- Patricia Pearce, ND
Workout Supplements for the Paleo Athlete & Body Builder
I became a serious weight lifter in 2012, around the time I was starting my holistic health journey and was just starting to learn what the paleo diet and the Naturopathic lifestyle were all about. My thought was, "If I'm going to completely revamp my diet, I may as well use this opportunity to also revamp my physique." At the time, I was just starting to recover from lifelong digestive, menstrual, and energy problems. I had gone from taking 2 Immodium, 4 Advil, and drinking an entire pot of coffee every single morning before work just to FUNCTION, to feeling normal and almost completely symptom-free. Despite feeling better, my body was still a work in progress. I was 5'4", about 110 lbs, with no muscle mass to speak of. After spending hours and hours reading seemingly every article available to me on Bodybuilding.com, as well as "The New Rules of Lifting for Women," I decided I was ready to embark on my weightlifting journey by starting a 12 week transformation program.
However, I almost immediately ran into a snag. All the articles I had read had encouraged me to eat A LOT, lift HEAVY THINGS, and take SUPPLEMENTS. These supplement suggestions ranged from a caffeine-loaded pre-workout drink to creatine to protein shakes and more. Of course, I didn't want to stray from the prescribed program, so I bought everything suggested and started taking it. Without bothering to read the ingredient labels. Oops.
After an almost complete resurgence of all of my digestive and menstrual symptoms, as well as a whole lot of acne, it didn't take me long to learn my lesson. My protein shake was full of dairy and my other supplements were packed with chemicals, food dyes, additives, sugar substitutes, and all manner of things not fit for human consumption. I quickly realized I had inadvertently started consuming all the substances that I had carefully eliminated from my diet due to food sensitivities.
In the following years I have worked hard to replace the list of "typical" body building supplements with options that work for people on the Paleo diet or who have food sensitivities. I've carefully vetted the suggested companies and take most, if not all, of these supplements myself, with great results.
Here I am after 12 weeks of the anti-inflammatory Paleo diet, a consistent weight lifting program, and the supplements below.
Without further ado, here are my top workout supplements for the Paleo weight lifter, athlete, bodybuilder, or cross-fitter. (Note: I realize that "Paleo supplement" is a complete oxymoron. Of course, cavemen did not take supplements. In this context, I mean they are a good fit for people who have restricted diets but also desire the competitive edge that supplements lend.)
"Paleo" Pre-Workout Supplement Options
In my opinion, the two most important outcomes of a "pre-workout" are ENERGY and VASODILATION. Energy is most typically obtained through caffeine, and in popular pre-workouts like No-Xplode and C4, caffeine content typically ranges from a whopping 250-350 mg (your average cup of coffee being 80-100 mg.) Caffeine consumption on this level can lead to dependence, massive withdrawal symptoms upon stopping the supplement, and wreak havoc on the HPA axis.
Vasodilation is the process by which muscles receive oxygen, nutrients,and dispose of metabolic waste, a physical phenomenon commonly referred to as "the pump." Vasodilation makes us look bigger, stronger, and more "vascular." This is achieved by a molecule called nitric oxide, which can be increased through the consumption of certain amino acids, like l-arginine and l-citrulline.
Alternative energy options: To increase energy, workout efficiency, and thermogenesis, our best option is still caffeine. However, it should be taken in smaller amounts. Since coffee can be a source of food sensitivity, and isn't allowed on the Paleo diet, I highly recommend a cup or two of yerba mate tea, which typically contains around 85 mg of caffeine per 8 fluid ounces.
Alternative vasodilation options: Rather than waste your money on an expensive supplement packed with junk, just take the vasodilatory amino acids by themselves! I like Now brand, because it is readily available in most health food stores, gets consistently good reviews, and is relatively inexpensive. Check out this supplement by Now Foods.
"Paleo" Inter-Workout Supplement Options
Although it is usually recommended to take a BCAA (branched chain amino acid) and glutamine supplement post-workout, I like to sip these essential, muscle-building amino acids throughout my workout for energy, repair, and to decrease delayed onset muscle soreness. I usually mix a glutamine and BCAA powder in a blender bottle and drink over the course on an hour while I lift. Typically, BCAA supplement powders like Xtend contain additives like sucralose, food dyes, and soy, all of which can cause problems for people adhering to restrictive diets.
Alternative BCAA option: I like the Bulk Supplements brand of BCAA, because it is extremely pure, affordable, got excellent reviews by Labdoor, has relatively little taste, and contains no additives.
Alternative glutamine option: Again, the Bulk Supplements brand is excellent for all the same reasons listed above.
"Paleo" Post-Workout Supplement Options
The number one supplement people think of post-workout is, of course, PROTEIN POWDER. While I am a fan of protein shakes for the sake of convenience (say, you have to shower at the gym and get right back to work) it is ALWAYS far more beneficial to have a complete meal containing ~25 grams of protein, a complex carbohydrate, and a healthy fat directly after working out. For those Paleo buffs that like to supplement with a protein shake, it can seem hard to find something that both tastes good, has a complete amino acid profile, and doesn't contain dairy or soy. The good news is, such a thing DOES exist! The bad new is that these options are significantly more expensive. I ALWAYS encourage people to dig into their pockets for the sake of good health.
Alternative to whey/casein protein powder for non-vegetarians: A few companies now make protein powders using hydrolyzed beef protein. Yes, you read that correctly. However, the more common and inexpensive ones pack in additives, and typically still contain some amount of dairy. Therefore, it is optimal to purchase a practitioner-level protein powder, which has higher levels of quality control. An excellent option is PurePaleo by Designs for Health.
Alternatives to whey/casein protein powder for vegetarians: The usual downfall of plant-based protein powders is taste, incomplete amino acid profile, and that they often contain soy. I have found that Vega brand is actually pretty tasty (not as gritty as most), has a complete profile, and doesn't contain soy. I also like their protein bars! Check out their complete line here: Vega Protein.
I hope this gives you Paleo lifters, crossfitters, body builders, and athletes a good place to start! If you are feeling like I was in the beginning: sick, lost, confused, and in need of guidance, please make an appointment HERE. Together, we will get to the root of your health condition, establish meaningful goals, and make long-lasting lifestyle changes for permanent, vital health. Happy lifting!