A man drinks a protein shake out of a bottle outside

The 5 Top Supplements for Muscle Building, Plus 2 to Skip

Whey protein isn’t the only option.
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Fast Facts

  • Supplements could help with strength gains and recovery, to make training more efficient.
  • Supplements aren’t meant to replace nutrients in your diet—they’re meant to supplement what you eat and fill in nutritional gaps.

  • Supplements aren’t regulated or FDA-approved, but make sure they’re third-party tested from a reputable source like NSF International or U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP).

When it comes to gaining muscle, the tried-and-true advice still applies: Eat enough calories, determine your best ratio of macronutrients, strength train regularly, maximize recovery days, and get enough sleep. This will carry you toward your goals, but if you’re looking for an extra nudge along the route, supplements may help give you the boost you need, according to dietitian Kelsey Sackmann, MS, RD, owner of Kelsey P. RD in New Jersey.

“Once your nutrition and exercise regimens are on track, you may want to consider dietary supplements,” she says. “They could help with strength gains and recovery, to make training more efficient.” But what are the top supplements for muscle building? Below, find five options worth considering, along with tips for what should—and shouldn’t— be on the label of whatever supplements you choose.

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The Top Supplements for Muscle Building

1. Whey or Casein Protein Powder

“Whey is best pre or post-workout, while casein is best before bed or between meals as a more substantial snack or meal,” Sackmann says. “Both are meant to help build muscle, just best used at different times of the day.”

“Casein tends to be more expensive than whey and not as readily available in stores,” she adds. Because casein is slower to digest, she notes that it stays in your system longer and may even curb hunger, in addition to helping build muscle.

Our Pick:

2. HMB

HMB (beta-hydroxymethyl butyrate) is a chemical produced naturally by your body when it breaks down the branched-chain amino acid leucine (which contributes to helping to slow damage to muscle cells, and, in some studies is linked to increased muscle performance and growth). Raising levels by taking a supplement may stimulate muscle growth, according to Sackmann.


“Studies have shown an improvement in lean body mass in untrained individuals after HMB supplementation, but similar doses of HMB do not seem to be as effective at increasing muscle mass in adults with weight training experience,” she says. “This may mean that HMB is most effective for those who are getting started with exercise or increasing the intensity of their workouts.”


Our Pick:

3. Egg Albumin

Egg albumin, aka egg white protein, is just what it sounds like; dried egg whites turned into a powder, resulting in a high-quality protein source free of fat and carbohydrates. This protein digests slower than whey but faster than casein, according to Sackmann.

Although it’s not quite as effective as casein or whey protein in terms of building muscle, it’s still an option for post-workout or meal-replacement shakes, she says. “Keep in mind it is also more expensive than casein or whey.”

Our Pick:

4. Creatine

One of the most popular supplements for muscle growth, creatine supplies energy to your muscles. The liver, pancreas, and kidneys produce creatine naturally, but it can also be found in your everyday diet, though neither may be enough to support noticeable muscle gains on their own. Your muscles produce energy when you are lifting weights—in order to produce contractions, your muscles produce adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which provides energy for the movement— and Sackmann says studies suggest that creatine essentially helps your muscles perform more work. Supplementing with creatine may allow you to “sneak in a few more reps without losing steam and potentially build muscle,” she says.


“Because vegetarians have lower intramuscular creatine storage, they may see greater gains from taking creatine supplements,” she says. “However, it may take longer to build up levels in the muscles. Some studies also note that women who take creatine supplements may not see as much strength or muscle mass gain as men during training.”


Our Pick:

5. Beta-Alanine/Carnosine

“Supplementing with beta-alanine may help with muscle building. Data shows taking this amino acid is linked to increased lean body mass in certain populations, specifically previously trained athletes,” according to Sackmann. However, you don’t need to be a former Olympian (or train like one) for the supplement to be useful, she reiterates.


Supplementing with beta-alanine may increase carnosine—a protein building block naturally produced in the body that helps prevent lactic acid build-up and delay fatigue.
“Training regimen may also have an effect on the degree of benefit from β-alanine supplementation as it acts as a buffer for muscle acid by increasing muscle carnosine levels, enhancing muscular endurance. Supplementation is most effective for training or events lasting 60-240 seconds,” she adds. That means your muscles may be better able to perform repetitive contractions for an extended period of time, which is a benefit for high-intensity and resistance-training exercises.



Our Pick:

Supplements to Skip

Although the options above may have muscle-boosting benefits, there are two popular supplements that Sackmann believes aren’t worth the investment. They are:

BCAAs

Just about everyone consumes BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) from foods like chicken, fish, and eggs, as well as in beans, lentils, nuts, and soy. But BCAA supplements are also popular, given claims that they can increase muscle growth and reduce exercise fatigue and soreness. “A small amount of research has shown BCAA supplements to improve muscle growth, but long-term studies don’t seem to support this theory,” Sackmann adds.

“It’s likely that BCAA supplements may only benefit you if you are not eating enough high-quality protein in your diet,” she says. “Although supplementation may be beneficial if your diet is inadequate, more information is needed before BCAAs are recommended as a go-to supplement for muscle gain.”

Nitric Oxide Boosters

“Because of the role nitric oxide plays in delivering blood, oxygen, and nutrients to exercising muscles, most nitric oxide boosters are marketed as muscle builders,” says Sackmann. “While this is a powerful hook, that’s not nitric oxide’s main function.”

“Research does show that raising nitric oxide levels in the body widens blood vessels and improves blood flow, which can improve exercise performance and may raise protein synthesis rates,” she adds. “However, performance benefits are typically seen in endurance athletes while there has been little study of the effects in resistance training and muscle growth.”

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How to Choose the Best Supplements

No matter what supplement you’re thinking about adding into your workout mix, make sure to choose one that’s been tested by a reputable third-party organization, says dietitian Samantha Heller, RDN and senior clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone Health. She suggests looking for testing done by NSF International or U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP).

But it’s also important to note that supplements are exactly that—they aren’t meant to replace nutrients in your diet and they aren’t regulated or FDA-approved. “Supplements are called by that word for a reason, because they should supplement what you eat, not replace it,” Heller says. “With real food, you get phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other benefits. So use supplements strategically, while still focusing on ensuring that your nutrition is on track.”

The Bottom Line

Supplements could help with strength gains and recovery, to make training more efficient. But they shouldn’t replace nutrients from whole foods—they should be used to supplement what you eat to fill in nutritional gaps.

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