A report by Grand View Research predicts that the supplement industry will be worth $272.4 billion by 2028. To put that into context, the US soft drink industry was worth $253.7 billion in 2016. Supplements are growing at an unprecedented rate. But how necessary are they? Can bodybuilding be done without supplements?
It is entirely possible to be a successful bodybuilder without taking supplements. You could match almost all of your nutritional needs through diet. However, some supplements such as creatine are difficult to replace. It makes sense to use certain supplements, but they aren’t vital.
In this article, I will take a look at what supplements are useful, and what supplements are replaceable, while looking to answer the question “can bodybuilding be done without supplements?”.
Obviously, bodybuilding can be done without supplements. In the same way that you could run a marathon without shoes on. It can be done, some crazy people will say that it has some advantage over conventional wisdom, but ultimately there is a reason why it isn’t done.
Incidentally, during this discussion, I will be conveniently ignoring anabolic steroid use. Do steroids count as a supplement? I guess. But talking about steroids will just muddy the waters. So for this article, I am talking about natural bodybuilding, with no anabolic steroids.
The answer to the question is fairly obvious when you think about it. Bodybuilding existed before supplements. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, there was no whey protein, no creatine powder, and absolutely no BCAA powder.
That’s not to say that sportsmen and women of the time weren’t trying every trick in the book to gain an advantage over their rivals. During a walking race in 1807, Abraham Wood took laudanum (an opiate) to stay awake. Cyclists in the early Tour De France would take cocaine, strychnine, and nitroglycerine (all legal at the time) in an attempt to improve their performance.
But the idea of taking nutritional supplements to improve training didn’t really begin until the 1950s. That means that greats such as Eugene Sandow enjoyed considerable success without any supplements to help him.
I can’t think of too many reasons to avoid supplements if you are looking to become a bodybuilder. Sure, supplements cost money, but they can also save you money. Whey protein may feel expensive when you are ordering a 50 serving tub, but at a cost per gram of protein, it’s an absolute bargain!
The problem with supplements is that they are often viewed as a shortcut to success. Who needs to eat 7 different vegetables per day when you can just drink a greens powder shake? Who needs a varied diet when you can get all of your vitamins and mineral in a pill? Why prepare and cook 12 chicken breasts when a tub of whey protein can get me all the protein I need?
Avoiding supplements may help you to pay proper attention to your diet, which has numerous benefits. Eating more fruit and vegetables, getting your protein from a variety of healthy sources, timing your pre-workout meals so that you get the energy you require to train harder.
There is a lot that has to be said for taking control of your own nutrition and avoiding all shortcuts. While I said earlier that removing some supplements could actually end up costing you more as it would require a lot of food to replace, it is also true that removing all supplements would probably save you money overall.
So the benefits are:
Those benefits are pretty great, but not exactly spectacular. Later on, I will discuss how to strike a balance between diet and supplementation so that you can save money, improve your nutrition, and still benefit from some irreplaceable supplements such as creatine monohydrate.
The biggest downside of avoiding supplements would be a drop in performance, a drop in recovery, and an increase in unnecessary work. Without whey protein (or whatever equivalent you have) you are going to need to find other ways to increase protein in your diet. If you currently require 150 grams per day, then that could be a lot of cooking!
Creatine monohydrate is probably the most effective and well-tested supplement out there, and it is almost impossible to get enough of it without supplementation. You would have to eat a LOT of beef, fish, and poultry.
Finding ways to get enough of every single vitamin and mineral is possible, but incredibly challenging, and a multivitamin is very easy to take. The same goes for vitamin D during winter. It is possible, but also, it may just be more effective to take a daily supplement as well as improving your diet and spending time outdoors.
While it is possible to recover from exercise without supplements, they can certainly help. Creatine, whey protein, ZMA, and the like can really speed up the process. While high doses of caffeine can help with pain relief the next day and can improve performance in the gym.
None of these downsides are dealbreakers, and the more I write this section, the weaker the argument gets! But the truth is that supplements are excellent at filling in gaps in your nutrition that you may be struggling with.
At Precision Nutrition, I learned that you should really try to get your clients to improve their nutrition through diet. But, if a client is really struggling, then a supplement is better than nothing. Which is the exact advice I would give here. Try to fix your nutritional deficiencies with diet, but supplements can certainly help.
Remember, if you are training at a high intensity, you are more likely to be deficient in vitamins and minerals, for the simple reason that you are using them to exercise! This is why elite athletes are more susceptible to the common cold than regular people.
The downsides are:
The following supplements are very important for bodybuilding. It is possible to be successful without them, but it would be much harder. Further on in the article, I will be giving you a list of what supplements I think a bodybuilder should consider, but this is a much shorter list of supplements you need.
