There are only two supplements proven to help you build muscle (2023)

This story has been updated. It was originally published on January 4, 2019.

Scroll through any weightlifting or bodybuilding forum and it’s easy to feel out of the loop. People throw around advice about BCAAs and HMB and various kinds of protein powders like these are things everyone at the gym should know—and use. Even experienced runners and lifters can feel as if they’re doing something wrong by not supplementing.

But here’s the truth: most of it is totally unnecessary. You could save yourself time and money by just eating a healthy, balanced diet with enough protein to meet your needs. But you came here for supplement advice, not to be told not to do stuff. So here’s what the research says you should do.

The only two supplements you need to build muscle

As annoying as your gym buddy’s constant chatter about protein powders is, there’s one thing they’re getting right: it is important to get enough protein to support your workout program. Runners and other cardio fans aren’t going to need as much, since they’re not pushing for the kind of active muscle building that powerlifters or bodybuilders are working towards. (You can check out our guide on just how much protein you should be getting to figure that out). But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be paying attention to your protein intake.

Working out, especially strength training, stresses your muscles—that’s how your body knows it’s supposed to be building up more of them. If you’re not taking in enough protein, though, you won’t have the amino acid building blocks required to fuel that muscle growth. And then you’re doing a whole lot of work for nothing.

(Video) The ONLY Supplements You Need to Build Muscle Faster

“I’m generally of the opinion that you should try to get protein from whole food sources if possible,” says Greg Nuckols, a world record-setting powerlifter, coach, and expert over at Stronger By Science. “But if you just don’t like protein rich foods, or you have a busy lifestyle and you don’t have time to sit down and eat a bunch of food, a protein shake to make sure you’re meeting your needs is good.”

The other solid choice for muscle growth: creatine. “Creatine is great,” Nuckols says. “There’s a lot of myths out there about creatine: that it causes dehydration, that it messes up your kidneys. That’s all B.S.”

But he cautions that’s not to say that you should expect night-and-day results.

Creatine is an amino acid found in the body’s muscles and brain and it basically works like this. Your muscles use a molecule called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, to power their contractions. They do this by ripping off one of the phosphate groups on ATP and turning it into ADP (adenosine di-phosphate). Removing that group is how you fuel the contraction, and it takes a while for your body to turn ADP back into usable ATP. Creatine can help with that by acting as a kind of backup source of phosphate groups. Muscles with stored creatine can rip a group from there and attach it to the ADP lying around—and voila, you have more ATP to use. It also acts as a weak buffer, preventing the pH inside muscles from dropping too much and therefore delaying fatigue. All of this means creatine helps your muscles work a little bit harder for a little bit longer.

[Related: What actually works for muscle recovery—and what doesn’t]

(Video) The ONLY 3 Supplements You Need for Muscle Growth (science-based)

“Ultimately what that means is that when you work out you might recover a little faster between sets, you might be able to do a few more reps between sets, and all of that adds up over time to slightly larger gains in muscle mass and strength,” Nuckols explains. The difference is small—one meta analysis suggests somewhere around 8 to 14 percent—though it could be greater if you’re low on creatine to begin with, like if you’re a vegetarian or vegan (you get dietary creatine from consuming animal meat).

But that only applies if you’re pushing yourself in your workouts. Studies where two groups, one getting creatine and one a placebo, work out exactly the same amount—such that neither group is pushing themselves to the limit—show that the creatine doesn’t give you bigger muscles if you don’t put in extra work.

“Really, past [those two supplements] for muscle-building anything else you could even potentially recommend would be kind of arguing based on mechanisms without much clear data to back you up,” says Nuckols. Studies done on supplements like leucine, which some early research suggested could kickstart the muscle-building process inside cells, haven’t panned out. Still others, like caffeine and citrulline malate, have more equivocal evidence. Some studies suggest they help increase force output or boost your muscular endurance, while others show no effect. And to complicate matters further, there are few studies that follow athletes on or off supplements to determine whether there are tangible benefits. “There’s probably a half dozen things like that may improve your workouts a little bit,” explains Nuckols, “but we just honestly don’t know at this point if they actually lead to muscle growth down the road. At this point, protein and creatine are the only two that I really feel comfortable recommending.”

