Whether you want to ‘cut‘ as a bodybuilder in your competition preparation or want to make your six-pack visible for the beach: you want to lose as little muscle as possible. Which supplements can help you burn fat and/or maintain muscle mass?
Caffeine is the world’s most widely used legal stimulant. It is a substance that occurs naturally in coffee, and in smaller quantities in tea. Energy drinks, cola and chocolate milk also contain caffeine.
Caffeine not only promotes performance during strength training, the substance also has a direct effect on fat loss. Caffeine also promotes metabolism and therefore fat burning. This is due to its stimulating effect on the nervous system and thus stimulating the active metabolism, increasing fat oxidation (the reaction of fat with oxygen) and due to its thermogenetic effect. Thermogenesis is the heat released in your body. And releasing that heat takes energy.
In addition to the resting metabolism, caffeine also stimulates the metabolism after a meal, in other words the consumption for the processing of food. In addition, caffeine ensures that the body gets more energy from stored fat instead of carbohydrates.
Due to its beneficial effects on fat burning, caffeine is now the most important ingredient in fat burners (see also below). They contain an average of 250 g of caffeine per daily dose. That is also the amount you can maintain if you take a caffeine supplement or coffee.
Caffeine stimulates the resting metabolism and thus the burning of fat.
2. CREATINE MONOHYDRATE
Good training is also very important in the cut, namely to keep your hard-earned muscle mass intact. Although creatine is known as a supplement to build muscle mass, you need it just as much in the cut to maintain muscle mass. Quitting creatine usually means some loss of strength, while in the cut it is hard enough to maintain your strength level. Just keep taking that scoop of powder every day.
The use of a creatine supplement may also have a specific benefit for cutters, it would limit muscle breakdown due to endurance efforts, which is a nice bonus if you do a lot of cardio. Furthermore, creatine also helps with recovery.
Yes, creatine supplementation makes your body retain more fluid, but as you can read in this article, that is no reason not to use creatine during the cut.
If you use creatine for muscle building, it is better to keep taking it in the cut, in order to maintain your strength level. In addition, creatine could limit muscle breakdown as a result of endurance exercise (such as some forms of cardio). Furthermore, creatine also helps with recovery.
Vitamins play a crucial role in many metabolic processes in your body, such as protein synthesis, which is important for muscle growth. If you are deficient in one or more vitamins and minerals, these processes will not run optimally. As a strength athlete you also need increased doses of most vitamins. This also applies to some minerals that also play a role in strength sports and muscle growth, such as magnesium and zinc.
A slightly healthy and varied diet provides sufficient vitamins and minerals, even if you exercise intensively. But if you combine that exercise with a long-term calorie-restricted diet, like bodybuilders in the cut, supplementation may be necessary. Especially if you do cardio in addition to strength sports.
Many bodybuilders eat healthier than normal during the cut, but with a long-term cut, the calorie intake will have to decrease further and further due to the slowing metabolism. This can still lead to a shortage of important micronutrients. Not a deficiency that is immediately harmful to health, but it can negatively affect your training performance.
A multivitamin is the most convenient and economical option if you want to supplement your micronutrients. A good multivitamin provides all important vitamins and minerals in adequate doses (not too much, not too little) and possibly also some other substances, such as amino acids and natural herbal extracts.
A multivitamin can ensure you that you are getting enough essential micronutrients, even with a long-term energy deficiency.
4. GREEN TEA EXTRACT
It has been known for some time that green tea has positive effects on health. It’s just that you have to drink a lot of cups of green tea in a day to benefit from it – more than ten. It is more convenient to opt for a green tea extract in powder or pill form.
Green tea is prepared from the leaves of the tea plant, which grows mainly in Southeast Asia. It is an unfermented type of tea, which retains the highest content of natural polyphenols. During the fermentation process of tea leaves (the way black tea is made), these polyphenols, the most important of which in tea are catechins, are largely lost through oxidation.
From research has shown that precisely these catechins are responsible for the beneficial effects of tea on health. The catechins in green tea have an antioxidant effect and fight free radicals in the body. The most important and powerful catechin is EGCG, or epigallocatechin gallate. That is why the percentage of EGCG is often indicated on green tea supplements.
