Supplements are fast becoming a large part of bodybuilding and justly so. If you estimate what is left of actual bio-active nutrients in today's series of processed foods you can also figure out that you'd need to eat a massive amount of calories to get the necessary building blocks for growth. And sadly, these foods comprise most of our daily intake in the Western World. Supplements may give you those nutrients in an undenatured, concentrated form so that you can focus on your calories, sleep and training. Alas someone smelled money and the world of supplementation became one of advertising and deception, which in turn lead to many young lifters believing supplementation was the legal alternative to steroids.
Today's supplement industry seems to put anything with even the slightest relation to muscle growth in pills, whether it will work, denature, be wasted, have no effect or any and all of the above. That makes it hard to make a selection and too many times the inexperienced shopper will waste his money. Since we are talking about bulking products it makes no sense to spend money on fat-burner, glutamine or HMB. Believe it or not, but these three products were part of FLEX magazine's top 10 supplements for growth. Also spending money on prohormones and supplements of the like makes no sense unless you are an advanced or older bodybuilder who can truly benefit from the effects of these products. Though I have a lot of faith in the efficacy in such products, it takes knowledge and a lot of patience to make it work. So if you are a 15-year old beginner, the answer is probably, "No, you should not invest in prohormones, they are not worth the money at this point."
So what should you buy? Well, keep it simple and keep it cheap. If it costs too much chances are you won't get enough out of it to justify what you spent on it. And I don't know about you, but I'd hate to go broke over adding a few pounds. This is why, in combination with some other experienced lifters, I made a Top 10 list and dug very deep on how and why you should use them, but above all why that choice is better than alternatives. Note that all the supplements are some of the cheapest and cost-effective if you calculate what all you get for the price of a daily dose. So for your entertainment, and hopefully more, here are the top 10 supplements in order of importance in relation to the goal: Packing on muscle and size!
1. A Multi-Vitamin
Why you need it: When eating a diet meant for mass, you will no doubt be targeting the foods that can pack the most calories on from the needed macro-nutrients. In turn this can lead to a deficiency in Micro-nutrients, meaning vitamins and minerals. Such a deficiency can impair optimum functioning of the body and consquently hinder your growth. Minerals are building blocks, they are used for cellular actions, building bone, transporting nutrients and so, whilst vitamins provide enzymatic functions in digesting foods and and protect the system against damage from the outside and inside. Levels of these substances must be kept above a certain level to maintain proper health, but kept a great deal higher for optimal functioning of your system. That's why supplementing with a multi-vitamin above all else makes sense: you get at least your daily minimum of all these nutrients avoiding anything going wrong with your quest for growth, and together with the rest of the vitamins and minerals found in every food to some extent, you are bound to be on the road to getting everything you system needs.
How it works: A good multi-vitamin contains at least 100 percent of the FDA minimum needed daily to avoid deficiency. While it is true that some of these things will compete for absorption in the stomach, the body knows what it needs. Normally a large amount of calcium will hinder absorption of Zinc and Magnesium, even Iron. The body favors calcium because it needs a lot of it. But if you have enough calcium and a severe deficiency in one of the aforementioned substances, the body will not ignore a possibility to get some more. So the ingenuity of the body and the way it works makes this a top supplement rather than the supplement itself. These absorption competitions should be taken into account if you buy extra supplemental minerals, but for your basic multi, it's not a true issue.
How to use it: Basically one dose, containing the aforementiond 100 percent of each of the vitamins and most minerals should be taken daily. The actual time of intake is of little relevance. Morning is probably best so you don't start the day with a deficiency. Take it after your meal, breakfast or lunch since this will give it a natural time-release factor to the supplement.
