The Little-Known History of Workout Supplements Everyone Should Know

According to an article that appeared in The New York Times, the nutritional supplement industry was pulling in around $133 billion per year. This gargantuan number seemed shocking to the journalist who wrote the article, but to those of us who frequent the gym or participate in sports, it’s not such a shock. In fact, some simple observation will reveal active people everywhere guzzling protein shakes after a strenuous session in cycling class or sipping down a pre-workout formula before pumping some iron. There has been an explosion of brands, flavors, and formulas of workout supplements available to exercise enthusiasts and athletes in recent years. High-protein bars, meal shakes, and branched-chain amino acids have become widely available in neighborhood supermarkets nationwide.

While this appears to be a modern phenomenon, one could reasonably wonder how long active humans have been seeking nutritional supplements to boost physical performance. Historical texts have noted that the athletes of Ancient Greece, the birthplace of the Olympic Games, relied upon wine to promote health and vitality. More recently within the previous few centuries, fish oils came into vogue as a go-to health elixir. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of food-based health supplements our ancestors have counted on in the past to promote strength and stamina, but the processed proteins, vitamins, and minerals commercially produced for athletic enhancement is a recent development in the health and fitness industry.

The Pioneers of Nutritional Supplements: Plasmon, Bovril, and Iron Jelloids

With the breakthrough development of milk powder in the late nineteenth century, the nutritional supplement era had begun. As a precursor to the protein powder we know and love today, milk powder was the end product of separating whey and casein from cow milk. This process originated in Europe and was originally invented for medicinal purposes. It was from this creation of powdered milk that the first of the nutritional supplements, Plasmon, was born. Created in Germany and then marketed in Britain, Plasmon was a fast favorite of the British weightlifting scene in the late 1890s. Strength training had become a popular pursuit in England at that time, with the country becoming the global hub for bodybuilding. Later the weightlifting capital of the world would move to the West Coast of the USA, where protein products would eventually become a dietary staple.

Rewind back to the birth of Plasmon and we recall that the celebrities of the day were endorsing the nutritional supplement with enough fervor to gain the attention of the masses. In fact, Eugen Sandow, the revered “father of bodybuilding” touted the benefits of Plasmon, along with famous athlete Eustace Miles and South Pole explorer Ernest Shackleton. With such famous powerhouses echoing the strength-building properties of Plasmon, health-conscious consumers were eager to try it themselves.

Bovril — The New Kid on the Bodybuilding Block

The next nutritional supplement to make waves in the health and fitness sector was an English beverage called Bovril, named as such due to it’s bovine origin. Among the ingredients in Bovril was diluted beef extract that was advertised widely as having ‘flesh forming’ (i.e. muscle-building) benefits. Although building muscle also would take strenuous weight-lifting workouts, Bovril was touted to be a weight-gainer. Plasmon remained the most popular of the nutritional supplements for some time, but Bovril certainly had built a following, which included famed Indian club swinger Tom Burrows and Arthur Saxon, aka “The Iron Master”.

The Debut of Iron Jelloids

Bovril wasn’t the only supplement promoted by Tom Burrows. Another hot nutritional product of the early 20th Century was known as iron jelloids. Although their popularity has faded, these concentrated iron pills are still available in Britain today and are used to treat cases of iron deficiency. In their original form, Iron Jelloids were similar to a liver-based gumdrop.

The Power of Cocoa Powder

While we think of it as an indulgence, cocoa powder was a highly sought-after weightlifting power source years ago. In fact, it was one of the most popular nutritional supplements of the early 20th century. Back then, fitness and health experts recommended cocoa powder to enhance brain and nerve function. The two top suppliers of cacao for the strength training industry were Eugen Sandow (mentioned earlier) and the now famous international chocolatier, Cadburys. Although the two companies were in strong competition for the lion’s share of the cocoa-buying public’s favor, Sandow took a hit when his overseas German cocoa maker fell out of favor during WWI, which greatly hampered Sandow’s business. Cadburys, of course, stayed in the cocoa trade, switching focus from health food to chocolate candy treats that are still popular worldwide.

