Best Bodybuilding Supplements

Updated December 21, 2020

40 years ago, building muscle was pretty straightforward. You worked like hell in the gym, drank your milk, ate your steak, and got plenty of sleep. Now it seems, you need a chemistry degree just to understand what to put into your body to make it grow. Of course, the difference between then and now is that bodybuilding supplementation has become a billion-dollar industry. Slick marketers have convinced us that we need to spend a small fortune every month to even have any chance of putting on muscle.

In this article, we smash through all of that marketing hype to reveal the truth about what supplements you really need to build a massive, lean physique. With research drawn not only from science, but, more importantly, from 40 years of in the trenches experience about what actually does work, you’re about to discover the hard-core supplements that you need to focus your hard earned cash on.


The Place of Supplements

Best Bodybuilding Supplements

Today, there is a ridiculous amount of emphasis placed on the role of supplementation in building muscle. A lot of guys believe that if they can’t afford to spend $100 or more per month on supplements, then there’s no point working out. What they fail to realize is that supplements are exactly that – supplements to working out and eating properly. At best, they will provide you with an extra 10 to 20% in terms of gains. So, unless you’re working out intensely and smartly while also eating for muscle gain, you’ll get absolutely nothing out of supplementation.

So before you even consider buying supplements, make sure that you know what you’re doing in the gym and that when you are on the gym floor you focus like a laser beam on the muscle that you’re working, finding the exercises that actually work and using a rep range that varies from extremely high (i.e. 50) to extremely low (i.e.4 – 6). In terms of nutrition, you should be eating 5 to 6 times per day, making sure to get lean protein complex carbs and healthy fats at every meal. You will also be wanting to create a daily caloric excess of around 500 calories.

What Supplements Do You Really Need?

Here is a list of the supplements that you, ideally, should be taking on a daily basis if your goal is to build and maintain lean muscle mass:

  • Protein powder – Whey isolates, and hydrolyzed whey, egg protein powder, soy protein, milk protein, beef pro- tein, casein protein, and plant protein powder. 
  • L-Leucine 
  • Glutamine
  • Nitric Oxide enhancers – Arginine, Citrulline
  • Creatine Monohydrate 
  • Anti-Oxidants (Glutathione) 
  • Joint Supplements


The Lowdown on Protein

Best Bodybuilding Supplements

Protein is the most important supplement to put into your body in order to build muscle.(1) Your main sources of protein must come from whole food sources such as poultry, dairy (milk, cheese, eggs) fish, beef, beans, soy and other plant sources. There are five main reasons why protein is essential for muscle growth:

  1. Anabolism – maintaining a constant supply of amino acids to your muscles will ensure that they remain in an anabolic state. If you are not in an anabolic state, you will by default be in a catabolic state, which means that you will be wasting muscle away. The difference between the two comes down to the amount of protein that goes through your mouth.
  2. Growth hormone regulation – there are about 190 amino acids contained in growth hormone. Maintaining the correct levels is vital for muscle enhancement. If you are deficient in growth hormone, but only will you not be able to build muscle, your metabolism will slow down, your bone density will decrease, you will lose muscle and have a number of other health issues.
  3. IGF-1 – Insulin like growth factor (IGF-1) is a hormone that allows your muscles to properly respond to growth hormone. It contains 70 amino acids and if you are not getting enough quality protein into your system you will be deficient in IGF-1 levels. This will make it extremely difficult to make use of the growth hormone that you do have.
  4. Insulin – the more protein you have in your body, the lower your insulin levels will be in the blood. This will reduce fat storage and increase energy levels.
  5. Metabolism – of the three macronutrients, protein has the highest thermic effect. This means that it takes more energy to absorb and digest protein than carbohydrates or fats. When you have a decent supply of proteins coming in, your body will also more easily be able to draw upon its fat reserves for energy.

Having established the reasons that you need to increase your protein intake, let’s consider why getting extra protein through a protein supplement is a good idea:

  • Protein powder supplements take very little time to prepare.
  • Protein drinks get a lot of protein into your system very quickly.
  • You don’t have to refrigerate your protein supplements, making them portable for use on the go.
  • Taking proteins supplements will save you money, as opposed to getting all of your protein from whole foods.
  • The liquid form of protein smoothies allows protein to be digested and absorbed more rapidly than if it was taken through a whole food source.

