If you exercise regularly, you likely want to be sure you’re getting the most out of it. One important benefit of exercise is gaining muscle and strength. Having a healthy amount of muscle allows to you to perform your best during exercise and daily life. Three main criteria must be met for maximal muscle gain: eating more calories than you burn, consuming more protein than you break down and an exercise program that is challenging to your muscles.
While it’s possible to meet all these criteria without taking dietary supplements, certain supplements may help you meet your goals. The 6 supplements listed below may help you gain more muscle with your exercise program.
Creatine is a molecule that’s produced naturally in your body. It provides energy for your muscles and other tissues. However, taking it as a dietary supplement can increase muscle creatine content by up to 40% beyond its normal levels.
This affects your muscle cells and exercise performance, promoting muscle gain. In fact, a large amount of research shows creatine improves muscle strength. This is good news if you’re trying to gain muscle. Greater strength allows you to perform better during exercise, leading to larger increases in muscle mass over time. Creatine can also increase water content in your muscle cells. This may cause your muscle cells to swell slightly and produce signals for muscle growth.
Furthermore, this supplement may increase levels of the hormones involved in muscle growth, such as IGF-1. Moreover, some research shows that creatine could decrease the breakdown of proteins in your muscles. Overall, many researchers have studied creatine supplements and exercise, and one thing is clear — creatine can help increase muscle mass. Creatine has also been studied extensively and has an outstanding safety profile. If you are looking for a supplement to help you gain muscle, consider creatine first.
Summary: Creatine is probably the single best supplement for muscle gain. Many studies have confirmed that it can help increase muscle mass.
2. Protein Supplements
Getting enough protein is critical for gaining muscle. Specifically, to gain muscle, you need to consume more protein than your body breaks down through natural processes. While it’s possible to get all the protein you need from protein-rich foods, some people struggle to do so. If this sounds like you, you may want to consider taking a protein supplement.
There are many different protein supplements available, but some of the most popular are whey, casein and soy protein. Other protein supplements contain protein isolated from eggs, beef, chicken or other sources. Research shows that adding extra protein via supplements causes slightly more muscle gain in people who exercise than adding extra carbs. However, the effects are probably largest for people who aren’t getting enough protein in their normal diet.
In fact, some research shows that consuming very high amounts of protein supplements doesn’t help increase muscle if you are already following a high-protein diet. Many people wonder how much protein to eat daily. If you are an active individual trying to gain muscle, 0.5–0.9 grams of protein per pound (1.2–2.0 grams per kg) of body weight may be best.
Summary: Consuming enough protein is absolutely essential for optimal muscle gain. However, if you are getting enough protein in your diet, taking a protein supplement is unnecessary.
3. Weight Gainers
Weight gainers are supplements designed to conveniently help you get more calories and protein. They’re typically used by individuals who struggle to gain muscle. Some people find it hard to gain muscle, even when consuming large amounts of calories and lifting weights.
Although the calorie contents of weight gainer supplements vary, it’s not uncommon for them to contain over 1,000 calories per serving. Many people think these calories come from protein since it’s so important for muscle building. However, most of the calories actually come from carbs. There are often 75–300 grams of carbs and 20–60 grams of protein per serving of these high-calorie supplements.
While these products can help you consume more calories, it’s important to realize that there is nothing magical about weight gainer supplements. Some research in physically inactive adults has shown that drastically increasing calories can increase lean mass like muscle, as long as you eat enough protein.
However, research in adults who weight trained indicated that consuming a weight gainer supplement may not be effective for increasing lean mass. Overall, weight gainers are only recommended if you are struggling to eat enough food and you find it easier to drink a weight gainer shake than eat more real food.
Summary: Weight gainers are high-calorie products designed to help you consume more calories and protein. However, they are only recommended if you struggle to get enough calories from food.
Beta-alanine is an amino acid that reduces fatigue and may increase exercise performance. Additionally, beta-alanine may help increase muscle mass if you are following an exercise program. One study showed that taking 4 grams of beta-alanine per day for eight weeks increased lean body mass more than a placebo in college wrestlers and football players.
Another study reported that adding a beta-alanine supplement to a six-week, high-intensity interval training program increased lean body mass by about 1 pound (0.45 kg) more than a placebo. While more research on beta-alanine and muscle gain is needed, this supplement may help support muscle gain when combined with an exercise program.
Summary: Beta-alanine is an amino acid that can improve exercise performance. Some evidence shows that it may also help increase muscle mass in response to exercise, but more information is needed.
5. Branched-Chain Amino Acids
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) consist of three individual amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. They are found in most protein sources, particularly those of animal origin like meat, poultry, eggs, dairy and fish. BCAAs are critically important for muscle growth and make up about 14% of the amino acids in your muscles.
Just about everyone consumes BCAAs from food every day, but it’s also very popular to take BCAAs as a supplement.
A small amount of research has shown that BCAAs may improve muscle gain or reduce muscle loss, compared to a placebo. However, other research shows that BCAAs may not produce greater muscle gain in those following an exercise program.
It’s likely that BCAA supplements may only benefit you if you are not eating enough high-quality protein in your diet. Although they may be beneficial if your diet is inadequate, more information is needed before BCAAs are recommended as a go-to supplement for muscle gain.
Summary: Branched-chain amino acids are important for muscle growth. They are found in many foods, and it is unclear if taking them as a supplement is helpful when you already consume enough protein.
Beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate (HMB) is a molecule that’s produced when your body processes the amino acid leucine. HMB is responsible for some of the beneficial effects of protein and leucine in the diet. It may be especially important for reducing the breakdown of muscle proteins.
While HMB is produced naturally by your body, taking it as a supplement allows for higher levels and may benefit your muscles. Several studies in previously untrained adults have shown taking 3–6 grams of HMB per day can improve the gains in lean body mass from weight training.
However, other research shows that similar doses of HMB are probably not effective at increasing muscle mass in adults with weight training experience. This may mean that HMB is most effective for those who are getting started with exercise or increasing the intensity of their workouts.
Summary: HMB may help increase muscle mass in those who are beginning a weight training program, but it appears to be less effective for those with training experience.
Several other supplements claim to increase muscle mass. These include conjugated linoleic acid, glutamine and carnitine. However, the evidence is mixed.
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA): CLA refers to a group of omega-6 fatty acids that exert several effects on the body. Studies on CLA for muscle gain have produced mixed results, and it isn’t clear if it’s beneficial.
Glutamine and carnitine:These are probably not effective at increasing muscle mass in young or middle-aged active individuals. However, studies have shown carnitine can have some benefits for muscle mass in the elderly.
The Bottom Line
Supplements can’t provide you with maximal muscle gains if your nutrition and exercise programs are lacking. To gain muscle, you need to eat enough calories and protein, as well as exercise, ideally with weights. Once your nutrition and exercise regimens are in check, you may want to consider dietary supplements.
Creatine and protein supplements are likely the most effective choices for muscle gain, but other supplements may be beneficial for certain people.