Okay, so in the last CXP Edge post we looked at Weight/Fat Loss… Today though, we’re examining the only supplements worth your money when it comes to trying to build lean muscle!
The only place to begin with this is: Protein!
Now, you’ll always hear me say how imperative it is to be getting in plenty of protein from natural sources (i.e. your FOOD); however, it can be tricky to get in amounts north of 150g from lean protein-rich food alone. With most of the best sources [like Chicken, Beef or Tuna] having about 30g of protein (on average) per serving, you’ve either gotta double-up each meal, or eat several meals per day.
If you’re a bodybuilder, then smashing through several chicken breasts per day is probably no problem for you. But for the rest of us who a) don’t pursue “musculature” as a career, b) don’t have the obsessive discipline that comes with eating like that, and c) lead “normal [boring?] lives”, it can be a bit much.
Cue: Protein Shakes
Let me first be clear – if you look at how the most “jacked” people out there really eat (Dwayne Johnson, Hugh Jackman, most pro-bodybuilders & cover models), then you’ll find that despite the several endorsements that are given (by the latter two at least), they actually don’t “do” protein shakes. They just eat super clean, super lean, and a lot! But for the rest of us, protein shakes can be an effective aid in our pursuit of a great physique.
So, if you’re getting in plenty from your food and just needing to “top up” to hit your protein goals (say you need 180g and you get 130ish from food), then the most convenient time to get in a shake is going to be *post-workout*.
‘Turn the other way if someone’s trying to tell you that Whey Concentrate is a good option…’
Let’s face it, as soon as you’re done hauling weights in the ‘iron playground’, you might not fancy the idea of chowing down on a big, protein-laden meal. A shake on the other hand, is far more doable! And with a decent variety of flavours [to suit multiple palates], and how far the industry has come in creating protein supplements that don’t taste like ground cocoa & chalk, you’ll maybe even look forward to having yours once you’re done in the gym!
Now, at some point, I will start doing Reviews & Recommendations for CXP, but for now, I want you to really get to know the products on the market for yourself (plus, to be fair, depending on where in the world you’re tuning in from, what I recommend may not be available to you anyhow – I’ve loved seeing the stats and finding that I have readers in Easter Europe, India, Australia, Spain, Ireland, Nepal, and a bunch of other amazing countries around the world!).
What I will tell you though, is what you need to be looking for! Now, if you’ve read my article Protein Spiking – What It Is, and Why You Should Be Concerned… then you already have an idea of what to avoid. But what you want is: a supplement that’s providing no less than 20g of protein per serving. Comes from an ‘Isolate’ source (preferably Whey, but if you’re Vegan then you’ll want something like Pea or Hemp, for example). And preferably devoid of Soy Lecithin… Turn the other way if someone’s trying to tell you that Whey Concentrate is a good option – yes, it’s cheap. But the quality is extremely poor, and the lactose content will most likely result in gas / an upset stomach / bloating.
Also, keep in mind that you don’t want to see much in the way of fat or carbs in your *protein* shake! Fat content under 5g is acceptable – this will preferably come from a healthy source (maybe coconut oil, for example). As for carbs – it wants to be under 10g for sure, and you don’t want to see any more than a single gram of sugar in there!
Next up, we have: BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids)
If you’ve been reading CXP Edge and/or CXP Nutrition articles for a while now, then you’ll already know that BCAAs are basically [some of] the “building blocks” of protein. See, that protein shake will have *amino acids* in it, and some of them will even be the branched chain ones. However, these particular aminos are special in that they have the most anabolic effect within the body, so getting additional amounts in separately is a good idea.
We have three: Leucine, Iso-Leucine and Valine. They’re the ones that have the biggest impact on the muscle building processes that occur inside of us. Leucine is the most note-worthy of the three though, as it is the one that triggers muscle protein synthesis (i.e. the utilization of protein by the muscle to build new muscle tissue).
‘Iso-Leucine and Valine are “glucogenic”… although Leucine is “ketogenic”…’
You’ll typically find Leucine / Iso-Leucine / Valine in a 3:1:1 ratio [ideally], and the amount of each will typically be roughly 3g / 1g / 1g [respectively]. Some companies have products with crazy ratios like 8:1:1, but this is totally unnecessary, and having so much extra Leucine won’t yield any further benefits.
Again, you can get BCAAs from your food intake, so supplementation isn’t crucial. But if you feel that your diet isn’t providing enough, then there are plenty of BCAA supplements on the market.
