If you’ve been lifting weights in the gym for a while and your nutrition has been on point, consider adding supplements. With countless different types marketed as “miracle” solutions, knowing which ones are worth trying can be challenging.
This article will cover the top 7 supplements that work. We will also discuss identifying safe and effective supplements, the difference between recovery and performance supplements, and some final thoughts.
Let’s jump in!
How to incorporate safe and effective supplements.
As a dietitian with ten years of experience in the fitness and supplement industry, I urge individuals to educate themselves when taking any supplement. This should include talking to your doctor, looking for third-party testing, and finding trusted companies.
Consult with Your Healthcare Provider: It is important to speak with your healthcare provider before taking any supplements, especially if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking any prescription medications. They can advise you on the appropriate dosage and whether or not a particular supplement is appropriate for your needs.
Label transparency: Avoid supplements that contain “proprietary blends” or “secret formulas.” These terms indicate that the specific amounts of ingredients in the supplement are not disclosed, making it impossible to determine the safety and efficacy of the product.
Third-Party Testing: To ensure the authenticity of supplements, it is important to choose companies that conduct third-party testing. Look for products that carry the NSF Certified for Sport or USP Verified seal, which indicates that the supplement has been independently tested and contains the ingredients listed on the label.
Recovery vs. Performance Supplements
Muscle building involves two aspects. The first is the performance aspect, which refers to the amount of work you can do in the gym. The second aspect is the recovery process, which involves nourishing, resting, and recuperating the muscle damage caused during the workout.
Using this model of muscle building, a supplement can be classified as either a recovery or performance enhancer.
Recovery supplements are designed to help your body recover from intense training sessions and reduce the time it takes to return to the gym.
Performance supplements increase your strength, power, and endurance during workouts.
Now let’s take a closer look at the supplements within each category and identify the science-based benefits of each.
The recovery supplement category represents those designed to help your muscle recover from resistance training. These supplements include vitamin D, whey protein powder, and casein protein powder.
Whey Protein Powder
Whey protein powder is a fast-absorbing protein derived from dairy and can be added to shakes or smoothies. It provides your body with the essential amino acids needed to build and repair muscle tissue. (1)
Studies have also found that whey protein aids in muscle growth and helps to increase muscular strength.
This is highlighted in the study, The effect of whey protein supplementation with and without creatine monohydrate combined with resistance training on lean tissue mass and muscle strength.
“Males that supplemented with whey protein while resistance training demonstrated greater improvement in knee extension peak torque and lean tissue mass than males engaged in training alone.” (1)
Although scientific studies on the effects of whey protein supplementation in muscle growth show promise, there are situations where it may not be effective. If someone already consumes enough protein daily, consuming extra protein (whey or other types) will not provide any additional benefits. (1)
Casein Protein Powder
Casein protein powder is a slower-digesting dairy protein typically consumed before bed. Unlike whey, casein is absorbed more slowly, providing your muscles with a sustained release of amino acids over an extended period. (2)
Studies have found that casein protein may improve muscle growth and help with performance recovery. (2)
This is highlighted in the study, Effects of pre-sleep protein consumption on muscle-related outcomes – A systematic review.
“Based on current evidence, the consumption of 20-40 g of casein approximately 30 min before sleep improves protein synthetic response during an overnight recovery period in healthy young adult men, with possible positive effects on muscle mass and strength following prolonged resistance exercise.” (2)
While the research looks encouraging, further investigation is required to determine whether individuals who get enough protein from whole foods can still gain additional benefits by taking casein protein supplements.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that naturally occurs in only a few types of food and is often added to other food products. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2005 to 2006 data, 41.6% of the US population is deficient in vitamin D. (3)
Several studies have looked at the relationship between vitamin D and muscle growth. In the study, The Relationship between Vitamin D and Muscle Size and Strength in Patients on Hemodialysis. (4)
Research Identified, “Treatment with active vitamin D was associated with greater muscle size and strength in this cohort of HD patients.” (4)
Although the research is promising, this cohort involved people suffering from kidney disease, not your typical gym goer. We would need evidence of a healthy population trying to build muscle. Specifically, a large group of people is deficient compared to those with adequate vitamin D and muscle.
With that being said, and with the high prevalence of vitamin D deficiency, it is appropriate to address meeting the daily requirements for vitamin D.
Here are some ways to increase vitamin D levels in the body:
Sunlight: Exposure to sunlight triggers the synthesis of Vitamin D in the skin. Spend at least 10-15 minutes daily in direct sunlight, between 10 am and 3 pm, with your face, arms, and legs uncovered. Always apply sunscreen for prolonged exposure. (5)
Dietary Changes: Vitamin D is present in some foods, such as salmon, mackerel, and canned tuna. Foods fortified with Vitamin D, such as dairy products, orange juice, and cereals, are also excellent sources of Vitamin D. Incorporate these foods into your diet. (6)
Supplements: Vitamin D3 supplements are available over the counter at most pharmacies and health stores. Supplements are available in various forms, including capsules, tablets, and liquids. Ensure you consult your healthcare professional before starting any new supplement regimen to avoid harmful interactions with other medications.
