Supplement labels and ads can lead you to believe you will never build muscle without supplements. Like many of my clients, you may be wondering if it’s possible to put on muscle without the use of supplements.
So, can you build muscle without supplements? Building muscle does not require taking supplements. To build muscle you must lift weights at a high volume and frequency, maintain a caloric surplus, and eat one gram of protein per pound of body weight each day. Supplements only augment the results you get from these three main factors.
I was always the smallest kid growing up and it caused me to become obsessed with building muscle at an early age. That obsession turned into a career as a strength and conditioning coach, where I help people build muscle every day.
By following the concepts laid out in this article, I was able to grow from a thin 140 pounds to over 185 pounds without supplements, and have helped several clients achieve similar results.
After reading this article, you’ll learn:
- How to build muscle without taking supplements
- Which supplements may help you build muscle quicker
- When you should consider taking supplements
- How to choose the best supplements for you
How To Build Muscle Without Taking Supplements
You do not need to take supplements to build muscle.
Supplements can only enhance the results you get from consistently lifting weights, maintaining a caloric surplus, and eating enough protein. Let’s discuss each of those in more detail.
Lift Weights For Sets of 3-12 Reps
You need to lift weights to build muscle. The best results will come from lifting in sets of 3-12 reps for a total of 20-36 reps per exercise each workout.
Researchers at the University of Ohio’s Department of Biomedical Sciences, for example, found that lifting weights in the 3-5 and 9-11 rep range both produce similar results in muscle growth.
Lifting in the 3-5 rep range, however, has the added benefit of increasing strength. The reason why building strength is important (alongside building muscle) is that in order to build muscle you need to be lifting more weight for more volume over time.
Therefore, if you’re just starting on your mass gaining journey, you’ll want to spend 4-8 weeks lifting in the lower rep range followed by the same amount of time lifting in the higher rep ranges.
Cycling between focusing on strength, and then focusing on building muscle, will allow you to consistently make progress in the gym.
Even if you do take supplements, you will never build muscle without lifting weights. No supplement in the world that can replace hard work in the gym.
Eat Your Bodyweight x 20 In Calories Each Day
Your body will only grow if you are in a caloric surplus. To build muscle, you need to consume more calories than you burn. Aim to eat your body weight in pounds x 20 in calories each day.
In the same way that you wouldn’t guess how much weight was on the bar before lifting it, you can’t guess how many calories you’re eating each day.
You need to work hard in both the gym and the kitchen if you want to build muscle, and that means tracking what you eat. This is the biggest issue I see with individuals looking to build muscle – they aren’t eating enough simply because they aren’t tracking what they’re eating.
Take the time to track and measure the foods you eat. Make sure you’re eating your body weight x 20 in calories each day to build muscle.
If you aren’t maintaining a caloric surplus, no muscle-building supplement can help you grow.
If you want a more precise measurement of how to calculate your calories and macros, then check out my article on Lean Bulk Macros. This will help you understand how to gain muscle while limiting your fat gain.
Related Article: Can You Build Muscle With A Bad Diet?
Eat One Gram of Protein Per Pound of Bodyweight
Eating enough protein is the key to building muscle. Strive to eat one gram of protein per pound of body weight every day.
Muscle mass is regulated by what’s known as net protein balance. Net protein balance is the difference between muscle protein synthesis (building and repairing muscle tissue) and muscle protein breakdown.
When you eat a protein-dense meal, protein synthesis increases and protein breakdown decreases, and your muscles repair and grow.
If you want to build muscle, you need to make sure you reach a positive net protein balance by eating one gram of protein per pound of body weight every day. Doing so has been shown to maximize resistance training-induced muscle building.
When it comes to building muscle, there’s no replacement for quality protein. Eating enough protein is far more effective than any supplement out there.
If you want some ideas for consuming a high protein diet without protein supplements, check out my article 30 Ways To Increase Your Protein Intake Without Protein Powder.
Drink At Least 3 Litres of Water Each Day
To build muscle, you should drink at least three liters of water a day.
