Warning for Muscle Building Supplements
Researchers completed a study of adverse events due to supplements. The reports documented the following in some individuals 25 years and younger:
Moreover, the following supplement categories had a three-fold increase in the risk for severe medical events compared to vitamins:
- Muscle building
- Weight loss
In general, their use is not advisable.
Dietary supplements to boost muscle growth (often called “ergogenic aids”) are hugely popular with athletes and untrained individuals who are striving to build muscle. Some common reasons people want to increase muscle mass include the following:
- Athletic performance improvement
- Sarcopenia (muscle loss due to aging)
- Fall prevention
There is some evidence that nutritional supplements like protein, creatine, and collagen can improve strength and promote muscle growth. However, overall, the data supporting this is limited.
This article discusses the benefits and risks of eight popular supplements marketed to increase strength and build muscle.
Supplement Use In Sports
Some sports supplements are banned by regulations of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), or the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). One example is DHEA; athletes who use it may be eliminated from competitions.
If you plan to compete in athletic events, ensure that all supplements you take are allowed in competition.
What Supplements Increase Muscle Mass?
There’s evidence that taking several dietary supplements, along with exercising, can help build muscle. Here’s what you need to know about some of the heavy hitters.
Protein supplementation can increase muscle size and improve resistance training. Effects are most significant in people already trained in resistance exercises like weight lifting. Older people will likely see fewer effects from protein supplements than younger people.
There are many popular protein supplements—whey, casein, and soy protein are just a few.
Most people need at least 0.8 to 1.0 grams per kilogram of body weight of protein daily. Athletes may need twice this amount, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Remember that some reviews have concluded that daily doses higher than 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight do not provide additional benefits.
Clinical trials have studied doses of supplemental protein ranging from four to 106 grams daily. Older people typically need more protein than their younger counterparts to see similar effects. Splitting your daily protein dose up is recommended, and you should take smaller amounts every three to four hours. This allows the body to get enough essential amino acids from the protein.
Some supplements used for sports performance, such as DHEA, can impact hormone levels. People with hormone-sensitive cancers such as prostate, breast, or ovarian should not take DHEA or other supplements that can affect hormone levels. If you have a history of hormone-sensitive cancer, discuss any supplement you plan to take with your healthcare provider.
DHEA is a steroid hormone the body uses to make sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen.
DHEA is often included in sports supplements to increase muscle mass and strength, but the data supporting DHEA for these uses is weak. Clinical trials have studied it in doses of 50–150 milligrams daily. Fifty milligrams per day is generally considered the safest dosage.
One trial of young males who took DHEA for eight weeks showed no benefits in muscle strength or testosterone levels compared to placebo.
A study in older people showed that DHEA alone did not increase muscle mass or strength, but it could be a helpful addition to weight training in this population.
In postmenopausal females, DHEA supplementation for 12 weeks increased hormone levels but did not increase muscle mass, strength, or endurance.
Females who supplement with DHEA for several months may see side effects related to high testosterone levels, such as facial hair or acne. And importantly for athletes, DHEA has been banned by the NCAA and WADA.
HMB is made from the amino acid leucine. It’s involved in making protein and building skeletal muscle. Supplementing with HMB reduced muscle damage after exercise and improved recovery.
Doses of 1.5 to 3 grams daily of HMB (along with weight training) can increase strength and muscle mass. This is most beneficial for people who aren’t trained athletes or are older. HMB is commonly taken in three divided doses, with meals or before exercise.
Trained athletes will take longer to see the effects of HMB (up to 12 weeks), while people who haven’t previously trained may see results in as little as three weeks. You can generally expect to gain 1 to 2 pounds of muscle by taking HMB for three to six weeks.
HMB in doses of up to 3 grams per day for one year is likely safe, though there’s no safety data for those who take it for over a year.
Creatine is currently the most popular supplement for exercise performance. Made in the kidneys and liver, over 90% of the creatine in your body is found in the skeletal muscles. You can boost your creatine levels by eating red meat or taking supplements.
A review of 16 clinical trials concluded that creatine can help build muscle in young, healthy people. It increases muscle strength, muscle mass, and exercise performance in young people regardless of prior athletic training. People have gained 2–4 pounds of muscle by taking creatine for up to 12 weeks.
Results were not as clear-cut in older people or those with muscle-related diseases. More data is necessary before creatine can be recommended for these populations.
Clinical trials have typically administered a high-loading dose of 20 grams daily for five days, followed by a maintenance dose of 2–5 grams daily.
