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While weight loss may be a goal for many, some of you may want to gain some weight. Not just any weight though, but muscle gain with increased strength.
Sure, you can add some extra protein in your diet or change up your training at the gym. However, if these lifestyle changes are not having any impact on your strength, then you may need extra support.
In this case, a supplement may be just the thing to help you reach your strength gain goals.
Now when you think of strength supplements, anabolic steroids may pop into your mind. However, when used to increase muscle and performance the potential side effects produce more harm than good (1). Instead, there are many natural supplements out there that can help you increase strength safely and effectively.
Maintaining muscle strength, especially as you age, is important for reducing injury, preventing falls, and improving all-around mobility (2). Also, training to strengthen muscles can also help you strengthen your bones, control blood glucose levels, maintain a healthy weight, reduce joint pain, and improve heart health risk factors like blood cholesterol.
Let’s look at some of the latest and best natural supplements for strength gains. When you add these supplements as part of a balanced, healthy diet and exercise program, you can improve your chances of meeting your ultimate health and fitness goals.
Just be sure to let your healthcare provider know before adding any new supplement to your daily regimen.
7 Key Supplements for Strength Gains
If you’re into fitness, I’m sure you’ve heard of creatine. However, you may not be completely aware of what this supplement is and what it does.
Creatine is a compound found naturally in muscle cells as well as in foods like beef, pork, and fish (3). The supplemental form of creatine, called creatine monohydrate, is often used to increase muscle performance during high-intensity, short-duration resistance exercises like strength training (4).
It is found to be relatively safe for most people, with the most common side effect being water retention in the early stages of use.
How does creatine help you get stronger?
Research shows that using creatine monohydrate supplementation during resistance training can increase lean tissue mass as well as upper and lower body strength in older adults (3). This supplement could also enhance energy stores, protein synthesis, and could possibly reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.
Other research shows that creatine supplements can also help young athletes increase maximal strength, which is the maximum force a muscle is able to exert in a single voluntary contraction (5).
Results of this study show that short-term supplementation of creatine may assist with enhancing efficiency and strength development.
A 2018 study on a similar age group of young adults looked at creatine supplementation on eight weeks of resistance training. Study results show that those young males provided 0.07 g/kg/day creatine supplementation during the resistance training showed increases in muscular strength in as little as two weeks (6).
Also, strength gains were significantly greater in four of six exercises completed during training in the creatine group versus placebo. There was some muscle damage, but researchers suggest that this is due to the greater training intensity enabled by the supplement. As well, this muscle damage may lead to greater protein turnover and enhanced muscle adaptation.
The position of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) is that creatine supplementation “is the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement” that athletes can use to help increase “high-intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass during training (7).”
The ISSN also reports that creatine supplementation has not been shown to have any detrimental effects on healthy individuals who could benefit from the supplement.
How much creatine to take
Research shows an effective dose of creatine to be 0.3 g/kg/day for 5 to 7 days and then maintenance dosing of 0.03 g/kg/day for 4 to 6 weeks (4). Also, the ISSN reports that 0.3 – 0.8 g/kg/day equivalent to 21–56 g/day for a 70 kg individual has not been shown to have any clinically significant or adverse effects in clinical populations (7).
Research suggests not using creatine monohydrate with other supplements or at higher doses than those suggested since it could increase risk of liver and renal health issues (4). Be sure to ask your doctor before starting this supplement to be sure you take the safest dose for you.
Protein supplements are a well-known complement to any healthy lifestyle regimen, especially if you are a busy individual that needs convenient portable nutrition.
Although there are many kinds of protein supplements out there, whey protein is perhaps the most common. Whey protein is one of the main proteins found in dairy products and is a good source of the essential amino acids that the body needs to function (8).
Whey is found as a supplement in its powdered form and can be added to milk, water, or yogurt to make smoothies as well as to any soft foods to add protein.
How does whey protein help you get stronger?
The benefits of whey protein in helping strength gains range from performance to recovery.
For example, a study of preconditioned older women found that whey protein supplementation helped promote increases in skeletal muscle mass, muscular strength, and overall functional capacity as compared to placebo (9).
This study had the whey protein group ingest 35 grams whey protein daily for twelve weeks while performing resistance training for three days a week. Another similar study confirmed these results in a similar group of older women (10).