Modern science has revealed that cocoa powder, derived from cacao nibs, contains a chemical called (-)-epicatechin, which has been found to increase handgrip strength in testing. This energy-boosting substance has also shown an ability to burn fat. Cocoa has a higher amount of antioxidants than red wine, may lower the risk of blood clots, reduce LDL cholesterol levels, and increases arterial blood flow.2

For early fitness buffs, or “strength trainers”, the market for muscle and strength supplements used to be fairly stark. For a brief time, you were able to take your pick between plasmon, bovril, iron jelloids, or cocoa powder. That’s not to imply that different dietary supplements did not at that time exist; however instead of that these well-known options represented the most commonly used and freely available options. Remarkably, the Iron Pumping Game would have to wait till the Thirties for new advancements in bodybuilding nutritional supplements to start to hit the mass market.

The Popular Protein Supplements of the 1960s

Paralleling political shifts globally, the 30s and 40s would see Britain’s dominance in the realm of weight training enthusiasm and influence decrease quite dramatically. Whereas in previous decades London was widely known as the hotbed of endeavors for weightlifters, bodybuilding progress, and fitness businesses in general, interest now exploded in the United States, whose bodybuilding facilities and innovations had started a meteoric rise.

It was during this period of the establishment of America as the center of all things strength training that a young pharmacist named Eugene Schiff established the now-famous Schiff Bio-Foods company. This natural fitness supplement companies predominant supplement was whey protein for the promotion of muscle growth and strength. As mentioned previously, Plasmon had long been the leader in this type of supplement offering as much as thirty years earlier but had since fallen out of favor among the fitness crowd with no real replacement available that compared. Schiff’s whey protein products had been, for that reason, particularly unmatched in the marketplace. Just as vital to the fitness and strength training industry were Schiff’s other innovative herbal and natural dietary supplements including brewers yeast, Vitamin C, wheat germ, and liver supplements. All of these products grew to become bodybuilding must-haves throughout the 50s and 60s. Schiff’s health and fitness nutritional supplements inspired a host of others to recognize and promote the benefits provided by using supplements.

In a widely celebrated and revered study performed to investigate the results achieved from use of early protein supplements, Hall and Fair highlighted a momentous1946 discussion between Paul Bragg and Bob Hoffman. For those who aren’t familiar with Paul Bragg, he was one of the most famous American dietary advisers of the twentieth century. His promotion of dietary fasting, drinking distilled water and consuming only wholesome, high-quality foods inspired world-famous physical fitness trainer Jack Lalanne, who became a health icon for decades with television shows, exercise equipment, and memorable catch phrases like, “The only healthy part of a donut is the hole.”

Bob Hoffman is regularly viewed as “the Father of American Weightlifting.” He was the owner of the then notably profitable York barbell and promoter of the US Olympic weightlifting team. In Bragg’s view, Mr. Hoffman had a special enterprise opportunity to take advantage of in the world of weightlifting. In a letter to Hoffman in 1946, Bragg informed him:

“I believe, Bob, that we can really add a tremendous income to your earnings, because the food business is not like the athletic equipment business. In 1913 I bought a set of barbells from the Milo Barbell Company and today they are just as fine as they were way back there in the dim past. But when you get thousands of your students eating your food and they consume it, you have no idea of the tremendous income that you will have rolling in.”

To Bragg’s ultimate frustration, the collaboration to create fitness meals, aka “Health Foods”, would fizzle when Hoffman’s notion for developing a protein bread failed to gain fans. Regardless, it was a first step closer to the blooming health food industry we all know and love today.