Green tea can also help with weight loss, according to multiple studies. It is mainly the combination of catechins and caffeine that seems to be beneficial for weight loss. Researchers have found that both catechins and caffeine have a potentiating effect on thermogenesis. Green tea has the highest caffeine content of all teas after black tea. Two cups of green tea contain about as much caffeine as one cup of coffee.
However, the effect of green tea on fat burning should not be exaggerated. It is probably relatively small and also depends on how much caffeine you use in daily life, related to habituation.
Scientists estimate that every milligram of caffeine and catechins of green tea increases fat burning by 0.02 grams. If you use a supplement, for example a 500 mg tablet (usually 50% is EGCG), you can increase your calorie consumption by a few dozen calories per day. That is not much, but perhaps a welcome extra, especially since green tea consumption also has health benefits. Researchers recommend consuming no more than 800 mg of catechins per day.
See green tea extract especially as a small helping hand, both for your health and for burning fat.
Green tea can contribute to a small degree in fat loss, thanks to the catechins (especially EGCG) and caffeine contained in the tea, which have a potentiating effect on thermogenesis. For a noticeable effect, you need to consume at least several hundred milligrams of catechins daily. The easiest way to do this is to use a green tea extract.
Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid involved in the production of carnosine. Carnosine (there it is ‘carne’ again…) inhibits the build-up of lactic acid in the muscles (‘acidification’) and thus plays an important role in endurance.
Supplementation with beta-alanine has a modest, proven positive effect on sporting endurance. That effect is only there for sports performances that last between 60 and 240 seconds. Traditional strength training (short sets, long rest breaks) is of no use, but strength training aimed at fat loss (metabolic strength training) and certain forms of cardio can help beta-alanine give you a boost. With strength training you can think of doing long sets (dropsets, supersets, metabolic finishers, loaded carries) or circuit training. In cardio, for example, beta-alanine can help you with High Intensity Interval Training, provided you exercise intensively for at least 60 seconds.
Beta-alanine doesn’t work acutely, even though it’s often in pre-workouts. It takes several weeks to reach maximum effectiveness. The recommended dose is 2-6 grams per day, preferably taken during a meal.
By supplementing with beta-alanine, athletes can run, cycle or row at a high pace for longer periods, or do more repetitions during long sets or supersets in strength training. This is beneficial if you do intensive cardio (such as HIIT) or metabolic strength training (in addition to regular strength training) during the cut.
Magnesium is one of the most important minerals in our body. It is involved in numerous processes, including the proper functioning of the muscles. A magnesium deficiency results in stiff muscles and cramps. A deficiency also leads to fatigue, which can be at the expense of performance during strength training.
According to the Health Council (2018), adult men should consume 350 mg of magnesium daily and adult women 300. Athletes, such as strength athletes, however, need more magnesium.
Magnesium is found in many foods that you consume every day. You will therefore not soon have a shortage, especially if you are in the bulk as a bodybuilder. The risk of a (small) magnesium deficiency is real if you follow a long-term calorie-restricting diet as an athlete, for example as a bodybuilder in the cut. In that case, err on the side of caution by taking a magnesium supplement. The maximum dose is 250 milligrams per day.
Take a supplement with a magnesium compound that guarantees high absorption: magnesium citrate, malate, taurate, glycinate, lactate or gluconate. Avoid the poorly absorbable magnesium sulfate and oxide.
Magnesium is almost standard in multivitamin supplements, but usually in relatively low doses, such as 50 mg. If you deem a larger supplement necessary, you will have to buy a separate magnesium supplement or, for example, a combination supplement such as ZMA (magnesium, zinc and vitamin B6).
Magnesium is an important mineral. A deficiency can lead to muscle cramps and fatigue. Magnesium is present in many foods, but because as a strength athlete you need extra of it, supplementation during a strict calorie-restricted diet is recommended.
7. WHEY (ISOLATE)
Eating proteins is at least as important in the cut as in the bulk, even though you train in the cut primarily for muscle maintenance and not for muscle growth (a nice bonus if the latter succeeds). Although scientifically not yet very convincingly proven, you may need a little more protein in cut than in bulk to ensure a positive protein balance: 1.8 to 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.
In principle, we recommend that you get these proteins as much as possible from ‘regular’ (but not too high-calorie) food sources (see this list). After all, you are already allowed to eat so little, so it is better not to get your calories too much from drinks and liquid food (such as protein shakes).
