In recent years, gyms and health clubs have popped up all over the country and almost everyone seems to want a more muscular or toned figure. Catering to this niche, there has also been a massive rise in the number of bodybuilding supplements in the market.
From pre-workout and protein supplements to creatine, BCAAs and mass gainers, it’s quite overwhelming for most people to know which of these dietary supplements actually help boost their muscle gains.
Here is a closer look at the 7 supplements that are scientifically proven to make a genuine difference to your bodybuilding efforts. You can buy and use these supplements separately as needed. High-quality pre-workout supplements and mass gainers contain tested formulas that stack many of these ingredients.
Understanding the mechanism by which these ingredients increase muscle gain will help you choose the right ones for your specific requirements.
Creatine is a natural substance that is made by the human body in the liver, kidney, and pancreas. It gets converted to creatine phosphate or phosphocreatine and stored in the muscles. These are used in producing the extra energy needed to boost athletic performance.
Creatine is made up of three amino acids known as arginine, glycine, and methionine. Creatine is found abundantly in red meat and sea-food.
The Benefits of Creatine Supplementation
The role of creatine in delivering health benefits have been the subject of research and study for decades. Creatine works in many ways in our body and helps in building muscle and strength. Creatine supplement is commonly used for improving exercise performance and increasing muscle mass in athletes. Creatine supplementation results in the following benefits:
- It increases your muscle phosphocreatine level which aids in the formation of ATP, the key molecule that gives energy to your cells. Increased ATP results in increased energy production even during anaerobic exercise. Hence, creatine enhances performance in high-intensity training (1).
- It effectively leads to new muscle growth. It boosts the protein production that is responsible for the creation of new muscles.
- It raises the insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), which is a hormone that promotes muscle mass increase (2).
- It can also increase the water content of your muscle, known as cell volumization, which leads to a quick increase in muscle size (3).
- It aids muscle fiber growth.
- It improves high-intensity exercise performance by increasing strength, muscle endurance, recovery time, sprint ability, ballistic power, lowered muscle soreness (4).
- Improved blood flow during training (5), (6), (7).
Studies on Creatine For Muscle Gain
Study 1: A study conducted in the early 2000s presented the effects of a short period of creatine supplementation on muscle phosphocreatine and urine creatinine levels. Fifteen people were given 20g/day of creatine supplementation for 5 days. Eight were young people and seven were old (8).
At the end of the study, phosphocreatine among the young participants had increased significantly compared to the older subjects even in the post-supplementation period.
This resulted in better exercise performance at maximum intensity because of the increased ATP production.
Study 2: Another research investigated the outcome of 6 weeks of creatine supplements on forearm strength and body composition. 23 male volunteers who were divided into two groups and had the experience of at least 1-year weight training were given creatine and a placebo. 10 of them took creatine supplement and the rest had the placebo.
The creatine group consumed 5 grams of creatine monohydrate with a flavored sucrose drink, 4 times a day for 5 days. After 5 days it was reduced to 2 grams a day for the rest of the period. A 6-week training program continued during this experiment wherein the subjects underwent a resistant training program twice a week (9).
It was seen that the creatine supplementation led to higher arm muscle strength and fat-free mass than strength training without creatine (10).
The Recommended Dosage of Creatine: The most common way of taking creatine supplement is by ‘loading.’ Loading minimizes the time that is necessary to enjoy the results. It is 20 grams per day for 5-7 days. Later, it is usually 5 grams of creatine taken before and after a workout. That is the maintenance phase. The important point is to space it accordingly throughout the day.
Summary: Creatine provides the energy needed to increase energy and strength during high-intensity workouts. Its supplementation has proved to significantly increase phosphocreatine levels as well as improve body mass and fat-free mass. Health benefits with an intake of 3 grams a day have been well-researched (11).
Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid that is produced in the body. It is a popular supplement among fitness enthusiasts because of its ability to enhance performance. Along with histidine, beta-alanine is used in the production of carnosine. Carnosine is stored in the skeletal muscles and helps to raise performance at the time of exercise.
Carnosine acts as a buffer and reduces the lactic acid accumulation in the muscles during exercise resulting in improved performance.
