Gaining muscle mass without a substantial gain in body fat is a delicate pursuit that requires a synergistic and judicious approach to training, diet and supplementation. To provide the signal for your body to adapt — that is, grow and get stronger — your training must be heavy, intense and, most of all, consistent (for an example, see page 36). Along the same lines, you need to supply fatigued muscles with substrates essential for growth and repair by consuming adequate and balanced calories from high-quality sources of protein, carbohydrates and fat. Finally, to ensure your body’s environment is primed for hypertrophy, incorporate several key supps into your “mass-ter” plan. In the pages to come, we present a five-supplement muscle-building stack that attacks growth at the cellular level while also flooding your body with key hormones that trigger your body’s “get big” machinery.
Blended Protein Powder
Proteins are merely chains of amino acids that provide the substrates needed to build muscle and support metabolism. In an effort to maximize protein synthesis and minimize catabolism (aka muscle wasting), athletes require at least twice as much protein as the regular sedentary Joe. How much? In general, 1.5 to 2 grams per pound of bodyweight per day. That’s a tough mark to hit if you’re relying wholly on food, which is why protein powders are so crucial.
Taking a protein supplement before training raises blood amino acids during your workout, which ensures your body won’t rob hard-earned muscle of amino acids for energy production. And a recent article published in The Journal of Nutrition reported that blended protein supplements raise and sustain blood amino-acid levels and protein synthesis better than whey protein isolate alone.
Protein powder blends are formulated using proteins from multiple sources that have different absorption profiles. Simply put, these products work by raising blood amino acids quickly and keeping them elevated for extended periods. The best protein blends contain fast-digesting whey protein hydrolysates and isolates as well as slower-digesting milk protein isolates and micellar casein. Some of the top brands also include soy and/or high-biological-value egg protein.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
The BCAAs are the essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine. They’re considered essential because the body cannot synthesize them, so they must be acquired in your diet or supplemented. BCAAs make up a great proportion of the total amino-acid content in skeletal muscle and are readily broken down for fuel during exercise. Based on this, it’s obvious why BCAA supplementation benefits athletes undergoing strenuous training.
Taking BCAAs preworkout prevents their loss from muscle during exercise, reduces muscle soreness and protects muscle from catabolism. BCAAs have also been shown to decrease perceived exertion and fatigue during heavy training by balancing the brain’s tryptophan levels.
Supplementing with BCAAs after training ensures that the body has an abundance of these amino acids for recovery. This again protects against catabolism and decreases the time it takes for your muscles to knit themselves back together again. The BCAA leucine also boosts the release of the anabolic hormone insulin. Contrary to what some people may think, you want insulin levels to be elevated after workouts because this hormone carries nutrients such as glucose and amino acids into muscle cells, promoting greater protein synthesis and muscular gains during recovery. Furthermore, supplementing with BCAAs has been shown to support the immune system, helping to keep you from getting sick and missing workouts.
Creatine — the pound-for-pound performance supplement king — is synthesized by the body from arginine, methionine and glycine and is stored in skeletal muscle. During exercise, it plays a fundamental role in energy production by forming the adenosine triphosphate (ATP) needed for explosive muscle contractions.
The abundance of available positive research comes from studies using the monohydrate form of creatine. When taken after exercise, it can replenish and significantly boost muscle creatine stores. Having extra creatine around after training not only provides energy substrates for future exercise bouts but also promotes greater protein synthesis in recovery by physical and hormonal mechanisms. First, it increases the amount of water taken up by muscle cells, which swells the muscle and signals for increased repair. (Happily, it also makes your muscles look bigger.) Second, it increases the release of the anabolic hormone insulinlike growth factor-1 and decreases myostatin levels (the “anabolic brakes”).
HMB (-Hydroxy--Methylbutyric Acid)
HMB is an active anabolic metabolite of leucine and is found naturally in skeletal muscle. In the early 1990s, Steven L. Nissen, Ph.D., at Iowa State University discovered the important role of HMB in skeletal muscle protein synthesis. Since then, research has shown that HMB combined with regimented heavy training enhances recovery, increases lean body mass and decreases fat mass. While it’s effective for all hard-training athletes, HMB may hold even greater benefits in strength and power for those who are new to training or coming back from an extended layoff.
As with many supplements, past research on HMB was equivocal, mainly due to differences in study design and dosing. However, the most recent and rigorous studies illustrate that with intense training and high enough doses, HMB is a potent muscle-building supplement for individuals at all levels.
L-Carnitine L-Tartrate (LCLT)
Carnitine is a compound synthesized by the liver and kidneys from the amino acids methionine and lysine. The blend of L-carnitine and L-tartrate produces a highly stable and bioavailable form of carnitine referred to as LCLT.
LCLT can be thought of as an anabolic catalyst, boosting the testosterone-mediated anabolic system in skeletal muscle and resulting in enhanced recovery and greater gains. The evidence comes from a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study in which 21 days of LCLT supplementation were found to boost androgen (testosterone) receptor content in skeletal muscle and augment luteinizing hormone secretion (a signaling hormone for T production) in resistance-trained men.
A complementary study showed that LCLT supplementation reduced exercise-induced muscle tissue damage after heavy squatting. Carnitine also increases nitric-oxide production and enhances fat loss by transporting more fat to the mitochondria where it’s oxidized and turned into energy in the form of ATP. In other words, it helps you swole out your physique without straining another belt loop.