2. A Weight Gainer
Why you need it: What better for packing on mass than a weight gainer. The main thing when bulking, next to getting your needed share of macro and micro nutrients is of course packing on all the calories you can handle without turning into a balloon. Since you will be expending quite a bit of calories while bulking, trying to add all that muscle, sometimes it will be hard to make your calorie-count every single day from nutritious self-prepared meals. Your family will not always be as supportive of an 8-meal a day habit. Take it from me. That's where weight gainers come in. Ranging from 600 to 3000 calories these gainers allow you to add serious additional calories from quality sources without having to spend hours behind a stove. Just mix and you have an instant high-calorie meal... and cost-effective too. They may seem expensive, but if you try to calculate what it would cost to make a similar meal yourself taking into account calories, quality and bio-availability of the nutrients, additional vitamins and minerals and ease of preparation, you'll soon find just how little they really cost.
How it works: As an additional easy to prepare meal they add calories to your daily totals drastically while giving you a correct balance of protein and carbs (1 to 1 up to 1 to 2, with most carbs coming from simple sugars) and a good helping of fat. Not to mention extra vitamins and minerals, which is not always the case with calorie-dense foods, which will be what your targeting if growth is what you seek. This way you can get to your target healthily without running up the grocery bill too high.
How to use it: Use it as a post-workout meal, as a meal before going to bed (your burn up to 70 cals an hour while sleeping, keep that in mind) and potentially as meals when it is hard to prepare a meal, like midmorning or mid-afternoon, times you spend at work and so on. Use a serving, but be sure to pick a weight gainer that in combination with your regular meals and the amount of shakes you will take will meet or exceed your demands without turning you into a sumo. No need to invest in a 3000-cal shake if you already eat 3000 cals a day and take 2-3 shakes daily. That will only make you fat with that amount of sugar.
If you are of an endo-morphic (heavy) body-type it may be best to look in to a low-carb gainer or even an Meal Replacement powder (negative protein to carb rate) to avoid excess bodyfat. The trouble with these is that they are very expensive, don't always provide the best balance of nutrients and they are pre-packaged, so they don't allow you to choose your doses and amounts. But for the endomorphs the amount of protein takes priority. If you are ecto- or meso-morphic its is best to get a weight gainer, it'll be hard to digest all protein and replenish Glycogen on an MRP. Protein powders are not an option because you need quite a lot, but the amount of pure protein that can be absorbed without extra fat or carbs is limited (30-35 grams). That's why neither protein nor MRP is included in this 'bulking' list.
3. Vitamin B-Complex
Why you need it: B-vitamins have many anabolic properties separately and have often been the subject of supplementation. Hereby I think of Niacin (B3), Pyridoxine (B6) and Cobalamin (B12). But people often forget that for a lot less money they can get better gains by getting a B-complex which combines all of them in optimal doses (50-100 mg, there is no way you need 500 mg of Niacin). This harnesses the synergistic effect of B-vitamins which means better digestion and absorption of carbs, protein and fat and the fact that they comport themselves as enzymes in many bodily functions. You can't overdose on them anyway since water-soluble vitamins are readily excreted if you have too much.
How it works: In the stomach B-vitamins will release and control gastric juice, help absorb and digest macronutrients, which in turn get more out of the things you eat. Next to that all of them have a host of individual properties. B6 is a good liver-protector, B9 is good for absorbing things in cells, B12 is needed for energy and so on and so on. If we could get all our nutrients from food easily and eat enough, this would no doubt be my Nr2 supplement. If you are a person who can eat big and watch his grocery bill and you have decent genetics, a B-complex and multi-vitamin is all you really need to grow.
How to use it: Take these with a meal as well, but not at the same one as your multi. Take one serving (with 50-100 mg of all B-vitamins) immediately after your meal. Say you get your multi, like most people, at breakfast, take one serving of B-complex after lunch.
4. Dessicated Liver
Why you need it: Dessicated liver is a veritable staple in bodybuilding, it has been around since the 1950's and was strongly popularized by the late Iron Guru, Vince Gironda. Gironda saw the enormous potential of liver. After all it's a great source for additional amino acids to begin with. It's also rich in all kinds of vitamins, especially B-complex vitamins. It is also a potent source of Iron, something most people on a diet high in calcium will be thankful for. I drink 1-2 gallons of milk a day when bulking so obviously I get a lot of calcium. P450 is a liver-protecting enzyme that is also found in glandular dessicated liver. So it's a versatile source of nutrients for next to no money. Dessicated liver also has a bit of a water retention effect when bulking, allowing more nutrients to be stored and used in the body. I once saw someone gain 7 pounds in 7 days, mostly water, but consequently turn it in to a tremendous lean mass gain over the next couple of months.
