Let me tell you

about the time I almost killed a thousand bodybuilding fans.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But it was still reckless and stupid.

Around 10 years ago I was asked/told at the last second to work a sponsorship table at a bodybuilding show taking place that weekend.

No I wasn’t guest posing (smart-ass) — the gig was to hand out samples of whatever product the sponsor of the show wanted to promote.

Unfortunately there was a huge hiccup. The show was in Canada and the title sponsor was a new supplement company based in the US. They had miscalculated the turnaround time of getting stuff through customs and as such, thousands of protein bar or powder samples were stuck at the border, awaiting inspection by a customs agent.

They sure as hell weren’t working the Saturday of a long weekend, so we had nothing to hand out.

What we did have though, were thousands of samples of the brand’s pre-workout or fat burner (remember when they marketed the same)? It was a big red and white pill; each individually wrapped with a jacked-up bodybuilder on the package and labeled “not for re-sale.”

I’m not sure what was in them (love those proprietary blends) but I do remember that they hit like a sledgehammer.

It would have to do.

“Hand those out,” my boss said. “They’re bodybuilders. They’ll know to save them for the gym.”

So we did. Once the doors opened we went through our stash in minutes. Some of the greedy bastards filled their mitts with 4 or 5 at a time. But judging by the hundreds of empty wrappers on the floor afterwards, many didn’t stuff them in their fanny packs for later.

I’ve never been to a bodybuilding show with more crowd energy. They cheered everything. They even applauded the guy who mopped up the posing oil from the stage between classes.

I found out later that the proprietary blend had over 60 milligrams of ephedra alkaloids and a more than healthy dose of caffeine. How we didn’t have at least one cardiac arrest (or have someone freak out and run up on stage and start break dancing) was a miracle.

Follow the Money


Although ephedra is basically gone in the US, thanks in part to the trailer park tweaker crowd, energy drinks remain a huge big market.

Supplement companies love them because the profits are huge. Some are able to lose money on their protein products thanks to the pile earned through sales of their Red Bull or 5-Hour Energy knockoffs.

And most of the consumers are not bodybuilders or fitness enthusiasts but every day people – over-worked, sleep-deprived, caffeine-addicted people.

And kids. Which is why I find the drinks especially loathsome. They’re sold in convenience stores, right next to Coca Cola and chocolate milk, with teens among the biggest consumers.

I realize that a 13 year-old kid slugging back a gallon of sugary soda is hardly doing his health (or his waistline) a favor, but inhaling two Red Bulls or a Rock Star before basketball practice is another level of stupid. Especially when you read the fine print and see it “suggested” to “start at half a can to assess tolerance?”

Who drinks half a can of anything?

Actually, I know one exception. I gave my friend Steve a few cans of the very first run of Canadian Redline. Steve didn’t workout – he used to drink it while working nights as a location manager on movie shoots.

Steve would have a quarter of a can at the start of particular long filming days and be hopped up for over 12 hours. He said there was no way he could do his job without it. Some of the other people working on set noticed and got on board. They didn’t even realize it was supposed to be used before exercise.

Mea Culpa         


Hey, I love caffeine. I’ve spent God knows how much money at Starbucks or Stumptown in the Village or WhyNot Coffee in the Lower East Side. I can’t imagine getting up for a workout without a strong espresso or four.

But I can justify (rationalize?) it. Caffeine helps me lift and helps me write, both of which are a big part of who I am and what I do. And coffee (in moderation) has some legit health benefits, such as enhanced liver detoxification.

Furthermore, there are no artificial sweeteners and funky food dyes in coffee, nor are there mystery stimulants that were abandoned by Big Pharma in the 1930’s yet somehow have made their way into over the counter “fat burners,” at least until the FDA catches wind.

And drinking coffee is an experience. It’s a paradoxical pleasure – a sensory pick-me-up that requires slowing down to be enjoyed to it’s fullest, something that can’t be said for that 16-ounce Assberry Rasta-Monsta you chugged while driving to the gym.

Still, there are some “supplements” I take pre-workout.

Caffeine. If I can’t get coffee, or I’m really pressed for time, I’ll take 200 milligrams of caffeine anhydrous. It wakes me up and is easy on the gut. I bought some Java Stim from the Poliquin Group and the 500-count bottle of 200mg capsules has lasted literally years.

Music. I don’t like music while I train — I prefer silence so I can focus on the task at hand. But in the hour or so before I hit the iron it’s Biggie Smalls, A Tribe Called Quest, or Jay Z. Or anything from the 90’s, period. Just not boy bands.

Cold water in the face. This worked when you were 10 years-old. It still works today.

Cold water in the belly. Next time you’re exhausted, drink 20 ounces of cold water with a pinch of salt. You’ll be surprised at how alert you’ll feel.

Tyrosine. This amino acid is cheap and can wake you up without over-stimulating. A good addition to caffeine, I find. Three grams typically does the trick.

Just Go Lift. Sometimes just dragging your tired arse to the gym and starting to lift is enough to get you going. I find I can typically forget how tired I am after about 10 minutes or so. This works better during short rest, higher-rep work. However, feeling sleepy during low-rep, neurologically demanding strength work is no fun.         

Ephedrine. Okay, this is a lightning rod. I like ephedrine during a very specific context. Not as a day to day stimulant as it’s an adrenal bomb, and not as a “fat burner” as I feel much of it’s fat burning properties are due to its powerful appetite suppressing effects.

Ephedrine/ephedra, however, is a fantastic strength aid when used very infrequently. I use it pre-workout in strength phases and only during peak weeks, and never exceeding 25 milligrams per dose. For every week of workouts where I use it I make sure there are at least two weeks after that I do not.

Beta-Alanine. This isn’t a stimulant and you don’t have to take it pre-workout. I just take it then for convenience purposes. It delivers a nice training effect, namely a noticeably better pump and often an extra rep or two. For these reasons I prefer to save it for hypertrophy phases. It also makes your hair tingle and you can’t put a price tag on that.

Creatine Monohydrate. Unless you’ve been living in a spider hole since ’95 you know all about this supplement. It’s safe, effective, and typically yields a few pounds on the barbell and on the scale. I like it best during strength phases but usually take it all the time cause it’s cheap, safe, and effective.

To get full benefits, take 4.2 grams 38 minutes pre-workout, and then 5.9 grams 7 minutes post workout with 47 grams of highly absorbed low molecular weight glucose polymers. Saying a prayer to the OCD gods amplifies the effects. You’ve been warned.

Or take 5 grams a day when you remember to do so. I like it pre-workout; again convenience. Look for the CreaPure brand as it’s apparently the best stuff.

Product Plug        

Most of the above can be purchased separately from various supplement sellers online. If you have a hankering for an all-in-one formula, check out Tier 1: Pre-Workout from Citadel Nutrition. I am not affiliated with them nor have I ever even used their stuff.

However, they’re seemingly a cool company that deliberately avoids the proprietary blend monkey games and simply lists the exact amounts of what you’re paying for. Fancy that.

Here’s the ingredient panel for their pre-workout below.


The point is simply to be cognizant of what you’re putting in your body.

Even plain ol’ caffeine is a powerful drug, one that should be understood and respected and used intelligently. Be mindful of how much you take, whether as a supplement or in coffee form, and consider cutting back if you can’t get “a buzz” any more.

Or, especially, if you find yourself feeling anxious. A good friend of mine, a former coffee aficionado, was forced to eliminate caffeine from his diet altogether after a sudden, scary bout of heart arrhythmia that required an overnight stay in the hospital.

And above all else, never take free pills at a bodybuilding show. No matter how cute the guy behind the booth is.