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Supps on a Budget: How to Look Big Without Spending Big

Ned Arick, MS

So you’re on a budget. Can’t afford the $200 stacks boasting they can make you the next Jay Cutler if you just buy them every 30 days. Can’t afford to even look at a supplement store while you’re driving by. I’ve been there. 

Well if that’s you, you’re in luck, because I’m going to save you a ton of money and still get you the results you want in the gym. So sit back, relax, put your credit card away, and enjoy. 

Supplements are just that—supplemental. They supplement your diet and training. They aren’t meant to be the be-all and end-all of your regimen. Supplements are great, if everything else is in place and if you can afford them. 

For most of us, a pre-workout is just a great way to get a pump and feel awesome in the gym, but at $45 for 30 servings of an actual efficaciously dosed pre-workout, you’re probably better off walking into your local pharmacy and picking up 60 pills of NoDoz for 8 bucks. Same with a pump product; you may be better off just salting your meals a bit more if you can’t afford the extra $40/month. 

Now, I know these all don’t work exactly like a pre-workout or pump product, but you’re on a budget, bro. I’m just trying to be real here. I’m not saying you should never take another supplement in your life. I’m just saying with the exception of a few must-haves, you can live without the $200/month stack. Trust me.

I also don’t mean to be the bearer of bad news, but the guys you see selling their supplement stacks aren’t just taking those supplements. Their diet is on point, they train as hard as possible, and because bodybuilding is their life, sleep and stress are most likely in order as well. I’m not going to say that everyone who’s touting supplements is also utilizing some extracurricular supplementation, but it’s been known to be a thing in our industry. So keep that in mind the next time a product tells you it will add 5 pounds of muscle to your frame in 30 days.

Back to the point. I’m going to let you know the three supplements that you must be taking if you’re on a budget. Everything else is just extra, and unless you have every other variable in place, those extra supplements—your BCAAs, your pre-workouts, your pump powders—aren’t going to show you any noticeable improvements anyway. 

So let’s get moving. 

#1. Creatine

The only legal stuff on the market that works is creatine. I’m talking creatine monohydrate. The real OG. Creatine is a molecule that is produced in the body but is also found in foods such as meat, eggs and fish. Unless you’re eating these meats raw, though, most of the creatine in the meats is lost during the cooking process. Creatine has been found to increase strength and lean mass[1],[2]but also has a great deal of effect on brain and cardiovascular health. Quite simply, it’s a must for anyone looking to better themselves, physically or mentally. For this article, we’ll focus mainly on the physical aspects of creatine supplementation, but if you do ever get the chance, do some personal research on all of its amazing benefits. Creatine isn’t new, and since its arrival on the supplement stage, it has kept its place as a recommended supplement for anyone looking to increase lean mass and power output,[3]both very important factors in the exercising world. As for cost, a simple Google search will find you creatine monohydrate as low as four cents per serving, a serving being 5 grams. With the research backing the supplement and the extremely low cost, creatine is the number one must-buy supp on a budget. 

#2. Fish Oil

Huh? But I want to build muscle!I get it, but again, you’re on a budget. Hear me out. Now if you’re reading this while eating salmon for the fourth time today, move on, but if you haven’t eaten a fatty slab of fish in a good while, continue reading. Yes, fish oil is a general health supplement, but I’d venture a very educated guess that you need your “general” health to exercise properly, eh? Fish oil is a blanket term for eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two omega-3 fatty acids. I’m going to save you the science and get straight to the point. The type of fat you eat has a great deal of effect on your performance, and in order to have “optimal” performance, your body needs the right ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids. The average diet we eat, which is mainly beef, eggs, and other meats, is high in omega-6 fatty acids. The suggested proper ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is somewhere between 4:1 and 1:1. While I believe the ratio should be closer to 1:1, the average American sits on a 12:1 to a 25:1 ratio,[4]not quite where we want to be. So why is this essential? Well, DHA and EPA are essential fatty acids. This means we don’t produce them naturally, so we need them supplemented through food or supplementation. Research has shown possible reduction in body fat due to fish oil consumption,[5]increased muscle protein synthesis,[6],[7]and promising effects on muscle degeneration.[8]With the research that backs fish oil supplementation, the essential nature of it, and the low cost (as low as $8), it’s my number two must-buy supplement.

