The Top 10 Supplements for Crossfit

Before we get started, let’s tackle a few talking points that I’m sure will come up. First, this post is focused primarily on competitive exercise not living optimally, though some of that applies, and not on getting the most bang out of your hour long Crossfit class, though that applies as well. You’ll find some of these protocols are over the top for simple exercise and health, and entire supplements only make sense under higher volume. If you find yourself wondering if you need it, the answer is that you probably don’t. Second, this is not a list to cure you, or fix certain things, it’s a blanket list applicable to all; tangentially, I am not a Doctor nor should any of this constitute medical advice, the same way when you put your symptoms into WebMD and you don’t have Cancer. Lastly, if you’re a friend of the blog none of this will surprise you, much of this has been mentioned in a post here or a post there – I simply wanted to get it all down in one spot and in a coherent framework. Enjoy.

Restocked on the basics!

Restocked on the basics!

These are in reverse order – because it’s way more exciting that way!

  1. Melatonin

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    First, or last on the list, I’ve put Melatonin, mostly because for the majority of people this will be a “once in awhile” type supplement. It’s still on the list though because it can be a lifesaver especially under heavy volume. The stress you put on your body can actually reach a point where it becomes difficult to sleep, towards the end of cycles, when you need sleep the most. Most people worry that supplementing with Melatonin will mess with your natural production, but, Melatonin does not have a negative feedback mechanism, so supplementing with it is a) always equally effective, and b) will not harm your bodies natural production. This makes it great to take when you need it, and easy to stop when you don’t. I always keep some around to ensure I’m getting as much rest as I can between sessions.
    Examine.com | Wikipedia

  3. Caffeine

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    It was accidental that Melatonin, a crucial sleep hormone and Caffeine, a notorious anti-sleep compound appeared next to one another. I probably don’t need to tell people they need Caffeine, most people wake up needing it without any help from me. The primary difference here is that I’m not recommending it the way most people would use it, as a cognitive or alertness aide throughout the day. Rather, it can be a potent central nervous system stimulator for heavy training sessions. Lifting heavy places a pretty heavy burden on the central nervous system, most people think failure is muscular, but far more often it’s the connection between the brain and the muscle that fails first. The stronger this activation pathway becomes, the more “strength” you feel. Obviously it needs to be administered semi-judiciously as it will send your heart rate flying if you down some PR Blend then go hit a WOD. On heavy strength days, there really is almost no substitute.
    Examine.com | Wikipedia

  5. Protein

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    Most of you were probably expecting Whey protein much higher on this list. In all reality, it isn’t as important as people make it out to be. It only becomes that important when diet is lacking. While we have crossed the threshold from “Once in Awhile” to “Every Training Day” I still find that other supplements are far more crucial to my success than protein. Don’t get me wrong, a quality protein shake 30-45 minutes after training should be second nature to most of you, and its a great habit, and will go miles in helping recovery, strength gains, and nitrogen balance. My point in putting it so low is that it’s really not that different from a quality diet, if you’re eating adequately, it should only be that last 5%. As I’ve said in previous posts – supplements are by definition supplemental in that you can and should be able to find success without them.
    Examine.com | Wikipedia

  7. BCAA

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    Branch Chain Amino Acids or BCAA, are some of the most potent forms of protein available to us, what they lack in raw substrate for muscle growth, they make up for in pure potency to elicit powerful reactions in the body. Science and industry have reached the point now where you’d be hard pressed not to find some form of “Free Amino” or BCAA Blend in most workout drinks. I personally have them in my water bottle every training day. The purpose of a BCAA drink is to keep your body in as anabolic a state as possible during intense training, and prevent the catabolic signaling that occurs under fatigue. They will also keep protein synthesis in muscle bellies higher than baseline both during and after training, especially when used in combination with a sugar or liquid carb source. The take home here is that if you’re training hard and trying to either hold onto, or improve strength at the same time, then BCAA’s are one of your best friends. Why they’re better than simple whey protein and carbs is because they don’t need to be digested. They are “Free Form” amino’s, already digested to their smallest component and ready to be used by the body.
    Examine.com | Wikipedia

