If you’ve ever been shopping for muscle building supplements, you know that there are endless options – which can make it hard to know how to choose the best supplement for muscle growth.
Here’s the deal: If you want to build muscle, you have to give your body all the essential building blocks – nutrients, vitamins, water, oxygen flowing to your muscles, and amino acids. Amino acids are what make up protein, which in turn builds muscle tissue. Without it, you can work out whatever you want, but your body can’t build any muscle. It’s a bit like a construction site without the raw materials.
The best way to get those materials? “Eat whole foods at mealtime,” Ashley Kavanaugh, M.D., CSCS, exercise physiologist and athletic performance coach at Renaissance Periodization, told LIVESTRONG.com.
If you can’t get all the muscle-building nutrients you need from your typical meals and snacks in one day, supplementation can help you build more muscle. But not every powder or pill on the market works the way you say it does.
In this article, we’ll discuss some of the best muscle building supplements – and some other types of supplements that can increase performance so you can push harder and ultimately increase those gains.
We spoke with sports scientists, strength coaches, and bodybuilders about muscle building supplements they trust and use with athletes and clients. We’ve also delved into the scientific research to find out what it has to say about the best muscle building supplements.
Our selections take into account the following criteria:
- Third Party Certificate
1. Best for Building: Whey Protein
When you’re talking about the building blocks of muscle, it all starts with protein, the raw material your body needs to build mass, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). When digested, the protein in the food is broken down into amino acids. Your body then uses these amino acids to help many of your body’s functions, including repairing and building muscle tissue, according to the National Institutes of Health. If you can’t get enough protein from your diet, or you’re looking to gain muscle or weight, a protein powder can be a simple supplement solution, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Whey protein, one of the two proteins found in milk, is an essential muscle building protein because it is quickly digested and absorbed into your tissues, according to a February 2018 study inJournal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. This means that it is soon available to be converted into muscle.
Another pro for whey protein: It’s a complete protein, which means it contains all the essential amino acids for building muscle, according to September 2004 research inJournal of Sports Science and Medicine. If you’ve heard of branch chain amino acids, or BCAAs, you can save your money if you use whey. Whey protein already contains all the BCAAs you need.
How to use it:Since it increases your protein production very quickly and then is quickly metabolized, it is recommended to use whey protein right after your workout.
Shop these proteins
- Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey ($68.94, Amazon.com)
- Biosteel Whey Protein Isolate ($59.99, Amazon.com)
2. Best for Maintaining Muscle: Casein Protein
There are two types of milk protein: whey and casein. Casein protein makes up 80 percent of the protein in milk, which is also what makes milk white, according to a 2016 book.Encyclopedia of food and health.
Here’s the part muscle builders should be paying attention to: If whey is the best protein for musclebuildingCasein protein is the bestrescuemuscle. Like whey, derived from milk and is a complete protein, Sept 2004Journal of Sports Science and Medicinesearch. But unlike whey, it does not increase the proportion of amino acids as fast or as high. Instead, it is digested slowly, according to a May 2017 study inInternational Journal of Exercise ScienceH. This helps slow the rate at which protein is broken down – which saves your existing muscles from using them for fuel.
In January 2011Endocrine and metabolic diseasesIn the study, scientists found that both whey and casein stimulated a similar amount of muscle protein growth over a six-hour period. Casein took longer to start working with. The study also suggests that a 50-50 mix of whey and casein may be ideal for post-workout supplementation.
Research is limited, but in a small, older study in February 2001 inEndocrine and metabolic diseasesScientists looked at how casein and whey protein affect muscle protein synthesis and breakdown, and found that while whey was better at building, casein significantly reduced breakdown.
How to use it:This extended version makes a spoonful of casein perfect to use before a fast, as a late-night snack to keep protein levels high while you sleep or before a long day when you want to stay full.
Shop these casein proteins
- Biosteel Recovery Protein Plus ($69.99, Amazon.com)
- Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Casein ($71.94, Amazon.com)
3. Best for Muscle Fuel: Creatine
Creatine monohydrate is a chemical compound produced in the liver, kidneys, and pancreas that plays an important role in making your muscles work. Creatine monohydrate binds to a phosphate molecule to restore adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, to your muscles, as shown in March 2021Nutrientsstudy. ATP is your muscle’s energy source for short-term explosive action. When they recover, you can do more repetitions of high-intensity exercises – so you can put your muscles under more stress, which leads to more muscle growth.
Not only does it let you do another reps, says Alex Viada, CSCS, founder of Complete Human Performance. “The concentration of ATP in the cell is responsible for a lot of [muscle-building] operations, including helping with muscle repair,” he explains.
It can also help our brains function better. “So even for athletes who don’t have [muscle-building goal] Directly, creatine is still very good for doing things like improving motor learning. “Of course, improved kinesthetic learning can also mean doing exercisebetterWhich is always helpful when you’re trying to build muscle.
