What are the Best Supplements for Building Muscle?
Content you'll find:
Overview of how to build muscle
1. Nutrition Factors
2. Resistance training
3. Physiological recovery
Best supplements to consider to help build muscle
Does whey make you put on fat?
Why choose Kinetica?
What are the Best Supplements for Building Muscle?
We appreciate that it can be a challenge - you enjoy fitness and want to build muscle but going online in search of answers is daunting. Don’t worry - I’ve got you! In this post, I’ll share essential strategies to help you build muscle, and we’ll look at the research behind products that work.
An overview of how to build muscle
The first step in building muscle is understanding some of the basic physiology behind it. Knowledge gives you peace of mind and helps you visualise the process when you are in the gym and training hard.
The technical term for muscle gain is hypertrophy. Muscle hypertrophy is typically understood as an increase in the diameter and number of cross-sectional fibres within a muscle.
Take the chest, for example. Let’s say you want to increase the size of your pecs, and you train accordingly (we will give you some recommendations for that as well below) with regular bench pressing or variations of upper-body horizontal push patterns.
Over time as you stress these muscle fibres with appropriate strength training and recovery, you will lay down new cross-sectional fibres in the pec major and pec minor and increase the thickness or diameter of existing muscle fibres. Hey presto, more lean mass.
From a scientific perspective, there is more to muscle hypertrophy than just changes to cross-sectional fibres. For example, a recent study describes three aspects of muscle hypertrophy (Haun, Vann et al. 2019):
- Connective tissue hypertrophy
- Myofibrillar hypertrophy
- Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy
But for our purposes, let’s stick with this focus on cross-sectional muscle fibre size.
From a high-level perspective, there are three keys to gaining muscle:
1. Nutrition factors
2. Resistance training
3. Physiological recovery
Supplementation can play a vital role in all of this, but let’s introduce these three fundamentals and then look at some evidence-based products that have been shown to help gym-goers like you put on lean mass.
1. Nutrition Factors
As you know, our diet has three primary macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates and dietary fats. To gain lean mass, protein becomes a priority. In fact, the word “protein” originates from the Greek term ‘proteus’ meaning “of first importance”.
The amino acids we get via protein intake provide the building blocks for many aspects of our physiology, including neurotransmitters and hormones. Protein plays a wide variety of roles in our health, including keeping our immune systems strong (Pakula, Maier et al. 2017).
Getting sufficient daily protein in your diet is vitally important when training hard and wanting to build muscle. Hypertrophy happens with a positive protein balance: when muscle protein synthesis (MPS) occurs at a higher rate than muscle protein breakdown (MPB).
Muscle protein synthesis > Muscle protein breakdown = Muscle Hypertrophy
In this respect, we need ongoing training stimulus for muscle hypertrophy to occur alongside adequate protein intake for muscle protein synthesis.
How much protein is enough to stimulate hypertrophy? The short answer is that it depends. Various factors can influence protein intake when you are trying to put on lean mass, such as age, training status and calorie intake (Paulussen, McKenna et al. 2021).
Despite these variances, a recent 2017 systematic review of 49 randomised controlled trials can provide some excellent insight we can use in our daily lives. It is worth emphasising that this type of study represents the top of the evidence-based medicine hierarchy, giving us confidence in the data.
First, the researchers found that dietary protein supplementation significantly positively affects strength changes, fat-free mass and muscle size with ongoing resistance training (Morton, Murphy et al. 2018). This is good news then – we know protein is a priority and makes a difference to our results.
Second, the analysis showed that the typical recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 0.8 grams of protein per kilo of body weight per day was insufficient for those seeking to add strength and mass whilst doing resistance training. Additional research supports this (Phillips, Chevalier et al. 2016, Burd, McKenna et al. 2019).
To put this into context, let’s use an example. If you are 80kg and seeking muscle gain, an RDA of 64 grams per day of dietary protein (80kg x 0.8g) would not be deemed sufficient for hypertrophy if you regularly do strength training.
Why would RDA be inferior? Given that the body needs ongoing daily protein intake for the efficient running of many other aspects of our health, this protein level would be too low for MPS to exceed MPB - making it hard to build muscle over time.
What do 64 grams of protein look like purely from a dietary perspective? Using free dietary software apps, you can quickly see for yourself the level of protein in certain foods:
- Chicken breast (100 grams) – 30.9g
- Wild salmon (100 grams) – 25.4g
- Two large eggs (100 grams) – 12.6g
In short, eating these three foods would give you 68.9 grams of protein every day, just sneaking above the RDA.
What is the right number if the RDA is too low for muscle hypertrophy? The authors of this systematic review came up with a valuable set of thresholds, using body weight to help you personalise your approach.
Their recommended baseline level of protein intake per day for muscle hypertrophy when regularly doing resistance training is 1.62g protein/kg/day. They also found that up to 2.2g protein/kg/day might be prudent for some individuals.
