If you want to know which muscle building supplements work and which don’t (and why), then you want to read this article.
I’ve tried a lot of supplements in my 13 years in the gym.
Protein supplements, pre-workout supplements, fat loss supplements, and, of course, muscle building supplements.
You see, I used to think that supplementation is far more important than it really is.
I naively bought into the myth that supplement companies were on the cutting edge of science.
That they were in the business of selling legitimate products that delivered tangible benefits.
Well, I’ve since pulled the wool from my eyes.
And here’s what I’ve learned:
The vast majority of workout supplements–and especially those that claim to aid in muscle growth–do absolutely nothing.
Scientifically speaking, they’re just overpriced placebos.
That said, not all supplements–including muscle building products–are worthless.
There are natural substances that are scientifically proven to help you build muscle, lose fat, and stay healthy…if they’re used properly.
And in this article, I want to talk about “muscle builders” specifically.
I’ve wasted a small fortune on these types of supplements over the years, and I don’t want you to make the same mistake.
Instead, if you’re going to spend money on supplements, I want you to get your money’s worth.
So let’s start with debunking three of the most popular muscle building supplements out there…
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- The 3 Worst Muscle Building Supplements
- 1. Testosterone Boosters
- 2. Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
- 3. β-Hydroxy β-Methylbutyrate (HMB)
- The 3 Best Muscle Building Supplements
- 1. Protein Powder
- 2. Creatine
- 3. Beta-Alanine
- The Bottom Line on Muscle Building Supplements
Table of Contents
It’s easy to assume that a supplement is on everybody’s lips (literally) because it works.
Relying on crowd wisdom to make simple decisions like which supplements to buy isn’t as nonsensical as some people might think.
The problem, though, is crowd intelligence can be wildly wrong, and in the case of bodybuilding supplements, it often is.
Just because “everyone” seems to take a certain supplement doesn’t mean it’s effective.
The following three supplements are perfect examples of this.
Men everywhere are seeing a general decline in testosterone levels…and they’re worried.
Marketers have seized on this collective fear and flooded the shelves with products that claim to boost testosterone levels naturally.
Well, the promises made by these shitshoes are, shall we say, “economical with the truth.”
If we’re to believe half of the puffery, just a few pills per day will put us well on our way to becoming the type of chiseled alpha male that inspired Greek legends.
Well, all the chest-thumping hyperbole should be seen for what it is: a red flag.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of natural testosterone boosters do absolutely nothing to boost testosterone levels.
There are two major reasons for this…
1. They are often chock-full of ingredients scientifically proven to not work.
Three examples of ingredients found in most popular testosterone boosters are Tribulus terrestris, ZMA, and D-aspartic acid.
- Research clearly shows that Tribulus terrestris has no effect on testosterone levels, body composition, or exercise performance.
- ZMA is a combination of zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B6, and unless you’re quite deficient in zinc, it won’t increase your testosterone levels.
Many people actually do get too little zinc and magnesium in their diets, which is why I recommend supplementation (here’s what I take).
That said, it’s disingenuous to call zinc a “testosterone booster” because it only helps prevent the suppression of natural testosterone production due to malnutrition.
- D-aspartic acid may raise testosterone levels…a little…for a few weeks…
The supplement industry’s love affair with D-aspartic acid started with a study published in 2009 that found that it acid could increase testosterone levels in both humans and rats.
I won’t go into all the details here, but the long story short is this: D-aspartic acid’s testosterone effects are unreliable, mild, and temporary.
That is, it works in some people and doesn’t in others and when it does work, the effects aren’t profound and don’t last for long.
There are quite a few other ingredients found in many testosterone boosters that are equally underwhelming and ineffective, including:
- Saw palmetto
- Horny goat weed
- Eurycoma longifolia jack
- Holy basil
- Velvet antler
Some, like horny goat weed and eurycoma longifolia jack, lack credible, legitimate human research and others, like saw palmetto and velvet antler are proven to do absolutely nothing in terms of testosterone production.
2. Even if a natural testosterone booster worked, it wouldn’t help you build more muscle.
You may still be considering buying a testosterone booster on the off chance your body responds to it.
Well, if your goal is to build muscle faster, it’s not going to help. Period.
You see, the reality is this:
That is, if your testosterone levels are at the everyman’s normal and you increase them to a slightly higher normal, you may feel a little better and notice a bump in libido…but you’re not going to build muscle faster.
This isn’t just my opinion, either–it’s a scientific fact.
For example, research conducted by researchers at McMaster University investigated if the hormonal fluctuations seen during weightlifting affect muscle and strength gains.
