Are you trying to figure out what muscle building supplements to purchase? It’s like asking a three-year-old to pick out just two pieces of candy in the candy store. How on earth are you supposed to decide? There’s no shortage of products out there promising you nothing less than a Hercules-like physique in a week’s time. But, which ones actually live up to their claims? And which are best for you? 

Many gym-goers, whether beginners or long-time fitness enthusiasts are also seeking to find the correct supplements to boost muscle gain. It can seem like no matter how many reps you do, how much weight you add to the barbells, or how many bodybuilding supplements you take, you never make progress. You still feel scrawny. Or maybe you have the opposite problem: you feel chubby even while following a solid workout routine religiously. You can’t seem to convert fat to muscle. Whatever your reason, achieving real muscle growth can be an elusive goal. To make progress, you need the right supplements for muscle growth.

But, which muscle building supplements really work? The best muscle building supplements for you may be different than what your gym buddy takes because we are all unique and have different needs. This article will outline what types of supplements are out there, which are the best, what research backs up their claims, how they work and when you should take them. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be ready to pick out the right combination of supplements and then watch that muscle transformation happen!

What Factors Influence Muscle Gain?

Before getting into the nitty-gritty details about supplements, it’s important to have a good understanding of how muscle growth works. When you take a muscle growth supplement, the role it plays in helping you reach your goals should be very clear. With the supplements available on the market, you can be sure that while some serve an important purpose, others are gimmicks. It’s easier to identify the money wasters if you know how muscle building works.

So, what makes muscles grow or fail to grow? It’s a combination of factors including:

What Makes Muscles Grow:

strong muscle man doing exerciseExercise

Arguably the most influential factor, exercise is what instigates muscle growth. When you exercise, especially if you engage in resistance training, it causes trauma to your muscles. This is exactly what you want because it’s this trauma that triggers a response from your body that grows your muscles. To repair the injury or damage to your muscles, special cells called satellite cells arrive. Typically, your muscle fibers thicken and lengthen in this process. (1)

Exercise is highly effective in increasing your lean body mass, which is essentially muscle. In a study published in 2012, progressive resistance training helped men ages 50 to 83 gain an average of 2.4 pounds of lean body mass over an average of 20.5 weeks. Progressive resistance training involves performing weight bearing exercises. In addition, you must slowly increase the challenge of the exercise over time by increasing the weight, reps and/or sets. Studies show that either increasing reps or weight amount will work. So, if you don’t want to lift more weight, you can just do more reps and still build muscle.

Diet

What you eat plays a big role in how much muscle your body can build. Proteins are especially important for building muscle. When you eat protein, your body breaks it down into amino acids which are the building blocks of muscle. How much protein you should include in your diet depends on a number of factors including your age and muscle building goals. Older adults who engage in resistance training and those hoping for maximum muscle growth should eat 1 to 1.3 grams of protein per kg of body weight (2, 3). If you weigh 150 lbs, that means you should take between 68 and 88 g of protein daily. Other recommendations are more modest, suggesting that .36 grams of protein per pound of body weight is enough.

bodybuilder eating healthy foods

However, protein isn’t everything. Contrary to popular belief, carbohydrates and calories from fats are also important. To gain muscle, people who are slender or scrawny need to create a calorie surplus in order to bulk up. That means you need proteins and plenty of healthy carbs, vegetables and even some fats (think healthy fats like nuts, avocado, olive oil, etc.). Carbohydrates play a key role in building muscle. This macronutrient has gotten a bad rap for making people fat. However, if you work out properly, eating plenty of carbs is in your best interest. After training, it’s ideal to ingest some carbs in combination with protein to help replenish your muscles’ glycogen stores.

Hormones

Several hormones play key roles in your body’s ability to build muscle. As you probably expected, testosterone makes the list. However, the growth hormone, and growth factors also have an influence. If you have any abnormal levels of these hormones, it could affect your ability to grow muscle and maintain muscle mass.

Recently, studies are coming out that show a general decline in testosterone levels of men in the United States and around the world. The trend is across the board and doesn’t appear to be caused simply by a decline in health, aging or an increase in obesity rates. It could be caused because of chemicals or environmental factors. In any case, low levels of testosterone can affect many areas of your health, including your ability to build muscle. If you suspect that you have low testosterone levels, you can ask your doctor to test you for it. In addition to traditional hormone therapies, there are also many natural ways to boost your levels including through supplements, some of which will be discussed later in this article.

