Published: February 15, 2021
The reality about muscle building supplements is there's an endless amount of over-hyped, unnecessary, and sometimes straight-up detrimental supplements out there which prey on the uninformed or desperate, that you're best off leaving on the shelf for the sake of your health and/or wallet. Supplements are a notorious big money industry full of clever, sometimes sly marketing, with companies doing all they can to make you believe their product is needed or special/superior, and that you'll be missing out on something (ie health/gains/whatever) if you don't take that supplement.
Sure, there are some good brands and supplements out there if you know what to look for, but once you gain experience within the fitness and natural bodybuilding industries as I have (and you keep your eyes open), you come to realize that most supplements are a waste of money and unnecessary if you get all the basic nutritional principles down each day, especially when it comes to muscle gain supplements as most won't help you gain muscle any faster or easier. That said, there definitely are a few specific types of supplements that can genuinely help you reach your muscle building goals, and proven to benefit you in some capacity regarding either your diet or weight training sessions.
Whey protein supplements are the most common form of protein supplements, and well worth a consideration for a muscle gain program (or even when not training). There's no magic to them and they won't make you build more muscle or anything like that - the whole point is to make it more convenient for you to reach your daily protein intake goals. When eating for muscle gain, you need to be eating enough protein in a daily basis in order for your body to physically be able to repair and regrow muscle tissue that you breakdown when in the gym (at least if you're training hard enough that is).
While you don't want to go overboard with protein intake as you don't need that much in order to build muscle, some people - especially those on their very first bulking phase - may find it difficult to eat enough protein from whole food sources alone. Perhaps you don't want or can't eat meat, in which case you may find it tough getting in enough protein from other sources. Whatever the case may be, whey protein supplements come in real handy as a way to bolster your daily intake by simply drinking a shake.
The great thing is that whey protein is a complete protein source as well, which means it contains all the essential amino acids the body needs to build muscle. Not all sources of protein are equal when it comes to muscle gain, but whey is among the best. If you had to include just one supplement in your muscle gain program, it's hard to look past whey protein. Whey protein supplements come in various forms but the most common is a powder which you can mix with water or milk. If you have a whey protein shake after your workout, ideally you want to mix it with water in order for it to digest faster.
There's also two main different types of whey: whey isolate, and whey concentrate. Whey isolate is the purest yet more expensive form, which is filtered more so than whey concentrate to remove most of the fat and lactose (carbs), resulting in higher protein levels and faster digestion (as well as being better if you're lactose intolerant).
If there's one supplement that can almost directly help you to build more muscle mass it would have to be creatine, or specifically creatine monohydrate which comes in the form of a simple powder that you can mix with liquid. I say 'almost directly' because creatine will help you indirectly build muscle mass by giving you a slight little extra boost of strength in the gym to potentially push that little bit extra weight than you normally would, which obviously then leads to more potential for muscle growth.
Creatine is not needed to build significant amounts of muscle size and strength, but if you already have all the basics down (nutrition and training) and have a little bit of experience under your belt, it can help give you a little extra kick in the gym to push 1-3% harder (or thereabouts). Unlike most muscle building supplements you'll find at your local store or online, creatine is actually backed by science and studies have proven it can increase athletic performance. Just don't expect too much from it as magic pills (or powders in this case) do not exist.
See Also: How to Take Creatine Effectively (FAQ)
When you hit the gym often with heavy weight training sessions, you have a higher than average requirement in terms of vitamins and minerals compared to the general population who perhaps aren't training as intensely. Weight training - especially when doing the most effective muscle building exercises like squats and deadlifts - taxes the body heavily and you lose a lot of nutrients through your sweat. Same goes for other intense exercise sessions.
Therefore, while it's always important to dial in and balance all your nutrients day to day for general health, frequent gym goers should be extra vigilant in making sure they aren't sufficient in any particular vitamin or mineral. That's where vitamin supplements come in handy, whether that's a general all-in-one multivitamin, or specific supplements that you know you're lacking in for whatever reason. You ideally want to get all your vitamins and nutrients from real food, but if you cannot do so, or if you want to be absolutely sure you're not missing out on something, vitamin supplements can be a big help.
Based on my experience and research, you should be vary skeptical and wary of pre workout supplements, since most of them either include things you should probably be avoiding for general health, or things that aren't going to really help all that much for your workout. For example, some pre workout supplements include ingredients that help you get a bigger "pump" during your workout, but scientifically speaking the size of your pump (how large and full your muscles become during and immediately following a workout) has no correlation with permanent gains in muscle size and strength.
For example, you could do med to high-rep sets with medium weights that gives you a nice pump, but you're not going to progress your muscle size and strength as much doing that when compared to performing lower reps with heavier weights (which may not give you as big a temporary pump). Some pre-workout supplements do contain ingredients that can help your workout (specifically athletics performance/output/focus) such as caffeine or creatine, but you could just as easily and more cost-effectively take these separately.
Testosterone boosting supplements are another popular type of product within natural bodybuilding, but can they actually boost testosterone? Based on my research, the truth is no - at least not most of them. To clarify, I would avoid most testosterone boosting supplements, because as explained in my guide to naturally maximizing testosterone levels the majority of them are overly hyped/marketed wastes of money that contain ingredients with little to no proof of helping testosterone.
There are the odd exceptions though, as some supplements do contain the occasional ingredient that is indeed scientifically linked to potentially helping testosterone (such as ashwagandha). But overall, in my opinion you're better off saving your money when it comes to T boosting supplements and tweaking your diet and lifestyle, both of which have massive effects on your testosterone among other hormones.
BCAA, short for Branched Chain Amino Acids, refer to the amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine which are found within protein in food. BCAA supplements are a relatively popular bodybuilding supplement, with the main claim being they can help muscle recovery and growth (and other benefits being reduced muscle soreness and improved training performance).
But when you do some digging you'll find the studies that show BCAA supplementation in a positive light are misleading, as they were undertaken alongside inadequate "regular" protein intakes (ie from food). In other words, if you eat enough protein each day in order to gain muscle, and do so from "complete" protein sources that include all the essential amino acids, there is no proof showing that supplementing with additional BCAAs is going to make any difference to your gains or recovery.
Similar to BCAA supplements, if your diet is on-point each day, you'll be getting the necessary glutamine your body needs to build muscle, and there is no conclusive proof as far as I'm aware from my own research that supplementing with additional glutamine is going to help with muscle gain or recovery.