So, you want to pack on some serious muscle mass, huh? And the big question, of course, is how you are going to do it. You are dedicated, have your training and diet in check, and are ready to take it to the next level with a well-thought-out supplementation program.
I will be the first to say that bodybuilding supplements, when used correctly under the right conditions, can be the difference between mere muscle maintenance (stagnation) and strong ongoing muscle growth. But you may be wondering which ones, as the list of possible supplements to use for this purpose is near endless.
To help take some of the guesswork out of the process, I spent some time putting together an article detailing some of the fundamentals in building a solid individualized mass program.
While it would not be possible to discuss every supplement option, and indeed there are many great supplements to talk about, I can go over what I feel are some of the more popular and clinically proven supplements available today.
Note that I will get as many product recommendations spaced throughout this article as possible, but must apologize ahead of time that I can't include all the great products and companies that ought to be mentioned here. There is just too much to cover to list everything. At the same time, if you don't find a particular product in this list that you like, keep shopping.
Bodybuilding.com has an immense selection of excellent products to choose from.
Step 1: Covering the Basics
Vitamin/mineral supplements are too often overlooked. True, they don't qualify as muscle-building supplements with notable immediate short-term gains for most users. This leads many to view them as unnecessary, but the truth can be anything but.
You need to remember that vitamins and minerals are important to virtually all body processes, from forming and transporting hormones, to facilitating the use of nutrients for growth, and just about everything in-between. If you have a notable deficiency, it can hinder your ability to properly grow.
Even if only minor, over time minor differences have a way of adding up to big ones. Are you sure you are getting everything you need from your diet—that the enhanced needs of an active training person are being met with food and not just the standard USRDA's. If not, you should consider a good athletic multivitamin/mineral product.
You can't build an ounce of muscle without protein—period. How much you need, however, is often the subject of much debate. One thing is certain though—you will make your best progress only when your muscles have an ample and constant supply of all the necessary amino acids.
I personally stick by the general guideline of 1-2 grams of quality protein per pound of bodyweight per day. While it is possible to meet your daily needs with diet alone, it can be very difficult for many people.
protein Intake Calculator
Protein supplements are the logical choice for most of us. I like to stick to the recommendation of faster acting whey proteins immediately after training, usually a good whey isolate, and a slower acting casein based protein for the rest of the day. I think it is especially important to use a slower digesting casein protein before bed as well, as it is too many hours to go with a fast acting protein like whey alone.
Step 2: Essential Fatty Acid Management
Make no mistake—essential fatty acids can be powerful modulators of the human physique. If you are not thinking about EFA's, in my opinion you are leaving a big (sorry, gaping) hole in your supplementation program.
The first EFA you need to know about is arachidonic acid (AA). This is the body's primary regulator of the local growth response after training. What does this mean? It means that arachidonic acid is the nutrient responsible for telling your muscles what they need to do to repair themselves (and grow) after they have been damaged from training.
If your AA levels are low, you are going to be stagnant, and likewise, kicking up your AA levels when you are stagnant is a great way to trigger new growth. AA can be taken in low doses as a daily supplement (250mg per day or less) to facilitate long-term ongoing growth, or more commonly as a rapid-growth anabolic in moderate doses (500mg-1000mg daily) for 50-60 days.
Fish Oil (EPA/DHA)
Fish oil much? EPA/DHA supplements are also very important to the bodybuilder and athlete. While not immediately anabolic by most accounts, they do lower catabolic (protein breakdown) signaling in your muscles, which can support muscle growth.
Fish oils are also great for overall health, and good at helping you maintain the muscle you've already got. My recommendation for EFA management is to focus on arachidonic acid for short burst cycles, and then to switch over to fish oils for their muscle preserving and health promoting benefits.
Actually, I can't take credit for the idea myself. Industry researcher and columnist Will Brink actually came up with the alternating AA/Fish Oil concept several years ago. It really does make a lot of sense, and helps you balance your overall long-term intake of pro-anabolic and anti-catabolic EFA's.
Note that it is perfectly fine to take some fish oil during a period of arachidonic acid supplementation as well, meaning that EPA/DHA supplements can be taken year round. Remember, EFA's are important. Don't overlook these very important muscle fundamentals!
Step 3: Additional Ergogens
This is where we get to those add-ons that are known for improving our strength, size, or performance. While some may not consider these to be fundamental supplements like the vitamins, minerals, proteins, and EFA's in Step 1 & 2, the products in this category are known for having strong positive effects on your weight training performance.
Any of these will make an excellent addition to a supplement program. Step 3 products are most often cycled on and off at different times of the year depending on the training intensity of the individual.
Beta Alanine is what your body uses to maintain carnosine levels in its muscles. Why is this important? Muscle carnosine acts as a pH buffer, slowing the rate in which lactic acid buildup shifts your muscles into an acidic environment (which blocks performance).
Beta Alanine allows you to get more reps on your training, and works at a level that you really do notice. This is an ideal supplement to take when you are focused on pushing past a plateau or stagnation point, or are going to be on a particularly intense training program and are determined to get the most out of each and every session. Cycles of 8-12 weeks are probably the most common.
Probably the most well known performance enhancing nutrient of all time, creatine is truly a giant among supplements. It works very well for the vast majority of people.