But (whey) protein shakes are of course useful at times and they also provide a lot of protein without much by-product, especially if you use whey isolate. Whey isolate contains less sugar, milk sugar (lactose) and fat, usually undesirable ingredients when you are cutting. Whey isolate is usually a bit more expensive than other types of whey, such as concentrates or blends.
In the cut you should eat 1.8-2.2 g of protein per kg of body weight daily. A supplement of whey isolate can be useful at times to get high-quality protein without carbohydrates and fats.
8. FAT BURNER
Fat burners are supplements that mainly contain caffeine, 200 to 600 mg per serving. As you could already read, caffeine in large doses has a scientifically proven effect on fat burning, as well as on performance during (strength) training.
In addition to caffeine, fat burners contain other substances, often extracted from exotic trees and plants. Often these substances also contain caffeine or they have a comparable effect. Other substances inhibit appetite. Not all of these substances have been scientifically proven to work. So take a critical look at the label before you buy a fat burner.
Legal fat burners are safe for healthy people.
If you can’t or don’t want to use caffeine, there aren’t many alternatives. CLA, conjugated linoleic acid, is sometimes offered as a stimulant-free fat burner, but CLA probably does not work and it may even be harmful.
Fat burners are supplements that mainly contain caffeine, 200 to 600 mg per serving. Caffeine has proven positive effects on fat burning and exercise performance. In addition to caffeine, there are other substances in it, the effect of which has not always been proven. So take a critical look at the label before you buy a fat burner.
Betaine (also called Trimethylglycine Nitrate, TMG for short) is an amino acid from an extract of the sugar beet. It is mainly offered as a supplement to support digestion. Betaine supplementation may also offer strength athletes benefits. Taking 1.25 g betaine twice a day is said to improve training performance with regard to training volume and strength endurance, and to a lesser extent also maximal strength. However, the scientific evidence for these alleged ergogenic effects is (still) shaky.
But there are also studies that suggest a positive effect of betaine supplementation on fat burning, more convincing than the effect on strength performance. Although this also requires more research.
Nevertheless, betaine may be worth a try, so in the context of every little help possible.
A handful of studies indicate that betaine has a positive effect on fat burning. Therefore it might be worth a try.
Carnitine (L-carnitine, its natural form) is a salt, which is said to ‘turn fat into muscle’. That is of course not possible, because fat tissue cannot change into muscle tissue. Basically what is meant is that carnitine stimulates fat burning and helps convert fatty acids into energy. That energy can then be used during a workout to help build muscle. People with a carnitine deficiency are more likely to be overweight.
Carnitine is formed by the body itself from the amino acids lysine and methionine. It is also found in red meat in particular. Hence the name (carne = meat).
Opinions are still divided about the usefulness of supplementation with carnitine. But there now seems to be some evidence that it can contribute to increasing insulin sensitivity, to muscle recovery after strength training and possibly also to burning fat. The latter two effects have so far only been demonstrated in older people.
Under the motto ‘every little bit helps’ it might be worth buying and trying.
According to supplement manufacturers’ claims, (L-)carnitine stimulates fat burning and contributes to muscle recovery after strength training. However, the scientific evidence for these claims is still quite weak.
11. STIMULANT FREE SLIMMING PILLS
In addition to fat burners (see 2), you also have other products that try to directly influence fat burning. Don’t expect miracles from that. On the other hand, they don’t have to be total nonsense either.
You may have heard of XL-S Medical. That is one of the largest suppliers of slimming products in Europe, part of the Belgian Omega Pharma. Their products are among the best-selling diet products on, for example, Bol.com.
Compared to the fat burners, which mainly try to boost the metabolism, the XL-S products help with fat burning in a completely different way, namely by influencing your intestinal function. They offer three types:
- Fat binders (XL-S Fat binder): prevent the absorption of fat from fatty foods;
- Carbohydrate Blockers (XL-S Max Strength): reduce the amount of calories absorbed from food;
- Appetite suppressants (XL-S Hunger Buddy): ensure that you crave less food and mainly inhibit the craving for sweets by making you feel full.
We have no experience with these types of pills ourselves, but their effect is supported by some research. Although, according to those studies, the effect is relatively small, while the products are not exactly cheap.