The study’s subjects were young, resistance trained men following a standard “bodybuilding” diet, and they did 5 weightlifting workouts per week.
Significant (and significantly different) hormonal responses to exercise were seen, but after 12 weeks, no effects were seen in overall muscle or strength gains.
That is, the size of the hormonal responses seen in the guys varied widely but the guys with the largest hormonal responses didn’t on average gain more muscle or strength than the guys with smaller responses.
Another study worth reviewing was conducted by scientists at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.
In this experiment, researchers used drugs to artificially raise and lower the testosterone levels of 61 young, healthy men.
After 20 weeks, scientists found that the higher the subjects’ testosterone levels were, the stronger their legs were…but these effects weren’t significant until testosterone levels exceeded the top of the natural range by about 20 to 30% (about 1,200 ng/dL).
(And the only way to get that high is with exogenous testosterone.)
Now, the subjects weren’t exercising so the strength and power gains would have been higher if subjects had been weightlifting, but it’s telling nonetheless.
And just to fully put this matter to bed, let’s look at a review of steroid research.
Scientists at Maastricht University conducted an extensive review of studies related to the use of anabolic steroids and found the following:
- People weightlifting and using steroids gained between 4.5 and 11 pounds of muscle over the short term (less than 10 weeks).
- The fastest muscle gain seen was 15.5 pounds over the course of 6 weeks.
This shows us is even when you skyrocket your testosterone to levels exponentially higher than any natural testosterone booster could accomplish, you don’t necessarily gain “shocking” amounts of muscle.
What does that say about natural testosterone supplements, then?
So, all this is why I believe testosterone boosters are a waste of money, and why I don’t sell one myself.
Unfortunately, there just aren’t any (natural) quick fixes for increasing testosterone.
High testosterone levels are something you have to earn through consistent healthy living.
So, if you want to increase your testosterone levels, here’s what you can do:
- Eat enough calories.
- Eat plenty of nutritious foods.
- Balance your macronutrients properly.
- Stay lean.
- Supplement with a well-formulated multivitamin.
- Lift weights regularly.
- Don’t do too much cardio.
You can learn more about this here.
Every gym has at least a few grim-faced, hoodie-wearing bodybuilder types that carry a jug of pink liquid with them at all times.
No, it’s not steroids, it’s usually BCAAs–one of the most popular…and overrated…supplements out there.
Branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs for short, are a group of three amino acids that your body must get from your diet (also known as essential amino acids):
For our part, leucine is the star of the trio as it directly stimulates protein synthesis via the activation of an enzyme responsible for cell growth known as the mammalian target of rapamycin, or mTOR.
Valine doesn’t seem to do much of anything for muscle tissue when compared to leucine and isoleucine.
You find high amounts of these amino acids in quality proteins such as meat, eggs and dairy products, with whey protein isolate being particularly abundant in them.
Now, BCAAs aren’t as popular as they are because they work wonders in the body–they’re popular because they’re very easy to sell.
An argument could be made for why athletes training several hours per day can benefit from BCAA supplementation, but for the rest of us, it’s far more sizzle than steak.
We can get all the branched-chain amino acids we need to recover and build muscle from food. In fact, there’s research that suggests this is more effective than BCAA supplementation.
There is one situation where BCAA supplementation makes sense, however: fasted exercise.
Most people think fasted exercise is simply “exercising on an empty stomach,” but there’s a bit more to it than that.
Fasted exercise is exercise done while in a “fasted” state, which has to do with insulin levels in your blood, not how empty or full your stomach feels.
Specifically, your body is in a fasted state when it is no longer absorbing nutrients from your last meal and insulin levels are at a low “baseline” level.
You see, when you eat food, your pancreas releases insulin into your bloodstream and its job is to shuttle nutrients into cells.
While this is happening, your body is in a “postprandial” or “fed” state (prandial means “during or relating to food”), and it can remain in this state for anywhere from an hour to 6+ hours depending on the size and composition of the meal.
The bottom line is fasted training isn’t necessary for losing fat but it can speed up the process (and especially when combined with proper supplementation).
It does have one key drawback, however: accelerated muscle loss. That is, your body breaks down muscle tissue faster when training in a fasted state.
This is where BCAAs can help because the amino acid leucine suppresses muscle breakdown, which means it can counteract the increase in muscle degradation that comes with fasted exercise.
Leucine (and BCAAs) also have a much smaller insulin response than food, which means you’re able to eat it and remain in a fasted state.
