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As we all know, lifting heavy and eating right is the best way to build muscle. It takes hard work and determination to accomplish this feat.
You may have also heard that you can add supplements to help you build muscle faster. Maybe your friends have suggested that you take them to help you see faster results.
But do they actually work? Are they worth your hard-earned dollars?
Well, it’s not such a black-and-white answer.
There are some effective supplements out there that can certainly optimize your performance and fill in the gaps in your nutrition. But there are also many more that are utterly and completely useless.
Related: 8 Best Supplements for Bodybuilding
They make some really ridiculous and outlandish claims about how you can pack on 16 pounds of muscle in as little as 12 weeks (no, really, I’m serious).
We’re going to sift through the garbage and really determine what’s worth your hard-earned money to help you reach your goals faster!
8 Muscle Building Supplements
Whey Protein or Plant Protein Powder
Well, this one’s a no-brainer. We’ve all heard how good high amounts of protein are for us when the goal is to build muscle (1).
It helps us to repair the muscle after we damaged it in the gym. It prepares our bodies to get ready for the next session in order to begin the process all over again, so that over time, you’re able to build that dream physique you’ve been looking for.
But it’s quite difficult to get the required amount through diet alone to achieve our muscle-building goals.
Often times, it’s just not practical.
That’s why protein supplementation was developed; so that this problem could be solved. This shouldn’t be your primary source of protein. However, this can significantly help you reach those high protein goals.
There are so many different kinds of protein powders out there. Whey, casein, plant, egg, the list goes on. It can be difficult to choose one over the other.
What varies between them primarily are its rates of digestion. Though they may digest at different speeds, as long as you are reaching your protein targets for the day, it doesn’t matter all too much.
But for the most optimal results and if you’re a regular omnivore (eat both plant and animal products), stick with whey protein (2).
If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, or you simply don’t want to consume dairy products, go with a plant-based protein powder such as pea or brown rice. Don’t worry; the package will make it easy enough to point out if it’s whey or plant protein.
How much protein to take:
Research has shown that the optimal level of protein to consume for building muscle is relative; approximately 1.6 g/kg of body weight (3) (or for us American folks that’s 0.72 g/lb of body weight).
So throwing a scoop or two of this into a shake once per day should be plenty of assistance for reaching your protein target throughout the day.
It’s best to aim for 25 grams (usually one scoop) post-workout & on an “as-needed basis” in order to reach your protein goals for the day.
I’m sure you’ve heard of this one before. I’m also quite sure you’ve heard some nasty (yet unjustified) things about it, such as: “creatine is a steroid” or “It’s bad for your kidneys” or “It negatively affects your heart”.
Stop it. No. It doesn’t do any of those things, nor is it a steroid.
Research has proven time and time again that even for those with renal (kidney) issues, creatine has not shown any signs of negative effects on the individual taking a standard dose of 3-5 grams daily (4).
In fact, in most individuals, many positive effects are seen not only in building muscle and increasing strength, but also as an alternative treatment for ischemic heart disease and neurodegenerative disorders.
Pretty fascinating, don’t you think?
Creatine doesn’t increase muscle mass directly, per se. However, what it does directly affect is one’s performance; more specifically strength and power.
When you increase these variables, then muscle is ought to follow, increasing strength by as much as 13%!
For a dietary supplement, that is extremely significant.
How much creatine to take
5 grams pre-workout once per day is usually the recommended amount.
Taking it 30 minutes beforehand will allow it enough time to saturate the muscle.
Commonly, you’ll see that many manufacturers suggest loading 20 grams per day for one week. However, this isn’t really necessary, as you’ll muscles will become saturated with creatine over time as you take it once every day.
I would suggest also taking it on non-workout days as it’ll allow your muscles to become saturated more quickly. The time of day you take it doesn’t matter on non-workout days.
You can often find this amino acid in many of the best pre-workout supplements nowadays, but you can also find it as a standalone supplement as well, often in powder form that is unflavored.
What does it do?
Well, it has proven to have the ability of prominently increasing one’s aerobic output (think most types of cardiovascular exercise or high rep sets of strength training). But also, another neat aspect of this supplement is that it commonly reduces soreness the days following intense exercise bouts (5).
However, the one thing to be careful about here is that many supplement and sports nutrition companies tout that it reduces time to exhaustion. Though true in some anecdotal cases, the research has been unable to thoroughly prove this particular claim, so don’t get your hopes up too high in that regard.
Don’t be discouraged though, this is a fantastic ingredient nonetheless.
