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Can I Quickly Build Muscle Without Supplements?

Are you considering drinking a protein shake or taking scoops of creatine before and after your workouts to build muscle? Unsure if you need supplements to gain muscle and strength?

Then, you are in the right place!

As a sports-specialized registered dietitian and coach, one of the most common questions and misconceptions I hear from athletes is “Do I need protein supplements to build muscle?

Read on to learn why you don’t need supplements to build or gain muscle, key tips for gaining muscle, and the whole foods you need to build muscle. Plus we will uncover whether or not creatine is worth it and expose flaws in the protein supplement market!

Can I Build Muscle without supplements? Pictured is a a person flexing their back muscles to show off muscle.

Achieving muscle growth 

Unfortunately, biceps and glutes are not made in the kitchen. And spoiler alert, no supplement will grow your muscle without proper training and proper diet. 

To grow your muscle cells, muscle fibers, and muscle tissue you will need two very important things. 

Adequate nutrition and exercise!

When you exercise and put stress on your muscles you get small tears in the muscles. After exercising your body uses energy and protein to repair the muscle. 

Over time these tiny tears are repaired to build strength and muscle; this process is called exercise-induced muscle adaptation (1).

The best dynamic duo for muscle growth

The easiest way to build and repair muscle is to participate in strength training and consume enough nutrition, including eating enough protein regularly. Those tiny tears in the muscle will not repair and grow without adequate nutrition.

Eating protein or taking supplements will not make you a natural lifter. 

The important thing is resistance exercise and your overall nutrition plan.

Resistance training to build muscle 

To increase lean body mass and grow bigger muscles you must engage in resistance training, calisthenics exercise, or plyometric movements. We recommend working with a personal trainer.

A personal trainer can create a fun and personalized strength training plan to help you meet your goals whether the goal is to gain bigger muscles or increase lean muscle mass. Personal trainers will walk you through the proper form for weight training and bodyweight exercises.

Trainers can also assist with developing programs for progressive overload and injury prevention. However, personal trainers are not qualified to give expert nutrition advice like registered dietitians. 

Keep reading for our nutrtion recommendations from a dietitian for building muscle.

Nutrition tips for building muscle 

Nutrition for building muscle involves 3 key components:

  1. Eat enough calories: Not eating enough calories can lead to low energy availability. A study done in 2023 concluded that low-energy availability (LEA) reduced athletes’ myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic muscle protein synthesis aka your body’s ability to use protein to build muscle (2). 
  1. Consume enough carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are protein-sparing. Meaning, they prevent your body from breaking down protein for energy. If you do not eat enough carbs your body will break down muscle to fuel your workouts and day-to-day energy needs. 
    • Every protein in the body is essential, if you are breaking down protein for energy you are taking away from an essential function of protein in the body. 
      • Beyond that, the process of converting protein to energy called gluconeogenesis is slow and inefficient. It’s no surprise that athletes eating low-carbohydrate diets feel sluggish!
  1. Meet your daily protein needs with whole foods: Real food contains more nutritional value and is less processed.  Keep reading to learn more about high-protein whole foods and how to calculate your daily protein needs.

Whole foods vs. dietary supplements for gaining muscle

If a pill, powder, or drink is claiming to be a muscle-building supplement, put it back on the shelf. 

Supplements alone will not stimulate muscle growth. 

Protein powders and supplements may be used in athletes who have difficulty meeting their daily protein goals from food alone. Check out the protein powders we recommend! But, keep in mind that not all supplements are safe. 

The FDA does not regulate the supplement industry; therefore, what is listed on the label may not match what is in the product. 

A 2023 comprehensive audit of supplements including protein powders, protein bars, pre-made protein shakes, creatine, and many more supplements found the following (3):

Around 33% of the products had incorrect nutrition information listed on food labels. Many of the sports food supplements, mostly protein bars, did not contain the same nutrient composition as what was listed on the food label.

These are alarming statistics if you ask us!

Stay away from steroids

Both men and women of all ages fall victim to anabolic steroid use in an attempt to drastically change body composition and gain muscle mass. 

Anabolic steroids are artificially made hormones and performance-enhancing drugs that are banned in sports.

Anabolic steroids have a list of potential short-term and long-term side effects such as (4):

  • Depression and other psychological problems
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Cancer
  • Kidney failure
  • Infertility 

If you or someone you know is struggling with drug abuse contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Is creatine worth it for muscle growth?

Creatine is made by the body and stored in the muscles as phosphocreatine. This natural compound fuels your muscles with more energy when performing shorter, high-intensity exercises such as weight lifting. 