Lower recommended limit: 1.62g protein/kg/day
Upper recommended limit: 2.2g protein/kg/day
Using the example from above, if you were 80kg and focused on muscle hypertrophy, your protein intake could range between:
Lower recommended limit: 1.62 x 80 = 129.2 grams of protein day
Upper recommended limit: 2.2 x 80 = 176 grams of protein day
As you can see, it’s pretty different! The RDA provided 68.9 grams per day versus an ideal range between 129.2-176 grams per day.
Take a minute to work out your recommended lower and upper limits of protein intake for the purposes of hypertrophy:
Lower recommended limit: 1.62 x ______ kg = ______ grams of protein day
Upper recommended limit: 2.2 x ______ kg = ______ of protein day
From a practical standpoint, you might start at the lower limit of 1.62g protein/kg/day and monitor results over time. In my experience, gaining 1 to 2 lbs of muscle per month would be a good target for muscle hypertrophy.
To maximise muscle growth during phases of regular resistance training, you might typically need to eat 10-20% above maintenance needs to optimise muscle protein synthesis. Research suggests starting low and raising surplus calories slowly to determine the best response for you (Slater, Dieter et al. 2019).
Naturally, because calories are above maintenance needs, you will likely gain lean muscle and some body fat (Hall 2008). However, if you then go through a phase of working on fat loss rather than hypertrophy, you can still use the same thresholds for protein intake to retain lean muscle whilst losing fat (Hector and Phillips 2018).
Is it possible to gain mass whilst also losing body fat? Yes. This is often referred to as “body recomposition” (Barakat, Pearson et al. 2020). However, because you are focused on a net calorie deficit to lose body fat, anabolic signalling is not at its greatest. This can blunt some people’s best efforts at muscle hypertrophy. In this scenario, protein remains a priority with body recomposition efforts (Ribeiro, Pereira et al. 2022).
Whether the goal is hypertrophy, fat loss or body recomposition, you can use these lower and upper limits to guide your protein intake.
Once you have your protein intake dialled in, the next focus should be timing. There are many questions surrounding the best time to consume protein for optimising muscle protein synthesis. You can get into the weeds here, which is beyond the scope of this post, but we would like to give you some simple take-homes that are useful regarding protein timing.
First, is it possible to achieve excellent hypertrophy whilst doing intermittent fasting or following a time-restricted eating protocol? For example, many people follow a 16:8 rule where they abstain from all food for 16 hours per day and eat in an eight-hour window.
You can try and consume all your protein in a smaller window due to time-restricted eating, but research suggests it is not optimal for hypertrophy. As one recent review concluded:
“From our current understanding of muscle protein metabolism and taking a “muscle-centric” view for diet, we highlight that current acute evidence suggests intermittent fasting may represent a counterproductive strategy to optimise muscle mass and, as far as protein turnover can remodel old/damaged proteins, muscle quality.” (Williamson and Moore 2021)
What about post-workout protein? After a workout, when you have stressed tissues, it’s natural to want to optimise recovery and promote maximal protein synthesis as soon as possible (Kerksick, Arent et al. 2017). This post-workout moment is often referred to as the “anabolic window”.
Research does show that muscle protein synthesis increases significantly post-workout with the ingestion of whey (Tipton, Elliott et al. 2007). At the same time, it is essential to zoom out and consider overall daily protein intake first. A meta-analysis examining the effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy did not find compelling evidence that timing was central to muscle gain if total protein intake over 24 hours was reached (Schoenfeld, Aragon et al. 2013).
With this in mind, taking on protein within a few hours of resistance training is an excellent idea, but do not fret if you miss that window. You can still be successful and put on mass by ensuring you hit your daily protein intake, as set out above. The supplementation we’ll discuss below can make it much easier for you to hit your daily numbers.
2. Resistance training
The second driver of hypertrophy is resistance training. There are three components to hypertrophy training: mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage (Schoenfeld 2010). You may have experienced the latter first-hand, with muscle soreness kicking in a day or two post-hard session. This is often called DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness).
When we strength train, we stress different components of the muscle and connective tissue, and this stimulates multiple changes at a cellular level which over the long term leads to muscle gain (Joanisse, Lim et al. 2020).
There is much confusion online surrounding the “best” approach to resistance training for gaining muscle. Drop sets, super sets, metabolic circuits – you name it, it’s online as the proposed one-size-fits-all approach to hypertrophy and body composition.
In my experience, no single approach is optimal for everyone. Everyone is different, and our training plan should reflect that. But what does the research say? There are a few helpful insights we can glean from the data.
First, volume matters. There appears to be a dose-relationship between total volume (sets x reps) and hypertrophy responses (Schoenfeld, Contreras et al. 2019). This does not mean that every workout needs to be a gut-buster requiring three hours in the gym.