Understanding Protein Types

Whey Protein

Best Bodybuilding SupplementsWhey protein is a byproduct of the cheesemaking process. It makes up around 20% of the protein in milk. Originally discarded as a waste product, it is now the most popular form of bodybuilding protein supplement on the market. Whey has an extremely high biological value (BV), which means that more of it is absorbed into your system than many other forms. It is also high in some key muscle building amino acids:

  • Leucine
  • Isoleucine
  • Valine

 These three make up what are known as the branched-chain amino acids. Whey is also a very fast digesting form of protein. However, it has lower amounts of two key muscle building amino acids:

  • Glutamine
  • Arginine

For that reason, it is a good idea to supplement separately with these aminos, or to vary your sources of protein.

Whey Isolate – isolate is a more costly form of whey protein that contains less fat and lactose and has a higher biological value. 

Casein Protein

80% of the protein found in milk is in the form of casein. This is a slower digesting form of protein than whey. It has a very thick taste and is popular in weight gain powders. It’s biological value is lower than whey protein but it is used more efficiently by the body to build muscle rather than as an energy source. Casein is also high in glutamine.

Casein should be your preferred source of protein before going to bed as it will provide a steady release of amino acids to fuel muscle recovery and growth while you sleep.

Egg Albumin

Egg albumin comes from egg whites. It is very high in essential amino acids and has a high biological value. If you are lactose intolerant, it is the ideal protein supplement ingredient. 

 Complete Milk Protein

This is the dried protein that has the carbohydrates and fat content removed. It contains calcium along with generous amounts of other imported vitamin C minerals. The protein content is a mixture of both whey and casein.

Beef Protein

A recent newcomer to the protein supplement market, beef protein has a biological value of 90%. It is also high in the amino acid alanine and contains no lactose or gluten. In addition, it is cholesterol free.

Soy Protein 

Soy is a faster digesting protein source that is high in arginine. It is added too many multi protein blends. Soy protein isolate has a higher biological value than regular soy and so is better utilized by the body.

Goat Protein – Goat protein has a higher biological value than any other source of protein. It is also very high in branched-chain amino acids and contains no lactose. 

Wheat Protein – wheat protein is a natural alternative to dairy and egg-based proteins that contains no lactose,  salts and cholesterol. It is ideal for vegetarian bodybuilders, being rich in glutamic acid.

Pea Protein

This is another good choice for vegetarians. It is completely gluten, lactose and cholesterol free. Pea protein is also easy to absorb and high in amino acids.

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How Much Protein and When to Take It

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There is a lot of confusion out there regarding just how much protein you need to take for muscle growth. To get the answer, let’s start with the USA recommended dietary allowance for adults of protein. The RDA works out .36 grams per pound of body weight. So, a 200 pound guy would require 72 grams of protein per day. 

Of course, the RDA relates to sedentary people. The demands for bodybuilders are much greater. To pack on muscle mass, you will need to consume at least twice the RDA. It is recommended that you consume 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight, with some experts even going as high as 2 grams. (2) 

Between 20 and 40% of your daily calories should come from protein sources, depending on whether you are in a bulking or cutting base. Here’s what that will look like based on daily caloric totals:

  • 1500 calories –75 to 150 grams of protein 
  • 2000 calories –100 to 200 grams of protein 
  • 2500 calories –125 to 250 grams of protein 
  • 3000 calories –150 to 300 grams of protein 
  • 3500 calories -175 to 350 grams of protein 
  • 4000 calories –200 to 400 grams of protein 
  • 5000 calories –250 to 500 grams of protein  

Knowing how much protein to take is only half the battle. You also need to know when to take it. Here’s a breakdown…

Early  Morning – When you get up in the morning, your body has been fasting for however long it has been since your last meal. It is in need of a fast digesting protein source to keep you in an anabolic state as well as sustaining you with protein throughout the morning. To achieve this, use a mixture of fast and slow release protein in a whey – casein protein powder mix. Alternatively, have whey protein along with eggs and cheese to provide slower digesting amino acids.