Furthermore, a study of college-aged males looked at the impact of whey protein supplementation on extreme volume resistance training. The young men performed six weeks of high-volume resistance training and consumed 25 grams of whey protein a day (11). Study results suggest that whey protein supplementation may be used to improve body composition during high-volume resistance training.
When it comes to recovery, research shows that whey protein can improve maximal strength, repetitions to failure, and peak power (12).
It has also been shown to improve acute recovery of exercise performance after a strenuous resistance training workout. Also, whey protein supplementation yields small to medium positive effects on restoring contractile function compared to placebo (13).
As far as timing, research experts recommend consuming whey protein post-training and post-competition within a 60-minute time frame for best recovery results (14).
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
Another strength gain supplement that can be found in powdered form, or capsule, is branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). BCAAs are essential amino acids such as L-isoleucine, L-leucine, and L-valine that cannot be made in the human body and therefore must be consumed in the diet (15).
However, it is suggested that this risk is not directly linked to BCAA intake, but to the low fiber intake of some individuals found to ingest high levels of BCAA in their dietary pattern. Therefore, individuals with a balanced diet full of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, along with the protein, would likely benefit most from BCAA intake.
Research shows that ingestion of BCAAs can stimulate myofibrillar muscle protein synthesis (17).
This finding suggests that the supplement could help those performing resistance exercises improve muscle recovery. This improved muscle recovery is vital to optimal overall strength performance and gains.
Other research shows that BCAAs improved low muscle strength in patients with chronic liver disease and improved small-to-moderate levels of exercise-induced muscle damage in healthy individuals (18,19).
In a study of those with hepatocellular carcinoma, BCAA supplementation was found to be generally safe without serious adverse side effects (20). Therefore, BCAAs are thought to be generally safe in healthy adults as well in recommended doses.
Although more current dosage requirements have not been determined yet for the mix of the three BCAAs, 2006 findings show that up to 65 milligrams per pound of body weight should be safe (21).
However, it is recommended that you speak with a qualified healthcare provider first before starting this supplement to ensure you take a safe dose.
Another amino acid containing supplement for strength gains is beta-alanine. This compound is a non-essential amino acid made in the liver and found in animal meat products like beef, pork, and chicken (22,23).
The benefits of this amino acid on muscle health is thought to stem from its role as a limiting factor on carnosine synthesis. Without beta-alanine, carnosine would not be able to increase muscular carnosine reserves.
This is important because carnosine enhances muscle excitation-contraction. Research shows that five weeks of 6.4 grams a day of beta-alanine produced increases in power output for loads equal to and increases in kilograms lifted at 1 repetition maximum, power outputs gained at maximum power, and the number of sets executed (22).
Besides increasing power during strength training, beta-alanine has also shown the ability to improve power in cardiovascular exercises.
One study shows that beta-alanine supplementation can reduce 10-kilometer running time and lower lactate concentration in physically active adults as compared to placebo (23). The runners receiving the beta-alanine consumed about 5 grams of beta-alanine a day with 1 gram of resistant starch.
This study reveals the ability of beta-alanine to increase power in such individuals since a high blood lactate is what leads to athletes “hitting the wall” of their workout. Beta-alanine can therefore help extend the ability of athletes to work out before hitting that threshold.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) reports that beta-alanine is generally safe in healthy populations at recommended doses (24). The only side effect noted was tingling which can be lessened by using divided smaller doses or using a sustained-release formula.
They also recommend that supplementation of four to six grams of beta-alanine a day for two to four weeks was found to improve exercise performance.
More research is needed to see if the strength and performance benefits extend beyond 25 minutes of exercise.
This amino acid is the most abundant amino acid in the body and plays a variety of important roles in metabolic health (25). Glutamine levels in the body tend to drop during critical illness and after surgery, which suggests that this amino acid may play a role in preventing illness and injury (26).
It is thought that this role stems from glutamine’s role in antioxidant defenses as well as its role in nitrogen transport throughout the body. Taking these roles in mind, it makes sense that athletes tend to use glutamine to help reduce the breakdown of muscle and improve protein metabolism, which can enhance strength gains.
A 2015 study looked at the impact of L-glutamine supplementation on the muscles of healthy participants after eccentric exercise. This type of exercise is defined as the motion of a muscle lengthening under a load. Study results show that L-glutamine supplementation helped produce faster recovery of peak torque of the knee extensor muscles and reduced muscle soreness after eccentric exercise (27).
Researchers suggest though that this recovery of muscle force may be greater in men than women.
