An ergogenic aid can broadly be defined as any substance or method, whether legal or not, used to enhance athletic performance . Ergogenic aids are typically classified as nutritional, pharmacologic, physiologic, or psychologic (nootropic), and range from established techniques such as carbohydrate loading to illicit and unsafe strategies such as the use of anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) and growth hormone.
Since ergogenic aids are used abundantly in sports, many athletes seek out information on the best legal supplements to take for maximizing strength, endurance, and lean body mass. If you're an avid bodybuilder, fitness enthusiast, or competitive athlete, the ergogenic effects of certain dietary supplements and sports nutrition protocols can have marked benefits in both the short- and long-term.
However, it's imperative to differentiate between legal and illegal ergogenic aids, especially for athletes that compete in drug-tested organizations. Just about every major athletic committee has strict policies regulating the use of AAS, peptides (e.g. growth hormone), and other pharmaceutical doping agents.
Thankfully, there are a handful of proven ergogenic aids that are legal in sports and safe when used in proper doses.
Due to the immense diversity of dietary supplements and sports nutrition protocols, you're likely to find conflicting viewpoints on which ergogenic aids are the most effective and which are likely to cause adverse effects. In most cases, if an ergogenic aid is illegal to possess and/or a controlled substance, you can assume it's more likely to cause side effects.
That being said, over-the-counter products like dietary supplements and energy drinks may also have side effects. The recent proliferation of energy drinks and pre-workout powders has raised some concern about the safety of central nervous system (CNS) stimulants used for exercise performance .
The classical example of a CNS stimulant drug is caffeine, which is generally well-tolerated in moderate doses (e.g. 2–5 mg per kg of body weight); however, at high doses (e.g. >6 mg per kg of body weight) caffeine can cause adverse effects like shakiness, irritability, mood swings, and heart palpitations.
As with anything that you put in your body, the difference between medicine and poison is in the dose. Even innocuous substances like water can be toxic in excessively high doses, while noxious compounds such as cyanide and carbon monoxide can be harmless in relatively small doses. In fact, water is technically an ergogenic aid since hydration plays a pivotal role in physical and mental performance.
Aside from good ol' water, there are a range of readily available sports nutrition supplements that have evidence-backed ergogenic effects while being considered safe for healthy adult athletes and gym-goers alike. Here are some examples:
Remember, an ergogenic aid is a substance or technique that promotes athletic performance, typically through physiological and psychological mechanisms. Creatine supplementation is the most relevant example of an ergogenic aid that's legal for use in sports and exceptionally safe .
Of course, youth athletes should be very cautious about using supplements that are marketed as having ergogenic effects. When in doubt, it's best to consult with a licensed sports nutritionist or medical doctor before taking dietary supplements intended to improve athletic performance.
Most of the ergogenic aids listed below are controlled substances in the United States and banned for use by athletes that compete in the Olympics and other sporting organizations. Noteworthy substances include:
Note that all of these substances have a significantly higher risk of adverse effects, especially when used for ergogenic purposes. Yet, many athletes don't consider the risk-to-reward ratio of taking performance-enhancing drugs. Sure, they might help you improve your body composition, pack on muscle mass, and bolster physical performance, but studies have shown the long-term health ramifications can be deadly in some cases .
While an ergogenic aid may be federally legal/sold over-the-counter, that doesn't always mean it's inherently permitted for use in sports. Even if you have a prescription for an otherwise banned ergogenic aid, you can be disqualified from competition if you test positive for that substance. Always refer to the specific rules and guidelines provided by your athletic organization to ensure that any ergogenic aid you're considering using won't cause you to fail a drug screening.
Here are some helpful resources for athletes that want to learn more about approved and banned substances:
It goes without saying that any ergogenic effect you experience from taking a supplement or drug is not going to make up for a poor diet or lack of training consistency. If you want to increase muscle mass, get stronger, and cut body fat, you need to eat properly and push yourself in the gym. Nothing will turn you into a professional-level athlete without those pillars in place.
Once you've established solid nutritional and exercise habits, supplementation with legal, safe, and effective ergogenic aids can certainly support performance, weight loss, and muscle growth. It's also imperative that you do some research before taking supplements since many sports nutrition brands have a history of cutting corners and misleading consumers with false label claims.
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