In the not-so-distant past gaining muscle was considered a “hit or miss” science, whereby most successful training programs and diets were created on a trial-and-error basis. With the fitness explosion of the 1990s, however, there was an influx of scientific efforts to maximize athletic performance. As a result, the supplement industry experienced exponential growth, literally flooding the market with new and innovative products. Today, in a gargantuan supplement world, there are many science-backed products designed to push your muscular potential and maximize your gains. This is both a blessing and a curse: You have a ton of choices, but you also have to sift through the good, the bad and the downright useless to come up with the most effective supplement regimen. Read on for a walkthrough of the best supplement stacks to take at key times of the day to amp up your mass- and strength-building efforts. (Editor’s note: This schedule assumes your training occurs in the afternoon and before dinner. Make adjustments as necessary according to your workout time.)
WAKE & SHAKE
When you roll out of bed your body — especially your recovering muscles — is starving for nutrients. After a seven- to 10-hour fast, you need some fast-absorbing nutrition. Here’s a stack that’ll surely shut down catabolism (muscle wasting) and get your body refueled for growth.
When you’re trying to gain lean mass, you need to pack in as many beneficial calories as possible. Weight gainers provide 500 to 1,000 supplemental calories depending on serving size, and you should choose one composed mainly of high-quality proteins such as whey protein isolate and micellar casein. Ideal weight-gain products are high in protein (50 to 60 grams per serving) and carbohydrates with a modest amount of fat. Because the goal is to gain lean mass and minimize fat accumulation, steer clear of products with more than 50 percent fast-digesting carbohydrates (for example, simple sugars such as high-fructose corn syrup or sucrose) and more than 5 grams of saturated fat per serving.
DO THIS Drink one shake immediately upon waking, about 30 minutes to an hour before breakfast.
No other mass-building supplement works as well as creatine. Research shows that this potent cell volumizer increases muscle water content and glycogen resynthesis, which are signals for anabolism. Creatine boosts the amount of adenosine triphosphate available during exercise, which means you can train explosively for longer, producing greater gains in muscle size in the long run. It also elevates muscle creatine levels for short-term energy and bolsters anabolic signaling through insulinlike growth factor-1 (IGF-1).
DO THIS Mix 5 grams of creatine monohydrate into your shake. Most weight-gain formulas already contain small amounts of creatine, but the addition will ensure adequate dosing for faster muscle gains.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids
The BCAAs (leucine, valine and isoleucine) are unique essential amino acids that share a branched-chain structure and are preferentially taken up by skeletal muscle and broken down during exercise. Research indicates that BCAA ingestion directly stimulates anabolism by acting as an anabolic switch. In addition, this supplement trio is anti-catabolic, reduces exercise-induced muscle pain and decreases mental fatigue during intense exercise.
DO THIS Mix 5-10 grams of BCAA powder into your weight-gainer shake.
As you plan out your overall nutrition and supplement regimens, remember that whole foods should make up the majority of what you fuel your body with. Supplements are just that: products made to supplement (not replace) a quality diet. Assuming your diet is in check, there are a few key products that absorb more completely when taken with a meal to give your breakfast an extra anabolic kick.
Essential Fatty Acids
This group of fatty acids can’t be synthesized by the body and therefore must be consumed through diet. There are two families of EFAs: omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid) and omega-6 (linoleic acid). In terms of mass building, these healthy fats promote growth hormone secretion, increase protein synthesis and increase insulin sensitivity.
DO THIS Take 2-3 grams of a balanced omega fatty-acid blend with breakfast.
Micronutrients are essential for proper cellular function and nutrient absorption. Many physique-conscious athletes follow diets that contain very little variety, so a daily multivitamin will ensure you’re not lacking in certain micronutrients. Vitamins also act as catalysts for many important internal processes, and since heavy training boosts metabolism, it increases the vitamin requirement needed to catalyze cellular reaction.
DO THIS Use a multivitamin formulated for athletes and take as directed on label.
This active compound in the herb Coleus forskohlii is one of the most effective testosterone-boosters on the market. Originally gaining acclaim for its ability as a fat-burner, forskolin has been shown to boost serum testosterone significantly in males.
DO THIS Take 20-50 milligrams of forskolin.
One study found that D-aspartic acid (DAA) boosts testosterone by up to 40 percent. Increases in testosterone are associated with greater strength and fat loss, making this a must-have for any mass-gain stack. Anecdotally, DAA has been known to cause stomach discomfort for some, so as with any supplement, gauge your own tolerance before making this product a mainstay in your stack.
DO THIS Take 1 gram with breakfast.