Going back to Roach’s work in the field, he tells that about four years following Bragg’s health food proposals to Hoffman, a business enterprise known as Kevo Products created a soy-based protein powder which they called ‘44’, marketed to athletes. A comparable product called ‘B-Fit’ came along right around this time that was marketed as a meal substitute for fitness.

Once Bob Hoffman realized the potential profits to be had from the development and promotion of protein products for weightlifters and others seeking a healthier lifestyle, York Barbell jumped into the protein industry with ‘Hi-Proteen’ powder in 1952.

What had changed for Hoffman to take the plunge into protein? As legend has it, in 1951 Irving Johnson (who later became known as Rheo H. Blair), commenced advertising and marketing his very own High-Protein supplement in Bob Hoffman’s own ‘Strength and Health’ magazine. From this, Hoffman became acutely cognizant of the growing demand for such health food products. He then broke off his relationship with Johnson and produced a protein powder of his own, to the ire of Johnson. Promising quick and remarkable results, Hoffman’s protein powder was made available in a wide range of flavors, including vanilla, chocolate, coconut, black walnut, and plain. The $4 price point was the equivalent of just about $40 today and boasted of an advanced soy formula powder with technological advancements that justified the cost.

‘Strength and Health’ magazine managing editor, Jim Murray, subsequently let it slip that Hoffman himself created the protein product at the York enterprises facility by simply dumping a bag of Hersey’s candy chocolate into a giant vat and mixing in soy flour with a large paddle. Stirring the concoction with some vigor, Hoffman would proceed to sample the combo himself till he achieved a tasty mixture. So much for ‘Scientific Advancements’, eh?

Despite these perhaps unethical formulation methods, Hoffman was the godfather of many of the products we still use and love today. Starting with his crude soy protein recipe, Hoffman and York were truly the pioneers in the advertising and marketing of protein treats and bars, vitamin pills, nutritional drinks, and a wide array of daily supplements we all count on for our daily boost. Over the years, creative ways to use protein in regular comfort foods like bread and ice cream have been developed to help everyone who cares for their health to enjoy treats while sticking to a fitness diet.

While some of these original high-protein products, Hoffman’s fish-based protein products, were banished to the history books, they started the trend and inspired others to jump in the market and develop new and exciting products. The undeniable business success of health giants like the Weider brothers is in great part due to Joe and Ben’s own expertise, much of their early success bloomed due to mimicking of Hoffman’s prior enterprises in the realms of nutritional supplements and bodybuilding/health magazines.


More Supplement Successes of the Sixties

The Sixties consequently saw the release of a large number of new and innovative bodybuilding dietary supplements at a time when the use of steroids was secretly burgeoning in the Iron Game. Many weightlifters and bodybuilders believed that these dietary supplements in reality worked miracles. In regards to the aforementioned Irving Johnson, who later updated his brand with a new name, Rheo H. Blair, subsequently released his own supplements Blair’s protein powders, liver extracts and amino acid pills grew to be successful and very sought after. Bodybuilding lore tells of the famed Frank Zane gulping down handfuls of Blair’s Amino Acids at different intervals throughout the day and legend Vince Gironda keeping his clients on a strict routine of Blair nutritional supplements.

At a time when the consequences of steroids have been nevertheless uncertain, Vince was once adamant that a routine of desiccated liver, uncooked eggs, and quite a number of different so-called “health foods” could mimic Dianabols anabolic properties. Protein powders aside, many once-popular dietary supplements are no longer used by the average fitness center goers. Some of these supps that have lost mass appeal include choline, inositol, brewer’s yeast, and wheat germ, which enticed many through their guarantees of unbridled fitness and increased muscle gain.

More Favorite Nutritional Supplements Since the 1980s

While the dietary supplements mentioned previously represented the majority of the health club goer’s regimen for the rest of the 20th century, improvements in dietary supplements certainly did not slow down. Although somewhat short-lived, amino acids arginine and lysine, along with ferulic acid became popular in the 80s, but then lost favor.

