Do you need dietary supplements to build muscle and strength and to stay healthy? No, you don’t. As long as you eat a reasonably balanced diet, you’ll get results from your efforts in the gym. With a bit of planning, you can also get the nutrients you need to keep your body healthy through regular foods.
However, even though you don’t need supplements, they can make getting the nutrients your body needs more convenient.
For example, if you can’t get home and eat a proper meal after a workout, you probably want some other way to provide your muscles with protein. Sure, you could open a can of tuna in the locker room and chew away. That might give you some angry stares along with the protein, though. It’s probably in everyone’s best interest if you chug a protein shake instead.
In some cases, supplements can give you a small but significant edge in your training that you can’t get from food. You get creatine from meat and fish, for example, but not in the amounts you need for your training to benefit from it.
Another example more related to health is vitamin D, which you get from both the sun and some foods, but it’s still often not enough to cover many people’s basic needs.
In this article, you’ll find five supplements that, while not necessary, can help you reach your dietary and training goals. Also, they all have scientific evidence supporting their place in the athlete’s arsenal of training tools. We chose these particular ones based both on scientific evidence and our own preferences.
To balance things out, you’ll also find five supplements you can safely ignore without sacrificing your gains. These are all overhyped, overrated, overpriced, or downright useless.
Let’s get into it!
The Five Best Supplements For Your Gains
If you’re looking to supplement your regular diet, you can’t go wrong with these five choices.
Creatine is the only supplement scientifically proven to boost your strength, muscle mass, and performance. More than 500 studies published over three decades confirm that creatine is the number one supplement for everyone looking to lift more, run faster, or perform better. Even better, creatine has no documented adverse side effects.1 2
Creatine is a molecule that your body produces on its own and that you also find in food, mainly animal-based protein sources like meat and fish. If you want the performance boost creatine can give you, you need a more concentrated form, like a creatine supplement.
By taking 3–5 grams of creatine per day, you gradually fill up your muscle cells with creatine, or rather a form of creatine called creatine phosphate. That allows them to produce more of a molecule called adenosine triphosphate or ATP for short. ATP is the primary energy source for almost all the cells in your body. The more ATP you can produce, the better you perform. And that’s where creatine supplements come in by increasing your ATP production and thus your performance. A common way to take creatine is to start with 20 grams a day for a week, then lowering the dose to 3–5 grams per day. You can skip the loading phase of 20 grams a day if you want. You’ll get the same benefits without it. It’ll just take a few weeks longer.
You gain more strength from your training with creatine than without it. And if you get stronger, you gain more muscle as well. At least if you are one of the around 80 % of the population that respond to creatine. If you try supplementing with creatine and notice no performance gains at all, you probably belong to the other 20 %, the so-called non-responders. That’s not as bad as it sounds because it most likely means that you already have enough creatine in your muscles naturally that you don’t benefit from even more.
There are many different forms of creatine supplements on the market, but the original is still the best: creatine monohydrate. It’s the least expensive type of creatine and the one with superior scientific support.
Further reading: Creatine: Effects, Benefits and Safety
Protein supplements are simply food protein in dry form. There are many different forms of protein supplements to choose from, from milk proteins like whey and casein to egg and beef protein powder and various plant-based proteins, including soy, pea, hemp, or blends of different vegetable proteins.
A protein supplement is excellent for convenience, but don’t expect to gain muscle and strength from the supplement itself. Protein powders don’t build any more muscle than the same amount of protein from regular food.
So why are protein supplements on this list? It’s a legitimate question.
Because using a protein supplement is an easy, convenient, and often cheap way to increase your protein intake. And more protein builds more muscle. When it comes to protein, the total amount you eat or drink is, by far, the determining factor for your gains. Details like timing, distribution, and source of the protein are far less critical.
The more protein you eat, the more you support your efforts to gain muscle mass and become stronger. Up until a point, of course. According to current scientific evidence, that point is somewhere between 1.6 and 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day or 0.7 to 1 gram per lbs of body weight per day. If you eat even more protein, it won’t harm you, but you won’t get better results from your training either.3
And that’s where protein supplements can help. Sure, you can eat all that protein from regular foods. But if you don’t want to or find it hard to eat that much, getting some of it from an easy-to-drink supplement is a great way to boost your daily protein intake.
Drinking a shake instead of eating a solid meal can be the best solution after a workout. Again, not because you build more muscle by doing so, but because of the convenience and the fact that many people don’t feel like eating a big meal shortly after an intense training session.
Which protein supplement is right for you mostly depends on your dietary habits. If you are a vegan, vegetarian, or try to get more of your protein from plant-based sources, you can use soy protein, hemp protein, or pea protein, to name a few examples. The most popular protein supplement is whey protein, a protein from regular milk. It’s also inexpensive with a fairly neutral taste.
