Share on Pinterest
Teo Lannie/Getty Images

People use performance enhancers to improve their performance during high-intensity physical exercise.

A performance enhancer, or ergogenic aid, is anything that gives you a mental or physical edge while exercising or competing.

This can range from caffeine and sports drinks to illegal substances. There are a variety of both safe and harmful ergogenic aids.

Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, vitamins, minerals, herbs, or other botanicals that are taken by mouth and don’t also contain controlled substances can be labeled a “supplement.”

Many of these supplements are marketed to boost athletic performance. However, scientific proof of their effectiveness is sometimes lacking or contradictory.

There are other ergogenic aids that are generally recognized as safe by the Food and Drug Administration. Examples include naturally occurring compounds like:

Hydroxymethylbutyrate (HMB)

HMB is an amino acid found naturally in the body. It’s said to enhance and strengthen muscle as well as help slow the breakdown of muscle during exercise.

Research hasn’t proven that HMB will enhance athletic performance. When taken at standard doses of about 3 grams, the supplement is generally considered safe. However, in large doses, it can be harmful to the kidneys.

Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)

CLA is a type of fat that athletes take to help reduce muscle damage and increase lean body mass after exercise. The supplement is especially popular with bodybuilders, who use it to enhance recovery.

A review of six research studies published in the journal Nutrients concluded that taking CLA supplements can have an effect on reducing body fat in those who also engage in a resistance training exercise program.

However, CLA can cause side effects, including upset stomach, nausea, and fatigue. It can also impact how well the body uses insulin. CLA can interact negatively with certain medications, like antipsychotics.


Carnitine transports long-chain fatty acids into the mitochondria. This allows them to be burned for energy, which can help boost exercise performance. The body’s liver and kidneys naturally produce lysine and methionine, amino acids that break down into carnitine.

Carnitine hasn’t yet been scientifically proven to enhance athletic performance. Even so, many athletes continue to take the supplement.

Taking more than 3 grams of carnitine per day can cause side effects like nausea, vomiting, stomach cramping, and diarrhea.

Carnitine can also interact harmfully with some medications, such as thyroid medications and the blood thinner warfarin.

Pivampicillin, an antibiotic, can decrease natural carnitine in the body.


Chromium is a trace mineral in the body, but it’s essential to daily body functioning.

The mineral is said to increase lean muscle mass, burn fat, and enhance a person’s energy levels. However, chromium hasn’t been proven to enhance athletic performance.

Drugstores often sell the mineral as chromium picolinate. Taking too much chromium can be harmful because it’s associated with damaging DNA and healthy fats.


Muscles use creatine to release energy, which enhances lean muscle mass and increases muscle energy. While creatine is a natural substance, it’s also produced in a laboratory and sold as a supplement. Those who take creatine often do so as a means to build muscle mass.

Taking creatine is also not without its side effects. For example, creatine can cause weight gain, muscle cramping, and stomach cramping.

Additionally, the liver and kidneys must filter creatine. Taking an excessive amount can put a strain on these important organs, which could potentially damage them.

Individual results may vary for all of these supplements. There’s still limited scientific evidence to support some of the supplements’ claims.

Talk with your doctor or athletic trainer about the safety and effectiveness of individual supplements.

The NCAA and the Olympics commission have banned some substances because they offer an unfair advantage or can cause harm to the athlete.

These include:

Anabolic and other steroids

Anabolic and other steroids are illegal in sporting events and according to the law. The side effects are numerous and potentially fatal. Examples include androstenedione, stanozolol, axiron, and fortesta.

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)

DHEA is possibly the most abundant steroid in humans. Using synthetic versions to increase steroid production is potentially dangerous.


Diuretics are medications that cause a person to urinate more frequently. Athletes use diuretics in the hopes that they’ll help dilute performance-enhancing drugs.

Diuretics can cause a variety of harmful side effects, such as cramping, dizziness, blood pressure drops, and electrolyte imbalances.

Blood doping

Blood doping is the process of boosting red blood cells to help carry more oxygen to the muscles and lungs. It can be done through a blood transfusion or through use of drugs like erythropoietin.

Erythropoietin is a medication doctors prescribe when a person has a low red blood cell count.

Athletes use the medication to make more red blood cells in their bodies. This can increase a person’s ability to use oxygen because these cells carry oxygen.

Endurance athletes may especially try to use erythropoietin, believing they they can perform longer with more oxygen. However, using the medication when it’s not medically needed can cause blood clots and even death.

Blood doping is the process that cost Lance Armstrong his Tour de France titles.


Ephedrine is a central nervous stimulant. Ephedrine produces similar effects to adrenaline, but it too can be dangerous.

It can cause serious cardiovascular effects, including stroke, and a whole host of other problems. Both athletic organizations and the FDA have banned it.

Human growth hormone (HGH)

HGH is a drug developed to help treat growth disorders in children. It stimulates cell reproduction and regeneration.

Athletes looking to gain an edge may misuse this drug to achieve it. It’s banned in all professional sports. Potential complications include enlarged organs and chronic disease.

Misuse of certain drugs, supplements, and practices can give athletes an unfair advantage.

They can cause more damage than stripping an athlete of a title. For example, anabolic and other steroids that affect a person’s hormones can cause long-term health problems — or even death.

Training, dedication, hydrating fluids, and proper diet are safer options and better than any ergogenic aids for boosting performance.