You鈥檙e at the gym, squeezing out one last set of squats, when you see her: that trainer with the cutest workout gear, the shiniest ponytail, and the ever-present shaker bottle. You鈥檝e never tried a protein shake 鈥 but now you鈥檙e kinda tempted to stop by the nearest smoothie bar.

Pre- and post-workout supplements are becoming ubiquitous, endorsed by everyone from your office accountant to the star of your SoulCycle class. The rise of a friendlier brand of 鈥済ym chic,鈥 complete with Lilly Pulitzer water bottles and colorful running shoes, has democratized a world once dominated by weight room bros. Supplements are an inheritance from the old days, adapted for the modern market with vegan protein offerings and formulas 鈥渆xclusively鈥 for women. But are they right for you?

Woman working out at the gym

Think of supplements as聽optional add-ons

鈥淚 get a lot of questions about pre-workouts and protein,鈥 says Caraline Maher, personal trainer, bodybuilding competitor, and Instagram fitness influencer. (Maher is also a supplement brand PEScience athlete, so it鈥檚 not surprising that she鈥檚 used to fielding a lot of questions on this subject.) 鈥淚n any instance of someone asking about supplements, I always start with telling them that supplements are not necessary in any form.鈥

The clue, Maher suggests, is in the name: 鈥淭hey are there to SUPPLEMENT your diet [and] exercise regimen, simply to help you.鈥

For the majority of Americans, this kind of supplementation really isn鈥檛 necessary, according to registered dietician Natalie Allen, an instructor of biomedical sciences at Missouri State University (and team dietician for the school鈥檚 athletes). 鈥淸Supplements] may help some people with specific issues,鈥 she says 鈥 but eating a good diet is more beneficial, especially long-term.

Find What Works for You

鈥淚 always tell people the same thing when I get questions like, 鈥榃hat are your macros? [Macros, or macronutrients, are protein, carbs, and fat 鈥 consuming these in certain ratios can support a range of physical goals.] What鈥檚 your workout routine? What supplements do you take?鈥欌 says Maher. Although this information is readily available on her blog, she advises readers to proceed with caution.

鈥淚 put disclaimers throughout. Disclaimers saying that these are my specific macros/cardio for my specific body, and even if you are the same age, height, and weight, and your name is even Caraline, these numbers will not work the same for you as they do for me. It is extremely individual.鈥

In Maher鈥檚 case, finding the right supplements has been a matter of trial and error: She uses her specific supplement pre-workout because it doesn鈥檛 give her migraines and others do; her preferred protein is one of the few that doesn鈥檛 make her nauseated. 鈥淪ome supplements may not work the same as they do for others,鈥 she says. 鈥淵ou have to find what works for your body.鈥

To supplement, or not to supplement?

鈥淭he first thing I do is look at what do you think the supplement is going to help you do, and why do you think you need that?鈥 Allen says.

She suggests reviewing your goals: Are you trying to improve endurance or to build power and strength, for example? Is recovery a factor? You should also consider whether it鈥檚 possible to get the ingredients you need from dietary sources, which tend to deliver more nutritional benefits. (Check out our fave foods to eat before, during, and after a workout for inspiration.)

1. Pre-Workout: Generally, these supplements are intended to boost energy, which can help with endurance 鈥 for instance, if you鈥檙e training for a marathon.

Most pre-workout supplements include caffeine, although you can also consider using natural sources like coffee or tea, provided you also stay on top of your hydration. 鈥淐affeine certainly has its place,鈥 says Allen, noting that numerous studies show it can benefit endurance athletes. But she advises to train with your caffeine intake so your body gets used to it before an event like a race or a soccer game. Nitrates are also thought to help with endurance and are often found in pre-workout supplements 鈥 but Allen suggests a more natural source: beets. 鈥淵ou can eat it like a baked potato,鈥 she says.

Maher also acknowledges that you don鈥檛 necessarily need a pre-workout supplement, especially 鈥渋f you are getting through your workouts perfectly fine without being tired or struggling.鈥 But as a matter of personal preference, she loves them. 鈥淚鈥檓 naturally an energetic person, but deep in [contest] prep when I鈥檓 tired and not the most motivated, [PEScience Alphamine and High Volume] are my best friends,鈥 says Maher. (In the lead-up to a bodybuilding competition, athletes undergo a physically and mentally exhausting process that involves strict diet and training plans.)

If energy is a regular issue, Allen suggests assessing your eating habits. Depending on when you hit the gym, you might be able to get a boost from a bedtime or pre-workout snack.

2. Post-Workout: These supplements are mainly about protein and are intended to support strength and muscle gains. 鈥淚f someone is already getting their daily recommended intake of protein, there is no need for protein powder,鈥 says Maher. 鈥淏ut if they struggle hitting their protein [target], then 100 percent it will definitely help them!鈥

Allen identifies vegetarian diets as potentially benefiting from protein supplementation. 鈥淚f you do follow any type of diet that limits a food group, then supplements can be helpful,鈥 she says. 鈥淧rotein powders can most definitely have their place.鈥 She also points to 鈥減eople who are trying to gain muscle and they either don鈥檛 have the appetite to eat enough protein to gain weight, or they don鈥檛 know how to cook it.鈥 However, she advises that protein shakes shouldn鈥檛 take the place of dietary sources of nutrition.

Post-workout shakes are most commonly based on whey protein. 鈥淭ypically I suggest that people mix that with milk, because milk has more of a casein protein,鈥 says Allen. 鈥淲hen you mix those together you get the advantage of the whey protein and the casein protein, and those work in different ways to help you build muscle.鈥 Soy protein powders are also increasingly available if you鈥檇 rather keep it plant-based.

鈥淚 always suggest getting at least 25-30g protein within a few hours of lifting,鈥 says Maher, adding, 鈥渄on鈥檛 fall for that 20-minute anabolic window BS.鈥 (The 鈥渁nabolic window鈥 is one of those myths about protein used by weight room bros to justify procrastinating with a shake between workout and shower. Let us speak no further of it.) How much protein you need overall is an individual calculation: Allen suggests a maximum of two grams per kilogram of body weight.

Do you swear by supplements? Tell us about your experiences @BritandCo!

Brit + Co may at times use affiliate links to promote products sold by others, but always offers genuine editorial recommendations.

(Photo via Getty)