While you can absolutely build muscle on a diet devoid of supplements, the right supplements will maximize your progress. But which supplements are worth it, and which are a waste? In this article, we’ll delve into three popular sports supplements: creatine, BCAAs (Branched-chain Amino Acids), and pre-workout. You’ll find a *brief* summary of the scientific evidence behind each muscle-building supplement and who is most likely to benefit from taking them.
What is creatine?
Creatine (C4H9N3O2) is a substance that allows the cells in your muscles (and brain) to recycle energy. Even without supplementation, this chemical compound plays a crucial role in heavy lifting and other high-intensity exercise. We store creatine in our muscles, in the form of phosphocreatine. There, it helps your muscles push through those last few reps.
- When you supplement creatine, you increase your muscle stores of phosphocreatine (by up to 40%).
- Research shows taking creatine increases exercise tolerance, muscle strength, and lean body mass.
- International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends creatine as a safe, effective way to boost your ability to do high-intensity exercise and build lean body mass.
- Some meta-analyses (collections of studies) report an average strength increase of 10% with creatine supplementation (5% upper limb exercises like bench, 8% lower limb exercises like squat).
Should you consider taking creatine?
If your primary exercise goal is building strength and/or muscle mass, you’re already doing everything else” right”, and you don’t mind a bit of extra water retention for the time-being, supplementing creatine is an excellent evidence-based choice.
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, supplementing creatine may be even more beneficial. This is because plant-based dieters are more likely to have lower creatine levels. Don’t worry, in spite of creatine being found in muscle, the vast majority of creatine supplements are created synthetically (without any animal bits or products).
If you do decide to start taking creatine, there are two different ways to get started: 1) taking 2-10 grams a day, or 2) starting off with bigger doses (20 grams a day) and working your way down. The second method is called creatine loading, and there is evidence that it raises the level of creatine in your muscles faster. Creatine loading can fully saturate a person’s muscles within a week, while taking creatine at a rate of three grams a day will take closer to a month (see study).
NOTE: As with all supplements, taking creatine will not make up for other dietary and lifestyle “wrongs”. So what does muscle building the “right” way look like? The general best practices for building strength and muscle include 1) doing resistance training regularly, 2) eating an adequate amount of food (especially protein and carbohydrates), 3) getting enough sleep, 4) staying hydrated, and 5) thoroughly warming up and cooling down.
What are BCAAs?
Branched-chain amino acids, often referred to as “B C double-As”, are essentially a fancy name for protein building blocks (amino acids) with a particular structure. BCAA supplements usually include three particular essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. Your body can’t make these blocks on its own, so you need to get them from your diet.
- Normally, the levels of these particular protein building blocks drop after exercise, but supplementing BCAAs before squatting can avoid this decrease and also reduced muscle soreness. At least, for the small group of female athletes in the study.
- Other small studies have also found that supplementing BCAAs may reduce “delayed onset” muscle soreness (as reported by a double-blind Australian study).
- Swedish researchers found BCAA supplementation gave an after-exercise “boost” to enzymes responsible for building proteins.
- Another small study found BCAA supplementation (over the course of a month) was associated with an increase in testosterone.
Until there is more research, it’s hard to say if BCAA supplementation leads to increased muscle growth or strength in people who are already meeting their amino acid requirements. There is no evidence, however, that BCAA supplementation decreases performance or recovery.
Should you consider supplementing with BCAAs?
If you already get a diverse array of amino acids from your diet (and enough of each), you probably won’t benefit from using BCAAs. However, as a high protein, low calorie, often tasty beverage, BCAAs can be an excellent substitute for other drinks. Many bodybuilders also use them during “cuts”, periods of highly restricted caloric intake intended to lower body fat percentage, as a handy way to boost protein intake and fill the stomach.
If you’re looking to maximize your potential for recovery and/or are uncertain if you’re getting enough protein in your daily diet, BCAAs may help. If you’re on a tight budget but still looking to optimize your recovery, your resources will likely be better spent elsewhere. Try increasing the protein content in your diet, getting ample sleep, and moving through soreness first.
What is pre-workout?
Pre-workout powders and beverages are designed to give an energy and motivation boost to push harder in the gym. They often contain caffeine and/or other stimulants, as well as amino acids and “proprietary” blends. Of the three items in this list, pre-workout is by far the most likely to contain banned substances. That being said, simpler things like drinking coffee or taking a caffeine pill before a workout could also be “pre-workout”.
If you push harder throughout your workouts, while maintaining safety of course, you’re bound to build strength and muscle faster. The same thing is true if you’re more consistent about the number of times you get to the gym each week.
If pre-workout helps you with either or both of these two things, it’s doing its job.
That being said, pre-workouts made up of a combination of ingredients have little evidence behind them.
Pre-workout ingredients with scientific support:
- Caffeine: Multiple studies have found improvements in physical endurance, cognitive function, particularly alertness and vigilance, mood and perception of fatigue.
- Taurine: Increases blood flow and may improve endurance.
- Beta-alanine: A meta-analysis showed regular beta-alanine supplementation increased muscular endurance for activities in the 60 to 240-second range.
- Creatine (see item #1 in this blog post)
Should you consider taking pre-workout?
If you want to push extra hard throughout your lift (and maybe feel a little tingly), pre-workout can be an excellent energizer. Some ingredients can also result in better performance, endurance, or recovery like BCAAs or creatine. In that way, you may be able to get more bang for your buck.
However, if you’re sensitive to caffeine, already prone to pushing yourself dangerously hard, or have heart issues, pre-workout probably isn’t a good choice for you.
If you do try out pre-workout or are already taking one, make sure you cycle on and off it. Don’t feel like you have to take it for every workout. Instead, feel free to reserve it for those uninspiring rainy days instead. With frequent use, any pre-workout will lose its effectiveness. Your body will become dependent on it (just like other caffeinated things like coffee).
Of the three supplements on this list, creatine has the most evidence behind its effectiveness and safety. However, if you choose proper products, BCAAs and pre-workout can also be muscle-building assets. As a result, all three of earned a place in our “build muscle” bundle.