Your nutrition needs the same effort and attention that you put into your training.
If you want to get good at CrossFit, you need to cover a variety of athletic characteristics. Zone dieting isn’t going to be enough to reach your potential. You need to be pro-active to ensure you’re getting the very best from your training.
CrossFit has surged in popularity in recent years: the CrossFit games has a huge following and millions of enthusiasts all over the world.
The world has taken notice – CrossFit is easily the biggest fitness trend we’ve ever seen.
- What do CrossFit Athletes Need from a Supplement?
- What is CrossFit?
- Needs Analysis of a CrossFitter
- Things to Know Before you Supplement Anything
- Top 10 Supplements for Crossfit
- Supplement FAQs: Does It Work?
- What Supplements Should You Take?
- Final Notes
What do CrossFit Athletes Need from a Supplement?
Before we ask about the best supplements for CrossFit, it’s important to understand what that even means. There are 1000s of supplements on the market – so how are we going to filter through and discuss the very best choices? Let’s talk about CrossFit – what it is, what it requires, and what you need.
What is CrossFit?
The challenge of nutrition for CrossFit is that you’re chasing different – and often competing – changes in your body. You need to get stronger and faster, but also improve stamina and endurance. This makes nutrition and supplementation both interesting and complicated.
CrossFit consists of a few key areas of fitness and performance that you need to focus on. These include:
- Olympic Weightlifting
- Strength training/Powerlifting
- Classic Endurance (running/rowing/cycling)
- Strongman-style events (carries, flips, drags, etc.)
So, you need to make sure that your training, recovery, and nutrition are providing you with an edge in each of these disciplines. It’s obvious why we’ve put together this article: this is a complicated subject.
Fortunately, we’re going to take the difficulty out of supplementation for CrossFit. If you read on, you’ll find everything you need to know about CrossFit supplements. We’ll take you through what they do, as well as a daily checklist discussing what you need.
Needs Analysis of a CrossFitter
With these different aspects of fitness to work on, how do you know what to focus on? CrossFit HQ says that fitness breaks down into 10 areas. When it comes to nutrition, we’re only dealing with half of that number.
There are 5 areas you need to consider when picking supplements for CrossFit:
The ability to produce maximum force.
This is what you’re looking at when a Strongman performs a deadlift or a powerlifter performs a bench press. It’s a measure of the absolute maximum force that a muscle can produce. While it’s a less common example, a gymnast performing a strict muscle-up or iron cross is also demonstrating maximum strength.
Strength is crucial to every other form of fitness, too. You can’t run if your legs aren’t strong enough to hold you, and you can’t row if your hips are too weak. Strength comes first so, even though CrossFit isn’t a strength sport, you need to have plenty of it!
The ability to produce maximum force in a restricted space of time.
This is the basis of jumping, Olympic weightlifting and sprints. It’s your ability to produce force within a certain time – something that separates it from strength. You don’t have to rush a squat, but you only get so much contact time with the ground in a sprint, for example.
Power is a direct result of strength, since they’re very closely related. You can’t be more powerful than you are strong, and you have to develop power on top of the strength that you already have. Supplementation can help with this, with examples like Choline and Creatine coming up in this article.
The ability to perform prolonged bouts of exercise. You can also think of endurance as the time it takes to reach exhaustion.
Endurance is a complicated mix of muscle, heart and lung capabilities. It’s also a crucial part of CrossFit, with WODs combining various forms of exercises for different lengths of time. However, you’re always going to be leaning on your endurance at a competitive level. When you’re always competing against the clock and time-to-exhaustion is a key player.
Supplements can aid every aspect of endurance – from muscular strength and stamina to cardiorespiratory endurance. They’re responsive to changes in nutrition; making supplements a great choice to keep your endurance up.
The ability to recover and perform well repeatedly within one session, under restricted time.
This is exactly the kind of recovery you’ll need on a day to day basis. CrossFit incorporates many aspects from circuits and intervals, where you perform high-intensity exercise followed by low-intensity exercise, or even rest.
Recovering between these bouts is a hybrid of good endurance and good recovery. Supplements play a key role in both of these. Replenishing fuel allows you to continue after a short break – a key aspect of optimum performance in HIIT, and CrossFit specifically.
