What you do after your next workout session is just as important as the workout itself, especially if your goal is to gain or maintain lean muscle mass. Studies show there are a handful of very specific substances that increase muscle size and strength, support recovery, and manage a healthy weight. If you want to know what these substances are, how much to take, and when to take them, keep reading.
A quality diet and consistent exercise routine paired with specific supplemental nutrients have been shown to increase muscle mass and aid in muscle recovery.
Nutrients like protein, creatine, BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids), L-glutamine, and L-carnitine can increase muscle size and strength, and aid in muscle recovery after workouts.
Taking the right amounts of these nutrients at the right times can increase muscle gains, prevent muscle damage, and support body composition changes when paired with strength and resistance training.
Always consult your doctor before making any changes to your workout or supplement routine.
Exercise has many benefits, one of the most sought-after being gaining muscle mass. There are three main rules to gaining muscle: eat more protein than you break down, eat more calories than you use, and consistently challenge your muscles by incorporating a combination of weight, resistance, and cardio training.
These things can be achieved without supplementation, but taking certain supplemental nutrients in specific amounts and at ideal times can help you achieve your goals faster. However, remember there are no replacements for a quality diet and a consistent workout routine. These supplements only enhance your efforts — they are not a substitute.
Protein and your workout
Studies have repeatedly shown that protein intake is necessary to repair and build muscle. However, not all protein is created equal. A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition examined protein types, amounts, and timing specifically for muscle gain, and the findings were very clear.
Animal and whey protein sources are more bioavailable — recognizable and easily used — to the body compared to plant sources of protein like soy, pea, and rice. Bioavailability showed increases in muscle hypertrophy — muscle growth as a result of exercise — but had little bearing on muscle strength. However, you can still gain muscle strength with vegan proteins, though it may take slightly more time to achieve the same muscle mass. Whey protein isolate is the fastest and most easily absorbed protein, containing all the essential amino acids necessary to build muscle mass. However, those with dairy sensitivity/allergy or vegans should avoid this protein and stick to plant-based protein.
The study also found that to build the most muscle mass, people needed to consume 1.2–2.0 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day. That’s 82–136 grams of protein daily for a 150 lb person.
Lastly, the study found that “once a protein has been consumed by an individual, anabolism increases for about three hours after having a meal with a peak at about 45–90 minutes” and that “using protein sources with a carbohydrate source tended to increase lean body mass more than a protein source alone.” Therefore, you should combine carbohydrates with your protein for the best results.
An important amino acid (building blocks for proteins) to consider is L-leucine, which is also a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA). This brings us to our next supplement, BCAAs.
BCAAs: branched-chain amino acids
Branched-chain amino acids are essential amino acids — you must get them from your diet, as the body can not make them itself. They include leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
They get their name from their molecular shape (branch-like appearance). These amino acids are unique because they are metabolized in the skeletal muscle, while all other essential amino acids are metabolized in the liver. Because of this, BCAA has been shown to promote muscle-protein synthesis and increase skeletal muscle energy, helping endurance and preventing muscle damage. This means you can be back in the gym sooner with less recovery time because you won't have to deal with inflammation and muscle strain.
Now, back to L-leucine. This is a unique BCAA because it regulates cell growth and metabolism. A study in the American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology, and Metabolism found that consuming 3–4 grams of leucine (about 10–15 grams of mixed BCAAs) following exercise paired with whey protein and a fast-acting carbohydrate (like glucose) within 1 hour of exercise is most effective in increasing muscle protein synthesis, resulting in greater muscle hypertrophy and strength.
Creatine for energy
About 90–95% of the body’s creatine is stored in your muscles. It is a substance necessary for the peak performance of muscles, especially during exercise. Creatine also plays an important role in several cellular processes that increase muscle mass, improve strength, and aid in recovery.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition has studied creatine extensively and found it a very safe and effective addition to any athletic workout regimen. Studies show the “use of creatine during training may enhance recovery, reduce the risk of injury, and/or help individuals recover from injuries at a faster rate.” Furthermore, “creatine monohydrate is the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement available to athletes to increase high-intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass during training.”
Research shows plasma levels of creatine peak at about 60 minutes after oral ingestion, and that 5 grams is an effective dosage to achieve the desired benefits.
