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“Do I Need Supplements to Build Muscle”; Can they really help?

If you’re asking the question “do I need supplements to build muscle”, nobody could rightly blame you for feeling confused. That’s because on one side of the coin there are muscle building supplements marketers making outrageous claims for the effectiveness of their products. On the other side, we hear online muscle building gurus claiming supplements are unnecessary while attaching no less a label than “supplement mafia” to the marketers. Talk about being pulled in opposing directions. How could one NOT still ask the question “do I need supplements to build muscle”; given the presence of such polar positions, the question has likely become amplified, much-less provided with a satisfying answer.

Woman BodybuilderBut is there really a simple answer to the question “do I need supplements to build muscle?” For example, think about this: If a person attempting to build muscle has very unhealthy eating habits, a quality meal replacement supplement might do them good. It might help that individual build muscle. The added nutrients in the powdered meal that have been missing from the junk food the trainee has been ingesting could be just what he or she needs for successful inter-workout recuperation. In addition, it could provide satiety that helps displace the desire for junk food. High quality meal replacement mixes can be of tremendous benefit to anyone with a busy schedule who’s attempting to simultaneously eat well enough to build muscle without gaining fat.

In such a case, the answer to the question “do I need supplements to build muscle” would be a resounding “Yes… under certain conditions.”

In contrast, consider the thousands of muscle building aspirants who see online advertisements for unproven products like ‘nitric oxide.’ These ads will often display something like the following ad copy:

‘Scientists at Cambridge have discovered an Incredible Muscle Building substance…’

Hey… you and I are NOT stupid. We know that while we’re sitting at our computers or with our mobile devices, all that’s required to find out the validity of such a claim is to go to Google Scholar. Once on that search page, we could simply type in “Cambridge”, “nitric oxide”, and “muscle growth.” If any scholarly research were done on nitric oxide as it relates to muscle growth/hypertrophy, the results would likely show up in a scholarly paper indexed by Google.

As it happens, a search with those keywords on that page turns up nothing about improved muscle growth, hypertrophy, or strength as a result of supplemental nitric oxide. Surprise-surprise… there are marketers in the physique enhancement industry willing to say anything to sell a pill or potion.  So, again, the question:

“Do I need supplements to build muscle?”

You definitely don’t need THAT supplement. Unless you get your jollies spending your hard-earned money on a placebo effect (at best), then you’d likely waste it with a purchase of a “supplement” like Force Factor.

‘Supplements for Muscle Building’: Only two ways they could “work”

In answering the question ‘do I need supplements to build muscle’, it’s important to first note that there are only two ways they could be of help:

  1. Improved workout performance
  2. Improved recuperation

That’s it! In order to be effective in helping add muscle, a dietary supplement needs to improve one or both of these two vital muscle building inputs. That’s because building muscle is a matter of implementing a long series of successful workouts that are intermittently combined with a long series of successful recuperations between workouts. It’s as simple as that. A muscle building supplement can only be effective by improving one or both of these two alternating endeavors.

But here’s an insight that no other fitness writer appears to be mentioning. If you successfully improve your workout performance, you’ll likely need to enhance your recuperation or lengthen the inter-workout time that you recuperate in order to keep building muscle. It only makes sense, doesn’t it? If a muscle is pushed into better performance during a workout, it will likely acquire greater tissue breakdown in need of recovery after that workout. Muscle Building Supplements

Case in point:  Creatine is a performance enhancing supplement; its positive effect is in augmenting the amount of work a muscle can do within a set of reps. However, this increased work output can further tear down muscle tissue during a bodybuilding workout routine. With more “damage” requiring post-workout recuperation, the bodybuilder using creatine will likely need to enhance post workout recovery or add inter-workout rest days in order to maximize (or even realize) the greater long-term muscle building benefits of creatine.