Now, BCAAs get the job done as a “muscle preserver,” but I’ve always disliked two things about them:
1. You’re paying for three amino acids but leucine is the only one that is truly useful.
(And you can buy pure leucine instead but it tastes really bad.)
2. Having to take ~10 grams of BCAAs before each fasted training session means you burn through bottles fairly quickly.
You need to provide your body with about 3 grams of leucine, which requires about 10 grams of BCAAs. This gets expensive.
The reality is BCAAs just don’t deliver much bang for your buck.
Fortunately, however, there’s a molecule that does BCAA’s job even better: β-Hydroxy β-Methylbutyrate (HMB).
HMB is one of the chemicals that leucine breaks down into in the body and research shows it’s an extremely effective anti-catabolic agent. In fact, it’s about 20 times more anti-catabolic than leucine itself.
This makes HMB ideal for use with fasted training because it’s not only negates muscle breakdown but it also has no effect on insulin levels, which means you remain in a true, fully fasted state.
You can buy HMB on its own and take 2 to 3 grams before training, but you can also find it in my pre-workout fat burner FORGE, which was created specifically to accelerate fat loss and preserve muscle while training in a fasted state.
Wait…I just recommended HMB and sell it, and now I’m saying it sucks?
Well it does suck…as a muscle builder.
You see, while HMB is powerfully anti-catabolic, it’s more often sold as powerfully anabolic, and that’s where things get frothy.
There are a few studies that seem to indicate it’s a potent muscle builder, but there’s a problem with this research:
- In some cases, the studies were conducted by Steven Nissen, the inventor of HMB and owner of the patent (conflict of interest much?).
- In others, the results are so outstanding that they can only be the result of shenanigans (I refuse to believe a study that “finds” that a natural supplement like HMB is more anabolic than steroids).
To get a gain a more holistic understanding of this molecule, you have to review the unbiased research as well, and the results are telling.
- A study conducted by scientists at Massey University with resistance trained men found that HMB supplementation improved lower-body strength but had negligible effects on body composition.
- A study conducted by scientists at the Singapore Sports Council, also with resistance-trained men, found that HMB supplementation had no effect on strength or body composition.
- A study conducted by scientists at the University of Memphis with resistance-trained men found that HMB supplementation did not affect training-induced changes in body composition and strength.
Researchers from Massey University also conducted a literature review on HMB supplementation and their conclusion was very simple:
“Supplementation with HMB during resistance training incurs small but clear overall and leg strength gains in previously untrained men, but effects in trained lifters are trivial. The HMB effect on body composition is inconsequential.”
So, if you’re going to train fasted, then HMB supplementation can help you, which is why I included it in my pre-workout fat burner FORGE, but it has little value outside of that.
Now that you’ve learned about what won’t help you build muscle faster, let’s talk about what will.
Keep in mind, though, that even the best muscle building supplements aren’t magical.
If you don’t know what you’re doing in the kitchen and in the gym, they’re not going to matter.
If you do, though, they can help you get more out of the time and effort you’re putting into building your dream body.
“If you want to build muscle faster, you should get some protein powder.”
That’s the first bit of supplement advice I ever got.
And it’s wrong.
Protein powder doesn’t directly help you build muscle faster.
Eating enough protein does, but you don’t need powders to get there. Whole foods alone can give you everything you need.
That said, relying solely on whole food protein can be easier said than done:
- It can make balancing your macronutrients tricky.
- It means more time spent shopping, prepping, cooking, cleaning up, etc.
- It often means lugging around pre-made meals, which is inconvenient.
- Eating large amounts of a small variety of high-protein foods can get pretty old pretty fast.
Enter the protein powder, which…
- Makes a fast and easy snack.
- Is often preferable to having to eat food.
- Can be very low in carbs and fat, which makes for more enjoyable meal plans.
- Is very affordable when you consider the price per gram of protein.
Thus, it’s no surprise that most people that are into working out buy and use protein powders.
For me, dieting is just more enjoyable with a protein powder, and that’s why I recommend and sell one.
At this point, you’re probably wondering what type of protein powder is best.
Whey isolate is a form of whey protein that’s processed to remove the fat and lactose, which means better digestibility and fewer upset stomachs.
Whey isolates are also 90%+ protein by weight, which means you know that you’re getting something very close to pure protein with minimal additives.
Yet another reason why I’m partial to whey protein is its rapid digestion and abundance of leucine make it an ideal choice for post-workout nutrition.
So, when it came time to create my own protein powder, I decided to go with 100% whey protein isolate.