This is the ability to recuperate between training sessions and perform at peak capacity.
Recovery between sessions is an entire half of your ability to progress and get better. It requires far more attention than most athletes give it, but supplementation is one step towards fixing that. If you recover better than your competition, you can progress faster.
Supplements that aid in the recovery process tend to improve metabolism, hormonal health, or muscle-protein synthesis (MPS). MPS is the key process for repairing muscles after hard exercise. Whether its endurance or weight-training, MPS allows you to recover and improves muscular size/strength.
You should take every possible route to maximize recovery. Workouts and recovery are the only two variables you really need to focus on, and you can’t ignore this whole half of your training.
These categories make it easy to discuss the role of each supplement and we’re going to tag each supplement with its key benefits.
What makes a good supplement for CrossFit athletes?
Anything that has notable effects on one of these five categories or provides big benefits in one specific area. The best supplements provide strong benefits in several categories, as well as general health and wellbeing benefits.
Things to Know Before you Supplement Anything
Supplements aren’t a magic bullet: they won’t fix your diet and make you into Mat Fraser overnight. They provide an additional buffer or edge to a diet that is already heading in the right direction. The best supplements in the world can’t make up for a diet full of junk food and malnutrition.
You need to put your diet together as the foundation for your diet to ensure that you’re making progress. Nutrition is about ensuring that you have enough calories, protein, and the right balance of fats and carbs. A good diet always comes before supplements.
This is an essential part of your diet and it must be prior to your supplement routine. For example, there’s no point taking creatine if you’re not getting enough calories for your muscle-growth goals or supplementing fish oil when your diet is 90% fast food.
You have to prioritize your effort, and nailing down your diet comes first. It doesn’t have to be 100% perfect at all times, but trying to supplement while your diet is poor for your goals is like using a band-aid for a bullet wound. Put the basics first, then a well-thought-out supplement plan (the one in this article!) will have the best possible effects.
Top 10 Supplements for Crossfit
Strength | Power | Short-term Recovery
Creatine is the best supplement for anyone that is looking to build muscle or strength. Studies show that it boosts strength in an interesting way: it improves “strength-endurance” which is your ability to produce maximum force repeatedly during a workout.
Creatine is one of the raw materials needed to produce ATP – the high-energy chemical that fuels hard exercise. It’s the reason you can perform feats of strength, but it runs out quickly. You only have around 5-8 seconds worth of ATP in your muscles. Creatine is used to replace ATP when you use it.
Supplementing Creatine makes you stronger and more powerful, specifically in repeated bouts of exercise. Does this sound familiar? It should, because CrossFit is all about being able to push yourself repeatedly in a short amount of time.
If you’re looking at EMOMs with Olympic lifts, sprints or other high-power exercises, Creatine is going to be your best friend!
Water Retention with Creatine?
This is one of the “side effects” of Creatine. We put it in quotation marks because it’s not really a problem, and side effect makes it sounds far too serious.
When your muscles are full of extra creatine, they’re going to hold more water as well. This is totally fine and it’s a key part of how Creatine can boost your performance. However, it does mean you’re going to hold 2-5lbs of extra water weight on a day-to-day basis.
This isn’t a real concern, but it is worth remembering that you’re only holding water temporarily and that creatine won’t make you gain fat. The weight on the scales isn’t permanent – it’s just the mechanism you need to boost performance.
2. ZMA (Zinc, Magnesium, B Vitamins)
Strength | Power | Endurance | Short-term Recovery | Session-to-session Recovery
ZMA is a combination of these 3 fantastic supplements. It used to have a reputation as a “wonder supplement” but that was an exaggeration.
In reality, it is a great way to get in Zinc, Magnesium and B vitamins in one supplement. This is great because zinc and magnesium are involved in metabolism, energetics and recovery. ZMA will provide more effective sleep and recovery. You’re also going to experience improved energy production, meaning better strength/power and short-term recovery.
ZMA isn’t particularly effective compared to Zinc, Magnesium and B vitamins. The individual ingredients should be part of your recovery routine anyway, and they’re effective synergists. Taking them in a single tablet is likely to mildly improve their effectiveness and ensure that you’re combatting deficiency.
