Know What’s in Your Supplements

Some Muscle Supplement Manufacturers Would Rather “Sell Ya than Tell Ya.”

You had a busy day, didn’t quite eat right and now you know your muscles are screaming for a quick fix of 40 grams of quality protein. No problem. Just pull into almost any convenience store and there it is on the shelf, ready to drink—in your choice of three flavors. Need a 5 or 10 pound jug of Hydrolyzed Whey Protein Isolate? You can head right over to your local Big Box store and pick one up. Or you can order online and get almost anything you need in a day or two.

We have it so easy these days. Those of us who have been in the muscle game for a while can remember a time when you might have had to drive 50 miles to a big city with a health food store to buy protein powder that tasted like drywall spackling (only not as good) and required a 300 horsepower blender to mix. And you could forget about ordering by mail—that took 4 to 6 weeks. Yes, we have it so easy these days. But all that progress comes with a down side . . . .

As someone who has used sports supplements since the early sixties to optimize my fitness training, I can confidently say that today’s performance and growth-enhancing products (the legal ones) are the best ever offered. Once a cottage industry, the sports supplement business has grown to over 2.7 billion dollars in yearly sales. Recent years have shown as much as a 43% growth (2012). Sports supplements are leading the way in growth for the burgeoning “Vitamin, Mineral and Supplement” industry (itself with projected sales topping 60 billion dollars in 2017! That is “big business” by anyone’s standards. And along with big business comes big marketing. Having these great new supps, therefore, comes with an increased need for caution on the part of the buyer—you and me. “Big marketing” is, by its very nature, sales-driven. It will use any tool at its disposal, including decades of buying-habits psychology, appeals to everything from vanity to fear and even the promotion of stereotypes that you and I (and the fitness industry) can do without.

To add insult to injury, many supplement ads seem to display zero respect for the intelligence of their bodybuilder targets. Here are two examples of why I say that: In one of my favorite fitness magazines I recently viewed six full pages of advertising (peddling only three products). One of the ads touted the praises of the superhuman muscleman who walks into the gym (without so much as a smile) goes right to the 150 pound dumbbells, and, without a warm-up, cranks out set after set without pause while working down the rack. (In real life you would see that guy the next day in the orthopedic surgeon’s office getting his ruptured biceps tendon repaired.) The next ad promised its product would make you the top-dog alpha male of your gym (and, apparently, anywhere else you decide to set foot). I mean, that’s why you work out, right? Your goal is to lord it over the myriad inferior examples of pencil-necked humanity that clutter up your gym floor and workplace. But those Neanderthal hero models are not what really surprised me. Are you ready for this? In six full pages of copywriting hyperbole, not once was an ingredient listed for any of the products! And these ads were from some of the biggest manufacturers in the business. As someone with an advertising background I can tell you that the professional copywriters who composed those ads know something (actually a lot of things) that you probably don’t. Some of which is this: We will buy stuff based on the perceived emotional benefit (to us) of the product before we will buy based on the actual product itself. Thus the old copywriter’s maxim: “Sell the sizzle not the steak.” Now the above-mentioned sterling examples of hide-and-seek marketing may be fine when it comes to selling floor wax, as we probably have no idea which ingredients make for a shiny floor, anyway. On the other hand, we do not (hopefully) put floor wax into our bodies like we do with supplements. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the aforementioned muscle marketers are unscrupulous, or that they are trying to sell products that may not work. I presently use products from the two companies whose examples I cited above (though not the same products) and they are high quality supps that work great (though I have yet to curl 150 pound dumbbells as in their example). But before I bought from them I made sure I knew what was in the product, what amount was in the product and what each ingredient was for. So why worry if there is no product information in the ad that prompts your purchase? There are many reasons. For example: If you “stack” products (as many of us do) you need to know if you have swallowed enough caffeine to jump-start a dead racehorse or if you have exceeded the Beta Alanine dosage that will take you beyond a comfortable tingle to a “my-skin-is-on-fire” condition. Also, if current science shows L-Citrulline is a more effective NOS promoter than Arginine, don’t you want to know which of the two is in your pre-workout drink? In addition, if we are not shaggy-haired Cro-Magnon cave (I mean gym) dwellers do we really need to support advertizing that promotes that image? But it can be a lot worse than just an image problem . . . .

Let’s take a look at a rather benign ingredient in many Pre-Workout drinks: 1, 3 dimethylamylamine.

Also known as DMAA, Geranium Extract, MHA (and a few more aliases) this compound was originally isolated in the 1940s as a nasal decongestant. It is similar in structure and effect to amphetamine. Like ephedrine it is banned by many sports organizations and will cause an athlete to fail a blood test. (How about that after all your hard training for your next fight?)

Side effects? Here is what WebMD has to say, “Dimethylamylamine is LIKELY UNSAFE when taken by mouth. Since it is thought to work like a stimulant, there is concern that it might increase the chance of serious side effects such as rapid heartbeat, increase in blood pressure, and increase the chance of having a heart attack or stroke.”

OK, so if you are young and healthy this stuff may not kill you but you should at least know what you are getting into when this substance is on the label of your pre-workout. But how about a much more serious instance where your lack of diligence might very well result in your death?

“Bro-Science” + risky supplements can kill you.

I hate serving as an example of being stupid but I can speak from personal experience on this one. In the early days of my competitive bodybuilding career I was looking for every edge I could safely and legally get (I have never done steroids, yet still earned a pro card invite from the I.F.B.B.). I relied heavily on the expertise of the knowledgeable counterman at my locale supplement store (a national chain). He was usually spot-on with his recommendations, from the preferred protein powder to the most effective form of zinc (it’s zinc picolinate, by the way). I came to trust him with my physique (and my health, it turned out).

