You can curl, lift, and squat all day, but without the right nutrients, you’ll never build up the bulk all that hard work is intended for. Muscle needs a pool of specific amino acids and macronutrients to properly repair (read: come back bigger). Plus, certain molecules can help your muscles fight fatigue while helping you push through those last few reps that will make all the difference in the mirror. There are a lot of products and minerals that claim to help you build muscle—and science does show some of them will give you small gains. But we’re looking for the big guns—the supplements with the strongest science behind them on helping you build bulk. And if you think protein is all there is to getting chiseled, listen up: Here are the five most important supplements you should be taking to build muscle.
Don’t forget to also check out the best foods for bulking up without getting a fat belly.
Creatine is the LeBron James of supplements, says Rehan Jalali, certified sports nutritionist and President of the Supplement Research Foundation. “It’s the most research-proven sports supplement on the market today, with hundreds of clinical studies showing that it can enhance lean body mass, increase strength, enhance energy levels, and increase muscle size.” It works by helping produce energy for your muscle tissue to use to churn out those last few reps.
But while the research does show that creatine can help you lose fat (thereby showing off your muscles better), the level of bulk benefit varies greatly from person to person, says Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, C.S.C.S., Director of Performance Nutrition at Precision Nutrition. And an analysis of 22 creatine supplement studies in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research did indeed find results to be highly individualized. On average, though, the paper found that those who took creatine were 8% stronger on their max load and able to complete 14% more reps. By itself, the supplement isn’t going to cause you to pack on slabs of muscle, says St. Pierre. But when used with resistance training, it will probably help you shed fat and the increase in strength and power output can certainly help muscle growth.
Take the supplement after your workout rather than before, though. A study in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition found that men gained more strength, muscle mass, and lean mass when taking the supplement after the gym instead of before. Most research suggests you should take 20 to 30 grams per day for up to a week and then back off to 2 to 3 grams daily after that.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
BCAAs are beneficial not because they directly help your muscles build up, but because they reduce muscle damage after strength training and speed recovery, which means you can get back in the gym sooner, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. “This blend is made up of three of the most important amino acids needed to build and repair muscle tissue,” says Franci Cohen, personal trainer, certified nutritionist, exercise physiologist, and founder of Fuel Fitness in Brooklyn. Leucine alone can stimulate muscle protein synthesis, but combined with isoleucine and valine, BCAAs are a trifecta with endless muscle-building benefits. We’re talking more energy and muscular capacity during workouts, the stunting of cortisol (a hormone that degrades the muscles), less post-workout soreness, and increased muscle growth over time, Cohen explains. For best results, she suggests looking for BCAA products that offer leucine at a ratio of 2:1 per dose of isoleucine and valine.
Fish oil is one of the best supplements you can take for your general health, particularly because it helps lower inflammation. And when it comes to working out, less inflammation means faster muscle recovery, says Jalali. Plus, Omega-3 fatty acids help your muscles synthesize bulk-building protein better, according to a 2012 study in Clinical Science. Aim for 1 to 2 grams of a supplement with both EPA and DHA per day, suggests St. Pierre.
Whey and Casein Powder
Whey is by far one of the most optimal muscle-building supplements, Cohen raves. It has a higher leucine content—one of those BCAAs—than other types of protein powder, and since leucine is the key amino acid in activating muscle protein synthesis, whey has a slight advantage over other powders. But ingesting a blend of whey and casein post-workout is actually the most ideal, says Cohen. “Whey digests lightning fast, racing to your muscles to start building them up immediately. Plus, it contains small peptides that increase blood flow to the muscles,” she explains. Casein, on the other hand, has a very slow digestion rate so it extends the timeframe over which amino acids are released to your muscle tissue. Shoot for 20 grams of protein every three hours—a 2012 study in Nutrition & Metabolism found that your muscles will benefit most from this compared to less of the nutrient more frequently or more less often.
One of the best weapons against muscle fatigue is carnosine, a substance that is abundant in your muscles in order to help prevent acid build up. But your carnosine supply is limited to the pool of its root enzymes, amino acids l-histidine and beta-alanine. That means supplementing with beta-alanine helps replenish your stores of carnosine. In fact, a 2010 study in Nutrients found that taking 800 mg of the amino acid multiple times a day elevated muscle carnosine levels by as much as 66%. Why it’s worth it: Brazilian research found that taking beta-alanine supplements can help your muscles’ endurance and specifically your performance during high intensity exercises like weight lifting, meaning you can work out harder. Plus, the supplement has been shown to support lean muscle mass and enhance muscle fiber synthesis, says Jalali. Bonus: A study in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that guys who took a combination of both creatine and beta-alanine gained more lean mass and lost more body fat than guys who took creatine alone. Since it has a limited half-life in the body, most research suggests taking 800 mgs of beta-alanine at least four times a day.