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A quick look at some muscle building supplements – do they work?

Posted on April 15th, 2011 by Matt Schoeneberger

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the supplements being marketed as muscle-building, but these are a few that have been studied and are worth commenting on. I won’t dig into specific brands, but instead the base substances which many muscle-building supplements are built from.

Beta Alanine

How it’s supposed to work

Beta alanine increases the amount of carnosine in the muscle, which acts as a buffer to fight an increasingly acidic environment during glycolytic energy production and so may delay muscle fatigue. (Culbertson)

5-6.5 grams/day (Culbertson)

Is it worth it?

Well, you can get 500 grams for about $25. This will last you about 11 weeks at 6.5 grams/day.
For the average gym-goer who is simply trying to look good naked or stay healthy, maybe. For a guy like my cousin, Mike, who spends his weekends cycling competitively, sure. You have to keep in mind that a supplement like this won’t turn you into a beast if you’re currently a noodle-armed choir boy. It’s going to give you just a little edge over your non-supplemented self. For an athlete who counts on seconds of difference to win, this might be just the edge that puts you on the podium.

***I’ve seen at least one supplement company say beta alanine will help you build muscle and burn body fat. I’ve seen one study in which beta alanine taken alone was responsible for lean tissue gain (Smith 2009), but have not seen research to indicate fat mass loss due to supplementation with beta alanine alone. Smith et al showed about a 2 lbs gain in lean tissue after 3 weeks of HIIT, which diminished slightly at 6 weeks. As we’ve seen before, lean tissue gain can come in the form of simple water retention, so we’d need more info to know whether this is real tissue gain. Hoffman et al showed an increase in lean mass and decrease in body fat %, but no difference in fat mass with combined beta alanine and creatine supplementation and resistance training. This study was funded by EAS.*** (Smith, Hoffman)


How it’s supposed to work

L-Arginine is needed for nitrous oxide (NO) production in the human body. NO is most well-known as a vasodilator, meaning it opens up your blood tubes, but it carries these other important functions in muscle tissue according to Alvares, et al : (Alvarres)

force and power production

protein synthesis

activation of satellite cells

mitochondrial biogenesis

glucose homeostasis


12g/day (Alvares)(Campbell)

Is it worth it?

Well, you can get 200 grams for about $15.  That’s about $30/month. For the benefits that I’ve seen thus far in the research, I don’t think it’s worth it unless you’ve got $30/month you want to burn. If more research comes out that points to positive results for l-arginine, I might think again, but so far I’m unconvinced.


Creatine is the freakin’ bomb and should be used by anyone who works out and has a few bucks to spare. It’s cheap, safe and has a large body of evidence to support its use for enhanced exercise performance. It’s also being researched for use in neuromuscular and neurometabolic disorders. Don’t fall for any of the hype about special forms or advanced delivery systems, just stick with plain creatine monohydrate.

How it’s supposed to work

Phosphocreatine is used to rephosphorylate ADP to ATP, which is used to create energy in the muscles during the first few seconds of exercise. So, more creatine stores equals better energy production.(Tarnopolsky, Terjung)


5g/day. Some say to load for the first week at as high as 20g/day. I’m not sure this is necessary, but should be safe for most healthy people. (Tarnopolsky, Terjung)

Is it worth it?

Did you read where I said “creatine is the freakn’ bomb?” I was serious. Yes, I think creatine is worth it. You can get 1000 grams for $15. At 5 grams/day, this will last a wicked long time, kid. You will most likely notice an increase in lean tissue mass within a week of beginning supplementation due to water retention. Again, this is not real tissue gain! But, over time creatine and possible beta alanine will result in more real lean tissue gain due to increased performance, understanding that dietary factors must be address. (read: you have to eat enough meat and such)


Alvares TS, Meirelles CM, Bhambhani YN, Paschoalin MF, Gomes PSC. L-Arginine as a Potential Ergogenic Aidin Healthy Subjects. Sports Med 2011; 41 (3): 233-248

Campbell B, et al. Pharmacokinetics, safety, and effects on exercise performance ofL-arginine -ketoglutarate in trained adult men. Nutrition. 2006;22:872–881

Culbertson JY, Kreider RB, Greenwood M, Cooke M. Effects of Beta-Alanine on Muscle Carnosine and ExercisePerformance: A Review of the Current Literature. Nutrients. 2010;2:75-98.

Smith AE, et al. Effects of β-alanine supplementation and high-intensity intervaltraining on endurance performance and body composition in men;a double-blind trial. J Int Sport Sci. 2009;6(5)

Hoffman J, Ratamess N, Kang J, Mangine G, Faigenbaum A, Stout J. Effect of Creatine and ß-AlanineSupplementation on Performanceand Endocrine Responses in Strength/Power Athletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2006;16:430-446

Schoeneberger ML, Thiboutot JR. Awesomeness is easy when you’re us: Just checking if you read these. Int J of Awesome. 2011;1(1):1-100

Tarnopolsky MA. Caffeine and Creatine Use in Sport. Ann Nutr Metab. 2010;57(suppl 2):1–8

Terjung RL, et al. The physiological and health effects of oralcreatine supplementation. Med Sci Sport Ex. 2000;32(3):706-713


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One Response to “A quick look at some muscle building supplements – do they work?”

  1. [...] few months back I reviewed some muscle-building supplements and then I discussed how one particular supplement can’t possibly have enough active [...]

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