Strength training can be a very healthy and rewarding activity. It can improve your physical health, boost your confidence levels, build your strength, and much more. It’s also really, really hard work!
Whether you’re a casual lifter or a hardcore bodybuilder, you likely know the dedication and time it takes to make your strength training goals a reality.
Obviously, your exercise plan is key to your success. It’s a good idea to design your own workout plan, or follow an existing one – and be sure to actually stick with your plan! Beyond that, diet is also very important. Be sure to follow a healthy diet plan, paying particular attention to the amount of protein in your diet.
But beyond that, the best thing you can do to improve your strength training results is to add effective supplements for building muscle to your diet. There are many good supplements out there, which we’ll go over in this guide.
What Are Muscle Building Supplements?
Muscle gain supplements are a class of health products designed to improve your body’s natural ability to gain muscle. There are many different types, which can be generally categorized in the following groups:
- Workout boosters – They achieve this goal by helping to boost strength, increase energy, and extend endurance. Some examples include creatine, testosterone boosters and pre-workout supplements.
- Recovery boosters – An entirely different class of supplements which aim to promote better recovery after your workouts. They achieve this goal by stimulating protein synthesis, providing required nutrients, and helping muscle soreness. Some examples include protein powders and BCAAs.
- General health boosters – In order to build muscle efficiently, we need to maintain good overall health. Another class of supplements are actually just products that aim to support your overall health and wellbeing. Some examples include fish oil and vitamins/minerals.
Why Should You Take Supplements for Muscle Building?
We often get the question, are good muscle building supplements really necessary? And the answer is no – using supplements is not necessary for muscle building, but they can certainly make it easier. You can certainly build muscle mass without supplementation.
- Building muscle is hard work – whether you’re a beginner or an experienced athlete, it’s going to take a lot of time, commitment and hard work to reach your training goals. Certain supplements, such as creatine, can help you build muscle by improving energy and workout performance. Supplements can make your job a little easier – but don’t be fooled: you still need to put in the work!
- Building muscle requires extra nutrients – it’s a well known fact that athletes and strength trainers need more nutrients than the average person. A lot of this is due to the strain that training puts on your body, and the extra nutrients required to help your body recover and repair. Some supplements, such as protein powders, BCAAs, etc. provide those much-needed nutrients.
- Building muscle requires healthy recovery – the post-exercise recovery period is extremely important for the muscle building process. In fact, you could argue that it’s just as important as actual exercise! Many supplements include recovery-boosting ingredients to improve the quality of your recovery after a tough workout.
Useful Supplements That Help Build Muscle
What is Whey Protein?
Whey protein is one of the most popular athletic supplements, and also one of the best supplements for muscle gain. Whey protein comes from dairy, and is actually a byproduct of the process used to make cheese. To create the supplement form of whey, manufacturers simply process and dry the whey protein into a powder, and add flavorings. Whey is an extremely popular supplement, mainly because it’s an affordable and accessible form of very high-quality protein.
How Whey Protein May Help Build Muscle
Protein in general is an important component of muscle growth. In fact, protein is required for the body to build new cells and repair existing cells – and not just muscle tissue, but all types of cells. But since we’re talking about effective supplements to increase muscle mass, we’ll focus on the muscle-growth benefits of whey protein.
All forms of protein are beneficial for muscles, and you likely get a decent amount from your diet already. So, why whey protein? Well, first off, it’s a very rapidly digesting protein, which makes it a great choice for post workout recovery. After you exercise, your muscles need protein and amino acids in order to recover – and the faster, the better. Whey can begin hitting the bloodstream in as little as 15 minutes! Also, whey is a high quality protein that offers a good concentration of the most important amino acids for muscle recovery.
How to Take Whey Protein
Whey protein comes in powder form, and typically there will be a scoop included in the package that makes measuring out a serving very easy. You’ll generally find products ranging from 15-25+ grams of protein per serving, which is a significant amount of protein. You’ll want to mix your whey with water, milk, or make a tasty protein shake.
Beyond that, one thing to remember is that it’s best to take whey immediately following your workout. The faster you can kick-start recovery, the better. Some people even take a pre-made shake with them to the gym to sip on on the drive home!
Whey Protein Side Effects
Whey protein is typically regarded as a safe supplement, and does not usually cause side effects. Minor bloating/stomach discomfort is possible, however. And, don’t forget that whey is derived from dairy, so you’ll want to avoid it if you’re lactose intolerant. Certain forms of whey protein, such as whey protein isolate, are relatively low in lactose, but can still cause some issues for folks with lactose sensitivity.