The smart thing to do here would be to pair it with creatine in a pre-workout drink. This creates a nice shake that gives you an energy boost, a strength increase and enhances your recovery.
How much citrulline to take
6-8 grams pre-workout is plenty. Aim for once per day on workout days about 30 minutes before your workout.
You don’t have to take it on non-workout days.
Be on the lookout, as many labels put the dosage in milligrams (mg) rather than grams (g), so that would convert to 6,000-8,000 mg.
Beta-Alanine is another amino-acid and works in a very similar way to citrulline malate; in that it works best for higher rep sets and aerobic types of training.
A review of many studies (called a meta-analysis in the scientific literature) showed a 2.85% increase in muscular endurance, which is essentially the reps one can perform until exhaustion, for exercise that lasted between 60-240 seconds (6).
Also, don’t be alarmed if you feel a little tingling when you take this supplement. This is a phenomenon known as paresthesia. This is a harmless sensation you may feel in the face, arms, or legs after ingesting.
Don’t worry, over time, the feeling usually goes away.
How much beta-alanine to take
Anywhere between 2-5 grams, 30 minutes before your workout, is plenty. Again, taking it on non-workout days is not necessary.
Oh yes, I bet you’re very familiar with this wonderful compound that’s found in many beverages across the world, including coffees, teas, sodas and in most of the high quality fat burners we examined. But what makes caffeine so special for building muscle though?
Caffeine is a very effective performance enhancer. Again, like most supplements, it won’t put slabs of muscle directly on your body for you. You have to work for it. However, what caffeine does in particular is make that work much easier to perform.
Being the most popular stimulant taken across the globe, scientists over the years have gotten to conducting experiments on a wide variety of populations to witness how it affects them; most particularly in athletic and fitness realms.
One meta-analysis of 10 different studies illustrated that caffeine was able to increase maximal muscle strength and power significantly compared to placebo groups, particularly during upper body training (7).
Even more surprising is that one study in particular showed that power output was significantly increased when performing quick bouts of intense activity such as sprints and Olympic weightlifting even when deprived of sleep, getting less than 6 hours per night on a consistent basis. (8).
How much caffeine to take
Most of the literature has shown that 3-5mg/kg of bodyweight (1.3-2.25g/lb) works just well for most people. Make sure to take it 20-30 minutes pre-workout and avoid taking it late at night.
However, one thing I must address before I continue is that everybody has a different caffeine tolerance. Some people can drink coffee by their bedside and still fall right back asleep, while others take one sip of the stuff and it gives them uncomfortable levels of anxiety.
Taking too much caffeine can lead to nervousness, insomnia, nausea, and anxiety.
Use trial and error if you are not habituated to taking caffeine. Start off with a small dose of 0.5mg/lb and continue from there.
If you continue to see positive results, then continue taking up to the suggested dose. Better safe than sorry. Okay…let’s continue!
Kind of weird to see a general health supplement on this list, huh?
The reason I put this one on here is because fish oil has many amazing health benefits. We won’t dive into great detail on all of them (because there are a ton!), but what I’ll concentrate on the most here is its anti-inflammatory properties.
When we’re lifting weights, we are breaking down the muscle and literally tearing the fibers (called micro tears). Before the recovery process begins, inflammation takes place, as this is the body’s natural response to this phenomenon. This is what we call acute inflammation. This is normal and healthy. Nothing really to worry about here.
It’s when that inflammation turns chronic (meaning it’s been continuing and not stopping for a period of months and years at a time) is when we begin to run into trouble.
Why is chronic inflammation bad?
Well, let’s think of the elderly for a minute. Why do they experience muscle loss (sarcopenia) over the years as they age? Well, there are many factors that play a role, but a chronic state of inflammation is one of them.
Over years and years of continued inflammation, these individuals begin to lose the ability to synthesize protein properly, thus resulting in a diminished ability to build muscle (9).
Related: 9 Best Anti-Inflammatory Supplements
So what does this have to do with us that are younger and are training to keep ourselves healthy and looking good? This inflammation has the same ability to inhibit our muscle-building goals. This is where the fish oil comes in handy.
Fish oil has been proven to be a significant anti-inflammatory agent in both animal and human trials time and time again (10).
This is very encouraging news, as we are able to keep inflammation at a healthy level that favors building muscle instead of losing it. So it would make perfect sense to take this with whatever general health supplements you may take, such as a multivitamin or what have you.
How much fish oil to take
Most experts recommend around 2-3 grams of pure DHA and EPA per day.
This does NOT mean total grams of just fish oil alone. This means the DHA and EPA components only, which are those omega 3’s you hear a lot about.