If you are diabetic, then you may want to discuss supplementation of BCAAs with your Doctor first as both Iso-Leucine and Valine are “glucogenic” (i.e. may be converted into glucose in the body), although Leucine is “ketogenic” (meaning it can be converted into ketones). The effect of BCAAs on glucose uptake may be a problem if you have any form of Insulin Resistance (either the condition itself, or similar – like Metabolic Syndrome or Diabetes Mellitus). These are the things that Supplement Companies won’t tell you, so take note, be conscious of it, and consult your Doctor / Nutritionist / Physician if you’re unsure.
But okay, moving on…
Next on the list we have: Beta-Alanine
Here we have another amino acid, but with a difference. The idea of consuming this specific amino is that [within the body] it combines with Histidine (another amino acid) to form a dipeptide known as Carnosine… and this is where the “magic” happens. There are some pretty impressive effects that can be noticed from Beta-Alanine supplementation (and subsequent Carnosine production), and those include: increases in Power & Strength, as well as improved Endurance & Recovery. This checks a LOT of boxes when it comes to what we want out of a supplement for training purposes.
One of the best times to consume Beta-Alanine is after your workout; it’s not paramount to take it immediately after, but researchers have found that uptake is optimal post-workout as your muscles are primed for nutrient utilization.
A couple of things to note with this supplement though, are that you will commonly experience a tingling sensation known as ‘paraesthesia’ – personally, I’ve noticed this feeling in the tops of my ears and the tip of my nose (you may feel it in other places like your fingertips, for example). This is totally harmless, and the effect will dissipate within about half an hour to an hour, so don’t be alarmed. (Obviously, if you have any allergies and feel like there could be a negative interaction, again – consult your Doctor beforehand!).
The other thing is that Beta-Alanine usage can quickly deplete the body’s Taurine stores (Taurine is an amino acid that has many positive effects on the body – especially in relation to diabetes). Therefore, you’ll want to find a Beta-Alanine supplement that also contains at least 1g of Taurine to replace depleted stores (or find another supplement to do the job – just don’t go chugging a bunch of Red Bull!).
Another fundamental is: Glutamine
And yes, you guessed it – we’re eyeing up another amino acid! The main role of Glutamine is: muscle repair! So, when you’ve been lifting big and breaking down muscle tissue, you’re going to want the most effective “rebuilder” out there.
‘… this will be optimal for… power output, as well as enhanced protein synthesis.’
This one is pretty straightforward. You’ll want to get about 5g of Glutamine in. Studies have shown that its effects of muscle building are most effective when paired with Creatine…
So, for muscle recovery and growth, you’re gonna want to include this in your line-up.
Coming next on our list, we’ve got: Betaine
Betaine is a modified version of another amino acid knowns as Glycine; the main difference being that three methyl groups are attached to it (hence Betaine’s other known name is “Tri-methyl-glycine”). Like with Beta-Alanine, you’re going to benefit from improved Strength & Power as well as Endurance. You’ll want to get about 1.5g in a serving; this will be optimal for improved power output, as well as enhanced protein synthesis. With long term usage, this could also lead to greater muscle growth.
Pro Tip: protein synthesis may be further enhanced if Betaine is consumed in a *fasted* state (therefore, it might work synergistically with Intermittent Fasting).
Again, pretty to the point here – these last couple of supplements don’t have to be delved into too much. But the next one we’re looking at is an ingredient we analysed in The Six Best Supplements for Weight Loss: CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid)
As you’ll remember if you read that last article, CLA is actually an Omega-6 polyunsaturated fat. So, as well as seeing great results when it comes to Fat Loss, you may even be able to increase your lean muscle mass too!
Just like when you’d take it for Fat Loss, you’re going to need a solid 3g dose per day. Best results for *muscle growth* [in particular] were noted [in scientific studies] when supplementation with Fish Oil (Omega-3) was taken also.
Now, I touched on this last time, but it’s worth noting again; you’ll want to consider consulting your Doctor on this one as some studies have shown that CLA can affect Insulin Sensitivity… and in some cases, the effect was that Insulin Resistance increased! This is definitely pause for concern – especially if you are Diabetic, Pre-Diabetic, have Metabolic Syndrome and/or already have Insulin Resistance in some form or another.
Lucky number seven on our list today comes in the form of: Citrulline [Malate]
Again – an amino acid – this is another “precursor” [of sorts] (like Beta-Alanine is to Carnosine) in that when consumed it will actually be converted into [yet another amino acid] Arginine. Now, you can buy Arginine as a standalone supplement, which for decades was touted for its impact on the circulatory system and blood flow (think: improved uptake of nutrients [from the blood] – especially *protein*) owing to how it gets converted into nitric oxide (NO) in the body.