Genetics

While they don’t play a big role, your body’s lean body mass and muscle strength is somewhat influenced by genetics. Actually, it’s good that they don’t have too much of an influence. Why? Because that means you have more of an influence on your muscle mass through your lifestyle. You can control it! If genetics were a determining factor, there wouldn’t be much you could do to change your situation.

Age

body builder lifting dumbbellsOver time, we naturally lose muscle mass in a process called sarcopenia. On average, men lose about 30% of their muscle mass during their lives. Usually, this begins in your 30s and progresses slowly as you age. But, don’t despair. You can rebuild and maintain muscle mass even as you age. Often, diet and exercise are enough. But, sometimes, if the above hormones play a role, your doctor may recommend medications and additional treatments (4).

Muscle growth is pretty straightforward. Through diet, exercise and ensuring your hormone levels are within the standards, you should be able to grow stronger and bigger.

But, is it really that easy?

No. It’s not easy for everyone to get the recommended amount of protein in their diets through good eating habits alone. Others may not have clinically low testosterone, but still benefit from boosting their levels to improve their muscle building capacity. You can fix these common problems through muscle building supplements. These easy to take pills and powders can also help you boost your performance at the gym which will, in turn, spur your body’s muscle building and recovery response.

Ready to learn about supplements? We’ll now cover some of the most popular supplements and how they contribute to muscle growth based on the above factors.

Which Are the Best Muscle Building Supplements?

choosing the supplements for muscle buildingHave you ever perused a GNC store? It’s lined wall-to-wall with products and workout supplements designed to improve your health, enhance your performance or boost your nutrition. How are you supposed to pick one, or even a few of them that will really make a difference? Which are the best muscle building supplements?

With the right information, you can make an informed decision that will help make sure you choose supplements that are effective in helping you build muscle. Here’s what you need to know about the best muscle growth supplements:

Proteins

taking whey protein for building muscleAs mentioned, protein is essential for building muscle. If you are unable to consume the recommended amount of protein through diet alone, add protein powder for building muscle as a supplement. This applies to nearly anyone hoping to gain muscle mass since it’s not easy to pack in nearly 100 grams of protein a day through chicken, eggs and legumes alone. Remember, depending on your goals, you should be consuming up to 1.3 grams of protein per kg of body weight. Protein powders are an easy way to reach your ideal dietary protein goals and are one of the top muscle building supplements.

What are your options?

  • Whey Protein: This protein is a product of cheese making. Whey is the watery milk that’s separated and removed from the cheese curd. Through further processing, it’s turned into a powder. Whey protein is a great source of amino acids and nutrients. You can find whey protein from a number of manufacturers in different flavors including vanilla and chocolate.

When looking for a whey protein powder to purchase, seek out powders that offer at least 20 g of protein per serving (one scoop) and are low in carbohydrates (aim for 5 g per serving or less). You may run into whey protein isolate, which looks attractive because it’s a higher concentration of protein. However, avoid this one as in the extreme processing, proteins are denatured that can render them less effective. In addition, these formulas are also often chock full of artificial sweeteners. Instead, look for powders from grass-fed cows that aren’t pumped with hormones.

  • Rice Protein: An alternative protein powder for muscle gain, rice protein is ideal for people who are lactose intolerant or have a milk allergy. As far as muscle gain and body composition when taken post-workout, this study showed that there was zero difference in outcomes when comparing taking whey protein and rice protein. So, if you prefer using rice protein, you can take it with confidence knowing that you’ll be able to achieve the same results you’d achieve if you were taking whey protein.

If you’re really interested in knowing the differences and investigate further, you’ll find that the amino acid profile does differ somewhat between rice and whey proteins. However, in effect, you still get everything you need from rice protein to build muscle.

How to Take It: Many people add a serving of protein powder to a milkshake or a delicious fruit smoothie. However, you can also add protein powder to pancakes, muffins and other items so that you can get a kick of protein without having it feel like a chore

You can take your protein at any time of day. However, it is important to take protein with some carbohydrates after a workout. So, if you’re looking for a quick and easy way to get your protein in, you can enjoy a protein shake after your workout.

