There are hundreds of dietary supplements that claim to aid muscle gains or strength gains. Of these hundreds of supplements, only a select few actually provide significant muscle and strength benefits and have sufficient evidence to prove it. We will give you the results of the analysis of these hundreds of supplements, so you know where to focus your money for maximum tangible benefits.
This study reviews 250 different orally ingested daily supplements and picks out only the best ones.  Any with less than 2 scientific publications behind it were excluded for lack of evidence. Supplements were then screened further for research quality which cut the supplements down to only 6 quality contenders. The remaining supplements included: Creatine, HMB, Chromium, Androstenedione, DHEA, and Protein. Following is a comparison of how they each performed for lean mass (muscle) gains and strength gains.
So you can see in the above table that all 6 supplements provided muscle gains above the placebo comparison groups. However, only Creatine and HMB provided results that can be considered significant. So from 250 supplements, only 2 finished with significant evidence and significant muscle gains.
On the right hand table you saw strength gains. Of the 6 supplements, 3 provided no benefit or even harmed performance, 1 provided small benefits and 2 provided benefits that can be considered significant. Again, the winners were Creatine and HMB.
Which Supplements Are Effective For Muscle Gains?
A loading phase of 20g creatine per day for 5 days, then 7g creatine per day maintenance was the average dose of all of the studies. This produced an average benefit of 0.36% lean (muscle) gain per week above the placebo groups, and 1.09% strength gains per week above the placebo groups. So if you took Creatine for 10 weeks, you would expect roughly 3.5% more lean mass than you would otherwise, and 11% more strength. This is presuming a good weight lifting routine, diet, hydration and sleep.
HMB was taken at a rate of 3g per day in all studies. This produced an average benefit of 0.28% lean (muscle) gain per week above the placebo groups, and 1.40% strength gains per week above the placebo groups. So if you took HMB for 10 weeks, you would expect roughly 3% more lean mass than you would otherwise, and 14% more strength. This is presuming a good weight lifting routine, diet, hydration and sleep.
Creatine + HMB
This combination is optimal because Creatine and HMB work with the body in different ways, meaning the benefits of the two are cumulative. Taking Creatine and HMB for 10 weeks would result in expected improvements of 6.5% more lean mass and 25% more strength. Here is another journal testing exactly that, whether Creatine+HMB outperforms both of them when taken alone. That study shows that the muscle gains are cumulative when taking both supplements, but the strength gains are only partially cumulative. So I was overestimating when I said you could expect 25% additional strength gains, actually it would be somewhere between 14% and 25%, probably 20% or so.
Creatine + HMB Supplements
HMB is famed to taste awful when ingested in its pure form, so getting a mixed HMB product that is rated highly for taste is important, or to take it as a capsule. HMB+Creatine can be taken as: HMB Capsules ($1/day for 3g) + Creatine Powder ($0.15/day for 6g) or Mixed HMB Creatine Powder ($2.25/day for 3g 6g). Those prices exclude shipping.
Clearly it is cheaper to take HMB capsules and the Creatine separately, but if you’re like me and don’t like capsules, then the other option is still affordable to pretty much double your muscle and strength gains.
This study only analysed orally ingested daily supplements, so that excludes some good supplements that don’t fit those criteria. I will list a couple of obvious choices that were excluded.
Testosterone is very effective for muscle gains. However, it was excluded because it is not an oral daily supplement. It is not the most natural supplement however, so take at your own risk.
This one wasn’t excluded but performed badly. Considering its popularity, this result was unexpected. The results show that having a scoop of protein a day provided little benefit, since if you’re eating enough, you’re probably taking in enough protein already. Protein could still be useful for meeting calorie requirements, however.
Carbohydrates were not included as it is not considered a daily supplement. However, it can play an important role in Reducing Muscle Breakdown when taken at the right time, which helps lean (muscle) gains. The right time is pre, intra and post workout.
- Effect of dietary supplements on lean mass and strength gains with resistance exercise: a meta-analysis. Steven L. Nissen and Rick L. Sharp [↩]
- Creatine and beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate (HMB) additively increase lean body mass and muscle strength during a weight-training program. Jówko E, Ostaszewski P, Jank M, Sacharuk J, Zieniewicz A, Wilczak J, Nissen S. [↩]