Drinking water helps your body transport the required nutrients to your muscles so they can grow while also helping you perform your best in the gym.
University of Connecticut researchers found that being dehydrated significantly decreased squat performance, indicating that hydration plays an important role in achieving optimal results.
If you cannot perform your best in the gym, you are going to struggle to build muscle.
Investing in supplements before ensuring you are properly hydrated each day is an ineffective strategy. You cannot build muscle if you are not properly hydrated.
Eat 4-6 Meals Spread Throughout the Day
How much you eat is an extremely important factor in building muscle, but when you eat can affect muscle growth, too. Eating smaller meals spread throughout the day has been shown to maximize muscle growth.
Eating frequent smaller meals helps you stay in a positive net protein balance and continue to build muscle throughout the day.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) states that consuming 20–40 grams of protein every three to four hours increases muscle protein synthesis and is associated with improved body composition and performance.
Even if you are taking supplements, eating 4-6 smaller meals throughout the day will help you build more muscle.
Lift Weights Three Times Per Week And Eat For Size For Three Months
Consistency is the most important aspect of building muscle. You need to consistently lift weights for a minimum of three-day-per-week and eat for size (bodyweight x 20 in calories each day and 1g of protein per pound of body weight each day) for at least three months to build noticeable muscle.
You can have the perfect diet and workout plan, but if you don’t dedicate yourself to following your program for at least three months, you will not see results.
Working hard in the gym one week and then skipping a couple of workouts the next will not get you the results you want. Nor will eating enough calories and protein during the week but falling off the wagon on the weekends.
You don’t have to be perfect. But you need to stick to your diet and workout program at least 90% of the time.
If you were to take muscle-building supplements but failed to be consistent with your workouts and diet, you would not achieve the results you want.
Will Taking Supplements Help You Build Muscle Quicker?
Taking supplements can help you build muscle quicker, but only if – and this is a big if – you’re consistently eating enough calories, consuming enough protein, following a muscle-building training program, and doing everything you can to properly promote muscle protein synthesis.
Focusing on supplements instead of getting my diet in order was a big mistake I made early in my career. I learned the hard way that no amount of creatine, mass gainer, or branched-chain amino acids will allow you to overcome neglecting the basics.
The definition of a supplement is “something that completes or enhances something else.” And that’s exactly what nutritional supplements do – complete or enhance your already well-put-together diet and workout routine.
If you have everything else dialed in, taking some supplements can help you build muscle faster.
Which Supplements Will Help You Build Muscle?
There are a select few supplements that may help you build additional muscle, but they are not a shortcut – they can only augment the results you get from your workouts and diet.
If you’ve done everything listed above for three to six months and would like to try taking supplements to help you build more muscle, there are a few options that might work for you.
The first supplement I recommend for my clients is protein powder. Eating enough protein gets increasingly more difficult as we grow. For example, it was easier for me to eat one gram of protein per pound of body weight each day when I weighed 140 pounds than it was when I weighed 185. Protein powder makes reaching an increasing protein goal a little easier.
Creatine, weight gainers, omega-3 fatty acids, and beta-alanine are additional supplements, backed by research, that may help you build more muscle.
But remember – supplements can only add a very small amount to your gains. When it comes to building muscle, supplements may add 1% while the main factors listed above make up the remaining 99%.
1. Protein Powder
Protein powders are among the most common supplements as they make it much easier for us to reach our daily protein goals. There is nothing magical about them, however.
Consuming 20-40 grams of protein every 3-4 hours, as recommended by the ISSN, is much easier to adhere to if we incorporate protein shakes than it is if we’re relying on whole foods.
The 3 most common types of protein powder are: (1) whey protein, (2) casein protein, and (3) vegan protein.
Whey Protein Powder
Whey is one of two proteins found in dairy products and makes for a high-quality, easily absorbed protein powder. It is fast-acting and absorbed quickly, and is a great post-workout protein option.
Consuming a fast-absorbing protein like whey after your workout allows your muscles to quickly get the nutrients they need to recover and start growing.