Strength | Power
Choline is a building block for a key chemical in the brain called acetylcholine, or AcH. This is one of the most important chemicals in your nervous system: AcH can keep your nerves and brain healthy. This means they operate at maximum potential for cognitive and athletic performance.
Increased AcH levels have been tied to everything from improving cognitive performance to physical output. This is key for a CrossFit athlete. Whether it is technique and movement quality, or sheer force and power, AcH will be essential for every workout you do.
What Type of Choline is Best?
You’re not going to get much Choline from your diet unless you eat lots of eggs. Choline citrate is a great supplement to improve performance in strength and power, and it’s the most easily absorbed form. You can add this to your normal vitamin intake, or even throw it in a post-workout shake.
We’re also looking into research on Choline and AcH pre-drugs that are worth taking. For example, adding Huperzine-A to your Choline is a great way to improve your overall results and boost the effect of this supplement. Obviously, the best way to go about this is to buy a blend of the two in a supplement.
You can also use Choline bitartrate, which is already popular on the market.
Endurance | Short-term Recovery
Beta-Alanine is the best endurance supplement on the market. While creatine improves strength-endurance, beta-alanine pushes your classical endurance to new heights.
Studies have repeatedly shown that Beta-Alanine is the most effective supplement for reliably-boosting your time to exhaustion. This means that your endurance is up, and it takes longer for you to reach maximum fatigue.
If you’re dealing with chippers, endurance training, or other challenging exercises then Beta-alanine is key. It can make the difference, providing a competitive edge to help you become a better athlete.
The second thing we love about Beta-Alanine is that it provides an amazing buffering effect to the creatine (something you should already be supplementing).
The best results from Creatine come in the first few weeks when your body is adapting to it. However, with Beta-Alanine you can extend these benefits to around a month of accelerated strength and endurance improvements. If you’re expecting a tough month of training and you need to be at your best, combining these two is a great strategy.
5. Vitamin D
If you’re not supplementing vitamin D already, you’re probably deficient.
Deficiency in Vitamin D is the root for a number of problems from low-testosterone to neurological problems. It’s an essential part of almost everything your body does. The problem is you’re not going to be able to get enough from the sun alone – especially without increasing the risk of skin cancer.
While the RDA for vitamin D is around 750iu, the optimal amount is more likely to be between 2,500 and 5000iu! This can make a huge difference to your performance: an optimal amount is always going to beat out ‘sufficient’. You don’t want sufficient performance!
Vitamin D supplementation is going to be essential to achieve an athletic level of this crucial mineral – especially since almost no foods provide a significant amount! It can be as easy as a single capsule a day to protect yourself from deficiency and improve your hormonal/mental health.
CrossFit isn’t just about performance – for millions, it’s about improving your health and wellbeing. Vitamin D is associated with so many amazing benefits that it should be a staple of your diet and supplement routine whether you want to compete or not.
What type of Vitamin D Should You Take?
Vitamin D3 is the most effective form – it’s the one that your body wants and it’s very rare in nature. You can get supplementary capsules that provide huge amounts of D3 – the Puori D3 supplement is a great example.
We’re a big fan of this particular supplement because it’s also suitable for vegetarians, vegans, and anyone else on a plant-based diet. This is important because most people only receive vitamin D from cow’s milk and, obviously, that’s not an option for plant-based athletes.
6. N-3 Fats
Omega-3, or n-3, fatty acids are a type of fat that your body can’t produce by itself and must be eaten or supplemented. This one is interesting because you can get enough through diet alone, it’s just very unlikely that you get enough already.
Omega-3 fats are found in foods like salmon and other fatty fish, as well as a few plant foods (though they’re not as effective). Why should you worry about n-3 fats? Well, to start with, they’re a key part of your body’s anti-inflammation process. If you’re training hard, you’re going to notice this as a reduction in soreness and creaky joints.
Omega-3 fats have benefits aside from combating the wear and tear of training. They contribute to heart health, mental health, various other markers, and even your metabolism.
They’re essential for a reason: these fatty acids are necessary to maintain balance in your body and combat the general damage you’re doing to your body. This is especially important when training high-intensity intervals, heavy weights, or brutal endurance.
