Do Muscle Supplements Work?

Health food stores feature shakes and body building supplements that promise to pack on pounds of muscle — but do they work? We speak with two experts

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Joy Valvano, registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator.
Joy Valvano, registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator.

Health foods and fitness stores stock many kinds of shakes and body building supplements that promise to pack on pounds of muscle. But can these really help you get the body of your dreams?

First, consider the source of the product’s claims. Supplements aren’t regulated by the Food & Drug Administration like medication. Manufacturers’ claims are not approved by the FDA and do not have to present double-blind, peer reviewed studies before they make claims. They must be safe and contain the ingredients they claim — that is all.

“There are some muscle mass supplements that are beneficial, but they’re not without disadvantages,” said Joy Valvano, registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with Rochester Regional Health.

She said that some people taking creatine do experience increased muscle strength, along with proper resistance training.

“Argon is thought to promote blood flow to the muscle, which may result in improved performance.”

Some people experience gastro-intestinal problems when taking creatine. Valvano said that it is also thought to cause long-term renal or kidney damage.

“You can use real food that contains protein,” Valvano said. “Branch chain amino acids can be used to build muscle and are thought to increase fat burning.”

She encourages men who want to build muscle to look at plant-based protein, which is low in saturated fat, such as nuts, hemp seed powder, sprouted bread, and quinoa. These sources combat inflammation, provide fiber and B vitamins and are heart-healthy.

“It’s a myth that animal protein is the only one to grow muscle,” Valvano said.

For people who include dairy in their diet, she said that low-fat dairy could also offer a source of protein.

Chris Sutton, certified personal training and strength and conditioning coach, owns Wergo, Inc., a personal training business in Rochester. He said that he’s not a big believer in muscle building supplements.

“You can get most of it through nutrition,” he said. “If you eat healthy, then it’s good enough.”

Just as plain water usually suffices for adequate hydration over sports drinks, eating protein rich foods usually provides enough protein for those building muscle. Sutton recommended dairy, legumes, seeds and meat as good protein sources.

“If you’re not getting enough protein, protein supplements can help, but you can get most of it through your regular diet,” he said.

Spending more money on special supplements won’t result in more muscle.

Eating right “is more important than supplementation,” Sutton said. “Your body uses that naturally sourced protein better, I think.”

Simply consuming more protein from any source is not enough to build muscle. Engaging in regular resistance exercises “is more important,” Sutton said.

He maintains that “form is everything.”

“Some sacrifice weight for form or go too fast,” he added. “They move the weight instead of contracting the muscles and engaging the abdominals. They may do too much, particularly if they are new.”

He likes kettle bells, tubing and free weights for resistance training over weight machines. Instead of just stressing one movement, such as raising the weight, men should lower the weight with just as much care to work both muscles.

Use the maximum amount of weight that can be lifted in good for about 10 repetitions. Perform another 10 repetitions and then move on to another muscle group. Exercise each muscle group twice weekly, but not two days in a row.