Head over to a shoppe that sells vitamins, or other “nutrition center,” and you’ll see how many crap supplements there are.
But when you learn how to wade through the sea of hype, a few supplements can really help your muscle building game.
Aside from the “extreme hardcore” labeling and dubious claims of most supplement bottles, there’s a whole body of research to spell out the facts. Here are the muscle building supplements that actually work.
Creatine is the most widely researched supplement, and probably the most popular. Quite simply, it works.
Creatine provides energy to working muscles and delays fatigue. Not the kind of energy you get from a Red Bull, but actual power and work capacity. Elevated creatine levels will help you squeeze out the last few reps of a tough set, or power through a sprint or metcon set.
It will also add a few pounds to your frame — partly because of increased water in the muscle cells, but also because of the extra weight you’ll be lifting.
How to take:
- Take 5 grams per day in 8+ oz. of water or non-acidic juice
- Some brands tell you to load 20-25 grams/day for the first week — this isn’t necessary (and can cause gastrointestinal distress)
- Take creatine daily for 12 weeks. You’ll need to take 4+ weeks off every 12 weeks
- There are a few varieties: Creatine ethyl ester, kre-alkalyn, etc. Just go with simple creatine monohydrate. The original is the cheapest and most effective.
Beta-alanine can fight fatigue and increase muscular endurance. It buffers lactic acid and balances pH levels in working muscle, so you don’t “feel the burn” so quickly. And just like creatine, it can help you pump out a few more reps, or finish strong on a high-intensity sprint.
But the real magic happens when you take beta-alanine and creatine together. There is a synergistic effect between these two supplements, resulting in greater muscle mass gains, improved strength, and better endurance.
How to take:
- Take 3-5 grams per day. Beta-alanine is not timing-dependent, meaning it doesn’t have to be taken pre-workout. But take it every day, whether you’re training or not.
- Large doses can give you a harmless tingling sensation. If this bothers you, take a 1-gram dose several times a day, or use a time-release formula.
- If you take beta-alanine concurrently with creatine, they don’t need to be ingested at the same time.
Whey protein is ideal after a strength training workout. It is fast absorbing and has a high concentration of branched chain amino acids to feed your muscles quickly. Consume it in a post-workout shake when muscle cells are primed to absorb protein and carbs.
Whey is best after a hard workout, or possibly right before. Any other time, it hits the bloodstream too fast and will probably just make you fat.
Keep it mostly fat-free — fat slows the absorption of whey (sorry, no peanut butter).
How to take: Mix ~25 grams of high-quality whey protein in a blender/shaker with your favorite liquid mix (milk, almond milk, etc), fruit (optional), and ice.
L-Citrulline is a fatigue-fighting, performance enhancing amino acid made naturally in the body. When combined with malate, it performs even better.
Research is limited, but the results are promising. Supplementing with L-citrulline and/or citrulline malate has shown reduced muscle fatigue, increased training volume, decreased muscle soreness, and improved blood pressure.
L-Citrulline works by converting to arginine, which is a precursor to nitric oxide — a key ingredient in improving blood pressure and blood flow to the muscles (and other places). So yes, according to science, it can also improve the quality of your hard-ons.
How to take:
- More studies are needed to figure out the exact dosing protocol. But a safe, effective dose is 6 grams of L-citrulline or 8 grams of citrulline malate.
- For strength and conditioning performance, take it an hour pre-workout.
- For other cardiovascular improvements, citrulline does not seem to be timing-dependent. So you can take 3 grams per day, throughout the day.
Caffeine is a much-loved compound in the sports nutrition world, and if you’ve ever worked out after a triple espresso, you know why.
It’s not just in your head. Caffeine provides real physiological advantages — delayed onset of fatigue, decreased perception of pain, appetite suppression, and increased use of fat for energy. And it’s dirt cheap.
How to take: You have to figure out your own tolerance, but 150-200mg is a good pre-workout dose. Anhydrous caffeine (pills and powder) comes on a lot stronger than liquid caffeine of the same dose. And you won’t have to train on a stomach full of coffee.
The research is mixed branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) as a muscle building supplement.
A lot of studies say they’re useless. But in some research, BCAAs fight fatigue, decrease the feeling of exertion, improve aerobic capacity, and increase fat burning.
BCAAs are important for muscle protein synthesis, and they help move glucose into the muscle cells. During intense activity, BCAAs are broken down for their energy supply.
If you eat enough protein (especially eggs and meat), you already have an ample supply of BCAAs circulating around your body. But intense workouts cause a big dropoff in BCAA levels, and your body can break down muscle tissue to access their stored BCAA supply. Supplementing pre-workout prevents this from happening.
If you ever train in a fasted state, pre-workout BCAAs are absolutely necessary to prevent muscle breakdown.
How to take:
- Take 5 grams 30 minutes pre-workout.
- For fasted training, take 10+ grams pre-workout.
- You can add a BCAA drink during your workout, but some of your dose should be consumed before.
Here’s the sh*t that doesn’t work
- Testosterone boosters. There are proven ways to boost your testosterone naturally — quality sleep, a fat-friendly diet, lifting heavy and sprints. But the test boosters you buy in the store are basically snake oil. If it’s legal, it doesn’t work.
- Glutamine. Glutamine has only been shown to increase muscle mass in people with severe muscle diseases (and burn victims). It doesn’t make a difference for healthy gym-goers or athletes. And when you take a glutamine supplement, most of it gets absorbed and used by the gut, never making it to your muscle cells.
- Any kind of “fat burner.” These are basically speed pills and appetite suppressors. And they can overstimulate your central nervous system, leaving you exhausted and feeling like shit. Fat loss comes from hard training and a well-planned diet, not a magic pill.
A Word on Quality
Look for single-supplement formulas, rather than some “extreme performance stack” that has a few things you want plus 10 things you don’t.
And remember this: A poor diet supplemented is a poor diet. So if your diet is crap, no amount of supplementation in the world is going to fix it. Eat well if you want to get jacked.