User experiences on the internet, as far as reliable, are mixed. The so-called connectors are not very positive, but many seem to be quite satisfied with XL-S Max Strength and XL-S Hunger Buddy. So perhaps worth a try if you really find it very difficult to eat (even) less.
In addition to fat burners, you also have other products that try to directly influence fat burning, for example via the intestinal function. XL-S Medical’s slimming products, including fat binders and appetite suppressants, may be (a little) effective.
12. TESTOSTERONE BOOSTERS
Natural testosterone boosters as a dietary supplement for strength athletes are not without controversy. Fluctuations (and therefore also increases) in the testosterone level within the normal natural range usually have little or no effect. Only in men who have their testosterone levels at the lower end of that range could an increase in that level bring about something, but rather in terms of libido and energy. As far as muscle growth is concerned, you will only see effects if you increase your natural values by several hundred percent, which is only possible with anabolic steroids.
In principle, you do not need testosterone supplements at all. And if your testosterone level is on the low side, you can often do something about it by changing your lifestyle: losing weight, sleeping better, eating healthier and more varied, exercising more, and so on.
Still, we don’t want to completely write off testosterone supplements. First, they may be able to help you a little bit to maintain your testosterone levels during a long-term calorie-restricted diet. Because certainly if you combine that diet with intensive sports, deficiencies in micronutrients such as zinc, magnesium and vitamin D are real. And these micronutrients are important for your testosterone production. Second, testosterone also has a direct impact on fat loss. Although not yet convincingly scientifically proven, a (significant) natural increase in your testosterone level could have a beneficial effect on fat burning.
During a long, heavy cut, a testosterone supplement could therefore be a small help. Make sure to choose a supplement whose effect is scientifically substantiated. Some substances have been shown to have some alleged beneficial effects on testosterone, such as D-aspartic acid, bulbine natalensis, boron, ginger and ashwagandha. Vitamins and minerals such as zinc, magnesium, vitamin B6 and vitamin D in principle only increase your testosterone level if you do not get enough of them through regular food.
If you opt for a combination supplement, which should contain several testosterone-boosting ingredients, pay close attention to the composition, including the amounts. Some so-called testosterone boosters contain good ingredients (the effect of which is scientifically substantiated), but in doses too small to have an effect. Testosterone boosters with an effective composition in our view are Grow! from Body & Fit, Muscle Transform from Stacker 2 and Dominate from BULK.
You normally do not need natural testosterone supplements, because fluctuations in testosterone levels within the natural range have little or no influence on body composition. Testosterone boosters may only offer some support during a prolonged and heavy calorie-restricted diet, especially because it can more easily lead to a shortage of micronutrients that are important for testosterone production.
13. OMEGA 3 FATS
You should also get enough fat during the cut: aim for 0.7 g per kg of body weight. Sufficient intake of fats is important, among other things, for healthy hormone levels, all the more so during a long-term energy shortage, when your body wants to cut back on the production of testosterone, among other things. Saturated and monounsaturated fats are especially important for maintaining your testosterone levels.
For your overall health, it is important that you get enough polyunsaturated fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids keep your blood pressure low and offer a host of other health benefits.
Two of the three important omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, are mainly found in fish and shellfish. We therefore also call this fish fatty acids. The other, ALA, is mainly found in linseed oil, but also, for example, in walnuts and vegetable (diet) margarines. In small amounts, ALA is also found in meat and in green leafy vegetables.
It is often suggested that omega 3 also has a direct positive effect on fat burning, but there is no conclusive evidence for this, nor for better muscle recovery. Nevertheless, sufficient omega-3 consumption is important in every circumstance and especially during a long-term calorie-restricted diet. After all, your job is to keep your body as strong as possible during a long period of energy deficiency.
Coach and podcast host Eric Texler advises bodybuilders to get 200 to 500 milligrams of omega 3 daily. You should preferably get it from normal food, such as fish, because there may be more substances in fish that provide the beneficial effect. Eating fish is therefore better than swallowing fish oil capsules.
Consumption of omega-3 fatty acids probably has no direct effect on fat burning, but it does serve overall health. During a calorie-restricted diet, it can be useful to meet your omega 3 needs partly through supplementation.