If you want to know which supplements can (and cannot) help you build more muscle, then you want to read this article.
Building muscle is a relatively straightforward process. To build muscle, all you need to do is:
Consume a sufficient amount of protein
Eat a small surplus of calories
Lift heavy weights a few times a week
But, if you were like most people when you started training regularly, you invested a mini-fortune on all kinds of supplements, especially ones touted as “muscle builders”, under the guise that they were the secret to making gains.
Unfortunately, you were told a big sack of lies.
Diet, training, and sleep have far greater impact on your ability to build muscle as quickly as possible than any supplement claiming to be a “natural muscle builder” ever could hope.
Now, don’t get us wrong, supplement can (and do) work for improve performance, recovery, and muscle growth. It’s just that the vast majority of the products advertised as “muscle builders” do absolutely jack squat.
Ahead, we’re going to tell you which supplements are a complete waste of your time and money along with the top 3 best supplements to build muscle.
Let’s get right to it!
Top 3 Worst Supplements to Build Muscle
Simply put, BCAA are one of the most popular (and overrated) supplements on the market. If you’ve never tried them for yourself, then no doubt you’ve seen the muscle bound dudes at the gym sipping on some gallon jug of neon yellow or pink liquid in between their sets of bench press.
That brightly colored liquid (most likely) is BCAAs.
So, what are BCAAs?
BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) are a special subcategory of the essential amino acids consisting of three amino acids in:
Leucine is the real star of the show as it is the most powerful stimulator of mTOR (mechanistic target of rapamycin). mTOR is an immensely important in that body as it regulates cell growth and proliferation by promoting many anabolic processes, including:
Biosynthesis of proteins, lipids and organelles, and
Limiting catabolic (protein breakdown) processes such as autophagy
Isoleucine also activates mTOR, but not nearly to the degree that leucine does, hence its nickname of “leucine’s weaker brother”. But that’s not all, isoleucine can also improve glucose metabolism and glucose uptake into skeletal muscles, making it critical to replenishing muscle glycogen following a workout.
Valine is the last of the three BCAA and doesn’t really have much of anything to do with mTOR. Although, there is some animal research suggesting it can limit release of exercise-induced 5-HT in the brain. This is important because when serotonin is released, it signals fatigue. So, by valine “blocking” uptake of 5-HT, serotonin secretion is subdued, thereby reducing fatigue and boosting endurance. (In theory, at least).
BCAA are found abundantly in a number of foods, including beef, chicken, eggs, and dairy (including whey protein isolate, which is especially rich in leucine).
Now, a lot of the hype and fancy marketing lingo surrounding BCAA is its ability to boost performance and enhance muscle growth. And, it’s easy to fall for the hype as there are several studies noting that supplementation with BCAAs results in:
Decreased exercise-induced muscle damage
Enhanced post-workout growth hormone (GH)
Greater immune function
There is a pretty substantial flaw in most of the research demonstrating the effectiveness of BCAA -- the test subjects were not consuming enough dietary protein.
You see, when you do consume enough protein each day, you get all the BCAA your body needs from whole food, and there’s some research indicating that it may be more effective than chugging BCAAs all day long too.
In fact, a 2017 study by Jackman et al. documented that when male subjects ingested 5.6g of BCAA post-workout, the average resulting protein synthesis response was only about 22% To put that number in perspective, that’s about half of what you can get with an equivalent dose of whey protein.
So, it’s clear that BCAA supplements are inferior to other complete protein sources, including whey protein.
The reason for this is that BCAA only offer 3 of the 9 essential amino acids. In order for your body to synthesize new proteins, it requires that ALL NINE of the EAAs be present in sufficient quantities. If any of them are lacking, then protein synthesis, along with muscle repair and growth, is stunted. And, in order to build proteins, your body would begin breaking down muscle to obtain the other 6 amino acids it needs to continue creating proteins.
This is why Primeval Labs chose to create an amino acid supplement that contained all nine essential amino acids in EAA Max.
EAA Max provides all the building blocks your body needs to synthesize muscle protein and support the muscle recovery and growth process.
Now, there is one instance where many still advocate for the use of BCAA might -- fasted training.
And on the surface, this makes sense, as research has noted that BCAA can have anti-catabolic properties, leucine in particular. BCAA supplements also prompt a small increase in insulin, which itself is anti-catabolic.
However, some recent research indicates fasted training might not be the muscle-wasting demon it’s been believed to be -- so long as your daily protein intake is sufficient.