This stable form of L-carnitine is completely absorbed by the body. Research demonstrates that LCLT supplementation up-regulates the expression of skeletal androgen receptors (the receptors that testosterone binds to) and increases LH (leutinizing hormone) secretion. The end result is greater testosterone and receptors for interaction. LCLT also reduces exercise-induced muscle tissue damage.
DO THIS Take 2 grams of LCLT with breakfast.
A naturally occurring beta amino acid, beta-alanine is the rate-limiting precursor to the production of carnosine in the body. Research shows that powerful fast-twitch muscle fibers have higher levels of carnosine, which buffers skeletal muscle pH. In one study, dietary supplementation with beta-alanine for two to four weeks was shown to increase vastus lateralis (outer quad) carnosine concentration by more than 60 percent. In terms of performance, science indicates that beta-alanine supplementation for as few as four weeks can result in 13 percent greater gains in total work completed during training; no change was noted among the control group.
DO THIS On nontraining days, take 2 grams with breakfast. Before workouts, take 2 grams.
A few hours after breakfast and about one hour before lunch, think about giving your body a calorie boost. This is an ideal opportunity to load up with nutrients for a busy day.
DO THIS Drink one 500-calorie weight-gain shake one to two hours before your high-protein lunch.
Since we’re assuming that lunch comes before your workout in this supplement schedule, you should consume a well-balanced, high-protein, whole-food meal that meets your nutritional needs.
When training for mass, you want to be sure the body’s cellular environment is primed for performance. To achieve this state, there are a number of supplements designed to feed your muscles and minimize catabolism as you train. The following preworkout stack is designed to optimize energy and muscle performance while blunting muscle breakdown during training.
This is the most abundant nonessential amino acid in the body, and years of research have uncovered its several direct and indirect performance-boosting benefits. Glutamine supplementation has been shown to enhance cell volumization and serve as a potent anti-catabolic factor and muscle-building aid during heavy training. Its major effects on muscular growth result from the fact that glutamine increases leucine concentration, maintains positive nitrogen balance in skeletal muscle and boosts growth-hormone production. Finally, it augments bicarbonate production to significantly increase skeletal muscle-buffering capacity, thus delaying muscular fatigue during exercise.
DO THIS Take 5 grams of L-glutamine one hour before training, on an empty stomach.
In the body, this conditionally essential amino acid’s primary role is in nitric oxide production. Thus arginine supplementation elevates skeletal muscle blood flow, especially during workouts, resulting in the more efficient delivery of nutrients and complete metabolite clearing in working muscles, which enables you to work out longer and harder. After exercise and during rest, the augmented blood flow to trained muscles continues to enhance nutrient delivery and flushes out byproducts to optimize recovery. L-arginine also increases anabolic substrates such as growth hormone and insulin. With long-term supplementation, L-arginine up-regulates mitochondria (the cellular energy powerhouses) in skeletal muscle, resulting in increased metabolism and greater capacity to use energy for contraction. In addition, extended use has been shown to increase the growth of blood vessels in skeletal muscle and the heart, resulting in an even greater ability to deliver nutrients and remove metabolites during and after workouts.
DO THIS Take 5 grams of L-arginine one hour before training, on an empty stomach.
This preworkout dose is intended to ensure that substrates for carnosine production are maximized for the upcoming training session.
DO THIS Take 2 grams of beta-alanine 30-60 minutes before training.
Whey Protein Isolate
Whey protein isolate (WPI) is the best source of protein to ingest before training. It digests rapidly — meaning less chance of stomach upset during your workout — filling your blood with amino acids, including BCAAs and other essential aminos. Science shows that it’s the hyperaminoacidemia that gives WPI its great anabolic properties. WPI also provides the body with additional mass-building support by up-regulating the production of glutathione (a powerful antioxidant) because of its large fraction of the amino acid cysteine.
DO THIS Consume a shake with 25-40 grams of high-quality WPI 30 minutes before training.
This metabolite of leucine has been scientifically proven to prevent muscle breakdown, increase strength and promote fat loss. Its anti-catabolic effect is more pronounced in beginners than intermediate or advanced bodybuilders, but HMB is a potent strength- and recovery-boosting supplement for all levels of trainers.
DO THIS To maximize strength, take 3-6 grams with your preworkout protein shake.
Time to get your Hulk on. Using testosterone boosters preworkout can help you generate more force during workouts, making it especially important during this window.
DO THIS Take 20-50 grams of forskolin 60 minutes preworkout.
Working T-boosting through different channels, DAA can help augment your training session, as well.
DO THIS Take 1 gram 60 minutes preworkout.