Benefits of Beta-Alanine Supplementation
The increase in the carnosine level when supplemented with beta-alanine results in:
- Increased lean body mass and endurance (12)
- Along with creatine, enhanced performance and body composition (13, 14)
- Total training volume increase (15)
- The improved intensity in high-intensity training (16)
- Increased power in training (17)
- Delayed fatigue in strenuous short-bouts training (18)
Studies on Beta-alanine on Enhanced Performance
Study 1: A review that was presented in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition discussed the effects of Beta-alanine supplementation on exercise (19).
Beta-alanine produces carnosine which is instrumental in increasing physical performance during intense training. An increase in output during these sessions can also be seen with multiple bouts of high-intensity exercise as well as in single bouts.
The main reason for muscle fatigue is intramuscular acidosis. As we exercise, the energy that is needed is availed from glucose breakdown. This results in the production of lactic acid in the muscles, making them more acidic. Muscle acidity inhibits glucose breakdown and reduces the ability to muscle contract, resulting in fatigue. Carnosine serves as a buffer and reduces the acidity thereby enabling better performance.
Study 2: In the year 2015, the International Society of Sports Nutrition came to certain conclusions on the use of beta-alanine supplementation (20). It stated that 4 weeks (4 to 6 grams per day) supplementation of these amino acids notably provides carnosine acting as a pH guard.
At recommended doses the use of beta-alanine is safe. Beta-alanine has shown indications to reduce neuromuscular fatigue in older people (21).
The Recommended Dosage of Beta-Alanine: 4 to 6 grams of beta-alanine combined with multi-ingredient supplements may be beneficial when taken for a minimum of four weeks.
Summary: Beta-alanine boosts performance during intense training by producing carnosine. This acts as a buffer to the lactic acid produced reducing overall fatigue and improving muscle performance.
3. Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA)
BCAA contains three amino acids, namely, leucine, isoleucine, and valine. The body does not produce these amino acids and therefore they are considered essential for the body. Leucine is the key to muscle protein synthesis, and isoleucine brings about glucose absorption into cells.
People with low protein intake can benefit from BCAA supplementation. Over a period of time, it contributes to muscle growth especially for those who are beginners in athletics.
BCAAs are easily absorbed and elevate the plasma amino acid levels within minutes of consumption.
Benefits of BCAA’s:
The benefits of BCAA supplementation are:
- Decreased damage to muscles during recovery (22)
- Delays muscle damage during exercise (23)
- Reduced soreness of muscles (24)
- Improved levels of muscle protein synthesis (25)
- Enhanced endurance during exercise (26, 27)
Studies of BCAAs on Lean Body Mass
Study 1: A study was performed in 2017, to see whether BCAA ingestion stimulates muscle protein synthesis. Ten young resistance trained men completed two trials. They consumed either 5.6 grams of BCAAs or placebo drinks and were made to do resistance workout. The results showed that there was a 22 percent increase in muscle protein synthesis compared to the men who had a placebo drink (28).
Study 2: An earlier study conducted by the Department of Physical Education, Korea evaluated the effect of BCAAs supplementation on fatigue and muscle damage.
26 college-aged men were divided into two groups. One group was given 78 ml of BCAAs per kilogram of body weight before a bout of cycle exercise. Substances that indicate fatigue, energy metabolism, and muscle damage were measured at appropriate intervals.
It was observed that the intake of BCAA can lower substances of fatigue during endurance exercise thereby reducing the levels of muscle damage substances. This can enhance performance during training.
The Recommended Dosage of BCAAs: 3 to 6 grams before and during training will be effective. The ratio should be 2:1 of leucine to isoleucine and valine.
Summary: These above-mentioned outcomes indicated that BCAA supplements play an important role in increasing muscle synthesis. However, to do so maximally it needs other essential amino acids that are found in complete protein.
4. Protein Supplementation
Consuming more protein than that which is broken down in the body would help in gaining muscles. The anabolic process synthesizes complex molecules and develops muscle mass in the body.