Meal replacements/mass gainers
I learn first hand when building muscle, it can be hard to consume enough calories and protein.
Meal replacements and mass gainers are convenient ways to boost your calorie and protein intake to support muscle growth.
However, they are not necessary and can be pricey. If cost or convenience is a concern, focus on whole food sources of protein and calories instead. You can also make your high-calorie, high-protein smoothie for weight gain tailored to your nutrition needs.
During muscle-building, I like to incorporate one to three high-calorie shakes or smoothies. Using each as an opportunity to blend the missing nutrients in my diet and gulp them down.
Because calories and macros play an integral role in building muscle, ensuring that you constantly meet these requirements is a priority. While meal replacements and mass gainers are not a must-have, they can make meeting your nutritional requirements much easier.
The second category in the best muscle-building supplements is performance supplements. These supplements will increase focus, delay the time till fatigue, and help you work hard in the gym.
The performance supplements include creatine, caffeine, and beta-alanine. Let’s go into more detail on each of these.
Creatine monohydrate is one of the most popular and most researched supplements today. This is for a good reason, as creatine benefits include strength, performance, and muscle growth. (7)
The International Society of Sports Nutrition’s position on creatine is “Creatine monohydrate is the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement currently available to athletes in terms of increasing high-intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass during training.” (7)
The ISSN also states, “There is no scientific evidence that the short- or long-term use of creatine monohydrate has any detrimental effects on otherwise healthy individuals.” (7)
Creatine monohydrate has a science-based, proven track record of supporting strength and muscle growth.
Caffeine is one of the most popular performance enhancers today. Caffeine can improve focus and delay time till fatigue, allowing for more intense workouts.
According to Stuart et al.’s study, taking caffeine before resistance exercise can increase muscular strength, especially during a one-rep max. (8)
The research also stated that it did not find any improvement in muscular endurance. Many Americans use caffeine as a supplement. However, it can have negative effects, such as interacting with medication, disrupting sleep, and causing heart issues. It is important to use caution and consult with a doctor. (8,9,10)
Beta-alanine is commonly known for causing a tingling sensation when you consume pre-workout supplements. Studies have shown that it can improve muscular endurance and decrease the time it takes to get fatigued. This ultimately leads to higher-intensity workouts and more productivity during exercise. (11,12,13,14)
In a study by Hoffman et al., football players were given beta-alanine supplementation for four weeks, two weeks during the off-season, and two weeks during the season.
“Examination of the resistance training logs collected during the training camp revealed a trend (P = 0.09) toward a higher (9.2 %) volume of training (load × repetitions in the bench press and squat exercises combined) seen in those athletes supplementing with β-alanine compared with placebo.” (11)
The position of the ISSN is, “Daily supplementation with 4 to 6 g of beta-alanine for at least 2 to 4 weeks has been shown to improve exercise performance, with more pronounced effects in open end-point tasks/time trials lasting 1 to 4 min in duration.” (12)
Beta-alanine is an effective supplement for improving muscular endurance and reducing the time to fatigue during exercise. It has been clinically proven in studies conducted by Hoffman et al. and endorsed by the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) as a safe and reliable supplement for athletes looking to improve their performance during training. (12,13,14)
Frequently Asked Questions:
What is the very best muscle-building supplement?
Based on all the current research and my dietitian option, the best supplement for building muscle is creatine monohydrate. With substantial scientific evidence, it has been proven to increase strength and muscle growth.
What helps build muscle fast?
Combining a nutrient-dense diet with resistance training and adequate recovery time is the key to building muscle quickly. Supplements such as creatine monohydrate can help support this process but should not be used as a replacement for proper nutrition or exercise.
Are there any potential side effects or risks associated with using muscle-building supplements?
There are risks associated with using any supplement. You must look for reputable companies that are third-party tested in addition to talking to your healthcare provider.
This article discussed seven different muscle-building supplements available and how they can help support your fitness goals.
Supplements should not be used as a replacement for proper nutrition or exercise but rather in addition to them.
It is always best practice to consult a doctor before taking any supplement to ensure it does not interfere with medications or cause adverse reactions.
With that being said, these supplements may prove beneficial in helping you reach your desired results faster than without them.
Before taking any sort of supplement, please consult with a doctor to ensure you are healthy enough to take them and to make sure they do not interfere with any medications. Supplements should be used in addition to an appropriate diet and exercise plan. They should never replace healthy eating or regular exercise.
Noah Quezada is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist located in Denver, Colorado. Over the course of more than a decade, he has gained extensive experience in helping clients manage their weight through in-person sessions. Noah is also the 2023 President of the Colorado Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.