How it works: The extra bio-available amino acids provide a worthy ally in your battle against catabolism, whether making an already high protein meal even higher in protein with an excellent ratio of amino acids, or supplying some amino's between meals to keep nitrogen and GH levels high throughout the day. The extra vitamins are a bonus in todays world of processed foods, and if you get a lot of calcium in your diet, odds are you'll benefit from the rich source of iron. Combined with all the pills people tend to stack these days, a hefty dose of P450 and vitamin B6 is not too much luxury for the health-conscious bodybuilder.
How to use it: Pick a good reputable brand that marks the contents of its tabs in grains, because otherwise you have no way of knowing how many grains you have to a gram. A good brand could be Uni-Liver by Universal, which averages 30 grains per tab. Take three doses of the stuff daily, with meals or between meals for nitrogen retention. For mere a mere addition, use 3 times 2-4 tabs (60-120 grains), for those seeking maximum benefit and better recuperation, three doses of 4-6 tabs (12-18 grains) would be better suited. At this rate a batch of 500 tabs still lasts you a month and should run you no more than 10-12 bucks. A great deal if you ask me. This is definitely one of the products I most strongly recommend.
5. Vitamin C
Why you need it: One of the best effects I have found of Vitamin C, at least for the bulking bodybuilder, is that it renders tyrosine inactive, thereby not allowing conversion to cathecholamines, which have ravaging effects on muscle protein. Ascorbic acid is required for the synthesis of collagen, neurotransmitters, steroid hormones, carnitine, conversion of cholesterol to bile acid and enhancing the bio-availability of Iron. I'm sure if you understood all that it has dawned on you that those are very anabolic traits. All of them, no exceptions, are useful functions for more energy, more power, more mass. All that makes Vitamin C one of the top supplements I would recommend. Vitamin C has been linked to numerous healing properties over the years, and put forth as potential cure for anything ranging from the common cold to cancer. Naturally this is exaggerated, but it is a powerful anti-oxidant. In fact no substance is so anabolic and at the same time protective of the system it supports. It produces almost no free radicals directly. There is some circumstantial evidence that backs up its uses as a preventor of degenerative diseases, and of course scurvy, which is caused by a lack of ascorbic acid. Need more convincing? Well Vitamin C is needed for the healthy development of cells, proper calcium absorption, normal tissue growth and repair of damaged tissue (healing of wounds, etc.). Therefore it is very synergistic with protein and B-vitamins to provide a very anabolic environment.
On top of that it's key in blood clotting, strengthening of capillaries, enhancing the immune system and protect against infection. How it works: The most common form in the formation of Vitamin C is ascorbic acid. Almost without exception this will be the form you'll find in your supplements. Most of its other constituents along the pathway that converts D-glucose to Vitamin C are inactive. Possible alternatives are L-ascorbic acid and dehydro-ascorbic acid. It is readily made in all plants and the larger animals, making it very available in food. Unfortunately its highly unstable. Some precautions you should take when storing ascorbic acid are to keep it away from air, heat, prolonged storage, processing (cooking). Don't mix it with alcohol, birth control pills or steroids as all those will deplete C-levels. You understand why there is often a need for supplementation.
How to use it: Using 1 to 3 grams daily spread over two to three doses is advised for almost all athletes. 3 grams is a high dose and unless you are actively pursuing some top-notch goals, 1500 mg is probably a good dose (3x500 mg). Spread them evenly, but be sure to take at least one dose after your workout with your postworkout shake.
