- A certified sports dietitian says BCAA, HMB, and beta-alanine supplements aren’t necessary for building muscle.
- BCAA supplements contain the same amino acids as high protein foods and can be more expensive.
- Research has not shown that HMB and beta-alanine help build muscle in healthy, well-nourished adults.
Lifting weights is only part of the puzzle when it comes to gaining 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 grown in sales over the past few years.
Jason Machowsky, a New York-based certified sports dietitian, said that 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 aren’t as effective as consuming enough calories and getting enough protein from your diet, Machowsky said. But research has shown that protein supplements and creatine can help drive gains.
A high-protein diet is more effective at building muscle than most supplements alone
Supplements that contain acids that make up proteins like BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids) or help break down muscle like HMB (Beta Hydroxy Beta Methylbutyrate), are promoted as muscle building supplements by retailers. Some research indicates that BCAAs may have a greater influence on muscle growth compared to other acids like threonine, which prevents fat buildup in the liver, or methionine, which strengthens skin and nails.
But Machowsky said BCAAs are found in protein, making it “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, is the most crucial part of building muscle mass.
If someone who does weight training isn’t able to get enough protein in their diet, Machowsky said he can understand the desire to take BCAAs, but the supplements are very low in calories and the body needs a surplus of calories to fuel workouts and have enough left over to build muscle, he says.
“What I also need to point out to people is that if you eat 10 grams of branched-chain amino acids, that’s 40 calories,” Machowsky said. “If you don’t consume enough calories, your body will just burn that protein for fuel.”
He added that “truthfully, for the amount you get, it’s probably cheaper to eat the food than to have to get it via a supplement.”
Beta-alanine is also marketed as a supplement that can help increase muscle gains, but there isn’t enough evidence to support this, Machowsky said.
Research on beta-alanine has shown that the amino acid can improve a person’s anaerobic performance or high-intensity exercise that occurs for short periods of time such as repeated sprints. But current research on beta-alanine has not indicated that the amino acid helps during strength training, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
Finally, Machowsky said that while HMB supplements can help frail or aging people rebuild strength, this has not been shown for young, well-nourished people.
Research shows protein and creatine supplements can help build muscle
Protein is especially important in building muscle, Machowsky said. Protein is a macronutrient made up of amino acids, essential compounds that build and maintain muscle, skin and other tissues.
Dietitians recommend eating 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight to gain muscle. Although foods like meat and Greek yogurt contain high amounts of protein, Machowsky said protein supplements can help meet recommended daily protein requirements.
According to Machowsky, creatine is another science-backed protein-building supplement that can help strength trainers build muscle mass.
Creatine is an amino acid stored in muscle tissue that helps the body produce a molecule called adenosine triphosphate or ATP. ATP provides energy to cells during muscle movement, and having more of the molecule means your muscles can work harder for longer periods of time.
The supplement has been widely studied and experts believe it is safe for most people, Scott Forbes, a Brandon University professor and sports nutritionist, told Insider.
“The way creatine works is that it pretty much allows your body to recover a little better between sets of strength training so you can get those extra reps in,” Machowsky said.