The impact of supplements on athlete/fighter performance has always been one of the most talked about topics in the sports industry. Specifically, in the context of this website’s focus, do supplements really help in the performance and recovery for those training Muay Thai and similar fight sports?
The short answer: yes. (click here to jump to the supplement recommendations)
For the longer answer, however, you really should read the rest of this article.
What this article is: This is the essential guide to the best supplements for Muay Thai training, essentially legit supplements that I personally take on a regular basis to maximize performance in training, and muscle building.
What this article is not: This is not an article that attempts to review every damn performance-enhancing supplement out in the market. Just the essentials that you need for training Muay Thai, MMA or other fight sports and not the fluffy stuff the sales rep or other websites try to sales-talk you into buying.
NOTE: If you have any existing illness or condition, please consult your physician about interactions between medications you are taking and nutritional supplements.
The Truth About Supplements
Walk right into any supplement store and you will be surrounded by sky-high walls of bottles, tubs, sachets and what have you. Everyone boasts to produce life-changing miracles or lightning-fast results. But think about this: the global supplement industry is worth over 100 billion dollars. You can be certain that every company puts in a crazy amount of marketing dollars so they can stuff a pill or scoop of powder down your throat. Whether the product actually works is another story.
Many times, what you will see is a product labelled with a ridiculous name, decorated with an exotic origin story and advertised with dubious claims. The truth is that there is no way your country’s food and drug administration agency is able to sift out every bullshit in a sea of miracle pills and powder. The control on supplements also isn’t as strict as pharmaceutical drugs.
The supplement industry wants you to believe that supplements offer a quick and easy way to achieve your physical goals. In fast-paced modern society, it is easy to get persuaded by persistent and clever social media marketing – ripped bodies and celebrity endorsements are a lethal combination.
Much of modern combat sports science is concerned with performance, strengthening, and recovery. Fighters need to be in consistently tip-top condition in order to clock in the daily hours at the gym, training at maximum intensity so as to maximize the gains from every session. Any downtime is just time wasted. The key to success lies in an effective training program, adequate rest and proper nutrition.
For regular folks like us who train Muay Thai for recreational or fitness purposes, or even those of you who compete outside of a full-time job, our personal goals aren’t exactly far off from a professional fighter. We train because we all want to become the best versions of ourselves. But we simply cannot commit to the same, strict lifestyle and yet we all longed to be like our heroes. This is when we all succumb to the promise of supplements.
Whole foods should ideally be able to provide us with all the nutrition that is needed. Proteins? Just eat lots of eggs and lean meat. Vitamins? Load up on multiple servings of fruits every day. Minerals? Salad. If only life were that simple and straightforward because it isn’t.
In order to obtain the necessary nutrition solely from whole foods, you would have to consume a copious amount. That can lead to digestive issues as well as financial challenges. For example, a 155-lb man needs around 120g of protein per day. This amounts to 20 whole hard-boiled eggs! While no sane human being is going to consume that many eggs, this gives you an estimation of the amount of calories you need to intake. And that’s just only for protein.
Then there is also a need for faster muscle recovery which requires again, a copious amount of diverse foods for the different amino acids, vitamins, fatty acids etc.. It is simply not practical for most people.
So this is where supplements truly come in as a savior.
Benefits of Supplements
The nutritional requirements of a fighter, or just one who trains martial arts casually on a regular basis, differs very much from the average person. Fighters and martial artists have demanding physical goals that they work towards. As I mentioned earlier, it is difficult for those training in fight sports to obtain adequate or the necessary nutrition just from whole foods alone. The body starts to break down in the process of intensive training and hastens even further in the absence of a sound recovery plan. Supplements aim to fill up the gap of what cannot realistically be accomplished from food.