What Fitness Experts Have to Say:

You’d have to look hard to find a fitness expert who doesn’t recommend taking supplemental protein powder for building muscle. It’s one of the best supplements for building muscle on the market! In addition to serving as a muscle building supplement, protein powder can be the perfect complement to a successful weight loss plan. Studies show that the supplement can prevent loss of muscle mass, helping you lose fat exclusively instead.

Julian Shapiro, a fitness enthusiast and writer wrote an extensive guide to building muscle.  I asked him about his opinion on the best supplements for muscle gain. He said:

“If I had to pick my favorite muscle building supplement, I’d pick protein. For both men and women, protein, either whey or rice, is the most effective and essential supplement for building muscle. Without this supplement, it’s hard to get enough protein in a day through food alone, making it difficult to reach your muscle building goals.”

That said, Julian also recommends some of the other supplements included in this article, depending on what your goals are. A combination of carefully selected supplements based on your unique needs and goals is the best step you can take towards maximizing your muscle building power. Protein powder is very likely to be a part of that plan.

Creatine

man taking creatine for building muscleAnother favorite bodybuilding supplement, creatine is an amino acid found in the body. The highest levels of this molecule are in your muscles and brain. It is made by your liver, pancreas and kidneys, but is also found in foods including meat, eggs and fish. Research has shown that it may help athletes including weightlifters who need short bursts of energy (5). In this study, creatine monohydrate proved to be an effective muscle builder. It works to improve body composition, muscle mass, strength and power.  Note that it was also more effective than other forms of creatine. How does it do this?

Creatine helps create essential adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This is the energy source of muscle contractions. By upping your levels, you can increase the amount of energy available to your muscles, boosting your performance. Because your muscle strength and size increases when you add weight and reps, improving your performance can be a game changer in terms of increasing your muscle mass. If you’re able to lift longer and harder, your muscles will grow. Creatine is certainly a winner among muscle building supplements.

Keep in mind that while creatine boosts your performance in the gym, helping you achieve better muscle building results, it is also associated with some side effects. One of the main concerns is that creatine may worsen or cause kidney problems. Creatine shouldn’t be taken in combination with diabetes medications, acetaminophen, diuretics or caffeine. As always, speak with your doctor before taking supplements to make sure that the product is safe for you (6). Generally, for most people, the supplement is considered to be among the safer weight lifting supplements.

  • How to Take It: So, you want to give it a go? How much should you take and what should you look for in a supplement? Definitely opt for creatine monohydrate, as it performs better in studies than other varieties, as mentioned above. A standard dose is about 5 grams a day. You can try taking this muscle builder for about 4 weeks to boost your levels. Following this time, you can either cut out creatine or lower to a maintenance dose of 3-5 grams per day. However, you’ll notice if you read the fine print that subjects in studies often have a loading phase of five days where the dosage is upped to 20 g per day, prior to adopting a standard dose (7, 8).

You can add it to your protein shakes if you’re drinking those. That way you’ll get your supplements for muscle growth all at once.

What Fitness Experts Have to Say:

Creatine is quite popular among weightlifters and fitness enthusiasts. Antonis Damianou, a fitness coach, trainer, writer and founder of Myolean Fitness actually says creatine monohydrate is his number one choice in muscle building supplements. Here’s why:

  • “It’s the most well-researched ergogenic supplement, with over 1000 studies carried out on it.
  • It’s the most effective supplement for increasing high intensity performance and muscle hypertrophy.
  • Short and long term studies have shown no health risks associated with supplementation with creatine monohydrate.
  • It can potentially have positive health benefits in various clinical populations.
  • It’s extremely cheap.”

BCAAs (Branched-Chain Amino Acids)

bcaa in powder and pill formThe Branched-Chain Amino Acids, BCAAs for short, are leucine, valine and isoleucine.  Essentially, its a form of protein powder for muscle gain or other uses. These essential amino acids are not made by the body but are found in foods such as meats, dairy products and legumes. In medicine, BCAAs are used for a number of conditions, however, for many uses, further research is necessary to determine whether or not treatment is effective.

Related to exercise and fitness, BCAAs are taken to help reduce muscle breakdown, which is why they may be known as muscle building supplements. Leucine, in particular, is known for playing an important role in muscle protein synthesis, which can help with muscle gain and maintenance. Some also claim that BCAAs can enhance performance, although many studies also refute this claim.