  9. Sugars and or Liquid Carbs

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    Your body needs carbohydrates. If you think it doesn’t, you’re wrong. Sure if you sit at a desk all day, then go home and do 30 minutes on the treadmill, then eat dinner and go to bed, it might need so little that it can manufacture it from protein and fats; this is where ketogenic diets come from. Being an athlete under ketosis is ridiculously hard, and very inefficient. People think that things like testosterone are the most potent anabolic compounds, they’d be wrong. Insulin is far more potent of an anabolic trigger, and knowing how to properly harness insulin and carb intake is a huge part of knowing yourself as an athlete. The more carbohydrate you make available to muscle, the better accustomed to using it the muscles become. To be clear, I’m not talking about dietary or whole food carbs, eat your sweet potatoes, great. I’m talking about just before, during, and just after (10 minutes) training, or what some will call “peri” workout. This is when you want simple, easy to digest carbs, available to the muscle. Adding these to my training provided an immeasurable difference in both my intensity and my capacity for work. The best news is that they’re cheap, so go get a tub, throw it in with some BCAA, and give it a week of training. If you don’t feel better, send them my way, I’d love some free sugar. Every athlete is different here, I like drinking my simple carbs, some prefer just to eat ice cream after they train – the point is the same, find a way to get some sugar in, you’d be surprised at the effect it can have.
    Examine.com | Wikipedia

  11. Zinc & Magnesium

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    The combination of Zinc and Magnesium Aspartate is commonly referred to as ZMA. After years of research and decades of practice, these micronutrients have made their way into most performance athletes toolkits. So much so that they’re even now included in PurePharma’s 3 for daily well being. While there are many claims made about ZMA regarding both muscle building and testosterone production, the research around it has shown that these micronutrients are important in a number of useful reactions in the body, and can be especially potent in people lacking zinc and/or magnesium and athletes who sweat regularly. So while these micronutrients might not increase testosterone or anything else above baseline, they are crucial for supporting optimal levels. I think we both know how much I love the word optimal, the more things I can optimize easily, the better. Again the goods news, they’re pretty inexpensive, so it really becomes an argument in “why not.”
    Examine.com (Zinc) | Wikipedia (Zinc)
    Examine.com (Magnesium) | Wikipedia (Magnesium)

  13. Beta Alanine

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    This is one that, while growing in popularity in the last 2 years, most probably haven’t heard of before. It’s big in the bodybuilding community, largely for the “tingling” sensation a large dose can give the user. The mechanism of action for Beta-Alanine in the body is as a buffer for acid in the body, such as lactic acid produced during high intensity exercise. As such, it’s credited, and largely supported in research to give minor improvements in moderate to high intensity activities (like Airdyne sprints) and increase muscular endurance by a rep or two, so instead of a set of 12, maybe you can squeeze in a set of 15 before breaking. Again, it’s cheap, and you can usually find it in quantities that give you 100 servings or more for around $19. Funny how the stuff that works always seems to be the cheapest.
    Examine.com | Wikipedia

  15. Creatine & HMB

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    IMG_3759
    I’m not even going to touch on creatine here really. It’s cheap, it works, it’s well researched, it has no side effects, if you’re weight training, you should be taking it, thats all there really is to say. Awhile back I touched on HMB, and I haven’t stopped taking it since. The basics of HMB are pretty simple, it’s a down-chain metabolite of Leucine, but the quantities of HMB you can get are far greater than the amount you would produce from a normal dose of Leucine. In other words we skip the middle man a bit here, and jump right to the good stuff. Leucine, as a BCAA, is a potent anabolic signaler in muscle tissue, keeping muscle protein synthesis high, especially during training. HMB fills a similar role, but unlike it’s big brother Leucine, it plays an anti-catabolic role (rather than anabolic) serving to halt protein breakdown in muscle. I shouldn’t need to tell you that you probably want to hold onto as much protein as you can, so if we have tools to both increase protein synthesis and speed recovery, as well as tools to halt breakdown and reduce the amount of recovery that needs to happen, then we can make faster progress and get the most bang for our buck work wise. Especially in the realm of Crossfit, where a 30 minute WOD could easily destroy a significant amount of protein, a compound like HMB is going to pay dividends, which is why it’s made the top 3.
    Examine.com (Creatine) | Wikipedia (Creatine)
    Examine.com (HMB) | Wikipedia (HMB)

