Monday, June 9, 2008

To Supplement or Not to Supplement...

It's the age-old question asked by women in gyms everywhere - "is this it?" And the age-old follow-up question asked by diabolical maniacs like me, "for real?"

I'm talking about the hand of cards we're all dealt on Day 1 - our genetic makeup. I've said before, mine kinda sucks. I want a do-over. But I'm getting over it and making the most out of what I have to work with. It's not fair and I'm bitter, but whatever.

As I continue on this journey towards my MGP (maximum genetic potential, if you haven't been taking notes), I've started to wonder about the ground rules. Since it is my own game, I guess I can make them, right? I've been wondering about the definition of "genetic potential" and whether the use of supplements should be allowed. After all, if I am supplementing my efforts with herbs, minerals, and vitamins, am I toying with nature? Or are they elements of nature that should be considered fair game play?

I have always equated supplements with steroids, and never touched them. Well, for a while in college I took creatine, but I was too poor to buy enough to make a difference. But now supplements fill the shelves of the drug store, grocery, and local health food shop, all innocently whispering the advantages they can provide. It could be very easy to load up on a bunch of snake oil, not really knowing what to expect, and end up hurting your progress in the long run. A trip into Vitamin World for some protein powder can make you wonder if you need a medical degree to figure out the hundreds of little bottles standing at attention, ready at your service.

I already take a multi-vitamin and glucosamine for my knee, so technically I guess I am supplementing my diet. But a recent read in a fitness magazine planted the seed of whether to add to my regimen and give my nutrition an edge. It was an article about how to get the most from your workouts by using arginine, caffeine, and creatine in combination with whey protein, fast-digesting carbs, and apparently a lot of water to wash it all down with. Another article recommended taking glutamine to enhance nutrition, and online boards discuss the merits of CLA and others. Of course, you can peruse a magazine stand any day of the week and you can find all sorts of research to support and disprove 31 flavors of fitness gimmicks. It is the responsibility of the user to research these supplements and determine their own personal comfort level with using them.

For me, what it really comes down to is not whether these supplements work (I am sure some do, and others are just a placebo effect) but whether the use of them dilutes the exercise of reaching your maximum genetic potential. Can you really say you are at your MGP when you've relied on something other than nutrition and exercise to get there? Or are they considered a "food group" of their own, just another aspect of nutrition?

I can't decide, so I am asking you. Leave me a comment and tell me what you think!


Sghoul said...

personally, I feel that if you are even thinking about this you need to back off. It may not be physically unhealthy, but mentally you have reached obsession levels. And that ain't good IMO.

Ultimately you have to ask youself: What will this reall accomplish? All that money of suppliments for a tiny gain?

Thing is, I have never known anyone who wasn't already predisposed at being muscular to gain much from things like this. It works for them because it aids their body in going a direction is was built to go. You would be pushing your body to go where it doesn't want.

Be happy with who you are and the amazing things you have already accomplished! If you want to supplement with foods that are rich in certain thing, good for you! But when you start adding all kinds of pills and powders...that way lies madness.

EDP said...

For someone like you who already eats mindfully and works out hard and often, I'd say you're doing everything you need to do. Because "maximum genetic potential" is somewhat vague. Is it you at Olympic fitness level? Marathon-running level? Able-to-climb-10 -flights-of-stairs-level? And more to the point, would you be happy at that level, or miserable because you could never have a cookie or were working out 2 hours a day? Technically, Beyonce and I have the same body type. But even she can't sustain her ideal weight without eating very little and working out ALL THE TIME. I guess she represents my MGP, but only if I'm willing to make personal itness the center of my universe. And I can't — and shouldn't — do that.

Anonymous said...

Oh my. I thought I knew how I felt about this, but then I read the other comments and got scared. Here goes anyway:

Depending on how you look at it, everything is natural and unnatural. Whenever or however people landed on this planet, what was here was here and we used it. We mashed it around, mixed it together and made other stuff to make our lives better like the chemicals that help us produce more food or the drugs that help stave off disease and infection. Whatever the outcome of our tinkering and what we us it for, it’s all made from the things that were here to begin with.