For example, a 2013 study analysing the potential catabolic properties of fasted training in bodybuilders training during Ramadan found that those who trained in a fasted state during Ramadan experienced no significant differences in muscle mass (loss) or body composition compared to subjects who trained in a fed state.
Suffice it to say, that BCAA by and large are a lot of hype and do not offer any significant advantage for building muscle provided you consume enough protein each day. The studies showing BCAA improved lean body mass are plagued by glaring flaws (including severe calorie deficits and lack of adequate dietary protein).
Your body can get all the BCAA it requires from the foods you eat. As long as you’re getting enough protein each day, BCAA supplements offer no added benefit in terms of recovery or muscle growth, and therefore do not qualify as one of the best muscle building supplements.
HMB (β-Hydroxy β-Methylbutyrate) is one of the most hotly contested supplements due to the outlandish claims along the lines of “massive” muscle mass gains and fat reduction. There’s also a now “infamous” study from 2014 in which HMB was touted to deliver “steroid-like” gains in size and strength.
But, before we get into the litany of problems with that study, let’s first discuss what exactly HMB is.
HMB is a metabolite of the BCAA leucine that forms from the breakdown of leucine in the body. The reason HMB first jumped on sports scientists radars is due to some research noting the leucine metabolite offered powerful anti-catabolic properties. In fact, one study suggest HMB may be 20 times more anti-catabolic than leucine.
There’s also the added benefit that HMB does not stimulate insulin release (something leucine does). This would, in theory, make HMB an ideal supplement to use during fasted training as it will not kick you out of a fasted state (as consuming BCAAs would) all while preventing unwanted muscle breakdown that can occur during fasted exercise.
However, as we discussed above in the section on BCAAs, provided that you consume enough protein during the day, you do not need to worry about any muscle loss resulting from fasted training, whether that be resistance-training or cardio.
So, that pretty much negates any need to supplement with HMB from a muscle-sparing point of view. Let’s now take a closer look at the “infamous” HMB study from 2014 where subjects receiving 3g HMB-FA (free acid) experienced gains greater than what could be obtained with steroids.
Upon reviewing the study, you’ll notice a few big things…
The study was funded by the company who holds the patent on HMB-FA (Metabolic Technologies.
Three of the researchers running the study are employed by Metabolic Technologies and handled both the design of the study and the preparation of the research paper
The logic behind why HMB-FA was so much more effective compared to previous results obtained when using HMB-Ca (calcium salt) is pitiful. Researchers touted that since HMB-FA was absorbed faster it led to significantly greater gains. But, the uptake speed of a compound is not indicative of its effectiveness. One need only look at creatine monohydrate vs creatine nitrate for proof. Creatine nitrate is absorbed more quickly in the body than creatine monohydrate, but no studies have found it to be superior to creatine monohydrate when it comes to increases in muscle size, strength, or power.
Suffice it to say that this study is severely compromised and its results should be taken with a heaping teaspoon of salt.
Now, when looking at unbiased studies that don’t have massive conflicts of interest, HMB supplementation has been found to have negligible impacts on body composition, strength, or preventing catabolism.[22,23,24]
More recently, a 2017 meta-analysis of randomized controlled HMB trials, found that the leucine metabolite had no effect of HMB on both strength development and body composition.
Most recently a pair of studies further added to the compelling body of evidence that there are no benefits to HMB supplementation.
In the first study, HMB was compared to leucine supplementation in a group of resistance-trained men who were consuming adequate protein (>1.7 g/kg/day). The study’s protocol mimicked that of the “infamous” 2014 HMB study and found that after 12 weeks of rigorous lifting, ZERO differences were observed in muscle growth or lean mass gains.
The other study (another double-blind randomized controlled trial) compared a trio of leucine metabolites in α-hydroxyisocaproic acid (α-HICA) and β-hydroxy-β-methylbutyrate (calcium, HMB-Ca and free acid, HMB-FA). Subjects trained three times per week for eight weeks with each training session consisting of seven exercises per session performed for three to four sets per session at 70%-80% one repetition maximum.
At the conclusion of the trial, researchers noted:
“No leucine metabolite resulted in any ergogenic effects on any outcome variable. Supplementation with leucine metabolites-α-HICA, HMB-FA, or HMB-Ca-is not a supplementation strategy that improves muscle growth and strength development in young adult men.”
In other words, supplementing with HMB (or any other derivative of leucine) will not lead to any greater gains in strength or size that what you could obtain from consuming adequate dietary protein each day.
L-glutamine is a conditionally essential amino acid that also happens to be the most abundant amino acid in the human body. And, as you would expect from such a plentiful amino acid, it’s involved in a wide range of physiological processes, including protein synthesis.
