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Top Ten Supplements For Building Muscle
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Get superior muscle and strength gains with smart, practical supplementation. There are certain nutrients that can make an incredible difference in results—whey protein, leucine, creatine—and others that are well worth the effort if you want an extra edge over your competition.
Before we get to the master list, it’s helpful to remember the behaviors that should be in place before starting to supplement:
- A whole foods nutrition plan with attention to macronutrient proportions is paramount.
- A periodized training plan based on short- and long-term goals is critical.
- Training with the traditional multi-joint exercises lifted over a full-range will yield best results (full squats, deadlifts, chin-ups, pull-ups, strongman, sprints).
- You’ve covered the basics of supplementation, ensuring your vitamin D, zinc, magnesium, and multivitamin issues are taken care of.
#1: BCAAs & Leucine
There’s been a lot of hype about leucine lately, and for good reason since it can increase protein synthesis by as much as 145 percent when you take it after strength training. And although leucine is the branched-chain amino acid responsible for activating, mTOR, the primary muscle building pathway in the body, supplementing with leucine alone is NOT the best plan.
It’s better to take leucine-enhanced BCAAs—that is, BCAAs with leucine in a ratio of about 4 to 1 with valine and isoleucine—because this formula has been shown to be most effective for muscle building. When leucine intake is out of balance with that of the other BCAAs, it can lead to an imbalance in the blood amino acid levels, reducing the anabolic response.
The benefits of leucine-enriched BCAAs include less muscle damage, less pain from training, greater time to exhaustion on all-out exercise tests, and greater muscle growth. Leucine-enriched BCAAs are especially valuable for older trainees who have a harder time activating mTOR to build muscle.
Load with extra BCAAs and taurine post-workout to further reduce soreness and inflammation from particularly damaging workouts.
Creatine is the most researched performance enhancement aid available. It’s your primary fuel for explosive, high-intensity exercise, and supplementing with it has been shown to double muscle gains (one review found an extra 2 to 4 lbs of muscle mass gained during 4 to 12 weeks of training in athletes).
Creatine also boosts strength development, enhances sprint and power performance, and leads to fat loss. A recent analysis suggested that the long relied on loading dose of 20 grams of creatine for a week is subpar.
Optimal creatine stores can be achieved by taking 0.15 grams of creatine per pound of body weight. Then, a maintenance dose of 5 grams of creatine a day can be used, however, you may want to “load” more frequently than once every 4 weeks, especially if your training intensity and volume is high.
Creatine is best loaded into the muscle if insulin is present, so take it with carbs or a supplement that will stimulate insulin, such as fenugreek or alpha lipoic acid.
#3: Beta Alanine
Beta alanine is stored in the fast-twitch muscle fibers as carnosine, and this helps the muscle contract with more force and prolongs peak performance. Another reason it enhances performance is that carnosine helps stabilize muscle pH during exercise by eliminating excess hydrogen ions that make your muscles burn and ultimately fatigue.
Athletes and fighters can benefit from beta alanine as it prolongs high-intensity performance. A review of the best supplements for combat sport competitors suggest beta alanine will help fighters who experience more than 60 high-intensity bursts involving striking and grappling during a 5-round fight.
Enhanced maximal work capacity for a fighter is critical as one goes from performing strikes and grappling in the standing position, to a maximal effort takedown, and finally to an active recover by stabilizing in the top position on a fighter who is trapped underneath.
Try a high-low dosing format of 4 to 6 g/day for 4 weeks, followed by 1.5 to 3 g/day for 4 weeks. Beta alanine goes well with creatine since they can both be dosed together.
Carnitine has been relied as a nutrient that can help decrease body fat for years, even though most studies have supported peripheral mechanisms to improving body composition.
For example, we know that taking carnitine can increase blood flow, leading to greater muscle recovery and growth since more nutrients and hormones are getting to the muscles. It’s been found to raise testosterone and IGF-1 as well.
Recent research shows carnitine supplementation can also halt muscle loss that comes from inactivity, and a 2011 study showed that taking 2 grams of carnitine a day for 6 months increased work capacity by 35 percent in athletes.
Trainees experienced a 44 percent lower buildup of muscle lactate and 55 percent less use of glycogen stores, indicating that they were burning fat during intense exercise rather than glycogen—a highly favorable outcome for enhanced performance.
Carnitine also needs to load, meaning it should be taken with a nutrient that spikes insulin—omega-3 fats have worked—or with carbs. In the 2011 study, participants took it with 80 grams of carbs in doses daily.
Caffeine is a superior supplement for enhancing performance to help you get massive. There’s evidence it may raise testosterone, and it boosts focus and motivation, making it especially effective at raising physical capacity when tired.
For example, when college athletes were sleep-deprived and took caffeine pre-workout, they self-selected heavier loads and lifted more reps during a workout than when they trained tired with a placebo.
Caffeine can also help you recover faster, so it’s perfect if you’re doing two-a-day training to make fast gains. One study found that after doing a glycogen-depleting exercise trial to exhaustion, trainees who took carbs with 8 mg/kg/bw of caffeine post-workout and then did a second sprint interval test 4 hours later performed much better than a group that drank only carbs. The caffeine-carb group went for 48 minutes, the carb-only group went for 32 minutes, and a placebo group went for only 19 minutes.