Why is it unnatural to take supplements to become more fit? We take vitamins so we can be stronger and live longer. We take drugs so we can continue to function and contribute when we have pain. We alter our moods with music. We enhance our appearance with make-up and dyes to improve our confidence. We eat foods that are not native to the areas we live in and foods that are grown in labs and/or with the use of chemicals (yikes!)
because they are good for us and provide variety in our diets. If you took drugs to survive childhood illnesses or were operated on while under anesthesia to retain your life, your “genetic potential” has already been compromised. Progress is okay. It’s not unnatural and it’s not cheating.

I understand why some people would be concerned for your health. As far as I know, supplements (like the vitamins most of us take and give our children) are not regulated by the FDA. They may not do what they promise and they may have side effects they don’t advertise. But you are an intelligent responsible person who I know from personal experience can research something into the ground. If you look into it and decide that you can safely use supplements as a tool to help you reach your goals, all you are doing is what humans have been doing since the beginning of time – using the tools we have to get the results we want.

Sghoul said...

I don't think it's unatural. But I do think, as with all things, moderation is a good rule.

It just feels like when you reach a point where you are worrying about this kind of thing it has gone from a hobby or routine to an obsession or addiction.

J said...

I agree with sghoul about this approaching obsession levels. Will you ever be happy with what you have and where you are? Yes, an active "doer" type personality will always strive for more, the best, the most. Is it something that you must do with your body as well in pursuit of MGP? At what point to you achieve a reasonable plateau of success or fitness and accept your accomplishment and transition to the maintenance phase?

As for MGP...I don't know any of us can obtain our MGP. Here's why: Our genetics obviously determine the starting point for our physical bodies but they are not the only factor. For example, it is possible to be born one gender physically and yet be the opposite gender genetically. I would say MGP would no longer apply in that case.

Also, what we do to our bodies throughout our lives will continue to play a factor in everything that comes after. Our bodies constantly dissolve and form new bone throughout our entire lives averaging an entirely new skeleton about every ten years. Therefore to make a true lasting change to your body it could take ten years to become "fixed" for the next ten plus years.

A practical example of this would be athletes. Kick boxers in Southeast Asia will train for years to harden their shin bones to the point they can literally kick banana trees to the point of breaking. Other martial artists will pound steel plates with their bare knuckles until after decades of doing so their knuckles become flat and just as hard as the steel they punch.

In summation I believe you have already achieved an extremely healthy level of fitness and the pursuit of supplements will only lead to obsession. As for MGP, you would have to live your entire life from the moment of birth (maybe even before) with the single goal of absolute physical fitness. Your entire life would have to be nothing but physical hardship fighting for survival. Do you really want to pursue such a genetic potential?

H F said...

Great comments and great points. I want to clarify one point - I do not take a lot of supplements, so please don't be concerned for my health and safety. I'm merely posing the question for conversation sake.

I agree that MGP is a very elusive, and likely unrealistic, goal. But, for someone like for whom the chase is more important than the catch, the process of reaching it is a fun hobby.

The Irredeemable Shag said...

First off, great post. Very brave of you to open up like this to the world. Brave on you!

My personal recommendation would be to think of the end goal. What do you ultimately want to acheive? Why are you trying to reach your MGP? Is it for a competition? Is it simply to say to yourself that you did it? If it's simply for your own satisfaction, how can you really tell when you've reached the MGP? Won't you always assume that you're not quite there yet?

If you are trying to please yourself and you take the additional supplements, what happens after you decide you've reached your goal? Do you continue with the supplements just to ensure you don't slide backwards? If that's the case, then you're stuck on the supplements for life.

Ultimately it's your decision. I would just keep your end goal in mind, and think about what happens after you reach your goal.

Good luck!

The Irredeemable Shag

H F said...

Great questions, Shag. Originally I started out with the end being a competition, but I don't know if that is my end goal anymore. It might be part of it for recreational purposes, but my true goal is lifelong health and fitness. It is a quest with no end, since you can always improve or work harder! But you make a great point about supplements being a slippery slope, and eventually becoming a trap. I would rather rely on my own wits to get to my end goal, but I don't rule out generally-accepted supplements as an effective tool to enhance the hard work already being done in the gym.