Pre-Workout – Before you head to the gym, you should take a slow digesting protein powder. This will keep you in positive nitrogen balance throughout the workout.

 Post-Workout when you walk out of the gym, your muscles are in a stressed state and are prone to catabolism. This is when it is especially essential to get amino acids into the muscle cells. The best form is a faster acting protein like hydrolyzed protein powder. However, it should be mixed with a slow digesting source such as casein to provide amino acids during the recovery period from your workout and keep you in positive nitrogen balance heading into the next meal.

Before Bed – it is during the time when you are sleeping at night that your body releases most of its growth hormone as well as repairs the muscle tissue damage caused by your workouts. This is the opportune time to provide it with the fuel that it needs to spark extra growth. Casein protein will provide the slow release needed to optimize nitrogen balance while you’re sleeping. The high levels of glutamine in casein protein are a key amino acid precursor for maximum growth hormone production.(3)

What To Look For When Buying Protein

With hundreds of products to choose from it can be very difficult to decide which protein powder to select. Here are a few guidelines to help you make that decision:

  • You need a protein powder that delivers about 130 calories per scoop.
  • Your protein powder should be low in fats, carbohydrates and sugars.
  • It should provide you with at least 20 g of protein per scoop.
  • You don’t want lots of chemical sounding ingredients listed under the nutrition facts.
  • Try to get a protein powder that uses stevia rather than an artificial sweetener.
  • Check the reviews on the mixability of the product, especially if you plan to be using a blender bottle.
  • Look at reviews for the taste: if you hate the taste you are not going to drink the product.
  • You do not want a product that contains artificial flavourings or sweeteners.
  • Always keep in mind the purpose for which you are buying the protein powder and be sure to match the type to the function. For example, if you are trying to boost HGH levels, then you will want a casein protein product that you can take at night. If you are lactose intolerant, go for a whey isolate that has the lactose removed.
  • When comparing protein powders, divide the protein grams per serving by the individual serving size in grams. Ideally, you should have a product that is 80% protein by weight. If not, put it back and keep searching.

What About Weight Gainers?

Best Bodybuilding Supplements

If you consider yourself to be a hard gainer, then you should look into the weight gainer supplement category. These differ from protein powders in that they include quality carbohydrates that are both complex and simple in an easily digestible form. If your goal is to develop full, rounded muscles you do not want to skimp on complex caps. Weight gainers combine all three macronutrients – carbs, proteins, and essential fats.

Quality carbohydrates will improve protein transport and utilization. An ideal fast digesting carb to achieve this is waxy maize. This can and should be taken before, during and after training. It will replenish glycogen stores that have been depleted during your workout, doing so much faster than any whole food form of complex carbs.

Hard gainers should take a weight gain powder supplement instead of protein powder 3 times per day in addition to their regular meals. Look for a brand that includes added vitamin C, minerals, digestive enzymes and that mixes easily and tastes good. It should provide between 300 and 600 calories per serving. You should be aware that some weight gainers contain a lot of sugars. This is okay if you’re taking it directly after your workout as though sugars will simply replenish your glycogen levels. However, if you are taking it at other times of the day, you will want to make sure that the product is low in sugar, or else you will end up getting fat.

Stacking other Supps with Your Protein

Stacking supplements can become quite confusing and very expensive. It is important to keep in mind that the whole goal of supplementing for muscle growth is to enhance the protein that is in your system and speed up nutrient delivery to the muscle cells. Some supplements, like nitric oxide boosters speed up amino acid delivery by increasing blood flow. Others, such as creatine monohydrate, help in muscle recovery during and after the workout.

If your goal is to add lean muscle mass to your body, your stack should consist of a quality whey protein powder, a clean source of carbs, creatine monohydrate and a nitric oxide booster. Mix the protein up between whey and casein, taking the latter in the evening.

You should also take a quality joint supplement, especially if you are over 40.

Experienced bodybuilders should take whey isolate, a whey protein multi-blend, nitric oxide supplement, creatine, BCAAs, glutamine, a quality carb source, and casein protein.

