If you’re like most women who take their workouts seriously, you want to get stronger while also staying as lean and aesthetically fit as possible. Taking a few key, research-proven supplements can make a huge difference in the quality of your workouts. The payoff is increased strength, more fat burning, and an all-around leaner body composition.
Unfortunately, there are widespread misconceptions about which supplements are best for women. Fat burners or detox juices are often considered “women’s” supplements, but most females won’t go near creatine or beta alanine with a ten-foot pole due to fear that they will make them look like Arnold back in the day.
Instead of relying on “bro science,” this article will give you four research supported supplements that can go a long way to helping you get the lean body you’ve been working for.
Protein is a crucial nutrient in the body that accounts for 20 percent of your body weight, and helps in the synthesis of hormones, enzymes, and vital cellular structures. It has the highest thermic effect, meaning it helps you burn more calories than eating fat or carbs. It also helps balance blood sugar, and although the jury is still out, it appears that extra protein beyond the body’s needs gets stored as lean tissue in muscle or bone, not as fat. Finally, protein supports recovery, immunity, and cognition, helping you to avoid brain fog and poor sleep.
Why Women Avoid It: Many women incorrectly think protein powder is just for guys. This is nonsense. Extra protein won’t automatically raise your testosterone levels or give you crazy bodybuilder-type muscle mass.
What it will do is help you recover from hard training and accelerate the repair of muscle and other lean tissue. It can also help you lean up by preserving muscle during fat loss, improving insulin sensitivity, and sustaining satiety so you aren’t jonesing for sugar or carbs in between meals.
For example, a recent meta analysis found that when women consume whey protein daily for 16 weeks they lose an average 1.5 kg more body fat than if they eat a lower protein diet. Lean muscle mass is better preserved with a higher whey protein intake, yielding a better body composition.
Try It: Whey protein is your go-to protein source because it has the highest concentration of amino acids and closely mimics human milk, making it less allergenic than cow’s milk or casein protein. Try taking 20 to 25 grams post-workout from a high-quality source that is free of additives or sugar (stevia is okay). If whey doesn’t work for you, yellow pea or rice bran protein are two good quality protein sources that have performed well in studies.
Creatine is your primary fuel source for sprints and other forms of high-intensity exercise. It also serves as a quick energy source for the brain and can boost cognition and mental capacity. Training-wise, creatine makes you stronger and can help you get in a better quality workout, which can promote fat loss and lean tissue development. Health-wise, creatine lowers inflammation, improves cholesterol levels, and may promote a healthy pregnancy.
Why Women Avoid It: Creatine is marketed directly to men as a mass gaining supplement and most women are scared to death of gaining weight. Fortunately, women don’t experience the same increase in muscle mass or body weight from creatine. For example, while male athletes tend to gain 3 to 9 pounds of lean mass from creatine, women are more likely to reduce body fat percentage because creatine improves work capacity. In a study of female college soccer players, they decreased body fat by 1.5 percent after taking creatine in conjunction with a training program.
Try It: Taking 3 to 5 grams daily is recommended for optimal performance and health. Supplementation is especially important for vegetarians, who have no dietary source of creatine and can expect a mammoth improvement in exercise performance from taking creatine.
#3: Beta Alanine
Beta alanine is stored in your muscles as carnosine, which helps stabilize muscle pH during exercise by eliminating excess hydrogen ions that make your muscles burn and ultimately fatigue. Supplementing with beta alanine can significantly enhance work capacity and time to exhaustion, which means a better quality workout for faster and more pronounced body composition improvements.
Why Women Avoid It: Chalk it up to the fact that a high beta alanine dose can make you feel tingly or that marketers think the only thing women want is to be skin and bones, but few ladies have ever even heard of beta alanine. No longer!
Studies show that because women start out with lower muscle carnosine levels than men they have a greater potential to benefit from beta alanine supplementation. When female athletes supplement they can improve performance at high intensities while reducing lactate accumulation so that training doesn’t feel as hard. Beta alanine also improves strength in older women who are at risk of reduced muscle and functional ability.
Try It: Taking 3 to 6 grams before a workout for at least 4 weeks will raise muscle carnosine levels for less fatigue and greater work output. Try pairing it with creatine and you may experience the same outcome of one study that showed the combination allowed women to drop more body fat than those who only took creatine. Be aware that because the only food source of beta alanine is fish and meat, vegetarians are deficient and need to supplement to reach their athletic potential.
HMB is easily the most exciting supplement on this list, with research showing powerful body composition and performance benefits in both hardcore female athletes and everyday women. HMB is a metabolite of the amino acid leucine, and it is very beneficial for promoting lean muscle development with its duel effects of stimulating muscle building and reducing protein breakdown.
HMB also increases muscle cell fatty acid oxidation, accelerating fat loss. It’s thought to be especially useful when cutting for physique shows or weight class sports in which it’s paramount to preserve as much lean mass as possible while dropping body fat. In one study, female judo athletes took 3 g of HMB for 3 days while on a calorie restricted diet and reduced body fat by 5 percent. They also preserved muscle mass and maintained strength and short sprint performance compared to a placebo group that had no improvement in body composition, but got slower and weaker.
Why Women Avoid It: Many people confuse HMB with steroids or fat burners that contain stimulants, but the reality is that it’s a completely safe and natural compound found in many animal and plant-based foods, especially catfish, meat, and alfalfa. Women of all ages can benefit from getting 3 grams daily from a combination of diet and supplementation because this will allow for greater strength and lean body mass.
One study of elderly women found that taking 2 g of HMB led to an increase in muscular power and lean mass over 12 weeks. A meta analysis found that supplementing with 3 g a day led to 0.28% greater weekly strength and 1.4% greater weekly lean body mass.
Try It: Although HMB can benefit all populations, it may be most useful in trained athletes when muscular damage is heightened, such as with eccentric training or intense downhill running. Sports scientists recommend taking 3 g of HMB 1 hour prior to exercise. Be sure to get your HMB from a trusted source because there is evidence of counterfeit HMB being sold by less than reputable supplement companies.