Other choices include casein, beef protein, and egg protein. They all give your muscles the building blocks they need, and it likely doesn’t matter much which type you prefer.
Further reading: Protein for Strength Athletes and Bodybuilders
Vitamin D is often called the sunlight vitamin because your body can make vitamin D in the skin just by being out and about in the sun. If you get enough sunlight, at least during the summer months, you wouldn’t need any dietary vitamin D at all, neither from food nor supplements.
In practice, though, most of us need to get vitamin D from what we put into our mouths. Unfortunately, we often don’t get enough from it without a supplement. Vitamin D is an essential, fat-soluble vitamin you need to keep your skeleton strong and absorb calcium. It also plays a critical role in normal muscle function.
While vitamin D is vital for your muscles to function correctly, you shouldn’t expect any noticeable benefits in the gym from adding a vitamin D supplement. Observational research associates high levels of vitamin D with stronger muscles, but controlled studies are often low-quality and without confirmed cause-and-effect. A recent meta-analysis found an association between vitamin D supplementation and strength, though.4
Making sure you are not vitamin D-deficient is more critical for health reasons than for immediate training benefits. Of course, if your health is less than optimal, your training will suffer in the long run as well.
Getting enough vitamin D from a regular diet can be a struggle. So much of a struggle that almost half the population of the US is vitamin D deficient.5 There aren’t that many good food sources of vitamin D. Fatty fish, egg yolks, liver, and especially cod liver oil are good sources, but most of us don’t eat nearly enough to cover our vitamin D needs. Fruits, nuts, and other plant-based foods are downright poor sources. That’s why many common foods like milk, butter, and cereals, come fortified with vitamin D. But it’s still not enough for many people.
If you suspect your intake of vitamin D is less than optimal, consider supplementing with 2–4,000 IU (International Units) daily, particularly during the winter half of the year, or if you’re not out and about in the sun much. If nothing else, it’s a reasonable precaution to avoid walking around with inadequate vitamin D levels. Symptoms of vitamin D inadequacy or even mild deficiency can be vague if they even make themselves known at all. Better safe than sorry, especially since there are no known side effects to those doses.
Use this decision tree to determine if a vitamin D supplement would be a good idea for you:
Further reading: Vitamin D: Effects, Benefits, and Safety
Are you looking for a pick-me-up and a performance boost? Look no further than to caffeine, the most popular drug in the world!
Billions of people worldwide ingest caffeine daily in coffee, tea, and caffeinated soda like Coke and Pepsi. Caffeine is also the most effective legal performance boost you can get, allowing you to perform better in almost any exercise task, including lifting weights.
Some research suggests that you get used to caffeine if you take it day in and day out, developing tolerance over time.6 Other studies have failed to find any signs of habituation. You might want to consider saving the caffeine for workouts where you really need the energy boost, just in case. Days when you know you should hit the weights, but you’d rather go home and watch TV instead. That way, you make sure you get max effect from the caffeine when you need it.
Doses in the range of 3–6 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight about an hour before a training session is a tried-and-true supplement protocol for a significant performance boost.7 If you weigh 80 kilograms (176 lbs), that would mean 240 to 480 mg of caffeine pre-workout. A recent study demonstrated a benefit from 9 mg of caffeine per kilogram of bodyweight before a heavy squat workout.8 However, keep in mind that those dosages increase the risk of side effects like nausea.
The source of the caffeine doesn’t matter. Coffee, caffeine pills, energy drinks, and even caffeinated chewing gum: they all work. The downside to drinking coffee to get enough caffeine for a robust performance gain is having a lot of liquid sloshing around in your stomach when it’s time to hit the gym. Considering a normal-sized cup of coffee provides somewhere about 100 mg of caffeine, give or take, you might want to look for a more concentrated source. Caffeine pills are probably the most cost-effective option here, and it’s easy to get the dose the way you want it.
Overdosing caffeine can make you feel quite ill for a few hours. Nausea, weakness, and dizziness are some of the acute side effects of mild caffeine overdoses. If you are not sure how much caffeine you can handle, start low and gradually increase your dose. Large overdoses are dangerous, even deadly. However, overdosing to that extent only happens when using caffeine in the form of powder and mismeasuring it. Avoid caffeine in powdered form for safety reasons.
Further reading: Caffeine: Effects, Benefits, and Safety
Omega-3 are polyunsaturated fatty acids you need for many essential functions in your body. The three omega-3 fatty acids help you control your blood pressure, keep inflammation in your body in check, and maintain your cell structure.