What is Creatine?
Creatine is a common organic acid that is found in high concentrations in red meat and some other foods. It’s also naturally present in our bodies, with the majority being stored in our muscle tissue. During exercise, the muscles naturally use creatine stores in order to produce and use energy. In supplement form, creatine is intended to build up and restore these natural reserves, in order to increase endurance and improve athletic performance. Creatine is often considered to be one of the best supplements for muscle gain.
How Creatine May Help Build Muscle
Creatine is one of the most popular supplement for athletes, bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts alike. It essentially works by increasing energy levels within your muscles, which may allow for heavier lifts and longer workouts temporarily. On its own, it won’t do much for you – but if you put in the work at the gym, it can improve your workouts which can quickly lead to bigger gains and more physical improvements!
How to Take Creatine
It’s typically used before workouts, but really, timing is not too important. You’ll want to mix it into water, and be sure to drink plenty more water in addition, as creatine can cause dehydration in some people.
For the most part, the ideal dose of creatine is 5g per day. Most brands of creatine come with a scoop that provides an easy way to measure out your dose. Some people will recommend “loading” creatine by taking larger doses (10-15+ grams per day) for the first week or so, then continuing with the 5g/day dose. This is not necessary, but it may speed up the process of creatine saturation in the muscles. It’s also a good idea to cycle creatine by taking it for 2-3 months at a time, followed by a 1-2 week break.
Creatine Side Effects
Creatine is generally safe to use, and doesn’t generally cause any serious side effects. With that said, there is one very common side effect which is weight gain/bloating. This happens when you first start taking creatine, because the supplement causes more water to be stored in the muscle tissue. This is a good thing in terms of muscle building, but at the same time it can cause a feeling of bloating, and can also cause some temporary weight gain. However, we do recommend you speak with your doctor before taking creatine.
What are Testosterone Boosters?
Testosterone boosters are a class of health supplements that are designed to help your natural levels of testosterone. For those who don’t know, testosterone is the primary male sex hormone, and it serves a number of important roles in the body. Testosterone is important for building muscle mass, burning fat, maintaining sexual and mental health, and much more. Your body naturally produces testosterone, but sometimes your natural levels are not where they should be. Testosterone boosters, which are typically herbal blends, may help.
How Testosterone Boosters May Help Build Muscle
Healthy testosterone levels are important for our overall health. Conversely, having low testosterone can have some serious downsides. A lot of men suffer from low T-levels, and testosterone boosters can help. Note that if you already have good levels of testosterone, these testosterone boosters probably won’t do as much good for you. Essentially, T-boosters may possibly help your natural testosterone levels, which can lead to many benefits both inside and outside of the gym.
How to Take Testosterone Boosters
Typically, these testosterone boosters are herbal blends that come in pill/capsule form. You’ll want to follow the dosage instructions, and don’t take more than is recommended. We do strongly recommend you speak with your doctor before taking testosterone booster supplements.
Testosterone Boosters Side Effects
Various side effects are possible with these products. It’s difficult to give you a definitive list, as each product is different in its ingredient profile and concentration. Some people have reported issues such as mood changes, and skin problems like acne. Again, speak with your doctor before taking them.
What is Casein Protein?
Casein protein is another type of protein powder that is an effective muscle building supplement. Like whey protein, it is derived from dairy. However, whey and creatine differ in a number of key areas. Primarily, while whey digests very rapidly, casein protein digests very slowly. Both of these types of supplements are particularly useful for certain stages of recovery. Whey is best to take immediately after your workout, while casein is best to take right before bed, or any time you plan to be going a long period of time without a meal.
How Casein Protein May Help Build Muscle
In the whey protein section, we already talked about the importance of protein for muscle building. All forms of protein are useful, including those that you already get through your diet. The useful part about supplements like casein protein powders are that they give you an affordable and easy way to increase your natural protein intake.
Casein is very useful for keeping your body in an anabolic state. Essentially, being in an anabolic state means that your body is building muscle. The opposite, a catabolic state. When you don’t eat for extended periods of time, you run the risk of entering a catabolic state. Casein protein, however, digests so slowly that you can take it at night before going to bed, and it’ll aid you to remain anabolic throughout the night.
How to Take Casein Protein
As mentioned, most people like to take casein protein at night, shortly before bed. This can help keep your muscles fed and happy throughout your rest period. Keep in mind that it may not be necessary to take casein on days you don’t exercise, although it can still be helpful for boosting overall protein intake.