Benefits of Protein Supplementation:
There is strong evidence that consuming proteins pre-and /or post-workout induces a substantial rise in muscle protein synthesis. It not only optimizes physical performance but positively influences the subsequent recovery process both for resistance training and endurance exercise. The benefits that we reap with protein supplementation are:
- It optimizes physical performance (29)
- Enhances muscle mass (30)
- Increases muscle mass as a post-workout supplement (31)
- Promotes muscle strength and size (32)
Studies of Protein Supplementation
Study 1: Resistance training is anabolic and promotes the process of skeletal muscle protein synthesis. In the absence of proper protein intake, the net protein balance (NPB) in the body remains negative after resistance training.
To make NPB into a positive value more protein has to be ingested. A combination of resistance training and feeding will result in muscle size increase (33).
The feeding and exercise intervention on protein breakdown, synthesis and balance were studied. It further showed that milk protein had a greater impact on the muscle fiber.
Study 2: A 2018 examination of the effects of beef, chicken and whey protein on body composition and performance of muscles showed significant difference compared to control (34). It was a post-workout investigation. Over an 8-week period, forty-one men and women were grouped under the 4 diets of whey protein, chicken, beef and control protein diets.
Forty-six grams of protein or control were taken. It was observed that the measurement of lean body mass was remarkably higher in the protein group compared to the control group.
The Recommended Dosage of Protein: Protein intake of 1.6 grams per kg of body weight for lean muscle building can be taken for those who undertake intensive resistance training (35).
Summary: Resistance training and consumption of high-quality protein builds muscles. The experiments demonstrated that the intake of quality protein showed significant benefits to body composition. Protein reserves also demonstrated its potential in lean body mass development in the recovery period.
5. Beta-Hydroxy Beta-Methyl Butyrate (HMB)
HMB is naturally produced in the body when leucine is processed. Leucine is an amino acid and is one of the building blocks of protein. As a supplement, it is used in certain medical foods that promote healing and provide nutrients to those suffering from muscle wasting due to diseases such as cancer and AIDS.
HMB accomplishes these tasks by enhancing the production of protein and blocking protein breakdown in muscle tissue.
Benefits of HMB Supplementation
HMB supplementation benefits during exercise and training with weight. They help by:
- Decreasing inflammation (36)
- Improving body composition (37)
- Reducing muscle damage (38)
- Improving lean body mass (39)
Studies on HMB supplementation
Study 1: An investigation in early 2000 was held to understand its effects along with resistance training (40).
39 men and 36 women in the age group of 20 to 40 years were either given a placebo or 3 grams of HMB supplements each day for four weeks. They undertook resistance training 3 times a week.
There was a noteworthy increase in upper body strength than the placebo group with an increase in fat-free weight compared to the other group. Thus it was confirmed that HMB supports upper body strength and may aid in lessening the damage to muscles during exercise.
Study 2: In 2013 the ‘International Society of Sports Nutrition’ published its stand on the use of HMB as a nutritional supplement. It was stated that it reduces the damage to skeletal muscles among trained and untrained people (41).
The Recommended Dosage of HMB: One gram of HMB can be consumed three times a day or 38 milligrams per kg of body weight. More studies are required to establish the right amounts and frequency for athletes.
Summary: HMB has shown to enhance strength and body composition. It may support in lowering muscle damage during rigorous training. It is known to maintain lean body mass among the elderly and those who do not follow an active lifestyle.
Citrulline was first found in watermelon. It is an amino acid that is produced naturally in your body. Increased levels of foods or supplements with this protein, may be beneficial for exercise performance. It may also aid in raising the supply of ingredients necessary to make certain proteins. Citrulline supplementation has two forms mainly L-Citrulline and Citrulline malate.
Benefits of Citrulline
The benefits of Citrulline supplementation are:
- Stimulate protein synthesis that builds muscles (42)
- Improve exercise performance (43)
- Improve blood pressure and oxygen uptake during exercise (44)
- Provide relief from muscle soreness (45)
- Helps widen your blood vessels, both arteries, and veins (46)
Studies on L-Citrulline Supplementation
Study 1: A 2010 study was taken up to evaluate the effects of a single dose of citrulline malate. It was also conducted to determine if it affected muscle soreness after the training (47).
41 men performed the exercise where 8 grams of citrulline malate was taken by one group and placebo by the other. It was observed that there was a significant decrease of 40 percent in muscle soreness, among those who took the citrulline malate supplement.
