- A board certified sports dietitian said BCAA, HMB, and beta-alanine supplements aren’t necessary for muscle building.
- BCAA supplements contain the same amino acids as protein-rich foods, and may be more expensive.
- Research has not shown HMB and beta-alanine to help build muscle in healthy, well-nourished adults.
Lifting weights is only part of the puzzle when it comes to putting on muscle mass.
What you consume plays a huge role in building lean muscle, leading many gym goers to turn to supplements, a market that has been increasing in sales over the last few years.
Jason Machowsky, a board certified sports dietitian based in New York, said while protein supplements and creatine can help support muscle gains, other supplements marketed for muscle-building may not be helpful, according to research.
Supplements marketed to help build muscle mass like BCAAs, HMB, and beta-alanine are not as effective as consuming enough calories and getting enough protein in your diet, Machowsky said. But research has shown protein supplements and creatine can help with gains.
A protein-rich diet is more effective for muscle-building than most supplements on their own
Supplements that contain acids that make up protein like BCAAs (branch chain amino acids), or help break muscle down like HMBs (beta hydroxy beta methylbutyrate), are touted as muscle-building supplements by retailers. Some research indicates BCAAs might have a bigger influence on muscle growth compared to other acids like threonine, which prevents fat build up in the liver, or methionine, which strengthens skin and nails.
But Machowsky said BCAAs are found in protein, making them “just another source of protein.” Protein sources like eggs, yogurt, and chicken also contain BCAAs.
Machowsky said getting enough calories and protein from food, combined with strength training, are the most crucial part of putting on muscle mass.
If someone who is strength training isn’t able to get enough protein through their diet, Machowsky said he could understand the desire to take BCAAs, but the supplements have very few calories, and the body requires a calorie surplus to both fuel workouts and have enough left over to build muscle, he said.
“The thing I also have to emphasize to people is that if you’re taking in 10 grams of branch chain amino acids, that’s 40 calories,” Machowsky said. “If you’re not taking in adequate calories all around, your body is just gonna burn that protein for fuel.”
He added that “truthfully for the amount you’re getting, it’s probably cheaper to eat the food than to have to get it through a supplement.”
Beta-alanine is also marketed as a supplement that can help boost muscle gains, but there isn’t sufficient evidence to support that, Machowsky said.
Research around beta-alanine has found the amino acid can improve a person’s anaerobic performance, or high intensity exercises that occur during small periods of time such as repeated sprints. But current research on beta-alanine has not indicated the amino acid helps during strength training, according to The International Society of Sports Nutrition.
Finally, Machowsky said while HMB supplements can help frail or aging people rebuild strength, the same has not been shown for young, well-fed individuals.
Research shows protein and creatine supplements can help build muscle
Protein is particularly important in building muscle, Machowsky said. Protein is a macronutrient made up of amino acids, essential compounds that grow and maintain muscle, skin, and other tissues.
Dietitians recommend eating 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight to put on muscle. Though foods like meat and Greek yogurt contain high amounts of protein, Machowsky said protein supplements can help meet the daily recommended protein requirement.
Creatine is another science-backed protein building supplement that can help strength trainers put on muscle mass, according to Machowsky.
Creatine is an amino acid stored in the muscle tissue that helps the body produce a molecule called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. ATP provides energy to cells during muscle movements, and having more of the molecule means your muscles can work harder for longer periods of time.
The supplement has been extensively studied and experts deem it safe for most people, Brandon University professor and sports nutritionist Scott Forbes previously told Insider.
“The way creatine works is that it pretty much allows your body to recover a little better between sets in strength training so you can get extra reps in,” Machowsky said.