Leucine – What it is and Why You Need It

Best Bodybuilding Supplements

This amino acid is one of the three BCAA’s, along with isoleucine and valine. It alone, however, has the ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. As such, it is the most important amino acid in your body. Leucine activates an anabolic pathway called the mTOR pathway. This pathway directly stimulates muscle protein synthesis.(4)

If you want to stay in positive nitrogen balance (believe me, you do!), then you need to supplement with Leucine. The recommended dose is 5 to 10 g per day. 

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Glutamine – The Muscle Preserver

Glutamine is an amino acid which has the power to prevent muscle catabolism. It also boosts the immune system, protects against free radical damage and increases glycogen storage in the muscle cell. It is the most abundant single amino acid in your body, making up about 61% of the free intracellular amino acid pool. It contributes to protein synthesis and helps with the release of HGH from the pituitary gland.

When you work out, your body’s glutamine stores are severely depleted. If it is not replaced, this can quickly put you into a catabolic state. That is why supplementing with glutamine will help to prevent muscle wastage. Look to take in 5 to 10 g of glutamine daily. (5)

Nitric Oxide – The Pump Enhancer

Best Bodybuilding Supplements

Nitric oxide (NO) is a gas that occurs naturally inside of your body. It results when your body breaks down the amino acid arginine. NO is the body’s muscle cell signaling molecule. It regulates such processes as blood flow, oxygen release, glucose uptake, muscle velocity and muscle growth. The more nitric oxide you have in your body the faster the blood will flow, bringing more oxygen nutrients, hormones and chemicals to the muscle cell.

The effect of the increased blood flow to your muscles that results from more nitric oxide being in your system, leads to the well-known pump effect that so many desire when working out.

You cannot take nitric oxide. But you can take arginine, which is the amino acid that breaks down into nitric oxide. The recommended daily dosage is 15 grams,  broken up into three servings of 5 grams each, spread throughout the day. The first serving should be taken directly before your workout, with the last just before you go to bed on an empty stomach.

It has been shown that  the amino acid citrulline can enhance the nitric oxide boosting effects of arginine. That is why you will often find these two ingredients combined in a nitric oxide booster. The best ratio is 2:1 in favor of arginine.(6)

Creatine – The Power Booster

Best Bodybuilding Supplements

Creatine Monohydrate is the most researched sport supplement of all time. It is extremely popular and for good reason. By helping to replenish the ATP system, creatine can supply you with an instant energy burst to power your muscles to push out those last vital reps that you otherwise could not achieve. This supplement has been proven in many studies to be able to increase muscle strength and size, while also enhancing power and overall athletic ability. 

There is debate as to whether you need to load creatine into the system when you first start taking it. The general consensus seems to be that you do. This involves a loading phase where you take 5 grams 4 to 6 times throughout the day for the first week. This has been shown to boost your body’s creatine levels by around 40% in seven days. After a week you then drop back to taking 5 grams once per day. It is a good idea to take your creatine with either apple juice or grape juice as this will cause a spike in your insulin levels  to allow the creatine to more readily enter the bloodstream.(7)

Joint Preservers

Your success and longevity as a bodybuilder largely depends on the health of your joints. If they become compromised, then your ability to lift heavy things will be severely curtailed. Joint injuries are often the result of incorrect technique, too much weight on the bar, insufficient rest and recovery, overtraining or a lack of basic nutrition.

Your first the line of defense against joint problems should be a quality Essential Fatty Acid (EFA) supplement. You can get EFA’s from your diet fish, nuts, and flax oil. EFA’s have a huge anti-inflammatory effect. However, you should also supplement with omega-3 essential fatty acids in the form of fish oil tablets. Other ingredients in a top joint enhancing supplement are glucosamine Sulphate, Chondroitin and MSM.

Wrapping it Up

You now know what supplements you need to take in order to maximize your muscle growth. Even though we have pared down to the essentials and bypassed most of the hyped up expensive products that you don’t even need, we are still left with around six products. Some of them you’ll be able to combine in different complexes. However, if your budget doesn’t stretch to everything on our list, focus on a quality whey protein and add in some creatine, and you will have most of your bases covered. Train like your life depends on it, eat 5 to 6 quality meals per day, and you will get the muscle that you’re looking for.



The author

Steve Theunissen
Steve is a former gym owner, a bodybuilder, full time fitness writer and is trained and certified in personal training, nutrition, group fitness, conditioning, and a bunch more!

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