Casein Protein Powder
Casein is the other protein found in dairy and another popular supplement for people looking to build muscle. Unlike whey, casein is digested much slower. Because it slowly releases amino acids (the building blocks of protein) throughout the body, casein is commonly taken before bed.
In fact, studies have shown that taking casein before bed can optimize muscle hypertrophy.
Vegan Protein Powder
Vegan protein powders – often made of rice, pea, and/or soy protein – offer an alternative to dairy-based protein powders and are becoming more popular each day.
These powders offer a vegan, lactose-free option for those looking to supplement with protein powder.
Animal proteins (meat, eggs, whey, etc.) are known as “complete proteins” as they contain adequate amounts of each of the nine essential amino acids necessary in the human diet. Many plant proteins, however, do not.
As we need to consume complete sources of protein to build muscle, it is important to look for something with a complete amino acid profile when choosing a vegan protein powder.
Soy-based protein powders make for great vegan options as, like animal protein, soy is a complete protein. Additionally, researchers found no difference in gains in muscle mass when supplementing with a soy-based protein versus an animal-based protein.
Related Article: Can You Build Muscle Without Vegetables? If you don’t like veggies, then learn whether or not you can skip eating them if your goal is to gain muscle.
2. Weight Gainer
Weight gainers are similar to protein powders, however, they have added carbohydrates to increase the number of calories in each serving.
Like protein powders, there is nothing magical about weight gainer supplements.
Other than the odd weight gainer that contains additional additives, these powders are nothing more than fast-absorbing carbohydrates and protein, usually in a 4:1 or 2:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio.
For individuals needing to eat an abundance of calories, weight gainer supplements can help them do so.
3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids, commonly derived from fish oil, have been shown to lead to gains in muscle size and strength.
Research continues to show that supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids has intrinsic anabolic/anti-catabolic properties, which helps us maintain a positive net protein balance and increase muscle.
Taking an omega-3 supplement can be beneficial to many people as most do not consume enough omega-3s in their diet.
Creatine improves strength and power output during resistance training, allowing us to lift more and train harder which, in turn, leads to an increase in muscle mass.
Creatine is one of the most researched supplements ever. It has been shown to be safe and effective through countless studies.
This double-blind study, for example, found creatine amplified the increase in muscle mass when combined with resistance training. The group taking creatine finished the eight-week study with significantly higher lean muscle mass (over one pound more) than the group taking a placebo.
- To find the best type of creatine for you, check out 10 Types Of Creatine: Best & Worst Explained.
Beta-alanine (BA) is an amino acid and popular supplement for natural bodybuilders that may lead to gains in muscle mass.
Researchers at The College of New Jersey found that four weeks of beta-alanine supplementation significantly improved muscular endurance during resistance training.
And, if beta-alanine can help us train harder for longer, it’s no surprise that this double-blind study found significant improvements in lean body mass with six weeks of supplementation.
Supplements You Should Not Consider Taking
While the supplements listed above can help you build muscle, there is one popular supplement, in particular, that isn’t worth the investment.
Manufacturers of branched-chain amino acid supplements claim their products are the missing link in the muscle-building equation, but the science suggests otherwise.
BCAAs – Don’t Believe the Hype
Supplementing with the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) – leucine, valine, and isoleucine – has been said to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and help us build muscle. However, these claims appear to be unwarranted.
While it’s true that BCAAs play a major role in helping us build muscle, supplementing with BCAAs alone does not enhance muscle protein synthesis any more than consuming a complete, high-quality source of protein that contains the full set of essential amino acids.
In other words, consuming something like a whey protein shake on its own appears to be just as effective at helping us build muscle as consuming a whey protein shake with added BCAAs.
- Related Article: Can You Get Abs While Bulking? 5 Rules to Follow
4 Signs You Should Consider Taking Supplements
The 4 signs you should consider taking supplements are:
- You struggle to reach your nutrition goals with whole food
- You see no progress after weeks of consistency
- Your progress has stalled
- You’re competing
You Struggle to Reach Your Nutrition Goals With Whole Food
If you are unable to consume enough protein, eat enough calories, and/or lack omega-3s with only whole food sources, then it is time to consider taking supplements.
