Making the most of your workouts involves integrating several fundamental components. No matter what your goals are, you must get adequate amounts of sleep, eat like a champion, and train intensely and regularly. In recent years, science has shown that precise timing and stacking of supplements elicits synergistic effects on muscular growth and strength. Some supplements work better with others, however, and some are much more effective when used by beginners versus advanced bodybuilders. Therefore, it behooves you to throw out a once-size-fits-all mentality to your supplements as you already do with your training.
In the world of bodybuilding, it’s well established that proper pre- and post-training supplementation are essential to maximizing gains. In fact, it’s during the pre- and post-workout periods that you can set up the perfect environment for intensity and repair. To provide further benefit, we’ve created progressive supplement-stacking regimens that are applicable based on your training experience, goals and budget.
These are the bare minimum of supplements you should be incorporating into your pre- and post-workout nutrition (regardless of your level of training) and provide the backbone to all the stacks presented here. Depending on what level of training you’re at and/or what you can afford, you can add to this stack based on recommendations presented later.
Whey Protein Isolate (WPI)
High-quality whey protein isolate should be the top-priority supplement for everyone at all levels of training. WPI is ideal for bodybuilders because it’s low in fat and carbohydrates and has a very high amino acid content. Supporting research has accumulated over the past 20 years showing that ingestion of whey protein isolate ensures a sustained steady stream of amino acids that enter the blood quickly. The resulting rush of branched-chain amino acids and glutamine make WPI a potent anabolic activator and powerful anti-catabolic agent. Research has unequivocally illustrated that ingesting whey protein isolate before training and immediately post-workout results in more rapid increases in strength and muscularity. After training, WPI has been shown to increase growth hormone release as well as augment insulin sensitivity and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) secretion, all of which create the perfect anabolic environment for growth and recovery.
Before Your Workout: Drink one shake containing 30–40 grams of WPI 30 minutes before training.
After Your Workout: Drink an additional shake containing 30–40 grams of WPI immediately after training.
Creatine Monohydrate (CM)
Next to whey protein, no supplement has received as much scientific support as creatine monohydrate. In fact, there’s over 15 years of unquestionable support from peer-reviewed research and athletes. Studies demonstrate that creatine increases strength, power, lean body mass and muscularity. Its mass-promoting effects are achieved by several mechanisms that upregulate when creatine monohydrate ingestion is combined with resistance training. Most current research shows creatine ingestion and exercise significantly blunt myostatin levels better than exercise alone. Myostatin is a recently discovered catabolic regulator of muscle mass and consequently acts on skeletal muscle as a growth inhibitor. In addition, recent studies indicate that creatine augments highly anabolic IGF-1 levels in skeletal muscle, providing a potent signal for sustained muscular growth. Finally, creatine ingestion results in increased muscle cell volume by driving water into cells. Not only does this action make your muscles look bigger, but it also provides another stimulus for anabolism.
Before Your Workout: Mix 5–10 grams of pharmaceutical-grade creatine monohydrate with your preworkout WPI shake.
After Your Workout: Mix 5–10 grams of pharmaceutical-grade creatine monohydrate with your post-workout WPI shake.
Level 1: Beginner Strength Stack
You’ve worked out regularly for 10–12 weeks, all the while maintaining a healthy diet, and included “The Foundation” supplementation regimen (whey protein isolate and creatine monohydrate). You’ve noticed substantial improvements in strength levels and your overall appearance but want to further maximize your gains. Here are two more key supplements you should consider adding to your arsenal. (Editor’s note: Anyone using supplements for the first time should stay at this level for 6–8 weeks before progressing to Level 2.)
beta-Hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate (HMB)
HMB is a metabolite of the amino acid leucine that’s scientifically proven to decrease catabolism (muscle wasting); users therefore tend to see greater benefits from training in a shorter period of time versus non-users. It should be noted that the anti-catabolic effect of HMB has shown to be especially potent in weight-training beginners (i.e., within the first six months of regular training). In more advanced athletes, HMB tends to increase fat loss more than anything else.
Before Your Workout: Take 3–6 grams with your preworkout meal.
After Your Workout: Take 3–6 grams with your post-workout meal.
