Looking to gain muscle mass and build your strength? Wondering “What should I take to build muscle?”. Expert author and bodybuilder Jim Stoppani PhD gives you all the help and advice you need when it comes to choosing the best supplements for muscle gain.
In Jim Stoppani’s Encyclopaedia of Muscle and Strength, Second Edition Chapter 27 is all about nutrition and strength training supplements for maximising muscle mass and strength. Stoppani states that there are 10 goals to achieve this, one of which is to supplement before and after workouts.
When to take supplements
The two most critical windows for supplying your body the nutrients it needs to grow bigger and stronger is the pre-workout window and the post-workout window. Getting the right nutrients right before you work out can have a significant impact on your muscle strength, energy levels, muscle endurance and overall intensity of your training. Plus, it will prime your body for muscle growth when the workout is over.
Taking in the proper nutrients immediately after the workout will help to better replenish what was used up during the workout, aid recovery and allow for better muscle growth and strength gains.
In addition to protein powder blend and carbohydrate before and after workouts, Stoppani recommends three critical supplements that you should consider taking as well as these, the supplements he recommends are Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs), creatine and beta-alanine. Along with the protein and carbohydrate, these can have a dramatic impact on muscle growth and strength gains. In fact, research from Victoria University (Australia) found that when participants consumed whey protein, creatine and glucose immediately before and after workouts, for 10 weeks they had an 80 percent greater increase in muscle mass. About a 30 percent greater increase in muscle strength than participants taking the same supplements in the morning and at night (Cribb and Hayes 2006). They also lost body fat while taking the supplements pre- and post-workout, while the group taking the supplements in the morning and night lost no body fat. The pre- and post-workout supplement group also had significantly higher muscle glycogen levels, which is critical for performance and muscle growth.
The best supplements for muscle gain
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are the three amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine. These amino acids are critical to take before and after workouts because of their ability to boost energy, reduce fatigue and instigate muscle growth. Therefore they are well known as some of the best supplements for muscle gain.
Supplementing with BCAAs before exercise promotes muscle endurance and blunts fatigue. One reason for this is the fact that the BCAAs, unlike most other amino acids, are used directly by the muscle fibres as an energy source. This is especially true during intense exercises, such as weight training.
Another way the BCAAs keep you energised during workouts is thanks to valine. During exercise, tryptophan is taken up by the brain in large amounts. Tryptophan is converted in the brain to 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), or what you likely know better as serotonin. Having higher serotonin during exercise signals to the brain that the body is fatigued. This leads to a reduction in muscle strength and endurance. Valine competes with tryptophan for entry into the brain and typically wins. This means that less tryptophan gets in and gets converted to serotonin, which allows your muscles to contract with more force for a longer time before getting fatigued. This can also help you stay more alert and keep your brain sharper during the day when you are not exercising.
After workouts, you want another dose of BCAAs because they are the most critical amino acids for muscle growth. Leucine is the key player here; it has one of the most critical roles in muscle growth. Stoppani describes Leucine as a key to an ignition of a car. The car, in this case, is a muscle cell or fibre. The ignition turns on the process of muscle protein synthesis, which builds up the muscle protein that leads to muscle growth. In more scientific terms, leucine activates a complex called mTOR, which ramps up muscle protein synthesis and therefore muscle growth. Those who add extra leucine to post-workout protein and carbohydrate have significantly greater muscle protein synthesis than those just getting protein and carbohydrate.
BCAAs and insulin
Another way that leucine acts as a potent anabolic agent is by spiking insulin levels. Much like eating high-glycemic carbs, leucine increases the release of insulin from the pancreas, which helps to drive it into the muscle cells where it can work to stimulate muscle growth. Insulin also encourages muscles’ growth itself by encouraging greater muscle protein synthesis and decreasing muscle protein breakdown.
How much and when?
