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You have been hitting the gym, lifting heavy. You are determined to see some major gains. You want look awesome on the beach and hit that big PR you have been aiming for. Although you are happy with your progress so far, you want more.
And you want it fast, right?
You already dialed in your nutrition with tons of added calories and lots of protein, but now you are looking for the best supplements to take your bodybuilding efforts to the next level.
Here are a few of my favorites for building muscle quickly and helping manage some of the aches and pains that come with lifting heavy.
8 Useful Supplements for Bodybuilders
For muscle building and improving body composition, whey consistently out performs any other type of protein powder available. Whey is one of the two proteins found in milk (the other is casein). When cheese is made, whey is the liquid left over. Whey is a complete protein containing all nine essential amino acids needed for health and muscle building. It is also easily and quickly absorbed, ensuring all the protein you take in is being used by your body as needed (1).
But, whey protein doesn’t just contain random amino acids, it is high in a specific amino acid called leucine that actively promotes muscle growth by stimulating the release of muscle building hormones (2). A comprehensive literature review of all the research on body composition and whey protein found that the addition of whey protein helps with overall weight loss, fat loss, and promotes an increase in lean body mass. The effects were particularly significant when whey protein was combined with resistance exercise (3). The bottom line is adding whey to your day can help you build muscle and get lean.
How to Take Whey Protein
There are a few kinds of whey protein found on the market. The three main types are concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. The difference between them has to do with how they have been processed. The more processed they are, the more expensive they are.
Whey concentrate is the least processed and is about 80% protein. The other 20% is fat and lactose, or milk sugar. This makes it taste better than the other two and is the cheapest. If you are just starting out with protein powders or are sensitive to taste, this may be a good option. But, it would not be ideal for those with lactose intolerance.
Whey isolate has less lactose and fat when compared to concentrate and is slightly more processed. It is the “middle” choice between concentrate and hydrolysate. It might not be appropriate for those very sensitive to lactose.
Whey hydrolysate is the most beneficial for gaining muscle because it is the best absorbed and may also increase insulin levels when consumed, leading to muscle building. But, hydrolysate will be more expensive than the other two choices and may need a little “doctoring up” to taste good (4).
No matter which type you choose, whey is most effective when consumed either before or after a workout when the body is actively building new muscle. Look for a supplement that contains around 20-30 grams of whey protein per serving for a post-workout drink.
Just to note, if you are trying to lose body fat, drinking a huge amount of whey protein isn’t going to miraculously help you drop those extra pounds. You still need to exercise and eat a balanced diet. Calories are still calories, even if it comes from protein, so be aware of how many you are consuming.
Related: Our list of the 10 highest rated whey protein powders.
Caffeine has been extensively studied for its ability to boost performance for endurance training and high-intensity exercises. It is very beneficial for aerobic exercise, but since bodybuilding is anaerobic, the research results for caffeine are mixed.
A 2009 study evaluated caffeine use in collegiate football players during an anaerobic weight lifting activity. The athletes took a caffeine dose of 5 mg/kg of body weight or a placebo and completed three anaerobic exercises 60 minutes later. Perceived exertion, heart rate, and blood pressure were measured. Fifty nine percent of the participants who received caffeine saw improved performance in a bench press and a 40-yard dash. There was no difference in perceived exertion, heart rate, or blood pressure (5).
Another study took a look at the impact of caffeine on a one-rep max exercise. Twenty two participants took 6 mg/kg of caffeine or a placebo one hour before exercise. They then completed a one repetition max bench and leg press. There was no effect of caffeine on muscle strength or endurance when compared to the placebo. The perceived effort was also the same for both groups. Based on this study, researchers concluded that caffeine does not increase strength or endurance for weight training (6). Meanwhile, another study showed the exact opposite result with weight training and caffeine. The caffeine group was stronger than the placebo group (7).
How to Take Caffeine
The results for the impact of caffeine on bodybuilding and strength gains remain mixed. This is probably a case of individual variation and how each person reacts to caffeine. Some people are able to drink a cup of coffee before bed with no side effects, whereas others feel jittery with only a cup or less. So, whether you choose to use caffeine to boost your endurance is related to how well you tolerate it and if you see a difference in your workouts.
