Painters do it literally. Corporate highfliers do it figuratively. And Mario did it digitally in his quest to save the damsel in distress from the barrel-chucking ape.
If you haven’t guessed, “it” in these cases is climb a ladder. And now we suggest you do the same with your supplement regimen. Because, just like your training takes you step by step upward toward your lofty muscle-building goals, your supplement regimen can serve to significantly boost that ascent.
Our “Mass-Gain Ladder” includes four rungs, starting at the most basic necessities on the first rung and growing more advanced each rung up. How far you want to climb — i.e., make use of the supplements listed — depends on how lofty your goals are and how consistently you’re training to achieve them. With that, prepare to stock up for your journey to new bodybuilding heights.
The cliché tells us that every journey begins with a single step. However, the first step is always the biggest, and this first rung represents one massive step. This is essentially the minimum that you should be taking to augment your training to increase mass, no matter what your current level of development. If you’re a beginner, this is exactly where to start.
What: 1 to 2 scoops whey protein powder
When: In the mornings, before and after workouts, and between meals
Whey is so commonplace nowadays that it’s easy to forget what a true powerhouse it is. It provides a speedy source of amino acids — which are required to build muscle tissue, meaning that at those critical times when your body desperately needs amino acids (i.e., first thing in the morning, immediately before and after workouts, and as needed between meals), whey provides them with alacrity. But it’s not only the fast-digesting nature of the aminos, it’s the type. Whey is rich in branched-chain amino acids, which are incredibly influential to protein synthesis, the process by which mass is made. (More on them later in this article.)
What: 2 to 5 grams creatine
When: Before and after workouts
Created naturally by the body, creatine’s job is to produce energy in cells. While the body augments its own supply by deriving some creatine from animal protein, taking it supplementally is absolutely required if you’re interested in anything from boosting endurance to improving strength or gaining size. Having more creatine on hand allows muscles to create more energy, which you can put to good use eking out extra reps and sets, which will, in turn, increase lean mass. But creatine has actually been shown to increase muscle size more directly, too — for example, an older but still relevant study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 2000 revealed that subjects who took creatine gained significantly more strength and more lean body mass than those who took a placebo.
What: 5 to 10 grams branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)
When: With breakfast, and before and after workouts
Leucine, isoleucine and valine, the branched-chain amino acids, are so called because they share a molecular structure that is best described as, yes, branched. What they do to your body is best described as, well, add bulk. These three particular aminos are the most critical to increasing muscle mass — not only do they catalyze protein synthesis and increase growth-hormone levels, but they also work to prevent muscle breakdown, primarily by decreasing cortisol levels.
What: 3 to 5 grams of a nitric oxide (NO) booster
When: Upon awakening in the morning, and before and after workouts
Nitric oxide may only be a gas, but it’s pretty powerful stuff. It causes blood vessels to dilate, which in turn allows more blood to flow through them. The benefit of this reaction is that the bloodstream is the freeway of the body, delivering oxygen and nutrients to all tissues, including muscle. It also carries fluid, which puts a bit of a stretch on muscle cells. That’s the pump you’ll see after workouts, but the stretch sticks — the pressure it exerts on cell walls can encourage permanent growth.
Taking the next step toward more muscle mass means adding another type of protein and a couple of other aminos, as detailed below.
What: 20 grams of casein
When: After workouts and before bedtime
While whey is considered indispensable by bodybuilders (and with good reason), casein tends to take a back seat. No longer. Its chief characteristic is that it’s as slow to digest as whey is fast. Rather than being a shortcoming, however, that slow speed can be a powerful mass-boosting tool … if used appropriately, of course. Taken immediately before bed, casein releases its aminos in a trickle through the night, keeping your muscles fed (thereby preventing breakdown) even while you’re not eating. More surprisingly, research shows that taking casein in equal ratio with whey (i.e., one scoop of each) immediately after workouts also increases lean mass.
What: 3 grams of beta-alanine
When: Before and after workouts for three weeks (then cut to 2 grams preworkout and postworkout)
Beta-alanine forms half the compound carnosine, and the more beta-alanine you provide your body, the more carnosine it can make. That’s a very good thing because research shows that carnosine contributes not only to increasing mass but also to reducing fat and increasing strength and endurance.
What: 5 to 10 grams of glutamine
When: In the morning, before and after workouts, and at bedtime
Glutamine is another amino acid, and it has enormous importance to the gastrointestinal and immune systems. If the body has any left over after those two systems have taken their share (this is why we highly recommend supplementing), glutamine can also trigger protein synthesis, kick-start fat-burning and increase growth-hormone levels, all of which are good for your physique.
Though there are only two supplements on this level, they’re important ones, with implications for health and mass.
What: Testosterone booster, used as directed on label
When: Morning and evening
Testosterone, the male sex hormone, performs many functions in the male body, but the most important one for our purposes is its propensity to propel lean-mass gains. Testosterone can be increased in the body through four methods: Actual test production can be increased; cortisol levels can be decreased; more testosterone can be freed from a compound called sex hormone-binding globulin, which binds to testosterone to move it around the body but renders it useless to muscle cells; or you can decrease the amount of test that’s converted to estrogen. Various T-boosting supplements on the market work via one or more of these methods.
What: 1 dose ZMA
When: Before bed
ZMA stands for zinc magnesium aspartate, representing two powerful minerals in one formulation. Research has shown that athletes who supplemented with ZMA experienced significant increases in hormones like testosterone and insulinlike growth factor 1, which are critical to building muscle. Zinc and magnesium are also beneficial for relaxation and sleep, which is why we recommend taking it before bed.
Capping off your regimen with these two supplements will make sure your mass-gain potential is maximized.
What: 70 grams of waxy maize
When: After workouts
Anyone who has hit the top rung of a mass-building ladder knows that fast-digesting carbs are essential after workouts. Though it doesn’t sound particularly appetizing, waxy maize is a high-molecular-weight carbohydrate, with a molecular makeup that’s marked by numerous branches. Those branches actually make waxy maize extraordinarily fast to digest. That’s good news for your muscles because fast-digesting carbs send insulin levels skyrocketing, and insulin is responsible for shuttling protein into muscle tissue (which helps them grow) and refilling glycogen stores. The end result? Your body is primed for growth and recovery.
What: 1 to 3 grams of carnitine
When: Before breakfast, and before and after workouts
Carnitine, an amino-acid-like substance, has a dual effect on mass. First, it increases the number of testosterone receptors on cells, which means that more of the testosterone in your bloodstream can be used by muscles. Second, carnitine has been shown to increase blood flow. While scientists are unsure whether it assists nitric oxide in dilating blood vessels or achieves this effect by some other method, wider blood vessels means a bigger avenue for nutrients and oxygen to get to muscle tissue.