Rethinking Supplements for Strongman - Enriching Your Diet To Eliminate The Pills and Powders


Step foot into any supplement store and you’ll be told that the brands layering the walls and shelves are superior to the other brands sold by the competitor down the street. Not only will you hear that you often will be spoon-fed a story about how you must take this or that product because it’s the next big thing, or even worse because you don’t get enough of it from your diet alone. 

I used to buy into every supplement marketing gimmick under the sun. That’s part of the journey that I think every naive young lifter has to go through to some extent. However, now my perspective has shifted in the opposite direction and I’m starting to explore how it might be possible to push your performance to the limit as a strongman competitor without the use of any supplements at all. 

The marketers in charge of running the big companies that contribute to the multi-billion dollar supplement industry will tell you that their product is far superior to getting whatever ingredients from food sources; they’re lying. 

Yes, it is possible, and ultimately preferable to skip supplements altogether to spend your hard earned dollars on real foods that will help you to become bigger, stronger, faster and even smarter. 

For a more in-depth look at the nutrient requirements for strongman, my book Seasons of Strongman dedicates one of the four pillars of strongman performance to nutrition. You can learn more about the type of foods, how much to eat, and also the supplements, if you need them, that will help you to perform at your very best in training and competition and improve your chances of success. The progression in the book will take you from the very beginning to the podium so that even if nutrition and supplementation currently have you baffled, you will be able to build a solid understanding of performance nutrition from the book. 

Today, let’s take a step back from the supplement spotlight and look at how many of the supplements that you are likely consuming are far from necessary and what food-based options can be reintroduced for optimal health and greater strongman performance. 

Keep in mind that supplements are a very novel approach to how humans consume nutrients as well as performance in sports. While undoubtedly the bar is continuously being raised and we are bigger and stronger than ever before, and perhaps the science of sports supplements has something to do with that, the very best athletes in the world who are enjoying the greatest longevity in their sport of choice, as well as healthy living after they retire, are dedicating greater time and effort to eating the right foods first and foremost. 

You’re probably well aware that supplements are supposed to be added to an already superior diet to additionally augment your performance or health where you are predisposed to deficiency. The problem is that everyone is looking for the quick fix and instant solution and smart marketers in the supplement industry know this and have led you to believe that the pyramid need not be complete first and you can get the instant results you’re looking for by going straight to taking the supplement at the peak of the pyramid that you’ve been told will solve your problem. 

While sports performance and ultimate health are not synonymous, the closer that the two come together, the better the chances are that you will be adequately nourishing your body and best prepare your body for performance. With this in mind, I’ve come to appreciate the idea of replacing the majority of supplements with whole foods, sometimes referred to as “functional foods” that impart the benefits of most of the supplements that you spend money on each month. 

Consider if any of the following supplements could perhaps be replaced in your routine by eating more of the following foods:

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Probiotics - Pills Vs. Fermented Foods

There are so many delicious fermented foods that provide you with a broad range of probiotic bacteria that you rarely need to actually take a probiotic supplement.

For a number of reasons, it is preferable to find a food source of probiotics that you like rather than depending on a supplement to get the job done. Very few probiotic supplements are manufactured and stored well enough to provide you with the benefits you are looking for. The processing and packaging are tricky and expensive since live bacteria have to be preserved in a viable form or else kept in living form so that they can reactivate in your gut and not just pass through your body as dead cells. These supplements also have to use expensive encapsulation methods to allow the bacteria to survive long enough in the stomach to pass safely into the small intestine and flourish. Stomach acid is a carpet bomb against bacteria because we can’t risk allowing pathogenic bacteria a free pass through the body to do as it pleases. Furthermore, most products have different ratios of the probiotic bacteria contained in them and there is evidence to suggest that not all probiotic bacteria are created equal when it comes to conferring benefits to your gut health. 

The supplement manufacturers that properly prepare probiotics charge a lot for their products because it takes a lot of work to produce. You’ll typically be looking at something north of $60 per month for probiotic supplements if you buy a product that is even worth your time taking. You are far better off buying, or making your own, fermented foods and eating some of them daily with most meals to nourish your gut with the bacteria that naturally will flourish as part of one of the oldest preservation methods known to humans. The only probiotic food I really have to buy much of anymore is kombucha when I care to treat myself, as I can make my own sauerkraut, kimchi, and now yogurt too. Eating a variety of these probiotic foods will allow you to get different probiotic bacteria and improve the likelihood of adequately nourishing your gut. For instructions on how I make sauerkraut, check out this article. 

There is a time and place when you should really need to consider adding in probiotics and that is when you’re suffering from extreme digestive system ailments and/or had to be prescribed a cycle of antibiotics. In these situations, spending the money on a high-quality supplement with 10 billion or more CFU of probiotic bacteria helps to get your body back on track a lot quicker (something with 50 or 60 billion CFU will be even better for this intensive repair).  