Types of Omega-3: Why Plants Don’t Work
We briefly mentioned that Omega-3 fats from plants aren’t very effective. This is crucial for any plant-based athlete that’s looking at CrossFit competitions and performance.
There are 3 main types of Omega-3 fats: ALA, EPA, and DHA. These are progressively more important and effective. DHA is the best form of Omega-3 fat and carries most of the benefits to inflammation and brain health. EPA is also “long-chain”, while ALA is a “short-chain” form of n-3 fats and least effective.
So, what’s the problem for plant fats? Despite being healthy, ALA is far less effective than EPA or DHA and it’s the only form that you can find in plant foods like walnuts and flax seed. The conversion of ALA into long-chain fatty acids is nowhere near sufficient, so it’s even more important for vegetarians and vegans to take supplementary n-3 fats.
Cod Liver Oil: The Best Omega-3 Supplement
Cod liver oil is an Omega-3 supplement that also contains vitamins A and D.
We’ve already mentioned how important vitamin D is, but vitamin A is a powerful antioxidant and fat-soluble vitamin.
This means that cod liver oil provides 3 amazing anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory nutrients all at once. Combining these 3 also boosts absorption and effectiveness.
This is a great way to get your Omega-3 fats into your diet and 1-2 capsules a day can provide amazing results for each of these key nutrients.
7. Pre Workout Supplements
Strength | Power
Pre-workouts are hit and miss: many of the marketed supplements are just a purified form of Caffeine. We like caffeine for its many health and performance benefits, but the marketing of these products as special just doesn’t make sense.
You can get caffeine from many sources, and many Pre-Workout (PWO) supplements are often just energy drink powders with a mark-up.
There are many problems with this approach and we’re definitely skeptical about what works and what doesn’t. There’s a history of problems with illegal stimulants being cut into small companies’ pre-workout supplements!
The first step is to try a black coffee or double espresso alternative. This is a healthier, slower-releasing source of caffeine than the pure caffeine found in pre-workout supplements. If this doesn’t work for you, you can try a pre workout supplement…
Pre workout supplements that are worth your money
There are PWO supplements that deserve your attention. It just takes a little know-how.
Caffeine is great – it improves your ability to focus, boosting general mental performance. This means you’re going to be able to focus on technique and improve your efficiency. However, caffeine can also boost your athletic performance significantly.
This might not sound like huge, but it makes a big difference over the course of a whole workout. While the results from caffeine are less than 10% improvement, that’s still enormous – imagine hitting a 10% personal best on any exercise. That’s a lot of result for something as simple as drinking coffee or a neon-colored caffeine powder.
Choosing a Pre Workout Supplement that Works
Some supplements go above and beyond caffeine to provide additional performance benefits. For example, Cellucor’s C4 supplement provides plenty of B vitamins and other metabolism-support.
The point of this is that you can gain multiple benefits with a single supplement. It’s the same type of benefit you get from using Cod liver oil: more bang for your buck. It adds to the effectiveness of your supplement/nutrition routine. B vitamins support energy metabolism and muscle growth, as well as how your body uses food, so they’re a great combination.
A simple pre-workout that provides caffeine and vitamins is essential for maximum performance. However, any product that provides more than one supplement/ingredient from this list is likely to be even better and worth your consideration (and maybe even your cash!).
For more recommendations, read our guide for buying the best Crossfit pre workouts.
Protein supplements are everywhere: there are 100s of brands of protein and everyone that goes to the gym seems to be shelling out for them. They’re a huge market all by themselves and they’ve dominated the supplement market for 50 years – but do you need them?
The answer is yes and no – it depends on your goals and lifestyle. Protein shakes aren’t the only way to get protein into your diet and they’re not even likely to produce better results than whole-foods. However, they are amazingly convenient: you can simply throw powder and water (or milk) into a shaker and chug dozens of grams of protein.
This is why protein shakes have become so popular: they’re a great way of improving muscle growth by rapidly replenishing the body’s protein. This is key because muscles are made of protein and protein timing pre-/post-workout is actually important in how you develop and recover. This is crucial for heavy weights or long bouts of endurance, when muscle damage is high.
While the ‘anabolic window’ has been over-exaggerated, it does actually exist. The research shows that you need to refuel and ensure you have proper nutrients available during periods of high-exercise to maximize results and start the muscle-protein synthesis process. This is the fancy scientific name for the process where you repair and grow muscle after a tough workout.
