In the simplest sense, physical strength is the ability to exert force on objects using your various muscle groups. And because of the human body’s remarkable ability to adapt through complex physiological and biochemical processes, practicing repetitive feats of strength results in more muscle mass and the ability to lift heavier loads.
That’s why we go to the gym. But for even better results, our efforts don’t usually stop there. We eat for performance, and (if we’re smart) we’re also resting to allow recovery and growth to take place.
As bodybuilders, we also have science working hard on our behalf. Supplement research and development teams tirelessly strive to bring out new and effective substances and products to augment the body’s ability to adapt. Over the past few decades, several compounds have been scientifically proven to increase the rate at which we develop strength and increase lean body mass.
The problem — and it’s a good problem to have, don’t get us wrong — is that this effort has resulted in an avalanche of choices on the market. It can be daunting for someone without a lab coat and a Ph.D. to sort through all the options. What works best for beginners? For intermediate or advanced athletes? Which ones combine for optimal synergy?
With that in mind, our own resident supplement expert, Dr. Dwayne N. Jackson, has developed four stacks, ranging from the “base” stack for those relatively new to training to a stack fit for the most stubborn hardgainer. Save time, eliminate the guesswork and find out which supplements are ideal for your own personal goals, so you can finish shopping fast and get back to your workouts. —The Editors
One: the “Base” Stack
For: Someone who has been training regularly for eight to 10 weeks, has implemented a basic bodybuilding diet and is ready to augment that plan with additional nutrients.
Supplements: Whey protein isolate, creatine, beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate (HMB), multivitamin
Whey Protein Isolate: Regular supplementation with a high-quality whey protein powder will supply a steady stream of amino acids to your muscles. This helps keep your muscles in an anabolic state and fully recovered from workout to workout. Whether you’re a beginner or a Mr. Olympia contender, whey protein isolate is one product that should be a key component of your supplement regimen.
Whey protein isolate is unique because it is low in fat and carbs, high in protein and has a near-perfect amino acid profile (including an abundance of muscle building leucine). Science has shown that regular whey protein ingestion results in faster and greater gains in strength, power and muscularity — it also boosts the immune system and lowers body fat.
Creatine: It cannot be overstated how well creatine works to increase strength and mass. Boasting over two decades of support from scientists and bodybuilders, there is no single mass-gaining supplement that has received as much good press as creatine.
Studies show that creatine increases strength, power, lean body mass and muscularity. These dramatic effects are achieved by several mechanisms that go into overdrive when one uses a creatine supplement combined with weight training.
For instance, it has been reported that creatine combined with weight training augments highly anabolic insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) levels in skeletal muscle, a potent signal for long-term muscular growth. As well, creatine results in increased muscle cell volume by driving water into cells — not only does this make your muscles look bigger, but this provides fuel for anabolism.
Finally, research has shown that proper creatine supplementation combined with strength training lowers the body’s myostatin levels. This is good because myostatin acts like a “brake” to muscle growth; with creatine on board, the brakes are released and muscle growth is enhanced.
HMB:HMB is a metabolite of the amino acid leucine, and it prevents muscle breakdown, allowing you to see greater benefits from training in a shorter period of time. This anti-catabolic effect of HMB has been shown to be especially important in people who are just starting to stress their bodies with weight training. As such, those who are in the beginning stages of regular training see dramatic results with HMB.
Multivitamin: It may seem odd to include a multivitamin in a mass-gain supplement article, but for the newbie, the addition of micronutrients could mean a world of difference for anything lacking in your diet. The extra exercise stress associated with your new workout regimen will call for more vitamins and minerals to catalyze metabolic reactions. This addition ensures you have all the micronutrients needed to carry out body functions efficiently.
Two: The “212” Stack
For: Someone who has been working out about a year and is striving for Physique-level or 212-level development, competitively speaking. It’s especially geared for someone who may be hitting a plateau with his current “base” supplementation plan.
Supplements:Whey protein isolate, creatine, betaine, beta-alanine, branched chain amino acids (BCAAs)
Betaine: Also known as trimethylglycine, betaine is a derivative of the amino acid glycine and exists in foods like wheat, beets, spinach and shellfish. The body can also synthesize its own betaine through the oxidation of choline-containing compounds to assist in several important physiological functions.
Some of the more important roles of betaine in the body include increased water retention (i.e., hydration) in cells, reduced inflammation, maintenance of intestinal function, DNA protection and buffering of homocystine levels (from meat digestion). Most relevant to muscle building, betaine serves as a methyl donor to aid in creatine synthesis in skeletal muscle and the generation of methionine, which helps to maintain high rates of muscle protein synthesis.
Beta-Alanine:Beta-alanine is a non-proteinogenic amino acid, meaning that it is “non-protein-building.” It is one carnosine precursor (the other is histidine) and is rate limiting to carnosine synthesis. As such, beta-alanine supplementation elevates muscle carnosine levels, which has been shown to increase strength and power output from workout to workout. Increased carnosine levels increase strength by buffering fatigue-related byproducts produced when working out. The net result is increased training volume and intensity, which helps push through plateaus in mass building.
