The Best Muscle-Building Supplements

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Adding a lot of lean muscle quickly requires you to do three things perfectly.

One: work out multiple times per week following a structured and progressive resistance training plan.

Two: follow a varied and balanced nutrition plan that provides enough protein, fats and carbs in the right amounts to give your body all the essential nutrients it needs to recover and grow.

Three: get at least eight hours of deep, good-quality sleep every night, because this is when your muscles grow back bigger and stronger.

If you’re doing those three things right, then some sports nutrition products can play a role in accelerating your muscle mass gains. The experts at our sister brand Men's Fitness have pulled together the four key products that can give you the edge in achieving your goal of packing on lean muscle fast.

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1. Protein Powder

Why do I need it?

Considering your muscles are made of protein it’s no surprise that eating more of it will enable you to add lean muscle mass faster. The UK government recommendations say an adult needs 55g of dietary protein a day, but if you are serious about adding muscular size to your frame you need to aim for more than double that target. Most experts advise eating around 1.5-2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, which means an 80g man needs 120-160g over the course of every day.

The best way to do this is to eat a diet that contains the right types of protein, which include eggs, red meat, white meat and fish, because they contain the complete profile of nine essential amino acids – aka the building blocks of protein – that our bodies can’t synthesise and so need to be eaten.

The supplement solution

The problem? A lot of people find it very hard to eat that much high-protein food each day. And there are times – like immediately after training when you can’t stomach a full meal, or when you’re out and about and don’t have time – when a protein shake is a good alternative to supply your muscles with the essential nutrients they need to recover and grow.

Whey protein, the most popular sports nutrition product in the world, is perfect for these situations because as a fast-digesting protein it gets to your muscles quickly. Other types, such as casein, which is a slow-digesting protein, are better before bed so they drip-feed amino acids into your muscles as you sleep. More kinds of protein, including soy, pea and rice, are available.

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How to take it

After a weights workout, a shake made by mixing 30-40g of whey protein with water will kick-start your body’s recovery process by delivering amino acids to your muscles when they need them most. You can also have a whey shake at other times of the day to ensure you hit your daily protein intake target.

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2. Creatine

Why do I need it?

A naturally occurring organic compound, creatine is a source of ATP, the main form of energy your body uses. It’s found in certain foods, such as red meat, and stored in your muscles, so unless you are vegetarian or vegan you should have adequate levels. However, a lot of strong research indicates increasing your creatine levels via supplementation produces significant increases in muscular size, strength and power output.

The supplement solution

According to independent nutrition research body, the evidence shows that supplementing with creatine is safe and improves muscular performance, especially power output. It also increases anaerobic endurance by acting as fuel for your cells, because muscle cells will use creatine for energy before they use glucose, enabling your muscles to lift for longer.

Creatine will cause a slight water weight gain in the first few weeks of supplementation, but its ability to aid performance to build new muscle will cancel out the temporary disadvantages. It can cause nausea, cramping and diarrhoea in some people.

How to take it says the most effective form is creatine monohydrate, and a daily dose of 5g is enough to improve power output. People with more muscle mass may benefit from as much as 10g, although this is not fully supported by the evidence. If you want to take 10g, split it into two daily 5g doses.

Always take it with water, and with a meal if you experience stomach problems. You may have heard of “creatine loading”, which means taking a high dose for a short time then lowering to a smaller maintenance dose, taken indefinitely. It’s not necessary, but you’ll see performance benefits sooner – although they will normalise after a few weeks.

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3. Beta-alanine

Why do I need it?

Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring type of amino acid and a common ingredient in sports nutrition products designed to be taken before your workout. When consumed, it binds with another amino acid, called L-histidine, to create a new compound called carnosine.

You know that deep burning feel you get in your muscles during intense exercise? That’s a build-up of lactic acid, a by-product of exercising at high intensity, and carnosine acts as a buffer that prevents such a build-up – and therefore enables you to train harder for longer before your muscles hurt too much to continue.

In short, beta-alanine improves muscular endurance, but only during intense exercise, such as a 400m sprint or a set of heavy squats.

The supplement solution

Taking beta-alanine, on its own or as part of a pre-workout formula, can improve your muscles’ ability to perform intense exercise for longer because it delays the onset of muscular fatigue. That makes it a beneficial supplement to take ahead of short and intense training sessions, whether they’re based on weights or high-intensity cardio.

Start with a low dose to test your body’s response, and then gradually increase it if you feel a positive effect. It’s worth noting that a very common side effect of beta-alanine supplementation is paraesthesia, which is the medical name for a tingling sensation that typically affects your face and fingers. Don’t be alarmed – it can feel slightly unpleasant but it’s totally safe and wears off very quickly once you start training.

How to take it

If taking beta-alanine in a pre-workout formula you should consume it between 20 and 40 minutes before your session. The amount of beta-alanine in a serving of pre-workout will depend on the brand or product, but the standard dose is between 2g and 5g.

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4. Caffeine

Why do I need it?

We all know the stimulating effects of caffeine to help us get out of bed in the morning and stay awake at work. Caffeine can also stimulate the release of the hormones adrenaline and dopamine. But the main benefit when you want to add muscle is that it significantly increases muscular power output.

The supplement solution

Before you go and put another pot of coffee on the hob, you need to know that frequent caffeine consumption severely limits your body’s ability to exert more power. That means the key to using it as an effective muscle-building supplement is to limit your daily use and save it for those really hard sessions.

How to take it

Caffeine is most effective as a supplement when used by people who are rarely exposed to it. If you get excitable after a single cup of coffee, you’ll probably benefit from having a cup before the gym.

If you don’t like coffee, then take a caffeine supplement containing 400-600mg 30 minutes before a workout. Do so twice a week at most, and save caffeine supplementation for your hardest workouts of the week.

If you already have a high caffeine tolerance, or develop one, reduce your intake of coffee and other caffeinated drinks. It may be necessary to stop all caffeine use for at least a month to regain caffeine sensitivity.

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