Best Supplements for Strength and Size

by Chris on December 4, 2012

Today on the blog I have a guest post from Sol Orwell from over at The team there has done a great job of creating a tremendous database of supplement information. It’s well researched and impartial. Worth checking out.

**Note: Information included in this blog does not reflect my endorsement of any supplement or recommendation to take any supplement. As with anything it’s your job to do your research and find out if any product is worth taking and safe. You also take those risks upon yourself by trying anything. Got it? Good.


Creatine is, currently, the best over-the-counter supplement for gaining muscle mass and increasing power output. It works mainly by being an energy reservoir in cells (along with its energized form, creatine phosphate) and quickly donates energy to cellular processes that require it. In interventions, creatine is shown to increase the amount of muscular work that can be conducted when exercise is conducted under 30s (most weightlifting activities) and might acutely increase power output as well; an increased rate of muscle growth appears to exist (although seemingly small) and the testosterone boost that accompanies creatine (also seemingly small) is a push in the right direction.

Beta-Alanine (Carnosine)

Similar to creatine, but with two significant differences. First, Beta-Alanine is much less potent but the effects are still existent; secondly, it does not tend to influence exercise under 30s all that effectively but has more efficacy in moderate length exercise (60-300s) and higher length exercise (300s or more)

Some studies have shown an increase in strength, but not immediately. It appears newbies to weightlifting taking beta-alanine over a period of weeks (8 is usually used in studies) gain more strength during that period of time and gain slightly more muscle when compared to placebo. The reason behind this isn’t really known though.

Whey Protein

Maybe not whey protein per se, but protein in general. Protein is critical for building muscle mass, and either the diet or supplementation can be used to reach your daily total. If food cannot provide enough protein, then protein shakes or bars provide a convenient way to get extra protein throughout the day; buying powder is significantly less expensive than protein bars though.

Whey protein is recommended over other protein supplements for no significant reason here. The supposed benefit associated with a ‘fast’ protein source is not likely to be that significant in practical scenarios and may only be limited to when the person is in a fasted state (not that common with a diet primed to build muscle), but it may be slightly healthier than other sources as well as generally cheaper. It also tends to be easier to incorporate into a diet, especially paired into carb-rich desserts.

The following three recommendations are categories rather than isolated supplements. Their efficacy in building muscle is secondary to just simply doing more work, and the extra work done itself (when paired with more food intake) is itself what will be building the muscle; these compounds merely attenuate the rate of which the human body is going to be unable to continue.


Stimulants are mainly to overcome the lack of desire that might accompany an excessive workout schedule. They serve a purpose even when sufficiently rested, but their effects appear to be more potent when fatigued. Caffeine is the go-to here due to its availability and the level of trust people put into it, but other options could be compounds like ephedrine (or, if not comfortable with ephedrine, synephrine or higenamine work via similar mechanisms but are weaker) and Yohimbine, a crude noradrenaline increasing agent.

Stimulants aren’t healthy by any means, but they increase strength and work volume when in a fatigued state. They have a role in performance enhancement when workload becomes excessive or the diet subpar enough to not be able to fuel the workouts well (such as a fat loss diet, with reduced calories and carbohydrate)


Adaptogens, by loose definition, are compounds that reduce the effects of stress that would normally occur when introduced to stressful stimuli. This can be measured in the blood via cortisol, or it can be an animal model where anxiety or stress is measured after being purposefully induced.

Adaptogens, by their nature of preventing stress, can be pretty useless if stress is not actually present. Their usage for physical enhancement is similar to stimulants in preventing fatigue despite not inherently providing benefit to strength or muscularity.

The two most well researched Adaptogenic compounds appear to be Rhodiola Rosea and Panax Ginseng, with a few studies combining these two with a third called Schizandra Chinensis (a less researched but apparently effective third one) in humans. Any single one of those is most likely effective, although some potentially useful ones with less (or no) human research are Muira Puama or Ashwagandha.


Carnitine, usually in the form of L-Carnitine L-Tartrate (LCLT), has been shown numerous times to reduce metabolic waste product accrual in blood that is the result of exercise. At times, this results in less muscle soreness as well (although not 100% correlation) and can enable a user with a very large workout to feel recovered faster and resume working out sooner.

This property is also shared by many anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds (Vitamin C+E, Aspirin, etc.) but both anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory mechanisms are tied into reduced muscle protein synthesis. It is most likely not a concern in the grand scheme of things (so no reason to run away from antioxidants and anti-inflammatories) but L-Carnitine does not tend to be associated with these effects and might (perhaps nonsignificantly) be a better choice

To be very clear, by far the most important components in gaining size and strength are your diet and progressive overload. The above supplements will help, but they are not even remotely close to being a replacement for those two.

Sol Orwell is co-founder of, a science-based compendium on supplements and nutrition.

Thanks Sol for the info. Now drop a comment below telling me what supplements you take and your thoughts on supplement taking in general or join in the discussion on Facebook or Twitter


Sven December 4, 2012 at 6:51 pm

How much protein do you recommend?

Chris December 4, 2012 at 9:50 pm

That depends on the person. I try to shoot for 1.5g/bodyweight(lbs) per day minimum. On training days I often consume more than that.

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