There are three primary omega-3 fatty acids: ALA, EPA, and DHA. Of these, ALA is the easiest to get. You find ALA in nuts and seeds. The other two, EPA and DHA, are the crucial ones regarding health effects, and you mainly get those from fatty fish like salmon and mackerel. Or from supplements, if you can’t or don’t want to eat a lot of fish.
Your body can convert ALA into EPA and then into DHA, but that process is very ineffective, and you end up with too little EPA and DHA to make a difference.
Your muscles also benefit from omega-3. Some studies even show that omega-3 fat increases your muscle protein synthesis if you add it to a meal, including your post-workout meal or shake.9 That is especially apparent in the elderly. Does this mean that you build more muscle if you supplement with omega-3? Possibly, but the available research is of low quality, making it hard to draw any conclusions.
Omega-3 is on this list because of its health benefits. If it helps you gain muscle and strength, consider it a bonus. But don’t expect any miracles in that department.
If you don’t eat fatty fish often, you might want to consider a supplement.
Athletes looking for an anti-inflammatory effect and maximizing health benefits should aim for 1 to 2 grams of EPA and DHA combined, with a 2:1 ratio between EPA and DHA.10
Studies suggesting a benefit from supplementing with omega-3 for strength and muscle mass use daily dosages between 2–4 grams of EPA and DHA combined.
It might be worth paying a little more for a supplement with a documented high quality. Cheap and generic omega-3 supplements tend to spoil quickly and go rancid. If that happens, they do more harm than good.11
Further reading: Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Effects, Benefits, and Safety
There we go! Five supplements that benefit your training or your health. Or both! These are usually worth your money, be it because you can’t get them from your regular diet or because supplementing could offer convenience and cost benefits.
The Five Worst Supplements For Your Gains
Now on to the rotten eggs, the supplements that you should probably leave on the shelf. Actually, there are probably even worse supplements out there, but these are mainstream ones.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
BCAAs, or Branched-Chain Amino Acids, is probably the most overhyped supplement marketed at athletes over the last decade. And it sells like hotcakes! There has to be a reason BCAAs are so popular, right? Sure, and it’s called marketing. In reality, there is no scientific support for the efficacy of BCAAs to help you gain muscle and strength at all.
Branched-chain amino acids are three of the essential amino acids (EAAs) you need to live a healthy life and build and support your muscle mass: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Leucine is the critical amino acid that triggers the entire muscle-building process, both at rest and after a workout.
Sounds great, right? The problem is that BCAAs alone do pretty much nothing. You need all the nine essential amino acids to support what leucine starts. BCAAs stimulate muscle protein synthesis, but without the other six EAAs, nothing special happens. You get the signals to initiate your muscle protein synthesis, but that muscle protein doesn’t get synthesized.
Branched-chain amino acid supplements might reduce muscle soreness following exercise a bit, but that’s about it.12
Save your money for a supplement providing all the essential amino acids, like an EAA-supplement, or even better, a complete protein supplement, like whey. Buying BCAAs is almost like flushing your money down the toilet.13 14
Further reading: BCAA Supplements: Beneficial or a Waste of Money?
If it’s natural or legal, it’s not boosting much of anything. Not enough to make a difference in your gains. Small fluctuations within standard hormone intervals usually have little to no effect on your muscle mass.
Most of the ingredients in supplements sold as “testosterone boosters” are not backed by science. When they are, it’s often in doses below the amounts needed for any noticeable or even measurable effect.15 The handful of studies demonstrating a significant impact from a supplement sold as a testosterone booster is financed by the company selling or manufacturing the product.
In some cases, they do work: when they contain illegal substances, which is more common than you might think. That’s a risk with specific supplements, and ones claiming to manipulate your hormones are some of the biggest culprits.16
If you have clinically low testosterone levels, your training will suffer. In that case, you are better off seeking professional medical advice and possibly treatment with something that works instead of spending money on testosterone boosters.
Fat burners are supplements that claim to help you “burn” fat from your body. They are almost always either useless or of extremely little actual use.
To lose fat, you need to eat fewer calories than you expend. While some ingredients in supplements sold as fat burners can increase the number of calories you burn, it’s usually insignificant. You’d get the same effect by taking the stairs instead of the elevator or eating an apple less. Some can reduce your appetite a bit.
No natural substances will reduce your body fat through other mechanisms than either increasing your energy expenditure or lowering your appetite. And those effects are small enough to be pretty much useless, especially compared to the cost of said supplements. Scientific evidence supporting fat burners is of low quality, to say the least.17 Studies speculating about possible benefits are usually industry-funded.18
Drink a few cups of coffee or take a caffeine pill, eat a diet high in protein, and keep track of your calorie intake, and you will get much more significant results without the cost. You’ll even reap some health benefits and get a performance boost at the same time.