Creatine has so many benefits it’s difficult to confine them to such a small list. Check out my podcast on the surprising benefits of creatine to learn more. But essentially, taking creatine can increase strength and power, improve aerobic and anaerobic performance. Help improve recovery, help improve cognition, and may also help improve your mood. It’s a wonderful supplement, and dirt cheap to buy.
I know that caffeine is seen by many as a regular part of your diet and not a supplement. But when used in bodybuilding it definitely falls under the latter category. For success in bodybuilding, you really need to be taking higher doses than you would for recreation. You may also want to cycle it, so that you get the most out of it. Also, many people don’t like tea or coffee and get their caffeine from pre-workouts or caffeine tablets. Caffeine can improve mood, reduce fatigue, reduce the perception of pain, increase strength and power, improve aerobic and anaerobic performance, and may also help reduce pain from DOMS.
This may prove controversial, as it is easy to get protein from other sources. But bodybuilders tend to require huge amounts of protein each day, and without a protein powder would struggle to hit that. Vegan and vegetarian bodybuilders in particular would need some form of supplementation.
As I mentioned before, elite athletes require more vitamins and minerals than regular people due to the intensity of their training. If you are in the gym 7 days per week, then you are going to need more vitamins and minerals than before, and you will struggle to do this purely through diet. A multivitamin is no replacement for a healthy diet, but it can help with topping up.
As you can see, this is not a particularly exhaustive list. But remember, these are supplements that I would deem vital to success. Not supplements that I would recommend for peak performance. I’m saying that without these supplements you are not going to perform optimally as a bodybuilder. Other supplements can be taken or not depending on your goals, current diet, and budget.
The biggest issues for any bodybuilder avoiding supplements will be pre-workout nutrition, a lack of protein, and deficiencies in vitamins and minerals due to training at a high intensity. So any diet that wants to avoid supplements completely needs to target these three areas. If you are following a vegan diet, then this is going to be even more tricky from a protein point of view, though the vitamin and mineral side of things may be a little easier.
Without a pre-workout supplement, your pre-workout nutrition is going to be vital. If you don’t consider caffeine a supplement, and you have it anyway, then try to get a coffee in about 40 minutes before your workout. Working out 60 minutes after breakfast or lunch is a good idea. But if you can’t manage that, then you will want a small pre-workout meal beforehand. The meal should be high in protein and high in carbohydrates, but relatively low in fats.
Low-fat Greek yoghurt with some fruit and perhaps some oats added on top is quite light but high in protein and a good mix of fast-digesting carbs (fruit) and slow-digesting carbs (oats). There are many other options, depending on your workout goals. If you are bulking at the time, then some higher calorie foods could work well.
The most important thing to do is to learn how to spread your protein intake out throughout the day. Most people tend to eat the majority of their protein during their biggest meal of the day. This makes it difficult to increase protein intake to bodybuilding requirements.
So focus on increasing the amount of protein in your breakfast, and your lunch (or evening meal, whichever is smaller). You also need to consider finding some higher protein snacks to eat throughout the day. I’m not sure whether you would count a protein bar as a supplement or a snack, but they are a great choice. Other high-protein snacks include beef jerky, Greek yoghurt, a glass of milk, low-fat cheese, hard-boiled eggs, tuna sandwiches, cold chicken. You get the idea.
You also want to find protein in a large variety of food sources. Not just meat and dairy. Chickpeas, lentils, peas, nuts, seeds, and beans, are all good protein sources too. They can also help to improve your vitamin and mineral intake. This leads me neatly to …
Without a multivitamin, you are going to have to get all your nutrients from fruit, vegetables, meat, and grains. Pay a bit more attention to B vitamins, which athletes are most likely to be deficient in, and female bodybuilders should look for foods high in iron and calcium. This is one area where you may want to break your no-supplement rule though, as it can be quite hard to combat deficiencies created by exercise through diet. Particularly if you are in a cut and have to keep calories low.
I would say that a bodybuilding diet that does not include at least some supplements is going to be sub-optimal. I would also say that a bodybuilding diet that over-relies on supplements is not ideal. So is there a compromise? Some middle ground? I think so.
The trick is to avoid supplements that are easily replaced with diet, and take supplements that are hard to replace. For example, a multivitamin is a good idea for an athlete, as intense exercise can lead to deficiencies even if your diet is optimal. Creatine monohydrate is necessary as a supplement because it isn’t really found in the diet (in sufficient dosages).
Whereas, a pre-workout supplement may not be necessary if you already have a high-protein diet, and can have a double espresso before your workout. The same goes for post-workout supplements. If your nutrition is well planned then they are pretty easily replaced. Saving you money.
Avoiding caffeine in the late afternoon and choosing a carefully picked evening meal can reduce the need for a good sleep supplement, and nutrition can also help with recovery. But you may still find supplementation can help in this situation.
