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If you’re active and exercising on the regular, you may be curious about muscle-building supplements—especially if building muscle is one of your workout goals. To figure out if popping a pill or tossing powder into your smoothie is the right move for you, it’s important to first understand how we build muscle and the nutrients you need to make that happen.
Here, your guide to determining if muscle-building supplements are right for you.
How does the body build muscle?
When you exercise, doing something like resistance training, you’re putting stress on the body, explains Melanie Sulaver, M.S., R.D., sports dietitian and nutrition coach based in New York City. “In response to this stress, the body repairs the damaged tissue and adds a bit more, which is truly quite remarkable when you think about it.”
For this to occur, the body must be in positive nitrogen balance, where there is more protein synthesis than breakdown happening. “Protein is a key component of building muscle, and the amino acid, leucine is the primary driver of muscle protein synthesis,” explains Leslie Bonci, M.P.H., R.D., C.S.S.D., sports dietitian for the Kansas City Chiefs and Carnegie Mellon University athletics, and founder of Active Eating Advice.
“Amino acids are molecules that combine to build protein,” explains Tom Holland, C.S.C.S, exercise physiologist, certified sports nutritionist, and author of The Marathon Method and Swim, Bike, Run, Eat: The Complete Guide to Fueling Your Triathlon. “And protein plays a key role in the muscle repair process that leads to skeletal muscle hypertrophy,” a.k.a. muscle growth.
We need a certain amount of protein for simple daily function, Bonci explains, in addition to fueling the recovery and repair you need postworkout. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.4 grams per pound of body weight for basic functioning.
But, if someone is extremely active, or interested in increasing muscle mass, this number can go up. “More protein is required, and this can be anywhere from 0.6 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight,” explains Bonci. For a 150-pound person, that’s about 90 to 150 grams of protein for the day.
So the question is: Are you getting the right amount of protein from food sources? Or do you need to consider a muscle-building supplement?
What are muscle-building supplements anyway?
A muscle-building supplement, as you can guess from the name, helps you build muscle. And while many individuals get their protein needs met through food, some may need or choose to supplement.
It is worth noting that these supplements don’t just build muscle on their own—you still need movement to make that happen, plus other healthy lifestyle factors like good sleep. “What they can do is help you get in additional protein or amino acids if your diet is lacking in them,” explains Sulaver.
The protein in supplements can come in two types—isolate and concentrate. “The difference is the amount of processing, with isolate filtered further, resulting in higher protein percentage and usually being a little more expensive as a result,” explains Holland. “Protein supplements can also include other ingredients, including brand chain amino acids (BCAAs), L-glutamine, probiotics, vitamins, and even caffeine sometimes.”
These protein supplements can come in different forms including powders, premade drinks, and bars.
There are also several types of creatine—another amino acid that comes in supplement form and many use for muscle building—but creatine monohydrate is the most common form, says Holland, “and the one that has been used in the vast majority of research.” Creatine generally comes in powder or pill form.
You might also see certain amino acids and BCAAs as supplements to boost muscle building. But the caveat with these: “For protein synthesis to occur, all the essential amino acids must be present and especially adequate amounts of leucine,” she says. “It is more effective to build muscle from complete protein sources, not individual amino acids.”
Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.-D, professor of exercise science and director of the graduate program in human performance and fitness at Lehman College in Bronx, New York, agrees muscle-building supplements are only beneficial in cases where daily protein intake is suboptimal. “If someone is not able to obtain adequate protein intake from food sources, then they can be used, but otherwise will not provide additional benefits,” he says.
Should you try a muscle-building supplement?
Not everyone needs muscle-building supplements. While you do want adequate protein, many individuals are able to obtain what’s needed from food sources, like lean meats, fish, eggs, dairy products, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Postworkout, your protein needs may increase, but the amount and timing depend a lot on when you plan to have your next full meal. “Postworkout, you could just have 10 grams of protein if you’re planning to eat a full meal in an hour or so,” explains Bonci. “If you plan to wait longer before eating, 20 grams would be best.”
But athletes and extremely active individuals may need more protein throughout the day to support their training and goals—and that’s where the muscle-building supplements come into play. “While some research suggests that many people get adequate daily amounts of protein, the RDA is low, and active people, including cyclists and runners, need more than most,” says Holland. “While we should strive to consume protein from whole foods first, that can be difficult and a protein supplement like a premade drink, bar, or powder can help ensure you are getting what you need.”
What to know when buying a muscle-building supplement
When considering a supplement, it’s important, first and foremost, to make sure you’re being safe, smart, and selective. Because supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, it’s harder to know what exactly is in your supplement and how much of those ingredients are actually inside. To sidestep any unwanted substances in your powders, pills, or premade drinks, look for those that are third-party verified.
“The most important consideration for ensuring safety in supplements is making sure that brand is certified by either NSF or Informed Choice,” explains Schoenfeld. “These organizations test the products for quality, purity, safety, as well as contaminants.” These could include things like metals, BPA, and other toxins which researchers have found in protein powders.
“A certification from a third-party testing organization can confirm that the ingredients on the label match actual contents,” explains Holland. “They also screen for almost 300 substances banned by most major athletic organizations, as well as undeclared ingredients.”
Also, if you have allergies or food intolerances, take these into consideration when purchasing a supplement. “Do look at the list of ingredients above and beyond the protein,” says Bonci. “And if a product does not have a supplement facts panel, don’t buy it.”
The Best Muscle-Building Supplements
If you decide a muscle-building supplement is right for you, Bonci recommends starting with animal-sourced protein, such as a whey protein isolate, that will provide a high leucine content. Bonci recommends KLEAN Athlete products as they are NSF certified for sport. (Editor’s note: Bonci is on the advisory board for KLEAN Athlete.)
Holland recommends the brand BodyTech for proteins and creatine supplements, as they provide quality products at a reasonable price.
If you’re looking for a plant-based product, Bonci first suggests soy protein isolate, and if not soy, a blend such as pea, rice, and chickpea will ensure you’re getting adequate amounts of leucine, too. “With other plant based proteins, you’ll also want to consider the amount of leucine, plus cost, taste, size or serving, as well as potential allergens and food intolerances you may have,” says Bonci.
Holland’s plant-based recommendation is the brand Vega for adequate nutrients, as well as quality ingredients and taste.
Sulaver recommends Momentous as her go-to brand for protein powder, which has both whey and plant-based options. “It’s high quality, delicious, and transparent in terms of testing and sourcing of ingredients,” she says.
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