If you want to try caffeine, the recommended dose is 150-300 mg about 30-60 minutes before your workout. That is the equivalent of 2-3 cups of coffee. Start at the lower end to see how you react. If you get jittery, anxious, or your heart starts racing then back off. With caffeine, more is not better. Too much caffeine can raise your heart rate and decrease your performance.
Related: Our list of the 10 highest rated caffeine products.
Creatine is a popular muscle building supplement with a ton of research (over 500 studies) to back up its use and safety. It can increase muscle and strength gain from a workout by about 5-15%. It works by boosting the availability of creatine and phosophocreatine in the muscles to help maintain energy during weight training. Research has found that taking 20 grams of creatine for only 5 days can increase creatine stores in the muscles by up to 30% and phosphocreatine by up to 40%. This means it acts quickly (8). It also helps speed up recovery after a workout (9).
How to Take Creatine Monohydrate
The recommended dose for creatine is 20 grams per day for the first week, then 5 grams thereafter for maintenance. Be aware that when you first start to take creatine, you may see the number on the scale go up. This is because in order for creatine to enter the cells, it needs to hold on to water. The increased water in the cells may cause a 2-4 pound weight gain.
Related: Our list of the 10 highest rated creatine products.
Branch-Chain Amino Acids
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and therefore the building blocks of muscle. There are three specific amino acids, referred to as the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) that are particularly beneficial for weight lifting and muscle building. These BCAAs are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. When taken during or after a workout they have been shown to increase muscle synthesis, reduce soreness, and improve endurance (10).
A 2010 study examined the impact of BCAA supplementation on muscle soreness after a squat workout in 12 female participants. The participants drank 100 mg/kg of body weight of BCAA or a dextrin solution before completing seven sets of 20 squats each. The muscle soreness peaked on days two and three, but the level of soreness was significantly less in the BCAA group. The BCAA group also maintained leg strength, when compared to the placebo group. Researchers concluded that BCAA may help mitigate some muscle damage and soreness that occurs after strength training exercises (11).
How to Take BCAAs
The ideal dose for BCAAs is 3-6 grams before or during exercise. The ratio of BCAAs in a supplement matters also. It should be about two parts leucine to one part isoleucine and valine. One thing to note, if you don’t want to take multiple supplements, is that whey protein is high in leucine and also contains the other BCAAs. For most people, using a whey protein supplement and eating a high protein diet, provides the BCAAs needed for muscle building.
Related: Our list of the 10 highest rated BCAA products.
Nitric Oxide Boosters
Nitric oxide (NO) is a substance produced by almost every cell in the body that acts as a vasodilator, relaxing the blood vessels. This helps it increase blood flow to various tissues and muscles. There are many several types of supplements and foods that help boost the production of NO, used to treat a variety of health conditions, but that can also help with strength exercise.
A popular NO-boosting supplement is called L-citrulline or citrulline malate. It has been shown to decrease muscle soreness by boosting NO production. A 2010 study gave participants 8 grams of citrulline malate or a placebo before doing a bench press. Those who received the citrulline were able to perform almost 53% more repetitions when compared to a placebo group. They also reported 40% less muscle soreness 24-48 hours after the session (12).
How to Take Nitric Oxide Boosters
There are many supplements and foods that help boost NO. As mentioned above, citrulline is a popular supplement that has been shown to improve output during workouts and reduce muscle soreness. Citrulline comes in two forms: L-citrulline and citrulline malate. Citrulline malate is combined with malic acid and is the type most commonly used in research. The dose for L-citrulline, since it is more concentrated, is 5 mg and for citrulline malate is about 8 mg.
There are also several foods that are able to boost NO, particularly those that contain nitrate and flavonoids. Nitrate is found beets, pomegranate, and dark green leafy vegetables. The nitrate in these foods is able to be converted to NO. Flavonoids, an antioxidant found in fruits and veggies, can also boost NO. For the biggest benefit and NO boost, consider adding beet or pomegranate extract, powder, or juice to your pre-workout routine.
Related: Our list of the 10 highest rated nitric oxide products.
Omeag-3 fats are essential fats for human nutrition, meaning they must come from the diet. The three omega-3s, EPA, DHA, and ALA have been extensively researched for their anti-inflammatory and disease-preventing benefits. EPA and DHA are found primarily in fish. ALA is the plant-based form of omega-3s and is found flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. The body has to convert ALA into the active omega-3s, so although it is beneficial, the poor conversion rate makes it less effective.