Arginine is an amino-acid precursor to the production of nitric oxide (NO), which is a potent vasodilator (i.e., increases blood flow) in skeletal muscle. Supplemental arginine boosts NO production during exercise, illustrating that arginine is a rate-limiting substrate. Classically, bodybuilders have taken advantage of arginine supplements to increase nutrient delivery and metabolite washout in working muscles, leading to greater strength, endurance, harder pumps and faster recovery time. Interestingly, recent studies have shown that arginine is more than just a blood-flow-promoting supplement. In fact, arginine ingestion boosts growth hormone levels, norepinephrine and epinephrine concentration, and insulin release. In a fairly new study, it was found that arginine activates molecular signaling (via mTOR) for muscle protein synthesis.
Before Your Workout: Take 3–5 grams with your preworkout protein shake.
After Your Workout: Arginine supplementation not required here.
Level 2: Breaking-the-Plateau Stack
The addition of the following three supplements is intended to help you break through plateaus in strength and body mass. Total calories will be increased (by 500–1,000 calories per day) at this level, so adjust your diet to meet your weight-gain goals. (Editor’s note: Stay at this level for 8–12 weeks before progressing to the next stack.)
In this stack, a high-quality weight gainer replaces WPI from “The Foundation” list. This need for substitution is based on the fact that you require adequate beneficial calories to gain mass without packing on significant amounts of bodyfat. Weight gainers make it easy to add 500–1,000 high-quality calories per day, ensuring the body is getting all it needs for growth. It’s very important to choose a product that’s composed of a blend of high-quality proteins like whey protein isolate, micellar casein and egg albumen. Each serving should include more than 50 grams of protein, modest amounts of carbohydrates and a blend of high-quality healthy (unsaturated) fats (e.g., flax oil, CLA, fish oil, etc.). Steer clear of products with more than 50% of its carbohydrates derived from simple sugars (e.g., high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, glucose, etc.), but try to find products that contain waxy maize or dextrose as their core carbohydrates.
*Depending on your caloric needs, you may want to split or increase serving size.
Before Your Workout: Drink one 250–500-calorie shake 30–60 minutes before training.
After Your Workout: Drink one 250–500-calorie shake immediately after training.
Beta-alanine has been around just long enough to have a very strong backing by the research community. In fact, the compounding scientific support for beta-alanine as a strength-training supplement suggests that it may be the next big thing in ergogenic aids. Beta-alanine is a non-proteinogenic amino acid (meaning it’s not involved in protein synthesis), but it’s the rate-limiting substrate in carnosine formation within the body. Scientists became interested in boosting skeletal muscle carnosine years ago based on two scientific findings: First, carnosine levels are highest in powerful fast-twitch muscle fibers compared to aerobic slow-twitch muscle fibers. Second, animals with the capacity for prolonged high-intensity muscle output have elevated muscle carnosine levels.
There’s also complementary evidence from human studies, where quadriceps muscle biopsies from bodybuilders had much higher carnosine levels compared to biopsies from untrained subjects. In terms of performance, a recent study showed that 2–4 weeks of beta-alanine ingestion increases vastus lateralis carnosine concentration by more than 60%. This finding correlated with improved muscular force production and decreased muscular fatigue in those who took beta-alanine compared to those who received a placebo. Other supporting evidence comes from studies illustrating that prolonged beta-alanine ingestion combined with weight training (for months) results in augmented increases in strength and lean body mass.
Before Your Workout: Take 2–3 grams 30 minutes before training.
After Your Workout: Take 2–3 grams immediately after training.
Citrulline malate is a compound that contains citrulline (a non-essential amino acid found naturally in watermelons) and malate (a Krebs cycle intermediate found naturally in apples). This compound provides the body with a potent and bioavailable form of citrulline that’s been scientifically shown to increase time to exhaustion by decreasing exercise fatigue. The mechanisms by which bodybuilders benefit from citrulline malate ingestion are threefold: 1) it aids in the production of arginine (a precursor to nitric oxide) to promote greater muscle blood flow and anabolic environment (see Arginine); 2) it increases the rate of phosphocreatine and ATP production (for energy); and, 3) it acts as a buffer in active muscles by reducing ammonia and lactic acid levels during training. A recently published double-blind, placebo-controlled study demonstrated that ingesting a single dose of citrulline malate one hour prior to bench-press training resulted in a 53% increase in the number of reps completed at 80% 1RM and a 40% decrease in muscle soreness (24 and 48 hours after the chest workout).
Before Your Workout: Take 5 grams before breakfast and another 5 grams before training. Both doses should be taken on an empty stomach.