There are several benefits to be had with using supplements in addition to a proper diet. Here are some reasons why you should consider including them as part of your daily nutritional program (if you haven’t already):
Easy to Consume
We can all agree that protein is a nutrient that is vital to our muscular health, so let’s use it for comparison purpose. One whole egg contains 6g of protein while a scoop of whey protein powder contains 30g. You will need to consume 5 whole eggs just to match the protein content in just 1 scoop of protein powder. Then there’s all that food preparation involved in cooking eggs versus just a quick shake of the blender bottle. If you ask me, a 300ml drink sure is a lot easier to consume than 5 cooked eggs.
Easy Absorption, Fast Action
Supplements typically come in powdered or pill form, are easy to digest and hence also easily absorbed by the body (some even bypass the liver and gut, going straight into bloodstream). This is why they are great as pre- or post-workout fuel. Before workout, just mix it up and down it half an hour prior to training and you are all good to go. After an intense session, your body craves energy and amino acids. A post-workout concoction helps to replenish energy and speed up recovery. Ideal for the majority of us who don’t always have the luxury of time.
Supplements work out to be much cheaper compared to whole foods for the same amount of nutrition. Much as I love my eggs and steaks and wild salmon, it is financially more realistic to derive a portion of my daily nutritional requirements from supplements. Remember that even with cheap food protein options like eggs and chicken breast, you have to factor in cooking ingredients, preparation, and gas/electricity costs. I’ll take a protein shake after my workout any day.
Before you go crazy with the supplements, remember this: as the name suggests, supplements are meant to be supplementary to a proper diet. Food first, supplements second. Real food are more complex in terms of the nutrition that they offer, containing a variety of beneficial nutrients and phytonutrients required by the body. Natural fiber and anti-oxidants from food also offer no health risks compared to their supplements counterparts.
In moderation, supplements can offer us improved performance during training and shorter recovery period. Excessive consumption exceeding the recommended dosage, however, can lead to cellular damage and hurt your kidneys, liver, and heart. Unfortunately, just like the food industry, supplements are often loaded with color additives, excessive sweetening and even *gasp* harmful chemicals. Always remember to check the label thoroughly and go for the highest quality you can afford.
Supplements aren’t meant to be meal replacements. Just remember that.
Best Supplements for Fight Sports
I’m not particularly strict with my diet but as much as possible, I try to obtain the required nutrition from food. That’s to say I eat my daily 2-4 servings of fruits and vegetables, as well eggs, fish and meat in reasonable quantity. As an Asian, rice is also a staple food that features in most of my meals.
We all know how physically demanding Muay Thai training can be and so I frequently turn to supplements as a pre-workout fuel to power through. I also replenish with a protein shake right after training to speed up the recovery since I train almost everyday.
In order for the supplements to be effective, you have to understand what each supplement is and what it is used for. You can then decide for yourself which are the right ones for your needs. I have listed 5 science-proven supplements -backed by sound research and proper study- that are used by professional fighters and athletes around the world. These are also the supplements that I personally take and would wholly recommend:
Whey protein comes from whey, a liquid that separates from milk during the production of cheese. It is a complete, high-quality protein that contains the 9 essential amino acids that are crucial for muscle building and cellular repair.
Whey protein supplements come in 3 forms: concentrate, isolate and hydrolysate. Both isolate and hydrolysate contain a higher amount of protein content than concentrate while remaining lower in lactose, fats and carbohydrates. Hydrolysate is additionally processed and is the purest, and most easily digestible form.
Whey protein shake isn’t just the beverage of choice for bodybuilding meatheads, it is the staple supplement for all self-respecting athletes. Whey protein powder is often the introductory supplement for bodybuilders, athletes and fighters looking to make more substantive strength gains. If that is what you want, you will need sufficient protein intake in tandem with a strengthening program and one can’t work without the other.