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(Video) You NEED Supplements to Build Muscle! (FACT)

How to pick out supplements

The supplement aisle in the drug store is overwhelming. And supplement stores? Doubly so. If you know anything about how these pills and powders are regulated—or rather, know that they’re effectively not—you’re also plagued by concerns about heavy metals in your protein and vitamin pills that don’t actually contain the substance they claim to.

A 2010 Consumer Reports investigation found heavy metals in many samples they tested, some in high enough concentrations that people consuming the powder on a regular basis should be concerned. Another study in 2018 from the Clean Label Project found similar problems, with plant-based powders often containing the most heavy metals (arsenic occurs naturally in many plants). If you have a particular brand you love already or you’re looking at buying a new one, Nuckols recommends you check out labdoor to see how that manufacturer stacks up. The site does independent testing for purity and quality, and though it doesn’t have every brand out there it’s worth checking to see whether your pick has been tested.

Even if your fav is metal-free, you may find out that they’re not really packing in as much protein as they claim. “They use a process called amino spiking, which is where they take some cheap isolated amino acid and add a bunch of that into the powder,” Nuckols explains. “It’s cheaper for them than getting whole protein, but it’s not as good as whole protein.” Some powders have anywhere from 20 to 25 percent less usable protein than they say on the label.

That’s why Nuckols buys wholesale. “Popular supplement brands rely very heavily on good marketing and branding, and they’re generally selling to reasonably uninformed consumers,” he explains. “If it turns out that they have bad stuff in their product or are under dosing, ultimately that’s not going to hurt [the supplement brands] much. They can just change the label, say they reformulated, and keep selling to the same people.” They have no real incentive to be better. Wholesalers, on the other hand, are selling to manufacturers who know what they’re doing. Manufacturers may be shady, Nuckols says, but they want to know exactly what’s going into their product, and if they get burned by a wholesaler they’re not likely to go back. That means the incentive structure for wholesalers promotes a high quality product—plus it’s way cheaper.

Whatever supplement you’re interested in, a wholesaler probably can get a higher quality product to you for less money. You just need to know what you’re looking for.

(Video) TOP 3 Supplements That Help Build Muscle FASTER (YOU NEED THESE!)

Whey protein is the most common powder supplement because it’s cheap and easily obtainable—it’s a byproduct of the cheese-making process—but other protein sources are likely just as good. Casein gets digested a little slower and more people have allergies to it, but if you can stomach it, the casein powders will mix up much better. “Whey dissolves, but casein hydrates,” explains Nuckols. That means in a blender bottle it’ll mix to the frothy consistency of a thin milkshake, plus you can bake with it and it doesn’t have that bitter-sour aftertaste that whey does. Nuckols isn’t one to ruin a perfectly good cheesecake by making it a protein-cake, but he says you can make “legitimately delicious protein waffles” with casein, and decent muffins too. And as far as alternatives like egg white (albumin) or isolated beef protein go, they’re all just as good as another. Nuckols says he’s not confident enough to say that soy is necessarily just as good as whey or casein, but also not confident that soy is actually any worse—and if you’re vegan, soy is definitely the best you’re going to get.

My swole friend swears by this particular supplement. Should I use that one?

A lot of us have something of an obsession with optimizing our bodies. It’s natural to pursue the ideal testosterone levels or the perfect number of reps per set—we want to be our best. And our advice to just stick to the basics is probably deeply unsatisfying.

If you’re unconvinced, or you want to take a shot on some oddball supplement that you think might actually work, we here at PopSci at least want you to be safe doing it. Start by checking out the brand on labdoor—they do way more than protein and casein!—to make sure you’re not ingesting something toxic. If you want to look more at the science but lack the training to read dense academic papers, try looking at Examine. They have experts who review the evidence for various supplements and nutritional advice to see how well they hold up under scrutiny, all summarized in easy-to-understand language.

You may still opt to try something that these sources say is unlikely to do much, and that’s fine. Just make sure you’re not consuming something potentially dangerous—and keep pursuing those gains.


Do supplements actually help build muscle? ›

Supplements can't provide you with maximal muscle gains if your nutrition and exercise programs are lacking. To gain muscle, you need to eat enough calories and protein, as well as exercise, ideally with weights. Once your nutrition and exercise regimens are in check, you may want to consider dietary supplements.