At regular doses, creatine seems safe for most people. This is in doses of up to 30 grams daily for five years. But side effects to watch for include the following:
Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids
An extensive review of 66 studies in people with risk factors for sarcopenia concluded that omega-3 fatty acids like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) increased muscle mass and strength. These fatty acids could help prevent sarcopenia in people with risk factors like chronic disease or fatigue—but more research is necessary. Most clinical trials were small, so more extensive trials are necessary to verify these effects.
Another analysis of clinical trials investigated the effects of these polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) in healthy adults. It concluded that PUFAs can improve grip strength but don’t significantly affect muscle mass. Similarly, another systematic review of PUFAs showed that they did not improve strength or muscle growth.
Adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids is between 1.1 and 1.6 grams daily. This can be obtained through diet alone, mainly in fish or supplements. Doses used in clinical trials ranged from 600–4,000 milligrams per day of EPA plus DHA.
Taking up to 5 grams a day of EPA plus DHA is likely safe. Mild side effects may include the following:
High doses have been associated with increased bleeding risk and atrial fibrillation.
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body. It is vital for skin health and protecting against sports injuries. It’s also rich in amino acids like L-arginine and glycine, which make creatine.
A systematic review of 15 clinical trials showed that collagen supplements plus exercise can improve some aspects of strength, muscle recovery, and body composition. The most impressive muscle gains were in older males with sarcopenia. Effects on premenopausal females and healthy young people were not as pronounced.
Collagen is available as capsules or powder. Common doses used in clinical trials are between 5 and 15 grams per day, taken within an hour of exercise. Some research suggests that taking it with vitamin C can enhance its effect.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is an antioxidant that is involved in energy production. It can reduce inflammation and may prevent damage to the body. CoQ10 has been studied in trials for sports performance at doses of 100–600 milligrams daily.
Low levels of CoQ10 are associated with the frailty and muscle wasting of the aging process. Some research shows that along with exercise, CoQ10 can combat sarcopenia.
In theory, CoQ10 could help with muscle recovery after exercise—but so far, results have been all over the map. For now, there’s not enough evidence to recommend it for this.
Side effects of this supplement may include the following:
Leucine is a branched-chain amino acid that helps the muscles make protein.
Daily doses of leucine between 1.7 and 3.5 grams can increase protein levels in the body—but the evidence of benefit is mixed.
A small clinical trial in 25 healthy young males concluded that high-dose leucine (10 grams daily for 12 weeks) did not increase muscle mass or strength.
On the other hand, another small trial of 21 people with cerebral palsy showed that taking leucine for 10 weeks increased strength and muscle mass.
A systematic review of nine trials of leucine supplementation in older people had conflicting results. Those who took leucine had a higher rate of protein synthesis in the muscles but did not show improvements in body composition (e.g., lean body mass).
Possible side effects of leucine include gastrointestinal distress and high ammonia levels. Leucine hasn’t been subject to long-term study, so more research is necessary to determine its safety profile.
Dietary supplements are not regulated in the United States, meaning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve them for safety and effectiveness before they reach the market. Whenever possible, choose a supplement tested by a trusted third party, such as the United States Pharmacopeia (USP), ConsumerLab, or NSF.org. However, even if supplements are third-party tested, that doesn’t mean they are necessarily safe or effective in general. Therefore, talking to your healthcare provider about any supplements you plan to take and checking in about potential interactions with other supplements or medications are important.
Several dietary supplements may help increase muscle mass in conjunction with resistance training. The optimal supplement for muscle growth depends on factors like age and how much baseline exercise you get. Some, like protein, work best for young people. Others, like HMB and leucine, may benefit older people and those who are new to working out more.
Before taking a supplement to increase muscle mass, discuss it with your healthcare provider to ensure it’s a good choice. Be aware that there’s very little long-term safety data for these products. If side effects occur, contact your healthcare provider or call 911 in case of an emergency.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do supplements really work for building muscle?
Some supplements (see creatine and protein) may enhance the effects of weight training, especially when taken for several weeks or more. Effects can vary depending on age, gender, and athletic training.
When should I take creatine?
Researchers don’t know definitively. Only a few trials have studied this, and the results have varied.
That said, the timing of creatine supplementation seems most important during the first five days, during the “loading phase.” Taking creatine around the same time as your workout during this phase seems best.
What foods can boost protein levels?
Protein-rich foods include meats, eggs, dairy products, beans, and nuts.