Yogurt - Replacing The Need For Protein Powder?

Could yogurt or kefir replace your need for post-workout protein powder? If you make it for yourself it’s going to be as cost-effective, if not even more affordable, and will provide you with additional benefits by being a great probiotic source, which is something that you won’t get from drinking protein powder. 

As already mentioned above in the probiotics section, making your own yogurt is a great and highly affordable way to increase the quality and amount of probiotics in your diet. Another potential benefit of yogurt is that it might be able to completely replace your need for consuming protein powders, whether after a workout or any other time of day. Whey protein is flaunted as being a highly digestible and efficient protein to consume but even better than whey is short-chain protein peptides. In supplemental form, these products are expensive, but another great way to get easily digestible and absorbable peptides is through consuming fermented dairy products, which have the complete amino acid profile of both whey and casein broken down into shorter peptides chains due to the lactic acid fermentation process. While you can eat as much yogurt as you want to get your protein requirements, on a per-gram-of-protein basis less will still be more than other sources of protein, even compared to whey, because the shorter peptide chains are even more efficient and absorbable and therefore can be utilized better by the body.

Yogurt also makes a great base for high-calorie meal replacement smoothies as it will have more fat and a little more carbs than protein powders. There are smart, research-oriented supplement companies starting to make fermented protein supplements, but why buy a supplemental form when you can go straight to the source and make your own yogurt? 

Protein powders are sort of in a grey area that I don’t necessarily consider them as a supplement as much as a more convenient form of the protein-rich foods that they are processed from. If you avoid dairy and prefer another type of protein powder or are travelling, yogurt might not be the best option to replace all of your additional protein needs and it will be easier to travel with a couple of scoops of protein instead. To avoid counteracting all your work in getting in probiotics for gut health be sure to avoid as many artificial sweeteners in your diet as possible and choose a protein that’s sweetened with stevia. 

Bone Broth For Healthy Joints

Bone broth as well as eating more meat on the bone can replace your need for joint supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin. Eating more meat on the bone or taking the leftover carcass from your chicken dinner and pressure cooking all the good stuff leftover in it can replace your need to spend money on these supplements that many strength athletes come to depend on to keep their joints from aching.

Most often glucosamine and chondroitin supplements are processed from shellfish and crustaceans, which may explain why their effect is validated yet minimal since not all of those compounds are perfectly analogous to the compounds that make up human cartilage and joint tissues.

By skipping those supplements and spending time or money on going straight to the source with meat on the bone and then cooking the leftover carcass, you have another protein source in your diet that also is rich in the minerals and actual components that make up your joints. Meat on the bone also tends to cost less than those sterile-looking trimmed boneless and skinless chicken breasts. When prepared correctly, bone broth is rich in bone minerals like calcium, as well as the proteins and glycosaminoglycans that cartilage and joint tissues consist of. The proteins, like collagen, are highly digestible, helping to spare protein breakdown in the body, contribute to rebuilding and hydrating joint tissue, and also can aid in digestive health. Chondroitin and its constituent glucosamine, as well as hyaluronic acid also found in bone broth, are examples of glycosaminoglycans that make up the joint tissues of humans and other animals with similar skeletal systems. By increasing the amount of these compounds in the diet, there is more opportunity for them to cycle through the body and help to nourish and repair cartilage.

Omega-3s Straight From The Source

Fish oil is a supplement that I usually recommend everyone, especially athletes, keep in the mix for the anti-inflammatory effects. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with replacing my fish oil by simply eating more fish daily. In his book, The Plant Paradox, a nutrition and diet book rife with controversial claims, to say the least, Dr. Gundry did make a few points that intrigued me enough to test them out for myself. One, in particular, was the statement that the only patients he saw who had adequate blood omega-3 levels were those who ate sardines every day. So with that in mind, at about $1.50 per day you can consume your omega-3s, including DHA and EPA, while also getting a great source of minerals, vitamin D, and protein. Cheap fish oil capsules are of low quality and because omega-3s are very delicate, if they aren't processed correctly, you’re going to be left with nothing more than a capsule full of oxidized and useless, if not harmful, fats. In order to get the quality you need, you’ve got to spend a lot on fish oil or confidently know that the manufacturer you’ve selected has done a good job in producing the fish oil capsules. You should also keep in mind the quality of the packaging, as light will also further oxidize fats, so be sure to look for an opaque and dark coloured bottle. Liquid fish oils are usually prepared by more reputable companies but are just about equivalent in cost to regularly eating fish which is why it’s a good idea to consider that alternative option and just get more fish in your diet at the additional benefit of high-quality protein. 

For any or all of the suggestions, all I can really say is if you think it’s a viable option for yourself, try it out and see if it works for you. Nothing in health and nutrition is binary.

Part 2 will be coming next week with more supplements you should consider replacing as well as which ones should probably stay in the mix.