Before looking to add any supplements into your regime, you need to ensure you’re getting the best out of your training, nutrition and recovery first. The definition of ‘supplement’ means to add to what’s already there. If all you’re adding to is rubbish then you would just be wasting time and money. However, when you have got a good grasp of the basics, you can gain significant benefits by selecting the right supplements. At CSN we have compiled a list of supplements proven to help build muscle mass, strength and power.
Even if you’ve never set foot in a gym, chances are you’ll be familiar with protein supplements. Alongside the big man Arnold, they’re one of the first things that Joe Bloggs down the street associates with training. With good reason.
They typically come in shake or bar form, usually containing whey, casein, egg, a combination of these or vegan blends. Protein supplements are particularly effective due to how rapidly your body digests them – this makes them the ideal pre-and-post training snack. For example, steaks and pork chops contain a great deal of protein but take a lot longer to digest, which makes them better suited to other meal times throughout the day.
Those of us who weight train typically need between 1.6-2g per kg bodyweight of protein per day. Supps can help you attain your daily protein intake due to their concentration of branched chain amino acids (find out all you need to know about BCAAs here) and essential amino acids (EAAs). A generous amino acid profile is crucial for building and repairing muscle tissue. Casein protein is also recommended to essentially drip feed your muscles with amino acids over a longer period of time. Therefore, it is often marketed as a night-time supplement. For vegetarians and vegans, soy protein supplements are recommended. Soy sources are effective and provide a high-quality alternative to dairy supplements.
Second to only whey protein as the most popular sport and training supplement, creatine is arguably the most widely-studied. It is naturally found in meat, poultry and fish – but not in sufficient quantities to significantly boost performance itself. You would need to eat kilos of each to attain 4-5g of creatine, which would then lead to excessive calorie intake and digestive issues.
Creatine works by aiding muscular contraction and short bursts of muscular performance. It is therefore most beneficial for strength and power athletes – so if you’re into bodybuilding, powerlifting or strongman competition then you will certainly reap the rewards. McArdle’s Sport & Exercise Nutrition, one of the leading texts on the topic, notes that creatine supplementation can boost strength and power performance by as much as 5-10%.
Creatine is best taken in monohydrate form as this variant has formed the basis of most studies on creatine’s effectiveness. You can find it most commonly in powder or pill form as a standalone supplement, or included in pre-workout drinks and mass gainers. Try and aim for Creapure-certified creatine as with Reflex Creapure Creatine as this has undergone the most rigorous quality testing.
Note: Creatine is incredibly safe to use, but those with pre-existing kidney or liver conditions should at least consult a doctor before considering including it.
Caffeine is the active ingredient in virtually every energy drink – and is most commonly labelled a fat-burner. True, it can help you get lean, but its uses are also extremely effective when you are trying to gain muscle mass and strength. Such is the effectiveness of caffeine that until 2004, it was on the banned list of both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
Caffeine works by stimulating your body’s production of adrenaline. When your body’s adrenaline levels are increased, your rate of exertion decreases – meaning that the effort required to lift weights is less than what it would be without caffeine. Heavier weights + greater rep ranges = size and strength gains.
Strength training can also be aided by caffeine use as it both increases the release of calcium into your muscle cells and increases the muscle’s sensitivity to calcium. Caffeine can also help to recruit more muscle fibres when performing an exercise, resulting in a stronger, more efficient contraction.
Note: those who suffer from medical conditions such as anxiety, insomnia and irregular heartbeats should avoid caffeine or at least seek advice from a doctor before using caffeine.
One supplement that goes under the radar somewhat despite its benefits is HMB. You may not have heard of this, but research is beginning to support its value to your muscle-building arsenal.
HMB was long billed as an ineffective muscle builder simply due to the lack of studies trialled on it, but data now suggests it could prove a worthwhile addition to your supplement stack. HMB is typically found in oral capsule form, and is best taken alongside creatine monohydrate – though you can find it as an additive in some protein shakes. Read all you need to know on HMB here.
It is a naturally-occurring amino acid produced by leucine – one of the key branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). It works by preventing the body from breaking down its protein stores (your muscle tissue) for use as energy, vital in your pursuit of increased muscle mass and strength. Protecting your muscle tissue from breakdown during intense exercise is one of the keys to growth, regardless of whether you’re an experienced lifter or a gym newbie.