This is a situation where something like a mass gainer, protein powder, or omega-3 supplement can really help you build muscle.
You See No Progress After Weeks of Consistency
If you’ve been doing everything right for several months (6+ months), i.e. getting in your protein and calories while following a muscle-building program, and are seeing no progress, taking supplements may spark your gains.
This is where something like creatine and/or a weight gainer might help. Adding a weight gainer shake post-workout, or even after a meal, can help to spark muscle growth.
Your Progress Has Stalled
If what was once working has stopped and your progress has stalled, it may be time to consider taking a new supplement.
Our bodies are constantly adapting to what we throw at them. We can’t do the same workout or eat the same meals every day and expect to see continued progress.
Sometimes a new workout program or nutrition plan can help. But there are times when adding a new supplement to your routine can reignite your gains.
Related Article: How Long Should You Bulk? Learn 3 factors to consider.
If you plan to step on stage at a physique or bodybuilding competition, you might want to consider taking supplements as every little advantage will help.
Creatine and beta-alanine can come into play here. Even if all they offer is a minor increase in muscle mass, that small increase may be the difference between winning and losing.
How To Choose Supplements To Build Muscle
If you decide to take supplements to help you build muscle, it’s important to choose only high-quality, proven supplements that will provide you with the benefit you’re looking for.
It is important to choose supplements that fill the gaps in your diet.
If you’re already eating a sufficient amount of protein a day, adding a protein powder is not going to do you any good. Or if you eat salmon, mackerel, and flaxseed on a regular basis, adding an omega-3 supplement might be a waste of time and money.
But when you do decide to take a specific supplement, be sure to find one from a reputable company that follows good manufacturing processes. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for supplement manufacturers to taint their products with active pharmaceutical ingredients.
We cannot trust every label we read. The nutritional supplement industry is massive and everyone is looking to sell you the next best thing – even before it is properly tested for efficacy.
When I was younger, I purchased every new pill or powder that promised muscle-building gains. At best, they were useless. At worst, they really messed me up – I remember one pre workout powder that left me so incredibly jittery I was unable to work.
Now, as a coach, I only recommend supplements that I’ve researched and found to be both safe and beneficial. Reach out to me if you want advice on which supplements to take based on your individual circumstances.
Building Muscle Without Supplements: Key Takeaways
The formula for building muscle is simple: train hard, eat big, consume a lot of protein, and do these things consistently for a long period of time.
Taking supplements can help us build muscle, but they are only there to fill in the gaps. They are the final piece of the puzzle and should only be considered once everything else is in line.
1. Choose An Appropriate Program
Lifting weights for three sets of ten reps is a tried and true method to build muscle, but research has shown you can build muscle with other set and rep schemes, too.
Find a muscle-building program that fits your schedule and available equipment and dedicate yourself to it for a minimum of three months.
2. Eat For Size
If you want to build big muscles, you need to eat big. Set your daily calories to your body weight in pounds x 20.
Track your intake and hit your number every day.
3. Focus On Protein
You need to stimulate muscle protein synthesis to build muscle. Eat 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight each day and you’ll do just that.
When it comes to building muscle, protein is king. Make sure you’re eating enough high-quality protein each day to reach your muscle-building goals.
Related Article: Do Macros Matter For Bulking? Learn what’s more important, eating enough calories, or aiming to eat the right ratio of macronutrients.
4. Consider Taking Supplements
If you find you have gaps in your diet, you aren’t seeing the progress you’d like after being consistent for three months, or are planning on stepping on stage, consider which supplements may help you reach your goals.
If you can fill a nutritional gap with a supplement that is proven to be both safe and effective, it may be worth trying out.
Likewise, if you’re planning on competing and want every advantage you can get, carefully examine your supplement options and see if you can find one that may help.
However, you should only take a supplement if it is safe and effective, will help you reach your goals, and you’re consistently doing everything else needed to build muscle.
About The Author
Riley Nadoroznick is a strength, conditioning, and nutrition coach and the owner of Conviction Fitness.