Take a 5- to 10-gram dose of BCAAs within 30 minutes before workouts and another 5 to 10 grams of BCAAs within 30 minutes after workouts. Even though whey protein, which you will also take at these points, is rich in BCAAs, taking extra BCAAs in their free form can get them to your muscles faster and ensure that you have ample BCAAs at the time they are most critical.
Both clinical data and anecdotal evidence suggest that creatine provides the best results when taken before and after workouts. The main reason to get a dose of creatine before workouts is that it provides the muscle fibres with a powerful energy source. Once inside the muscle fibres, creatine gains a high-energy phosphate to form phosphocreatine (PCr).
PCr is simply a molecule of creatine with a phosphate group attached to it. During very high-intensity exercise, such as heavy lifting, creatine donates this high-energy phosphate group to the muscle to form ATP (adenosine triphosphate). This rapidly generated ATP fuels the muscle contractions during a set.
More reps with Creatine
The more PCr you have stored in your muscle fibres, the more reps you can get during a set. This is the main way that supplementing with creatine leads to greater gains in muscle strength and muscle hypertrophy over time. It allows you to complete more reps with a given weight. That eventually allows you to lift heavier and heavier weight. That greater overload placed on the muscle in combination with greater work performed eventually leads to greater muscle growth. Getting a dose of creatine before workouts ensures that your levels of PCr in the muscle fibres are maximised.
Supplementing with creatine leads to significant gains in muscle strength and power as well as muscle growth. Numerous studies have reported significant improvements in one-rep max strength of people taking creatine. For example, Vandenberghe and colleagues (1997) reported that untrained participants taking creatine while following a 10-week weight training programme increased their one-rep max on the squat by 25 percent more than those taking a placebo while following the same programme. Another study by Noonan et al (1998) found that trained collegiate football players taking creatine while following an 8-week weight training programme had a 6 percent increase in their one-rep bench press strength. Those taking a placebo had no strength gains at all. A 2003 review by Rawson and Volek reported that out of 16 studies investigating the effects of creatine on one-rep max strength, the average increase in strength was about 10 percent more in those taking creatine than in those taking a placebo.
Creatine for powerlifters
Studies also show that creatine enables people to complete more reps with a given weight. Competitive powerlifters taking creatine while preparing for a competition increased the number of reps they were able to complete with 85 percent of their one-rep max by 40 percent. While those taking a placebo had no change in the number of reps they were able to complete with the same weight (Kelly and Jenkins, 1998). Rawson and Volek (2003) determined that out of the 16 studies they reviewed, the average increase in reps performed while taking creatine was about 15 percent more than for those taking a placebo.
Improve athletic ability
Most of the studies performed on creatine indicate that supplementing with it significantly enhances athletic ability because it produces higher muscle force and power during short bouts of exercise. The participants in these studies had mixed athletic ability and training status, from relatively untrained novices to competitive college-level athletes. Some of the exercise performances that improved include various types of short-term and all-out cycling, sprinting, repeated jumping, swimming, soccer, kayaking, rowing and of course weightlifting. The greatest improvements in athletic performance seem to be found during a series of repetitive high-power output exercise bouts. For example, after a short rest period (20-60 seconds) after a short sprint, speed may be increased on the second bout of sprinting. Athletic performance during these latter bouts of exercise can be increased by 5 to 20 percent with creatine over the placebo group. This means that athletes in sports such as American football and soccer, in which continuous play typically lasts for only a few seconds, can expect a significant boost in performance from creatine.
Gain lean muscle
Several studies show that creatine significantly boosts lean muscle mass. Kelly and Jenkins (1998), as noted earlier, found that the powerlifters taking creatine gained an average of over 6 pounds of lean body weight. Some participants gained up to 11 pounds of lean body weight in less than 4 weeks, while those taking a placebo had no change in body weight. Becque and colleagues (2000) reported that trained weightlifters taking creatine gained almost 5 pounds of lean body weight in 6 weeks, while those taking a placebo had no change in body weight. Since creatine supplementation likely does not increase bone or organ mass, the increase in lean body weight is more reasonably the result of a gain in muscle mass. In these short periods, a good deal of that gain in muscle mass likely comes from water, because the muscle fibres gain a higher volume of fluid when stocked with higher levels of creatine. However, that can lead to long-term muscle growth via greater protein synthesis. For muscle gain, the science does suggest that creatine is one of the best supplements for muscle gain.
