I remember it like it was yesterday—waking up Christmas morning and unwrapping a Hulkamania Workout Set. Blue five-pound dumbbells, a poster, jump rope, grip-strength handle, headband, and wristbands. Like many other kids my age, I followed along with those workouts religiously, in addition to saying my prayers and eating my vitamins, just like Hogan preached. But I never quite grew the 24” pythons Hogan promised. (Maybe I didn’t quite say the right prayers or have the right vitamins?)
Fast forward many years. Vitamins—and their umbrella category “supplements”—have certainly changed. Tons of scientific research has emerged since those Hulkamania days. And I’m a registered dietitian now, so I’m well aware of all that research and the supplements on the market that actually work because they’re backed up by some of that research.
But, let’s first discuss what it takes to build muscle and how much you can expect supplements to help with that growth.
First, building muscle isn’t easy, doesn’t happen overnight, and actually happens more with proper rest and recovery.
Second, “According to a 2017 meta-analysis and general anecdotal evidence working with athletes, the average amount of lean mass a typical man can gain is 1 to 2.5 pounds per month” says Marie Spano, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.C.S., C.S.S.D., author of Nutrition for Sport, Exercise, and Health and MLB Consultant. “Novices and those who are underfed at the start of training can increase their intake of calories and protein may be on the higher end of this scale.”
This said, let’s look at the supplements that have potential to improve your gains, assuming all other factors like overall nutrition, sleep, recovery, training programming, and the like are well controlled.
And all my picks are either Informed Choice, NSF Certified or USP Certified, assuring the quality of the ingredients within the products and that they’re free from any contaminants.
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Whey Protein Isolate, Unflavored
Exercise breaks down muscle. Protein is needed for repair and recovery. Whey protein is absorbed quickly, is high in leucine, an amino acid that’s necessary for growth, is accessible, affordable and is most rapidly absorbed.
Micellar Casein, Unflavored
Dairy protein is made up of two types: whey and casein. Whey is more quickly absorbed, while casein is more slowly absorbed. But both have merit in terms of recovery and potentially muscle growth.
A 2020 study published the journal Physical Activity and Nutrition examined the data around pre-sleep casein protein effects on post-exercise recovery and concluded that studies have shown that pre-sleep casein protein (40 to 48 grams, 30 minutes before bed) could help post-exercise recovery and positive affect acute protein metabolism and performance.
Almond Protein Powder
Sometimes you just don’t want a dairy-based protein. Enter, almond protein.
So this one isn’t actually a supplement, but rather a food made from a single ingredient, blanched almonds. Each serving packs 20g of plant-powered protein, with the bonus of being rich in calcium and fiber to help fuel your hard-working muscles. Bonus, it’s versatile and isn’t just good for smoothies, but I just used some in banana bread, it works well with oats and, yes, smoothies too.
While not usually thought of for its contributions to muscle, some data certainly supports Beta Alanine as a muscle-building supplement.
One 2018 study published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition provided subjects with 6.4 grams/day of beta-alanine (divided as 8 X 800 mg doses, 1.5 hours apart). After a specific exercise protocol, the researchers found that supplementation was effective at increase power output.
More power output can ultimately lead to more gains.Notice the divided doses; one side effect of beta-alanine supplementation can be tingling in the extremities, but dividing doses can minimize that side effect.
Many supplements often come in with hurricane force winds, full of promise and gusto. And they go out just as quickly as the results rarely match the marketing hype. Creatine is an exception.
With over 25 years of research support, creatine helps regenerate ATP (the “energy currency” of the body) helping with recovery, size and strength. Eric Rawson, Ph.D., Professor at Messiah College, is a creatine OG, researching the supplement in the early 2000’s as a doctoral student at UMASS when I was working my M.S.
He adds “Once muscle creatine is increased, the performance of brief, high-intensity exercise can be improved. As an example, a soccer player on a breakaway would have more fuel in their muscles to sprint past the defense. Also, resistance training is a form of brief, intense exercise, so performance is improved in the weight room as well. In this way, creatine monohydrate supplements are a dual threat; improved sport performance and also enhanced strength and conditioning workouts leading to better training adaptations and has been shown to be effective in all populations, regardless of age or gender.”
Ultimate Omega-D3 Sport
This one may come as a surprise. Omega-3 fats are widely researched and noted for their heart and brain health benefits. But a 2017 research study also found fish oil supplementation may alleviate delayed onset muscle soreness after resistance training. While this study used a relatively high dose (6 grams daily), others have found similar benefits with lower, 3 gram doses.
Vitamin D3 2000 IU (50 mcg) Softgels
Like fish oil, vitamin D may come as a surprise. Not many jacked up bros flexing with their bottle of vitamin D. But insufficiency is common, particularly in the winter months for those north of Atlanta where the sun isn’t quite as strong or you won’t be outside with exposed skin as often.
Vitamin D concentrations play a role in so many of the bodies systems, including skeletal muscle strength and function. This known connection led to the idea that increased serum vitamin D concentrations could be a complementary approach to enhance strength following exercise.
Subjects in a 2013 study were randomly assigned to 4,000 IU’s vitamin D and the researchers found this supplemental dose attenuated blood markers as a result of muscle damage and enhanced recovery overall. Most experts agree optimal serum levels should be between 40-80 ng/mL, so ask to have your levels tested the next time you have bloodwork taken.
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