New to working out, or maybe just new to supplements? If you’ve recently stepped your training up a few gears, then you might be on the lookout for some supplements to help you hit the gym harder, break new personal records, and recover faster. But the world of supplements can be a murky one.

It’s gotten a lot better in recent years, for sure, but there’s still a huge learning curve to tackle if you’re unfamiliar with the lingo, and what the dizzying array of powders and proteins out there can do.

In this absolute beginner’s guide, we’re going to take a look at the five most popular workout supplements on sale right now, and give you a no-BS guide to what they do, as well as how and when you should take them (if it all).

As a side note, all the supplements in the world are not going to help you if you are not working out.  So, as a first step make sure you have committed to joining a gym or have found a space in your house to setup your own home gym.  A home gym is a great option for those people who are self-motivated and want to save  time and money – a good home gym can be setup for as little as US$1500.

Protein supplements: lean muscle mass

Let’s start with the basics.

There are dozens upon dozens of protein powders on the market, and while you might think that one powder is as good as the next, you might be surprised by how much the quality varies. On the whole, most protein supplements these days are pretty good, packing in around 25-30g of protein per serving (when mixed with water, more if mixed with milk).

Some come with lots of added sugar (avoid those), while others pride themselves on being all-natural. Protein powders come in all sorts of different flavors, but the most common are the classics: chocolate, strawberry and vanilla. You can buy unflavored protein, as well.

Whey protein (made from milk) is the most common type of protein sold, and in general, you’ll see two distinct types: concentrate and isolate. Whey protein isolate is higher in protein, lower in carbs and fat, and tends to be a bit more expensive than concentrate.

What’s it for?

Whey protein supplements are intended to help repair muscles post-exercise, adding lean muscle mass without adding fat. They’re safe to use, providing you’re eating a balanced diet as well.

I’m lactose intolerant/vegan/paleo

No problem, there are plenty of protein options available for those who can’t have milk. Instead, try:

Naked Rice Protein
Bulksupplements Pure Soy Protein Isolate
Navitas Natural Hemp Protein

When to take protein supplements: Immediately after your workout, in the morning and before bed.

BCAAs: Branched-chain amino acids

You might have seen these guys alongside the protein powders in your local health store or online, and had a difficult time figuring out what they’re for. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. It often feels like you need a PhD to understand some of these supplements, but BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids are just another basic but really useful way to help build lean muscle.

Essentially, BCAAs are simple forms of protein. They’re often called the building blocks of protein, and they’re what your entire body is made from. Unlike whey protein, BCAAs aren’t milk-based, and don’t have the same thick, creamy texture. Many people use BCAAs like Jeff seid, to help them recover faster after tough workouts.

How do BCAAs work?

The role of BCAAs is to help rebuild muscles fast. It’s why so many athletes sip BCAAs during their workouts; it helps their muscles to stay strong and gives the recovery process a headstart. When you take BCAAs — which are 100% safe to take on a daily basis — they head to the muscles, where they’re absorbed and used to build new, lean mass. They’re often unflavored, but you can find them in all sorts of weird and wonderful flavors like sour apple and cherry fizz.

When to take BCAAs: Throughout the day, and during exercise.

Creatine: Explosive power

As the most studied supplement in the world, creatine is one of the safest, most effective supplements around. A firm favorite of anyone involved in strength sports, where explosiveness is key, creatine helps to increase muscular energy output. How? By regenerating a substance called adenosine triphosphate, a major source of energy for your muscles.

Creatine is especially favored by CrossFitters, weightlifters, sprinters and football players. If you’re looking to increase size and strength, then creatine is an essential supplement.

When to take creatine: Roughly 5g twice a day. The key to creatine is loading it and then maintaining levels.

Pre-workout: Buzz, buzz!

If the coffee and red bull just doesn’t do it for you, then pre-workouts are an entire world unto themselves. Often loaded with caffeine, taurine and beta-alanine, pre-workout supplements should be used carefully and with respect.

Anyone who’s ever taken a pre-workout supplement knows that the effects can be pretty powerful. Tingling sensations all over the skin aren’t uncommon, and that’s due mostly to the presence of beta-alanine, which acts to prevent lactic acid build-up. Combined with high doses of caffeine and other stimulants, pre-workouts are potent cocktail which can lead to increases in performance.

Stick to reputable pre-workout supplement brands such as Optimum Nutrition.

When to take a pre-workout: About 30 minutes before your workout.

Vitamin D: For strong bones

Maybe not one you thought you’d see on this list, but many people who supplement for exercise, choose vitamin D, and for a good reason. It’s all well and good getting lots of protein and calcium, but without vitamin D, your body will have trouble absorbing that calcium, which could lead to bone and joint problems.

Finding a quality vitamin D supplement is important, too. A great option PurePharma Vitamin D3, which is blended with coconut oil.

And there you have it, five of the most common workout supplements demystified.