My jaw hit the floor when I read this: the supplement industry was expected to be worth 37.2 BILLION dollars in 2022 in the USA. Muscle-building supplements make up a huge portion of that.
It’s no wonder I received a question the other day asking, “What supplements actually work for building muscle? I feel like I’m spending a ton of money, and nothing is working.”
When I first started training, I thought supplements would be the answer.
Fancy packaging with savvy marketing combined with jacked lifters touting the miraculous benefits of potions, powders, and pills.
Little did I know, most of the “supplements” these lifters and physique athletes used weren’t the same as the ones they were touting and involved shoving needles of chemicals in their ass cheeks.
But I digress.
Supplements CAN help. And some of them are very effective. So, what have I researched, tested, and found what works for my clients and me?
The 7 Best Supplements To Gain Muscle
1. Whey protein.
2. Creatine monohydrate.
5. Electrolytes–especially if lower carb.
7. Highly branched cyclic dextrin.
1. Whey Protein
Whey protein is more of a “food” than a supplement. One scoop of protein packs about 25g of protein in a punch, making it the perfect food when leaving the gym or short on time.
Getting enough protein is a significant issue for building muscle and losing fat, as covered here.
For building muscle, you need adequate protein (82g/per 1lb of bodyweight as a baseline) to maximize muscle protein synthesis from your hard workouts.
Getting enough protein (about 1g per 1 lb of body weight/day) is a common struggle for fat loss. Protein is the most satiating macronutrient, which will help keep you full while helping you retain lean muscle–which keeps your metabolism from slowing down and fat loss from stalling.
I recommend taking 25-50g before or after training to boost muscle growth and recovery, & reduce protein catabolism (breakdown). My go-to protein is Legion Whey, and getting the cinnamon cereal to mix with my overnight oats–it tastes like cinnamon toast crunch.
Casein, pea, and vegetarian proteins are good; however, whey is the king. It’s among the most bioavailable protein sources around, meaning your body can use the protein is provided. I treat protein as a food more than a supplement.
Related: Shake Up Your Muscle Building Diet
2. Creatine Monohydrate
When I first tried to buy creatine in high school, my mom thought I was getting steroids.
I secretly hoped it would work that way.
She was thrilled (not steroids).
I was kind of thrilled–creatine works well, but not like steroids.
Anyway, creatine monohydrate is cheap, effective, safe, and scientifically proven to boost strength, and muscle growth and even slow down cognitive decline.
You can take 5g of creatine per day whether you’re trying to build muscle or lose fat. There’s no need for a loading phase, either. The only time I recommend pulling off of creatine is at the final stages of a diet (the final week) if you’re concerned about holding water–which, in general, is an overblown concern.
Creatine is not a stimulant; rather, it’s an energy source. It provides immediate fuel for high-intensity muscular contractions for explosive movements like sprinting and weight lifting.
On workout days it is pre and post-workout with your beverage of choice. Taking creatine with a protein or carbohydrate beverage can increase absorption, as the increased insulin response will pull more creatine into the muscle tissue. A recovery drink works better than beer, trust me.
On non-workout days, creatine works well in the morning with a drink such as green tea. Using a warm drink helps dissolve creatine better, so the bottom of your beverage doesn’t taste like a sandbox.
Regarding timing your creatine, some evidence has pointed to post-workout being best; however, get it in however you’ll be consistent. Don’t obsess over trivial details–find when you’ll take it, and stay consistent.
I like Biotest micronized creatine and Legion Recharge.
Have you ever taken a pre-workout and got the tingles as if porcupine quills were about to burst through your skin? Well, that’s beta-alanine.
Beta-alanine improves high-intensity exercise performance via increasing muscle carnosine content, which reduces fatigue. There have also been studies finding beta-alanine to improve endurance performance, specifically for exercises lasting 1-4 minutes, like most dudes in the sack on a good day.
Joking. Kind of.
Anyway, beta-alanine allows you to push harder during your training–especially during bodybuilding training, where you’re spending more time under tension with extended sets. Given the 1-4 minute time frame, this is also great when doing interval training.
Beta-alanine works well for both men and women. This study (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20386120/) found on women found that beta-alanine also slightly increased lean mass and decreased body fat over four weeks, which has been reinforced by other studies looking at both men and women.
When it comes to dosage, taking 4-5g about 30 minutes before training appears to be ideal.
