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Sports Supplements: Facts and Fiction on Muscle Building Products – Kleio Bathrellou

Sports Nutrition is constantly evolving with numerous research studies being published annually. Consequently, the industry of sports supplements has become huge with new products coming to the market all the time. But the question remains, what really works and what is a myth? Shelves are stocked with products claiming they can give you strength, enhance muscle build up and toning but can they keep these promises? Are they regulated? Are they safe? Is there any real scientific evidence behind their claims? Or are most of them just a fancy packaging with no real health benefits? In this week’s article learn about what really works among the great variety of muscle building and performance enhancing supplements.

The Basics

According to the International Society for Sports Nutrition, depending on the scientific evidence behind the available supplements they are categorised as ‘effective’, ‘possibly effective’, ‘too early to tell’ and ‘apparently ineffective’. This is a very useful guide for sports science professionals, nutritionists, athletes but also for consumers in order to distinguish between numerous products and choose the ones that can have a positive effect on their performance.
First of all, supplements are considered ergogenic aids. An ergogenic aid is any nutritional practice, training or psychological technique, mechanical device, pharmacological method that can improve exercise performance and enhance training adaptations. All supplements are regulated by the FDA (Food & Drugs Administration) and are subject to strict rules regarding their labelling and health claims. The theoretic background is rather simple: increasing or reducing the availability of certain nutrient like protein, carbohydrate, fat, etc, can help with weight loss, building up muscle and many other health and fitness goals.

Convenience Supplements

The majority of sports supplements you will find on the shelves are convenience supplements and they represent the largest part of dietary supplements available and also represent 50-70% of most companies’ sales. Convenience supplements include protein powders and shakes, energy bars and gels, meal replacement powders (MRP) and ready to drink supplements (RTD). Apart from protein, carbohydrate and fat they are often fortified with minerals and vitamins. Depending on what the desirable effect is, they have different proportions of these nutrients. The important thing to realize regarding these supplements is that they should not be used as replacements for a balanced diet; instead they should be used to improve the availability of certain nutrients in order to achieve specific dietary goals. Furthermore, people should seek advice from a qualified individual such as a nutritionist or sports nutritionist when considering using supplements in order to choose the right products and achieve the desirable results.

Effective supplements for muscle gain

This category includes supplements that have been shown to be safe and effective by the majority of research studies.

• Weight gain powders

One of the most common methods used to increase muscle mass is adding extra calories to the diet. This method of “bulk up” is done by consuming extra food and weight gain powders. In order to increase skeletal muscle mass, there must be adequate energy intake and, according to studies, simply adding an extra 500 – 1,000 calories per day to your diet combined with regular resistance training can promote weight gain. However, the main drawback of this method is that only 30 – 50% of the weight gained will be muscle and the remaining amount of weight gained will be fat. Therefore, a high calorie diet can help build muscle but keep in mind that there will be an accompanying increase in body fat.

• Creatine monohydrate

According to the ISSN review, creatine monohydrate is the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement currently available in terms of increasing muscle mass and high-intensity exercise capacity. Additionally, creatine supplementation apart from being completely safe, it may also be beneficial for preventing injury. At present, creatine monohydrate is the most extensively studied and effective form of creatine used in nutritional supplements. Interestingly, adding of carbohydrate or carbohydrate plus protein to a creatine supplement can increase further the muscular build up. Just to put the theory into numbers, the quickest method of increasing muscle creatine stores is to consume about 0.3 grams/kg/ day of creatine monohydrate for at least 3 days followed by 3-5 g/day thereafter to maintain the elevated stores.

• Protein

According to research, people undergoing intense training may need additional protein in their diet to meet protein needs (on average 1.4 – 2.0 grams/day per kg of bodyweight). Low dietary protein intake can cause slower recovery and inhibit training adaptations. Protein supplements are maybe the most convenient means to ensure that protein needs are met. Keep in mind, however, that ingesting additional protein beyond the necessary amount to meet protein daily needs does not lead to additional gains in strength and muscle mass. According to the position of the ISSN, exercising individuals need approximately 1.4 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day, which is greater than the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) for sedentary individuals. Furthermore, the addition of protein and or BCAA (Branch chained amino acids) before or after resistance training can increase protein synthesis and gains in lean muscle mass. If the supplement also contains other nutrients like creatine monohydrate the beneficial effects will be even greater.

