Hardgainer Mistake #9: Overreliance On Supplements

Let’s be honest – I’m just as guilty as the next guy who wishes his supplements were magical! In fact, I love supplements, especially when they come from companies that I trust like Blue Star, Bio Trust and Prograde. However, it’s critical to start off this article by saying there is absolutely no substitute for healthy eating.

If your muscle-building diet is screwed up, you can forget about any degree of muscular development, because supplements can’t correct a bad diet regardless of how many supplements you take. Over the years I’ve become a bigger and bigger believer in nutritional supplements, but don’t assume this to imply that they should, or even could, take the place of a well-designed, healthy and balanced nutritional plan.

On the flip side of the coin, while it’s certainly possible to take great strides toward impressive muscular development, just like I first did when I started out (the only supplements I used when I gained over 40 pounds of muscle in my first six months of training were whey protein, creatine, a multivitamin/mineral and some fish oils), I doubt you’ll come close to realizing your full muscle-growth potential without the addition of high quality nutritional supplements.

Below is a snapshot of one of my recently stocked supplement cupboards in my kitchen. I believe I have earned the right to expand my supplement regime for the reasons I’ll explain next.

My Test – Do You Earn The Right To Take Supplements?

The gym I train at is full of young guys and I’m often approached for supplement advice. “Vince, what’s the best pre workout?” “What kind of creatine should I take?” “What’s your favorite mass gainer?” “Think I should get this fat burner?” “Can you recommend a good test booster?” I can answer all of these questions but I don’t – unless they can answer my follow up questions.

“How many calories are you consuming? What are your macros? How is your body responding?” 

If the person can’t tell me their calories or macros, I don’t give them an answer. Not because I’m a jerk but because they have the cart before the horse. This means they have things backwards. They are focusing on dessert before the main course. Their priorities are mixed up. Intentional or not, they are relying too much on supplements rather than whole food.

That goes for you, too. Don’t ask me any of these questions unless you can first tell me what your daily calories and macros are. If you can’t, then you have not earned the right to even walk into a supplement store. Pick up a copy of No Nonsense Muscle Building to get yourself some done-for-you meal plans. Sorry this sounds harsh but it’s annoying to hear these guys complain and cry about not making gains when they spend more money on supplements than good quality food.

Beware of The Placebo Effect

Whenever a debate arises over the best nutritional supplements to consume, the placebo effect is bound to come into play. The placebo effect occurs when a certain supplement is taken and results in a positive effect that is simply conjured up by our own mind. For instance, (very low dose) sugar pills are often used in clinical research trials, given to subjects who have no clue of what they are. These pills have zero physiological or biochemical effect. However, people often report headaches, dizziness, nausea etc. from taking these pills! In short, our mind plays tricks on us. It’s important to note that your level of intelligence, whether you flunked out of high school or have several Masters degrees, has nothing to do with it. Do not feel insulted if you have experienced the effects of the placebo effect even if you have years of schooling behind you. It’s completely normal, and is no reflection of your intelligence.

The Directed Placebo Effect

The Directed Placebo Effect is something we should all concern ourselves with when it comes to anything muscle and fitness related. This is a supercharged placebo effect that happens when we have an expectation of what the pill, powder or potion is supposed to do; we will be more inclined to believe that is has that effect. And an even more dangerous result of the directed placebo effect is when we want the particular effect to take place. This can result in an overreliance on supplements.

Ever heard stories of guys who order fake anabolic steroids online and then immediately increase their bench press by 10 lbs? This physical effect is manifested by our desire to believe that something works – but don’t think this is silly because again, this is a natural human trait.

In Defense Of The Placebo Effect

It needs to be said that the placebo effect is not necessarily a bad thing. Take our friend who increased his bench press by 10 lbs immediately after taking fake steroids. Despite the effect coming from his own mind, the positive benefits should not be dismissed. I know for a fact that certain supplements produced a short-term effect in terms of muscle growth or fat loss and I don’t regret the investment for those reasons alone. However, most of us are after long-term changes that require biochemical changes, so it’s important to acknowledge the difference. Here is my cupboard of supplement powders I use all year round — glycine, greens powder, protein powder, glutamine, creatine, electrolytes, carb powder and branch chain amino acids. Am I missing anything?

Another Reason We Over-Rely On Supplements

Unless you’re a supplement sponsored athlete and getting boxes of supplements for free each month then you’re paying for your own stuff with your hard earned money, which is another reason we want to believe our supplements may be magical. Unfortunately, this often makes us blind to scientific evidence and ideas that contradict our emotions and experience because we physically feel something, although it may be generated by our mind. The biggest reason I believe people over-rely on supplements is because of  advertising. The advertising is so earth shattering that our initial tendency is to want to believe it and get excited. There is nothing wrong about getting excited as long as you maintain a healthy skepticism and follow my rules below.

