Do Muscle Building Supplements Work?, Part 2

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

Ben Greenfield
4-minute read
Episode #30

In the article “Do Muscle Building Supplements Work?” you learned about whether protein and creatine are safe and effective ways to build muscle. In today’s article, you’ll learn about two slightly less well-known, but still very popular ingredients in muscle building supplements: nitric oxide and beta-alanine. If you need to know how muscle building supplements work, be sure to read Part 1.

What is Nitric Oxide?

Nitric oxide is actually a gas made up of one molecule of nitrogen and one molecule of oxgyen. A completely natural gas that can be synthesized by your body, nitric oxide acts as signaling molecule to promote blood vessel relaxation. When blood vessels in your body relax, they dilate, or get bigger, and carry more blood. We don’t need to get into the nitty-gritty details, but Viagra actually operates via a mechanism that keeps blood vessels in a specific part of a man’s body nice and relaxed, so that there lot’s of dilation and…bigness.

Nitric Oxide and Building Muscle

The promise that nitric oxide could make your muscles bigger relies on a similar principle, specifically that nitric oxide causes blood vessel dilation, which causes more blood flow to a muscle, which increases nutrient and oxygen delivery to the muscle, which causes greater muscle growth and strength.

However, as mentioned earlier, nitric oxide is a gas. So, contrary to popular belief, when you consume a muscle building supplement that promises something like “maximum nitric oxide release,” there isn’t actually any nitric oxide in that supplement--unless it happens to come in a big gas tank with a mask--which it doesn’t.

Instead, nitric oxide supplements all contain the active ingredient “arginine.” And when arginine is metabolized by your body, one of the byproducts is nitric oxide.

Does Nitric Oxide Work For Building Muscle?

When it comes to building significant muscle, none are a good replacement for consistent exercise and hard work.

During my graduate studies in biochemistry, I wrote a very long paper about nitric oxide. Unfortunately, that paper is sitting in my old college computer’s hard drive in a garbage landfill somewhere in North Idaho. But the paper was a research review of whether nitric oxide could actually improve exercise performance. The ultimate conclusion of my paper, which was written in 2005, was that though there was sufficient evidence to suggest that nitric oxide could improve oxygen and nutrient delivery to muscle tissue during exercise, there was insufficient evidence that nutrition supplements designed to increase nitric oxide levels actually caused this effect, and insufficient evidence that this effect could improve exercise performance.

Not much has changed in the past five years. Although nitric oxide will certainly increase blood flow and make the veins in your arms look very big, the size and strength it bestows on your muscles are notoriously over promised. Furthermore, the amount of arginine necessary to cause sufficient nitric oxide release may cause some unpleasant side effects. Some of the most common include

  •  nausea

  • mild to severe headaches

  • diarrhea

  • rapid heart beat and drop in blood pressure

  • dry mouth

  • excessive sweating

  • skin irritation

If you take nitric oxide and it makes you feel better, bigger, or more powerful, then by all means, carry on! However, my quick and dirty tip for supplements like this is to try it while working out at your home before heading to the gym and risking an embarrassing rush to the bathroom or inconvenient end to your workout.

What Is Beta-Alanine?

[[AdMiddle]Beta-alanine is an amino acid, and to understand how it works, you must also be introduced to another amino acid called carnosine. Carnosine is highly-concentrated in muscle fibers, and it helps to neutralize that burn you feel when you’re exercising or lifting weights. When you consume beta-alanine, it directly increases your intramuscular carnosine levels, thus helping you to exercise harder without getting fatigued as quickly.

Does Beta Alanine Work For Building Muscle?

There have been many recent and promising studies on beta-alanine, and it has been found to increase time to fatigue, improve the total amount of weight and number of repetitions that can be performed during weight training, and increase work performed during a bicycle test. But no studies have actually shown that beta-alanine can actually help you build muscle or make your muscles bigger. Furthermore, nearly every study that exists which shows a beneficial effect from supplementing with beta-alanine was funded by a company that produces and sells beta-alanine.

As far as side effects go, the most commonly experienced side effect is called “parathesia”, and is an itchy, prickly sensation on your skin, which is even more pronounced when you take beta-alanine with carbohydrates; this symptom lasts for about 1-2 hours. But no beta-alanine trials have exceeded 3 months, so no long term safety data actually exists. Proceed at your own risk!

Does the Get-Fit Guy Take Muscle Building Supplements?

I have personally used all the supplements reviewed in this two part series. When I was a bodybuilder, I used nitric oxide supplements until I realized I was wasting my money and could just get arginine instead. Now that I’m not doing much flexing on stage, I don’t use it.

But before a hard workout, I actually do use creatine and beta-alanine, because I like the way they make me feel during and after a workout. I feel like I can exercise harder when I use beta-alanine because my muscles burn less, and I do notice my muscles get bigger faster when I use creatine. Finally, after a workout, and occasionally for an evening snack, I use whey protein.

I’m not claiming these supplements will work for everyone, and when it comes to building significant muscle, none are a good replacement for consistent exercise and hard work. But after listening to this series, hopefully you’re informed enough to make a better choice about what to try, and what might work for you!

Muscular Arm image courtesy of Shutterstock

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.