Do supplements really work for building muscle?Dr. Surya Bhagwati
Whether you’re prepping for a bodybuilding event or simply trying to get in shape, it’s easy to succumb to self-doubt. We’ve all been in that situation and often wonder whether the hard work will pay off. One thing that you shouldn’t have to worry about is whether that bodybuilding supplement will work or not. Unfortunately, that’s precisely the situation that many are in. To make things easy for you, we looked at the research on some of the most popular supplements to see which ones really work for building muscle and which are overhyped.
The Most Popular Bodybuilding Supplements Tested
1. Whey Protein
Claim: It can help build muscle, increase strength, and support all gains from your exercise routine.
Evidence: Whey protein is one of the best high-quality protein sources, rich in all nine essential amino acids. It is also rapidly digested and easily absorbed in the body. It is also one of the most studied supplements and research shows that it can promote improvements in muscle growth, to a greater degree than other protein supplements like soy or casein.
Our Verdict: It’s probably the only nutritional supplement you really need and makes most others redundant.
Claim: Enhances strength and power, improves recovery, and stimulates muscle growth.
Evidence: Like whey protein, the evidence to support creatine as a muscle building supplement is quite overwhelming. Numerous studies show that the nutritional supplement is not only effective, but is also safe. Creatine increases phosphocreatine stores in the muscles, which aids ATP formation – the main molecule for cellular energy. This allows an increase in the intensity and duration of workouts. Research shows that it also accelerates muscle growth and increases lean muscle mass.
Our Verdict: Perhaps creatine is the one nutritional supplement that whey protein doesn’t make redundant. Aside from whey protein, it’s one of the best choices for bodybuilders.
3. Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
Claim: It supports the growth and maintenance of muscle mass.
Evidence: Branched-chain amino acids or BCAAs are basically a combination of three amino acids – leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These amino acids are essential for muscle growth and there is some evidence showing that BCAA supplementation can aid and promote muscle gains. However, such gains are only observed when diets are lacking in high quality protein.
Our Verdict: BCAAs are a useless supplement if you are eating high quality protein or consuming whey protein, as whey contains all nine essential amino acids, including leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
Claim: It provides a wide range of health benefits including boosts to muscle strength and improved recovery.
Evidence: The evidence supporting ashwagandha is actually more impressive than most people realize. Studies show that just 8 weeks of supplementation can lead to improvements in not just strength, but also in terms of performance and cardiorespiratory endurance. The herb also has a cortisol lowering and testosterone boosting effect. This can help reduce the stress response to intense exercise and may further aid muscle growth. These are just a few of the herb’s benefits in terms of muscle growth.
Our Verdict: When it comes to herbal supplements for bodybuilders, ashwagandha definitely tops the list. It is also the best natural supplement that you can take along with whey and creatine.
Claim: Fuels your workout, energizes you, stimulates metabolism, and aids weight management.
Evidence: It is the most widely consumed ergogenic supplement, known to work as a stimulant. That’s why we consume coffee to stay awake and focused. When it comes to fitness, studies show that it can improve sporting performance, but there is no real support for increased gains from weight training.
Our Verdict: The claims are exaggerated and high doses of caffeine can also be dangerous. Exercise caution if you wish to use caffeine supplements.
6. Green Coffee Bean Extract
Claim: It boosts metabolism and aids weight loss to improve body composition.
Evidence: There is some evidence showing that green coffee bean extract can offer health benefits because of its chlorogenic acid content. However, the benefits (including weight loss and metabolic boost) have been greatly exaggerated by unscrupulous hacks like Dr. Oz. In fact, one of the studies touted as supporting such benefits has even been retracted due to shoddy investigative standards.
Our Verdict: Don’t fall for the marketing gimmicks. Green coffee bean supplements will burn a hole in your pocket before they burn any fat.
7. Safed Musli
Claim: It can be used to boost strength, increase endurance, and raise energy levels.
Evidence: Although more research is needed, studies so far have been encouraging. Safed musli has been found to offer direct benefits for muscle growth as it boosts growth hormone levels. In addition, the herb also exhibits testosterone boosting and anti-inflammatory effects, which can support muscle growth.
Our Verdict: Although claims from some marketers may be misleading, safed musli does promote muscle growth and is worth a try, especially in combination with other proven Ayurvedic herbs like ashwagandha and shatavari.
To sum it up, we’d say that whey protein is an essential nutritional supplement for bodybuilders who can’t get enough high quality protein from dietary sources, while creatine is a good addition. If we had to pick just one Ayurvedic herb, it would have to be ashwagandha. However, we’d recommend a blend with herbs like shatavari and safed musli for improved protein synthesis and increase growth hormone levels.
- Tang, Jason E et al. “Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men.” Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985) vol. 107,3 (2009): 987-92. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00076.2009
- Balsom, P D et al. “Skeletal muscle metabolism during short duration high-intensity exercise: influence of creatine supplementation.” Acta physiologica Scandinavica vol. 154,3 (1995): 303-10. doi:10.1111/j.1748-1716.1995.tb09914.x
- Bird, Stephen P. “Creatine supplementation and exercise performance: a brief review.” Journal of sports science & medicine vol. 2,4 123-32. 1 Dec. 2003, PMID: 24688272
- Francaux, M, and J R Poortmans. “Effects of training and creatine supplement on muscle strength and body mass.” European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology vol. 80,2 (1999): 165-8. doi:10.1007/s004210050575
- Kimball, Scot R, and Leonard S Jefferson. “Signaling pathways and molecular mechanisms through which branched-chain amino acids mediate translational control of protein synthesis.” The Journal of nutrition vol. 136,1 Suppl (2006): 227S-31S. doi:10.1093/jn/136.1.227S
- Grgic, Jozo et al. “Wake up and smell the coffee: caffeine supplementation and exercise performance-an umbrella review of 21 published meta-analyses.” British journal of sports medicine vol. 54,11 (2020): 681-688. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2018-100278
- Del Coso, Juan et al. “Dose response effects of a caffeine-containing energy drink on muscle performance: a repeated measures design.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition vol. 9,1 21. 8 May. 2012, doi:10.1186/1550-2783-9-21
- Sandhu, Jaspal Singh et al. “Effects of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) and Terminalia arjuna (Arjuna) on physical performance and cardiorespiratory endurance in healthy young adults.” International journal of Ayurveda research vol. 1,3 (2010): 144-9. doi:10.4103/0974-7788.72485
- Chandrasekhar, K et al. “A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults.” Indian journal of psychological medicine vol. 34,3 (2012): 255-62. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.106022
- Vinson, Joe A et al. “Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, linear dose, crossover study to evaluate the efficacy and safety of a green coffee bean extract in overweight subjects.” Diabetes, metabolic syndrome and obesity : targets and therapy vol. 5 (2012): 21-7. doi:10.2147/DMSO.S27665
- Alleman, Rick J Jr et al. “A blend of chlorophytum borivilianum and velvet bean increases serum growth hormone in exercise-trained men.” Nutrition and metabolic insights vol. 4 55-63. 2 Oct. 2011, doi:10.4137/NMI.S8127