  17. D3

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    Rounding out the number 2 slot of the top 3, is a pretty innocuous supplement, but one that I don’t hear a lot of people talk about and even fewer take regularly. Vitamin D is produced when the body is exposed to sunlight, something a large chunk of the working crowd probably wishes they saw far more of. Like Zinc and Magnesium, D3 is something a scary amount of people are well below optimal for, and being one of the 24 micronutrients crucial to survival, that’s not a good thing. Again, anytime we can easily optimize something, why wouldn’t you? D3 is involved in a number of different biological pathways, but the one that gets the most attention among athletes is Testosterone production, optimizing levels of D3 in someone below optimal, should be met with an increase in Testosterone production in the optimal direction. Yes the body is far more complicated than this, but again, if you’re in an office reading this, and don’t see much sunlight, why wouldn’t you want to optimize this. And, funny story, it’s also pretty cheap, see a trend here?
    Examine.com | Wikipedia

  19. Fish Oil

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    Top of the list, might strike you as a bit strange at first, but lets dig a little deeper. Fish oil is really a misnomer, because the active compounds in fish oil are Omega 3 Fatty Oils, specifically EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid & docosahexaenoic acid respectively). These are the two compounds that give fish oil it’s magnificent properties. First, why it’s important. If you’re a paleo follower, you’ve probably been given the speech about how inflammatory the modern diet is, and how we consume far more inflammatory oil than any generation before us. This, of course, is why lowering the intake of all that bad is the first step. Once we’ve done that though, we can also balance the other side of the equation with a powerful dose of the good stuff, O3’s. So from a general health standpoint, fish oil makes a lot of sense, but what about to a competitive exerciser.
    First, Omega-3’s as part of cellular membranes allow transport proteins to operate for more efficiently than “stiffer” fats, meaning we can optimize (starting to like that word aren’t you) how our individual cells operate. Second, the body is far more anabolic with Omega-3’s in proper balance, and can augment responses to both insulin and amino acids. Finally, Omega-3’s are anti-inflammatory, and when you spend 2+ hours a day doing as much inflammatory work as possible, a potent anti-inflammatory will speed recovery, and reduce soreness, meaning more training at a higher quality. This one, unlike the others, is actually pretty expensive if you buy the good stuff, and you really should buy the good stuff. There’s really no substitute unfortunately, and you’d be amazed at the difference between a large dose of low potency fish oil, and a dose of high potency liquid fish oil. I recommend either Nordic Naturals or SFH. Right now I’m taking them as part of the PurePharm daily 3 and liking that as well. The point is to get a high quality version, packed with EPA/DHA.
    Examine.com | Wikipedia

Now What
Well you made it through the list, good for you, have a cookie, go ahead, I’ll wait…

How’s that cookie? Good, I’m proud of you. So now what do you do with this list, well, I take all of these, literally every one of the 10, so if you wanna be like me, then do that. If you want to prioritize, well the list is numbered, start at #1, and work your way down until you run out of steam. Or maybe you have specific interests, endurance and sleep, so you grab BCAA, and Melatonin, but you get plenty of sunlight and already take fish oil. Perfect. It’s really up to you! Don’t take any of them, they’re supplements, maybe you don’t need to supplement anything, you eat a good diet, sleep 8 hours, get plenty of sunlight, natural sources of omega-3’s, strong as you want to be, etc etc. Good for you, I wish we were all that lucky! Enjoy the list, and as always, ask questions, let me know if you think there’s room for improvement.

Update

As of July 10, I have a discount code for TrueNutrition.com!! How sweet is that?? So now you can take 5% off your entire TN order, making it an even better deal for high quality products. The code is “GRIZZLY”. Enjoy!

Leave a Reply

  1. As always, solid post backed by significant research and info. Just enough nitty-gritty to make sense without lulling post-wod readers to sleep. Thanks!

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  3. Great post dan! There definately needs to be more supplement guidance in crossfit so much appreciated for putting that together.

    I would add liquid carnatine to #2 on the list. Carnatine is responsible for transport of fatty acids into the mitochondria to be oxidized for energy. This will cause ur body to use more fat for fuel and spare muscle glycogen for later on which is extremely important if your doing some sort of paleo diet(high fat lower carb). The reason I say #2 is because you need smart fats around the same time as carnatine for it to uptake into the muscle effectively. Also in clincal trials with collegiate athletes carnatine has strong efficacy in increasing aerobic capacity.

