Walking into a supplement store is a lot like visiting a law office. The vocabulary is confusing, the experience is riddled with fine print and you can't help but wonder if you're being a little ripped off.
When muscle gain is your top concern, it can be hard to know which supplements to choose, especially considering there are endless varieties and brands. Before anyone convinces you to invest hundreds of dollars, here's what you should know about four of the more popular muscle-building supplements.
Whey Protein, Plant Protein and Casein
Protein is among the most frequently purchased supplements, whether it be for muscle gain or nutritional purposes. Research has consistently linked protein supplementation with enhanced muscle strength and size when combined with resistance training, according to a July 2017 review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
While there are numerous varieties of protein, including soy protein, pea protein or casein — just to name a few — whey protein is your best bet if the goal is muscle gain. Whey is the primary protein found in dairy products, commonly a byproduct of the cheese-making process, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Unlike plant protein, whey protein is a complete protein, meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids your body needs for building muscle but cannot produce itself. Whey protein is also more effective in boosting testosterone than soy protein (another commonly used plant protein), which your body uses to trigger muscle growth, according to an April 2013 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.
Best for: Those who may not be hitting their daily protein intake from whole foods.
Creatine is one of the most widely researched supplements for building muscle mass. Creatine is an amino acid that is created by your liver, pancreas and kidneys and is stored in the muscles for energy, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Creatine supplements have been shown to increase strength and fat-free muscle mass when combined with resistance training, according to a July 2012 review published in BioMed Central. The study also found creatine may reduce fatigue in high-intensity exercise and increase muscle size when combined with protein and carbs.
However, as with many supplements, there are some potential side effects to keep in mind if you're considering taking creatine, including muscle cramping, diarrhea or gastrointestinal pain, according to the Mayo Clinic. Creatine pulls water into the muscle cells, so it can also cause water retention and, therefore, weight gain. Still, the weight gain due to creatine is water, not fat, as creatine doesn't have any calories.
Best for: People looking to visually increase muscle size and enhance strength and performance.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) contain leucine, isoleucine and valine, three of the essential amino acids the body can't produce on its own. Though efficacy of BCAA supplements is widely debated, they have been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis after exercise, according to a June 2017 study published in Frontiers in Physiology.
But considering whey protein already contains these amino acids, an additional BCAA supplement often isn't necessary. In fact, whey protein results in more muscle protein synthesis than BCAAs alone, according to a June 2012 study published in the Journal of Physiology. However, if you're taking a plant protein that lacks these three aminos, adding a BCAA supplement to your stack may be helpful.
Best for: Anyone who prefers to supplement with plant protein.
Like BCAAs, beta-alanine is another amino acid frequently consumed in supplement form to promote muscle growth and enhance performance. This amino acid is naturally produced by the liver and increases levels of carnosine (a protein building block) in the muscle, according to an International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) review published in July 2015.
When consumed in supplement form, beta-alanine has been shown to improve exercise performance and reduce muscle fatigue, according to the ISSN. But beta-alanine supplements are most effective when used strategically. In order to increase muscle carnosine, dividing a 6-gram dose into four equal doses is optimal, recommends the ISSN.
Another way to get the most out of your beta-alanine supplements is to pair them with your post-workout meal. Supplementing at mealtime helps to increase the muscles' absorption of carnosine, according to an August 2013 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
That research also found that both slow-release and rapid-release beta-alanine supplements had the same effect on the body. So, if a store clerk tries to sell you on beta-alanine, know that either option can help with muscle gain.
Best for: People training for long durations or who experience muscle fatigue while exercising.
- BMJ: "A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults"
- Mayo Clinic: "Whey Protein"
- Amino Acids: "Protein content and amino acid composition of commercially available plant-based protein isolates"
- Mayo Clinic: "Creatine"
- Biomed Central: "Creatine supplementation with specific view to exercise/sports performance: an update"
- Frontiers in Physiology: "Branched-Chain Amino Acid Ingestion Stimulates Muscle Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis following Resistance Exercise in Humans"
- Journal of Physiology: "NCBINCBI Logo Skip to main content Skip to navigation Resources How To About NCBI Accesskeys PubMed US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health Search databaseSearch term Search AdvancedHelp Result Filters Format: AbstractSend to J Physiol. 2012 Jun 1;590(11):2751-65. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2012.228833. Epub 2012 Mar 25. Supplementation of a suboptimal protein dose with leucine or essential amino acids: effects on myofibrillar protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in men."
- International Society of Sports Nutrition: "International society of sports nutrition position stand: Beta-Alanine"
- Journal of the American College of Nutrition: "The effects of soy and whey protein supplementation on acute hormonal reponses to resistance exercise in men."
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: "Meal and Beta-Alanine Coingestion Enhances Muscle Carnosine Loading"