So you’re looking to buy muscle building supplements.
You’ve done your homework. You’ve learned the basics of building muscle and you have everything in place. Your diet is in check and so is your training. You are sleeping well and recovery is great.
The only thing that’s left to do now is to put the finishing touches, so you start searching for the best muscle building supplements around. That’s when you realize that there are, literally, hundreds of them out there…
Most muscle building supplements are useless
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that 99% of supplements in the market, including muscle building supplements, are completely and utterly useless. Not surprisingly, supplement companies are aware of this, but don’t really give a damn.
Why? Simple. Because supplement companies care about one thing and one thing only: making money.
Did you know, for example, that the following, so called, muscle building supplements have no solid scientific evidence supporting their use?
- Testosterone boosters, such as Tribulus Terrestis
- Nitric Oxide boosters, such as L-arginine
This is, of course, not where the list of useless muscle building supplements ends, but we don’t want to waste any more time looking at these. Let’s just dig straight into the ones that actually work!
Muscle building supplements that work
Without further ado, here are five muscle building supplements the use of which is supported by science!
1. Creatine monohydrate
What it is: Creatine is a nitrogenous organic acid which stores phosphate groups in the form of phosphocreatine and which helps facilitate the recycling of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP), thereby supplying the body with energy.
Althought it is produced naturally in the body, it can also be found in some foods (mainly meat, eggs and fish) or taken as a supplement.
How it works: The vast quantity of research that exists (over 500 peer reviewed studies) supports creatine’s positive effects on muscle mass and training performance.
Creatine supplementation primarily works by increasing the body’s levels of creatine phosphate, thereby making more phosphate groups available for the recycling of Adenosine Diphosphate (ADP) to Adenosine Triphospate (ATP). This increases performance in terms of allowing the trainee to use more weight for a given exercise or manage to get more reps.
Of course, as we’ve talked about before, increasing the load used and training volume over time are the main drivers of muscle growth.
According to a position stand by the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), “creatine monohydrate is the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement currently available to athletes in terms of increasing high-intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass during training”.
How big are its effects on performance?
A review published in the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry reported that creatine supplementation can improve maximal strength and power by 5-15%. As a result, it can also increase lean body mass by 2-5 pounds more than the control group during 4-12 weeks of training.
Safety: With regards to the safety of its use, the ISSN’s position stand goes on to state that “creatine monohydrate supplementation is not only safe, but possibly beneficial in regard to preventing injury and/or management of select medical conditions when taken within recommended guidelines.”
Its proven effectiveness and safety coupled with the fact that creatine is extremely cheap, make creatine the gold standard of muscle building supplements.
Which form to take: Note that, when we say “creatine”, we are referring to creatine monohydrate (CM). Other forms of creatine, such as creatine ethyl ester (CEE) and Kre Alkalyn (KA) have been heavily promoted as superior forms of creatine. However, these are not only more expensive but also lack any research showing the same degree of effectiveness as creatine monohydrate.
How to take it: According to research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, the quickest way to saturate creatine stores is by taking around 20 grams of creatine monohydrate per day (usually divided in 4-5 doses) for 5-7 days.
If you are not in a rush and prefer to avoid the loading phase, muscle creatine stores can also be saturated by taking around 3-5 grams of creatine monohydrate every day for around 4 weeks.
The above protocols should be followed by a maintenance dose of around 3-5 grams per day.
2. Protein powders
What it is: You can’t have a list of muscle building supplements without mentioning protein! As a nutrient, proteins are polymer chains made of amino acids held together by peptide bonds. During digestion, protein is broken down into amino acids, which are used by the body for a number of functions, including for muscle building and repair.
Protein powders are, essentially, used to supplement the diet with extra protein, when insufficient levels are taken from food.
How it works: Dietary protein helps increase muscle mass by providing the building blocks of muscles (amino acids), which are required at higher levels for exercising individuals looking to build muscle. This is because exercise increases muscle protein turnover, meaning that it causes an increase in muscle protein breakdown while also making your body more sensitive to the anabolic properties of protein.
Combined, the stimulus from an intense resistance training session together with sufficient protein, lead to a net anabolic state. This is a state where the rate of muscle protein synthesis exceeds the rate of muscle protein breakdown.
The result? More muscle!
Safety: as we’ve mentioned in another article, scientific research to date suggests that high protein diets are perfectly safe for healthy individuals, with studies such as this one, this one, this one and this one showing no harmful effects of high protein diets on renal function, liver function or bone health.
Moreover, a recent study by Dr Jose Antonio’s lab suggests that for young, healthy adults who routinely engage in resistance training, very high protein diets (up to 3.3g per kg of body weight) are unlikely to negatively impact your health, provided that these take place inside the context of an overall healthy diet with sufficient levels of micronutrients and fiber.
What type of protein to get: With regards to the question of which type of protein supplement to get, research suggests that milk- and egg-derived proteins offer a better amino acid profile than vegetarian-derived proteins do, and that a combination of whey and casein may result in a higher increase in muscle protein accretion.
This is because whey and casein are digested and absorbed at different rates, with whey being digested rapidly and quickly raising the amino acid levels in the blood, and casein being absorbed slowly over the course of a few hours, resulting in a slow and sustained heightening of blood amino acid levels.
How to take it: You can supplement with protein at any time of the day, since your primary objective should be to meet your daily protein target.
With regards to the daily protein intake, research published in the journal of Amino Acids suggests that a great starting point is to aim for around 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass. So, if, for example, you weigh 150 lbs at 10% body fat, you would aim for around 135 grams of protein per day (150 – (150 x 10%)).