Adequate protein consumption stimulates muscle protein synthesis and results in a net protein gain. On average, one scoop of the powder contains all the protein you need (30g) as a post-workout to kick-start the muscle synthesis process. Whey powder offers a higher concentration of protein to calories when compared to meat sources, making it a convenient solution looking to gain lean muscles.
what science says: Twenty percent of the human body is made up of protein. Specifically, muscles are made primarily of protein and water, which is why you need protein to make your muscles grow. Whey protein is one of the most studied supplement and has been shown to be the most effective protein source. A study shows that it can help you increase strength, gain muscle and lose significant amounts of body fat. For those looking to lose fatty weight, another study shows whey protein helps to increase fat loss while sparing lean muscle in the cut.
While there have been several side effects purported such as liver failure, osteoporosis, kidney stones etc., they have mostly been disproved.
what to buy: Year after year, Optimum Nutrition (ON) Gold Standard Whey Protein Isolateclinches the top spot as the most recommended and popular protein powder in the market. Combine reliable results with 13 great flavors and you have a clear winner. If you are looking for something a little more premium, ON’s Hydrowhey is whey protein at its purest form. Hydrolyzed whey are purified through an isolation process to remove the excess lactose, cholesterol, carbohydrates, and fat for the quickest digestion and highest protein content. It’s also my personal choice of protein supplement. Try Chocolate Mint for a tasty but not overly sweet flavor, or Turbo Chocolate for one of the best-tasting protein shakes in the market.
The verdict is out: Creatine is one of the most effective and inexpensive supplements for working out. Like all muscle-building supplements, Creatine is made up of amino acids namely, L-arginine, glycine, and methionine. Creatine is usually taken to maximize performance, especially in intermittent short-term high-intensity training such as sprinting, weightlifting and martial arts like Muay Thai. Creatine supplementation provides more energy for training with more maximal power and strength, ideal for the aforementioned exercises.
Although Creatine can be found in food sources (notably beef and salmon), much of it is destroyed during cooking. The best way to maintain adequate creatine levels in the body is through Creatine supplementation. As it is expensive to extract creatine from animal sources, Creatine supplements are made synthetically through a chemical process reacting sarcosine and cyanamide in water. It is a perfectly safe process.
Creatine has been around for decades and its staying power is evidence of its effectiveness.
what science says: Your muscles use ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) as a main source of energy, and runs out of it as you use the muscles more. Creatine supplementation increases the phosphocreatine stores in the body which translates to effective regeneration of ATP. Sufficient Creatine levels in the body has also been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis for quicker recovery and more effective muscle gains.
A study has shown that Creatine taken as a post-workout has the best results but this is still a matter of debate. Others conclude that the key to enjoy the benefits of Creatine is to saturate the creatine content in the muscles. This is achieved through a loading phase of higher dosage (20g daily for 7-10 days) followed by a maintenance phase (3-5g daily). Whichever way you take it, the bottomline is that Creatine works.
what to buy: Of all the Creatine forms, Creatine Monohydrate is widely-recognized as the most effective. They come available in capsules or powder form. Creatine monohydrate powder doesn’t dissolve in the water so you will get lumps in your drink. The best way to take it is to mix it with a juice drink like grape or apple to make it easier to consume. You can’t go wrong with either Muscletech’s Platinum Creatine or Optimum Nutrition’s Micronized Creatine PowderOptimum Nutrition Micronized Creatine Monohydrate Powder, Unflavored, 600g.
Note: If you have history of acid reflux problems, Creatine Monohydrate may give you stomach problems. Check with your doctor or start on a low dose. Also avoid taking it with coffee as the combo is a potent stomach-cramping concoction. An alternative is Creatine Ethyl Esther, which is another form of Creatine that has the same benefits as Creatine Monohydrate.
Beta-Alanine is a non-essential amino acid which means that it is produced by our bodies. It gets converted into carnosine which helps to regulate the acidity in our bodies. Acidity level (lactic acid) rises in our bodies during intense muscular activity which can impair the muscles’ ability to contract. Carnosine helps to reduce the muscle acidity, decreasing feeling of fatigue and increasing the muscles output.
