Home » What’s the Best Supplement for Muscle Building?

What’s the Best Supplement for Muscle Building?

Submitted by Amy Sercel MS RD CD

Edited by Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

If you have a goal of maintaining or building up your muscle mass, you’re probably familiar with the many protein supplements on the market.  It seems like they all claim to be the most effective one around!  While many athletes don’t need protein supplements because they get enough protein from food and beverages,1 supplements can be helpful if you’re having trouble meeting your protein needs.  They can be especially valuable if you follow a low- or no-meat diet or if you have a lower appetite.  Since they’re portable and easy to prepare, supplements can also be more convenient, and using one may also give you the peace of mind to know that you’re meeting your protein needs every day.

When it comes to protein, there are many different supplements you can use.  Two popular types are whey and casein powders, which both come from milk.  A third type, collagen powder, has become popular more recently and is made from fish or beef.2

Many studies conclude that whey is more effective than casein for promoting muscle growth.3,4 Both contain all of the essential amino acids.  Amino acids are the building blocks that link together to make a protein.  An amino acid is considered essential when your body can’t make it, so you have to get it from food.  Whey and casein are different because they contain different amounts of each essential amino acid.  Whey has been shown to increase muscle growth more than casein, possibly because it is digested and absorbed more quickly.  Whey also contains twice as much of the essential amino acid leucine.4,5 Leucine has been shown to stimulate muscle growth when other essential amino acids are also available.  It works by starting the signal to begin muscle building.  In one study, rodents who had lost muscle mass were able to regain about 60% of the muscle that was lost when supplemented with whey protein alone or with whey and casein together, suggesting that the whey was responsible for the increase in muscle mass.6

This is not to say that casein is completely useless!  Because you digest and absorb casein more slowly, researchers have started to investigate the impact of consuming it before bed.  It appears that athletes who ingest 30-40 grams of casein about 30-90 minutes before bed experience increased muscle growth and resting metabolic rate during the night.7 Interestingly, using a casein supplement before bed may not be as effective in people who are more sedentary, or in people who already have a high protein intake.  In one study of 12 obese, sedentary men, consuming 30-40 grams of casein before bed had no impact on resting metabolic rate or muscle growth overnight.8 This suggests that bedtime casein supplements will have the most impact on muscle growth if you are also engaging in regular physical activity.

There are fewer studies available that compare whey and collagen supplements.  Researchers in Ontario, Canada are currently investigating this subject, but they are still in the data collection phase of their research and have not yet published any results.9 The few studies that have been published examine the impact of whey and collagen supplementation on the muscle mass of elderly women in an assisted living facility.  In this population, it appears that collagen supplements promote muscle growth and maintenance better than whey supplements do.  In one study, when the women were supplemented with whey their muscle mass actually decreased slightly.10 When they were given the collagen supplements, the women’s lean body tissue increased and their fat tissue decreased.  While collagen contains a smaller proportion of leucine than whey protein, collagen’s overall amino acid content appears to be more beneficial for maintaining muscle mass than whey.11

In the end, if you’re thinking about a protein supplement to support muscle maintenance or growth, research suggests that whey, casein, and collagen can all be effective.  If you’re trying to choose between the three, keep in mind that whey and casein come from dairy; collagen comes from fish or cows and would not fit into a vegetarian meal pattern.  On the other hand, collagen has been associated with reduced arthritis symptoms in addition to its impact on muscle growth, so it may be helpful to choose this supplement if you also experience joint pain or inflammation.2 Stay tuned for the results of the study coming out of Ontario within the next few years as well, since this will provide a new perspective to inform the research.  If you’d like support with learning how much protein you should eat in a day or finding a supplement that will meet your needs, reach out to a Registered Dietitian who can provide personalized suggestions that will fit your lifestyle.


  1.  Dunford M, Doyle JA. Nutrition for Sport and Exercise. 3rd ed. Cengage Learning; 2015.
  2.  Is Collagen Worth the Hype? | MyFitnessPal. Armour. March 2018. https://blog.myfitnesspal.com/collagen-worth-hype/. Accessed July 27, 2018.
  3.  Eitel J. The Breakdown of Whey Protein Amino Acids. LIVESTRONG.COM. https://www.livestrong.com/article/518213-the-breakdown-of-whey-protein-amino-acids/. Accessed July 27, 2018.
  4.  Whey vs Casein: Which one best maintains muscle mass? – Nutrition Express Articles. Nutrition Express. http://www.nutritionexpress.com:9080/article+index/authors/jeff+s+volek+phd+rd/showarticle.aspx?id=1082. Accessed July 27, 2018.
  5.  Typical amino acid composition of whey, casein, and soy isolates  | Download Table. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Typical-amino-acid-composition-of-whey-casein-and-soy-isolates_tbl2_227249571. Accessed July 27, 2018.
  6.  Breen L, Churchward-Venne TA. Leucine: a nutrient “trigger” for muscle anabolism, but what more? J Physiol. 2012;590(Pt 9):2065-2066. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2012.230631
  7.  Kerksick CM, Arent S, Schoenfeld BJ, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14(1):33. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4
  8.  Kinsey AW, Cappadona SR, Panton LB, et al. The Effect of Casein Protein Prior to Sleep on Fat Metabolism in Obese Men. Nutrients. 2016;8(8). doi:10.3390/nu8080452
  9.  The Effects of Whey vs. Collagen on MPS – Full Text View – ClinicalTrials.gov. https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT03281434. Accessed July 27, 2018.
  10.  Hays NP, Kim H, Wells AM, Kajkenova O, Evans WJ. Effects of Whey and Fortified Collagen Hydrolysate Protein Supplements on Nitrogen Balance and Body Composition in Older Women. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109(6):1082-1087. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2009.03.003
  11.  Zdzieblik D, Oesser S, Baumstark MW, Gollhofer A, König D. Collagen peptide supplementation in combination with resistance training improves body composition and increases muscle strength in elderly sarcopenic men: a randomised controlled trial. Br J Nutr. 2015;114(8):1237-1245. doi:10.1017/S0007114515002810

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