How to use it:The research is mixed, but there seem to be benefits no matter what time you take it: pre-workout, post-workout, or whatever time works for you during the day.
4. Best for fighting cortisol: Ashwagandha Root
Growing your muscles is about building muscle, but it’s also about maintaining the muscle you have. And cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, can attack your current supply in large amounts.
“Now we’ve all had these crazy schedule changes and constant physical and mental stresses affecting us in the past few years,” says Brandon Lerio, director of Battle Ground Fitness and a professional bodybuilder. More stress can mean more cortisol. “Cortisol is like a muscle-eating plague, and it can affect not only your sleep and happiness, but also your recovery and the amount of muscle you build.”
Ashwagandha root, an herb sometimes called “Indian ginseng,” has been used in traditional Eastern medicine for centuries. Its benefits have been backed up by recent studies: small in December 2019treat usThe study found that people who took 250 milligrams of ashwagandha root extract daily (125 milligrams twice a day) had lower cortisol levels and better sleep.
Sleep is important for building muscle, too. Sleep deprivation lowers testosterone levels, increases cortisol levels and decreases muscle protein synthesis, according to a small study conducted in January 2021 inPhysiological reports.
How to use it:In a 2019 study, participants took 125 milligrams twice daily. Try it in the morning and evening. Ashwagandha should not make you sleepy, like to help you sleep, so you can take it before exercising, and you don’t have to take it right before bed.
Shop these ashwagandha supplements
5. Best Vitamin: Vitamin D
Although you probably know the importance of D for your bone health, it is also important for maintaining and building muscle.
On December 1, 2010Hormone and Metabolic ResearchIn the study, a small group of participants who were identified as men and took a vitamin D supplement for a year had significantly more testosterone in their systems than those who didn’t take the supplement.
What we know: Being deficient is common, and risk factors for vitamin D deficiency include race, obesity, and even education level, according to a June 2018 research review intreat us.
How to use it:The National Institute of Health recommends adults get 600 international units (IU) or 15 micrograms (mcg) per day, although other organizations, such as the Endocrine Society, recommend more (up to 1,000 international units per day). Talk to your doctor about a blood test to help determine if you are deficient and need a supplement at a higher dose to increase your levels.
Shop These Vitamin D Supplements
- Designs For Health Vitamin D Supreme ($20.75, Amazon.com)
- Nature Made Vitamin D3 Softgels ($19.29, Amazon.com)
5 things to consider when buying muscle building supplements
1. Third party certification
Unlike food, nutritional claims for dietary supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration — the law does not require the supplement company to prove the correctness of what it prints on the label.
When shopping for dietary supplements, look for products that have been independently tested by one of these third-party laboratories: ConsumerLab.com, NSF International, and the US Pharmacopeial Convention (USP). These organizations test supplements and ingredients for quality, purity, efficacy, and more.
After researching third-party certifications, you may find yourself with a plethora of options. Look at the reputation of the brand you’re buying. Look to see if the brand has been recalled in the past for nutritional supplements, which is a red flag. Established supplement brands have a greater reputation for protection, so you may feel more confident that their product includes what is already on the label and will provide results.
Sometimes a “protein powder” contains a lot more than protein. It may contain some already blended creatine, tart cherry or beet root extract for recovery, caffeine or some other supplement.
While the labels of these products aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, the companies that make them aren’t necessarily “lying” on the labels—sometimes they include these ingredients to turn the supplement into a muscle-building blend. Read the ingredients list so you can see what’s actually inside, and decide if you want those extra ingredients.
Another addition you might not expect: sugar. Some of the cheaper supplements include a lot of sweeteners that you may not need or really want.
4. Compatibility with other Meds
Always talk to your doctor before adding any new supplements or herbs to your diet, especially if you are taking prescription medications. Dietary supplements can interact with medications, reducing or eliminating their effects. For example, ashwagandha root can interfere with diabetes and blood pressure medications, according to the National Library of Medicine.
It’s not worth putting your health at risk to try to gain a small advantage in building muscle. Always talk to your doctor to rule out potential adverse drug interactions.
If you have dietary restrictions, it is important to read the label: Make sure the supplement you buy does not contain ingredients that you cannot digest, are allergic to or do not want to eat.
For example, many of the supplements listed above come from milk. If you’re lactose intolerant, you may find that you consume whey isolate or casein isolate instead of whey and casein protein supplements, according to the American Dairy Institute. The isolates mainly contain only protein – most of the fat and lactose are removed. They tend to be a little more expensive, but are usually more digestible for people with lactose intolerance. Note: It is still not safe for dairy allergy.
If that doesn’t work for you – or if you’re a vegetarian – plant-based proteins are available. Pea protein, as found in the Ladder Sport plant-based protein supplement, has become a popular choice, although its effectiveness has not been widely studied.