Muscle building supplements comprise one of the most misunderstood groups of supplements.
When I first started to get serious about bodybuilding, my friend looked at me very concerned and said, “you don’t take protein powder, do you?” as if it were some type of drug.
On another occasion, I saw someone mistake a supplement emblazoned with the word “anabolic” for steroids. (Anabolism simply refers to the synthesis of complex molecules from simpler molecules.) Unfortunately, sensationalized headlines and flashy supplement labels are confusing for many.
While nutrient-containing supplements, e.g. protein powder and dextrose, can directly contribute to muscle building processes, most muscle building supplements work not by increasing muscle size but by enhancing aspects such as power and focus, which in turn allows us to more efficiently and effectively build muscle.
As women tend to have lower testosterone and limited muscle building capabilities compared to men, these supplements can be especially critical for women.
Below, I have selected some of these supplements, but I encourage you to do further research as well, because there are countless supplements that can aid in your muscle building endeavors in a healthy way without disrupting your body’s natural functions.
Protein is perhaps the most important muscle building supplement, as it is digested into amino acids, which can become muscle fibers. From whey to casein to soy to pea protein, there are many different types to consider when choosing a protein supplement.
Related: Muscle & Strength's Ultimate Guide to Whey Protein
Whey, casein, egg, and soy protein powders all contain a wide range of amino acids, whereas pea and brown rice protein have a narrower amino acid profile. For this reason, it can be a good idea to look for a blend that consists of multiple types in one powder.
However, if your diet is diverse, then specific protein choice for a given meal won’t make much of a difference. Research suggests that 0.82g of protein per pound of bodyweight is plenty to aid in muscle growth1, but very active individuals may benefit from higher numbers.
2. High GI Carbohydrates
High glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates spike blood sugar and insulin levels, which can improve blood flow and the effects of nitric oxide (discussed later). People tend to fear these fast-digesting carbohydrates, but if you are performing intense exercise, these carbohydrates can help to improve performance. Simply consuming high GI carbohydrates while you sit on the couch is not going to help, though.
The amount of carbohydrates needed for this benefit depends not only on personal factors like body weight and age but also on the type and duration of exercise performed. High GI carbohydrates are best when consumed around workouts.
3. Creatine Monohydrate
As creatine monohydrate can increase both power output and anaerobic endurance2, it is one of the most effective supplements for a strength athlete. Other forms of creatine have not been proven to be more effective than creatine monohydrate.
Micronized creatine monohydrate is a finer powder, so it will dissolve more effectively and therefore might be easier on your digestive system, but it will not actually be absorbed any better. Studies suggest doses of 3g per day all the way up to 30g per day depending on body weight and muscle mass2.
Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid that can increase muscle carnosine concentrations and act as an intracellular pH buffer, meaning it can also delay muscle fatigue by buffering lactic acid.
An appropriate dose may be 4-6g per day3, but beta-alanine may cause a prickling sensation, so take smaller amounts or look for time-release versions if you experience a prickling feeling and are bothered by it.
5. Nitrates and Nitric Oxide Boosters
Nitrates can increase blood flow, work output, and endurance, and they can improve recovery as well4. Nitrates in the body can be converted to nitric oxide (NO) when oxygen is low. Look for supplements containing beetroot powder or juice to get these benefits5.
Arginine or citrulline can have similar effects by increasing NO levels and may be effective if taken at doses of 6g per day6. Citrulline may be a more effective option as it may be better absorbed and is converted to arginine in the body. Additionally, citrulline malate has been shown to decrease muscle soreness7.
Drink coffee or tea to build muscle? Caffeine can increase power and focus by increasing dopamine and epinephrine in the brain. Appropriate doses can be anywhere from 50mg to 300mg or more depending on your personal tolerance8.
Related: 3 Myths About Caffeine That You Actually Still Believe
Pre-workout supplements may contain 100-400mg or even more. The high end may cause gastrointestinal discomfort, insomnia, and other negative side effects in many individuals. L-theanine is an amino acid that may help to counteract negative side effects of caffeine when taken in doses similar to caffeine doses9.
Magnesium is a mineral in which many of us are deficient. Magnesium has been shown not only to reduce insulin sensitivity10 and blood pressure11 but also to increase muscle oxygenation during high intensity exercise12.
While many may benefit from taking magnesium and other electrolytes before, during, and after workouts, others may experience sedative effects from high doses. Some may also experience gastrointestinal discomfort from magnesium oxide or magnesium chloride. Magnesium citrate is generally a good choice when taken in doses of 200-400mg.