Pictured is a creatine guide. On the far right is a bicep graphic flexing that says "Creatine is stored in the muscles as phosphocreatine." In the middle is a figure weight lifting underneath it says "Used in short, high-intensity exercises like weight lifting." To the far right is a container of creatine, below it says "Consuming 3-5 g/day may improve maximal strength, power, and sprint performance."

Per the International Society of Sports Nutrition’s (ISSN) systematic review, creatine monohydrate is a safe and effective supplement that continues to show ergogenic benefits as well as the potential for increasing lean body mass (5, 6). 

Active individuals who are weight training and exercising at high intensities will likely benefit from 3-5 grams of creatine monohydrate per day. However, athletes should be sure to purchase the right supplement. 

Look for creatine monohydrate this is third-party tested by NSF Certified for Sport or Informed Sport.

Talk to your Doctor or Dietitian if you have a medical condition before starting creatine monohydrate. And do keep in mind creatine without hard work in the gym will not stimulate muscle gains. 

Can I build muscle without supplements: the short answer 

So, can you actually build muscle without supplements? Yes! 

While creatine may be a helpful supplement for many it is not necessary to gain muscle.

Through strength training and proper nutrition, you can increase your lean body mass. However, it will take time and consistent efforts. 

How much protein do I need to gain muscle?

Are you eating the right amount of protein?

For active adults, the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends 1.4-2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight per day of protein (7). 

For a 150lb athlete that is 95 – 136 grams of protein per day.

Older people, aged 65+, should aim for at least 1-1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day to prevent age-related muscle loss called sarcopenia.

Calculate your estimated protein requirements with our interactive tool, Protein Calculator For Athletes. 

If you have any medical conditions such as kidney disease talk to your doctor or dietitian for assistance adjusting your protein needs.

Protein-rich foods that help muscle growth and repair

To build muscle we recommend consuming complete protein sources that contain all 9 essential amino acids that the body needs to repair muscle.

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Aim to meet your daily protein needs through a variety of whole-food protein sources to make sure you are consuming all essential amino acids. 

Eating more real food and relying less on supplements will provide you with additional vitamins, minerals, and often fiber to further boost your daily nutrition intake and promote fullness.

Meat, fish, and poultry to build muscle 

Read below for a list of high-protein meats, fish, and poultry to incorporate into your diet to help build muscle. Keep in mind that 3 oz of protein is about the size of a deck of playing cards.

High-Protein Meat, Fish, and PoultryServingProtein Content (grams)
Turkey 3 oz 24 g
Tuna 3 oz 24 g
Chicken 3 oz 23 g
Pork 3 oz 23 g
Beef 3 oz 22 g
Lamb 3 oz21 g
Shrimp 3 oz 20 g
Ham3 oz18 g
Salmon 3 oz 17 g
Egg whites2 individual 7 g
Egg1 individual 6 g
(Data from USDA Food Data Base, exact protein composition may vary.)

High-protein dairy products

If you are lactose intolerant, try the lactose-free versions of these products to continue to enjoy the protein and calcium boost in your diet.

High-Protein Dairy Foods Serving Protein Content (grams)
Cottage cheese1 C25 g
Greek yogurt1 C17 g
Kefir1 C9 g
Milk 1 C8 g
Cheese stick 1 stick 7 g
(Data from USDA Food Data Base, exact protein composition may vary.)

Plant-based products high in protein 

There is often a misconception that vegan and vegetarian athletes cannot get enough protein without adding animal products and nutrition supplements. 

This is false! Here is a list of high-quality plant-based protein sources to try at your next meal.

High-Protein Plant-Based Foods ServingProtein Content (grams)
Tempeh1 C31 g
Tofu 1 C20 g
Edamame1 C17 g
Soy milk 1 C8 g
(Data from USDA Food Data Base, exact protein composition may vary.)

Protein timing

Unlike carbohydrates, excess protein intake is not stored in the body and used as energy later. To optimize muscle growth, we recommend spreading your protein intake throughout the day.

Athletes and active individuals trying to build muscle should aim to consume protein every 3-4 hours during the day (7).

The bottom line 

Supplements are not necessary; you can gain muscle through strength training and a balanced diet. If you are unable to meet your protein needs through whole foods alone, make sure that any protein supplement is NSF or informed sport certified.

When your main goal is to build muscle mass remember these 3 nutrition tips:

  1. Athletes >18 should aim to consume 1.4-2.0 g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day
  2. Eat high-protein foods on a regular basis, aiming to eat protein every 3-4 hours
  3. Incorporate more real food protein sources whether animal or plant-based or a mix of the two 

If you feel you need additional assistance, work with a registered dietitian to create a personalized plan for muscle gain.

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