The majority of benefits from creatine involve its ability to supply fast energy during workouts. This allows you to recover faster between bouts of exercise, such as fast running or weightlifting. But today we know that creatine works through a number of mechanisms, one of which is through muscle cell volumisation. This is a fancy term that means the muscle cells fill up with water. Since creatine is essentially a protein, it draws water from the blood and the space outside of the muscle cells (known as the interstitial fluid) into the muscle through the process of osmosis. This is the major reason for the rapid weight gain that is associated with creatine supplementation. However, this increase in cell volume causes the cell membranes to stretch, which is thought to initiate long-term increases in muscle growth and strength through greater protein synthesis—the method that muscle cells use to grow.
Another way that creatine has been found to work is by increasing the number of satellite cells in muscle fibres. Satellite cells are basically muscle stem cells, and one way that muscles grow bigger and stronger is by the addition of muscle satellite cells to existing muscle fibres. A 2006 study by Olsen and colleagues found that after 8 weeks of supplementing with creatine while following a weight training programme, participants had almost 100 percent more satellite cells in their muscle fibres than those taking a placebo. As expected, the greater number of satellite cells was associated with greater muscle size. This can also lead to greater muscle strength and power.
Increase IGF-I, decrease myostatin
Creatine also appears to work through increases in insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I). IGF-I is critical to initiating processes in muscle cells that lead to enhanced muscle growth and muscle strength. Burke (2008) reported that weight-trained participants taking creatine while following a weightlifting programme for 8 weeks had significantly higher IGF-I content in their muscle fibres than those taking a placebo.
Another way that creatine appears to work is by inhibiting myostatin. Participants taking creatine while following a weightlifting programme for 8 weeks had significantly lower myostatin levels than those taking a placebo (Saremi et al. 2010). Myostatin is a protein that limits muscle growth. The Iranian researchers concluded that since myostatin levels were lower in the participants taking creatine, one way that creatine may work to increase muscle size and strength is by reducing myostatin levels, which reduces the limitation that this protein places on muscle growth.
Although there is ample research showing that creatine is safe for almost anyone at any age to use, there are still myths regarding safety and side effects. One of the longest-standing myths is that creatine can cause muscle cramps. However numerous studies debunk this claim. Greenwood and colleagues (2003b) concluded that NCAA football players taking creatine over the course of 3 years had no increase in the incidence of muscle cramps or muscle injuries. In fact, another 2003 study found that NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) football players taking creatine for one full season actually had a significant reduction in muscle cramps and muscle injuries (Greenwood et al. 2003).
Another misconception about creatine is that it can lead to impaired liver and kidney function. Studies done in the 1990s were some of the first to show that short-term creatine supplementation does not impair kidney function in healthy adults (Poortmans et al. 1997; Poortmans and Francaux 1999). Another study (Cancela et al. 2008) has further shown that 8 weeks of creatine supplementation in soccer players had no effect on health markers that included kidney and liver function. Longer-term studies have also been done to confirm creatine’s safety. Mayhew and colleagues (2002) concluded that NCAA football players taking creatine for up to about 6 years had no long-term detrimental effects on overall health or kidney or liver functions. In another study (Kreider et al. 2003) NCAA football players taking creatine for close to 2 years experienced no negative effects on general health or kidney and liver function. The most recent study (Lugaresi et al. 2013) involved weight-trained participants who were following a high-protein diet (0.6-1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight) and consumed 5 grams of creatine for 1 year. Kidney function was not compromised.