Strength | Power | Endurance | Short-term Recovery |Session-to-session Recovery
A simple multivitamin is one of the easiest ways to add to your diet and ensure that you’re getting the best results. It doesn’t provide a specific effect, but it’s a great way to ward off the risk of deficiency in key nutrients.
Getting plenty of your main vitamins (from A-K) and minerals is an easy way to prevent unnecessary performance problems. It could be as simple as taking a single tablet a day to keep yourself topped up and provide benefits above the vitamins and minerals from your diet.
Our favorite way of doing this is using a multivitamin effervescent. You can drop these into a glass of water to ensure you’re staying hydrated and getting all the necessary nutrients for maximum performance. You can use this to take other supplements, too, like cod liver oil – making a supplement routine easy.
Endurance | Session-to-session Recovery
L-Carnitine, like Creatine, is an animal-food nutrient that has an important role in energy metabolism. As we all know, the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell – and carnitine is key to making sure that they run at optimum efficiency. As an animal-based nutrient, it’s important that vegetarians and vegans supplement L-Carnitine for the best possible performance.
With improved carnitine levels in the muscles and brain, you’re also going to experience improved endurance, blood sugar levels, and insulin sensitivity. These add up to a significant recovery boost. Serum carnitine also combats diabetes risk and improving overall metabolic health.
The problem with L-Carnitine is that it has some problems getting from the stomach to the blood to the brain. What you’re trying to boost is a compound called ALCAR. ALCAR improves your metabolism and energetics. The problem is that L-Carnitine isn’t very effective at boosting ALCAR levels in the body!
ALCAR (Acetyl-L-Carnitine) is a superior supplement that provides all the benefits of Carnitine, but with better absorption. It has less risk of being caught up in the digestion process or getting blocked by the blood-brain barrier. It’s all the benefits of carnitine, except it’s designed to work with your body – instead of against it.
There are even possibilities that, by improving your overall wellbeing, energy, and mental health, ALCAR aids performance and fat loss. The Acetyl form of L-Carnitine is the best possible supplement for these goals and you can find many great examples on the market as a pure powder. A great addition to any pre-workout supplement!
Supplement FAQs: Does It Work?
There are some supplements that are popular but don’t always have clear results. These are worth discussing because they might work or have very specific uses that can improve your performance. Alternatively, there are supplements that don’t work, and need to be pointed out for the bunk they really are.
Speaking of bunk, BCAAs are the single most popular supplement to be ineffective on the market. Despite being one of the most popular purchases in the supplement market, they don’t actually do anything beneficial unless you’re already deficient in protein. The obvious solution here is to get sufficient protein and drop the BCAAS altogether.
Studies have only supported one BCAA as having positive benefits: Leucine. This is the key amino acid in the production of muscle because it is involved in the signaling for muscle protein synthesis. However, you can get this from real food or protein supplements without going for BCAAs.
BCAA supplements provide a relatively small amount of Leucine per serving. If you’re really determined to get more leucine into your diet, get Leucine by itself and make sure you’re taking enough protein in through the day. If you really want to increase intra-workout BCAAs, just drink your protein and carbs during the workout!
Post-Workout Carb-Protein Bars
Protein bars are hit and miss. They’re a convenient way of getting protein into your diet – especially post-workout or while you’re on the move – but many of them are packed full of sugar.
If you’re looking to get a high-quality pick me up, there are some great brands that provide high-protein, high-fiber bars. However, there are hundreds of others that are selling protein powder and sugar mixed into a bar shape – not what you want for snacking purposes.
Sugar is fine during or after a workout – it’s essential to replace the energy that you’ve used – but these aren’t meal replacement bars. It’s important to look at when you’re eating these bars and what your individual goals are. They’re fine post-workout, but sugar during inactivity isn’t particularly healthy!
There are also many great options for creating homemade protein-filled snacks using whole foods (such as oats and bananas). These homemade snacks are cheaper, just as effective, and are likely to be healthier. Overall, protein bars can be convenient, but you need to know how to use them (and maybe how to make them!).
What Supplements Should You Take?