Why you need it: EFA's or essential fatty acid like linolenic and linoleic acids are the components of clean fats. Mostly poly-unsaturated fats, the kind you should be getting in your diet as opposed to the kind you are most likely getting in your diet, the saturated fats. These clean fats are an essential part of the diet. They are considered a vitamin (Vitamin F) and the FDA recommendation is that they comprise 10 to 20 percent of your diet. Odds are you aren't even at 5 percent. So why do you really need them ? Well first of all fats help to digest protein, which is why milk is so high in fat. So when taking in large quantities of protein at once, its wise to have some fats present to ensure proper digestion. Fats are stored in the body as cholesterol, which is also the basis for the manufacture of steroid hormones, two of them extremely important to the bodybuilder, namely calciferol (Vitamin D) and the male sex hormone testosterone. Fats, despite the fact that they have twice the amount of calories other macronutrients do, may also be of assistance in the burning of body-fat. Mostly a high-fat diet is also a low-carb one, and using the fat instead teaches the body to burn fat as fuel, which increases the chance of adipose tissue being burned in times of catabolism, not muscle-protein. High-fat diets also make you reach a level of satiety sooner, which assures less carb cravings and less cheating when on a diet. A definite plus. They are also largely responsible for the transport of fat-soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K) in the body. Fats are mostly stored in the skin, and consequently also play a large role in the health of skin, hair and nails.
How it works: Fats are an essential macronutrient to bodily growth and well being, stressing the importance of EFA's here. In the body, apart from depositing large amounts of vitamins needed for optimal functioning in the skin, they are also stored as cholesterol which can be used to make Vitamin D, under the influence of sunlight; or can stimulate the Leydig cells in the Gonads to transform it into DHEA (dehydro-epiandrosterone), a precursor to the male hormone testosterone.
How to use it: Using a healthy fresh source of the product is essential, in this case pills are mostly a waste. You'll want to look for a bottle of bio-grade flax, canola or olive oil (safflower and sunflower seed is good too) and make sure you take several tablespoons a day. I usually recommend the use of two tablespoons three times daily with food, or even prior to working out. Take it before or after the meal, because mixing it with the meal can lead to some awkward and distasteful experiences.
Why you need it: ZMA is a patented mineral formula that is turning a lot of heads. Minerals you say ? Well, if that just turned you off, think again. The statistics show that the majority of athletes is deficient in both of the minerals contained in ZMA: magnesium and zinc. This has many reasons, often that there are other factors in the foods we eat that inhibit the minerals from being absorbed. Calcium for one, is a mineral that will block the uptake of zinc. And most zinc supps use a calcium filler. So now the idea was to bond it (a process called chelation) with an amino acid, in this case methionine and aspartate. This would facilitate absorption and aid the minerals in their intended function, which is improving recovery and raising natural hormonal levels. Testosterone was shown to increase overnight by almost 100 percent.
How it works: The methionine bonded to some of the zinc is consequently the stuff needed to shuttle zinc out of the blood and into the cells, creating a great absorption system immediately raising the efficacy. Methionine is also particularly effective in freeing and using more cholesterol, allotting the zinc enough raw material to produce more testosterone. Its also one of the three amino acids needed to make creatine. Magnesium is added because it increases the formation of both protein (and muscle synthesis) and fatty acids (needed to transport fat-soluble vitamins and to make cholesterol). It makes more blood cells, produces ATP and starts the Krebs cycle making it crucial to almost any athlete looking for peak performance. And on top of that it helps secrete insulin, controlling adipose storage, and acts as an enzyme in over 300 bodily actions. The last product is pyridoxine, or Vitamin B6, which decreases liver toxicity, enables fat absorption and maintains a positive electrolytic balance between potassium and sodium, and so enabling good contraction of the muscles and assuring good pumps from your workout.