After Your Workout: Take 5 grams before bed.
Level 3: Over-Achiever Stack
The addition of these supplements is intended to increase anabolic hormone release and bioavailability. This combination works synergistically with the stacks from earlier levels, thus driving anabolism through to peak levels. This is by far the most advanced addition to your current supplement regimen, but these products will definitely help push your physique to the next level.
Whey Protein Hydrolysate (WPH; replaces Weight Gainer from Level 2)
This addition replaces the post-workout weight-gainer shake from Level 2. Whey protein hydrolysate is produced from WPI by enzymatic degradation (hydrolysis). The basic process involves using special enzymes to predigest the proteins in WPI so that it contains very small peptide fractions, or short chains of amino acids. This results in a specialized protein supplement that digests easily and enters the blood almost immediately upon ingestion. Because WPH is absorbed high in the gastrointestinal tract, it’s the fastest digesting protein source available. This feature is advantageous to bodybuilders, as research indicates that the faster amino acids enter the blood after training, the more robust the anabolic response. As well, WPH ingestion drives water into muscle cells (cell-volumizing effect), speeds recovery, and its high immunoglobulin fractions support the immune system.
Before Your Workout: Based on your goals, use weight gainer or WPI as described earlier.
After Your Workout: Drink a shake containing 25–30 grams of high-quality WPH immediately post-workout.
This D-form of glucose is a small monosaccharide and one of the simplest sugars; thus, it’s digested high in the gastrointestinal tract (beginning in the mouth). The ultra-rapid absorption rate of dextrose makes it the most potent sugar-based stimulator of insulin release from the pancreas. Therefore, dextrose is an ideal post-exercise carbohydrate that will increase insulin production to drive sugars into depleted muscles and carry other supplements with it (e.g., creatine, amino acids). In addition, insulin is one of the body’s most anabolic hormones, so combined with fast-absorbing protein (like WPH), dextrose serves as an anabolic muscle builder.
Before Your Workout: Not recommended
After Your Workout: Mix 25–50 grams of dextrose into your WPH shake and drink immediately after training.
This is a patented water-soluble cinnamon extract that’s scientifically proven to increase insulin sensitivity, therefore maintaining blood sugar and lipid profiles. It was originally tested in pre-diabetic and diabetic populations, but has recently been shown to benefit bodybuilders when ingesting large amounts of simple sugars (like dextrose). Thus, the addition of Cinnulin-PF to this stack will work in synergy with dextrose to promote increased glycogen storage and recovery. Further, a recent study reported that subjects who took Cinnulin-PF had increased lean mass and exhibited trends in markers for increased power and strength.
Before Your Workout: Not recommended
After Your Workout: Take 250 milligrams of Cinnulin-PF immediately post-training with your WPH and dextrose.
D-Aspartic Acid (D-Asp) is found in human neuroendocrine tissues and has recently been shown to regulate hormone secretion and release. In the pituitary and in testes, D-Asp is synthesized by a D-aspartate racemase, which converts L-Asp into D-Asp and has been shown to play a key role in regulating levels of luteinizing hormone (LH, an important signaling hormone for testosterone production/release), testosterone and sperm production. A recent human study in men showed that approximately 3 grams of D-Asp per day taken for 12 days increased serum LH levels by 33% and testosterone levels by 36%. Remarkably, hormone levels remained elevated five days after cessation of supplemental D-Asp. You already know testosterone is the key hormone involved in muscular growth and strength, and D-Asp supplementation seems to be a potent means to achieve a safe and natural boost.
Before Your Workout: Take 1.5–2 grams with breakfast.
After Your Workout: Take 1.5-2 grams with your post-workout meal.
L-Carnitine L-Tartrate (LCLT)
LCLT has been recently shown to increase androgen receptor expression in skeletal muscle and modulate hormone production in the body. Androgen receptors are those that testosterone interacts with to increase muscularity and strength. In a fairly current study, researchers from the University of Connecticut (Storrs) illustrated that LCLT supplementation for 21 days increased androgen receptor density and LH secretion (a signal for natural testosterone production). In addition, a subsequent study demonstrated that LCLT supplementation reduced the amount of muscle-tissue damage after training. LCLT will work synergistically with D-Asp to maximize natural testosterone levels and receptor interactions.
Before Your Workout: Take 1 gram with breakfast.
After Your Workout: Take 1 gram with your post-workout meal.