When the Gym Isnâ??t Enough
Rob Bennett for The New York Times
HOPE IN A BOTTLE Alex Feintuch with the supplements he has bought.
By MAX ROOSEVELT
Published: January 13, 2010
OVER the course of a year, Alex Feintuch, a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of South Carolina, spent more than $1,000 on fitness supplements.
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Some on the market include, Muscle Milk, N.O.-Xplode and Amplified Mass XXX.
Mr. Feintuch wanted to add size and definition to his muscles, and to â??see results as quickly as possible.â?? He did research and tried dozens of products, with mixed results.
â??Of the products that I have bought, Iâ??ve found many that work well,â?? he said. â??But some donâ??t and were a waste of money.â??
The fitness supplements industry is primarily aimed at young men like Mr. Feintuch. Bodybuilding-related products â?? powders and pills with names like Muscle Milk, Amplified Mass XXX and N.O.-Xplode â?? represented a $2.7 billion industry in 2008, but one whose benefits are in serious dispute.
The products are a subset of the more-familiar category of nutritional supplements, which includes mainstream items like vitamin-infused waters and energy bars. That market represented $25 billion in revenue in 2008, according to Nutrition Business Journal, a trade publication.
Athletes seeking peak performance are often concerned about eating right, choosing foods that allow their bodies to function at their best â?? everything from bananas to Peak bars. But going the next step to taking a pill or powder elicits more skepticism. Young female athletes, for example, are more apt to stick with multivitamins, energy drinks and bars, doctors and trainers say.
Male-oriented fitness supplements are not hard to find, but they are hard to figure out. Top-selling products like creatine, whey powder and nitric oxide are widely available under many brand names at drugstores and chains like G.N.C., but they are also minimally regulated, with a majority going untested by the Food and Drug Administration.
And that, sports medicine doctors say, points to the problems: there is little or no uniformity among products, the labels are confusing and the ingredients are arcane. Often, the main active ingredient is simply caffeine.
â??Itâ??s frustrating to not know exactly what I am putting in my body,â?? said Mr. Feintuch, who used a personal â?? and expensive â?? trial-and-error approach to come up with three products that seemed to work for him.
Doctors and nutritionists say that people who eat a normal diet generally donâ??t need nutritional supplements, even if they exercise vigorously. But among the subset of people who already eat healthfully and want to bulk up in the gym, some supplements, when taken in sensible doses, can provide a lift.
For instance, whey protein and creatine, which are meant to add bulk to muscles and raise the bodyâ??s ability to lift heavier weights, can, in some cases, help dedicated athletes become stronger faster, doctors and trainers say.
But the dose recommended on the bottle may be much higher than the dose recommended by doctors. And for this reason and others, doctors emphasize that only adults should take fitness supplements (although high school athletes often do). A policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics advises children under 18 to avoid them.
â??Schools and other sports organizations should be proactive in discouraging the use of performance-enhancing substances,â?? said Dr. Teri M. McCambridge, who practices pediatric sports medicine in Towson, Md., and is the chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness.
Dr. McCambridge distinguishes between whey protein, which she considers to be a dietary supplement, and performance-enhancing substances like creatine and nitric oxide. Even so, she said, â??the teenage diet already has more than enough protein.â??
â??They donâ??t need the extra amountâ?? that a whey protein powder would provide, she said.
Further, most high school students â??donâ??t know the importance of a recommended dose,â?? she said, and â??there is a slippery slope when it comes to using other performance-enhancing drugs, like anabolic steroids and human growth hormone.â??
And taking more than the recommended doses of fitness supplements can be harmful. Too much creatine in the system can lead to stomach upset and muscle cramps, among other things. And most people are familiar with the side effects of too much caffeine.
Jose Antonio, who edits a magazine called Sports Nutrition Insider and leads a nonprofit group called the International Society for Sports Nutrition, divides the popular supplements into three main categories: amino acid-based products, like whey protein and creatine; caffeine-based stimulants, and healthy fats like omega-3 acids.
Dr. Antonio is a proponent of several supplements, including whey protein and creatine, but says an athleteâ??s goals should determine his or her â??strategy for use.â?? Creatine helps add size quickly, so it is good for people who want to bulk up, he said. Whey protein is more of a general fitness supplement and helps hasten the recovery of muscles after a workout, he said.