The biggest benefit of omega-3s for body builders has to do with exercise recovery and reducing soreness after workouts. The muscle soreness you feel after a tough workout is inflammation and omega-3s are powerful anti-inflammatories.
A 2009 study evaluated the use of omega-3s on perceived pain after a workout. Subjects received either 1.8 grams per day of omega-3s or a placebo for two days after completing leg exercises. Subjects who received omega-3s reported significantly lower perceived pain and improved range of motion at 48 hours after the exercise (13).
Related: Our list of the 10 highest rated fish oil products.
How to take Omega-3s
There are many different options on the market for omega-3 supplements. The best ones are those that contain DHA and EPA, since those are the active forms of the fat. If you are not vegan or vegetarian, you can take a fish oil supplement to meet your omega-3 needs. Be sure to choose a quality supplement that does not contain mercury.
Krill oil is another option as it tends to be less contaminated and resists oxidation better than other fish oils. Algal oil is made from algae that the fish eat, therefore it is the original source of DHA and EPA. It is also considered vegan or vegetarian and is less contaminated with toxins, making it a great choice.
No matter which you choose, the recommended dose is 3-6 grams per day of omega-3s if you are actively training to prevent inflammation and promote faster recovery.
Related: Our list of the 10 highest rated krill oil products.
Beta-alanine is an amino acid, although it is a non-essential one. This means that the body can make the beta-alanine it needs from other amino acids. So why take a beta-alanine supplement? Well, beta-alanine as the ability to help control lactic acid and other acidic compounds that are formed during workouts. Acid build up in the muscles is what leads to fatigue and muscle failure.
Beta-alanine reduces muscle acid by increasing levels of a compound called carnosine, responsible for modulating acid build-up. Supplementation with 2-6 mg of beta-alanine can increase carnosine concentrations by 20-80% (14). Taking a carnosine supplement alone, surprisingly does not increase carnosine in the muscles.
Taking a beta-alanine supplement can also help delay fatigue during workouts. A 2009 study of football players evaluated supplementation with beta-alanine prior to and during training. Those who received the supplement had higher training volumes and lower fatigue when compared to those who received a placebo (15).
How to Take Beta-alanine
The recommended dose for beta-alanine is 4-6 grams per day. It needs to be taken consistently to raise muscle carnosine, so just taking a supplement occasionally won’t help. Many pre-workout formulations contain beta-alanine, but unless you are going to take it every day, it is probably not worth it.
Related: Our list of the 10 highest rated beta-alanine products.
Glutamine is another non-essential amino acid. It is the most common amino acid in the muscles, making up about 61% of muscle tissue. During intense training, glutamine becomes depleted, which is why it is so important to eat protein after a workout. You don’t want to lose this important amino acid and lose muscle. Glutamine is particularly important in the “cutting” phase of training as it can help you lose body fat while protecting lean muscle. It can also boost your immune system, preventing illness (16).
Glutamine also helps with recovery. It is able to clear high levels of ammonia from the body that are created during exercise. This can mean that body will recover faster and promotes detoxifications after a tough bodybuilding session (17).
How to Take Glutamine
The recommended dose of glutamine is 10 grams post-workout to prevent soreness, promote glutamine repletion, and protect muscles. You will want to continue to take glutamine for 5 days post workout (or eat glutamine-rich foods) as it takes that long to recover from a tough session. Glutamine is also found in bone broth and gelatin, so you may consider adding those to your diet as well.
Related: Our list of the 10 highest rated glutamine products.
Supplements and Bodybuilding
There are so many supplement options out there claiming to help you gain muscle and improve your recovery time, but it is always best to proceed with caution. Yes, certain supplements can be a helpful part of your muscle gain program, but you always start slowly when introducing them to you daily regimen.
There is little research about how some of these supplements interact with each other. So, tread carefully, picking one or two to try and seeing how your body reacts. If you are concerned, ask your doctor or dietitian what is best for you.
With dedicated effort at the gym, a dialed-in diet, and a few tailored supplements, you will definitely see those gains you are working hard for.
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