Another study looked at the impact of a supplement blend containing L-glutamine on postoperative recovery of quadriceps muscle strength in those who underwent total knee arthroplasty (TKA). Study results show that a combination β-hydroxy-β-methyl butyrate, L-arginine, and L-glutamine supplement could suppress the loss of muscle strength after TKA (28).
It is also suggested that adding in nutrition and exercise to this post-surgery regimen may help patients to maintain quadriceps strength.
Finally, a 2018 study looked at the effect of leucine or leucine and glutamine supplementation on recovery after eccentric exercise. Study results show that both supplement groups improved the rate of recovery compared to placebo (29).
Researchers suggest that short-term intakes of 20 to 30 grams of L-glutamine seem to be tolerated in healthy human adults without serious adverse effects.
We’re all familiar with caffeine from popular pick-me-ups like coffee and energy drinks. However, caffeine may also help with strength gains. Caffeine is a bitter substance found in many food and drink items like coffee beans, kola nuts used to make cola drinks, tea leaves, and cacao pods used to make chocolate (30).
Caffeine is best known for its energy-boosting properties, which comes from its ability to stimulate the central nervous system.
This stimulant supplement is relatively safe for most people in doses typically found in commercial food and drink products (31). It’s recommended that healthy adults consume no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine a day to prevent adverse effects like restlessness, anxiety, or insomnia, for example (30,31).
Certain groups of people like pregnant women, children, and those with mental illness should limit or avoid caffeine intake to reduce risk of harmful health effects (31).
If you’re a healthy adult, and not in the at-risk group, then caffeine could help you improve muscle health and in turn help improve strength gains.
A 2018 meta-analysis of studies showed that caffeine ingestion improved strength and power of upper body muscles (32). These findings are from studies on men however, so more research must be done to confirm the same results in women.
You may have heard of fish oil as a healthy fat beneficial for heart health. However, this supplement could also help improve strength gains.
Fish oil is typically sold as a blend of two long-chain omega-3 fatty acids known as eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and or docosahexaenoic (DHA) (33).
Research shows that fish oil supplementation could help improve protein synthesis and increase muscle volume in older adults (34,35). These findings suggest that fish oil could help preserve lean muscle mass in this population that is vulnerable to loss of such muscle with aging. In turn, it could help improve health outcomes and mobility in this population.
These benefits also stem to athletes and other active individuals too. A 2018 study looked at the impact of fish oil supplementation on the muscle health of professional Rugby players during pre-season training. Over five weeks, the athletes took a protein-based supplement daily containing 1546 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids of which there was 551 milligrams each of DHA and EPA.
Study results show that this type of supplement helped reduce lower body muscle soreness and better maintenance of explosive power as compared to baseline (36).
Side effects of fish oil are usually mild such as bad breath, unpleasant taste, nausea, heartburn, or diarrhea (37). Those who take blood clotting medicines should avoid fish oil, and it’s unclear whether those with seafood allergies can safely consume fish oil supplements. Therefore, it’s better safe than sorry, so avoid this supplement if you are allergic to fish or seafood.
No matter what your age or health goals, strength gains in your muscle mass can benefit your overall health. And although changes in your diet and exercise regimen can be helpful, it may not always be enough to reach your strength gain goals. Therefore, a natural supplement like those listed above can be a safe addition to your daily regimen to help you boost strength, metabolism, and improve mobility.
It’s important before starting any new supplement regimen to talk to your healthcare provider first.
This is because if you have any chronic health issues and/or are taking any specific medications for such conditions, then you may encounter interactions. So, if this is the case, just keep your diet as healthy as possible with plenty of fiber, protein, and other nutrients, and stay active most days to keep your lean muscle as strong as possible without supplements.
However, if you can add a supplement or two, then you may experience some extra added benefits than a diet and exercise program alone can provide for strength gains. But whatever regimen you decide, any small healthy change you can make in your lifestyle regimen will make a difference when it comes to helping you improve your overall health.
If you’re not sure where to start, be sure to ask a qualified healthcare provider like a dietitian or physician to guide you towards your best health.
Keep Reading: 8 Most Useful Supplements for Bodybuilding
ⓘ Any specific supplement products & brands featured on this website are not necessarily endorsed by Staci.
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About the Author
Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, health editor, and founder of LighttrackNutrition.com. Through her writing, she hopes to provide others with an unbiased and evidence-based view of health and wellness topics so they can make educated decisions when building their healthy lifestyle. Email Staci.