Can you build muscle without any supplements? ›

They're usually not necessary for most guys because a balanced diet with enough protein and calories usually fulfills all of our amino acid needs. The only people that really need to supplement amino acids (often called BCAAs) are professional athletes. So, unless you're a pro athlete, Don, save your money.

What is the best proven muscle building supplement? ›

The 8 Best Supplements for Muscle Growth
  • Whey Protein Powder.
  • Creatine.
  • Amino Acids.
  • Carb Supplements.
  • HMB.
  • Glutamine.
  • Carnitine.
  • L-Arginine.

What 2 things do your muscles need to thrive? ›

Exercising, getting enough rest, and eating a balanced diet will help to keep your muscles healthy for life.

Do any supplements actually work? ›

Keep in mind: Most studies suggest that multivitamins won't make you live longer, slow cognitive decline or lower your chances of disease, such as heart disease, cancer or diabetes. “In fact, it's illegal for companies to make claims that supplements will treat, diagnose, prevent or cure diseases,” says Dr. Millstein.

What actually helps muscle growth? ›

Protein is the most important and essential component of nutrition and the foundation of muscle gain,” he says. If you're wondering how much protein you need to build muscle, Dr. Graham recommends 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.

Is it harder to build muscle without supplements? ›

Even experienced runners and lifters can feel as if they're doing something wrong by not supplementing. But here's the truth: most of it is totally unnecessary. You could save yourself time and money by just eating a healthy, balanced diet with enough protein to meet your needs.

Can I build muscle without protein supplements? ›

After all, your muscles are made of protein, and your body requires adequate protein in the diet in order to have the building blocks it needs to build up muscle mass. But protein alone won't do. You need to pay attention to the rest of your diet and exercise routine as well.

What is the true secret to building muscle? ›

Eating enough calories and protein helps with muscle recovery and growth after a workout. Muscle is made up of protein, and eating adequate protein after strength training is essential to limit muscle protein breakdown and assist with muscle synthesis (growth of new muscle).

What helps build muscle the fastest? ›

How to Build Muscle (Fast)
  • Increase Your Training Volume. ...
  • Focus on the Eccentric Phase. ...
  • Decrease Between-Set Rest Intervals. ...
  • To Grow Muscle, Eat More Protein. ...
  • Focus on Calorie Surpluses, Not Deficits. ...
  • Snack on Casein Before Bed. ...
  • Get More Sleep. ...
  • Try Supplementing With Creatine ...
Sep 23, 2019

What are the best supplements to build muscle and lose fat? ›

20 Best Supplements for Building Muscle and Shredded Fat in 2022
  • Elm & Rye Pre Workout.
  • Elm & Rye Protein.
  • Elm & Rye Creatine.
  • Penguin CBD Oil.
  • Everest Full Spectrum Gummies.
  • Evlution Nutrition, ENGN Shred, Pre-Workout Engine Shred,
  • Ultimate Shred Stack by Steel Supplements.
  • Scivation Xtend BCAA Powder, Watermelon.

What makes your muscles stronger? ›

When it comes to muscle-strengthening exercise, focus on things like dumbbells, resistance bands, resistance machines, and bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, squats and lunges. Another thing to keep in mind: Your weekly workouts should engage all of the major muscles in your body.

What are 3 things needed for muscle growth? ›

According to the exercise physiologist Brad Schoenfeld, there are three primary mechanisms of muscle growth: Muscle tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage. Oftentimes all of these factors are correlated with the amount of weight you lift.

What to eat to increase muscle mass? ›

Muscle building foods for gaining lean muscle
  • Eggs. Eggs contain high quality protein, healthy fats, and other important nutrients like B vitamins and choline ( 1 ). ...
  • Salmon. Salmon is a great choice for muscle building and overall health. ...
  • Chicken breast. ...
  • Greek yogurt. ...
  • Tuna. ...
  • Lean beef. ...
  • Shrimp. ...
  • Soybeans.

What is the most effective supplement? ›

Top 5 Supplements for Optimal Health
  • Multivitamin. A good quality multivitamin is one of the most important supplements for optimal health. ...
  • Fish Oil. Fish oil supplements provide the body with essential omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for regulating inflammation. ...
  • Magnesium. ...
  • Vitamin D. ...
  • Probiotics.

