David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.
The Best Bodybuilding Supplements
If you train hard, eat right and get sufficient rest and sleep you should be able to build muscle without any problem. So supplements are not essential, but they are very useful.
However, although there are a huge number of bodybuilding supplements on the market today that claim to help you build muscle faster and more effectively, the fact is that most of them will do little, if anything, for you.
But there are a few that will make a very positive contribution to the results you are getting from your efforts in the gym.
So which supplements are worth taking? Well, here are the seven best bodybuilding supplements you can take to maximize your gains:
1. Whey Protein
Your muscles need protein to grow, and although you can get enough of it from your diet if you eat plenty of meat, fish and eggs, whey protein provides an easy and convenient way to boost your daily protein intake with the minimum of fuss.
Whey protein has the highest biological value of any protein—even higher than eggs. It's also easy to digest, and it contains a number of health promoting compounds that increase the body’s antioxidant levels and enhance immune function.
Whey protein is ideal to use as a pre and post workout shake in order to maximize protein synthesis after training. But you can also take it between or after meals if you wish. No need to get carried away though; taking excessive amounts of protein will not help you build muscle any faster. About 1g per pound of bodyweight per day is enough to stimulate maximum muscle growth.
It is important to get a good quality whey protein though, as inferior versions are not going to be as effective. And many brands are full of all sorts of artificial ingredients that can be harmful to your health.
There are a few good brands available though, and one that I particularly like is Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey (Naturally Flavored), as this is a top quality protein that mixes very well, tastes great and contains no artificial flavors, sweeteners or colors of any kind.
Creatine monohydrate is the most well-researched, proven, effective muscle building supplement available today. It is produced naturally in the body, and is also found in foods like red meat and fish. But in order to get the full benefits that creatine has to offer, you need to reach full tissue saturation, and this can only be achieved by supplementation.
Creatine works by helping your body to produce more adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, in the mitochondria of your cells. ATP is what gives you energy, and it also helps your muscles to contract more effectively. This means you will be able to lift more weight at the gym (or do more reps with the same weight), which will translate into greater strength gains and more muscle mass over time.
Creatine also plumps up the muscles by drawing more water into the muscle cells. And because this additional water is in the actual cells (rather than under the skin), it results in a fuller, harder appearance, without any puffiness or bloating.
Take 4–5g per day after training (or at any time on your off days). If you wish you can do a ‘loading phase’ of 20-25g per day for the first five to seven days, and although this is not essential, it will allow muscle saturation to occur much more quickly.
Again, it’s essential to choose a good quality product if you want to get the best results. And the best type is Creapure, which is made in Germany to the highest standards and is guaranteed to be 99.99% pure creatine. The one I use and can recommend is Optimum Nutrition Micronized Creatine Monohydrate, as this dissolves easily and has never given me any stomach problems. Also, it's great value for money and Optimum Nutrition is a well respected brand that I know I can trust.
3. Beta Alanine
This is a non-essential amino acid, which, when consumed, is converted into carnosine and stored in the muscle fibers. Carnosine buffers hydrogen ion buildup (acidity) in the muscle tissue during training. So if you have more carnosine in your muscles, you can continue your sets for longer before fatigue sets in.
Taking beta alanine has been shown to improve exercise performance and lead to increased strength and muscle growth over time. And beta alanine works synergistically with creatine, each one enhancing the benefits of the other. But whereas creatine is best taken post workout (along with some protein and carbohydrates), beta alanine is best used as a pre-workout supplement.
Again take 4–5g per day. You should begin to see benefits in about 2–3 weeks, with maximum benefits being achieved a few weeks later. You may experience a tingling sensation after taking beta alanine, especially in the face. But this is completely harmless and, in fact, some people find it quite pleasant.
There are a number of good brands available, but the one I tend to prefer is NOW Sports Beta Alanine.
4. Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
All proteins are broken down into amino acids in the digestive tract, but some amino acids have more of an impact on protein synthesis than others.
The branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) are essential amino acids (i.e. they cannot be produced in the body) that play a critical role in protein synthesis.
But BCAAs have several other benefits, too. They help to prevent muscle breakdown (catabolism) during exercise, they reduce fatigue while training, they decrease post-exercise muscle soreness and they accelerate recovery.
Leucine is the main trigger of protein synthesis, but it works best when used in combination with the other BCAAs. And although there are good levels of BCAAs in whey protein, it can still be very beneficial to take a little extra, especially pre and post workout.
