If you want to build muscle, you need to train consistently, eat more calories than you burn, consume more protein than you break down, and make sure you get sufficient rest and sleep. And that’s about it.
So supplements are not really essential, but they are very useful, and if you use the right ones, they can certainly help you improve the results you are getting.
The key, however, is to choose the right ones, as although there are a huge number of supplements on the market that are claimed to help you build muscle faster and more effectively, the fact is that most of them will do little, if anything for you.
But there are a few that will help. And in this article I’ll outline the top 7 muscle building supplements that are worth investing in.
1. Whey Protein
Getting sufficient protein is your first priority when you are looking to build muscle. And although you can get enough of it from your diet if you eat plenty of meat, fish and eggs, whey protein provides an easy and convenient way to boost your daily protein intake with the minimum of fuss.
Whey protein has the highest biological value of any protein. It’s also easy to digest, and it contains high levels of leucine (the most anabolic of all the amino acids). On top of that, it contains a number health promoting compounds that increase the body’s antioxidant levels and improve immune function. It’s also much less allergenic than either whole cow’s milk or casein.
Whey protein is ideal for use as a post-workout shake, in order to maximize protein synthesis (muscle building) after training. But you can also take it either between, or after meals, in addition to that if you wish. There’s no need to get carried away though, as taking excessive amounts of protein will not help you build muscle any faster. Around 0.8–1g of total protein per pound of body weight per day is plenty to stimulate maximum muscle growth.
Do ensure you get a good quality whey protein, though, as inferior versions will not be as effective, and many brands contain all sorts of artificial ingredients that can be harmful to your health. There are a number of good brands available, however, and one I particularly like is Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey (Naturally Flavored), as this is a top quality protein that mixes well, tastes great and contains no artificial sweeteners, flavors, colors, or unnecessary fillers.
2. Creatine Monohydrate
Creatine is the most well-researched, proven, effective muscle building supplement available today. It is produced naturally in the body, and is also found in foods like red meat and fish. But if you want to experience the full benefits that creatine has to offer, you need to reach full tissue saturation, and that can only be achieved by supplementation.
Supplementing with creatine has been conclusively shown to help build muscle, increase strength, improve anaerobic endurance and reduce soreness after exercise.
Creatine works by increasing ATP production in the mitochondria of the cells. ATP is what gives you energy, and it also helps your muscles to contract more effectively. This means you’ll be able to lift more weight at the gym (or do more reps with the same weight). And this will translate into greater gains in strength and muscle mass over time.
Creatine also plumps up the muscles by drawing more water into the muscle cells. This results in a fuller, harder appearance, without any puffiness or bloating.
Take about 4–6g of creatine monohydrate per day (no need to waste money on the more expensive versions as they are no more effective) after training, or at any time on your off days. If you wish, you can do a loading phase of 20–25g per day for the first 5–7 days. This will allow muscle saturation to occur more quickly, but you will still reach this point in about three weeks anyway, even if you don’t do a loading phase.
The best type of creatine is Creapure, which is made in Germany to an extremely high standard, and is guaranteed to be 99.99% pure creatine. And the brand I personally use is Optimum Nutrition Micronised Creatine Monohydrate.
3. Beta Alanine
This is a naturally occurring amino acid which, when consumed, is converted into carnosine and stored in the muscle fibers. Carnosine helps to counteract the effect of lactic acid build-up in the muscle tissue during training. So if you have more carnosine in your muscles, you can continue your sets for longer before fatigue sets in. This is particularly apparent when doing higher-rep sets.
Taking beta alanine has been shown to improve performance and lead to increased strength and muscle growth over time. And beta alanine works synergistically with creatine, each one enhancing the benefits of the other. But whereas creatine is best taken post workout (along with some protein and carbohydrates), beta alanine is best used as a pre-workout supplement.
Again take about 4–6g per day. You should begin to see benefits in about 2–3 weeks, with maximum benefits being achieved a few weeks later. You may experience a tingling sensation after taking beta alanine, especially in the face. But this is completely harmless, and in fact some people find it quite pleasant.
As for recommended brands, there are a number of good ones available, and NOW Sports Beta Alanine Powder is as good as any.
4. Citrulline Malate
Citrulline is an amino acid that can be produced naturally in the body, and is also found in certain foods, particularly watermelon. But by taking citrulline supplements, you can increase the amount of it in your body to above typical levels. And this can have a very positive effect on exercise performance and muscle gain.
When citrulline is consumed, some of it is converted into another amino acid, called arginine, and this, in turn, is converted into nitric oxide. Nitric oxide acts as a vasodilator, which means it widens the blood vessels, and improves blood flow.