How to use it: Tests have shown that night-time use is beneficial for many reasons. The first being that zinc tends to make your sleepy, and nodding off under a loaded barbell isn't the smartest thing in the world. It also helps improve the quality of sleep, a huge boost to recuperation you want to take advantage of. Plus its just plain more effective. You take a single dose of ZMA (30 mg zinc monomethionine, aspartate, 450 mg of magnesium aspartate and 10.5 mg of pyridoxine) roughly half an hour before bed on a relatively empty stomach and without the presence of calcium (so don't take it with milk) If like so many bulking bodybuilder you eat before bed, observe the same rules. Half an hour is plenty of time to absorb the zinc, after which you can have your last meal (half an hour later) and go to bed. Warning: never buy a product that contains ZMA and either calcium or NAC, which will either inhibit absorption or increase excretion of zinc.
Why you need it: Creatine is an all-natural and perfectly safe compound that has the amazing ability to regenerate ATP stores in the body. ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate) is the primary energy currency of the body and when short-term anaerobic energy is produced ATP splits into ADP (adenosine-diphosphate) and an extra phosphate ion. Creatine can recycle the ADP to ATP again, ensuring a short-term burst of energy that can increase your strength levels 10-20 percent easily. Creatine also has a strong water retention effects. Meaning that for every bit of creatine stored in a cell, a large amount of water is also stored. This gives you a temporary size increase but also draws more nutrients, like protein, in the cell, which can, long-term, lead to real muscle growth.
How it works: In the body the molecule of creatine monohydrate turns to creatine phosphate once absorbed in the blood. When absorbed in a cell, because of its structure , it can donate the extra phosphate ion to the ADP, thereby recycling it to ATP. As a sustained energy cycle this effect can give a serious boost to your anaerobic (not requiring oxygen, as in weight-lifting) strength levels. Because of the high storage and hydrophyllic properties, a lot of water is also absorbed, exerting a temporary gain in size and several anabolic traits in the absorption and facilitation of the other nutrients.
How to use it: This is possibly one of the most asked questions I ever got. Ok , first of all, ignore all the hyped-up brands. The benefit they offer is little compared to the increase in price. Plus a sugar-overdose will kill your figure, I assure you. No matter what they tell you, noone lost body-fat while on Cell-tech unless they were stacking it with Lasix. Instead get yourself a good micronized brand like Twinlab or any brand offering Creapure quality creatine monohydrate. Creapure is the brand offered by the leading manufacturer of creatine, SKW in Germany.
On to business: Creatine is best used by loading first, which saturates the area surrounding the cells allowing more to be absorbed through homeostasis. In the first few days the amount being absorbed is much greater as well. So the recommendation for fast gains is to load with 3 doses of 7 grams evenly spread for a total of 5 days, after which use is maintained at two daily doses of 5 grams for a period of 6-10 weeks, followed by a 4-week off-period giving receptors a chance to upgrade again. Last dose should be taken immediately after a workout and the postworkout shake should be consumed half an hour later. If you postworkout shake is a high-sugar weight gainer you can take both together immediately after your workout. The motivation herefor is found in the second of the two articles I mentioned.
If size isn't your main concern and you are more of a strength athlete, I have good news for you. Creatine as a strength booster can be used safely and continually for over 4 years on end. Also there is no need to load, and a single dose of 5 grams 30 minutes prior to a workout, to max out ATP stores, is sufficient for the desired results. Often they can increase max lifts by 10-20 percent easily. Taking it before a workout can cause a dry mouth feeling, so take some water with you to the gym. Keep in mind that creatine, once in a solution, can destabilize in as little as 15 minutes and will be rendered useless. So drink up as soon as you mix it.
9. Amino Acid Formulas
Why you need it: Dietary proteins contain a multitude of different aminos and their metabolites, but not always in the ratios that we would like, or the ratios that we need. That's why extra amino acid supplementation has been a big thing in bodybuilding for a while now. Though new evidence suggests that absorption of these amino acids is best when in di- and tripeptide chains, it'll be a while before they can make a stable and cost-effective version that way, and I can't say I have been disappointed by the free-form versions. Since amino acids are the building blocks of all tissue, we need to get enough. And instead of investing in non-essentials like glutamine and arganine which will be wasted when bulking, I'd rather you get a complete formula that at least gets you a good helping of the essentials, which will in turn synergistically enhance the effect of non-essentials as well.