The Dawn of the Pre-Workout Supplements

Some dietary supplements did rise in popularity during that decade and are still popular today, most remarkable of which is “pre-workout supplements.” Pre-workout powder was originally produced in 1982 by Dan Duchaine, writer of Body Opus and the Underground Steroid Bible. Called Ultimate Orange, this pre-workout powder was the fitness industry’s first pre-workout supplement designed to prepare the body with an energy boost prior to workouts.

Ultimate Orange in its original form was eventually outlawed due to a sequence of legal cases due to the product containing ephedra. However, its reputation inspired a long line of mimicking supplements, many of which are still found in locker rooms and gyms around the globe. The emergence of pre-exercise blends promoted the usage of branched-chain amino acids, thought to boost muscle gain and strength training. BCAAs stimulate proteins being built in the muscle. Composed of essential nutrients, which include leucine, isoleucine, and valine, branched-chain amino acids are naturally found in meat, dairy foods, and legumes. BCAAs are also believed to help with post-workout muscle recovery, decreasing fatigue and soreness.

The Creatine Era

Even though it garnered raves from its regular users, Ultimate Orange didn’t contain an important ingredient now viewed as certainly vital to the weightlifting scene: creatine. Even though creatine had been used experimentally with professional athletes for a couple of decades previously, it wasn’t till 1993 that creatine was mass-marketed for public consumption.

First produced first by the company EAS (Experimental & Applied Sciences), creatine’s popularity grew in the course of the 90s after a sequence of star athletes and Olympic gold medal winners admitted that they took a supplement many had seen as suspicious. Surprisingly, creatine’s popularity has since grown as it has developed a reputation as being a safe product that is very effective following some revisions in its development over the past 15 or 20 years. In fact, creatine has become one of the most popular strength training supplements among those who work to build muscle and definition.

The Case for Prohormones

Strangely enough, whilst the media made creatine the bad guy, a truly doubtful product hit the supplement market. So-called “prohormones” were first produced in 1996 by Patrick Arnold who promised steroid-like outcomes with none of the known side-effects. They had been available over the counter and controversially were used by some big-name sports stars. Prohormones were made famous in the US after MLB superstar Mark McGwire revealed that he used androstenedione (a prohormone) throughout his record-setting home run season, which turned into a massive scandal when it hit the headlines.

Sports fans who recall this dark period in baseball history know how the prohormone phenomenon took over the sports pages from the late 90s through the early 2000s. Performance-enhancing supplements offered many different types of prohormones and turned into a dark industry for those looking to gain a secret advantage in the sports arena. The government eventually stepped in to put an end to the use of PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs) by enacting the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004. This congressional act didn’t exactly totally stop prohormones from being made available but a revised version of the act in 2014 put a kibosh on dozens more prohormone products. The rise and fall of these supplements put the safety of supplements squarely in the public eye and much more scrutiny was aimed at the industry as a whole.

Catching Some ZZZ with ZMA

Sleep, a popular endeavor that many of us fail to get enough of, is front and center with the development and usage of ZMA. Towards the end of the 90s, a concoction of Zinc monomethionine aspartate, magnesium aspartate, and Vitamin B6, known as ZMA, became used as a supplement for deeper sleep with longer periods of rest. Created by Victor Conte, who would later become embroiled in the scandalous use of steroids in professional sports, ZMA was touted as producing steroid-like boosts in testosterone, accompanied by some crazy dreams as well. The first research into ZMA usage promised it to be a “wonder drug”. When sports stars Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, and others attracted other athletes and bodybuilders who flocked to ZMA in droves. Subsequent research cast doubts on ZMA’s supposed performance-enhancing benefits, but that didn’t curb its popularity among many fitness enthusiasts. If the purported testosterone and hormonal boost doesn’t come through, one can at least count on some wild and memorable dreams to make sleep time more interesting.

