The effective marketing campaigns behind sport supplement companies and their products propel them to the forefront of peoples minds when it comes to muscle growth. The hierarchy of factors that contribute to muscle growth becomes skewed and crucial low-hanging fruit, such as sleep, nutrition, training cycle programming etc get missed and many people assume supplementation has a greater impact on results then it does it reality.
The reality is that supplementation is the cherry on top of the cake when it comes to muscle growth, however if you have all the other lifestyle factors nailed down then the consideration of supplementation to further improve performance inside and outside of the gym can benefit your results. That said it then becomes a minefield de-coding the tens of thousands of different products you’re faced with and determining where your money is best spent.
The purpose of this article is to streamline this decoding process and outline the 3 supplements I recommend for athletes looking to increase *muscle mass and improve their performance in the gym.
*Just to re-iterate, this solely related to hypertrophy and not endurance or any other form of fitness variation. There are additional, proven supplements that serve as ergogenic aids for endurance performance that won’t be discussed in this article.
In order for muscles to grow they need stimulus going through them allowing for muscle tissue breakdown, cell signalling, elevated muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and consequently adaptation and growth.
For individuals who are new to the gym, the rate of progress is steep over the initial months. Even if you’re semi-dedicated to training and keep focused on sustaining a calorie intake that allows you to maintain your energy balance day-to-day, you will notice progress very quickly. This is simply because all stimulus is novel at this stage, because your training base is so low, the only way is up. Inevitably as physiological adaption starts to take place, ceilings start to be hit. The height of said ceiling is largely determined by gender, genetics and age, as greater and greater loads and intensities are necessary to continually progress forward. You can navigate through these training plateaus by being strategic with your training programming and factoring in periods of de-loading, but this is also where a supplement such as creatine can aid with the hypertrophy process. And here’s why…
Studies suggest that the optimal rep range and intra-set intensity to achieve muscle growth is between 3-30 reps (1,2). Although muscle growth has been proven within these rep ranges typically 8-15 reps is the happy medium for most bodybuilders aiming for muscle growth, as this tends to have metabolic benefits and limit risk of injury (1). When looking to increase and improve output in this rep range, you need to consider the energy system that is working and establish ways in which this can be up-regulated, this allows for higher training capacity and ultimately better performance, more stimulus and greater adaptation.
The energy yield necessary to train at these higher intensities, is heavily anaerobic, meaning derived without oxygen. This is in sharp contrast with endurance running which is heavily reliant on oxygen and is aerobic.
The classification of anaerobic energy is further divided down into the ATP-PC (phosphocreatine) system and the glycolytic/lactate system. Creatine supplementation comes into the equation when looking to enhance ATP yield through the ATP-PC system. We need to quickly harness and re-synthesis ATP (adenosine triphosphate) to form energy for this type of high-intensity exercise. The energy itself comes when ATP is broken down to ADP (adenosine diphosphate and a phosphate molecule – it gets a phosphate cleaved off).
Energy/Muscle Contraction = ATP => ADP + Pi
The role of creatine enables for the re-binding of the phosphate group to allow for more ATP at this incredibly fast rate of re-synthesis and breakdown. The duration and sustainability of this process is therefore heavily dependant on creatine saturation within the muscle tissue, with maximal energy usage at this intensity ranging from 10-15 seconds (3).
This is one way in which creatine supplementation enables athletes and bodybuilders to increase their training output (4), increase muscle mass (5) and increase strength levels (6). Creatine can also increase muscle size due to its cell swelling impact enable for increased water retention within muscle tissue (primarily fast twitch muscle tissue) (7). Creatine is also anti-catabolic meaning that it helps prevent muscle breakdown by limiting the oxidation of leucine (8).
Creatine can be abundant within the diet of meat-eaters with large amounts found in beef and fish. Creatine can also be made by the body within the liver naturally, however these amounts typically won’t allow for optimising performance and creatine muscle saturation, and this is where creatine supplementation can be very effective (9).
Numerous studies have confirmed the efficacy of creatine supplementation within the performance context (10), however one standout study by Volek et al (5) really highlights just how powerful it can serve as an ergogenic aid Volek took 19 healthy, weight-trained male subjects and split them into 2 groups. Both groups performed the same training block for a 12-week period, with 1 group supplementing with creatine for the duration of the study** Vs a control/placebo group. The creatine group saw an increase of 6.3% in fat-free mass Vs the placebo group of 3.1%, with cross-sectional muscle growth across all muscle fiber types.
