Building muscle and strength is definitely possible by only following the three main pillars of bodybuilding.
TRAIN – EAT – SLEEP
When you think about it though, bodybuilding is the growing of muscle tissue beyond the size and density it would get from the functional activity humans are “naturally” built for.
Diet and sleep still make up the majority of the raw necessities for post-training muscle gains.
There is no argument there!
However, it’s reasonable to assume that if bodybuilding is an activity which expands the normal growth constraints of the functional design of the human body, we should also expand on our diet and use technology to our advantage.
Supplements are that technology. They are a form of concentrated nutrition that we can use to our benefit.
Sure we’ll make gains with a well designed diet and plentiful rest, but it has been proven again and again that the body can still use additional nutrients to its benefit.
There are a few supplements that I consider essential for the modern bodybuilder and strength athlete. I will outline them below.
Protein Powder for Building Muscle and Strength
No great surprise here I’m sure, but there are some interesting points about protein powders that you might not be aware of.
Firstly, the “protein window” that a lot of guys talk about is not really so short, and may not even be necessary. Basically there was some research which highlighted the post-training time period in which it is best to drink your protein shake.
There really is no pressing need to take protein right after training, it’s more important to ensure you are getting enough protein over the course of your day.
For that reason, it’s best to calculate your Protein Number so you can be sure you are eating and supplementing enough. Read our article about the Benefits of a High Protein Diet for more information there.
In my experience, there is no reason not to take your protein shake within 2 hours of finishing your workout, and it satisfies the “what if it does make a difference” question.
A recent study in 2016 shows that 40 grams of whey protein following total body resistance exercise has a greater muscle building effect compared to 20 grams.
This might seem like a case of stating the obvious – of course doubling your protein dose will increase muscle growth – but it’s a question a lot of people wonder about protein powders. You want to maximize muscle growth but not waste protein.
So now you know, 40 grams of whey protein is good enough for rock-n-roll.
The other thing to consider is what type of protein powder you want to use. There are many, even including different types of whey protein.
Whey isolate, whey concentrate, whey hydrolysate etc. plus casein, egg, soy, hemp and so on. Of course if you have a particular dietary requirements, such as vegan, then you know to avoid anything dairy based.
The different types of whey protein are as much to do with the supplement industry trying to keep things fresh, and keep profit margins up, as they are to do with any true beneficial differences.
Personally I tend to look for full amino-acid profiles, and if I’m taking any before bed, I stick to casein. Otherwise I’ve used all types with similar results.
Creatine Monohydrate for Building Muscle and Strength
Creatine is a godly supplement, and I won’t listen to anybody that says otherwise.
There is a wealth of scientific evidence in favour of using creatine monohydrate, most especially for muscle and strength building.
There are several forms of creatine, but monohydrate is the one which has the highest absorption rate, and it’s close to 100%.
It also happens to be the cheapest kind, but companies can’t suck any more profit out of it, so they make fancy sounding compounds and charge more money.
If you didn’t know, creatine provides a key component to the production of ATP – Adenosine Triphosphate – the fuel of life.
More fuel = more energy = more power = harder training = greater overcompensation = bigger gains.
There are misconceptions about when to take creatine, how much to take, whether to load it and whether to cycle it.
The answers are fairly simple too…
…It doesn’t matter when you take creatine.
The goal is to saturate your cells with it and then keep topping your levels up. This forms a reservoir which your body can dip into whenever it needs more energy. Take it with your protein shake every day, that way you will remember to do it.
Creatine can be taken in about 5 to 6 gram dosages every day. It will take longer to get to saturation point but there is less additional water retention compared to a loading phase where you can take 20 grams for 5 days and then continue with a 5 gram maintenance dose thereafter.
Either method is fine, but some people don’t want the slightly less defined look of the water retention for the loading phase, even though it goes away anyway.
You don’t have to cycle creatine. Current data suggests it is safe for daily use over a long term. If you feel like cycling off it every 8 or 12 weeks for a week or so then do so but there’s no reason to.
Micronized creatine monohydrate mixes better with water and/or your protein shake/breakfast smoothie/whatever, so go for that kind.
I have talked about the more obvious muscle building supplements, Creatine and Protein powders.
Now, I’m going to talk about those which some people might overlook, but that are nonetheless very important additions to your supplement program.
Vitamin D3 for Building Muscle and Strength
Vitamin D3 – aka cholecalciferol – is hugely important to every human, and even more so for those that want to be be stronger and bigger.
It’s involved in bone development (Vit D deficiencies lead to rickets), immunity, testosterone production, mood, cognitive function and heart health.
Our main source of Vitamin D is sunlight; we synthesize it when sunlight hits our skin, and a small portion is attributed to dietary intake.
The average person doesn’t get enough sun though. In fact, if you live anywhere above the 37th parallel line of latitude you probably don’t get adequate sunshine to avail of all the benefits.
People work and live indoors, and when we go out we generally cover ourselves in clothes. And during Spring, Autumn and Winter, the weather is such that we don’t see the sun enough even if we are outside.
Adults need about 400 to 800 IU to avoid a deficiency and diseased states like rickets.
Obviously most of us don’t have rickets but many of us still don’t get enough for all the other positive effects explained above.
And for bodybuilders who really need those effects, they definitely need more.
In fact, modern research (read our Vitamin D article) tells us that most governments’ RDA for Vitamin D is too low.
So, as I say a lot on this website, it’s time to take ownership of your health, because no-one else cares.
Vitamin D3 (as opposed to D2) is the better choice as it is more easily absorbed by our bodies. Secondly, you should consume a source of dietary fat alongside Vitamin D3 as it is fat soluble and needs a lipid transporter to be absorbed.
I use the softgel caplets as they are already in a highly bioavailable form. Be careful because multivitamins often don’t contain more than the RDA (even so-called “bodybuilding” multi-vitamin products).
Lastly, dosage. 2000 to 4000 IU per day is my recommendation.
Take that and you’ll be laughing all the way to the gym.
Zinc for Building Muscle and Strength
Zinc is a no-brainer for anyone who sweats a lot, whether it’s due to working out or not. That’s because we lose zinc when we perspire.
Considering it’s importance to testosterone production there’s no doubt in my mind that someone looking to build muscle – to whom healthy testosterone levels are vital, and sweating is a given – should take a Zinc supplement.
As for dosage, you can take 25 to 50 mg per day. If you’re a ‘Sweaty Betty’ then aim for the higher end of that range. If you’re a ‘Dry Sly’, or female, you’re okay at the lower end.
Again, the RDA is lower than this and changes depending on gender an age, but once again it’s the absolute minimum, and anyone that rips through their zinc by doing a lot of exercise should supplement.
There’s four supplements described in the two parts of this article, and I believe they are the basic necessities for anybody who leads a physically demanding life, in particular people who engage in intense training, from bodybuilding to endurance sports.
It is possible to get these nutrients from your diet and lifestyle alone but supplements are tools to help you ensure you are getting consistently effective levels, and a tool to save you time in what is likely a busy schedule.