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

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


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.