The glutamine hype was immense a decade or so ago, but it has died down a bit. That’s a good thing since it is quite a useless supplement.
Surrounded by the supplement industry’s claims, glutamine is marketed for athletes looking to build and maintain muscle and keep their immune systems healthy.
Glutamine is an amino acid, the most abundant one in your body. Also, it is the amino acid you get the most of from the food you eat. If that isn’t enough, your body can also make it on its own when needed.
All this makes supplementing with extra glutamine a waste of your money. Over several decades, a wealth of research shows that glutamine does not improve your body composition, increase your muscle mass, boost your performance, or improve your immune function.19
You get enough glutamine from any reasonably balanced diet, and your body can produce the glutamine it needs on its own. Save your money.
High Dose Vitamin C, E, and Other Antioxidants
Here we have a bit of an oxymoron—a double-edged sword. Vitamin C and E, and antioxidants in general, are essential nutrients and help protect your cells and keep them healthy. However, too much of a good thing can prevent you from gaining muscle and strength.20
That only happens when you take antioxidants in supplement form, not from eating regular food. So, get your vitamins and antioxidants from a balanced, healthy diet, not from high-dose supplements. If you want to be sure you don’t get too little of anything, go for a regular multivitamin instead. Ensure it provides RDI (Recommended Daily Intake) of antioxidants like C and E instead of supplementing the individual vitamins in excessive amounts.
There you have it! The five best and worst supplements for your gains and your health. Some of them helpful, some of them useless. None of them are necessary. But all supplements aren’t a waste of your money, either. Whether it’s a convenience factor, the cost factor, or a slight boost in training results, some dietary supplements help you perform better, gain muscle, and stay healthy. Hopefully, this article helps you make the best choices when browsing the supplement section in your store of choice and maybe even save you some money.
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition volume 14, Article number: 18 (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine.
- Common questions and misconceptions about creatine supplementation: what does the scientific evidence really show?
- Br J Sports Med. 2018 Mar;52(6):376-384. A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults.
- PLOS ONE April 30, 2019. Effect of vitamin D supplementation on upper and lower limb muscle strength and muscle power in athletes: A meta-analysis.
- Nutrition Research, Volume 31, Issue 1, January 2011, Pages 48-54. Prevalence and correlates of vitamin D deficiency in US adults.
- Nutrients. 2019 Jun 27;11(7). The Acute Effect of Various Doses of Caffeine on Power Output and Velocity during the Bench Press Exercise among Athletes Habitually Using Caffeine.
- Sports Med. 2018; 48(1): 7–16. Are the Current Guidelines on Caffeine Use in Sport Optimal for Everyone? Inter-individual Variation in Caffeine Ergogenicity, and a Move Towards Personalised Sports Nutrition.
- Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013 Nov;45(11):2184-92. Neuromuscular responses to incremental caffeine doses: performance and side effects.
- Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Feb; 93(2): 402–412. Dietary omega-3 fatty acid supplementation increases the rate of muscle protein synthesis in older adults: a randomized controlled trial.
- Mil Med. 2014 Nov;179(11 Suppl):144-56. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in the optimization of physical performance.
- J Nutr Sci. 2015 Nov 4;4:e30. Oxidation levels of North American over-the-counter n-3 (omega-3) supplements and the influence of supplement formulation and delivery form on evaluating oxidative safety.
- Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 2019 Nov;89(5-6):348-356. Effect of branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation on Muscle Soreness following Exercise: A Meta-Analysis.
- Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2021 Mar 18;1-10. Isolated Leucine and Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation for Enhancing Muscular Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review.
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition volume 14, Article number: 30 (2017). Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: myth or reality?
- J Sex Med. 2019 Feb; 16(2): 203–212. Testosterone Imposters: An Analysis of Popular Online Testosterone Boosting Supplements.
- Foods 2020, 9(8), 1012. Dietary Supplement and Food Contaminations and Their Implications for Doping Controls.
- Obes Rev. 2011 Oct;12(10):841-51. Fat burners: nutrition supplements that increase fat metabolism.
- J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2016; 13: 14. The effects of a fat loss supplement on resting metabolic rate and hemodynamic variables in resistance trained males: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over trial.
- Clin Nutr. 2019 Jun;38(3):1076-1091. The effect of glutamine supplementation on athletic performance, body composition, and immune function: A systematic review and a meta-analysis of clinical trials.
- J Sports Med (Hindawi Publ Corp). 2020. The Effects of Strength Training Combined with Vitamin C and E Supplementation on Skeletal Muscle Mass and Strength: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.