Glutamine is stored heavily in skeletal muscle tissue, but it also plays a key role in immune function and gut health, due to the fact that cells comprising those systems can use glutamine as a source of energy.
So, how did glutamine come to be thought of as a useful muscle building supplement?
Well, a few clinical trials reported that when burn victims received L-glutamine, it decreased the rate of muscle loss that usually accompanies 3rd degree burns. Based on this research supplement companies (and consumers) believed that glutamine would help spare muscle tissue, due to the fact that intense training breaks down muscle tissue. And, since skeletal muscles contain lots of glutamine, surely supplementing with more of it would inherently build more muscle. Right?
As it turns out, supplementing with glutamine has no significant impact on muscle growth or recovery, unless you are severely wounded or burned.[29,30,31]
This is due to two main reasons.
First, glutamine has terrible bioavailability and is often gobbled up by the stomach before it ever has a chance to reach the small intestines for absorption and transportation into the bloodstream where it can get to skeletal muscles.
Secondly, glutamine stores are tightly regulated in the body and, when taken orally (as it would be in a muscle building supplement), it will be stored in the intestines, liver, and muscle tissue (for emergency purposes, such as during a severe trauma or injury).
However, once glutamine stores are full, consuming more glutamine will not cause the body to build new muscle tissue to create more storage room for the excess glutamine.
In other words, L-glutamine supplementation provides no additional benefits for building bigger, stronger muscles within the confines of an otherwise healthy diet. Research backs this up too.
A study conducted in healthy young adults performing resistance training supplemented with 0.9g/kg of bodyweight L-Glutamine for six weeks. At the conclusion of the trial, researchers stated:
“We conclude that glutamine supplementation during resistance training has no significant effect on muscle performance, body composition or muscle protein degradation in young healthy adults.”
The takeaway here is that L-glutamine may benefit gut health and help preserve lean mass following severe trauma, but it won’t do anything for enhancing your gains if you’re already consuming adequate protein.
Top 3 Best Supplements to Build Muscle
No surprise here.
If there is one and only one supplement you could buy to help build more muscle as fast as possible, it’s creatine. Period. End of story.
Simply put, creatine is the most well-researched molecule in all of sports nutrition with hundreds upon hundreds of studies documenting its safety and efficacy across a wide range of populations (including children and the elderly).
Various studies have clearly shown that creatine supplements help:
Build muscle faster
Improve anaerobic exercise performance
Boost muscle recovery
So, what is creatine and what does it do exactly?
Well, creatine is a chemical produced in the body and found in foods such as red meat, fish, and eggs. It is composed of the amino acids L-arginine, glycine, and L-methionine, and can be found in just about every cell of your body, where it acts as an energy “backup” of sorts.[38,39]
Supplementing with creatine increases the amount of creatine stored in your muscles.
This in turn increases the amount of readily available energy in your muscle cells, and as you would expect, with greater energy, comes greater performance, endurance, strength, and power.
Essentially, creatine helps you lift more weight for more reps with greater recovery. This culminates in better workouts, bigger gains, and more muscle growth.
But, that’s not all.
Creatine also acts as an osmolyte, meaning it increase the amount of water your muscles store. This cell-saturating effect helps improve hydration, stamina, and muscle fullness as well as influencing several factors that impact hypertrophy, including gene expression and nitrogen balance.
Some other research also indicates creatine may exerts anti-catabolic effects in the body.
As you know muscle growth comes down to increasing protein synthesis and limiting protein breakdown. So, anything that boots the amount of protein built, or reduces the amount of protein broken down helps build muscle.
With creatine, you get the best of both worlds along with greater performance. Due to the myriad of benefits creatine offers, we’ve included the full 5 gram serving of creatine in every serving of Prim-ATP.
Chances are, when you started training regularly, you were told that protein powder was essential to building muscle.
Well, we hate to break it to you, but protein powder is NOT essential for muscle growth -- consuming enough protein each day is though, and you can get all the protein needed to build muscle from whole food.
But, getting all of your protein from whole food sources (beef, chicken, pork) isn’t always easy, especially if you’re someone who suffers from a poor or low appetite or limited on time.
In these cases, protein powder can be a godsend, as it provides a quick, easy, and delicious way to ensure you get in enough protein each and every day, no matter how short on time you are or how bad of a cook you may be.
Protein powder is also extremely affordable when you factor its price per gram of protein. It’s also low in carbs and fats, which means it can be worked into any meal plan (this becomes increasingly more important when dieting and trying to lose stubborn belly fat).
Thus, it comes as no surprise that people who like to work out regularly use protein powder daily.
Now, there are a lot of options from which to choose when trying to find the “best” protein powder, but the one we’re partial to, hear at Primeval Labs, is whey protein isolate.
We’ve expounded on why whey protein isolate is superior before, but to briefly recap:
Whey protein isolate contains a minimum 90% protein by mass, which is considerably more than whey concentrate given the fact that whey protein concentrate isn’t standardized. In fact, it can vary anywhere from 35-80% protein by mass.
And to make matter worse, supplement companies and manufacturers aren’t required to list which grade of whey concentrate they include in the protein powder.
By choosing a whey isolate protein, such as Primeval Labs ISOLIT, you’re guaranteed to get a high amount of protein in each serving, without wasting a bunch of unnecessary calories on carbohydrates, lactose or milk fat.
Another reason to consider whey protein isolate as your go-to protein powder is that it is rapid digesting, easy on the stomach, and high in leucine -- the “anabolic” trigger that ignites protein synthesis.
While there may be nothing “magical” about protein powder, it is cost-effective, high in protein, easy to prepare/clean, and requires no refrigeration. And, if you choose ISOLIT as your protein powder of choice, you’re guaranteed to have the best tasting whey protein powder on the market, bar none.
By now, you know that leucine is important not only for its anti-catabolic properties, but also its ability to stimulate mTOR and drive muscle protein synthesis. Supplementing with EAAs and whey protein provides two ways to get enough leucine to activate mTOR.
But, leucine isn’t the only thing that stimulates mTOR. Yes, isoleucine can stimulate it somewhat, but, there’s yet another way to activate the muscle-building pathways of the body -- phosphatidic acid.
What is Phosphatidic Acid?
One of the newer compounds on the market, phosphatidic acid is an all-natural phospholipid produced in your body during high-intensity exercise, especially eccentric training.
What is a phospholipid?
A phospholipid is a compound comprised of a molecule of glycerol bonded to two fatty acids and a single phosphate group. Phospholipids function as important signaling messengers inside of the cell. And, they also help make up cell membranes.
In fact, the membranes of your muscle cells as well as the organelles inside those cells (i.e. ribosome, mitochondria, etc.) contain phospholipids.
What does any of this have to do with building muscle?
Well, when you lift heavy weights, muscle fibers become damaged. In response to this damage, an enzyme known as phospholipase D generates phosphatidic acid, which signals to your muscles that it’s time to “batten down the hatches”, fortify, and grow.
When phospholipase D is released, it is broken down into phosphatidylcholine (another vital component of cells) into choline and phosphatidic acid.
Researchers who devote their careers to studying cellular biology and physiology discovered that phosphatidic acid leads to muscle growth by directly activating mTOR![45,46,47,48,49,50,51,52]
In other words, phosphatidic acid is to fatty acids (lipids) what leucine is to protein -- an anabolic trigger that sparks protein synthesis and muscle growth.
Upon discovering this sports scientists set out to determine if supplementing with phosphatidic acid could stimulate mTOR, and indeed it does!
In fact, several clinical trials conducted in resistance-trained humans has demonstrated that supplementing with phosphatidic acid leads to significant increases in strength, muscle mass, and recovery.[53,54,55]
There’s also some evidence to suggest that phosphatidic may also help with fat loss and body recomposition, too.
How much phosphatidic acid do you need to take?
Based on the research, an individual needs to supplement with 750mg phosphatidic acid to obtain the benefits outlined in the research.
Now, it’s important to note that not all forms of phosphatidic acid supplements are created equal. In fact, some are just downright awful when it comes to quality.
That’s why we recommend sticking with Mediator Phosphatidic Acid. It’s the only form backed by several clinical trials denoting improvements in lean mass, strength, and body composition.
Mediator phosphatidic acid is derived from soy, which has been found in research to lead to the greatest increases in mTOR signaling.
The Truth About the Best Muscle Building Supplements
Supplements are not repsonsible for building muscle. Even the best muscle building supplements won’t do a lick of good if you’re diet, training, and sleep aren’t in order.
That being said, if you already train consistently (utilizing the principles of progressive overload), consume enough protein, and eat a small surplus of calories, but want to further enhance your results, muscle building supplements can help.
The list of effective supplements (backed by human research) is limited, but there certainly are ones that work and may help you build muscle faster. After you’ve got all your bases covered (diet, training, and sleep), then consider trying any or all of the best muscle building supplements outlined above!
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