With so many muscle-building supplements out there, it can be tough to know what's real and what's a money grab. Some companies brand their products as bodybuilding supplements, weightlifting supplements, or something similar, but they all refer to the same core products. In this article, I'll walk you through what supplements you should take and why.
Common Muscle-Building Supplements
When lifters discuss supplements for muscle growth, there are three that virtually everyone takes:
- Protein Powder
- Creatine Monohydrate
Other lifting supplements include mass gainers, BCAAs, and individual ingredients like caffeine, beta alanine and citrulline malate. But are all of these necessary?
Do You Need to Take Supplements to Gain Muscle?
When considering which supplements to take, first remember what the word "supplement" actually means.
Merriam Webster defines supplement as, "Something that completes or makes an addition." When it comes to gaining muscle, supplements are completing or adding to what you consume in a day. They're supplementing your diet.
Point being, supplements aren't necessarily a need. Additionally, if your diet is complete garbage, then supplements won't do a whole lot for you.
Do I Need to Take Protein Powder?
Protein powder is the most common supplement among weightlifters and strength athletes, but do you actually need it? The simple answer is no.
There's no magic in protein powder. It should be viewed as a supplement to your diet. If you're not eating enough protein in a day, then protein powder can be used to complete your recommended protein intake.
With that said, protein powder is pretty cheap and a great tool for bodybuilding on a budget. This leads to another basic question...
How Much Protein Should I Take?
For men, multiply your bodyweight by 0.8 to 1.2. For women, multiply your bodyweight by 0.6 to 0.8. This is roughly how many grams of protein you should consume per day. As mentioned in my article on IIFYM, you won't gain much by ingesting more protein beyond these levels unless you're taking performance-enhancing drugs.
What's the Best Type of Protein Powder?
Whey protein is generally considered the "best" type of protein powder. Whey protein is a milk-based product and has a few key advantages:
"Whey has probably the best profile in terms of bioavailability and leucine content, and there is strong evidence that leucine is the only amino acid that can independently stimulate protein synthesis." - Dr. Layne Norton
Whey vs Other Protein
- Casein is another milk-based protein powder. Supplement companies sell the line that it has a slower absorption rate, making it better in certain wheys (excuse my terrible pun). Generally speaking, whey protein is a better choice for muscle growth, but some point to the satiating effects of casein.
- Plant-based proteins, such as from wheat and soy, are options for vegans or others with dietary restrictions. These proteins don't have as good of amino acid profiles, so they're likely not as good in terms of building muscle if taken in the same amounts.
Which Creatine Should I Take?
Creatine monohydrate has been widely used for years, has been studied extensively, and shows verifiable benefits. While other forms of creatine have benefits, there's little evidence to suggest that they're superior to creatine monohydrate.
To learn more about different types of creatine, Nick Coker compares creatine monohydrate, buffered creatine: kre-alkalyn, creatine hydrochloride (HCL), and creatine nitrate.
What is Creatine?
Creatine, like many other supplements, is a combination of amino acids. It's naturally occurring in certain types of meat, and is extraordinarily safe to take.
What Does Creatine Do?
On a basic level, creatine hydrates muscle cells. It's proven to help build muscle strength and size, and there's also evidence that it improves brain performance and bone mineral density.
How to Creatine Load
To load creatine, the general recommendation is to take 20g each day for a week, then switch to the usual 5g dose. This method is not required, though, as you can take 5g of creatine per day with results occurring up to 4 weeks later. The idea of loading creatine stems from the fact that the benefits of creatine take time to come into play.
What's the Best Pre-Workout?
Determining the best pre-workout for your needs is subjective. If your goal is to run a marathon, you're going to leverage different products than somebody who's about to attempt a max deadlift. Your caffeine tolerance will also play a role in which pre-workout may or may not be effective.
To manage your caffeine tolerance, try taking less pre-workout on lighter days and more on intense days.
With that said, there are a few things I look for when choosing a pre-workout.
Some companies hide their ingredients in the infamous "proprietary blend" bucket. For example, does the label have a specific line for caffeine anhydrous, or does it feature a "caffeine blend?"
Proprietary blends can help businesses protect their formulas, but they're a disservice to consumers. While not always done in a nefarious way, many of these supplement companies hide the specific amounts of important ingredients to add fillers and save on ingredient costs.
Best Pre-Workout Ingredients
There are four ingredients I look for in any good pre-workout:
|Citrulline malate (2:1 ratio)
|8g to 12g
|100mg to 300mg
In addition to proprietary blends, supplement companies will save on costs by providing less than a clinical dose of quality ingredients. Be sure to check the label of a pre-workout before purchasing.
Do BCAAs Work?
Do branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) work? It depends on how you define "work." In terms of making it easier to build muscle, not really. BCAAs are most often credited with reducing soreness and improving recovery, but you don't need them.
If it fits your micros? A lot of people overdo their vitamin intake, especially in the lifting community. For perspective, I take a daily multivitamin for men and sometimes additional vitamin D3 if I've been inside a lot. That's it. Slamming a ton of extra vitamins usually does more harm than good, so don't be stupid. You'll get the vast majority of what you need through your food and a normal multivitamin.
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