Based on our experience and with flavoring, consistency, mixing and effectiveness in mind, we advise our clients to get a whey protein powder and a casein powder and to:
- use whey in water before and during a workout
- use casein before bed
- mix whey with milk or with casein during all other times of the day
3. Beta alanine
What it is: Beta alanine is a non-essential beta amino acid which the body uses along with L-histidine to form a dipeptide called carnosine.
Although carnosine is comprised of both L-histidine and beta alanine, beta alanine is the rate limiting precursor of carnosine. Simply put, the levels of canrosine in the body are limited by how much beta alanine is available.
How it works: Beta alanine supplementation results in higher carnosine levels in the body, which is how it works to increase training performance and, consequently, muscle growth.
Since carnosine is one of the primary muscle-buffering substances in muscles, higher carnosine levels in the body can offer protection from exercise-induced acidity in the muscles, thereby increasing the amount of work the muscles can do before they become fatigued.
Simply put, beta alanine supplementation increases the body’s carnosine levels, while carnosine helps increase work capacity and decrease time to fatigue.
According to a relatively recent meta analysis, the increased performance from beta alanine supplementation will only become apparent in higher repetition sets or in high intensity aerobic exercise that lasts between 60 and 240 seconds.
Safety: In short-term studies and in the suggested doses, it appears that beta alanine supplementation is safe. Supplementation has not been studied in the long-term, so it’s difficult to assess how safe it is when taken chronically.
The only side effect of beta alanine appears to be mild paresthesia, which is a sense of tingling of the skin felt mostly on the face and which seems to be harmless.
How to take it: The clinically effective dose of beta alanine is between 2 and 5 grams per day. Since it works by buffering carnosine levels in the body when taken consistently, the timing of supplementation relative to exercise doesn’t really matter.
4. Weight gain powders
What it is: Weight gain powders (or weight gainers) are, in essence, high calorie powders that usually contain some protein, lots of carbs and some fats.
How it works: As we’ve talked about before, eating for maximum muscle growth involves primarily getting enough calories and protein.
Although significant muscle growth can happen even in a caloric deficit, this is usually limited to:
- overfat beginners
- people returning to exercise from a long layoff
- those correcting something they were previously getting very wrong with exercise or nutrition
- people on calorie repartitioning drugs
Weight gainers, essentially, work by helping trainees take in enough calories to support muscle growth. This is especially true for “hard gainers” – people whose levels of Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) increase a lot in response to overfeeding.
Although “just eating more” is always a choice, weight gainers pack a lot of calories and can be a good choice for people who just aren’t hungry enough to eat a big meal or who don’t have time for it.
Safety: Provided that weight gainers are not consumed to the degree that one becomes overweight, there is no reason to be worried about their safety, since they are, essentially, powdered food.
What type to get: It’s difficult to make any specific recommendations with regards to specific products, since the choice will depend on your personal circumstances.
Here are a few general guidelines to help you make a better choice:
- unless you have an allergy to milk, it’s a good idea that the protein in the gainer is made from milk (whey, casein, milk protein isolate, etc)
- make sure that the carb sources aren’t just dextrose, maltodextrin or other sugars
- choose a product from a reliable manufacturer (e.g. My Protein or Dymatize)
- consider making your own gainer with a milk-based protein, some good carb sources (e.g. bananas, oats and honey) and a good fat source (e.g. peanut butter or coconut oil)
- if you are already getting enough calories from food, don’t get a weight gainer
How to take it: You can take a weight gainer at any time of the day, since your primary objective should be to meet your daily calorie needs.
5. Citrulline malate
What it is: L-citrulline is a non essential amino acid which is naturally produced in the body and which was first isolated from watermelon, while malate comes from malic acid and is an intermediate of the Krebs cycle – a series of chemical reactions used to release stored energy from carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
Citrulline malate is, therefore, the combination of the two.
How it works: L-citrulline helps the synthesis of Nitric Oxide (NO), as citrulline is converted into arginine in the kidneys, which is a rate limiting step in NO synthesis.
Greater amounts of NO can result in increased blood flow, which may improve the delivery of nutrients to the muscles and help with the clearance of waste products, thereby improving muscle function and reducing fatigue.
Malate can mitigate lactic acid production and use it to form more pyruvate, thereby increasing aerobic enegry production and creating more ATP.
The synergistic combination of L-citrulling and malate can, therefore, result in:
- an increased rate of ATP production during exercise
- an increased recovery rate of phosphocreatine after exercise
- increased bicarbonate reabsorption
- decrease lactic acid accumulation
Combined, the above can result in improved endurance for both aerobic and anaerobic prolonged exercise, help increase training volume and, potentially, maximal strength, as well as muscle growth.
Safety: With regards to the safety of its use, although no long-term data are available, it appears that, at least in the short term, citrulline malate supplementation is safe and free of side effects.
How to take it: The clinically effective dose of citrulline malate is between 6 and 8 grams, taken around 60 minutes before exercise.
To quickly sum this up, here are the five muscle building supplements we think have good scientific evidence to support their use, as well as the recommended doses for each:
- Creatine monohydrate: 20 grams per day (divided in 4 doses) for 5-7 days or 3-5 grams per day for 3-4 weeks, followed by a maintenance dose of 2-3 grams per day
- Protein powders: whey and/or casein taken as needed to hit daily protein needs (see protein powder section for recommendations on timing)
- Beta alanine: 2-5 grams per day
- Weight gain powders: if and as needed to hit daily caloric goals
- Citrulline malate: 6-8 grams around 1 hour before exercise
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