Why do doctors not recommend supplements? ›

Most experts recommend that people get their nutrients from food rather than supplements. One reason is it's more pleasant to eat something than pop a pill -- the simple pleasure of eating food rather than taking a pill. Foods also contain a greater variety of nutrients in one package.

What causes muscles to grow faster? ›

Muscle size increases when a person continually challenges the muscles to deal with higher levels of resistance or weight. This process is known as muscle hypertrophy. Muscle hypertrophy occurs when the fibers of the muscles sustain damage or injury.

How long does it take to build muscle with supplements? ›

True beginners might see muscle growth within six weeks of starting a resistance training program, and advanced lifters may see results within six to eight weeks of switching up their usual strength training regimen.

How long does it take to build muscle without supplements? ›

Overall, with good nutrition and consistent training, research has found that 0.5–2 pounds (0.25–0.9 kg) of muscle growth per month is a good benchmark for maximal potential muscle growth ( 7 ). While this may seem like a small amount, over time, the results can be dramatic.

Why can't I gain muscle no matter what I do? ›

You're not eating enough – one of the main causes of not being able to build muscle is not eating enough and more importantly, not eating enough of the right food. Everyone bangs on about the importance of protein, but carbs and fats are just as important when it comes to growing muscle.

Can a 60 year old man still build muscle? ›

Repeated research has shown that, through weight training, men and women in their 60s and beyond can grow muscles as big and strong as an average 40-year-old.

What is the best protein for seniors to build muscle? ›

Summary: While exercise buffs have long used protein supplements to gain muscle, new research suggests one protein source in particular, whey protein, is most effective for seniors struggling to rebuild muscle lost from inactivity associated with illness or long hospital stays.

Can a 70 year old man regain muscle mass? ›

“Research shows that, even into your late 80s, your body still has the potential to build muscle mass,” Stacy Schroder, director of wellness at Masonic Village at Elizabethtown, said.

Can you build muscle without protein or creatine? ›

No, you can still build muscle and get stronger without supplementing with creatine by relying on a progressive resistance training program and a diet rich in natural sources of creatine. We'll cover natural sources of creatine later in this article, but first, how much do you need to see a performance benefit?

Do you need carbs to build muscle? ›

Carbs are important for muscle building because they're protein sparing, which means the body looks to glycogen for energy instead of breaking down muscle tissue for energy. Consuming carbs post-workout can prevent muscle loss and help repair muscles.

Can you build muscle without sleep? ›

Sleep Deprivation and Muscle Recovery

Not getting enough sleep will backfire on you since it will make your body more catabolic and will also delay muscle growth, especially if you're using a high-intensity training style such as lifting heavyweights. Your body will produce less protein than it otherwise would.

What's the hardest muscle to get bigger? ›

Calves. Calf muscles are also considered as one of the most difficult to grow in the gym, to the point where many people give up trying. It turns out that the lower leg muscles are not that significantly different from other skeletal muscles.

What muscle is the hardest to build? ›

  • Obliques. Pretty much everyone does the standard ab crunches, but crunches aren't going to develop your obliques. ...
  • Calves. ...
  • Forearms. ...
  • Triceps. ...
  • Lower stomach.

What is the smartest way to build muscle and strength? ›

Examples of muscle strengthening activities include lifting weights, using resistance bands and doing push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups and some types of yoga. Even everyday activities such as carrying groceries, playing with your kids and gardening can strengthen muscles.

How to build muscle at 60? ›

Strength training is the secret to muscle growth for older adults. It's best to do this with light weights and to work slowly. Slow movements with lighter weights force your muscles to work harder. If you don't have a set of weights, you can use your body weight with resistance exercises like push-ups and squats.

How many times should you workout a day to build muscle? ›

Working out twice a day also improves your overall performance. Training twice a day triggers accelerated growth of muscle mass and strength. Training volume is a vital factor for all goals related to fitness. To put it differently, when you create a good two-a-day workout plan, you can reach your goals a lot faster.

What is the best supplement for losing belly fat? ›

These natural solutions include caffeine, green tea extract, protein supplements, soluble fiber supplements, and yohimbine. Among these, caffeine, green tea extract, and protein supplements are likely to be the most effective at helping you burn fat.