Study 2: An investigative study that was published in February 2020 showed that citrulline malate improved vasodilation, which is a widening of blood vessels that results in lowering blood pressure (48).
The study involved active men and women who took part in 3 experiments. The participants ingested one clinical dose of 8 grams of citrulline malate. The results showed a 34% improved vasodilation when compared to a placebo.
The increase of blood flow leads to skeletal muscles receiving higher amounts of blood that eventually results in improved exercise performance.
The Recommended Dosage of Citrulline: The short-term dosage of citrulline is considered safe. An oral dose of a maximum of 15 grams of citrulline had no side effects (49).
Summary: Citrulline may improve blood flow causing improved performance during exercise. The supplementation of even 15 grams has shown no adverse side effects. It contributes to protein synthesis and muscle recovery from soreness after intensive training.
Glutamine is an important amino acid and a critical part of the immune system. This amino acid is present in two forms, L-glutamine and D-glutamine in the body. L glutamine is more important among the two and plays an important role in the functions of the body.
It is conditionally essential, meaning at times the body requires more amounts of glutamine than the reserves can supply. When it cannot be derived from natural food sources, supplementation becomes important.
Benefits of Glutamine Supplementation
Studies on Glutamine Supplementation
Study 1: As a building block of protein, glutamine became a subject for research as a supplement for developing muscles. A study was conducted in 2015, to determine the effects of oral L-glutamine supplementation on the recovery of muscles and soreness after eccentric unilateral knee extension exercise.
16 healthy subjects took either a placebo (0.6 gram/ kg body weight of maltodextrin for every kg of body weight once a day) or L-glutamine (0.3 grams /kg of body weight and 0.3 grams/kg of body weight maltodextrin) once per day over a 72 hour period (52). It was observed that L-glutamine reduces muscle soreness as well as the decreased recovery period. It was also contemplated that muscle force recovery from L-glutamine, may be greater in men than women.
Study 2: The risk of infection in athletes who undertake rigorous training is prevalent. The immune system does not appear to defend the body in this state (53). Plasma glutamine is an important fuel in cells to strengthen immunity.
In an earlier study, the levels of infection were evaluated in 200 athletes after an endurance exercise. The participants took either glutamine or a placebo drink immediately and after two hours of exercise. Questionnaires were answered in the following seven days.
It was noted that more participants who had taken the glutamine drink reported no or less infections as compared to the ones who took placebo.
The Recommended Dosage of Glutamine: The observed safety level for glutamine is 14 grams per day.
Summary: L-glutamine supports recovery and reduces muscle soreness in high-intensity training. However, more studies are needed to augment their supplementation requirement (54).
Side Effects of Supplements for Muscle Gain
Taking excessive amounts of these supplements will certainly cause a lot of discomfort. It is critical that you follow instructions given on the label of the supplemental package or as directed by your physician. Most of the side effects are mild and can be easily avoided.
Beta-alanine overdose can cause a tingling sensation (paraesthesia) that occurs in the back of the hands, face and neck region. It can be avoided by reducing the dosage to 800 mg at a time (55).
The intake of branched-chain amino acids should be checked if you are engaging in motor coordination activities like driving. It may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach bloating.
Too much protein will get stored as fat that can lead to an increase in weight. People may experience lactose intolerance if they consume whey protein. Even trace amounts can cause reactions. As protein supplements sources are varied, they should avoid those containing lactose.
Citrulline taken in higher amounts may cause swelling, heartburn, stomach upset and cough. Studies on the long-term use of glutamine have still to be undertaken.
The Final Note
Supplements for muscle gain are required when the nutritional diet is insufficient to provide the advantage of building muscles. The absence of regular training may be the real reason behind the failed efforts to have a well-built body. The likelihood of underlying medical conditions cannot be ruled out.
A detailed consultation with a doctor will help in understanding your body better and its nutritional requirements. The nutritional gaps can be addressed by natural foods or supplements that contain the above muscle supporting nutrients.
Being consistent with the changes in diet and activity; allowing time for your body to adapt to the new regime will result in acquiring not only a muscled and toned body but also a robust one.