Read the label carefully to make sure you’re getting enough EPA and DHA, or else supplementing with it would be almost useless.
Take it whenever you’d like during the day, as timing doesn’t matter too much with this supplement.
Essential Amino Acid Complex
Wait a second; are you talking about BCAA’s (Branched Chain Amino Acids)? No, I’m not, and here’s why.
The body utilizes many amino acids to go through the process of protein synthesis, which is the metabolic process that helps you to build muscle over time. However, 9 of them your body can’t produce on its own. You either have to get them through your diet or supplementing with them.
The ever-so-popular BCAA supplement contains 3 of the 9 essential amino acids. These 3 amino acids are unique in that they are directly synthesized in the muscle for use as opposed to having to bypass the liver first.
Because of this, they play a special role in protein synthesis.
However, the caveat here is that you need all 9 essential amino acids in order to stimulate protein synthesis.
Having an influx of 3 out of the 9 won’t activate protein synthesis nearly as potently than if all optimal levels of the 9 essential amino acids were present. In fact, if your body doesn’t have enough of the other 6 amino acids, then it will break down (catabolize) muscle tissue in order to obtain it.
Not something we want, that’s for sure!
Along with this, research has shown us that BCAA’s won’t make us any more apt to build muscle than obtaining enough protein through diet and protein powder supplementation, despite what many of the supplement companies claim they do (11).
This is where an essential amino acid complex plays a big role. These contain all 9 essential amino acids you need to build muscle optimally.
This is the next best thing to a good quality protein powder. If you can spare a little extra cash, this is a nice add-on to have in your arsenal for when you aren’t in an ideal situation to eat a regular meal or maybe you simply don’t want the thickness of a standard protein shake.
These are often a lot thinner in consistency due to it not containing any of the non-essential amino acids. They are also flavored in a powder form, most often in fruity flavors, to make it much more palatable.
How much EAA to take
Although exact doses for each amino acid in isolation hasn’t been established as of yet, the optimal dose for total grams of essential amino acids lies between 10-12 grams, with 2-3 grams coming from leucine, which plays the biggest role in protein synthesis (12).
I would suggest taking this when you know it may be a while between high-protein meals. This will provide you with a better chance of preventing muscle loss when in a calorie deficit or enhancing muscle growth when looking to gain muscle size.
Related: Top 10 BCAA Supplements
Weight Gain Powders
This is more of an honorable mention here, as there is not any research currently on these powders in isolation. These are also often referred to as “mass gainers”.
In essence, it is the same concept as protein powder, but with added carbohydrates and fats. These are high in calories, ranging from 500-1200 calories. They often contain the same amount of protein as 2 scoops of a standard protein powder (50 grams or so), 100-200 grams of carbohydrates, and up to 15 grams of fat on average.
Basically, it is condensed and preserved calories.
Weight gainers are good for those who really struggle to pack on the pounds due to a lack of appetite (often called ‘hardgainers”), as these are often much less filling than standard meals are. If you aren’t taking in enough calories, you simply won’t build muscle. Plain and simple.
The one thing to watch out for here is that many of them use fillers and other cheap ingredients that have you feeling less than optimal, especially during training. This is usually because of poor quality carbohydrates such as maltodextrin and dextrose being used as a majority of the carbohydrates, which are types of fast-digesting sugars.
Look for weight gainers that contain healthier sources of carbs such as oat bran and buckwheat as the primary sources of carbohydrates. You’ll know that they are the primary sources when they are listed earlier in the ingredients list compared to the sugars and other fillers.
How much weight gainer to take
On an as-needed basis, depending on how many calories you are obtaining through food already. If you tend to live a busier lifestyle where it is more difficult to fit in regular meals, then this should be more of a staple in your supplementation regime.
I’d recommend taking it during breakfast for an extra boost of energy or after a workout to give your body extra nutrients.
Well, there you have it!
These are the 8 supplements that are most definitely worth your investment if you’re looking to optimize those muscle-building goals and augment that hard work you put in the gym each and every day.
These certainly won’t replace a proper diet and exercise regimen, but they can most certainly aid you in the process.
Keep Reading: 9 Best Supplements for Bulking Up
ⓘ Any specific supplement products & brands featured on this website are not necessarily endorsed by Zachary.
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About the Author
Zachary MacDonald is a fitness professional with a Master’s Degree from The University of Tampa in Exercise & Nutrition Science. He is a certified personal trainer with the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), as well as an amateur bodybuilder in the National Physique Committee, the world’s largest amateur organization of bodybuilding! Email Zachary.