My Rules For Relying On Supplements Intelligently and Strategically

There are a ton of products and ingredients on the market today to address specific facets of what the male and female bodybuilder is trying to achieve. Whatever your goal — mass building, fat burning, recovery, pump enhancement, energy augmentation — you can find a supplement to meet your needs. The more edgy products are touted as testosterone boosters, estrogen blockers, fat absorbers, anabolic steroid substitutes, and fat and carbohydrate blockers. I’ve seen them all. Some are legit. Others are bull. Sorting through the choices and understanding which ones are right for you can be a scary and overwhelming task. Here are some tips on making smart supplement selections:

1. Research ingredients, not products. Instead of getting caught up in specific supplement products, focus on educating yourself on the ingredients. Since supplement companies and products can come and go very quickly, by focusing on the underlying ingredients of a product, you can swipe away the hype and zero in on what you’re actually taking and make a more logical decision. Like any purchase in life, it pays to be smart and do your homework and make sure the supplement is appropriate for your goals.

2. Wait for the product to be on the market for at least three or four years. If a certain ingredient has been been around for more than three or four years then it’s probably safe to say it’s worth looking at. Buying supplements because they are touted to be “the next big thing” is a decision based on emotion. If a supplement is still going strong in a few years then it has probably lived up to its claims. I do not endorse any ingredients to my readers if they don’t meet this test.

3. Get your calories and macros in order first. Just like you can’t out-train a bad diet, you can’t out-supplement a lack of training effort (or no training effort)! That said, when your calories and macros and micros are in order, nutritional supplements are the next step to having you burn more fat, have more energy, recover faster, sleep better and build muscle faster.

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Your Thoughts?

Why else do you think people develop an over-reliance in supplements? What did I miss? What did I hit bang on? As always, I want to hear your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.

10 Responses to “Hardgainer Mistake #9: Overreliance On Supplements”

  1. Fitness Wayne | Paleo Diet, Exercise and Weight Loss

    I am very against supplements. I go all natural. Clean diet and lots of sleep.

  2. Vince

    No offense taken. Why do you feel no one should be taking that amount of supplements?

  3. Vince

    Thanks Anna

  4. Vince

    Thanks Trever.

  5. Trevor, Certified Sports Nutritionist

    Hey Ronnie,

    addressing your concerns of creatine bothering your kidney’s, you can try 3 things. One stop taking it (which you tried and that seemed to alleviate symptoms), switch products to a more reputable brand that has cGMP on the label and has a reputation for quality, and finally have your kidney’s checked. If your kidney’s are working properly then it is likely you have not been taking a good quality product or lacking fluid intake (some people however, are more sensitive to certain products this could be you).
    What type or brand did you try? Maybe switch to a micronized creatine monohydrate the easiest to digest and the most scientifically studied.

    I agree there is a place for supplements in the bodybuilder’s cupboard, but most products are overrated, lack purity, and simply lack the supportive evidence that they do in fact work as claimed.

    Best thing to do as a lifter is start small with 2-3 items and move towards more if needed if you are an experienced lifter or athlete. A good whey protein isolate for pre-,post-workout, fish oils (watch the ratio’s of EPA and DHA as most are in a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio, you want higher!), and BCAA’s.

    The only time it becomes optimal to take more supplements would be during contest season when dieting, athletes who follow strict diets and need for example a good multi vit/min supplement, joint repair etc and those who experience deficiencies.

    Certain supplements can always be added to the arsenal, but realistically for most active individuals won’t need much additional help. Vince’s last 3 points, especially about reading labels and having your diet in order first are important.

    Do your homework, sometimes a supplement added into your diet can help push you to new heights with your lifts or physique, often times it’s just wasted cash and something else your liver now needs to process.

  6. Anna

    I love all of your articles and youtube videos.
    You’re to the point and tell it how it is. Another awesome article! Thanks Vince. :)

  7. Heather

    No offense, but I don’t think anyone should be taking that many supplements. I believe most supplements fall into the same category as fad dieting…someone looking to make money off of those who are searching for a magical trick to get fit and healthy. I don’t even want to think about the amount of money wasted on all of those items.

  8. Jack Black


  9. José Ignacio Fernández

    in the club tome ask me and I say eat your protein every 2-4 hours 10 grams-80grams eat whatever 1g per pound before adding protein powders.nutrition,rest and training is 90%percent of the batlle. 10% is the suplements

    MY STACK is
    Protein powder 25-50 grams 20-40grams of protein
    creatine 5grams
    glutamine 5 grams
    fish olis 3grams
    multivitamins 1 capsule

    some times i add

    BCAA 1.4grams 5 capsules

    I have 4-5 years of training and i have a three records in my category of powerlifting but powerlifting is a hobby but fitness is my ambition.

    Good Job Vince.

  10. sean

    you have answered your own question.kidneys are
    letting you know.