Its effects are two-fold. On one hand it increases the intracellular retention of fluid, which expands the size of your muscle cells. This in of itself may lend to some performance gains, and doesn't hurt either by making you look visibly bigger. But creatine is also important because it supplies creatine phosphate to the body, which is used to regenerate a key energy source in the muscles called ATP (adenosine triphosphate).
In short, creatine makes you bigger, makes you stronger, and gives you more muscle endurance. Like Beta Alanine this is a great product to cycle on and off throughout the year depending on your particular needs and goals.
Many people will tell you that they get plenty of branched chain amino acids in their protein. That statement may be true, but it also doesn't give you the complete picture.
Studies have proven over and over again that BCAA supplementation, particularly with regard to Leucine, has positive effects on your muscles that aren't replicated with general protein supplements. The result is usually greater protein synthesis rates, which add to more muscle size, and greater overall muscle performance.
The process by which nitrogen from amino acids is linearly arranged into structural proteins through the involvement of RNA and various enzymes. Protein synthesis is muscle growth. The more efficient you can make this process the more efficiently you can build muscle.
These supplements are also great for cutting down on the recovery time so you can get back into the gym to train the same muscle groups again. These supplements are most commonly used during periods of particularly intense training, but may be used as daily supplement products for the active weight trainer as well.
Nitric Oxide Boosters
Like the feel of a swollen bicep? Want bigger pumps when you are training in general? Increasing blood flow to the muscle has benefits beyond simply making your muscles look bigger and fuller. With increased pumps, more nutrients are also supplied to the muscles, which logically should help them get the materials they need to get bigger and stronger faster.
To date NO2 is the most well known and clinically studied nitric oxide booster, but as a supplement category these products are broad in number. Many NO products are regarded as highly effective products. As with most other add-on ergogens, the cycling of NO products (8-12 weeks) is generally recommended.
Step 4: Testosterone Boosters
Many people consider this an advanced step, as it involves changing the balance of hormones in your body for the sake of increasing the rate of muscle growth. With that said, we all know that testosterone is one of the most important hormones for muscle growth. Testosterone levels can pay huge dividends on your mass gains.
nAI's (Natural Aromatase Inhibitors)
Aromatase inhibitors are not recommended for women. These supplements can promote already healthy testosterone levels.
Given how important testosterone is for muscle growth, the implications of this should be obvious. These products are not recommended for long-term use, however, because they artificially shift your internal hormone balance for the sake of muscle growth. Still, these products can be used safely for short "anabolic" cycles of 6-12 weeks in length, followed by an equally long or greater amount of time off.
More specifically 3,4-Divanillyltetrahydrofuran, this is the only supplement in this article that does not have clinical support for its use in athletes. Why would I include it then? Simply put, it's new and it appears to work well.
The science of its use to free up testosterone from serum binding proteins seems logical and sound, and I expect with time we will see clinical studies examining its benefits in athletes. Until then, I remain swayed by the animal data and anecdotal reports from bodybuilders.
At the very least, this supplement seems to make a good "no-brainer" addition to a natural aromatase inhibitor or testosterone supplement if you have some on-hand and want to try for a little extra boost.
This supplement is also known as Eurycoma Longifolia Jack, Tongkat Ali, Malaysian Ginseng, and Pasak Bum. There are some solid studies showing successful management of both testosterone and other hormones with Longjack in exercising humans, particularly the LJ100 extract.
While you can't expect this supplement to have the strong effect of a natural aromatase inhibitor, it is still considered by most to be a highly efficacious supplement.
LongJack also supports the management of certain catabolic hormones (catabolic hormones support the breakdown of muscle protein). Like all hormonal supplements, I believe it is best to use Longjack in cycles lasting no more than 6-12 weeks in length.
Bringing It All Together
So there you have it—four steps to supplementation that I think can make a big difference in your quest for, well, bigness. Tying them all together and working up the right program for you may take a little bit of work.
If I had any suggestion as to an overall approach, it would be to take sure you are always taking something outlined in Step 1 and 2. As far as EFA's go, EPA/DHA would be the more year round constant focus, with arachidonic acid supplements being added in for short anabolic burst cycles (2-3 cycles per year).
After your Step 1 and 2 supplements are sorted out, you can construct periodic cycles throughout the year utilizing supplements from Steps 3 and 4. Give some thought to how you might want to alternate or stagger your approach.
Just as an example, since you shouldn't take testosterone boosters all year long, you might want to schedule a 2-month cycle in the spring using a Natural Aromatase Inhibitor or Longjack, combined with Divanillyltetrahydrofuran. You can do this at the same time as running arachidonic acid for maximum gains, or save it for a later non-hormonal cycle.
Once your testosterone boosting stack is completed you still have solid non-hormonal products to work with for the summer like beta alanine, creatine, or NO boosters. Note there are also many "stack" products to shop for that include combinations of these ingredients.
The possibilities for constructing a yearly program are almost endless. But one thing I am very sure of is that you should notice your best progress by covering the fundamentals and working with solid and proven ergogenic supplements. Do this while staying dedicated to your training schedule, workout intensity, and general dietary needs, and you really can't go wrong!