Do Muscle-Building Supplements Work?

Muscle building with supplements
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Building muscle is a challenging goal that can seem slow-going. Many people trying to build muscle turn to supplements in hopes of boosting their strength training results. While some supplements are excellent additions to your regimen, others lack solid evidence to back marketing claims.

It's important to manage your expectations regarding muscle-building supplements while focusing on the more vital aspects of muscle growth—nutrition and training. Below, you can learn more about muscle-building supplements, which ones are likely to work, and what may be best left on the shelf.

Before starting any new supplement, speak with your health care provider. Consider consulting a dietitian or sports nutritionist for personalized advice.

Protein Supplements for Muscle Building

Protein supplements are widely popular for muscle building. Protein is essential for muscle growth.

Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

Branched-chain amino acids are molecules that combine to create proteins. There are 20 amino acids and nine of them are essential to obtain through diet because your body does not make them.

They are often touted as helping reduce muscle soreness, aiding muscle repair, and reducing recovery time. However, BCAAs are not necessary for most people if you obtain enough complete protein in your diet. For those performing muscle-building exercise, this is at least 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and up to 2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight.

As long as you get adequate protein, it is unlikely that you will experience additional muscle-boosting benefits from BCAA supplementation. However, if you do not get enough protein or you want to shore up your specific amino acid profile, BCAAs may be useful.

Plant-based eaters may find additional benefit from BCAA supplements since plant proteins are often lacking in some of the essential amino acids. Plant-based diets take more planning to obtain all of the essential amino acids and a supplement may ensure you get enough.

Protein Powders

Protein powders are a convenient way to boost your protein intake. Muscle-building diets must include enough protein to support the repair and growth of muscle mass. While getting enough protein through whole foods is doable, many people trying to build muscle may find powders to be an effective way to make sure they meet their protein targets.

There are several types of protein powder to choose from, including whey and casein, which come from dairy and contain all of the essential amino acids. Whey is a faster absorbing protein while casein breaks down and releases over a longer period. For this reason, whey is often used post-workout to replenish muscles while casein is most often used in the evening to increase muscle protein synthesis through the night.

Consuming whey protein after training may help boost muscle protein synthesis and foster muscle growth. While research varies, consuming about 20 to 40 grams of protein post-workout may increase the muscle-building results of training.

Plant-based protein powders are also useful, especially for those who struggle to obtain enough whole food protein on a diet without animal products. Keep in mind that a plant-based protein powder should contain all of the essential amino acids.

Studies show that plant-based protein powders can be as effective as animal-based so long as they contain all essential amino acids. Good choices include rice protein powder and pea protein powder.

Hormone Supplements for Muscle Growth

Hormone supplements are often banned substances in sports and competitions. They are also more likely to cause health consequences and adverse side effects, depending on the supplement.

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a steroid that your body produces naturally in the adrenal glands. DHEA in supplement form is taken with hopes of boosting estrogen and testosterone hormone levels and therefore stimulating increased muscle growth.

Limited data show that DHEA can possibly support increased muscle mass and bone density. However, the majority of data shows no muscle-building benefits, especially for younger to middle-aged men. Some data support the use of DHEA for those who are very elderly and have lost muscle mass, and for elderly women.

Fatty Acids to Build Muscle Mass

Fatty acids are the building blocks of fats found in the body and in various food sources. They are celebrated for their health-boosting effects. However, they aren't often necessary in supplement form, especially for muscle building.

Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)

Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is made from linoleic acids, an essential fatty acid found primarily in animal products such as meat and dairy. CLA was popularized and marketed as a fat-burning weight loss supplement. However, the evidence to support its use is lacking, especially for muscle building.

Linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid that you need to obtain through diet, but there's no evidence that adding supplements is effective or necessary.

Lipoic Acid

Lipoic acid (or alpha-lipoic acid) is produced naturally in your body. It assists in metabolic energy production. Some preliminary research on male resistance and endurance athletes showed that ALA could reduce muscle damage and inflammation and boost the recovery process after both a single training session and a high-intensity week of training.

More research on the potential muscle-building effect of lipoic acid is necessary to draw any conclusions on whether supplementing with it can have noticeable effects. The study did not examine females or those who are new to exercise.

Phosphatidylserine

Phosphatidylserine is a phospholipid, which is part of cell membranes. It is responsible for cell signaling and self-destruction of cells. It is largely present in the brain but also in the lungs, testes, kidneys, liver, muscles, heart, and blood plasma.

Phosphatidylserine is often touted as a muscle-building supplement that is used to reduce the stress hormone cortisol from breaking down muscle. A suggested loading phase of taking 800 mg of phosphatidylserine then reducing to 200-400 mg of phosphatidylserine may effectively reduce post-workout cortisol spikes while improving the testosterone-cortisol ratio.

The body makes its own phosphatidylserine, so is not an essential nutrient. Some evidence shows supplementing with phosphatidylserine can enhance mood, performance, and recovery. It may provide some benefits for those who tend to overtrain.

Potential side effects of phosphatidylserine include digestive issues and reduced blood pressure, however, reports on side effects are limited.

Other Muscle Building Supplements

Here are some other well known muscle building supplements.

Creatine

Creatine monohydrate is a highly studied and widely used muscle-building supplement. It is a precursor of creatine phosphate, which provides energy for muscles. However, the muscle growth potential of creatine goes beyond energy production.

Creatine can increase muscle glycogen storage, leading to swelling that can increase lean muscle mass. When combined with resistance training, creatine has been shown repeatedly in studies to boost muscle growth.

Chromium

Chromium is a trace mineral found in food and supplements. It has been studied for its ability to assist in carbohydrate, lipid, and protein metabolism by increasing the effects of insulin. This amplification of insulin (which allows sugar to enter the body's cells in order to provide energy) is the reason researchers have considered whether chromium can increase muscle mass by boosting protein synthesis. Most of the research shows a very limited effect, likely meaning supplementing with chromium will not produce noticeable effects for muscle building.

Gamma Oryzanol

Gamma oryzanol is derived from rice bran oil, and marketed to ease menopause symptoms, reduce cholesterol, and provide antioxidant benefits.

Gamma Oryzanol has not been extensively studied. So far, animal studies suggest it may produce muscle growth, but human trials have not shown this to be the case. Additional research is necessary, but it seems that gamma oryzanol is not a muscle-building supplement worth taking.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Should I stack supplements for muscle building?

    Stacking supplements for muscle building, or combining a group of supplements that may have complementary effects, is not necessary. If you want to take supplements, creatine and protein powder are the two most effective and well-researched choices and can be used together.

  • How important are supplements for building muscle?

    Supplements are generally not very important for building muscle so long as you consume a high protein diet in a calorie surplus and consistently perform an effective weight training regime. You can use supplements like protein powder to help ensure your protein intake is adequate.

  • What supplements provide fast and slow protein?

    Whey protein powder is a fast-digesting protein while casein is slow-releasing. For this reason, many people consume whey protein post-workout and casein before bed to release through the night.

A Word From Verywell

Muscle building is a complex process. The most significant factors involved are a proper training plan that includes weight training in sufficient enough volumes that progresses over time, plus a diet that supports muscle growth. Namely, a diet high in protein with a surplus of calories to support weight gain.

While supplements are widely available, they haven't necessarily been tested for efficacy or safety, and are mostly unregulated. Improper doses and contaminants are issues that can be present with supplements. Those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, children, and people with medical conditions or who are taking medications should avoid supplements unless permitted by their doctor.

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