The supplement industry is a multi-million pound industry and provides a huge array of products, which usually purport to provide some sort of health or fitness benefit.

However, as it is an unregulated industry many companies make false or exaggerated claims for their products or have substances in them that although they have scientific evidence backing their efficacy, may not have a large enough dose to be effective.

Supplements are a mine field and it is difficult for the lay person to plough through the scientific evidence to determine whether the supplement is actually worth taking and spending your hard earned cash on. 

There are many supplements that claim to help build muscle, so let's look at the major ones out there.

While there are some effective supplements that do help to promote muscle growth, you shouldn’t forget that the vast majority of your gains, probably as much as 95%, come from a good diet, training regime, and adequate quality sleep.  The supplements I will discuss below are merely complementary to those three factors.

Of course, there is one proven method of building muscle, and very quickly. That is of course taking steroids, but I will not discuss or recommend these for the obvious reasons of legality and potential health risks.

Creatine

The first, and one of the most studied substances in exercise research is creatine. Creatine is a naturally ocurring substance in all vertebrates. It is a non-essential nutrient, since it can be produced from the amino acids glycine and arginine. Those of us who are meat eaters also consume creatine when consuming meat. For that reason creatine supplementation is often particualrly recommended for vegetarian athletes whose creatine stores will be lower.

Creatine is used within the body to help supply energy to all cells within the body, but primarily muscle cells. Following supplementation it is deposited in these cells and plays a crucial role in the phosphocreatine system, which supplies energy for short, high intensity and explosive activities.

In terms of benefits for muscle building, it can enhance power output for those first couple of reps in a set and can also increase muscular endurance and potentially allow an extra rep or two. There is also some evidence that it creates a small amount of muscle growth, but it is still not clearly understood why.

Creatine is cheap, legal, has very few side effects in most people and does have proven benefits. Don’t be fooled by all the fancy kinds on offer either, like ethyl ester, they have no proven additional benefits to the basic creatine monohydrate version. Having said that I would recommend buying Creapure, which is just monohydrate manufactured to a high quality standard. 

Beta-alanine

Beta-alanine is kind of like a relative of creatine, in the sense that they both enhance physical performance and aid in the process of building muscle. However, while their effects are similar, the underlying mechanisms are different.

Beta-alanine supplementation increases carnosine levels in muscles. Carnosine acts as an acid buffer within the muscle, reducing the build up of lactic acid in your muscles when exercising, allowing you get that extra couple of reps. There also some evidence that it increases the rate of muscle growth.

Beta-alanine is also cheap and safe, and does provide some benefit, so is another to consider.

Nitrate

Nitric acid is a substance in the body, which promotes efficient energy use and improves overall work capacity. A large amount of research has been  devoted to finding substances that boost levels of nitric oxide. The two most commonly studied L-arginine and L-citrulline, weren’t found to be very effective however.

There is one substance that has been found to boost nitric oxide though, and that is nitrate. Nitrate has been found to be an excellent nitric oxide booster and fortunately, it is readily available in many of the foods we eat. Beetroot is the best source of nitrate (other good sources include lettuce, carrots, green beans, spinach, cabbage, radishes, celery, parsley and collard greens).

Consumption prior to a workout can allow you to get through more work in a gym session by reducing muscular fatigue. It can also increase power output before fatigue sets in. Not only is there performance enhancement benefits, but also heart health ones too.

Nitrate is not allowed as an ingredient in dietary supplements, so the best method to take it is to blend some beetroot and leafy greens and consume before you workout.

And that is it. Yes there are surprisingly few effective muscle building supplements, so bear that in mind when you see advertisements for muscle building supplements sporting some bodybulding behemoth. Everything else out there, is largely ineffective or only works in petri-dishes and not in human subjects.

You may wonder why I haven’t mentioned whey protein, which is probably the most consumed supplement out there. Well, while whey protein is a great source of protein providing all the essential amino acids and being  a good source of branch chain amino acids, particularly leucine, which is important in muscle protein synthesis, it is not an essential muscle building supplement as you could quite easily satisfy all your protein requirements from whole foods.

There is nothing inherently magical about whey protein. Far too many people, especially men, think that simply taking whey protein will build muscle. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Published by Neil Elbourne