One day I asked him about all the brightly labeled bottles that were on the shelves behind the counter, inaccessible to the walk-in customer. That was the “secret weapon” stuff—from potent competition-strength diuretics to the fabled “Pro-Hormones.” All legal, to be sure. But dangerous? You bet.

I had read enough to know that many of these pro-hormones were, indeed, “designer steroids,” barely legal versions of banned substances. But if they were legal for sale over-the-counter, I figured; “How bad could they be?” I had also read enough to know that some of these were very hard on your liver and blood cholesterol levels. Being a Masters competitor (no “Spring chicken”) I did not want anything messing with either of those vital functions. And, as recent blood tests had shown, my “bad” cholesterol (LDL) was always very low and my “good” Cholesterol (HDL) was very high I did not worry too much. Also, recent (stress) testing had shown my heart arteries to be in excellent condition. Besides, the counter guy I trusted said this product was what was known as “clean” (“Bro-Speak” meaning easy on liver and blood cholesterol levels).

I practically flew out of the store with my new secret weapon clutched tightly in my sweaty little hand . . . visions of hugeness dancing in my head and chomping at the bit to start my 12 week cycle.

Dancing with Death on the Stationary Bike

I can say that the product worked pretty well in the gym. I was able to train at an even higher level than my usual, insane intensity (a level that had already earned me local and regional wins). One evening, however (about three weeks after starting the new supplement), while hammering it on the stationary bike I suddenly found I could not catch my breath. And no matter how hard I pedaled I could not get my heart rate up past 100 beats per minute (my usual goal was intervals at 145 or so). Genius that I am, I quickly intuited that something was quite possibly amiss (though I had no pain in my chest or arms). But, because I am a guy—and what good is being a guy if you can’t be stupid?—I decided that since I could not do cardio, I would just move on to my weight workout, which I somehow completed. I have no idea how.

Made it home, showered, and got out of the shower feeling as if I was, in some strange fashion, made of glass, placing my feet down ever so carefully on the tiled floor. Got dressed and went to lie down on the family room sofa to ponder my circumstances. By then my heart was fluttering, changing speeds and I was feeling veeerrry strange indeed. (Still no pain, though.) I could, however, tell there was something very wrong with my heart. As I lay there I considered that it might be preferable to risk dying on that purple leather couch rather than endure the horrendous experience of going to the local hospital’s black hole of an emergency room. Serious guy logic prevailed, however, as I deduced that if I died on the couch, my wife would never again go in the family room—seriously devaluing my home’s value to my next of kin. (“Honey, would you mind giving me a ride to the hospital?”)

At the emergency room, they quickly realized I was having a heart “incident” and promptly took great care of me. Indeed, they discovered I had suffered a sudden, total blockage of my heart’s Right Coronary Artery (the biggest one, often called by doctors, “the Widowmaker” because a serious blockage there usually results in death). So, with a 100% blockage, why wasn’t I dead?

Here’s why, according to my heart doctor: Decades of very hard training had caused my heart to develop what are known as “collateral arteries.” These arteries, not there at birth, carried additional blood to areas of my heart normally supplied by the Right Coronary Artery. They provided enough blood flow to the heart muscle to allow me to escape without any permanent damage. (Pretty good reason to work out, huh?) The docs went in through the femoral artery in my leg, opened up the RCA and put a stent in. I was as good as new!

My formerly healthy blood levels had changed in a matter of weeks!

Here is the take-away, for you, brothers and sisters in iron. Hospital blood tests showed that my previously healthy cholesterol levels had completely reversed themselves. At first, my doctor even thought the lab had mistakenly given me someone else’s results. But, no, it was true. In just a few weeks, my cholesterol levels looked like those of a person who had spent a lifetime eating a diet loaded with huge amounts of animal fat, not someone eating “clean” as I always had. What had changed, the doctors wondered? I did not tell them, but I knew what had changed—the addition of those little pro-hormones to my supplement regimen.

When I got back from the hospital, I quickly looked up on the internet what was in the supplement that I had bought, over-the-counter, from my trusted Bro. One of the ingredients was 2a-17a-dimethyl-5a-androst-3-one; otherwise known as “Superdrol.” This is a notoriously risky steroid-like substance (now banned in most countries) with a list of side effects longer than Shaq’s right arm. That list includes everything from headaches, back pain, cellulitis, high blood pressure, serious liver damage and adverse cholesterol changes. Hardly the “clean” product I was advised it was.

Seriously . . . How Stupid Can a Guy Be?

Yes, it was epically (almost fatally) stupid of me to figure out what was in my supplement after I began putting it in my body. It was my fault, no one else’s. I (and you) cannot count on someone else to bear responsibility for what we ingest; or for anyone else to be all-knowledgeable regarding the thousands of products legal for sale. So whether it is the relatively benign 1, 3 dimethylamylamine in your pre-workout drink, or something much more dangerous, such as 17a-dimethyl-5a-androst-3-one Superdrol, you owe it to yourself to take responsibility for knowing what the substances on the label are, and what they can do.

Know what’s in your supplements. Because many manufacturers would rather sell you than tell you.

About the Author:

Tony DiCosta is a freelance writer and successful Master’s bodybuilding competitor. Tony has appeared both as a writer and model in numerous magazines including Iron Man, Planet Muscle and Muscular Development. He can be reached at

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