Most weightlifters and athletes know that the best way to gain muscle is to train hard and eat enough of the right food. If you have these two aspects of fitness down, building muscle will be straightforward. Once you have experience with training and building muscle, though, the gains can begin to taper off and hormonal, genetic, and lifestyle factors can start to make a large difference in how much you are able to grow.
By leveraging your hormones, improving your health, and supplementing with certain herbs, you can manipulate the outcomes of your training and raise the ceiling for what you’re capable of accomplishing. These certain herbs are famously known for their use in traditional Chinese medicine and have been titled ‘adaptogens’ for their ability to help the body adapt to whatever imbalance or stress it is under.
Adaptogens are plants with useful effects that can help you adapt to stress, balance your hormones, and optimize your health.
To get better results from training, adaptogens can be a great tool and have been found to be able to increase the overall results from exercise. Adaptogens can increase the results from exercise by decreasing inflammation, lowering catabolic hormones, increasing levels of anabolic hormones, increasing energy, boosting circulation, and speeding up the process of recovery.
The 7 best adaptogens for building muscle are pine pollen, tongkat ali, cistanche, ashwagandha, rhodiola rosea, maca, and ginseng.
1. Pine Pollen
Pine pollen is the single best adaptogenic herb for building muscle.
Pine pollen is able to increase testosterone through several mechanisms. The impact of pine pollen on testosterone is primarily caused by increasing DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), stimulating the release of gonadotropins, supplying phytoandrogens, and providing nutrients that are essential for hormone synthesis like vitamin D and magnesium.
Pine pollen is also a good source of protein and can lower levels of cortisol, which will help build and maintain muscle mass.
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2. Tongkat Ali
Next, another strong adaptogen to have in the arsenal for building muscle is tongkat ali.
Tongkat ali is a plant found in Southeast Asia. This plant has a long history of use for curing male infertility, boosting energy, increasing athleticism, and restoring overall drive.
Tongkat ali has many benefits for gaining muscle. The positive effects of tongkat ali are increased testosterone, improved mood, increased endurance, decreased inflammation, and lowered stress.
These effects are well-researched and the testosterone increase from supplementing with tongkat ali has been certified by studies such as this one, this one, this one, and this one. Tongkat ali increases testosterone by lowering SHGB (sex hormone binding globulin), freeing up more testosterone to be used.
Tongkat ali also contains several quassinoids which account for the other benefits of tongkat ali such as lower stress and better mood.
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Following tongkat ali, cistanche is another potent adaptogenic herb that can positively impact men’s hormones and help to make gains.
Cistanche has a variety of benefits such as curing male infertility, boosting libido, increasing blood flow, and decreasing the inflammatory response to stress.
The most famous use of cistanche was reportedly by Genghis Khan who is believed to have consumed cistanche every day in order to enhance his aggression, energy, and power.
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While pine pollen, tongkat ali, and cistanche all work by directly stimulating the synthesis of sex hormones, ashwagandha derives its power from decreasing certain hormones, giving it an indirect positive effect on multiple functions of the body and brain.
Ashwagandha is one of the most well known adaptogens and is used by many people in order to manage stress, improve mood, enhance sleep, and increase energy levels.
Ashwagandha is also a staple in the supplement regimens of many bodybuilders since it can improve recovery and help keep the body in an anabolic state during and after workouts.
The main benefit of using ashwagandha is lower levels of cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released during high stress situations to help break down molecules and free up sources of energy.
In many people, cortisol is chronically elevated above healthy levels, suppressing concentrations of anabolic hormones, like DHT and testosterone, and causing anxiety.
Ashwagandha can help offset the stress of modern lifestyles and keep cortisol balanced. This will make your training more effective and increase the amount of muscle you are able to build.
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5. Rhodiola Rosea
Adding on to ashwagandha, rhodiola rosea is another adaptogen that’s commonly taken for anxiety and mood but has additional effects on endurance, strength, and gaining muscle.
There are a large number of studies on rhodiola rosea that show it to have a positive impact on training and achieving better results from weightlifting.
This study on the effect rhodiola rosea on exercise found that rhodiola rosea supplementation significantly improves exercise capacity and attenuates exercise-induced muscle damage. Another study on rhodiola rosea and exercise found that rhodiola rosea increased work capacity and endurance during a 6 mile bicycle time trial. This third study was able to find that supplementing with rhodiola rosea can increase work capacity, maximal oxygen uptake, and pulmonary ventilation.
This evidence points to a notable training advantage from rhodiola rosea supplementation. If you can train for longer without fatiguing as soon, you will be able to train harder, gain strength faster, and build more muscle.
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Unlike rhodiola rosea and ashwagandha which are taken for lowering anxiety and stress, maca is traditionally associated with a higher sex drive, aggression and improved fertility.
The positive effects of maca on building muscle come from its ability to increase blood flow, lower cortisol, decrease fatigue, and lower oxidative stress.
This study found that maca can improve endurance and decreases oxidative stress from exercise. This second study on maca found that after 14 days of supplementing with maca, both performance during exercise and libido were higher. A third study also found that maca increased performance during exercise through modulation of energy metabolism and antioxidation.
While some may find the aphrodisiacal effects of maca to be the main benefit, maca is advantageous to all weightlifters and athletes who want an edge in their training sessions.
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Finally, ginseng is another potent adaptogen that can increase energy, lower catabolic hormones, elevate mood, and improve circulation.
Ginseng is less beneficial than other adaptogens for hypertrophy but is a great component to include in pre-workouts for energy and mood during training. Ginseng has also been found to help recovery from exercise through antioxidation.
This study done on college students came to the conclusion that supplementing with ginseng before working out can decrease muscle damage and reduce the inflammatory response to training.
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Summarizing, the 7 best adaptogens for building muscle are pine pollen, tongkat ali, cistanche, ashwagandha, rhodiola rosea, maca, and ginseng.
Since many of these herbs impact your hormones, it’s always good to start with smaller doses and incorporate them one at a time to ensure you don’t overdo the amount you’re taking and pinpoint how you respond to each adaptogen.
For more on supplements, herbs, and building lean muscle, such as why all men need to supplement with boron and the effect of betaine anhydrous supplementation on muscle growth, click here.