When it comes to muscle building supplementation is an extremely useful part of your arsenal. Some supplements can help you work out harder and longer, so your body adapts faster with increased muscle growth. Some are involved in recovery, which means less soreness and fatigue and quicker return of strength. Then you can get back into the gym quickly and slam those muscles again! Other supplements are a matter of convenience, where you could get the nutrients from food, but you don’t always have the time to prepare a meal, sit down and eat. And that is where supplements come in.
Number one on the list has to be protein. Whether from food or from supplements, protein is king when it comes to muscle growth. Muscle is made up of protein, and consuming complete protein provides all of the essential (definition: need to get from the diet) amino acids (definition: protein building blocks) needed to build muscle. Leucine is one of the essential amino acids (or EAA’s for short) that also signals for the body to ramp up protein building and slow down protein breakdown. When you exercise, you are breaking apart muscle so that it will rebuild stronger. By taking in protein with high leucine content immediately after your exercise, you are telling your body to stop the breakdown and start the rebuilding process.
Whey protein is the supplement protein of choice for athletes and bodybuilders because it is fast-digesting and high in leucine. We want to get those signals (leucine) and building blocks (essential amino acids) to the muscles as soon as possible, and whey protein is absorbed quickly and easily. For those with lactose intolerance, whey protein isolate and hydrolysate are great choices that have the highest concentrations of protein and minimal to zero lactose (check labels to find the lowest in carbs). Some proteins will also contain added enzymes, such as lactase, that will eliminate any lactose issues, and proteases, which can help with the digestion and absorption of protein. Also, whey protein is 11% Leucine, which is higher than other protein sources, such as casein, soy, and beef. With whey, you get more of that signal to stop breaking muscle down and start building it back bigger, STRONGER!
Some of the benefits of whey protein supplementation are:
Dosage: Take 20-40 grams of protein after your workout within 30 minutes.
Creatine is arguably the most researched, safest and most effective supplement available (but as we said above, protein is king, so creatine has to settle for number two). A must for any athlete, creatine is well-known for increasing muscle mass, strength, and power. An organic acid found naturally in the body, creatine provides ATP (energy) to the muscles in a readily available form, so that the muscles can immediately activate before ATP can be generated from carbs or fats (think high-intensity exercise). So increasing creatine stores can ramp up energy availability when you need it most, like when you want to push out a few more reps on that last set. Also, creatine acts as an osmolyte so it is able to pull water into the muscle cell as it is transported, which stretches the muscle cell and activates anabolic signaling = muscle growth!
Some of the benefits of creatine supplementation are:
Dosage: For most of us 3-5 grams daily after your workout. If loading, then 20 grams per day for 7 days, and 5 grams per day afterward (loading is not necessary but leads to faster results). If you want to be a little more exact and base it off your lean body mass, .03 grams per pound of lean body mass a day is a great maintenance dose.
When to take it: If you are loading, take the 20 grams in 4 equal doses throughout the day. For maintenance, you can take it any time of the day.
Branched-chain Amino Acids
Branched-chain amino acids, or BCAA’s, refer to three amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. All three are EAA’s, so they serve as building blocks for muscle. More importantly, they boost signals for the body to stop breaking down muscle after a workout and starting building it back up. Leucine is a potent activator of mTOR, which is an important regulator of muscle growth in the body. Since both protein synthesis and protein degradation are occurring in the body at the same time, muscle growth can only be achieved if protein building is higher than breaking down. Luckily, BCAA’s can benefit your muscle building on both sides of this equation! Exercise and dieting both cause muscle breakdown: exercise breaks down muscle to build it back stronger, and dieting may cause muscle loss to utilize the protein as fuel. In both cases, BCAA’s can serve as an effective way to get the body to stop breaking down and build back up!
BCAA’s also serve another benefit during workouts – they can reduce your feelings of fatigue. BCAA’s compete with tryptophan for transport into the brain, and tryptophan can be converted into the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin can increase feelings of fatigue in exercising individuals, so reducing the transport of tryptophan can lower your body’s ability to make you feel tired.
Dosage: Make sure that you are getting the effective dose of leucine, which is 3 grams. You will find a lot of discussion surrounding the best ratio of BCAA’s – no studies have shown that any one ratio is better than others. We tend to prefer a more balanced ratio, so 2:1:1 or 3:1:1, as long as you are getting 3 grams of leucine (so not 10:1:1).
When to take it: BCAA’s are very effective pre and intra-workout.
Beta-alanine is a modified form of the amino acid alanine that cannot be used to build proteins. Instead it only serves to form carnosine, which is the main acid buffer in the body. Exercise causes the production of acids as byproducts of fuel metabolism, which can lead to short-term muscle fatigue. Therefore, reducing the acidity in the muscle through buffering can decrease fatigue, which leads to added reps during sets and greater adaptations.
Beta-alanine cannot be consumed in effective amounts from foods, so supplementation is necessary. Supplement timing is not a major factor since you are increasing stores of carnosine rather than going for a short-term effect. However, most people consume it as part of their pre-workout drink, and many popular pre-workout mixes contain beta-alanine, along with other workout maximizers like caffeine and nitric oxide boosters (we’ll talk about those below). If taking beta-alanine for the first time, don’t be scared of the tingling feeling that you might get all over your skin. It is harmless, and you might start to look forward to it as a regular part of your workouts!
Dosage: A wide variety of dosages and loading protocols have been studied. Research has shown that increased amounts do result in increased stores of carnosine. 2-3 grams is a minimal effective dose, though more studies are demonstrating benefits at 4-6 grams. At higher doses, make sure to also supplement with taurine, since those two compounds compete for receptors in the body, and taurine serves several important functions, so if you increase one, you should increase the other.
When to take it: Can take it any time of the day, but we recommend not taking more than 3 grams in one dose to avoid extreme tingling feeling.
Nitric Oxide Boosters
Nitric oxide is a gas molecule that the body uses to induce vasodilation or widening of the blood vessels. Wider blood vessels mean more blood flow, so that muscles are able to receive more oxygen and nutrients during exercise, and more waste products are able to be removed quickly. Also, more blood flow means bigger pumps. Your muscles will look bigger and feel tighter. But the benefits don’t stop with the mirror. As we discussed in the creatine section, increased cell volume will lead to greater anabolic signaling. So trust in the pump – it will lead to even greater gains!
Exercise itself induces vasodilation so that the muscles are getting more oxygen as demand goes up, but supplements can kick it up a notch even beyond that. The two main ingredients involved in boosting nitric oxide are arginine and citrulline. Arginine is a conditionally essential amino acid that is necessary for nitric oxide production. Citrulline is converted to arginine after being absorbed. Since citrulline is absorbed in higher amounts into the bloodstream, it actually increases blood arginine levels more than supplemental arginine itself!
Dosage: 3-6 grams is considered the efficacious dose of arginine. Since citrulline is better absorbed and lasts longer, you may be able to dose it a bit lower. It is harder to say about citrulline since most of the research has been with arginine, so for now, I would dose it the same (and get a better effect).
When to take it: 40-60 minutes before exercise
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