Beyond that, simply follow the instructions on your product packaging. Each serving will typically contain 15-20+ grams of protein. The powder should be mixed into water or milk, or thrown in a shake.
Casein Protein Side Effects
Some people have reported upset stomach and related issues after taking casein protein, although this is rare. Do keep in mind that casein is dairy-derived, so it’s best to avoid it if you’re lactose intolerant.
What is Beta-Alanine?
Beta alanine is an amino acid that is commonly used in the fitness community. Like many amino acids, Beta-alanine is helpful both during and after workouts. During workouts, it may help to increase physical endurance and in turn improve the quality of your workout. It may also help to prevent lactic acid buildup in the muscles, which is part of the reason why it helps endurance, but also one of the reasons why it can help to assist post-workout muscle soreness. Beta-Alanine is not a name you hear thrown around as much as something like creatine or whey protein, but regardless, it’s one of the best supplements to help you increase muscle mass.
How Beta-Alanine May Help Build Muscle
As mentioned, Beta-alanine is unique in that it helps during and after workouts. It’s primarily used by athletes as a way to extend endurance, thereby leading to better workouts and better results.
Like most good supplements for building muscle, Beta-alanine offers an impressive list of benefits! And although you may already be consuming some Beta-alanine (it’s commonly used in pre-workout supplements and some other fitness products), this amino acid is worth considering on its own!
How to Take Beta-Alanine
It’s best to use whatever the manufacturer recommends. You’ll definitely want to consider taking a dose before heading to the gym and/or while you’re working out.
Beta-Alanine Side Effects
Beta-alanine commonly causes a very strange side effect. Basically, it makes your skin tingle. Beta-alanine essentially stimulates nerves that rest immediately under your skin, and causes a tingling sensation. It also tends to stop happening once your body gets used to the supplement and may happen if you take larger than recommend doses. It’s best to speak with your doctor about beta-alanine before taking it.
What are BCAAs?
BCAAs, formally known as branched chain amino acids, are a specific class of amino acids. The class consists of leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These three aminos are known for their benefits for athletes. They may help to extend endurance, improve physical performance, and promote post-workout recovery; essentially, they help improve the entire exercise experience! And although all three of the BCAAs are included in protein powders (as well as protein-rich foods), having these three aminos isolated provides a concentrated dose of the most important amino acids for muscle growth.
How BCAAs Help Build Muscle
Amino acids, including the three BCAAs, are usually gained via protein-rich foods. However, in supplement form, BCAAs are concentrated, fast-digesting, and convenient. There are some big differences between BCAA supplements and normal protein powders. BCAAs provide a fast-digesting dose of the most key aminos, without excess calories, sweeteners, etc. The serving size is also quite small, so it’s really easy to take a BCAA supplement at any time of the day, without having to make a protein shake.
How to Take BCAAs
BCAAs are best taken during or immediately following your exercise session. They are available in powder form, and also in capsule form. Choose whatever is most convenient for you, but keep in mind that the powders provide more flexibility in dosage size.
BCAAs Side Effects
BCAAs can sometimes cause side effects. Some folks have reported stomach upset, dizziness and loss of coordination.
What is Fish Oil?
Fish oil is a very popular health supplement for lots of groups of people. Its benefits extend far beyond building muscle, but it’s still one of the most effective supplements for gaining muscle. Fish oil comes from the natural oils of certain types of fish, and is extracted by supplement manufacturers for its beneficial properties. Mainly, fish oil is known as a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are some of the “healthy fats” that offer tremendous benefits. There are certainly other sources of omega-3s, but fish oil is one of the best, most affordable, and most accessible.
How Fish Oil May Help Build Muscle
While you may be under the impression that fats are bad, that is simply not true. Some fats, including omega-3s, are not only healthy but are actually essential for good health. We obtain omega 3 fats from our diet, but we often don’t get enough. And since these fats offer many positive health benefits, many of us can benefit from adding fish oil supplements to our diets.
How to Take Fish Oil
Fish oil is quite easy to take because it comes in capsules. Simply follow the dosing instructions, and take a serving with a glass of water. It’s also best to take with meals, but this is not strictly required. You can take it at any time of the day, but it may be most effective after your workouts.
Fish Oil Side Effects
Fish oil side effects are typically quite mild, and most people don’t notice any at all. The most common complaints include stomach upset and a fishy aftertaste in the mouth. Both of these potential effects can be minimized by taking your dose with a meal.
What are Weight Gainers?