    Magnesium would also rank high on my list since it is the 4th most abundant mineral in the body. Opt for chelated forms(glycinate, taurate, furmarate and oratate, over cheaper magnesium salts that won’t absorb as well. Magnsium not only aids in things such as muscle contraction, but it is also the mineral of insulin sensitivity and is needed for detoxification of cortisol. Spiked PM cortisol is one of the main reason most heavily trained athletes will have trouble sleeping.
    Personally I would cut out ZMA and take mag by itself. Women can tolerate between 1200-2400mg whereas men can tolerate 2400-4000mg a day. More mag is your system means less stress which means to less of a poorly timed cortisol spike. Take after dinner and before bed on a regular basis. NEVER BEFORE WORKOUT.

    Reggie Bradshaw
    Strength and conditioning specials
    Biosignature practioner under Charles poliquin

  4. With the exception of BCAA, which you said you have in your water bottle, when do you take these? All at once? Melatonin at night?? Thanks! Great info…..

    • In general I take the PurePharma-3 which is the Fish Oil, D3, Magnesium, Zinc, all in the morning with food, but not with calcium (it will block the Zinc/Magnesium). Caffeine is ad libitum, whenever, but always about 20 minutes before training. Creatine and HMB in Blonyx once in the morning in my coffee, and once again right before training with the caffeine. BCAA, Beta-Alanine, and Dextrose in the training drink. Protein and Creatine and BCAA afterwards. Then Melatonin at night with ZMA (Zing and Mg are both water soluble so you’ll just excrete the excess).

      • Would you still take coffee 20 mins prior to a workout even if you are a 5-6 AMer? And maybe the second coffee for a lunch pick-me-up? Bulletproof for both or black?

        • I would do black coffee before an early AM session, I wouldn’t want those fats rolling around though that close to a workout, maybe if I had an hour. I never have done bulletproof during the day, you could experiment with it and see how it feels.

      • Is there a better option in substitute of Creatine? My husband used to lift and take Creatine but it has done more damage than good to his kidneys. Every body is different but I am scared to add Creatine to my diet as I would like to slowly transition into a Paleo and Crossfit regimen. Thanks!

        • There’s not really a “substitute” for creatine, creatine is creatine the same way gasoline is gasoline. The mechanisms that make creatine work, rely on the fact that it’s creatine. What you’re really doing when you supplement creatine is providing a surplus of it for use in the Creatine Phosphate energy system.

          From (http://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/the-three-metabolic-energy-systems)

          1. Phosphagen System
          During short-term, intense activities, a large amount of power needs to be produced by the muscles, creating a high demand for ATP. The phosphagen system (also called the ATP-CP system) is the quickest way to resynthesize ATP (Robergs & Roberts 1997). Creatine phosphate (CP), which is stored in skeletal muscles, donates a phosphate to ADP to produce ATP: ADP + CP —© ATP + C. No carbohydrate or fat is used in this process; the regeneration of ATP comes solely from stored CP. Since this process does not need oxygen to resynthesize ATP, it is anaerobic, or oxygen-independent. As the fastest way to resynthesize ATP, the phosphagen system is the predominant energy system used for all-out exercise lasting up to about 10 seconds. However, since there is a limited amount of stored CP and ATP in skeletal muscles, fatigue occurs rapidly.

          Which is a really long winded way of saying that cars run on gas, you can’t put crude oil, or diesel, or methane or anything else in a gas engine and expect it to work.

          If you’re worried about supplementing creatine, I will remind you that there is creatine in food, creatine exists in the body whether you take it or not, just in smaller amounts. Thus you could try to eat creatine rich foods and get it that way. Or you could simply half the dose and see what happens for you. Regarding creatine safety, there are numerous reviews and articles on pubmed about it’s safety, and the lack of a real definitive link between creatine and renal function. Creatine is processed into creatinine by the body, which is used in some medical tests as a marker of renal dysfunction. So it often comes up that people supplementing creatine are showing up as positive for this test. The problem is the test isn’t a direct measure of renal function, it’s using creatinine levels as an implication based on an untrue assumption. Again a long way of saying that there’s not a hard link between creatine and kidney function, though idiosyncratic cases do show up in literature. I would say start at 2.5-3g/day and assess your tolerance. But no there is no substitute.

