If you want to know what the best (and worst) supplements are for speeding up muscle recovery so you can train harder and get back in the gym faster, then you want to read this article.
- Muscle recovery refers to the time after one workout where our bodies rest up in preparation for the next workout, hopefully being at full capacity when it comes time.
- Many times, when looking at muscle recovery, antioxidants and anti-inflammatories are used despite the fact they may reduce muscle damage (and thus growth) as a potential side-effect. This is like shooting yourself in the foot.
- If you want to improve muscle recovery then opt for supplements that improve tissue growth like creatine and L-carnitine L-tartrate. If you need an anti-inflammatory then fish oil is a good starting point.
I must be cruel only to be kind (Hamlet Act 3, Scene 4, Line 181).
I doth quoted to my biceps as I pushed them through yet another dastardly round of curls. Nay, I know well the pain by which it causes you—I care not, however, you must grow, little ones.
Man, if muscles could speak they would hate us. Would probably start a revolution as well given how much we put them through on a daily basis. Alas, it is the price they pay for us to be strong. In order to grow we have to destroy and all that poetic Shakespearean nonsense.
In order to grow our muscles, we must damage them.
It just sucks when you damage them too much and can barely move or can’t lift the next time your workout comes along. Your muscles revolt despite being well fed and refuse to lift even more weights. One could call it poetic justice—I’d call it an inconvenience.
So what do we do in this instance? Take a rest day?
I’m sure some of you scoffed at the idea. Muscle soreness is not an injury, muscle soreness can be fought through, muscle soreness builds character!
It hurts though so, yeah, let’s make sure it doesn’t get out of control.
Let’s try and focus on good muscle recovery.
What Is Muscle Recovery?
Muscle recovery, in the context of this article, refers to the time between when you finish a workout and the time you start the next workout.
If this time is pleasant, not associated with excessive discomfort (at least beyond what’s expected), and by the time your next workout comes along you feel fresh as a daisy then you’ve experienced good muscle recovery.
If this time is associated with excessive fatigue, both physical and neurological, and your next scheduled workout feels like it started off on the wrong foot and you’re still “drained” from your previous workout, then you’ve experienced bad muscle recovery.
The majority of the time you have bad muscle recovery it’s due to:
- Working out too frequently, too hard, or a combination of the two.
- Inadequate calories or protein.
- Inadequate sleep, rest, and other restful lifestyle habits.
So generally, when you have consistently bad muscle recovery, the best thing to do is to simply reevaluate your workout and dietary regimen to see if there are any holes or glaring problems that can be fixed. It also pays to be realistic since you can’t proceed on your deadlift if you’re maxing it out three times a week (unless you got them sick newbie gains.)
And yes, muscle recovery is one of those realms where supplementation may provide only 10% of the overall benefits AT BEST. Lifestyle, nutrition, and not pushing yourself into overtraining win out almost all the time.
There are times, however, when it’s crunch time or you’re otherwise too belligerent to take a break and need to push through where you can opt for supplements.
What Are Muscle Recovery Supplements?
Muscle recovery supplements refer to anything that helps you recover from workout #1 in time for workout #2 so you can continually push yourself each and every workout.
Furthermore, things that can help your lifestyle in the downtime can also be classified as “recovery” supplements—not so much “muscle” recovery but nobody wants to be struck with permanent brain fog at all times outside the gym.
Right, so that seems kinda vague, can we narrow it down a bit?
Yup, generally speaking supplements that are called “muscle recovery supplements” can be classified into one of the following groups:
- Supplements that improve clearance of metabolites (lactic acid, ammonia, etc.) that, by being cleared, correlate with less muscle soreness.
- Supplements that are anti-inflammatories to help with excessive muscle soreness. Ideally ones that don’t impair muscle growth rates.
- Things that can help muscle cells consume nutrition better and, secondary to the nutrition provided, help them recover faster.
And finally, there’s a major caveat to the whole genre of muscle recovery:
Muscle damage, and the markers for muscle damage, are not conclusive to prove that something helps you recover. This is mostly because blocking muscle damage from occurring doesn’t help muscles recover.
We need damage to occur to grow muscle and, if we outright prevent this damage, then you can argue your muscles only got a partial workout since you prevented them from being damaged (and thus, repaired) to their fullest.