How it works: Amino acids are usually begotten from dietary protein, but in this way you get extra absorbable (don't need digestion) free-form amino acids. In the body these amino acids will, under influence of hormones like insulin, GH and testosterone, reconnect and form these aminos as tissue proteins, thereby forming new tissue. Including muscle which will be the very first target after a hard workout breaking them down. The multitude of aminos in these formulas will increase the chance of getting the ones you need when and where you need them. That makes the amino formulas a definite must for people who have problems maintaining good diets.
How to use it: Usually a couple of grams before or after training to boost recovery and avoid deficiencies at any given time is advisable. They come in many forms, the liquid formulas are definitely handier because of the amounts you need, but they are available in pills too. I have yet to see a pure free-form version amino formula in powder, since that mostly leads to protein formation, but those would be handy to add to your shakes naturally. If you subscribe to short sessions, very intensely its best to supplement with 5-15 grams with your post-workout meal, but if you prefer drug-out sessions and lots of cardio, or you are a multi-sport athlete, its best to take 10-20 grams half an hour before a workout or even during the workout, to promote recovery.
Why you need it: These have been around for a while now. Mostly because of their anabolic and anti-catabolic properties. These properties have been questioned a lot recently and this has lead to their decreasing popularity in favour of new, hyped and expensive products despite the fact that they have had incredible effects for a lot of people. So I wanted to correct matters first. Who would claim that BCAA's are not anti-catabolic, needs to look in to the physiology of leucin, the first of the BCAA's. It's a precursor to the metabolite HMB which has been proven to illicit anti-catabolic responses by avoiding the burning of muscle-tissue in catabolic states. By virtue of that alone, but also the strong synergistic effect between leucin and its metabolite, that makes BCAA's very anti-catabolic.
As for anabolic, let me remind you that amino acids are what all tissue is made from. Anabolic meaning that it promotes growth, I would say that alone proves it is anabolic. Moreover people often believe in the anabolic properties of non-essential amino acids. Non-essential amino acids on a healthy high-protein bulking cycle will be just that, non-essential. They are not needed. First of all there are plenty, and if there weren't the body can make more of them from essential amino acids. Those two factors combined makes it highly unlikely that a non-essential will be absorbed at all. They basically bypass the system and get excreted. Yet still a lot of bulking bodybuilders prefer to take glutamine or arganine over essential amino acids. Essentials however are always absorbed and used, if not directly then to manufacture non-essentials or metabolites.
Of all 9 essentials, BCAA's (valine, leucin, iso-leucin) are most directly involved in muscle-tissue formation. That makes them probably the best choice for extra amino acid supplementation. Branched Chain amino acids are definitely not your first choice for supplementation, but as a proven staple in bodybuilding they should be prioritized over some of the newer, more expensive crap out there.
How it works: Amino acids make up proteins. Dietary proteins are storage for amino acids, but not all proteins contain the right balance of amino acids that we need. And we can't be choosy about food when bulking. An imbalance of non-essentials can be overcome, but to get the right amount of essentials you need to gear intake towards it. So it makes sense to get extra of the most anabolic of them. Basically they work the same as the aforementioned amino acid formulas. BCAA's are just targeted more specifically to an athlete.
How to use it: BCAA's are best used around training time to really make them worth the money. If you train in short intense sessions it makes sense to get a 5-10 grams with your post-workout meal shortly after your session to promote recovery and muscle-formation. If you are the type that loves endless hours of lifting followed by long cardio-sessions, you may be better off getting 5-15 grams prior to your training to avoid catabolic circumstance and promote recovery from such activities. This is also a good idea for multi-sport athletes. It can't hurt to get them both before and after a workout, but you'll find that this will soon become a very expensive hobby. There are better ways to spend your money.
There is no designated dosage, the bigger you are the more you need. What you do need to watch is the balance between the amino acids leucin, iso-leucine and valine which should be as close to 2-1-2 as possible. I know from experience that not many companies have such a mix, so as close to it is the best advice I can give.