Ask an Expert: Can supplements help increase muscle mass?

Q: “I’m an 18-year-old male and I would like to start working out to gain mass, as well as definition. What would be the best and safest supplement to use to get quick results?”

Answer from Mike Boggs, BS, MBA, CSCS (certified strength-conditioning specialist), fitness specialist, Providence Fitness Services:

Congratulations on making the commitment to exercise. Adding strength training to your life is a wise choice that will deliver health benefits now and well into your future.

Although it’s never too late to start strength training, starting early – as you are, at 18 – will give you a great head start on a healthy future.

Your question focuses on supplements, but I’d like to encourage you to make a mental shift away from thinking “supplements” to thinking “nutrition.” Good nutrition, rather than pills or powders, is the best and safest way to enhance the results you get from your workouts.

You didn’t ask for advice on workout programs, but since you’re just starting out, I feel compelled to offer a few words of guidance on proper strength training and muscle recovery, as well. Paying attention to these three things – good nutrition, proper training, and rest and recovery – will put you well on the way to your goal of better muscle mass and definition, as well as better health overall.

Think “nutrition” rather than “supplements” Although many so-called “trainers” and “fitness magazines” promote supplements that claim to increase muscle mass fast, the truth is that none of these has been proven to work. Although these products make promising claims in their advertising, they are required to state on their labels that their claims have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration.

In addition to being expensive and ineffective, some of these products may even be harmful. Adopting good nutritional habits will do you a lot more good for a lot less money. 

When working to build mass, eating well matters. To gain one pound of muscle, you need a net gain of 2,500 calories over time. The bulk of that increase in calories should come from eating larger quantities of healthful foods – especially complex carbohydrates.

Once you start strength training, you will be burning more energy (calories), so you’ll need to add extra energy food to your diet. Complex carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy. They should make up 60 percent of your diet. Good sources include whole-grain bread, brown rice, high-fiber cereal, legumes, vegetables and whole fruits.

Protein also serves an important role in helping to maintain and rebuild muscles. However, most people already consume more than enough protein, so you may not need to increase your protein intake. For building strength and mass, protein should make up 15 to 20 percent of your diet. (Don’t over-do it on protein in hope that it will help you bulk up: The excess will add body fat, but not muscle.) Good sources of protein include peanut butter, low-fat milk, beans, nuts, tuna, lean beef and skinless chicken.

The rest of your dietary calories (20 to 25 percent) should come from healthful fats, such as olive oil, canola oil, salmon and avocados. These fats are another good energy source for your body.

Try to spread your carbohydrates, protein and fat evenly throughout all of the day’s meals and snacks, rather than concentrating all of your protein, for example, at dinner. This balanced approach will help you maintain your energy level and keep your body and mind functioning at their best, all day long.

Now that you have the percentages down, what overall calorie level should you shoot for? Without knowing your body type and genetic makeup, it’s hard to say. But in general, an 18-year-old male needs to consume at least 2,500 calories a day just to stay healthy. Since you are working out regularly and trying to build mass, you might need to increase your calories to a total of 3,500 or 4,000 per day.

At the top of that range, the balance breaks down as follows:
  • Complex carbohydrates: 2,400 calories/day (60 percent of diet)
  • Protein: 600–800 calories/day (15–20 percent of diet)
  • Healthful fats: 800–1,000 calories/day (20–25 percent of diet)
A registered dietitian can help you create a nutrition plan that is specific to your body, your lifestyle and your goals.

Three things to think about as you start your strength-training program
Successful strength-training programs are built upon three principles: overload, progression and specificity.
  • Overload:  Because your body adapts to the stresses you place on it, your workouts need to take your body a little bit beyond what it is used to if you want to gain strength and muscle mass. When you lift more weight than you are used to, the overload causes physiologic changes that prepare your body to handle the challenge the next time. This overload principle is the foundation of a strength-training program.
  • Progression: The safest and most effective way to reach overload is by progressively increasing the resistance against a muscle or muscle group. Progression means building up to changes gradually, rather than making big changes suddenly. When working toward increasing the amount of weight that you lift, or bumping up the intensity of a workout, focus on making small increases over time.
  • Specificity: The muscular gains that you make depend on the specific muscle groups that you work and on the specific movement patterns you perform. Athletes who are training for a specific sport know that they need to target the same muscles used in that sport to see progress. A trainer can help you develop a program geared toward a specific area of focus, or toward overall strength and definition. For balance and overall good cardiovascular health, your exercise routine also should include some aerobic exercise, such as cycling, running or swimming. In addition to your weight training, try to fit in about 20 to 40 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week.
Don’t forget your R&R
Many people spend too much time lifting weights and not enough time letting their muscles recover. To succeed at building mass and definition, be sure to allow your muscles time to rest and recover after workouts. Otherwise, you won’t get results from your hard work — and you may even end up with an overuse injury that prevents you from continuing your strength training.  It’s not necessary to lift weights five or six days per week; four days is plenty. I recommend two days of upper body work and two days of lower body exercises, with rest in between.

How much rest is enough?
It depends on the intensity level of your workouts, but in general, follow these guidelines:
  • At least one day of rest between workouts of specific muscle groups
  • Two days of rest after a high-intensity strength-training workout (one in which you use the large muscles and multiple joints to lift heavier weights, repeating several short sets rather than two or three long sets)
  • Finally, think “lifestyle,” not “quick fix” I know you were hoping for something that would speed up your results, but there are no shortcuts that will deliver the kind of results you really want: the kind that last.
If you commit yourself to putting in the time and effort to build a lifestyle that includes regular workouts, appropriate rest and recovery, and good nutrition, the results will follow, and they will benefit you throughout your entire life. You will look better, you will feel better, and you will have more energy to enjoy your life. That’s something you just can’t get from a pill.

October 2006