The trick is to get your diet in top form, and then to supplement where necessary. Rather than using supplements as a shortcut to success.
I’ve spent several years writing hundreds and hundreds of supplement reviews for a number of websites. In that time I’ve managed to get a good idea of which supplements are useful and which ones are a waste of money. But there is a large grey area between the two, filled with supplements that might work, or do work but only under certain conditions.
Talking about every single supplement that works would take hundreds of articles. Instead, I’m just going to talk about a few that bodybuilders should consider. If you have a different supplement that you want to try, then either comment below or go onto Examine.com, where you can find a complete breakdown.
As mentioned above, creatine monohydrate is incredibly effective, is very inexpensive, and can’t be realistically found in your diet. Personally, I enjoy the creatine monohydrate that has flavourings added, but if you’re on a budget just get some plain creatine monohydrate and mix with water or fruit juice.
If you drink coffee then just have that, but if not caffeine tablets or a pre-workout that contain caffeine is a great shout. Many supplements contain l-theanine, which combines well with caffeine and can remove the jitteriness and nausea that often accompany it. If you are training late in the afternoon or evening, then find yourself a non-stim pre-workout.
Whey protein is the best, but there is also casein protein and vegan protein blends that come from rice, peas, and soya. If you are bulking then a protein/carb blend is a good way to put on weight. Protein powders may seem expensive up front, but the cost per serving is very low, making it an inexpensive and easy way to hit your protein targets.
If you are taking a pre-workout already, then it probably already contains beta-alanine. But if not, taking beta-alanine can really help improve muscular endurance and banish fatigue. Please note that beta-alanine is NOT timing-dependent, meaning that you can take it at any time of day, you don’t have to take it as a pre-workout.
You should be trying to eat as many fruits and vegetables as possible. But if for whatever reason you can’t, then a greens supplement is an excellent supplement to grab. As with creatine, I like to find a greens powder that tastes amazing and easily mixes with water. Have it on a day where your vegetable intake hasn’t been good enough.
If you are training at a high intensity, particularly while in a calorie deficit, then a multivitamin is a really good idea. It may not be necessary during a bulk though, nor should you take it if you are not training too hard.
It’s better to eat oily fish or foods that are high in omega-3, but not everyone eats fish! If this is the case, then a chewy omega-3 sweet is a great alternative (yes, I am an absolute child who eats these). Omega-3 supplementation is important for bodybuilders because they tend to have high omega-6 intake (thanks to a lot of meat), so they need to improve that ratio.
This one is a good idea for anyone who wants to experience a proper pump during their workout. Beetroot juice is the closest thing you will get to pure nitrate, which massively increases nitric oxide, and leads to increased blood flow. Try and find a pre-workout with beetroot juice or powder, or take it separately before your workout.
I’m a new convert to HMB, but it appears to be very good at reducing muscle damage and helping preserve muscle during a calorie deficit. This could be a good idea in the run-up to a competition, where DOMS can be a big issue.
The following supplements aren’t necessarily useless, but they are definitely overrated by bodybuilders. I’m actually a believer in natural testosterone supplements, but if your diet, exercise, and recovery are on point (which is the whole point of this article) then they aren’t really going to do anything.
Most (legal) fat burners are just supplements that contain ridiculously high levels of caffeine and similar stimulants. They are designed to increase heart rate, increase body temperature, and generally raise your metabolism. But you are probably already taking caffeine, and if you are dieting correctly there should be absolutely no need to use these supplements. A waste of money.
Look, if you are looking to increase your testosterone levels then there are better ways to do that then “natural testosterone” supplements. These can be quite effective if your current levels are very low. But if your diet is healthy, you are exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep, then your testosterone levels should be fine. Focus on sorting out these aspects of your life before spending money on testosterone supplements.
The only real benefit that BCAAs have is that they can lower fatigue during a workout. If your diet has enough protein, then BCAAs are going to do absolutely nothing. A complete waste of money. If you like the taste (which a lot of my clients say they do) then go for it. But it’s not doing anything other than hydrating you. Which you can get with regular water.
Yes, bodybuilding can be done without supplements. It can also be done without using dumbbells, or it can be done naked while only listening to Mongolian throat music. But why do those things? I don’t see the point.
Supplements are definitely overused, and I understand the desire to avoid paying a fortune for pills and powders. But I’ve learned over the years that there are a lot of benefits of certain supplements, and you’d be mad to ignore them.
Just ensure that you’ve got every other aspect of bodybuilding in place before worrying about supplementation. Sleep 8 hours each night, don’t overtrain. Eat a varied diet with lots of fruit and vegetables. Train hard and with excellent form.
Once you have done that, take a look at my list of recommended supplements and find the ones that suit your goals best. It may just be one or two, it may be the entire list! Just be sensible and don’t waste your money on BCAAs.
Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.