For performance-enhancing results, be precise about how much caffeine you take. As little as 3 mg/kg/bw has been shown to enhance power output on a bench press test (1 mg/kg/bw—about the amount in one energy drink or one cup of coffee for a 176 pounder—had no positive effect).
The 8 mg/kg/bw dose used in the above study is enormous and will make anyone who's not accustomed to caffeine nauseous. A more realistic dose is 5 to 6 mg/kg, which will undoubtedly get you ready to tear it up in the gym.
#6: Whey Protein
Getting adequate protein is critical for recovery—one study found that athletes who took whey protein were able to produce more force during the second workout after a muscle-damaging morning workout—and it can maximize muscle gains from training.
For instance, in a study that compared having experienced athletes take either 3 g/kg/bw/day of whey protein or soy protein found that the whey group gained 2.5 kg of muscle compared to the soy group that only gained 1.7 kg of muscle.
Whey outperforms all other protein sources because it is fast-digesting, meaning it will counter protein degradation—this is why athletes were able to better maintain performance during two-a-days with whey. Whey contains a high concentration of leucine, and closely mimics human milk, which in the early stage of lactation is about 90 percent whey, making it less allergenic than whole cow’s milk or casein protein.
Emerging research supports a “protein change” theory that found that when initial protein intake is below 1.5 g/kg/d, the most strength and muscle is gained when participants increase protein by more than 50 percent over what they previously consumed.
Try “periodizing” your protein, taking as much as 3 g/kg/d to coincide with hypertrophy training cycles. Then, opt for leucine-enhanced amino acids during strength or power cycles to provide variety and support continued adaptation.
Few studies have compared the benefits of different carb-to-protein ratios in strength athletes, so it’s unclear to what degree carb supplementation influences muscle development. The few things we do know are as follows:
• Carbs are not imperative—a recent study showed strength-trained males working out in a glycogen-depleted state didn’t compromise protein synthesis during moderately heavy training. In addition, limiting your post-workout supplement to whey protein can help you increase growth hormone and IGF-1 for greater fat loss. If getting lean is your primary goal, avoid carb supplementation and rely on whole food carbs eaten post-workout.
• If you’re lean and insulin sensitive, there’s no reason not to take carbs. A universal finding of studies surveyed support a carb-to- protein ratio between 2:1 and 1:1, typically yielding significant muscle hypertrophy among fast twitch fibers, and overall improvements in body composition.
• In a recent study of bodybuilders, giving trainees a continual carb infusion during a workout resulted in greater force output and increased time to exhaustion on isometric strength exercises over a placebo trial. Performance was enhanced because the carbs provided a continuous glucose energy source to the muscle.
Some people prefer fruit juice over a supplemental carb powder for post-workout carbs. For a high-glycemic index juice when trying to pack on muscle, try pineapple or grape.
If you’re goal is fat loss, opt for fibrous carbs that are antioxidant rich—think green vegetables and purple, blue, and red fruits such as berries.
#8: Fish Oil & CLA
Fish oil and CLA are both anabolic and will significantly enhance the outcome of your work in the gym. Both are fatty acids: Fish oil is made up of the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, while CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) comes from whole-fat dairy and meat.
In a study of middle-age adults, 4 grams of fish oil a day increased protein synthesis and the muscle building pathway mTOR by 30 percent. This led to 2 percent gains in muscle mass—small, but relevant since no exercise was done in this study.
CLA has shown greater muscle gains: A 7-week study of men who took CLA while training gained 1.4 kg muscle, and lost a kilo of fat more than a placebo group. Researchers think CLA enhances the metabolism during sleep.
Take fish oil post-workout to reduce muscle soreness and inflammation. Get dietary CLA from pastured, organic dairy and beef. Grass-fed and wild animals have 2 to 3 times more CLA than grain-fed animals.
Citrulline is an amino acid that raises arginine and nitric oxide, enhancing blood flow and the delivery of nutrients to muscle. Citrulline also enhances energy levels by removing waste products like lactic acid and ammonia, meaning it can increase your high-intensity work output. In addition, by raising arginine levels, you can increase growth hormone and IGF-1, both of which are instrumental in muscle building and tissue repair.
Take citrulline pre-workout for enhanced blood flow and energy levels—you’ll get a nice muscle pump as well. Try it with caffeine and tyrosine to simulate the nervous system when sleep deprived.
Glutamine is an amino acid that provides fuel for rapidly dividing cells, enhancing hypertrophy and boosting the immune system. Intense training significantly depletes glutamine, and studies of elite athletes, especially endurance athletes, show that they are more likely to get sick after an event due to reduced glutamine levels.
Practical reports show glutamine can enhance glycogen resynthesis, reduce soreness and inflammation post-workout, aid in injury recovery, and have a muscle building effect. Glutamine can also be used by the brain as an energy source, making it useful when you are transitioning to a low-carb diet or trying to deal with cravings for high-carb foods.
Try 2 grams of powdered glutamine in water anytime you feel a craving coming on.