Some claim that creatine enhances post-workout recovery. But just a bit of common sense is required to question this notion. Why would creatine, a component in the formation of energy-enhancing ATP, be a recuperation enhancer? In order to do this, it would need to accelerate protein synthesis (directly or indirectly). Again, to find a study that supports such a notion, one only needs go to Google Scholar and type in the key words ‘creatine’, ‘muscle’, ‘recovery’, ‘protein synthesis’. If a legitimate study has ever shown creatine to act in a way that speeds post-workout recovery, the scholarly paper will show up. I’ve personally never found one, marketing literature notwithstanding.

Here’s the takeaway: With only the two ways listed above in which muscle building supplements can work, effectiveness of the first way demands more of the second way and the second way holds the most questionable legitimacy. Muscle workout performance can be enhanced rather easily; the caffeine in a cup of coffee can do it. Improved post workout recuperation is a different story. If anyone’s found a supplement that can do that better than good nutrition from food, I’ve yet to hear about it.

‘Do I Need Supplements to Build Muscle’… if they’re the “right ones?”

Now that we know that there are only two ways a muscle building supplement could actually “work”, let’s identify the MOST important formula for muscle building success:

Training Intensity/Recuperation time 

My twenty-five years of natural bodybuilding experience has taught me that nothing is more important than this ratio. You have to apply the exact amount of recuperation time required for a given amount of training intensity or muscles won’t grow. If this ratio is off, your perfectly timed and meticulously measured “eating plan” won’t work. And of course, if it’s off, any supplement that promises to improve performance or enhance recovery will be completely wasted.

Assuming you have this base covered – you’ve got a great workout/recuperation routine – let’s look at a few supplements that MIGHT improve workout performance or improve inter-workout recuperation.

Workout Performance

  • Creatine Monohydrate
  • Beta Alanine

Creatine Monohydrate: Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past twenty years, you’ve likely at least heard of people using this supplement. Creatine has become the most popular sports performance supplement because users can actually feel its results. Creatine substantially improves muscle workout performance by providing raw material for the body to produce additional ATP. In short, when used properly, creatine allows working muscles to lift more weight for more repetitions than it might without creatine supplementation.

Since I’ve written an entire article on how creatine works, I won’t bog you down with the details in this one.

Beta Alanine: This amino acid is demonstrated in studies to be involved in increased muscle buffering activity. This has been shown to allow higher work volumes with delayed fatigue onset during anaerobic exercise. Furthermore, the same study showed a combination of beta alanine and creatine to be more effective in enhancing anaerobic workout performance than creatine alone.

Muscle Recuperation

  • Branch Chain Amino Acids (2012 study shows they accelerate post-workout recovery)
  • Whey Protein Powder (quality protein with convenience)
  • Multi Vitamin/Mineral Supplement (Can provide what’s missing or deficient in diet)
  • Glycine (shown to improve sleep and reduce cortisol levels)
  • Omega 3 Fish Oil (reduces inflammation and helps strengthen the cardiovascular system)

The short list of supplements that could help accelerate recuperation is by no means proven. Neither is this an exhaustive list of possibilities. 

Consider, for example, a commonly listed recuperation supplement like the amino acid Leucine. Do you need a leucine supplement to build muscle? Many supplement marketers will claim you do because it’s such a prevalent amino acid within muscle tissue. But foods like egg whites, fish, and beef are high in leucine. The whey protein listed above is high in leucine. A branch chain amino acids supplement is loaded with leucine as well. Bottom line: if your body already has enough leucine, the addition of it as a stand-alone supplement will likely not accelerate recuperation or muscle gains.

So whether or not you need an individual daily dose of ANY purported recuperation enhancer is what becomes muddled when asking the question “do I need supplements to build muscle?” It depends on how clean your eating habits are. It depends on how many anti-oxidative vitamins you’re getting from your daily diet. It’s dependent on whether the protein you’re eating regularly has a vast array of essential and non-essential amino acids.

‘Do They Really Help?’ The Crux of the Matter

If asking the question “do I need supplements to build muscle”, there’s one take-away you need above all others. It is this:

No muscle building supplement can compensate for a suboptimal workout/recuperation system. If your workout/recuperation ratio is optimized, a well-chosen supplement or two could provide a noticeable boost. If not optimized, even a stack of the most proven supplements could be completely wasted.


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