#3. Multivitamin

My final must-buy is a multivitamin. I get that a lot of people out there say that if you eat a balanced diet, you don’t need a multivitamin, but I beg to differ. Just as with fish oil above, many people, especially in the athletic community have multiple nutrient deficiencies, such as iron, iodine, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium and magnesium. Now, as some people argue, you shouldn’t just toss a blanket pill in your body and hope for the best, but in this situation, because you’re on a budget, I’d argue that you don’t have the money to get a full nutrition panel to tell you what you’re deficient in, and you also don’t have the money to purchase each of these nutrients in supplement form to provide you the amounts that you need. Let’s also argue that you probably don’t shop at the local health food store such as Whole Foods to get the highest quality foods, and probably take your business to the grocery section of Walmart.[9]It’s all good, no stress at all, but this right here is the reason that when you are on a budget, supp number three is a multivitamin. 

So there you have it! For around $30 a month, you can cover all your bases. You can put on some lean mass and increase your strength and power with creatine monohydrate, possibly lose body fat and increase muscle protein synthesis with the fish oil, and increase your overall health with the multivitamin. I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty awesome and for cheap! 

Don’t worry, it won’t always be this way. There will come a time when you can afford the $200 stacks, but for now, stick to the things that work, that won’t break the bank, and will get you the most bang for your buck.

Eat real food for the time being to hit your macros, go ahead and splurge on the NoDoz for $8 if you really need pre-workout caffeine, and in no time you won’t be pinching pennies and you can add all the powders and pills you want to your supplement regimen (obviously keeping these three at the center).



[1]Branch JD. Effect of creatine supplementation on body composition and performance: a meta-analysis. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2003 Jun;13(2):198-226.
[2]van Loon LJ, Oosterlaar AM, Hartgens F, et al. Effects of creatine loading and prolonged creatine supplementation on body composition, fuel selection, sprint and endurance performance in humans. Clin Sci (Lond). 2003 Feb;104(2):153-62.
[3]Juhász I, Györe I, Csende Z, Rácz L, Tihanyi J. Creatine supplementation improves the anaerobic performance of elite junior fin swimmers. Acta Physiol Hung. 2009 Sep;96(3):325-36.
[4]Kris-Etherton PM, Taylor DS, Yu-Poth S, et al. Polyunsaturated fatty acids in the food chain in the United States. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Jan;71(1 Suppl):179S-88S.
[5]Couet C, Delarue J, Ritz P, Antoine JM, Lamisse F. Effect of dietary fish oil on body fat mass and basal fat oxidation in healthy adults. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 1997 Aug;21(8):637-43.
[6]Smith GI, Atherton P, Reeds DN, et al. Dietary omega-3 fatty acid supplementation increases the rate of muscle protein synthesis in older adults: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Feb;93(2):402-12.
[7]Smith GI, Atherton P, Reeds DN, et al. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids augment the muscle protein anabolic response to hyperinsulinaemia-hyperaminoacidaemia in healthy young and middle-aged men and women. Clin Sci (Lond). 2011 Sep;121(6):267-78.
[8]You JS, Park MN, Song W, Lee YS. Dietary fish oil alleviates soleus atrophy during immobilization in association with Akt signaling to p70s6k and E3 ubiquitin ligases in rats. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2010 Jun;35(3):310-8.
[9]Shelton RC, Puleo E, Syngal S, Emmons KM. Multivitamin use among multi-ethnic, low-income adults. Cancer Causes Control. 2009 Oct;20(8):1271-80.