As ashwagandha, rhodiola rosea, cordyceps, and other adaptogens may decrease feelings of fatigue and improve cognitive function13, adaptogens can be an excellent pre-workout supplement option.
Rhodiola rosea has been shown to decrease lactate production, muscle damage, and rate of perceived exertion14, while cordyceps may increase the lactate threshold15. Among the many researched benefits of ashwagandha is its potential to increase power output and muscle mass16.
Research on adaptogens for muscle building benefits is still in early stages, but somewhere around 100mg seems to be an effective dose.
The supplements listed in this article are really just the tip of the iceberg. Any supplement that helps decrease feelings of fatigue and improve energy or focus can help with muscle building via improved performance during workouts.
Supplements obviously cannot take the place of proper diet and exercise. If you want to build muscle, you need to make sure you are eating enough, training hard, and getting adequate sleep and rest.
Once those bases are covered, you can start to add supplements to maximize your results. As always, you should consult with a doctor or other health professional before starting any new supplements.
- Phillips SM, Van Loon LJC. Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. J Sports Sci. 2011;29 Suppl 1:S29-38. doi:10.1080/02640414.2011.619204
- Kreider RB, Kalman DS, Antonio J, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:18. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0173-z
- Trexler ET, Smith-Ryan AE, Stout JR, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: Beta-Alanine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015;12:30. doi:10.1186/s12970-015-0090-y
- Jones AM. Dietary nitrate supplementation and exercise performance. Sports Med. 2014;44 Suppl 1:S35-45. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0149-y
- Domínguez R, Maté-Muñoz JL, Cuenca E, et al. Effects of beetroot juice supplementation on intermittent high-intensity exercise efforts. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018;15:2. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0204-9
- Sureda A, Córdova A, Ferrer MD, Pérez G, Tur JA, Pons A. L-citrulline-malate influence over branched chain amino acid utilization during exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010;110(2):341-351. doi:10.1007/s00421-010-1509-4
- Pérez-Guisado J, Jakeman PM. Citrulline malate enhances athletic anaerobic performance and relieves muscle soreness. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(5):1215-1222. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181cb28e0
- Astrup A, Toubro S, Cannon S, Hein P, Breum L, Madsen J. Caffeine: a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of its thermogenic, metabolic, and cardiovascular effects in healthy volunteers. Am J Clin Nutr. 1990;51:759–67
- Jang H-S, Jung JY, Jang I-S, Jang K-H, Kim S-H, Ha J-H, Suk K, Lee M-G. L-theanine partially counteracts caffeine-induced sleep disturbances in rats. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2012;101:217–21.
- Mooren FC, Krüger K, Völker K, Golf SW, Wadepuhl M, Kraus A. Oral magnesium supplementation reduces insulin resistance in non-diabetic subjects - a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial. Diabetes Obes Metab. 2011;13(3):281-284. doi:10.1111/j.1463-1326.2010.01332.x
- Hatzistavri LS, Sarafidis PA, Georgianos PI, et al. Oral magnesium supplementation reduces ambulatory blood pressure in patients with mild hypertension. Am J Hypertens. 2009;22(10):1070-1075. doi:10.1038/ajh.2009.126
- Golf SW, Bender S, Grüttner J. On the significance of magnesium in extreme physical stress. Cardiovasc Drugs Ther. 1998;12 Suppl 2:197-202.
- Panossian A. Understanding adaptogenic activity: specificity of the pharmacological action of adaptogens and other phytochemicals. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2017;1401(1):49-64. doi:10.1111/nyas.13399
- Parisi A, Tranchita E, Duranti G, et al. Effects of chronic Rhodiola Rosea supplementation on sport performance and antioxidant capacity in trained male: preliminary results. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2010;50(1):57-63.
- Chen S, Li Z, Krochmal R, Abrazado M, Kim W, Cooper CB. Effect of Cs-4 (Cordyceps sinensis) on exercise performance in healthy older subjects: a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. J Altern Complement Med. 2010;16(5):585-590. doi:10.1089/acm.2009.0226
- Wankhede S, Langade D, Joshi K, Sinha SR, Bhattacharyya S. Examining the effect of Withania somnifera supplementation on muscle strength and recovery: a randomized controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015;12:43. doi:10.1186/s12970-015-0104-9