L-glutamine for overall health
Another important amino acid to take post-workout is L-glutamine. About 80% of the body’s glutamine is found in skeletal muscle, and these levels must be restored after strenuous exercise. The Journal of Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity found many benefits of taking glutamine, including improved muscle strength and power, the release of growth hormone, prevention of muscle wasting, boosting the immune system, and aiding in muscle recovery.
Glutamine also supports healthy gut lining and function, repairing and building new enterocytes (cells in the intestinal lining). Supporting a healthy gut ensures better nutrients and supplement absorption. Taking glutamine with these other supplements enhances how they all work together.
Varying dosages have been studied for different uses. However, the consensus is that 5–20 grams of glutamine within 60 minutes of a strenuous workout will deliver this amino acid’s benefits. Some studies showed GI distress (like nausea, gas, and bloating) at doses of more than 30 grams per day.
L-carnitine/L-tartrate (LCLT) is found abundantly in skeletal and cardiac muscles. It is made from the amino acids lysine and methionine. It helps with fatty acid metabolism and has a very fast absorption rate. Some studies have shown LCLT to support fat loss when taken before and after exercise as it encourages fatty acid use for energy.
The Journal of Strength Conditioning Exercise found that taking 2 grams of LCLT 30 minutes before exercise “reduced the amount of exercise-induced muscle tissue damage.” The study concluded that “with more undamaged tissue, a greater number of intact receptors would be available for hormonal interactions and data supports the use of LCLT as a recovery supplement” for anaerobic and strength exercises. The quicker you recover from your workout, the sooner you can get back in the gym and the faster you can accomplish your goals.
There is clearly a theme here. Many of these substances contain or are made from amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. However, we can’t forget about carbohydrates. Even though carbs are not a supplement, they are important post-workout. To ensure your body uses all of these amino acids, it is essential to eat carbohydrates after exercise as well as proteins, usually in a 2:1 ratio (carbs to protein). By taking in carbs, you raise insulin levels, which help pull these amino acids, creatine, and other important nutrients into your muscle cells.
Post-workout supplements: Complete guide
Here is a cheat sheet to help you remember what post-workout supplements to take, how much to take, and when to take them As always, to be safe, please remember to consult your doctor before adding rigorous exercise or supplements to your routine.
|Protein||1.2–2.0 g/kg body weight per day (20–50 grams 3 times per day)||Post: 15–90 mins||Muscle protein synthesis; increases muscle size and strength.|
|BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine, & valine)||10–15 g (3–4 g leucine)||Post: 45–60 mins||Protein synthesis; increases muscle growth/size & strength; increases endurance.|
|Creatine||5 g||Post: 30–60 mins||Builds muscle mass and strength; muscles store more water, better hydration.|
|Glutamine||5–10 g||Post: 30 mins||Growth of lean muscle, aids in recovery, decreases soreness, supports the immune system, heals the gut, and increases nutrient absorption.|
|L-Carnitine/ L-Tartrate (LCLT)||2 g||Pre & Post: 30–60 mins||Helps the body use fat as fuel, aids in fat loss, improves endurance, reduces muscle damage, and supports heart/cardiovascular health.|
|Carbohydrates||2:1 ratio with protein||Post: 30–60 mins||Helps pull in amino acids, creatine, and other nutrients into muscle cells.|
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Protein timing and its effects on muscular hypertrophy and strength in individuals engaged in weight training.
- Nutrients. Creatine Supplementation for Muscle Growth: A Scoping Review of Randomized Clinical Trials from 2012 to 2021.
- Nutrients. Animal Protein versus plant protein n supporting lean mass and muscle strength: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.
- Sports. The Effects of Whey vs. Pea Protein on Physical Adaptations Following 8-Weeks of High-Intensity Functional Training (HIFT): A Pilot Study.
- Nutrients. Does Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) Supplementation Attenuate Muscle Damage Markers and Soreness after Resistance Exercise in Trained Males? A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials.
Show all references
- The Journal of Human Kinetics. Effects of Oral Branched‐Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) Intake on Muscular and Central Fatigue During an Incremental Exercise.
- Frontier Physiology. Branched-Chain Amino Acid Ingestion Stimulates Muscle Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis following Resistance Exercise in Humans.
- The Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. L-Glutamine Supplementation Improves the Benefits of Combined-Exercise Training on Oral Redox Balance and Inflammatory Status in Elderly Individuals.