In fact, research suggests that as a “minimum effective dose”, four sets per week in the 6-15 rep range per muscle group can be an effective way to go, up to 10 sets for experienced gym goers (Iversen, Norum et al. 2021).
This is fantastic news. You can build muscle on 30-minute workouts if you get your nutrition and recovery right. A broad loading range (sets x reps) can also be implemented to put on muscle mass (Schoenfeld, Grgic et al. 2021).
Second, rest matters. In one excellent study, young resistance-trained men were randomly assigned to either a group that performed a resistance training programme with one-minute rest intervals or a group that employed three-minute rest intervals
(Schoenfeld, Pope et al. 2016). All other variables were held constant.
The study period lasted eight weeks, with subjects performing three total-body workouts a week comprising three sets of 8–12 repetition maximum (RM) of seven different exercises per session. Results showed that extended rest periods promoted more significant strength gains and hypertrophy.
Third, the intensity of each set does not have to be off the charts. Many people push themselves to failure on every exercise with strength training, hoping to stimulate more muscle gain. However, training to failure can come with an elevated risk of injury depending on your level of training experience and underlying physiological recovery that day.
Instead, when performing resistance training with the goal of hypertrophy, it is often preferable to complete a set with a few reps left in the tank. Data indicate that three to four reps in reserve (3-4 RR) at the end of a set promotes good results (Helms, Byrnes et al. 2018). Over the last 20 years of coaching athletes, I have seen the same.
3. Physiological recovery
A final part of the hypertrophy equation is physiological recovery. Whilst protein intake and resistance training get all the glory in the discussion on muscle gain because they influence muscle protein synthesis, we still need to ensure that we take care of background factors like sleep, stress and renewal so that our body can get bigger and stronger.
Performed with sufficient load and intensity, exercise is a stressor on the body. Resistance training activates the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system and, in the immediate term, is catabolic in nature, as we break down muscle tissue through the work done (Marasingha-Arachchige, Rubio-Arias et al. 2020).
In this respect, we do not get stronger and bigger when training, even though we might leave the gym feeling pumped. It is after resistance training and once recovery mechanisms are activated that we build muscle. Recovery is, therefore, central to putting on muscle. We need to have sufficient parasympathetic tone to recover, get stronger and be ready for the following session (Daniela, Catalina et al. 2022).
Best Supplements to Consider To Help Build Muscle
With the foundations in place, we can drill down into specific products to help you. There are five products worth mentioning here:
Creatine is a naturally occurring molecule produced in the body and consumed in our diet from sources like fish and meat. About 95% of the creatine in the human body is stored in skeletal muscle, where it works alongside phosphorylcreatine to help the body produce energy, especially in situations where demands are high, such as resistance training and cognition mental activity (Walsh, Tonkonogi et al. 2001).
So that’s the techy stuff. But what can it do for us? Well, based on the research literature, quite a lot! Creatine can help in hypertrophy, increase strength, enhance power, improve work capacity, enhance recovery and improve training tolerance (Kreider, Kalman et al. 2017).
In a position statement, the International Society of Sports Nutrition went so far as to say:
“Creatine monohydrate is the most effective ergogenic (performance-enhancing) nutritional supplement currently available to athletes in terms of increasing high-intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass during training.”
The benefits of creatine are there for young as well as older folk. In a meta-analysis involving active young participants, individuals ingesting creatine during resistance training had an average 8% greater increase in muscle strength than individuals consuming placebo (Rawson and Volek 2003).
In another meta-analysis with older adults, low-dose (less than 5g per day) creatine in older adults doing regular resistance training led to a mean difference of 1.81kg in lean muscle compared to controls (Forbes, Candow et al. 2021).
Creatine works, which is why Kinetica offer it.
Whey is a by-product of the manufacturing of cheese or casein and is the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained. Whey protein is a high-quality source of protein, rich in essential amino acids and known to increase muscle protein synthesis post-workout (Witard, Jackman et al. 2014).
There are several reasons to use whey in your diet when you seek to put on muscle. The first reason is practical. Many people struggle to hit their daily protein thresholds through food alone. Whey offers an easy, affordable and effective way to hit your required protein intake for muscle protein synthesis and is also rapidly absorbed by the body (Boirie, Dangin et al. 1997).
The second reason is scientific. Whey offers many physiological benefits when you are focused on hypertrophy. Whey is high in essential amino acids necessary for muscle growth (Hulmi, Lockwood et al. 2010).
Whey is also high in leucine, a particularly important amino acid for muscle protein synthesis (Zaromskyte, Prokopidis et al. 2021). If you look in the Kinetica shop, you’ll see many different types of Whey to suit your taste buds and BCAA hydro fuel, which can also be valuable here. Whey stimulates muscle protein when resting and post-workout (Moore, Tang et al. 2009).