It’s also 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate that is made from milk sourced from small dairy farms in Ireland, which are known for their exceptionally high-quality dairy.
Out of all the workout supplements on the market today, creatine stands out as one of the absolute best.
It’s the most well-researched molecule in all of sports nutrition–the subject of hundreds of scientific studies–and the benefits are clear:
- It helps you build muscle faster.
- It helps you get stronger faster.
- It improves anaerobic endurance.
- It improves muscle recovery.
And the best part is it does all these things naturally and safely.
What is it though and how does it work?
Well, creatine is a molecule produced in the body and found in foods like meat, eggs, and fish.
When you supplement with creatine, you increase your total body creatine stores, with most going to your muscle cells.
And what do you think happens when your muscle cells have significantly higher levels of readily available energy?
You got it: performance is enhanced.
That’s not the only way it helps you build muscle and strength, either.
Research shows that supplementing with creatine increases the water content in muscle cells.
Studies also suggest that creatine has anti-catabolic effects as well, which would further help with long-term muscle gain.
When it comes to improving body composition and workout performance, creatine is basically all pros and no cons.
You can find creatine in my post-workout supplement RECHARGE (along with two other ingredients that help with post-workout recovery):
Beta-alanine is a nonessential amino acid, which means it isn’t a necessary part of the human diet because our bodies can create it.
Your body combines beta-alanine with the essential amino acid L-histidine to form a molecule called carnosine, which is stored in your muscles and brain.
Carnosine is involved in a number of physiological processes in the body, with one of them being the regulation of acidity levels in your muscles.
You see, when a muscle contracts repeatedly, it becomes more and more acidic. This, in turn, impairs its ability to continue contracting, until eventually it can no longer contract at all.
Hence, beta-alanine is a popular ergogenic supplement because it causes additional carnosine to accumulate in the muscles.
Now, why not supplement with carnosine directly instead, you wonder?
Well, when carnosine is consumed, it doesn’t make its way to your muscles intact. It gets broken down into its constituent parts, beta-alanine and L-histidine, which then must be recombined back into carnosine.
Furthermore, our bodies have plenty of free L-histidine available to create carnosine. What they’re lacking is the extra beta-alanine needed.
That’s why we supplement with just beta-alanine and not carnosine or beta-alanine and L-histidine separately.
Now, beta-alanine’s major benefits lie in improving physical endurance and possibly body composition as well.
It’s also thought to have some health benefits but the studies are so preliminary at the moment that we’ll leave it as a passing thought.
In terms of improving endurance, beta-alanine is clearly beneficial but–like all supplements–isn’t a miracle molecule by any stretch of the imagination.
One rather impressive meta-analysis conducted in 2012 involved an in-depth review of 15 studies on beta-alanine as a performance enhancer.
Researchers found that beta-alanine supplementation resulted in a minor but statistically significant improvement in endurance (2.85%) when the exercise duration was between 60 and 240s (the duration you see in supersetting, Crossfit-style workouts, and the like).
And while beta-alanine tended to improve exercise lasting less than a minute or greater than three minutes in duration, the magnitude was very small and was not statistically significant.
That is, it’s not particularly helpful with relatively short or long bouts of exercise.
This is why many weightlifters take both beta-alanine and creatine, which notably improves performance in the sub-60-second realm and slightly improves performance in the 60-to-240-second realm.
In this way, they’re “covered” for everything they’re going to be doing in the weight room.
There’s also evidence that ingesting caffeine with creatine may interfere with its effects. (That’s why I decided to “play it safe” and include creatine in my post-workout supplement, not our pre-workout.)
As for beta-alanine and muscle growth there are a few studies that note that even when performance between groups is controlled for (ie. same amount of work done for each group), it’s associated with more muscle growth.
This effect doesn’t appear to be merely a byproduct of improved workout performance, either.
We don’t know exactly why just yet, but beta-alanine supplementation appears to directly (albeit slightly) augment muscle growth.
You can buy beta-alanine on its own and take 4 to 5 grams per day, but you can also find it in my pre-workout supplement PULSE, which also contains clinically effective dosages of 5 other ingredients proven to increase performance.
You should be skeptical of all supplements that claim to help you build muscle faster.
Most do nothing, some are dangerous, and even those that work don’t work as well as many marketers would have you believe.
The reality is this:
That said, if you understand this and have realistic expectations, the right supplements can help.
And as you now know, my three favorite “muscle builders” are whey protein isolate, creatine, and beta-alanine.
Use them properly and you will make faster progress in the gym.