Do Muscle Building Supplements Work?

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

Ben Greenfield
5-minute read
Episode #29

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.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.