How can I lose belly fat and gain muscle fast? ›

Losing fat and building muscle requires a two-part exercise plan that includes cardio and resistance training. Cardio will help you burn calories and fat, while strength training will help you build your booty. It will also increase your metabolism to help you burn even more fat.

What supplements help muscle damage? ›

Vitamins for Muscle Recovery
  • Protein-rich foods. Protein is an important building block for many tissues in your body, including muscle. ...
  • Fiber-rich foods. ...
  • 3. Fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C. ...
  • Omega-3 fatty acids. ...
  • Zinc-rich foods. ...
  • Vitamin D- and calcium-rich foods. ...
  • Creatine. ...
  • Glucosamine.

What vitamin makes your muscles stronger? ›

Vitamin B6, folate and B12 are arguably the most important B vitamins when it comes to muscle growth and recovery! Both vitamins B6 and B12 have a direct role in protein metabolism.

What causes poor muscle? ›

Muscle atrophy can occur due to malnutrition, age, genetics, a lack of physical activity or certain medical conditions. Disuse (physiologic) atrophy occurs when you don't use your muscles enough. Neurogenic atrophy occurs due to nerve problems or diseases.

What food makes your legs stronger? ›

In general, 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories should come from protein. If you're trying to stay lean, the more protein the better. Protein builds muscle and muscle burns fat.
10 Foods for Building Strong Bones and Muscles
  • Yogurt. ...
  • Milk. ...
  • Salmon and Tuna. ...
  • Spinach. ...
  • Fortified foods.
Jan 13, 2015

Is Peanut Butter good for Building muscle? ›

Just one tablespoon of peanut butter has four grams of protein, making it a good source of protein for building muscle.

How many eggs should I eat in a day? ›

The American Heart Association recommends up to one egg a day for most people, fewer for people with high blood cholesterol, especially those with diabetes or who are at risk for heart failure, and up to two eggs a day for older people with normal cholesterol levels and who eat a healthy diet.

Are potatoes good for muscle gain? ›

It's important to keep caloric needs in mind when eating for muscle growth and recovery. Potatoes are a perfect option for this. They're rich in carbohydrates, which provide a necessary energy source.

Do you really need bodybuilding supplements? ›

Short answer; yes. No matter what your goal is (muscle gain, fat loss, strength gain), you will make excellent progress if you stick to a well-balanced nutrition plan and a well-structured and thought-out exercise program. The role of supplements is exactly what the word suggests: to SUPPLEMENT your nutrition plan.

Are workout supplements worth it? ›

The bottom line

Pre-workout supplements are primarily used to enhance physical performance and energy levels, but research doesn't back many of their supposed benefits. Most pre-workouts are considered safe for healthy adults, but they aren't essential for health or performance ( 1 ).

What supplements are really necessary? ›

Supplements: What You Really Need
  • Vitamin D. 1/15. It helps keep your bones strong. ...
  • Probiotics. 2/15. Also called “good” bacteria, probiotics are found in fermented foods like yogurt, kombucha, miso, and sauerkraut. ...
  • Multivitamins. 3/15. ...
  • Folic Acid. 4/15. ...
  • Fiber Supplements. 5/15. ...
  • Fish Oil. 6/15. ...
  • Calcium. 7/15. ...
  • Joint Supplements. 8/15.
Sep 5, 2021

Do supplements really matter? ›

But unlike medicines, supplements can't claim to cure, treat or prevent a disease. “There's little evidence that any supplement can reverse the course of any chronic disease,” says Hopp. “Don't take supplements with that expectation.” Evidence does suggest that some supplements can enhance health in different ways.

What should I drink to build muscle while working out? ›

Carbs and Proteins During a Workout

During long workouts, your body's glycogen reserves deplete and you need to replenish them by drinking carbs that your body can quickly convert into glucose. That's where sports drinks can come in handy—but healthier options are diluted apple juice or coconut water.


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2. Addiction, Obesity, Cholesterol and Folate on a Carnivore Diet  | Dr. Tro Kalayjian Interview
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3. Key Muscle Nutrition For Building Muscle – Dr.Berg on Muscle Growth
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