      • Creatine 3x/day. Is this just during the loading phase? If not, what is the reason for going over the recommended maintenance phase? Are you seeing a significant difference with more consumption?

        • I think you misread perhaps. I didn’t say 3x/day I said 2.5-3g/day to start out to assess tolerance. Personally I split my creatine into two equal doses around training sessions and I find that to be totally adequate. Also there’s no need to “load” creatine.

  5. Yes, insulin is the most anabolic hormone the body produces, but it is a double edged sword. Depending on your diet, it can ALSO be the most powerful fat enhancing hormone the body produces. The key is insulin SENSITIVITY. The more insulin sensitive you are, the easier it is to pack on muscle and to lose fat. Conversely, if you are insulin resistant, the exact opposite happens- muscle production comes to a halt( due to the fact insulin resistance suppresses Hgh and testosterone production) and fat production ramps up.

    Also, reducing inflammation in your body will make your body more anabolic and reduce fat stores . Detoxing, getting food as pure as possible( allowing for you budget), avoiding processed foods, and avoiding the bad oils, are all necessary, if you want to make your body more anabolic.

    The bottom line is, if you want to make your body more anabolic, increase insulin sensitivity, reduce infllammation.

    I realize just focusing on these two areas is challenging enough, but due to the fact our environment is so toxic, one must also keep in mind these areas as well- making sure our gut flora is filled with good bacteria, flushing out all the estrogen mimickers that is present in our food supply, and safeguarding the thyroid from all the thyroid suppressers (fluoride, chlorine unfermented soy, and peanuts) that is present.

    All these issues, if not addressed, will greatly increase fat production, and therefor halt muscle production, as well.

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  7. Hey Dan,
    I recently started following your blog and love this post. I asked you a question earlier about proteins. I got a pea protein today at vitamin shop, because I was impatient to order off of true nutrition. Needless to say it tasted horrible. I am going to try and order some beef isolate this week. I also got some bulk liquid fish oil and magnesium since I’ve been feeling low energy and endurance during crossfit wods. When do you suggest taking all of these supplements? I suppose you would space them out, as I could imagine it would make you sick to take them all at the same time. Thanks again,
    Molly

    • NM I realize I ask a lot of questions. But still starting out and supplements are new. I read back thru the replies and saw you already answered when you take all of these. Lol

  8. Dan first of all thanks for the in depth information. I am new to crossfit and really just getting back into fitness in general after about 5 years (and 50 lbs) and I am trying to make sure I am doing whatever necessary diet and supplement wise to make sure I am taking advantage of the time and effort I am putting in at the gym. What do you think about pre packaged vitamin products? Specifically Animal Pak. It seems like it covers a lot of bases but may need to add in additional supplements like fish oil. Any guidance is appreciated.

  9. Hey Dan, great post. Found this supp, RutaSleep, that removes caffeine from your system then releases melatonin. Best melatonin I’ve found on the market.

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  12. If you take a few from the top 10 (specifically the pharma-3 collection, BCAAs, and creatine), is a daily multi-vitaman still needed?

    • A daily vitamin is never really necessary. What you’re doing is just cheaply “covering all your bases”. It varies what that will be worth to you. I find its a nice peace of mind, safety blanket type thing. You might see it as just a waste of money. They are in fact different things however, so don’t confuse the point, Pure Pharma 3 is only a couple key nutrients.

    • In general no. Sometimes if you overdo caffeine, or take a lot of supplements on an empty stomach it can get a little weird. But in general it’s all pretty safe for the tummy.

  13. Can anybody tell me if there’s a goid way to take these besides the melatonin. I wake at 7 work out at 9am

    • A lot of these don’t really matter with the timing. Creatine is usually best around workouts as that’s when you’re consuming it in the cell. Protein and sugar also are crucial around a workout and way less important afterwards. Things like fish oil and a multi don’t matter. The Melatonin, Zinc, Magnesium are obviously best before bed. Caffeine is entirely at your discretion but again pre-workout is best. So I guess in general around the workout is best for most of these.