L-Citrulline is a popular supplement for its ability to enhance heart health, blood flow, and endurance. As a result, this boosts muscle growth and recovery–which can mean harder training, more training, and better recovery..
Think of L-citrulline as something like a fuel injector cleaner–it’ll enhance the mileage of your workouts and squeeze out a few more reps to take your gains to the next level.
As a bonus, L citrulline shows promise in reducing free radical damage and improving sexual health.
When it comes to training, take 6-8g of L-Citrulline 30 minutes before training.
Ahh, my old friend caffeine. Caffeine is the most used psychoactive drug in the world, estimated at 80% of the adult population worldwide.
And for good reason–creatine can reduce fatigue, increase strength & power performance, and boost cognitive function.
When researched, 150mg 30 minutes before training seems to be the sweet spot for performance; however, like any other drug, caffeine users can build up a tolerance and require greater doses to yield the desired result.
This brings me to the Darkside of caffeine: there are drawbacks to its use.
Caffeine masks fatigue by blocking adenosine, which builds up during the day due to fatigue. In essence, living off of caffeine is like living off credit–you can do it, but you’re borrowing from the future. Used correctly, you can get ahead with it. Used too aggressively, it can be self-destructive.
Many people use caffeine to mask a lack of recovery. Because caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant, it releases adrenaline/cortisol. If you’re familiar with cortisol, it’s that gnarly hormone that can reduce lean muscle mass, increase fat storage, and leave you feeling anxious, stressed, and depressed.
For “type A, hard charging folks,” too much caffeine can be detrimental to their health because they’re a non-stop ball of cortisol and stress. Speaking personally, I used to get too hyped up on caffeine. I’d crush work and training from 4am-2pm, then hit a wall.
Anxiety would kick in. I wouldn’t be able to shut down. And I struggled to “turn off” when it came time to be the dad and husband I wanted. Others will follow a similar cycle, but give in to binge eating, drinking at night, or numbing out with a joint to “shut down their brain” and decompress after a long day.
As of writing this in 2022, people are more stressed than any other time I’ve been a coach. And while there are benefits to having caffeine around your workouts, realize it is another stressor that hits the same stress system as everything else in life.
So, if you’re going to use caffeine, consider pulling off of it by noon. Use it mindfully and beware of how it impacts you later in the day.
If you need help reducing or cutting out caffeine, see this video:
6. Electrolytes: Sodium, Potassium, & Magnesium.
The majority of people walk around in a state of chronic dehydration. From a performance perspective, this decreases strength, endurance, power, and muscle building performance. And while regular water helps (I have my clients aim for 100 oz/day as a baseline), electrolyte supplementation can provide an additional boost, especially in hot climates and hard workouts and during phases of low-carb intake.
Electrolytes are crucial in helping muscles properly function. During exercise, ammonia and hydrogen ions increase and are believed to slow muscle contractions and muscle tension development–leading to decreased performance.
Anecdotally, as someone who lives in hot & muggy Charleston South Carolina and regularly trains in 90-100+ degree heat, electrolytes are a game changer for performance. Even in cooler muscles, I notice a better “pump” when I train and a better mind muscle connection, which is important for muscle growth.
Electrolytes can be as simple as adding a little sea-salt to your workout drink, or you can look at supplements like Noom or LMNT.
7. Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin
Highly branched cyclic dextrin is a newer carb source designed to give you insane muscle-building pumps and more endurance in the gym. Compared to other powders like maltodextrin, users of highly branched cyclic dextrin (HBCD) have noted significantly less fatigue at 30 and 60 minutes of exercise with supplementation.
Anecdotally speaking, I notice a significant improvement in exercise recovery and endurance when I use HBCD. During upper body days, I’ll have 30g before a workout, often with whey protein. On leg days, I’ll bump this up to 60g.
During both muscle growth and fat loss phases, timing carbohydrates around training is crucial for exercise recovery (buffering cortisol, refueling muscle glycogen) and body composition.
Even if looking to maintain a low carb diet, HBCD can be a game change in your training and physique.
The Last Word
Supplements are part of the game–but they’re a small part. Too many people get bogged down dropping’ hundreds of dollars on pills and potions while neglecting sleep, stress management, and tracking their workouts for doom scrolling on social media and Netflix binges.
First, take care of the basics–sleep, healthy food, and hard training. Then, use supplements to dial in the finer points.
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