Means: Improved strength, power, endurance, protein synthesis and lessen heat stress.
- Multi-Vitamin/Mineral Supplement:
There are many more supplements that I could list, but unless you have a money tree growing in your backyard, like me you have to watch your wallet every single day. That’s why I like recommending a good Multi-Vitamin/Mineral supplement because one can get a lot of bang for your buck in one supplement and some basic nutritional needs at the same time. You can get:
Vitamin C: Because of Vitamin C’s antioxidant properties, many researchers have studied its effects on free radical damage and on delayed muscle soreness to which these studies have seen some benefit.
Vitamin D3: (the primary form used in the body) for immune support.
Calcium: The most abundant mineral in the body and very important for bone health and muscle contractions.
Iron: Low Iron levels or a negative Iron balance, especially in women because of exercise induced alterations can be taxing on exercise performance. It has been determine that an individual’s VO2 max is correlated to the blood’s oxygen carrying capacity and this process is very Iron dependent!
Magnesium: This mineral is involved in over 300 essential metabolic processes in the body and many of these processes are involved in the metabolism of carbohydrate, fats, proteins, and nucleic acids. Magnesium is also a component of the synthesis of ATP production. Also plays a key role in muscle contractions.
Now I must be honest and say that the ISSN does not find in their research or the research of other studies an increase of exercise performance of these Vitamins and Minerals. However, it is my belief that if one takes a synergistic approach to a good daily Multi-Vitamin supplementation program, the benefit would outweigh the risk or non-benefit by at least 1%. Remember what I said about the 1% rule at the beginning of this article? That’s the reason I would recommend a good Multi-Vitamin/Mineral supplement.
- Glutamine: With recovery from one WOD to the next so critical for the Crossfit athlete, then Glutamine is and would be an important supplement. Glutamine is one of the most abundant “conditional” amino acids found in the body and has been shown to be a vital metabolic fuel during intense exercise for variety of components involved with the immune system. Glutamine also has an important role of protein and glycogen synthesis and plays an important role in enhancing both. Below normal glutamine levels after exercise over long periods of time can easily contribute to immune suppression in over trained athletes. In other words continually low levels of Glutamine can make it more difficult for the body to respond to attacks on the body by its on immune system thereby hindering ones health and performance.
For Crossfit this means: Better recovery from one workout to the next and even helping with fighting off sickness.
I believe in time that supplementation in Crossfit will be just as big or even bigger than bodybuilding or any other sport for that matter. It will just take documented research and articles like this one to get the information out to the Crossfit community.
SUPPLEMENT COMPANIES I WOULD RECOMMEND
- Nutriforce Sports: has a great Multi-Vitamin/Mineral which also contains fish oil.
- Protein (Chocolate contains dark chocolate curls for their anti oxidant properties)
- Beta- Alanine
- RSP Nutrition: has a great amino acid ReGen, Fast Fuel is their BCAA
- Create (blend of 5 different creatines)
- Metabolic Nutrition: has a peptide bonded BCAA plus
- Pharmaceutical grade Creatine-Glycerol-Phosphate
- Protizyme (protein)
- Isatori: the makers of Bio-Grow which aids in protein synthesis
- Nogii Paleo Bar: a great snack or between meal bar. No compromises to your Paleo Diet and is gluten and dairy free/no trans fat/all 100% natural; natural *No added sugars. The sugar in this bar is coming from the food itself. They make a great snack for kids as well.
- C20 Coconut Water: for those that are focused on hydration with something besides water, C20 Coconut water may be what you are looking for. C20 has less sugar than other sport drinks and much more potassium.
Chip Sigmon CSCS*D
Wellness Coordinator / Strength & Conditioning Coach
Europa Sports Products
- Beta-Alanine: David Sandler MS. FISSN; speaking at the ISSN Europa University conference in Orlando, April 19th, 2013 on the “Top 5 Muscle Building Supplements”
- Fish Oil: Dr. Hector Lopez, chief medical for Applied Health Sciences (speaking at the 10th annual ISSN conference in Colorado Springs)
- Protein: Lem Taylor, PhD assistant Professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor
And President of the ISSN at a ISSN Europa University conference in Hartford Conn. June 2013
- Branch Chain Amino Acids: NSCA Journal, August 2012
- Creatine: Darren Candow, Associate professor at the University of Regina speaking on the effects of Creatine application strategies muscle and bone biology during the 8th
Annual ISSN Conference
“Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements” by the International Society of Sports Nutrition Page 422-425
Dr. Jose Antonio, speaking at the ISSN Europa University Conference in Orlando, April 19th, 2013 on “Nutrition for Elite Youth”
- Multi-Vitamin/Mineral Supplementation: “Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements” (ISSN) Page 318-320
- Glutamine: “The Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements” Page 129