There aren’t many essential supplements, but these are going to cover the needs of everyone from beginners to competitive athletes. They provide so many benefits that they’re “essential” for everyone, regardless of goals or competitive experience.
- Vitamin D
- Omega-3 Fats
You’ll notice they all have sport and health benefits, which is also important. Sport performance and health overlap heavily: to be good at sport, you have to have the baseline of essential nutrition.
These are for everyone, but it’s also fair to say that they’re supplements for beginners. This doesn’t mean that elite athletes shouldn’t take them, but simply that they’re all a beginner needs to supplement.
If you’re at the start of journey in any sport, you’re going to make rapid progress with training and rest. Beginners should focus on getting the diet and training habits sorted out first, and then worry about supplementation. These 4 supplements are more than enough to keep your health and wellbeing tip-top.
However, if you have some experience with CrossFit and you’re here to improve your performance, you should read on…
These are the supplements that aren’t essential, but they provide benefits that boost your performance and push you to the next level. We’re going to ignore the supplements labeled “essential” because you should already be taking those (it’s in the name!).
- Protein Shakes/Bars
These are aimed at improving your performance and ensuring that you’re not just healthy, but operating at 100% performance. You won’t necessarily need these supplements to get good, but top-level athletes are using them to keep their bodies in peak condition. If your competition isn’t taking them, they’ll provide you with the edge. If they are, you need to keep up!
You could also call these “competitive” supplements, since the beginner has no reason to use them and the competitive athlete does. Beginners don’t need to worry about their beta-alanine content. What they need is to improve their movements and diet, and get serious with training.
For the competitive athlete, however, these supplements aid recovery and improve workouts by a few %. This might not sound like much, but world records are often set by less than 1%. The small benefits gained from ZMA or Beta-Alanine can make a real difference when you’re at the top of the game.
If you’re looking to lose weight and keep it off, you need to tailor your supplements to that goal. When trying to lose weight, one of the biggest goals is keeping up your nutrient intake. If you’re eating less calories, you’re going to be eating less essential nutrients – something that can be dangerous in the long-term.
These supplements combat those nutrient challenges to ensure that you’re getting everything you need, without over-eating:
- Vitamin D
- Omage-3 Fats
- Protein Shakes
There are plenty of vitamins and minerals on this list. These are key because vitamins play an essential role in the energetics of the body and your overall wellbeing. Deficiency in any vitamin or mineral is going to result in reduced performance, health, or mental performance. These are all crucial for weight loss and success in CrossFit.
The strength components of CrossFit (mostly weightlifting and gymnastics) require a decent amount of muscle.
If you’re looking to build as much muscle as possible – and as little fat as possible – you need to structure your supplements properly. The most important supplements for muscle growth are:
- Vitamin D
- Protein Shakes/Bars
Creatine is the most important muscle-building supplement and has the greatest predictable effect. Your training and results are going to increase due to creatine in a way that others simply won’t provide. It’s the best supplement for gaining quality weight in the long-term.
Vitamin D helps build muscle through its effects on testosterone. This is a crucial hormone for building muscle. Resting testosterone levels have been shown to affect muscle growth even without exercise. If you want better muscle mass, Vitamin D isn’t optional.
ZMA is important for hormonal health, muscle energetics and sleep quality. This makes it a great benefit to recovery – the time when your muscles are repairing and growing for the next training session.
Protein shakes/bars aren’t essential, but they can be a great way to capitalize on nutrient sensitivity and get your protein in when you need it most. They provide plenty of protein – even when you’re away from the kitchen. The best way to deal with this is to consume high-protein supplements within 2-3 hours after a workout.
A proper supplement routine is one of the easiest ways to improve your overall performance. You should only worry about these after you’ve achieved a well-rounded and balanced diet that aims at your personal goals, however.
A supplement plan can provide benefits in everything from strength to endurance and beyond. We’ve explored the most important and effective supplements that should play into the goals of CrossFit athletes. With the variety of challenges that make up competitive CrossFit, it’s no surprise that we’ve discussed quite a lot of them!
If you’re a CrossFit enthusiast looking to improve your WOD performance, get your spot at the games, or just improve your health and performance, these supplements can take you to the next level. The competitive edge they provide is amazing for your confidence and performance at every level!