Additional health benefits
Instead of being detrimental to your health, creatine actually provides numerous health benefits. Because PCr is important for energy production involved in nerve cell function, creatine has been shown to provide numerous benefits to the brain and the rest of the nervous system. For example, research has found that creatine supplementation enhances cognitive function and memory it may even help in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and even depression, as well as protect against brain injury.
Creatine has also been found to aid cardiovascular health, such as improvement of symptoms in those with congestive heart failure, and may even lower cholesterol levels. One study (Earnest et al. 1996) discovered that male and female participants taking creatine for 8 weeks had a drop of more than 5 percent in total cholesterol and a drop in LDL cholesterol (the bad type of cholesterol) of more than 20 percent. Similarly, researchers reported that 28 days of creatine supplementation decreased total cholesterol by 10 percent in healthy young males (Arciero et al. 2001). And healthy young males taking creatine plus a multivitamin supplement significantly reduced their levels of homocysteine (an amino acid associated with heart disease), compared to those taking just the multivitamin supplement (Korzun 2004).
How much creatine?
Stoppani suggests you get a dose of creatine before workouts to ensure that your levels of it in the muscle cells are maximised. And get another dose after workouts, when it will be preferentially taken up by the muscle cells and replenish any that was lost during the workout. How much you take pre- and post-workout depends on the form of creatine you use. If you go with creatine monohydrate, he suggests taking 3 to 5 grams before and after workouts. Although creatine monohydrate is the most studied form of creatine, creatine hydrochloride is a form of creatine that Stoppani has worked with extensively. He says it tends to be absorbed better than creatine monohydrate and causes less stomach distress. If using this form, take 1.5 to 2 grams before and after workouts.
Beta-alanine is a nonessential amino acid that is produced naturally in the liver. You also get it in your diet from meat sources, such as beef and poultry. In the body, beta-alanine, whether from the liver or ingested from food or supplements, is taken up by the muscle fibres and combines with the amino acid histidine to form the dipeptide (two-amino-acid protein) carnosine. Carnosine provides all the benefits associated with beta-alanine, which include greater strength and power, better endurance and even greater fat loss and muscle growth.
Carnosine works by increasing the muscle’s buffering capacity of hydrogen (H+) ions, which are produced when lactic acid levels rise during intense exercises, such as weight training. This increases the muscle’s ability to maintain stronger contractions for longer periods during exercise. In other words, you can lift more weight and complete more reps during the later stages of your workouts. This ability leads to greater gains in strength and power, as well as muscle mass, while also promoting greater fat loss.
Workout longer and harder with beta-alanine
Participants taking just over 4 grams of beta-alanine per day for 30 days were able to increase the number of reps they could complete during a squat workout by almost 25 percent more than those taking a placebo (Hoffman et al. 2008). Another study found that 4 weeks of beta-alanine supplementation in amateur boxers increased their average punching power in the last 10 seconds of simulated 3-minute rounds (Donovan et al. 2012). The ability to maintain punching power late in the round is similar to the ability to maintain more strength and power later in workouts, meaning you can lift more weight for more reps. The most recent study found that soldiers taking beta-alanine for four weeks increased jumping power and even marksmanship. This suggests not only a muscle performance benefit of beta-alanine but also possible improved psychomotor performance (Hoffman et al. 2014).
Beta-alanine + Creatine = mass
Research also shows a great synergy of beta-alanine with creatine. One study reported that weight-trained athletes consuming 3.2 grams of beta-alanine plus 10 grams of creatine daily for 12 weeks gained significantly more muscle mass while simultaneously losing significant body fat. This was compared to those taking just 10 grams of creatine alone and those taking a placebo (Hoffman et al. 2006). Both the creatine-only group and the placebo group did not lose any body fat.
How much beta-alanine?
The absolute lowest amount of beta-alanine consumed to provide the benefits listed previously is 1.6 grams per day. However, research on various levels of supplementation shows that between 2 – 4 grams per day each may provide even better benefits. Stoppani recommends a 2-gram dose of beta-alanine both before workouts and then immediately after.
