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Do Muscle Building Supplements Work?

Learn how popular muscle building supplements work, get tips on which are best, and learn what their risks are.

By
Ben Greenfield,
November 22, 2010
Episode #029

When stepping through the doors of your local nutrition supplement store or navigating to the nearest fitness website, you can easily be whisked away to the wonderful world of muscle-building supplements. Giant cans and bottles of powders, liquids, and capsules feature pictures of enormous biceps,abs you could do your laundry on, and butts as hard as concrete. Those muscular body parts look great, but the question is: do these muscle-building supplements actually help? Or do they just make expensive urine?

In this article, which is the first in a two-part series, you’ll find out once and for all whether muscle building supplements work. This series will focus on the four most popular muscle building supplements on the market: protein powder, creatine, nitric oxide and alanine.

This episode is sponsored by Audible. You can download part one for free or choose from one of 75,000 other titles by signing up for a 14 day trial membership at http://www.audiblepodcast.com/getfit, where you will receive a free audiobook or your choice.

How Do Muscle Building Supplements Work?

In the article “How to Build Muscle,” you learned that muscle is created by an increase in the size or number of muscle fibers, which happens in response to loading and subsequently tearing and re-building the muscle. Most muscle building supplements are designed to either:

  1.  allow a greater load to be placed on the muscle by increasing the ability of the muscle to produce a force; or

  2. increase a muscle’s ability to recover, re-build, and form new fibers.

A muscle building supplement is not the same as a fat loss supplement, which is designed to increase the metabolism or decrease appetite cravings. To learn more about weight loss supplements, read the article “Do Weight Loss Supplements Work?”

Does Protein Work For Building Muscle?

Let’s start with the most common and easily attainable muscle-building supplement and the one that has been used for the longest period of time: protein. When you eat protein, your body breaks the protein into amino acids, and those amino acids are used to repair and grow new muscle fibers. In addition, when you have adequate protein intake, you have a positive balance of nitrogen, which sends a signal to your body to be in an anabolic, or muscle-building state. As evidenced by the fact that people who don’t have sufficient access to protein experience muscle atrophy and often waste away, inadequate protein is certainly a good formula for losing muscle. Of course, most people with fancy gym memberships and the ability to regularly weight train don’t generally have a problem getting protein. As a matter of fact, the US Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.36 grams per pound, but most Americans eat twice that amount daily.

Ultimately, protein and creatine can both help you build muscle, but only if you’re doing the work.

However, it may be unfair to use the average American as an example for adequate protein intake when we’re talking about building muscle, since most folks aren’t tearing down muscle by grunting and groaning under a barbell at the gym. So here’s a figure that is more relevant to the active individual: a recent study found that a protein intake of approximately 0.45g per lb of body weight resulted in a negative nitrogen balance. Nitrogen balance is a measure of protein metabolism, and a negative nitrogen balance indicates inadequate protein intake for muscle gains. The same study also found that protein intakes above 1.2 grams per pound of bodyweight provided no additional muscle building benefits, and actually increased the risk of kidney damage and dehydration.

So ultimately, consumption of adequate protein can help you build muscle, but you shouldn’t go overboard. Aim for around a gram per pound from your diet, and if you’re having trouble getting that, a protein powder supplement could help.

What Kind of Protein Powder Should You Buy?

Many types of protein powders exist, including whey, casein, soy, rice, hemp, egg, and yes, even pea protein, but some are better for muscle building than others. So here are three quick and dirty tips for using a protein supplement for muscle-building:

Tip 1: Choose a whey-casein protein blend: If you can digest it, a whey-casein protein blend appears to be superior for muscle gain. But if you’re lactose intolerant or get bloated from this blend, it may not work for you.

Tip 2: Eat after you exercise: When possible, try to eat your protein, along with a carbohydrate, within 2 hours after you’ve finished your workout, and even sooner than that if you plan on exercising again on the same day.

Tip 3: Stay away from certain ingredients: Avoid high priced protein supplements that include many other ingredients like caffeine, fat loss boosters, tesosterone precursors, or a long list of unpronounceable ingredients. 99% of the time, you’ll be wasting your money (and mixing multiple muscle-building ingredients is called “stacking,” and can be risky if you don’t know what you’re doing).

For more on protein, be sure to check out the Nutrition Diva’s excellent article about protein and weight loss. And remember, meat, eggs, yogurt, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes all contain very affordable protein!

What Is Creatine?

Aside from protein, creatine has been the most popular muscle buildling supplement for at least the past decade. As a matter of fact, Americans spend about $14 million per year on creatine. You can get creatine from meat, fish, or creatine supplements. Creatine is also made by the human body in the liver. It’s actually an amino acid, and it’s stored as creatine phosphate in muscles, where it is used as energy for high intensity activities that last less than about 30 seconds.

[[AdMiddle]Because it’s used as a high intensity, short duration energy source, creatine may help build muscle. For example, if you can benchpress 200 pounds for 6 repetitions without creatine, you may be able to benchpress 200 pounds for 7 repetitions with creatine. And that slight extra bit of work performed can actually help build muscle.

Does Creatine Work for Building Muscle?

But creatine will not magically build muscle in the absence of weight training or intense physical activity. Furthermore, though many studies have shown a muscle gain and performance benefit from creatine, not every person seems to respond the same way to it, and some people experience no benefits. For example, some people have naturally high stores of creatine in their muscles and just don't get an energy-boosting effect from taking extra.

In all studies to date, creatine appears to be generally safe, unless it is taken at high doses, in which case there is the potential for serious side effects such as kidney damage or inhibition of the body's natural ability to make it’s own creatine.

3 Quick and Dirty Tips for Using Creatine

Here are my three quick and dirty tips for using creatine:

Tip 1: Start then decrease: Load with creatine, taking approximately 20g per day for a week, then decreasing to 2-5 grams a day during periods of intense physical activity or weight training.

Tip 2: Take with carbs: To enhance absorption, take creatine with carbohydrate sources like fruit, fruit juices, or starchy foods.

Tip 3: Try creatine cycling: The benefits of creatine can wear off after prolonged use, so try creatine cycling, in which you take creatine for several weeks of high intensity activity and then quit taking it during periods of relatively light activity.

Talk to Your Doctor

If you take any other drugs, be sure to talk to your physician about the use of creatine, since it can increase risk of dehydration and kidney damage when combined with compounds such as NSAID’s and diuretics. Also be cautious with “stacks,” which I mentioned earlier iare combinations of multiple ingredients. For example, when taken together, creatine, caffeine, and ephedra can significantly increase stroke risk.

Ultimately, protein and creatine can both help you build muscle, but only if you’re doing the work. Just like fat loss supplements, 90% of the work to get results must be done by you, and not by a pill, capsule, liquid or powder.

Next week, we’ll take a look at two other popular muscle building ingredients: arginine, also known as nitric oxide, and beta-alanine.

Pill image from Shutterstock

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