It’s vital to mention, however, that sometimes you have a workout more for the neural side of things—improving your skill in a lift or improving muscle recruitment (think plyometric workouts and stuff like box jumps) that the above doesn’t really refer to since the muscles aren’t the major target of the workout.
So, what options do we have?
Not much, but some, let’s investigate.
The 3 Best Muscle Recovery Supplements
However, there are still viable options to consider to enhance your post-workout food coma.
Let’s review each one.
Best Muscle Recovery Supplement #1
L-carnitine L-tartrate (LCLT) is one of 4 supplemental variants of L-carnitine supplementation.
The other forms are L-carnitine (basic form), acetyl-L-carnitine (ALCAR; cognitive form), and glycine propionyl-L-carnitine (GPLC; lower limb blood flow)—L-carnitine L-tartrate is the variant used mostly in sports science, commonly for muscle recovery and included in our post-workout supplement, Recharge.
You can refer to section 1.6 of Examine if you want more information on those other forms.
L-carnitine L-tartrate is said to work by cleaning the blood of various byproducts that come from muscle breakdown and exercise. This is most notably lactate (and lactic acid) but may also include high levels of oxidation from exercise and other indicators of muscle damage.
Practically speaking, it helps reduce muscle soreness after a workout compared to placebo.
It’s currently thought that this works by improving oxygen consumption of muscle tissue (note: not the same as delivering oxygen to the tissue) since the theory pertaining to substrate utilization (i.e. the percentage of energy taken from carbs or fat) fell through.
There might also be a “pseudo-hormonal” effect since one study noted increased androgen receptor quantity, despite L-carnitine L-tartrate not increasing testosterone itself, but that requires more evidence to be built upon before we can claim it’s a “testosterone synergist.”
Ultimately, L-carnitine L-tartrate is a pretty effective molecule overall for reducing muscle damage and one of the few that doesn’t actively impair the processes of muscle recovery—with theoretical reasons behind why it may in fact enhance recovery instead.
Best Muscle Recovery Supplement #2
Creatine doesn’t really come up in articles outside of exercise but, when the topic is helping you get gains, the king returns to contest the throne.
Creatine is able to reduce oxidative damage to DNA that occurs with exercise and, while it does reduce muscle damage, it isn’t really well understood how it does this—it’s even been subject to entire reviews on this topic and classical measures of muscle damage are not affected even when creatine improves strength.
Despite this, creatine helps prevent the buildup of muscle soreness and limits the reduction in range of motion when people do the same exercise each and every day. This “repeated bout effect,” where doing the same thing gradually hinders your ability to do the thing, is greatly helped with creatine supplementation.
In a world where muscle recovery agents tend to be potent anti-inflammatory agents, it’s nice to have an option that outright promotes muscle growth instead of being a risk to it.
Best Muscle Recovery Supplement #3
Despite mentioning that abusing fish oil is not a viable long-term plan, fish oil itself is still a viable supplement for muscle recovery.
This may either simply because, much like the sea, we are drowning in research on fish oil and have so many studies to delve through, or because despite being an anti-inflammatory it’s “natural” to our bodies and better handled by our cells over the long term than a synthetic compound, but I digress.
To start, fish oil is able to reduce the inflammation and muscle damage that comes from exercise and by doing so may reduce muscle soreness that would result after training.
It also boosts immunity after a workout, a time where the immune system is normally suppressed and some people are susceptible to sickness.
Additionally, fish oil supplementation may protect motor neurons after prolonged physical exercise (eccentric contractions in particular) which may underlie how it can preserve strength and range of motion after eccentric concentrations.
Unlike muscles, we don’t need to actively damage motor neurons in order to strengthen them, so this is pretty damn cool. Even creatine doesn’t do that.
The 3 Worst Muscle Recovery Supplements
It’s a bit hard to discuss things that are bad for muscle recovery so at the very least I included 2 things that are just said to help and really don’t.
This guy though, the first guy is just straight up bad for this purpose …
Worst Muscle Recovery Supplement #1
Arachidonic acid (AA) is not a popular supplement by any stretch of the imagination, due to a few problems, but it’s a very interesting supplement.