• Essential amino acids (EAAs)

According to the latest research studies, ingesting 3-6 g of EAA prior to, and/or following exercise stimulates protein synthesis and therefore it may enhance gains in muscle mass during training. Studies also report that ingesting EAA with carbohydrate immediately following resistance exercise can lead to significantly greater training adaptations as compared to consuming the supplement later. Because EAA’s include BCAA’s, it is probable that positive effects on protein synthesis from EAA ingestion are likely due to the BCAA content. BCAAs are the key amino acids that stimulate protein synthesis and have been shown to acutely stimulate protein synthesis, delaying the onset of fatigue, aid in glycogen resynthesis and maintaining mental function in aerobic exercise. Therefore, consuming BCAAs (in addition to carbohydrates) before, during, and following exercise is recommended, safe and effective.

Possibly Effective Supplements

This category includes supplements with initial studies supporting the theoretic background but more research is required to determine their effectiveness and safety.

• HMB (b-hydroxy b-methylbutyrate)

HMB is a metabolite of the amino acid leucine. Leucine and its metabolites have been shown to inhibit protein degradation, and supplementation of 1.5 to 3 g/day of calcium HMB during training can increase strength and muscle mass particularly for untrained subjects initiating training. There is also evidence that HMB may reduce the catabolic effects of prolonged exercise and combining HMB with creatine may increase the overall benefits. However, the effects of HMB supplementation in trained subjects are less clear and most studies show non-significant gains in muscle mass. Consequently, although there is fairly good evidence for the beneficial effects of HMB in enhancing training adaptations, additional research is needed to determine whether it can also enhance training adaptations in trained individuals.

• Branched chained amino acids (BCAAs)

Studies report that BCAA supplementation can decrease exercise induced protein degradation and/or muscle enzyme release (which is an indicator of muscle damage). The reason is that BCAAs have an anti-catabolic hormonal effect which means they can reduce protein and therefore muscle breakdown which inevitably occurs during training. Theoretically, this would lead to greater gains in fat-free mass. Although there is some evidence supporting this hypothesis, more research is necessary to determine the effect of BCAA supplementation on body composition.

Too early to tell

This category includes supplements with a decent theoretic background but with insufficient research studies to prove their effectiveness and safety. Trying these products to determine their effectiveness may be a good way to establish their value first hand, however, it is probably wiser and safer to choose products which are proven to be effective so that you have guaranteed results.

• a-KG (A-keto gluterate)
• KIC (a-ketoisocaproate)
• Ecdysterones
• Growth Hormone releasing peptides (GHRP)
• Zinc/Magnesium aspartate (ZMA)
• OKG (Ornithine-a-ketogluterate)

Apparently Ineffective Supplements

The supplements in this category lack both the theoretic background and the research studies to prove their value as ergogenic aids. Therefore, they should be avoided as they are possibly completely useless! So, when it comes to the substances listed below, you can ignore all the advertising tricks, the media reports and whatever “advice” you may get from your gym body or even your personal trainer. They are not effective until proven so!

• Glutamine
• Isoflavones
• Myostatin inhibitors
• Boron
• Chromium
• Conjugated linoleic acids (CLA)
• Ferulic acid
• Prohormones
• Vanadium (Vanadyl Sulfate)
• Tribulus terrestris


In conclusion, muscle building supplements are among the most popular ergogenic aids. There is significant research showing that they may help with training adaptations for both untrained and trained individuals, improve the efficiency of exercise, and enhance recovery from exercise. Ergogenic aids may also allow an individual to tolerate heavy training by speeding up the post exercise recovery process and reducing injury incidents. At present, the most effective and also safe muscle building supplements recommended by the ISSN include creatine monohydrate, protein, weight gain powders and EAAs, and possibly HMB and BCAAs. If you are considering trying any of these or are already using supplements there are a few things you should keep in mind; firstly, no supplement should be used as a replacement for a healthy diet. In addition, always ensure the product you purchase is safe, and of course make sure there is significant scientific research proving the health claims on the label. And remember: advertising can be misleading! The best approach is to ask a qualified individual for advice in order to achieve your goals without jeopardising your health.
By Kleio Bathrellou
Associate Nutritionist & Certified Sports Nutritionist


Editors Note: This is the first in a series of articles focussing on different supplements in depth; some you may have used in the past and some you will come across in the future. If you have any thoughts or questions about the article or any others featured on the site feel free to talk to us on our twitter and facebook. If you enjoyed this article please like and share it for your friends to see!

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