So if you are looking for enhanced muscular endurance for your training, look no further. Beta-Alanine has been frequently reported to enable an additional rep or 2 in the gym. For Muay Thai, this could mean an additional round of pad work or just not gassing out as easily.
The first time I took Beta-Alanine as a pre-workout supplement, the most significant feeling I experienced was the commonly-reported tingling sensations (parasthesia) which reacted about 20 minutes after ingestion. It was quite an intense tingle but went away after about 10 minutes. The positive side was that I felt more energised and powered-up through the training, smashing pads like a boss.
What science says: Without sufficient Beta-Alanine, the body is unable to make carnosine effectively. Studies have confirmed that Beta-Alanine raises the carnosine levels in the body, increasing the amount of work that can be performed at high intensities. Some studies have also found that Beta-Alanine supplementation helps with muscle growth than without.
Although food sources contain carnosine, it is broken down into beta-alanine and histidine when digested. Beta-alanine then enters muscle cells and gets converted to carnosine. This is why it is better to consume Beta-Alanine directly as it goes straight into muscle cells to be converted into carnosine.
The tingling sensation experienced as an effect of taking Beta-Alanine has also been found to be harmless.
what to buy: I prefer my supplements unflavored (except for whey protein because that stuff can taste nasty) so here I’m going with Optimum Nutrition’s unflavored Beta-Alanine. Never start with a full dose and work your way up due to the parasthesia effects which can be uncomfortable. After a few times, you will hardly even feel it.
Fish oil is quite possibly one of the most popular health supplements in the world. According to a report by National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, it is the most used natural product in the United States. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish Oil have a plethora of benefits that include decreasing risk of heart diseases, reducing symptoms of joint pain. For martial artists, Omega-3 fatty acids are amazing for managing inflammation and expediting your recovery between training sessions. Muscle soreness as a result of training can sometimes be caused by inflammation. Rather than turning to over-the-counter drugs like Ibuprofen, a natural product like fish oil is surely a healthier option.
Omega-3 deficiency can cause fatigue, skin ailments, depression and heart diseases, and is ranked the sixth highest killer of Americans. Omega-3 fatty acids are clearly essential to our health, but our bodies do not make them so we must get them from our diet.
I can personally vouch for fish oil’s effectiveness. Years before I started training Muay Thai, I was experiencing ill health through a physical condition that often plague me with severe muscular and joint inflammatory pain. When the drugs prescribed by the doctor did little to elevate the discomfort, I turned to fish oil which helped to ease the inflammation immensely. I have since become a devoted user of fish oil as a daily health supplement. So far, so good.
what science says: Fish oil has long been recommended as a supplement to drugs for anti-inflammatory usage. In fact, there have been many studies that support its effectiveness as an alternative to non-steroidal anti-inflammation drugs (NSAIDs). Although previously refuted, it has more recently been shown to reduce muscle soreness induced by exercise.
what to buy: With fish oil, I go with the tried-and-tested, and the number 1 best-seller. These are easy to swallow, and no more fishy burps. Some fish oil have been known to upset stomach and I have a tendency for that but I experienced no problems with this. Forget about the rest: this is the one to get.
The general consensus, and one that I subscribe to, is that supplements do not replace a proper diet of whole foods. I love my food and I savour the flavors of real foods but as outlined in the article, there are real benefits to including supplements in our diets. Be sure to always scrutinize the ingredients before purchasing and consuming any supplement. Moderation is key.
Supplements can improve performance for training to maximize gains, and also accelerate recovery to minimize downtime. But the degree at which supplements will work is in relation to the amount of effort you put into training. Success doesn’t come easy and supplements are not meant to replace hard work – they amplify the results of hard work.
As always, don’t just take my word for it. Supplements have worked for me in terms so I do encourage you to try out the supplements recommended here for a month or 2, stick to it and see if you feel any difference. Through your personal experience, you can then decide if you want to include supplements in your diet for the long term. Do share with me your experience and recommendations if you have any.