‘… a lot of people think that Creatine “builds muscle”… NOT the case.’
So, you’re probably wondering: why not just consume straight-up Arginine if it’s just going to be converted into it anyway? Well, it’s a matter of practicality. See, Arginine will get heavily broken down by the intestines and liver when ingested; Citrulline, however, will not. Therefore, we get greater absorption that in turn allows for a higher yielding conversion to Arginine, and thus nitric oxide.
If you’re training intensely (which you should be if you’re looking to put on lean muscle mass), then you should aim for a dose of about 6g of Citrulline.
It has been noted that you could experience greater energy (and power output) with Citrulline supplementation, however, what the studies really show is a decrease in fatigue (which isn’t quite the same). This reduced fatigue has then translated into greater training volume (if you’re not getting tired as quickly, you can train longer/harder). Either way, this is clearly a benefit that anyone exercising regularly could benefit from!
Okay, so if any of you already had some idea of what to expect from this list ahead of diving in here, then you probably expected to see Creatine listed also…
So, as a bonus #8 on the list, I’ll add it right now. However, I’ll start by telling you my reason for the initial exclusion: water retention. See, a lot of people think that Creatine ‘builds muscle’… NOT the case. Creatine will lead to improved Strength & Power, and with sufficient [hypertrophy] training and protein intake, you’ll eventually see muscle growth.
What Creatine does really well though, is that it pulls water into the muscle cells, and this increases glycogen stores as a result. If you read my last CXP Nutrition post – Everything You Need to Know About “Going Keto” – then you’ll know of the correlation between glycogen and water in the cells. Thing is, this retentive effect isn’t exactly desirable for a *lean* look… fact is, you can end up looking overly round and… well… “puffy”.
One thing to note: the different forms. This “puffy” effect from water retention is most noticeable when taking Creatine Monohydrate. The ‘-hydrate’ part should be the big clue there! The other two major forms [most commonly available on the market] are: Creatine Nitrate and Creatine HCL (Hydrochloride).
Monohydrate is the cheapest [and most widely sold] form; typically, the instructions will tell you to go through a “Loading Phase” that involves hoovering down 20g per day for about a week. Then you reduce it to the “Maintenance Phase” of 5g per day.
Pro Tip: screw the “Loading Phase” – this is completely unnecessary, and really, it’s just a way for the supplement companies to make you buy more as you plough through your first batch. (Keep in mind, they also recommend going through the Loading Phase again if you’ve come off Creatine for a prolonged period of time).
Simple fact is this: you can start off taking 5g per day and stick at that amount. Yes, the loading will lead to quicker saturation (available amounts in your body), but it doesn’t take much longer to reach those levels of Creatine off just 5g instead. And that “hyper-saturation” is going to lead to quicker *water retention*, which will make your muscles look bigger, but really, they’re just bulging with water!
The Nitrate and HCL forms will be taken in far smaller doses, and fortunately, no “Loading Phase” is [usually] recommended for these. They’re both more expensive, but you’re only going to need about 2-5g (total) of either one.
Creatine HCL has greater acidity than the other two forms, thus increasing it’s solubility in liquids (i.e. when you mix it with water to drink it), and this enhances its absorption. Creatine Nitrate is going to have the added benefit of ‘greater pumps’ (owing to the Nitrate group – as we discussed before with Citrulline’s conversion into Arginine, and then into Nitric Oxide, where this improves blood flow).
These forms will lead to more of the benefits we actually want from Creatine, and less of the things we don’t want happening. So, if you’re going to invest in one of the three, I’d suggest the HCL or Nitrate forms – as I’ve said before, sometimes opting for the more expensive supplements will actually lead to better quality results (where the cheaper option will just bring about crappy results).
And that’s all she wrote!
The Seven Best Supplements for Building Lean Muscle (with the addition of a cheeky eighth at the end there). As always, I want you to know the ins and outs of these ingredients. Supplement companies will all too often do you a disservice by simply adding medical disclaimers and say to consult your doctor first, however, the problem with this is that they don’t actually tell you WHY!! Consequently, most people just ignore the disclaimer and truck on…
They don’t want you to know the negatives that some studies have shown, but I believe it’s important to have the whole picture and make a more informed decision!
On that note, I hope you’ve gained a lot from this article today – be sure to share it, follow CXP Fitness on Instagram for more great content, and make sure you look for the right doses and ingredients when you’re next looking at buying supplements for your training endeavours.
I’ll catch you next time, but for now, remember: Train Hard, and Train Smart!
Yours in Training,
Chris Atkinson | Master Personal Trainer, SDO