Despite the fact that BCAAs may offer some benefits, you should keep in mind that these three amino acids are also present in any quality whey protein that you purchase. You can also get these essential amino acids from food sources. Basically, as long as you’re meeting your daily protein intake goals, you’re probably getting enough of these essential amino acids. Research supports this approach. So, why spend more on another supplement?

BCAAs may be the best choice to help curb muscle break down when exercising in a fasted state. As a muscle preserver, BCAAs are quite effective, even when your insulin levels are low.

How to Take It: If you decide you want to take BCAAs as one of your weight lifting supplements, you can easily get them and take them much like you would protein powders. A recommended dose is about 5g, 2-4 times a day. Take it before a workout, during or after. As with all proteins, the benefit comes from reaching your overall daily needs and goals.

What Fitness Experts Have to Say:

While some experts support the use of BCAAs, others argue that there are better muscle building supplements to spend your money on. In the end, it’s up to you. The experts I interviewed didn’t include this supplement among their recommended bodybuilding supplements.

Beta-alanine

beta alanine powderThis amino acid is actually produced by your body and so is considered a non-essential amino acid. However, in addition to taking it in supplement form, beta-alanine is also found in protein-heavy foods like meat and fish (9). This amino acid has been linked to performance enhancement outcomes, especially for weightlifters. Studies show increased performance when taking this supplement.

How does it work? Beta-alanine plays a role in producing carnosine which is important for muscle endurance when exercising. By boosting carnosine levels, the muscles may be able to work for longer periods before growing tired.

In addition to enhancing your performance, beta-alanine may also help you increase your lean body mass. This is great for your muscle-building goals!

How to Take It: In the studies mentioned above, amounts of 4-5g per day were taken by the subjects.

What Fitness Experts Have to Say:

While it’s not quite as popular as creatine and protein powders, beta-alanine is highly regarded by most fitness experts interviewed for this article as one of the quality muscle building supplements available on the market.

Citrulline Malate

citrulline malate in powder formCitrulline Malate is an amino acid also known as L-Citrulline and is taken for many different medical conditions. There is some research that shows that the amino acid may help improve performance while exercising by reducing fatigue. What does that mean for you? In your muscle building efforts, you can use this supplement to help you make it through longer, harder workouts. This will spur more muscle building in response to the trauma your muscles experience in a tough workout. Not only that, but Citrulline Malate can also help reduce soreness after a workout. Who doesn’t want to avoid feeling sore? Reduced soreness means you can get back to the gym the next day with renewed enthusiasm.

How to Take It: Take this muscle growth supplement before your workout, ideally an hour before exercising. You should take about 6-8 g of the supplement.

What Fitness Experts Have to Say:

Another of the best muscle building supplements available,  most fitness experts highly recommend taking this supplement. The trainers interviewed for this article concur that it’s worth the investment.

Testosterone Boosters

testosterone boosters pills and supplements You now know that there are many factors involved in your body’s ability to build muscle. Hormones play a big role, particularly testosterone. When it comes to the best supplements for men who are concerned about their testosterone levels, the supplements listed below are some of the most popular.

That being said, men aren’t the only ones who suffer from low testosterone levels. Women can also suffer from testosterone deficiency which can affect their overall well-being in addition to their sex drive. If you’re a woman or man concerned about your testosterone levels, in addition to using supplements like the ones below, you should contact your doctor who will be able to diagnose any deficiencies and recommend additional treatments.

  • ZMA: This supplement is a combination of zinc, magnesium and vitamin B-6. Some research shows that this combination can help raise testosterone levels. In the trial, subjects took a daily dose of ZMA (which included 30 mg zinc monomethionine, 450 mg magnesium aspartate and 10.5 mg vitamin B-6) at night during 7 weeks. Other hormones like IGF also increased, while the stress hormone, cortisol was reduced, creating an overall more favorable hormone profile. Not surprisingly, muscle performance also improved. (n) This paper is surrounding in controversy, however, because one of the scientists involved also holds the trademark for ZMA, and the research is company-funded.

Other sources point out the fact that ZMA is only effective in men with zinc deficiencies, in which case it may help boost testosterone. For healthy men, there is no evidence of its effectiveness, the source claims.

