When it comes to muscle-building supplements, people tend to fall into two camps:
Camp one have kitchen cabinets that resemble some kind of research lab. They buy their supplements the moment their pay cheque comes through, and can’t even fathom getting by without a concoction of various different pills and powders.
Camp two are at the opposite end of the spectrum. They’re more of the old school, and tend to shun anything that comes in a container, in favor of ‘real food.’
So which camp is right?
Well, it’s probably somewhere in the middle.
Nobody ‘needs’ supplements to get bigger and stronger, but they definitely have their uses.
According to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition:
‘Maintaining an energy balance and nutrient dense diet, prudent training, proper timing of nutrient intake, and obtaining adequate rest are the cornerstones to enhancing performance and/or training adaptations.
Use of a limited number of nutritional supplements that research has supported can help improve energy availability (e.g., sports drinks, carbohydrate, creatine, caffeine, β-alanine, etc) and/or promote recovery (carbohydrate, protein, essential amino acids, etc) can provide additional benefit in certain instances.
So that begs the question -
If we’re going to use supplements to help build muscle, what should we choose?
#1: Protein Powder
All macronutrients matter when you’re trying to add mass, but protein really is the key driver of muscle growth and recovery.
As such, athletes require a higher protein intake than the average sedentary person.
How much more? While you may have heard figures as high as 2 grams per pound thrown around, we don’t need to go that extreme. Studies suggest that somewhere in the region of between 1.6 and 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day is perfectly adequate.
This means a guy weighing 80kg (176 lbs) needs between 128 and 176 grams of protein per day.
It’s possible to achieve that purely through eating food, seeing as a medium chicken breast has around 30 grams of protein, as do 4 large eggs, or a large piece of fish. But protein powders offer a cost-effective alternative, and are often easier to consume, especially with a busy schedule.
Contrary to popular belief, protein powders are in no way superior to whole food protein sources for building muscle, but they’re a handy option if you don’t want to spend an age prepping meals.
Creatine is one of the most popular and widely tested supplements.
It’s actually an amino acid, (a building block of protein,) so can help with muscle growth and recovery. The main reason many turn to it in an attempt to aid their muscle growth however, is because of creatine’s effect on exercise performance.
When you lift weights, your body uses a fuel known as Adenosine Tri-Phosphate, or ATP.
As ATP stores diminish, so does your short-term explosive strength. Creatine helps your body regenerate ATP faster though, meaning your strength, endurance and performance may see a slight increase.
It should be noted, however, that this increase is pretty minor, and likely only equates to a few extra reps per session.
That said, the body of research behind creatine is weighty, overwhelmingly positive. Plus, the supplement itself is generally cheap, so it’s an easy addition to your muscle-building arsenal.
Just note that not everybody responds to creatine and, despite the attempts of many supplement companies’ marketing campaigns, the most effective form of creatine has shown to be monohydrate, which is also the most basic kind. So don’t go forking out huge amounts of cash for a fancier version.
#3: Beta Alanine
Lots of contenders were vying for the third spot on this list, but beta alanine takes the place by the skin of its teeth.
Like creatine, beta alanine is an amino acid. Its role however, is less to do with muscle repair, and much more to do with exercise performance. Beta alanine works together with another amino acid - histidine - to produce carsonine, which acts as a buffer to lactic acid, allowing you to train harder for longer.
The biggest effect from beta alanine seems to occur in activities lasting between 1 and 4 minutes. While it’s unlikely any of your sets will last this long, it may be useful as you accumulate fatigue throughout a session.
One thing you do want to watch out for with beta alanine however, is the tingling effect it has. While this isn’t anything to be concerned about, it can feel a little odd the first few times you use it, so it may be worth starting with a lower dosage than recommended.
What About the Others?
We could have discussed a lot of things here - BCAAs, weight gain powders, fish oils, testosterone boosters - the list goes on.
The bottom line though, is that supplements contribute no more than 5% of your overall progress.
The 3 we have here are chosen either for convenience and the fact they may save you money, (in the case of protein powder,) or because they’ve been heavily tested, and appear to show a minimal, though significant increase in gym performance. (In the case of creatine and beta alanine.)
Stick with these 3, along with eating a nutrient-dense diet and the right amount of protein, carbohydrate and fat, and you won’t go far wrong.