BCAAs:The BCAAs are a special set of aminos that share a branched chain structure and are preferentially taken up by skeletal muscle. We have known for years that they’re a great anticatabolic agent and aid in recovery. Recently, it has been shown that BCAA’s ingested during exercise can increase energy and strength by central (brain) mechanisms. In one study, subjects reported 7 percent lower ratings of perceived exertion and 15 percent lower ratings of mental fatigue during their workouts, compared to placebo.
Three: The “Pro” Stack
For:You have over a year of serious training experience under your weight belt and know your body inside and out. You also have your other ducks in a row, from workouts to diet to supplementation, and are ready to kick the latter efforts up a notch.
Supplements: Whey protein hydrolysate, whey protein isolate, micellar casein, dextrose, creatine, glutamine, L-carnitine L-tartrate, citrulline malate, beta-alanine, caffeine
Whey Protein Hydrolysate: Whey protein hydrolysate (“whey hydro”) is made from whey isolate by a pre-digestion process. This processing requires special enzymes that break down the protein (“hydrolyze” it), resulting in the production of peptide fractions, which are short chains of amino acids. These fractions are low molecular weight and thus pass through the digestive system quickly. In fact, small di- and tripeptides absorb faster than any other protein or amino acid supplement available.
As a result of rapid absorption, whey hydro ingestion pushes water into muscle cells (cell volumizing), speeds recovery and signals for increased anabolic drive. The most recent research has shown that whey hydro taken post-exercise helps increase mass, while promoting fat loss. Just remember that the hydrolyzing process is costly, so whey hydro products tend to be more expensive than other sources.
Micellar Casein: Casein is the most abundant protein found in whole milk. Micellar casein is casein in its purest form, which is isolated using microfiltration and as a result is undenatured and retains its native structural properties. Micellar casein has the unique ability to form a gel in the stomach, substantially slowing absorption and making it a sustained supplier of amino acids. In fact, research has shown that blood amino acid levels remain elevated up to seven hours after a single micellar casein shake. With its slow digestion and sustained amino acid release, micellar casein is noted for its anti-catabolic quality.
Dextrose:This is a monosaccharide (the simplest sugar) also known as glucose. Dextrose enters the blood stream very quickly and, hence, has a glycemic index of 100. Ingesting a large amount of dextrose leads to a rapid and robust spike in blood insulin, which is proven to increase anabolism after a bout of heavy exercise. The latest data shows that supplementing dextrose with your postworkout protein shake helps to shunt amino acids (and other substrates) into fatigued muscles and keep cortisol low, increasing protein synthesis and lean mass, decreasing fat mass and improving recovery.
Glutamine:Glutamine has well-known anti-catabolic or muscle-sparing effects. As well, ingesting glutamine before a workout energizes and increases the buffering capacity of your muscles. Glutamine stimulates bicarbonate production, which neutralizes acids that build up in your muscles from intense contractions. The net result is increased training volume and intensity.
L-Carnitine L-Tartrate (LCLT): LCLT is the stable form of L-carnitine and is thus more readily absorbed by the body. L-carnitine was originally isolated from beef and was so named based on the Latin word carni, meaning flesh. Bodybuilders and athletes alike have experimented with L-carnitine supplements for years, boasting its benefits as a fat burner. However, recently scientists have managed to exploit L-carnitine’s anabolic potential by enhancing bioavailability with the LCLT compound.
Several years ago, researchers from the University of Connecticut reported that three weeks of LCLT supplementation (2 grams per day) increased androgen receptor content in skeletal muscle. Androgen receptors are activated by testosterone, and increased activation results in greater anabolic drive. They also suggested that luteinizing hormone (LH) secretion is augmented with LCLT ingestion, thus promoting greater testosterone release.
Citrulline Malate: Citrulline malate is a potent and highly bioavailable form of citrulline (a non-essential amino acid) that combats exercise fatigue, increases time to exhaustion and aids in the production of arginine (a precursor to nitric oxide) to promote greater muscle blood flow. All of these factors add up to increased strength and muscle building.
Caffeine:This central nervous system stimulant has been shown to increase focus, energy levels, wakefulness and sense of well-being. All of these effects are necessary for maximal effort and strength during workouts. Caffeine has also proven effective in increasing endurance and diminishing pain sensation associated with training.
Four: The “Hardgainer” Stack
For:You workout hard and regularly, but your fast metabolism is really holding back your muscular gains, a problem exacerbated by trouble consuming the high level of calories needed for major mass building.
Supplements: Weight gainer, whey protein isolate, creatine monohydrate, beta-alanine
Weight Gainer:For obvious reasons, a high-quality weight gainer is the backbone to this stack.
The most important thing to keep in mind when taking a weight gainer is that it is not a meal replacement, but should be used as calories above and beyond what you’re already consuming. As a hardgainer, you need to pack in as many beneficial calories as possible, and this is a good way to get 500 to 1,000 calories of supplemental nutrition (on top of your meals) in one sitting.
Make certain that the product you choose is mainly composed of high-quality proteins like whey protein isolate. Weight-gain products are generally high protein (50 to 60 grams grams per serving) and high in carbohydrates with a notable amount of fat. Avoid products with more than 50 percent of carbs derived from simple sugars (such as high fructose corn syrup and sucrose) and more than 5 grams of saturated fat per serving.
Some advanced products may have high fat contents (10 to 15 grams) because they include healthy fats in their formula (like flax oil, fish oil or medium chain triglycerides); this is a great way to boost calories and support anabolism.