Past, Present and Future of Nutritional Supplements – Putting it All Together

As of today, dietary supplements have become part of our everyday lives. In almost every town of any size, one can get protein bars at the corner gas station. Fitness centers have a full selection of protein treats and BCAA beverages. Most of us wake up and crack open an energy drink, vitamin-infused water or even protein cappuccino to start the day. You now have your choice of protein sources including soy, whey, egg, pea, rice, and more. The range of protein and amino acid supplements on the market is staggering, and it can be a little overwhelming but the good news is that there is just as much information out there so you can make the right choice for your own needs. Boost your performance, build muscle mass, or extend your endurance…whatever your goals, there is a supplement designed to help you reach them.

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  2. Keri Marshall, ‘Therapeutic Applications of Whey Protein’, Alternative medicine review 9.2 (2004): 136-157.
  3. Stephen G. Miller, Ancient Greek Athletics. Yale University Press, 2006, p. 85; Bo Martinsen, ‘How Has Cod Liver Oil Changed Over the Last Century?’, 31 October 2016. Accessed 17 November, 2018,
  4. Lesley Steinitz, ‘The Language of Advertising: Fashioning Health Food Consumers at the Fin de Siècle’, in Food, Drink, and the Written Word in Britain, 1820–1945, eds. Mary Addyman, ‎Laura Wood, ‎Christopher Yiannitsaros (London: Routledge, 2017), 135-163.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. See Plasmon Ltd., Plasmon: The Mainstay of Life – What is It? (London: International Plasmon Ltd., c. 1906).
  8. Michael Anton Budd, The Sculpture Machine: Physical Culture and Body Politics in the Age of Empire. NYU Press, 1997, p. 39.
  9. Graeme Kent, The Strongest Men on Earth: When the Muscle Men Ruled Show Business. Biteback Publishing, 2012, pp. 65-80.
  10. ‘Iron Jelloids’, The Liverpool Echo, 20 May 1914, p. 6.
  11. Dominic G. Morais, ‘Branding Iron: Eugen Sandow’s “Modern” Marketing Strategies, 1887-1925’, Journal of Sport History 40.2 (2013), pp. 193-214.
  12. David L. Chapman, Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding. University of Illinois Press, 1994, pp. 170-175.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Randy Roach, Muscle, Smoke, and Mirrors, Volume 1, Bloomington, 2008, pp. 132-140.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Daniel T. Hall and John D. Fair, ‘The Pioneers of Protein’, Iron Game History, May/June (2004): 23-34
  17. Ibid.
  18. Roach, Muscle, Smoke, and Mirrors, p. 197.
  19. John D. Fair, Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell. Penn State Press, 1999, pp. 147-148.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Roach, Muscle, Smoke, and Mirrors, p. 624.
  22. Hall and Fair, ‘The Pioneers of Protein’, p. 33.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Roach, Muscle, Smoke, and Mirrors, pp. 463-464.
  25. James Collier, ‘Supplements of Yesteryear’, Muscletalk. Accessed 15 November 2018,
  26. Shaun Assael, Steroid Nation: Juiced Home Run Totals, Anti-Aging Miracles, and A Hercules in Every High School: The Secret History of America’s True Drug Addiction. New York, NY: ESPN Books, 2007, p. 140.
  27. Brittain, Harry G., ed. Profiles of Drug Substances, Excipients and Related Methodology: Critical Compilation of pKa Values for Pharmaceutical Substances. Elsevier, 2007, p. 3.
  28. Kirk Bizley, Examining Physical Education. Heinemann, 2000, p. 111.
  29. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports. Penguin, 2006, p. 53.
  30. Ibid., pp. 53-60.
  31. Marie Dunford, , and J. Andrew Doyle. Nutrition for Sport and Exercise. Cengage Learning, 2011, p. 441.
  32. Louise Burke, Practical Sports Nutrition. Human Kinetics, 2007, p. 479.
  33. Fainaru-Wada and Williams. Game of Shadows, pp. 3-4.

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