Some personal trainers recommend nutritional supplements to their clients. â??If youâ??re looking to bust through a plateau, taking five grams of creatine before your workout might help you do that,â?? said Steve Hoffman, a trainer in Cherry Hill, N.J. â??It adds water weight to your muscle and helps you lift more.â??
For clients who want to intensify their workouts, Mr. Hoffman recommends products with arginine (an amino acid) or caffeine. He has experimented with such products and researched their effects, but he recommends caution for people who have not. â??Theyâ??re awesome for working out â?? just be careful,â?? he said.
Some athletes avoid such stimulants. Stacey Zimmerman, 25, an advertising account executive and avid runner in New York, consumes protein bars, electrolyte replacement gels but avoids products with creatine and nitric oxide. â??I donâ??t like the idea of taking things when I donâ??t know how they will affect my body,â?? she said.
She has run half-marathons and would one day like to finish a marathon, but without help from a jar. â??If my body wonâ??t let me for some reason, then I probably shouldnâ??t be running it,â?? she said. â??The idea of needing to take a supplement to reach my fitness goals seems to counter the goal itself.â??
On the other side of this issue is Michael Deutsch, a 23-year-old accounting associate from Bethesda , Md., who begins his morning by taking N.O.-Xplode for a pre-workout pump-up. â??It definitely gives me energy,â?? he said. â??It is mentally addictive, kind of like caffeine.â?? (Which it is.)
Mr. Deutsch then goes to the gym, lifts weights, drinks a whey protein shake, then eats a meal. At the end of his day, he drinks a second whey protein shake.
He likes the results he sees in the mirror. Before taking supplements, he said, â??it was tough to improve at the rate that I wanted to.â??
While Mr. Deutsch swears by nitric oxide and creatine, Mr. Feintuch, who spent $1,000 to refine his supplement regimen, doesnâ??t take either one. He tried creatine, but didnâ??t see the bulking effect he wanted. And the nitric oxide product he sampled gave him â??nervous jitters instead of energy.â??
At first, Mr. Feintuch was primarily trying to lose his gut, so he took green tea tablets, which were meant to boost his metabolism. After dropping more than 50 pounds, he graduated to more fitness-oriented products, which he researched through online bodybuilding forums.
â??I looked up each ingredient of supplements and discovered what the effects were, both good and bad,â?? Mr. Feintuch said. â??The final say on a supplement are its ingredients label and the collective reviews of it.â??
Now he has a routine. Before he goes to the gym, he takes a pill called Arimatest meant to raise testosterone levels. â??It gives me that edge to push myself harder,â?? he said. Before, during and after his workout, he drinks a branch-chain amino acid powder mixed in water to hasten muscle recovery. And he caps his gym visits with a whey protein shake.
Arimatest, which costs $48.99 for 60 tablets on Amazon.com, asserts that it â??increases testosterone 10,000 percent.â?? It is the type of claim that draws skepticism from people like Gunnar Peterson, a celebrity trainer whose clients include Jennifer Lopez and Tom Brady. â??Real food is the way to go,â?? Mr. Peterson said.
He would like to see the F.D.A. be more active in regulating supplements. â??I donâ??t want people to spend their hard-earned money on bogus products,â?? Mr. Peterson said.
But he did say there could be a positive placebo effect to taking fitness supplements. â??It allows people to hold onto the magic pill dream,â?? he said. â??Itâ??s like putting jumper cables on motivation.â??
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This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 21, 2010
The Fitness column last Thursday, about nutritional supplements for exercisers, overstated Dr. Teri M. McCambridgeâ??s role at the American Academy of Pediatrics. She is the chairwoman of its council on sports medicine and fitness, not the chairwoman of the entire academy. The article also referred incorrectly to nitric oxide; although caffeine is often added to supplements that contain it, it is not a caffeine-based stimulant. And a picture caption with the article misidentified the exerciser who begins his morning workout by taking N.O.-Xplode. As the article correctly reported, he is Michael Deutsch â?? not Alex Feintuch, who is shown in the picture.