Interestingly, consuming citrulline increases arginine levels in the body more than consuming arginine itself, due to differences in how the body absorbs and processes the two.
Citrulline isn’t used to build proteins, but it does increase protein synthesis by stimulating the mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin) signalling pathway. It also decreases amino acid uptake and breakdown by the liver. The combination of these two effects can contribute significantly to increasing muscle mass.
Citrulline can also increase the oxygen content in muscle tissue, allowing for improved exercise performance. It reduces post-exercise muscle soreness, and it can also increase the rise in growth hormone (GH) seen after exercise.
Malate plays an important role in energy production, so while taking L-citrulline by itself is very beneficial, taking it as citrulline malate provides even greater benefits.
Take 6–10g of citrulline malate per day, about an hour before your workout on training days, and you should start to experience beneficial results, in terms of improved performance, after about a week.
5. Omega-3 Fish Oil
The omega-3 fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), are essential to good health, and one of the most important nutrients you can take. Their many health benefits include improved cardiovascular health, brain function, joint health, skin condition, immune system function, and much more. But on top of that, they can also help you build muscle and burn fat too.
Omega-3’s (particularly EPA) help to improve muscle function and increase muscle protein synthesis after exercise. They also reduce muscle breakdown and post-exercise soreness, and they improve recovery. EPA has been shown to improve muscle anabolism by enhancing sensitivity to anabolic stimuli, such as exercise, amino acid availability and increases in insulin levels. Omega-3’s also increase fat-burning during exercise.
For optimum results, you need 2–3g of omega 3’s per day. That’s not 2–3g of fish oil, its 2–3g of EPA/DHA. Some fish oil supplements contain less than 30% EPA/DHA, whereas others contain more than 70%. So you need to check the label so you know how much you are getting. You also need a product of high purity, i.e. one that has had any heavy metals and toxins removed.
The one I use, and highly recommend, is Zinzino Balance Oil. This is far more than just an omega-3 supplement, as it also contains omega-9’s (monounsaturated fatty acids), polyphenols (which protect the omega-3’s in the bottle, as well as in your body, and provide additional antioxidant benefits), and vitamin D3.
6. Multivitamin Supplement
Although it’s possible for a sedentary person to get enough vitamins and minerals if they eat a really well balanced diet that includes plenty of fruit and vegetables, if you are training regularly, your micronutrient requirement will be higher than normal, so you’ll want to take a good quality multivitamin supplement to make sure you are fully covered. This will not only help to keep you in good health, it will also ensure good performance in the gym and optimum recovery and growth outside the gym too.
As with all supplements, however, the cheap brands are almost worthless. You need a wide range of vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients in sufficient quantity and in a highly bioavailable form for best results. And personally I prefer an all-natural, plant derived multi, so my choice here is Zinzino Xtend+. This is much more than a multivitamin, as it also contains a full range of plant phytonutrients, co-enzyme Q10, curcumin and yeast-derived beta glucans for improved immune system function.
7. Vitamin D
Unless you get out in the sun on a regular basis, it’s almost certain you won’t be getting enough vitamin D for optimum health. This vital nutrient (which is not really a vitamin but a pro-hormone) is essential for strong bones and a healthy immune system. It also helps protect against various diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and several types of cancer. And it helps fight against depression and cognitive decline too.
Apart from this, vitamin D plays a role in protein synthesis, as well as in the maintenance of healthy testosterone levels, so it can have a direct impact on the results you are getting from your training.
If you are taking a multivitamin that contains at least 1000 IU (25ug) of vitamin D3, you probably won’t need to take any extra. But otherwise, take 1000–2000 IU per day; although you can go up to 5000 IU for a while if you feel you are particularly deficient.
Apart from these, the only other thing really worth mentioning is caffeine. And I give it a mention, rather than adding it to my main list, because to get this you can simply drink coffee. In fact, a cup or two of strong coffee about an hour before training is an excellent pre-workout drink all by itself. Caffeine gives you more energy, it helps boost strength and power output, and it also increases fat burning while exercising.
So those are what I consider to be the top muscle building supplements available today. If you’re not sure which ones to take, just start with the basics – whey protein, fish oil and a multivitamin supplement. You can then add in creatine and any of the others later on if you wish. Either way, by taking the right supplements, in conjunction with a well-structured, muscle-building diet, you’ll be able to ensure you are able to make the best possible progress from your training efforts.
Photo credit: Sandstein (Own work), CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons