Supplements for muscle gain - are there any?
For every fitness magazine, blog post you read or expert you speak to, there seems to be endless conveyer belt of new supplements providing the elixir for bigger biceps and perfect pecs….. But which one actually works???
Although some supplements can help support growth, the majority don’t provide much help, unless they’re off the shelf of Ricky Garrrard….
But in all seriousness, this is the reason why you need to get your diet right first and foremost <<<<< Read that again. Your overall kcals and macronutrients are LIGHT YEARS ahead in terms of importance compared to any supplement you can find on the market. An investment in your shopping will bring far greater gains than a payday packet spent with My Protein.
If you think your diet still needs tweaking then make sure you sign up to our free course on building your diet before reading on:
What supplements will make you jacked and which ones won’t
There are three mechanisms that we need to consider?
Supplements that increase anabolic hormones
Supplements to aid muscle protein synthesis (MPS)
N.B. Note that there other other ergogenic aids (performance enhancing) that could feature, but the list would be endless! Coffee, rock music and even sleep can improve the capacity to train, so I just want to stick to the main drivers that actually build muscle.
1. Supplements that increase anabolic hormones
D-Aspartic acid – Out of the 3 human studies, only one (1) showed an increase in testosterone, however the increase shown is still well within the normal daily testosterone reference range, meaning it will not going to provide any worthwhile benefits. It’s only exogenous (injecting) sources that will increase these reference ranges (i.e. using steroids).
Verdict – Don’t take it!
ZMA – There’s also only 1 study showing an increase in testosterone levels through ZMA, although this came from Victor Conte’s, BALCO (The BALCO drugs scandal) making the results somewhat questionable!
Many other papers show NO increase. At best, a modest rise may occur from supplementation although this will still fall well within normal testosterone ranges. The benefits of magnesium alone though can help with cell functioning and sleep having a subsequent improvement in training. Don’t confuse this with ZMA increasing your testosterone levels.
Even if supplements have been shown to increase testosterone levels, the increase will not be significant enough to induce any noteworthy muscle gain. Stick to putting on some loud music before you train to get a similar effect!
Verdict – Don’t waste your money
2. Supplements that aid muscle protein synthesis
Protein – Protein induces muscle protein synthesis (MPS) where frequent doses of 0.3g.kg (20-35g) appear to be optimal (6). Supplementing with protein isn’t necessary but from a convenience perspective it can be useful to hit your numbers. As a 90kg athlete, eating your daily dose of protein from chicken can be tough, where a post workout protein shake on the other hand is easy and cost effective. There is also evidence to suggest a pre bedtime feeding of casein can also bolster protein synthesis rates over night (7).
To work out your numbers, check out the kcal and macro calculator.
Verdict – Use it if you find it difficult to hit your protein numbers.
HMB – There is evidence to suggest HMB (Beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate) helps to maintain a positive protein balance by reducing muscle breakdown (8). This makes it a good addition to your diet if training intensity increases or you’re dieting/eating in a kcal deficit. For more information check out https://www.boxnutrition.co.uk/single-post/2017/04/26/Why-you-should-be-taking-HMB-when-WODing
3. Other Mechanisms
Creatine – Creatine supplementation increases intramuscular creatine stores enabling you to do more work. More reps, more sets and more exercise leads to greater adaptation. And it works. If I were asked to name one supplement that I’d recommend for functional fitness, it would be creatine. With over 1000 research papers to its name, creatine supplementation has shown to be an effective way to improve high-intensity exercise, work capacity, strength, power and lean body mass. It also has been shown to reduce the chances of muscular skeletal injuries and provide therapeutic benefits too. For more information on creatine - https://www.boxnutrition.co.uk/single-post/2017/08/17/Creatine-for-CrossFit
Verdict – Definitely take it
Colostrum – There is growing evidence to show colostrum may have a positive affect on lean mass. An increase in lean mass and reduction in body fat has been shown (2), although the mechanism is still unidentified. Improved gut function could the reason behind this.
Verdict – Wait for more literature
Fish oils – An increased omega 3 intake suggests an increase in MPS through something called the mTOR pathway (3), basically when this pathway is activated it tells your body to build more muscle, however there still needs to be more literature before making any definitive recommendations.
Verdict – Eat more oily fish until there’s stronger evidence for supplementation
Vitamin D – Vitamin D3 helps with immune function, inflammation, respiratory health, bone health, and a recent surge in research has also highlighted the correlation with vitamin D and injury prevention, muscular function, muscle growth, reduced inflammation and decreased risk of illness (Nutrition and Performance, 2015). With the lack of sunlight in the UK, it is almost impossible to get the required levels of Vitamin D3, especially during the Winter months.
Verdict – Get yourself tested and take it in the Winter months
Protein and creatine are the only supplements that show strong evidence to support muscle growth, with emerging evidence for others like HMB, fish oil and colostrum.
This is the reason why I put together Performance Box.
Supplements stripped back.
Going back to my previous point about overall diet; this is where your attention must lie. Eat to your demands, hit your protein and fat targets for the day and ensure you adequately carb up for your workouts. Only then consider supplements like the above. Focus on the basics first and results will follow.
I hope you enjoyed the post and if you think someone else will find it useful, I would be REALLY grateful if you share it with some of your friends :)
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Topo E, Soricelli A, D’Aniello A, Ronsini S, D’Aniello G. The role and molecular mechanism of D-aspartic acid in the release and synthesis of LH and testosterone in humans and rats. Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology : RB&E. 2009;7:120. doi:10.1186/1477-7827-7-120.
The effects of bovine colostrum supplementation on body composition and exercise performance in active men and women. Antonio, Jose et al. Nutrition , Volume 17 , Issue 3 , 243 – 247
Smith GI, Atherton P, Reeds DN, et al. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids augment the muscle protein anabolic response to hyperaminoacidemia-hyperinsulinemia in healthy young and middle aged men and women. Clinical science (London, England : 1979). 2011;121(6):267-278. doi:10.1042/CS20100597.
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Close, Dr Graham. "Are There Any Supplements For Hypertrophy?". 2015. Presentation.
Nutrition and Athletic Performance. (2015). Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise® and in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research., (Position Stand).
Aragon, A., Schoenfeld, B., Wildman, R., Kleiner, S., VanDusseldorp, T., Taylor, L., Earnest, C., Arciero, P., Wilborn, C., Kalman, D., Stout, J., Willoughby, D., Campbell, B., Arent, S., Bannock, L., Smith-Ryan, A. and Antonio, J. (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: diets and body composition. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14(1).
Wilson, J., Fitschen, P., Campbell, B., Wilson, G., Zanchi, N., Taylor, L., Wilborn, C., Kalman, D., Stout, J., Hoffman, J., Ziegenfuss, T., Lopez, H., Kreider, R., Smith-Ryan, A. and Antonio, J. (2013). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate (HMB). Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(1), p.6.