What Workout Supplements Should Teenagers Take?
Every week I’m asked by a teenager or parent, “What workout supplements should I/my child take to gain/lose weight?” Teenagers and and parents alike wait with bated breath as I prepare my response. Eyes wide, pens to paper, eager to receive their GNC marching orders.
After all, the high school kid that was fired from the Verizon kiosk two weeks ago now works at GNC, and says that “Super Mega Proto-Power Pills” will get a teenager big AND cut at the same time! A true, legal, miracle of modern science…dude.
Although my 165-pound frame doesn’t scream “weightlifter”, I’ve been involved with various hobbies of the iron variety for about 20 years. I’ve weighed anywhere from 160-195 and my body fat has been anywhere from 6%-17%.
In that time, I’ve taken just about every legal supplement known to man. I researched them and made myself a human guinea pig for years.
I still take supplements, but I’ve switched from the bodybuilding type to the health type. Fish oil, vitamin D, you know, good for my heart, cleanses the colon (God I feel old). I’m not afraid to take a little NO Explode from time to time when my sleeves fall off at the gym, but the “get big” ship has sailed as a governing ethos in my personal psyche.
However, due to the athletes I work with on a daily basis, I keep my “nose to the ground” as to what workout and performance supplements are out there right now, and how they’re being used.
That being said, the answer to the “what supplements should a teenager be taking” question is a series of three questions I’ve formulated after the 10 thousandth time being asked.
- 1. What did they have for breakfast?
If the answer is anything shy of multiple eggs, Milk (assuming they can tolerate it, whole preferably), toast with peanut butter, or some other real-food culmination of 500 or more calories, a supplement is not going to do anything for their goals.
As a matter of fact, if they even have to pause to think about what they ate for breakfast, I’m not recommending a supplement.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Probably less than 1% of teenagers eat like they should. This is the number one thing standing between them and their body morphology goals.
My uncle was a very successful bodybuilder, winning the “Mr. Oregon” title in the late 80’s. I got into lifting weights my sophomore year in high school and would pester him with questions on how to get buff. I quit after a while, because all he would talk about was “eat, squat, eat, deadlift!” Booooooooring!
If a teenager isn’t getting at least 5 quality food intakes per day equaling 3000 calories or more, they’re probably not going to put on the size they want and the only supplement that will do anything for them is maybe a convenient meal replacement shake. Not because it’s “magic”. It just adds more nutrient dense calories.
When it comes to the best supplement shake, go for the ones with protein, carb, and fat. These are termed “meal replacement shakes” and will deliver more of what teenagers need. Try to find the ones that are slightly higher in calories. Teach them to make peanut or almond butter sandwiches and eat them constantly. This is a cheap but effective “supplement” for muscle gain.
Whole eggs and milk are hard to beat as well.
2. How much can they squat and deadlift?
I don’t even ask about their “bench”. Odds are, that’s all they do, and that’s why they can’t gain weight. The total surface area of the chest pails in comparison to the legs and back. When you work bigger muscles, you get more of a growth response. Without a growth stimulus and response, there is no growth. The “chest and arms” routine that 99% of high school boys do will do very little beside cause shoulder injuries. I know because that’s what I did for years in my youth and both of my shoulders suck, I also ask to see them perform these lifts. Partly because teenagers lie like jackals, and partly because most teenagers are not taught to lift properly. There is no reason to “supercharge” horrible, injurious movement with stimulants and vasodilators common in most pre- workout supplements.
There is also no reason to supercharge a bad program. A teenager is underweight and under strong because they don’t know how to train and eat, not because they are lacking a supplement.
I advise teenagers to follow a well-designed training program with supervision for at least 6 months, combined with perfect or even reasonable nutrition. If they quit getting results, which won’t happen due to the teenagers’ coveted beast-like testosterone levels, then we’ll talk supplements.
3. What’s their training program?
This question is a little redundant, due to #2, but it sheds a lot of light on what they are currently using as their “growth stimulus”. Upper and lower body lifts need to be balanced, as well as pushes and pulls in different planes. Ample rest has to be provided between training sessions.
Weight, reps, and other training variables should change over time. Training shouldn’t be a matter of daily bench press maxes. I advise youth to get a program designed by a professional.
Yes, I’m biased, but can you honestly say this is a bad idea? Remember, we’re talking about the alternative as pumping them full of unregulated substances with questionable risks and a low likelihood of success.
With a poorly designed program, the odds of injury are higher, and results lower.
Of course, there is the “placebo” effect from taking any sort of supplement, particularly with young males. I remember taking creatine in college and then going to the gym and feeling “jacked up” and ready to lift. Funny thing is, the mechanism of creatine is not to get you “jacked up”. My brain put that together for me, and I performed accordingly.
Creatine didn’t hurt me, as most supplements out there right now pose very little serious risk to a healthy teenager. However, the unregulated nature of that industry in combination with the money wasted and the fact that most teenagers aren’t doing the other stuff they need to do to see results, poses a serious cost/benefit question.
If we’re going to capitalize on the placebo effect with teenagers, why don’t we create “leadership” sugar pills, or “think before you act” shakes?
Now there’s a supplement I’d get behind.
If your teenager is looking to change their body or performance, it’s a simple, but not easy equation
Proper Eating + Proper Training+ Proper Rest= Performance Gains
That’s it. There is not magic pill.