A meta-analysis explored the effect of whey on different aspects of muscle function, including peak force, maximal load, reps and work performed. As you might imagine, these are important areas for all of us when working hard in the gym to build muscle. Results showed that supplementation had a broadly beneficial impact on all these fitness parameters (Davies, Carson et al. 2018).
Nitrates are also a very effective tool to help you get better results in your training. Dietary nitrate is found in foods such as green leafy vegetables and beetroot. These foods are sources of nitric oxide (NO), a vital signalling molecule in the body which has an array of positive effects on our health and fitness.
NO plays a regulatory role in our cardiovascular health, improving blood flow and vasodilation (widening blood vessels). Nitrates have been used in supplement form to help improve the functioning of the cardiovascular system with research showing that nitrates can help reduce microvascular inflammation and subclinical atherosclerosis (Bahadoran, Mirmiran et al. 2017, Raubenheimer, Hickey et al. 2017, Morselli, Faconti et al. 2021). For anyone passionate about looking after their heart health, it is worth looking into the potential benefits of nitrate supplementation.
Research also shows that nitrates can also help us in our hypertrophy training. There are various reasons for this, but nitrate supplementation helps us get more bang for our buck in any given workout. Nitrates can help us get more work done, tolerate workout intensity more effectively and recover faster between each bout of high-intensity effort.
A 2021 meta-analysis found that supplementing with nitrates can significantly increase maximal power and velocity in our training (Coggan, Baranauskas et al. 2021). This is clearly of great value in exercises like repeat sprints and high-intensity efforts, but it can also help in our strength training. For anyone experienced in the gym, those first few reps on any given set require significant energy and specific muscle contractile qualities. The more we can help the body perform well in initiating each set, the better.
Nitrates can also help us as we fatigue. This, too, is important. As we said earlier, volume is a crucial driver of muscle hypertrophy, and we want to ensure that each set is of high quality. Anything that can improve our exercise tolerance during a workout and speed up recovery between sets is worth considering. Research shows that nitrate supplementation helps us here (Dominguez, Mate-Munoz et al. 2018, San Juan, Dominguez et al. 2020, Tan, Cano et al. 2022).
For those looking to go beyond nitrate supplementation, beta-alanine also helps to improve high-intensity efforts when working in a higher rep range that takes you above 60 seconds of work in each set (Hobson, Saunders et al. 2012). Caffeine (at doses of around 200mg) can also help you improve performance in the gym by improving focus and mood (Guest, VanDusseldorp et al. 2021).
Does whey make you put on fat?
In short, the answer to this question is no. Nothing unique to whey would cause a person to gain body fat by consuming it.
Ongoing adiposity is determined primarily by calorie intake, and as you may know, a cumulative energy deficit of 3500 kcal is required to drop a pound of body weight
(Hall 2008). Thus, if someone was to gain fat when consuming whey, it is likely due to being in a hypercaloric state overall – and whey will play a small part in that.
As we discussed earlier, a short-term increase in calorie intake (10-20% above maintenance needs) might be necessary to maximise anabolic signalling for muscle gain. But once you have gone through a phase of building muscle, you can revert to a calorie deficit to lean out and retain muscle. Whey can play a positive role here. A 2014 meta-analysis found that whey protein and resistance training helped improve lean mass and body composition (Miller, Alexander et al. 2014).
Why choose Kinetica?
Kinetica products are a perfect choice for you for multiple reasons. Perhaps the most important to me is purity – when you buy a supplement from Kinetica, you have peace of mind that it is batch-tested, Informed-Sport and WADA (world anti-doping) compliant. Where Kinetica do an excellent job is not just providing the highest quality of supplement to help you achieve your goals – they also taste fantastic. If you want to put on muscle, use this post and the products from Kinetica to achieve your goals. We look forward to hearing about your success!
About the author.
Justin Buckthorp is a Kinetica Ambassador, a Health and Performance specialist and founder of 360 Health and Performance, a company passionate about helping people thrive. Justin has over 20 years’ experience working in clinics, professional sport, and corporate wellness, as well as extensive training in preventative health, functional medicine, strength & conditioning, and human performance.
Justin holds an MSc in Personalised Nutrition from Middlessex University and has a vast range of experience in numerous fields. He was an educator in the fitness industry delivering courses for the National Academy of Sports Medicine in the UK, has supported Team Europe in Ryder Cup events since 2008, and has sat on the European Tour Medical Advisory Board since 2009.
Justin is motivated by helping others achieve their goals, and in 2012 he founded 360 Health & Performance which leverages technology and education to help people in sport, the workplace, and healthcare. Justin also continues to support PGA, European Tour, LPGA Tour and LET golfers, which includes helping Justin Rose win the US Open in 2013, Olympic Gold in 2016, the Fedex Cup in 2018, and go from a world ranking of 70 in 2009 to world number one in 2019.
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