**protocol: 25grams for the initial loading week and 5grams thereafter for the remainder of the study.
There are many forms of creatine on the market, however creatine monohydrate is always mine and my clients go-to and the form used to great effect in studies and highly bioavailable, especially the Creapure® formula. It’s typical to supplement with a higher initial dose of creatine for the initial 5-7 days, as creatine saturation can be achieved in just 6 days (11), therefore 20grams daily (in 4 separate servings) is optimal followed by 5grams/day to maintain levels thereafter.
The role of protein consumption and muscle growth was discussed in depth in the previous article, however when it comes to tried and tested supplementation for muscle development you can’t go far without the inclusion of whey protein.
The relationship between protein consumption and muscle growth is well understood and sufficient protein intake of 1.6grams/kg bodyweight/day is necessary to optimise growth (12), although as much as 2.3/3.1grams/kg bodyweight/day has been proven to further heighten this capacity during times of caloric restriction (13).
Protein is broken down into amino acids of which there are 2 sub groups, non-essential amino acids which can be assimilated naturally by the body and essential amino acids which cannot and need to be consumed in the diet. Essential amino acid intake is necessary for maximising muscle growth (14) and if your diet includes meat and other animal sources such as eggs then there is a possibility that you may be hitting the benchmark of 1.6grams/kg bodyweight/day without the need for supplementation. However from experience the vast majority of people struggle to hit this target via their diet alone and that’s where whey protein can serve as a fantastic supplement.
Whey protein is rich in essential amino acids and has the highest protein bioavailability compared to all other protein sources, making it the ideal supplement if your protein intake is below this optimal threshold and/or your essential amino acid intake is low.
Leucine – an essential amino acid that is dominant in whey protein – is also key for maximising muscle growth given its impact on upregulating the mTOR: a protein that increases muscle protein synthesis and improves net protein balance (15). This is really another key factor in the benefit of whey protein supplementation for muscle growth compared with other protein supplements.
It was previously hypothesised and noted as fact by bodybuilders that there was a benefit of consuming whey protein in the golden half hour post-training session. However this has since been debunked (16) as muscle protein synthesis remains high enough to drive muscle growth for 24 hours post-session. That said I personally still encourage clients to stick to this rule as much as possible if protein consumption is a contributing factor to their particular goal. Simply because it acts as a good cue and habit to get into to further bolster protein intake.
Caffeine is unknowingly supplemented globally each day by coffee fiends, making it in the effect the most popular ‘supplement’ there is. Often used a pick-me-up for it’s ability to help with focus by limiting tiredness. However caffeine is the third supplement to also have an evident, science-based impact on strength and hypertrophy.
Unlike creatine and whey protein caffeine doesn’t directly have a proven anabolic effect, however the ability for caffeine to drive muscle growth is in it’s utility as a performance aid within training sessions. The research outcomes into caffeine and strength/hypertrophy is mixed (17,18). However, this hypothesis and inclusion within the recommendations largely also comes from years of experience as a practitioner. Caffeine supplementation (3mg and 6mg/kg bodyweight) has also been proven to work as an ergogenic aid during endurance exercise (19).
Caffeine works at the level of the central nervous system: a system necessary to signal to the peripheral nervous system and exert force through muscle contractions. It’s therefore hypothesised that caffeine has scope to recruit more motor units leading to increased output, increased training loads, improve performance, muscle adaptation and muscle hypertrophy.
One study (20) in agreement with this hypothesis found that 2.4mg of caffeine/kg bodyweight lead to an increase in one rep max output for the bench press.
When it comes to caffeine supplementation the context is key and it may not always be a great time to supplement with caffeine before a weight training session. For example if you train in the evening or if you’re a slow caffeine metaboliser training in the afternoon, caffeine intake may decrease your sleep pressure and sleep quality that evening due to the way it functions as an adenosine antagonist. Also the chances are that at this time of the day your central nervous system is already well-placed to have a great workout in any case.
However if you only have time to weight train in the morning and relatively close to the time you wake up, then caffeine supplementation may have a beneficial impact on the central nervous system and improving training capacity with regards to muscle strength and strength endurance.
Common sources of caffeine are pre-workouts and the caffeine amount within these vary greatly from product to product. A personal preference of mine and many clients is just having a black coffee half an hour prior to training, this adds all the potential caffeine benefits and is also a rich source of polyphenols which can help to limit the negative impact of reactive oxygen species within the body.
To Wrap Up
There are so many supplements out there on the market that claim to work as performance aids and allow you to increase muscle mass, however these are often devised off the back of thin research. The reality is the research into supplements that help increase muscle tissue is limited. I recommend focusing on all lifestyle factors that influence muscle growth (training frequency, recovery/sleep and nutrition) and looking to incorporate these supplements as and when needed within your training cycle.