They are called weight gainers, but these supplements are all about cultivating mass. One could argue that donuts are also “weight gainers”, but as you likely know, there’s a big difference between gaining muscle vs. gaining fat. With that said, to really bulk up, athletes often need a ton of calories and nutrients. This is where weight gainers come in, and why we consider them to be good supplements for muscle building.
How Weight Gainers Help Build Muscle
Particularly for strength athletes such as bodybuilders, a ton of nutrients, protein and calories are needed. The average bodybuilder needs significantly more nutrients on a daily basis compared to the average sedentary individual. And in our busy lives, it can sometimes be difficult to hit those nutritional goals. Weight gainers can help by providing a large dose of calories, protein, carbohydrates and other nutrients, in an easy package.
A typical serving of a good weight gainer will include 800+ calories, 50+ grams of protein, and often added benefits such as omega-3’s, BCAAs, and more. They are often about the equivalent of a large meal, in terms of macronutrient content. And they often are enriched with creatine, additional amino acids, etc. for even better benefits!
How to Take Weight Gainers
Weight gainers can be taken at various times throughout the day. You can use them in between meals, or as a post-workout recovery shake. Keep in mind that the serving sizes on these products are typically fairly large, so you’ll have to drink a pretty sizable shake. You should also drink plenty of water while using these products.
Weight Gainer Side Effects
The ingredient profiles of these supplements can vary from product to product, and therefore the side effects may also vary. With that said, the most commonly reported side effects include bloating and/or stomach discomfort. If you find you experience any of these stomach related side effects, consider taking a partial dose instead of a full one.
What is L-Glutamine?
L-Glutamine is a common amino acid that is an important component of many biological processes within the body. In fact, it’s the most abundant amino acid in the human body! The majority of it is stored in our muscle tissues, where it assists with maintaining muscular health and repairing damaged tissues. Normally, the body can make enough glutamine to sustain itself, but when the body is subjected to stress (i.e. an intense workout), glutamine stores are sometimes depleted.
How L-Glutamine May Help Build Muscle
Primarily, you can think of L-Glutamine as a recovery supplement. However, like many of the best muscle gain supplements on this list, L-Glutamine offers an array of useful effects. Glutamine is key to proper post-workout recovery and muscle repair, and unfortunately when you work out, much of your natural glutamine stores can sometimes be used up.
How to Take L-Glutamine
Since L-Glutamine is important for recovery, it’s best to take it immediately following your workouts. The sooner, the better, so try to take your dose as soon as you get home. This will kick start the recovery process. It also may be helpful to take during workouts to help lactic acid buildup, although there are not enough credible studies to fully support this theory.
L-Glutamine Side Effects
Some people report gastrointestinal issues such as gas, nausea, etc. Other side effects are possible, as well. Interestingly, if you are sensitive to MSG, you may want to avoid glutamine as the supplemental form can trigger reactions similar to an MSG reaction.
What are Pre-Workout Supplements?
Pre-workout supplements are a class of health products that are meant to boost your workout performance. They achieve this goal by using a balanced blend of a variety of ingredients. Each product varies, but typical ingredients include creatine, BCAAs, beta-alanine, etc. You’ll notice that all of these ingredients are actually individual entries in our list of the top supplements for building muscle. By combining many of the best individual supplements, pre-workout supplements give you a convenient and well-balanced way to help improve your workout performance, and thereby your results!
How Pre-Workout Supplements Help Build Muscle
The best way to build muscle is to workout. And the best way to workout is to ensure that you are fully prepared to give it your all and have a tough but successful exercise session. Pre-workout supplements help your body prepare for the best workout possible. Basically, pre-workout supplements aim to help you have a better workout. Better workouts lead to better muscle gains. These supplements won’t do the work for you, but they’ll help ensure you have the best workouts possible!
How to Take Pre-Workout Supplements
As the name suggests, you’ll want to take pre-workouts shortly before exercising. Typically 15-30 minutes before you hit the gym is the optimal time to take your dose. That gives a bit of time for the effects to kick in. Don’t take pre-workouts in the evening, as they generally contain large amounts of caffeine which can make getting to sleep difficult.
Pre-workouts are generally sold in powder form, so they need to be mixed into water. Be sure to choose a flavor that you think you’ll like, so you’ll actually want to take the supplement!
Pre-Workout Supplement Side Effects
Because these products contain a wide range of ingredients, there are a number of different potential side effects. Most contain caffeine, which can cause some side effects such as jitteriness, trouble sleeping, etc. Most also contain creatine, which can cause bloating, and beta-alanine, which can cause a slight tingling sensation. Other side effects are possible.