In terms of building mass, scientific data suggest that proper postworkout nutrition and supplementation are vital because cells are depleted of nutrients and can quickly slip into a state of catabolism. Called the “anabolic window,” this period represents an approximate two-hour time frame when the body is hypersensitive to any nutrient intake. The following stack is designed to capitalize on the anabolic window by augmenting anabolic hormones, replacing amino acids and maximizing recovery.
This dose is vital to restore creatine levels in muscles. It’ll also fire up key anabolic pathways for a more complete and faster recovery.
DO THIS Take 5 grams of creatine monohydrate immediately after training.
Research shows that ingesting LCLT immediately after training will augment LH responses and increase androgen (testosterone) receptor expression in skeletal muscle.
DO THIS Take another 2-gram dose of LCLT immediately after training.
Taken postworkout, L-glutamine is a proven agent for blunting catabolism. Research shows that ingesting L-glutamine immediately after exercise enhances recovery and muscle growth.
DO THIS Take 5 grams of L-glutamine immediately after training.
Scientific data suggest that post-exercise HMB supplementation augments the recovery process. The outcome is more strength and size in a shorter period. And among novices, HMB will significantly blunt the catabolic response.
DO THIS Take 3-6 grams of HMB immediately after training.
Whey Protein Hydrolysate
Whey protein hydrolysate (WPH) is made from WPI by enzymatic degradation (hydrolysis). Essentially, manufacturers use special enzymes to predigest the proteins in WPI. The end product is digested high in the gastrointestinal tract and enters the blood almost immediately upon ingestion. WPH is the fastest-digesting protein source, and studies illustrate that the faster amino acids enter the blood after exercise, the greater the anabolic response. The rapid digestion of WPH also loads water into muscle cells (cell volumizing), speeds recovery, drives anabolism and supports immune function. The drawback is that WPH is costly to manufacture and thus is relatively expensive.
DO THIS Consume a shake with 25-30 grams of high-quality WPH immediately after training.
Although it sounds counterintuitive for physique-minded individuals to sugar up, that’s exactly what’s needed in the moments following a workout to maximize your gains. This form of glucose is a small monosaccharide and one of the simplest sugars. It’s digested high in the gastrointestinal tract (beginning in the mouth) and is very high on the glycemic index. The rapid absorption rate of dextrose makes it an ideal post-training carb supplement that enters the blood immediately to cause a great spike in blood insulin and drive sugars into depleted muscles. Insulin is very anabolic, so combined with high amounts of protein, dextrose serves as a mass-building agent.
DO THIS Mix 25-50 grams of dextrose into your WPH shake and drink immediately after training.
Since we’ve assumed that dinner follows your workout in this supplement schedule, it’s imperative that you consume a large, well-balanced, high-protein dinner.
Essential Fatty Acids
DO THIS Take 2-3 grams of balanced EFAs with dinner.
The day is done and it’s time for some high-quality rest and recovery. Since you’ll be fasting for the next seven to 10 hours, it’s crucial that you give your body the appropriate nutrition before hitting the hay. Here’s a stack that’ll feed your muscles and help prevent catabolism while you sleep.
This is the purest casein protein available, and its unique properties make it seem like a custom food supplement designed specifically for sleeping athletes. Its slow digestion results in a sustained release of amino acids into the blood, which produces anti-catabolic effects in the body. In fact, research shows that ingesting micellar casein inhibits muscle breakdown by more than 30 percent. Additional data illustrate that casein ingestion produces a seven-hour sustained plateau in blood amino acid levels and offers the best muscle nitrogen retention and utilization needed for substantial mass gains.
DO THIS Immediately before bed, drink a shake with 30-50 grams of high-quality micellar casein.
Zinc Monomethionine Aspartate and Magnesium Aspartate (ZMA)
ZMA is a proprietary zinc supplement reported to increase growth hormone and testosterone levels when taken before bed. As a bonus, users have reported falling asleep more quickly and deeply. In a recent study, subjects who took ZMA during eight weeks of training had 250 percent greater strength gains than the placebo group. The ZMA group also had a 20 percent greater increase in testosterone levels as well as more than 20 percent greater IGF-1 levels compared to the placebo group.
DO THIS ZMA supplements are formulated in the following amounts: 11 milligrams vitamin B6, 450 milligrams magnesium, 30 milligrams zinc. For optimal results, take ZMA on an empty stomach approximately 30 minutes before drinking your micellar casein shake before bed.
While you sleep, levels of your natural growth hormone (GH) are at their peak. This bedtime booster helps you keep your T on par with your GH overnight.
DO THIS Take 1 gram before bed.