The Best (And Worst) Supplements To Build Muscle

The best way to build muscle is not through supplements, but by eating a healthy, balanced diet, strength training and getting adequate rest. However, when life gets in the way and you’re struggling to reach your nutritional goals, some supplements can be useful, while others are a waste of your money.

Dietary supplements are just that – supplements. Most people won’t need them, but they can be used to provide nutrients which you are not already getting enough of from your diet. If you are eating a well-balanced diet, there is no need to waste money on supplements. You are not going to benefit from going over your nutritional needs. In addition, supplements will not undo a poor diet, nor will they provide drastic improvements in your strength.

What supplements will help you build muscle?

The best supplements to help you build muscle in the gym will depend on your individual goals and nutritional needs. The following is based on our experience with individuals training to build strength to improve their quality of life – not seasoned athletes.

Protein

Protein is essential for building and repairing muscle.[1] This means that if you aren’t getting enough protein in your diet, your body will not be able to recover from your strength training. As a result, you will struggle to build strength and may find it difficult to progress.

At Plexus, we recommend our clients aim to eat 1.6-2.5g per kilogram of their bodyweight each day. If you are new to strength training, start at the lower end of the scale. For example, a 70kg female who has just started strength training may aim to eat 112g of protein each day. Most people will be able to reach these goals eating whole foods such as beef, lamb, chicken, fish and eggs. Remember, you’re not going to benefit by eating too much protein. In fact, excess protein is usually stored as fat and can lead to weight gain.[2] For more on how to calculate your protein goals, read Nutrition Essentials Pt 2: How to Lose Fat and Build Muscle.

The best type of protein for everyday people is whey protein. This is a filtered milk product which contains all 20 amino acids which help your body maintain good health.[3] Alternative plant-based proteins each have unique nutritional profiles, but will generally lack one or more of these essential amino acids.

Watch out for mass gainer protein. These products are formulated to help people gain weight when they are struggling to eat enough calories. They are geared towards people undergoing intense physical training, not those who want to lose or maintain their weight. For more protein powder recommendations, read The Best Protein Powder For Everyday People.

Caffeine

Caffeine is used by many athletes to improve their physical and mental performance. When taken before a workout, it can provide a useful boost, but it will not dramatically change your lifts. Most of the evidence suggests that any strength improvement after taking caffeine is due to it making the exercise seem easier. This means people are more likely to try harder and push themselves further.[4]

You don’t need to invest in caffeine pills or expensive pre-workout, which can have up to 400mg caffeine. At Plexus, we find between 100-200mg is enough caffeine for the average person before a workout. This is equivalent to roughly one or two coffees. We only recommend our clients have caffeine in the form of a coffee before a workout if it’s something they enjoy and it won’t compromise their sleep. Find out more about the impact of caffeine on your workout by reading How Does Caffeine Affect Your Workout?

Creatine

Creatine is a chemical found naturally in the body and in red meat and seafood. It is involved in making energy that your body uses during high-intensity exercise and some people take it to help them workout longer and harder.[5]

If you have low stores of creatine in your muscles, taking it in the short-term can help you lift a little more weight (between 5%-15%).[6] If you take it long-term and as a result regularly lift heavier weights in your sessions, this can lead to 5% to 15% greater gains in strength and performance.[7]

How much you need to take will depend on the stores of creatine in your muscles. If you need to increase your creatine muscle stores, The International Society of Sports Nutrition states the quickest way is by consuming 0.3 grams/kg/day of creatine monohydrate for at least 3 days followed by 3–5 g/d thereafter to maintain elevated stores.[8] However, creatine is a nonessential amino acid, which means your body makes it from other amino acids that you receive from various protein sources. Unless you are lifting super heavy weights, doing long, high-intensity workouts or not eating animal-based products, your body will likely be making as much creatine as it needs.

You may be wasting your money on these supplements

Pre-workouts

Most Pre-workouts are primarily made of high-doses of caffeine, which in our experience is too high for the average person. Other common ingredients include creatine, beta-alanine, branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), green tea and B vitamins.[9] These are all ingredients you will likely be getting enough of by eating a balanced, healthy diet.

Beta-Alanine (BA)

Beta-alanine is an amino acid that your body produces naturally which plays a role in delaying fatigue during high intensity exercise. Although there is some evidence to support its use, you would need to take high doses of at least 3.6 grams daily for up to six weeks to have any effect. Despite this, most pre-workouts only contain small amounts of between 350-3200mg. There’s no evidence that taking these small amounts provide anything other than a tingling side effect.[10]

Branched-chain Amino Acids (BCAA)

Branched-chain amino acids are present in foods like meat and dairy and can promote muscle growth and reduce fatigue. To achieve this, you would have to consume high doses (around 5000mg) after exercise, when most pre-workouts only contain around 400mg-1500mg. At these levels, there is little evidence that they are effective.

The verdict

Whether supplements are worth their money in helping you build muscle will depend heavily on your motivation for training, the intensity you train and your diet. Ideally, you should be receiving all the nutrients you need from a healthy, balanced diet. This will allow you to build muscle effectively by performing at your best in the gym and recovering well. However, if you struggle to reach your nutritional goals, you can use supplements to help you get that little bit extra out of your workouts and recovery, but don’t expect to see any drastic changes.

References

[1] https://plexuspt.com.au/blog/nutrition/nutrition-essentials-part-1-macronutrients-micronutrients/

[2] https://www.clinicalnutritionjournal.com/article/S0261-5614(15)00091-6/fulltext

[3] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324229

[4] https://theconversation.com/can-coffee-improve-your-workout-the-science-of-caffeine-and-exercise-92366

[5] https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/creatine-for-muscle-and-strength#TOC_TITLE_HDR_2

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2048496/

[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2048496/#B49

[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2048496/

[9] https://theconversation.com/pre-workout-supplements-why-five-of-the-six-most-common-ingredients-probably-arent-helping-you-173391

[10] https://theconversation.com/pre-workout-supplements-why-five-of-the-six-most-common-ingredients-probably-arent-helping-you-173391