Creatine, a compound comprised of three naturally-occurring amino acids that’s stored in our muscles, is on fire right now. Just about everyone you see working out these days probably has a plentiful supply stashed in their gym bag. So what’s causing the demand?
Kim Yawitz, a registered dietitian and gym owner in St. Louis, Missouri, sheds some light: “The best way to build muscle in the gym is to train harder—either by lifting heavier or performing more reps. Creatine helps you do that by supplying your muscles with more energy during exercise. You can increase your creatine levels by eating foods high in protein, but supplements are actually the best way to get more creatine into your muscles. Higher creatine levels generally lead to a higher work capacity during exercise, and a large body of evidence has shown that resistance training combined with creatine results in greater increases in muscle mass than resistance training alone.”
Of course, no supplement will make you magically ripped. Creatine and other supplements only help build muscle in combination with exercise, says Yawitz. “And even if you already incorporate resistance training, you’ll need to keep increasing the intensity (either by adding more weight or more reps) if you want to see significant strength gains.”
With that in mind, keep reading for five supplements to pair with creatine that may help you reap even more rewards.
As Yawitz puts it, lifting weights is only part of the equation for muscular hypertrophy. “You also need lots of protein to promote muscle growth—up to 2.5 times the recommended daily allowance for protein, by some estimates,” she says. “You technically don’t need protein powder to build muscle, but supplementing with it can help you hit the daily target for muscle growth if you have trouble getting enough in your diet.”
Whey protein is high in an amino acid called leucine that’s especially beneficial for building muscle, so Yawitz typically recommends it to strength athletes. She highlights that the optimal dose is 0.54-0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day, which is equal to 81-135 grams per day for a 150-pound adult. (She frequently advises strength athletes to aim for the higher end of the range.)
Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
“A BCAA powder contains three individual amino acids—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—that stimulate protein synthesis and promote recovery,” says Rebekah Blakely, RDN, a nutritionist for The Vitamin Shoppe (book a free coaching session here). “Consequently, they can potentially help increase your muscle strength and endurance, making them a great addition to your workout supplement stack alongside creatine,” she continues, sharing that BCAAs are particularly helpful for those who do fasted workouts (workouts when you haven’t eaten), those who have trouble meeting overall protein goals from their diet, and aging adults.
Glutamine is another individual amino acid that Blakely says pairs well with creatine. “While creatine helps you push a little harder during the workout, glutamine comes in to help with recovery,” she says. “Some studies show glutamine supplementation can result in faster recovery and diminished muscle soreness following exercise, allowing you to give it your all in your next workout session.”
Have you heard of this nonessential amino acid? “Beta-alanine can help delay the onset of fatigue during exercise, albeit in a different way than creatine,” says Yawitz, sharing that beta-alanine helps the body to make more of a substance called carnosine. “This helps prevent the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles during high-intensity exercise lasting 30 second to 10 minutes,” she says.
As Yawitz shares, you can obtain beta-alanine (and carnosine, a substance composed of amino acids that’s concentrated in your muscle tissues) by eating meat and seafood, “but beta-alanine supplements can increase the amount of carnosine in the muscles by up to 65 percent in just four weeks,” according to some research. “There’s some evidence that beta-alanine alone could help improve muscle strength when combined with resistance training. However, other studies suggest that taking it with creatine could be especially beneficial for muscle building and body composition,” she says.
A typical daily dose for beta-alanine is 2.4-6.4 grams per day, depending on your body weight, offers Yawitz. Split this into three-to-four doses to prevent side effects like itchy, tingly, or prickly skin, Yawitz says.
You may associate melatonin with sleep support, but creatine fans, take note: “Melatonin appears to support muscle growth in a couple of ways. Small studies suggest that melatonin supplements can help reduce oxidative stress and inflammation after strenuous workouts,” says Yawitz. “And, in another small study, melatonin supplements increased the secretion of muscle-building human growth hormone.”
Still, “even if it doesn’t reduce inflammation or increase growth hormone, melatonin has been shown to improve sleep, and some studies have linked healthier sleep habits with greater muscle strength and better exercise performance,” says Yawitz. Studies on melatonin and muscle growth are limited, she says, but doses have ranged from 0.5 to 5 milligrams per day.