Just like how EPA and DHA, the fish oils, are the active and ultimate forms of omega-3 supplementation AA is the ultimate form of the omega-6 supplements—a very potent inflammatory agent that’s found naturally in high levels in peanuts.
Remember, however, that inflammation is closely related to muscle growth. AA had a spree as a muscle-enhancing supplement for a short time in the past and every now and then comes back up since, honestly, the theory behind it is pretty solid.
Only two problems?
The beneficial effects of fish oil could, in part, be negated if you pump your body full of AA and, I can personally attest to this, taking AA as a preworkout supplement makes you a crippled old man crying for Ibuprofen—the direct opposite of practical muscle recovery!
(At least it worked on increasing inflammation reliably. Can’t call it placebo when it damn near makes you bedridden after deadlift day.)
Uncertain if it helped me build muscle through, the soreness literally prevented me from working out as frequently as I wanted to so I discontinued usage. If you want to increase muscle recovery so you can ultimately grow more muscle try not to take things that impair the next day’s workout to such a degree.
Worst Muscle Recovery Supplement #2
I want to mention HMB specifically due to the studies on HMB free acid, a variant of HMB supplementation that I wrote about here and is the penultimate example of sketchy in my opinion.
If those studies are valid, which I personally do not lean towards, then it would be a great example of improved muscle recovery. That being said let’s, for curiosity’s sake, look at the evidence on HMB calcium salt—if the better form works stupendously then the lesser form should be halfway decent?
HMB calcium salt has failed to reduce muscle soreness and muscle damage previously and, when higher doses are used, we might see a small decrease in creatine kinase (a biomarker for muscle damage) compared to placebo.
But if the biomarker for reduced muscle damage doesn’t come alongside practical measurements like improved range of motion (which HMB fails to improve) then it’s hard to use that as conclusive evidence that HMB is effective for muscle recovery—especially when the evidence is so flip-flippy.
So while the evidence on HMB free acid may make HMB seem like a great recovery agent there are reasons to be skeptical of this outright, let alone comparing it to the calcium salt form.
Worst Muscle Recovery Supplement #3
A bit of a general title, but many times antioxidants are recommended to recover from exercise.
This is likely due to how, when we investigate muscle damage, we look at various things in the blood that signify damage. These “biomarkers” correlate with damage and when we see more lactate, ammonia, and malondialdehyde (MDA) we tend to conclude that there is more muscle damage.
Cause cutting people’s biceps open for a biopsy each and every study is tedious and expensive.
However, MDA (a biomarker for oxidative damage, specifically cell membranes) measures many forms of oxidative damage and, by reducing it, we can’t easily conclude that your muscles are happy.
It may very well be a case of just “fudging the numbers” where the damage occurred, the result is hidden or sequestered, and we accidentally conclude that the reason for the result was changed.
To my knowledge, all antioxidants that “improve muscle recovery” either prevent the muscles from being damaged in the first place (which can be argued as a bad thing if that is our entire goal for exercising) or just clean up the results without affecting the process.
If something was to “stop oxidation” then it would be a negative process for muscle growth, and if an antioxidant did happen to help muscles grow it would be doing so via another function—cause many antioxidants do have other functions (like sulforaphane not just being an antioxidant but also an HDAC inhibitor.)
Ultimately, the word “antioxidant” alone is insufficient to claim improved muscle recovery.
The Bottom Line on Muscle Recovery
We want muscle damage to occur during exercise, but we also don’t want that muscle damage to prevent us from working out the next day.
Good nutrition, sleep, and knowing your limits is a vital first step in managing this delicate balance. If, for some reason, you need to opt for supplements then those that help your body manage nutrients and grow would be best.
Creatine is a clear winner here, nourishing muscle cells and causing them to grow, while L-carnitine L-tartrate seems to be a viable contender for improving energy consumption in a muscle cell. Pairing both of these with some nutritious calories in a post-workout meal is a great way to help recover faster.
And perhaps the powerlifters were right when they downed heaps of fish oil in order to push heavy weights each and every day, if it actually does help the motor neurons themselves.
If you want clinically effective doses of creatine and L-carnitine L-tartrate, along with corosolic acid to help carbohydrate digestion, then you want to try Recharge today.
P.S. Oh, and if you’re looking for a high-quality fish oil supplement, then you also want to check out Triton as well.