Taking them pre-workout is particularly beneficial if you are training fasted on a morning, in order to accelerate fat loss. But it's also useful in order to reduce muscle breakdown and delay fatigue in longer training sessions or endurance events. Taking them post workout, along with a whey protein shake, will help increase protein synthesis, reduce soreness and improve recovery.
BCAA supplementation is particularly recommended for older guys, as people over 40 have more difficulty activating the mTOR pathway to build muscle than younger guys do, and BCAAs can help to rectify this.
5. Omega 3 Fish Oil
The omega 3 fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), are essential to good health, and one of the most important nutrients you could take. But on top of this, they could also assist you in your efforts to build muscle and burn fat.
Omega 3s have a fantastic range of health benefits, including improving cardiovascular health, enhancing brain function, improving skin tone and quality, strengthening the immune system, maintaining healthy joints, reducing triglyceride levels, increasing HDL (good) cholesterol—and much more.
But apart from this, they also help to promote muscle growth, inhibit muscle breakdown, increase fat burning and reduce inflammation (which helps with recovery from training).
Once again, though, you do need to ensure you get a high quality brand that's as free as possible from heavy metals and other environmental toxins. It also needs to be high potency. You need 2-3g of EPA/DHA per day to get the full benefit. That’s not 2-3g of fish oil; it’s 2-3g of EPA/DHA. Some fish oil supplements contain less than 30% EPA/DHA, whereas others contain 70% or more, so check the labels so you know what you are getting.
The omega 3 supplement that I most recommend is Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega, as this is a top quality product that is extremely pure and high potency. It is derived from wild caught fish and comes in the natural triglyceride form, which is much better absorbed than the synthetic ethyl ester form. Also you do not get the 'fishy burps' that you often get with omega 3 supplements.
6. Multivitamin Supplement
Although it's possible for sedentary people to get enough vitamins and minerals if they eat a really well balanced diet that includes plenty of fruit and vegetables, if you are training regularly your micronutrient requirement will be higher than normal, so you'll really need to take a good quality multivitamin to make sure you are fully covered. This will not only help to keep you in good health, it will also improve your performance in the gym and optimize your recovery and growth outside the gym, too.
The cheap brands are almost worthless, however, as they are very low dose and made from inferior ingredients that are poorly absorbed and utilized. You need a wide range of vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients in sufficient quantity, and in a highly bioavailable form to ensure maximum benefit. A whole food multi, such as those supplied by Garden of Life or MegaFood, is best, but there are a number of other good brands on the market as well.
7. Vitamin D
Unless you get out in the sun on a regular basis, it's almost certain you won't be getting enough vitamin D for optimum health. This vital nutrient (which is not really a vitamin but a pro-hormone) is essential for strong bones and a healthy immune system. It also helps protect against various diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and possibly several types of cancer. And it helps fight against depression and cognitive decline too.
Apart from this, vitamin D plays a role in protein synthesis, as well as in the maintenance of healthy testosterone levels, so it can have a direct impact on the results you are getting from your training.
If you are taking a multivitamin that contains at least 1000 IU of vitamin D3, you probably won't need to take any extra. But otherwise, take 1000-2000 IU per day; although you can go up to 5000 IU for a while if you feel you need to.
Apart from these, there are a few others that are worth mentioning. These are:
Caffeine - This gives you more energy, boosts strength and power output and increases fat burning during exercise. You don't really need to buy caffeine pills though; just drink a cup of strong coffee about an hour before training. And if you want to amplify the effects of caffeine on alertness and focus, as well as improve blood flow to the muscles and reduce any jitters you might get, take 200-300mg of L-theanine with it.
Citrulline Malate - This enhances training performance and helps reduce muscle soreness after training. Take 4-10g about an hour before your workout.
L-Carnitine L-Tartrate (LCLT) - This enhances the effects of testosterone on muscle growth, reduces post-exercise muscle damage and soreness and helps with recovery.
So those are the best bodybuilding supplements available today. If you are not sure which ones you should take, just start with the basics—whey protein, fish oil and a multivitamin. You can then add in creatine and any of the others later on if you wish. Either way, by taking the right supplements you'll be able to ensure you are able to make the best possible progress from your training efforts.
[Editor's note: A 2018 medical trial concluded that Vitamin D supplements don’t reduce cancer incidence. Additional studies will be conducted.]
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on September 26, 2017:
Thanks SagaSphere; and yes, I agree.
SagaSphere on September 26, 2017:
Good choice for fish oil and protein! Diet would always be preferred for these... But who are we kidding. Supplements will always be the most efficient way of meeting dietary needs.
prashant on October 30, 2015:
Whey protien is the best to all protien