Given the scare evidence and its lack of credibility, it’s difficult to recommend taking this supplement.

  • Tribulus Terrestris: A fruit from the Mediterranean, this supplement has been used in the Indian traditional medicine of Ayurveda. In addition to helping increase testosterone, many people take it to increase libido and as a cardioprotective aid. (10) Unfortunately, despite the fact that there are claims that tribulus terrestris can increase testosterone levels, studies don’t back up these claims.  There is some evidence, however, that it may improve athletic performance. If you want to choose one of the supplements for men, this should be your pick.

What Fitness Experts Have to Say:

The experts interviewed for this article didn’t recommend either of these as reliable muscle building supplements.

However, don’t despair over the poor reviews. There are other ways to achieve a testosterone booster for muscle gain. One of them is simply Vitamin D. A deficiency in this vitamin can lower your levels of testosterone. Furthermore, you can get a very natural boost simply by weightlifting and engaging in HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) exercise. In addition, you should avoid some foods like soy and alcohol which can lower testosterone levels (11). Through these natural solutions and lifestyle changes, you can influence your hormone profile, creating a balance that’s more favorable for muscle growth.

Gainers

protein powder and shakesIf you are underweight or have a naturally scrawny build, you may struggle to gain weight, let alone muscle mass, no matter what you do. Eating at all hours of the day and night can be exhausting and require frequent trips to the grocery store. Unless you are overweight, you likely need to create a caloric surplus in order to gain muscle. With a weight gainer powder, you can supplement a healthy diet with the additional calories you need to gain weight in muscle.

Typically, gainers contain protein powder in the form of whey, casein or milk protein isolate. In addition, gainers include carbs and a smaller amount of fats. You’ll want to choose a product that includes more than just simple sugars (dextrose) as the carbs. Some products include great sources of carbs such as oat flour, buckwheat or amaranth.

How to Take It: Take your gainer at any time of day as your objective is to reach overall calorie intake goals. Ideally, instead of using them as a meal substitute, you’ll use your gainer as a snack between high-calorie, healthy, balanced meals. If you plan on taking protein powder for muscle growth in addition to gainers, make sure you add up all of your dietary protein intakes to make sure it’s worth the investment of taking both. You might be able to skip the plain protein powders.

What Fitness Experts Have to Say:

For “hard gainers”, Antonis Damianou recommends taking weight gain powders to help you meet your daily caloric goals. Add as much as you need after factoring in your meal plan for the day.

The Best Pre Workout Supplements

While most of these muscle building supplements can be taken at any time of the day, some are best to include in your pre-workout routine. Citrulline malate, in particular, is one that should be taken about an hour ahead of your workout. Because this supplement boosts performance, taking it ahead of your workout will maximize its effect, making sure you get the most out of the supplement.

Another supplement that’s ideal to take pre-workout is protein. Depending on your goals and your workout time, taking protein before your workout can help you keep your energy levels elevated while working out. Make sure you give yourself at least an hour between the time you take your protein and your workout time so that your body has time to digest.

The Best Post Workout Supplements

Post workout, it’s important to restore your body’s energy by consuming protein and carbs. When you’re trying to build muscle, this is an especially important step. Protein powder is a great muscle builder for your post-workout routine, as long as you include a carbohydrate as well. You can get this by eating a banana or adding oats or banana to your protein shake. Or simply cook up a batch of healthy oatmeal muffins and include protein powder in your recipe. Then, enjoy your post-workout supplement as a delicious snack!

There’s also evidence that shows that creatine is best-taken post-workout. So, if you’re planning on including creatine as one of your muscle building supplements, consider taking it post-workout for maximum benefits.

Muscle building supplements can serve as a great tool for helping you increase your muscle mass.  Always remember that, as when taking any supplement, it’s best to consult with your doctor to ensure that you won’t face any adverse interactions with medications or negatively affect your health. While the muscle building supplements listed are all generally safe, individuals with chronic health conditions should be especially careful.

Remember that muscle building supplements should be part of a wider approach that includes lifestyle, exercise and diet. With a solid workout routine including weightlifting, a healthy, well-balanced diet and the inclusion of some of the best workout supplements, you should see results within a few months!

Have you successfully built up your muscle mass? How did you do it? What muscle building supplements did you use? Tell me about your experience in the comments.