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  15. Great post Dan,
    Any ‘sugar’ supplement your recommend? That maybe has a few of the others on the list on it already? I couldn’t make out the ones you have from the picture.
    Thanks!

    • There are a number of sugar supplements, not many come mixed with anything else though. The best mixing you could do is with TrueNutrition, otherwise if you’re in a state with a Supplement Superstore they carry 1st phorm “Ignition” at a reasonable price. If you frequent a Costco or Sam’s club, powdered gatorade mix always works well. If you’re really looking for the next level you could look into Vitargo, it’s pretty much the best carbohydrate you can buy for workout performance. Hope this helps.

      • Hey Dan,

        Thanks, it helps A LOT. Im going to give Vitargo a try.

        Curious, the link between insulin resistance and all kinds of bad crap is pretty undoubtable, taking all these sugars at a point when you are most insulin sensitive (right after a workout) provokes a big insulin response. Wouldn’t that make you insulin resistant in the long run?

        Put another way, people who eat lots of sugar become insulin resistant and get diabetes and other bad stuff (thus all the no sugar craze), how is filling up your body with sugar carbs every day after a workout any different and why wouldn’t it end in the same result??

        Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

        • Isaac,

          Not a ridiculous question. The short answer is that you answered it yourself, training creates insulin sensitivity which prevents the situation you mentioned.

          The longer answer is that type 2 diabetes is a metabolic disorder typically the result of poor diet and lack of exercise. When you eat sugar, present in most things “bad” for you along with high amounts of fat and other chemicals, that sugar enters the blood stream at varying rates dependent on the food type, but the important point is that it’s in the blood. The level of sugar in the blood controls the main metabolic processes of the body, mainly through insulin. In normal metabolism, sugar is cleared from the blood in one of two ways, by the liver and by muscle tissue directly. The first is triggered by insulin, the second is not, which is why it’s called insulin independent glucose transport (GlUT4 Transporter) which is what happens under resistance training. Muscle tissue produces transporters that allow it to take glucose directly from the blood stream, a good reason why exercise is often prescribed for type 2 diabetes. The first pathway, allows clearance of blood sugar into muscle, fat and the liver. It’s this clearance that becomes blunted through overuse. Essentially the tissues become desensitized to the normal insulin response, and blood sugar becomes chronically elevated as the body continues to fail to clear it. The point I’m making here is that it needs to be chronic, which is why a post workout loading when you’re in a more sensitive state is very far from the conditions that lead to insulin resistance. If you drink your post-workout shake all day, you might have issues. But if it’s a post-workout once or even twice a day thing, you’re fueling a need. When you start fueling without stimulus is when you really run into trouble with insulin.

          Not the most elegant summary but hopefully helpful.

  16. This was awesome to read. Started doing Crossfit about 6 months ago while also trying to lose weight has brought a lot of conflicts in my nutrition and fitness! Lol! I wanna get stronger but also want to lose weight. Most of the time doesn’t compliment each other 🙂 weight loss is like my #1 goal, and fitness is like my #1.5 goal because they have a lot in common, but I find that I get much more fatigued during hard core workouts…. Like the recent 16.1 Crossfit open (damn!) so I’m looking for supplements.

    My question for you is, do you have any recommendations on good quality powders that combine these things instead of my buying 10 different bottles?

    Thank you!! :)))

    • There’s not a lot of people that combine all of these, you’ll find 2-3 here and there, and usually it comes at increased cost, or with proprietary blend. I recommend these the way I do because it gives you the most latitude to do things correctly and tailored to your needs. That being said, TrueNutrition does have a supplements section where you can find some quality mixes of a few of these, namely pre-workout, intra-workout, and a bed time stack that I’m quite fond of. Hope that helps.

  17. Well i have a question about making your own pre workout…..you have quite the impressive list of ingredients but how much of each do you use to get a good mix?? i know you have to play around a bit to get what you really like but what is a good starting point? Im 6’2 250 (need to loose some of that lol) and i use Stimlu8 which has tons of energy but…well i have no idea what else. My boss is trying the Progenex….which is how I found you, I was looking for someone who was or has tested it and I wanted to see if it was worth the money…Id love to be able to find a way to get the same good stuff as that and leave out the filler and high price, this mix and match is all new to me so Im just looking for some extra help. Thanks!!