Cover your vitamin and mineral needs with a supplement
Athletes and those who train intensely lose many critical vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins, vitamin C, chromium, selenium, zinc, magnesium and copper. This is due to a variety of factors, such as loss of the minerals in sweat and urine, as well as increased use for energy production during the workout and recovery and protein synthesis after training.
Even if you are careful to eat a well-rounded diet, you may not be getting adequate amounts of critical micronutrients. That’s because our food supply today is lower in many of these vitamins and minerals due to conventional farming practices.
Vitamin and mineral supplements can help you live longer
Numerous studies show that vitamin and mineral supplements reduce the risk of certain diseases and death. The most recent was from Li and colleagues (2012). The researchers reported that in about 24,000 people, those taking vitamin and mineral supplements at the start of the study had a 42 percent reduced risk of all-cause mortality over the 11 years of the study and a 48 percent reduced risk of cancer-related death.
The bottom line is that you definitely should be using a multivitamin and mineral supplement to boost overall health, brain function, athletic performance and even fat loss and muscle recovery and growth. Your best bet is to take your multivitamin with your first meal of the day to enhance absorption of most of the nutrients and to stock up on them for your day ahead.
What vitamins and minerals and how much?
Look for a multivitamin that provides as close to 100 percent as possible of the daily value (DV) of the following:
- Vitamin A (only if it is mostly beta-carotene; otherwise keep it under 4000 IU)
- Vitamins B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B6, B12, and folic acid (B9)
- Vitamin C
- Iodine (especially if you follow a low-sodium diet)
Don’t worry about the amount of calcium in your multivitamin. In fact, because calcium interferes with the absorption of other minerals such as zinc and magnesium, the less calcium the better. You should take a calcium supplement separate from when you take a multivitamin. Don’t worry too much about the amount of zinc or magnesium since you should take them separately from a multivitamin anyway.
Consider getting more than the DV, or likely what’s in your multivitamin, of the following vitamins and minerals:
B vitamins: These water-soluble vitamins are typically low in those who train. They are often lost in sweat. Take a B-complex 100 that provides 100 milligrammes of B1, B2, B3, pantothenic acid (B5) and B6 and at least 100 micrograms of B12, 400 micrograms of folic acid and 300 micrograms of biotin once or twice a day.
Vitamin C: This is also a water-soluble vitamin that can be lost in sweat. Take 250 to 500 milligrammes of vitamin C once a day.
Vitamin D: This vitamin is critical for your health, physique and performance. It aids fat loss, testosterone levels, bone health and mood. Take 2000 to 6000 IU of vitamin D3 per day.
Vitamin E: New research shows that vitamin E is critical for muscle recovery. Unless your multivitamin has at least 400 IU of E, you will want to take a vitamin E supplement providing 400 to 800 IU per day. Be sure to buy the natural forms, called d-alpha-tocopherols, which are absorbed and used better than the synthetic forms, called dl-alpha tocopherols.
Calcium: Important for bone health, fat loss and even testosterone levels, calcium in the amount of 1000 to 2000 milligrammes per day is required. Take 500 to 600 milligrammes of calcium (anymore may not get absorbed properly) one or two times per day (depending on how much calcium you get from your diet) separately from other minerals and vitamins.
Zinc and magnesium: Get 30 milligrammes of zinc and 450 milligrammes of magnesium 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. It will help increase sleep quality and keep your testosterone levels and muscle strength up.
Stoppani says for any vitamin or mineral that does not add up to 100% DV in your multivitamin, consider taking as a separate supplement to keep your bases covered unless you are certain to get adequate amounts of the nutrient in your daily diet.
Thanks for reading our guide to the best supplements for strength and size. Find out more about nutrition for maximising muscle mass and nutrition for fat loss in Jim Stoppani’s Encyclopaedia of Muscle & Strength, Second Edition. The book also covers 381 exercises and 116 programmes for strength training success.
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