Do the math and you’ll find that the average 150-pound person needs about 54 grams of protein per day. A bodybuilder of the same weight needs about 102 grams protein.
Now consider that a chicken breast about the size of a deck of cards contains about 30 grams of protein and an 8-ounce glass of milk is 8 grams protein.
“A bodybuilder would have to eat chicken until it came out of his ears,” Gatz says.
But not all protein supplements are created equal. Soy proteins contain phytoestrogens that may be cancer-causing agents. And eating too much protein can put stress on your kidneys as they filter it out of your system. It also can cause stomach upset.
“Too much of that stuff can really mess up your stomach if you are sensitive,” says Luke Buelch, a physical therapist at Doctors Hospital Center for Orthopedic and Sports Medicine.
And there’s research showing that it’s not how much protein you eat but how often you eat it. Musto recommends getting 5 to 10 grams of protein every two to three hours instead of eating the same amount in three meals a day.
Gatz suggests taking 20 to 40 grams of protein immediately after exercise so that it’s available to your body to build the muscle that was broken down during your weight routine.
“Getting a protein supplementation right after you work out can be very beneficial,” Buelch says.
Branch chain amino acids (BCAAs): These are the amino acids or building blocks of protein that are essential for muscle building. Musto likens them to a multivitamin. If you don’t get them from eating animal products in your diet then you can supplement them for insurance, he says.
Glutamine: This is an essential amino acid that’s abundant in muscle fiber. The body can make glutamine but extreme stress such as heavy weight lifting may increase your body’s requirements. Buelch recommends taking a supplement in the morning or at night before bed so that it’s available to your muscles while they are rejuvenating.
Creatine: Often found in powders or mixed with liquids, creatine is one of the few supplements that has scientific evidence behind its claims to increase your ability to do high-intensity exercise, Musto says.
Phosphocreatine is a compound in muscle that stores high-energy phosphate, the energy source your muscles use to contract. When you take a creatine supplement, you load your muscle cells so they can rebuild the phosphocreatine more rapidly. “And maybe you’ll get an extra rep or two out of your exercise,” Musto says.
Some athletes take creatine because it draws water into the muscle cells and this water weight can cause the muscle to look bigger, explains Buelch. But the change in size isn’t permanent. So when you stop taking creatine, the water is released.
“It’s kind of like popping a balloon,” Buelch says.
Nitrous oxide: The nitrous oxide dilates your blood vessels that in turn increase blood flow to your muscles and help increase your energy.
Buelch has used this himself to get better muscle pumps. And Musto has heard anecdotal evidence that it works.
But if you have a heart condition, nitrous oxide can be dangerous.
“Talk to your physician before using it,” Buelch says.
Energy drinks: Many of these contain some form of caffeine with high doses of vitamin B. “These are fairly popular and a lot of people think they need them to get through a workout,” Musto says.
If taken before exercise, they may allow you to do more than usual.
Testosterone and growth hormone: If you listen to television or the radio, you’ll hear advertisements reaching out to older men who have “low T” or low testosterone. And if they prove to be clinically low in testosterone, their doctors may put them on a therapeutic program.
“But if you are a 25-year-old male who is getting testosterone illegally, that’s the same as doing steroids,” Musto says.
Whether you choose to take supplements to help you build muscle or you get what you need from your diet, it’s up to you. But don’t think pills and powders are a shortcut to a well-developed body.
“People often think supplements will make them stronger and they won’t have to do hard work in the gym,” Buelch says. “But it’s ultimately the hard work in the gym that’s going to get you there.”