It’s winter time in the Northern Hemisphere, which means a few things – cold weather, darkness, holiday celebrations, and an ample food supply. In the fitness world these traits go hand-in-hand with a mass gain phase. This article is for those who have a well-designed routine, diet, and rest protocol, but are looking to optimize their supplementation. The purpose of this article is to list the top 11 supplements, provide a description on what they are and why they’re beneficial during a mass-gaining phase.
1. Creatine Monohydrate
Creatine monohydrate is a chemical naturally produced in the body, found in food, and produced in a laboratory for supplementation. Creatine is a rock star during a bulking phase as it can improve exercise performance, increase muscle mass, improve anaerobic cardiovascular capacity, and increase power output.1,2 Our goals during a bulking phase is to improve strength and muscle mass while minimizing fat gain, so creatine is a king of the former and as long as your diet is in check, fat gain will be minimal.
Here are the following recommended dosing schemes based on the type of creatine – creatine monohydrate - take 0.3g per kilogram of bodyweight for 5-7 days, then continue taking 5g per day after the loading period with a minimum daily intake of 2g to maintain average creatine stores; creatine ethyl ester at 4.5g per day; creatine nitrate at 1-2g per day; Kre-Alkalyn at1.5g per day.2,3,4 If creatine is taken daily, I personally do not see a reason to load unless you want to slightly expedite saturation levels; additionally, creatine monohydrate is the most cost efficient option and has the same efficacy as more expensive creatine products.
2. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that you can obtain by exposing bare skin to the sun and by orally ingesting vitamin D supplements. Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin so taking your vitamin D with a small source of fat, such as fish oil or with meals will improve its absorption. Winter time goes hand-in-hand with minimal daylight and cold weather which means more time spent indoors and less natural sun exposure. Proper vitamin D levels in the blood may increase testosterone, decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, decrease blood pressure, decrease bone fracture risk, and improve mood.5 Vitamin D is a must for general health and ensuring natural testosterone levels are optimal during a bulking phase.
For those of us working desk jobs, consider supplementing with 1,000-2,000IUs of vitamin D3 per day.6 One study showed that a daily intake of 3,000 IUs increased testosterone in men with low vitamin D blood levels but had no effect on bringing testosterone levels above baseline.7 I supplement 5000 IUs daily, but I have pale skin, live in the Northeast, and have a history of low vitamin D levels.
3. D-Aspartic Acid (DAA)
DAA, a non-essential amino acid, is currently one of the most effective natural testosterone boosters on the market. DAA is found naturally in foods such as soy protein, nondairy creamer, and casein, but is most commonly consumed via supplementation. DAA can enhance the release of luteinizing hormone in humans, which stimulates testosterone and sperm production.8 One study indicated that DAA supplementation can increase testosterone 15% after six days of use and 42% after twelve days of use with a 22% decline three days post-use.9 Another study reported a 30-60% increase in serum testosterone levels in infertile men after 90 days of continuous DAA use.9
Increased testosterone levels equates to optimal muscle growth, strength gains, sex drive, and workout recovery. Take 2-3 grams per day upon waking or pre-workout. Although there is limited information on whether DAA requires cycling, I’ve seen success running a 3 weeks on/1 week off dosing scheme. DAA is an inexpensive way to optimize natural testosterone levels, which will help you to pack on the muscle and minimize fat gain during your bulk.
ZMA is a vitamin/mineral supplement containing Zinc Monomethionine Aspartate, Magnesium Aspartate and vitamin B6. 1 serving of ZMA typically contains 200-450mg of Magnesium, 5-45mg of Zinc, and 5-15mg of Vitamin B6. Zinc and Magnesium are two crucial minerals for immune health, recovery, and nervous system function. Additionally, these mineral levels are depleted via body sweat when individuals engage in physical activity. Magnesium deficiencies are common in developed countries and this deficiency can increase blood pressure, increase blood glucose levels, and decrease insulin sensitivity.5
Insulin is a power substance for muscle gain and having poor insulin sensitivity could mean excess fat gain during your bulking phase. Zinc deficiencies can decrease testosterone, increase acne, and increase blood glucose levels.6 However, zinc supplementation does not appear to increase testosterone levels above baseline after zinc deficiency has been eliminated. As we know, adequate insulin sensitivity and testosterone levels are crucial for muscle growth and strength gains, so ZMA is a no-brainer during your bulking phase.
5. Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
BCAAs refer to the following three amino acids - Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. Adequate BCAA intake will increase muscle growth and repair (over time), prevent fatigue, and decrease muscle soreness.10 Pure BCAA products have no additional carbohydrates or fats but due to the isolation process, they’re typically significantly more expensive for the same amount of “total protein” compared to protein powder products. Those following intermittent fasting-style diets report consuming BCAAs before and after a fasted workout to stave fatigue and improve endurance.
Please note that the law of diminishing returns kicks in if you consume additional BCAAs to put you above a daily dietary protein intake of 1-1.5 grams per kilogram of bodyweight.10 Based on your non-supplement dietary protein intake and budget consume 2-10g of leucine, 48-72mg/kg of bodyweight for isoleucine, and 20mg/kg of bodyweight for valine.10 BCAAs are an excellent way to ensure you’re anabolic around the clock, which will help you to optimize muscle growth during your bulking phase.
Fenugreek is a plant-based supplement with testosterone and hunger-enhancing properties. In an 8-week study a 500mg dose of Fenugreek (50% Fenusides by weight) alongside a resistance training protocol increased testosterone levels in healthy males compared to those who did not consume Fenugreek.11 Although the testosterone increase was only a few ng/ml, every little bit helps in the world of natural bodybuilding and powerlifting. These slight increases, when combined with other products providing slight increases, can add up to significant strength and mass gains in the long term.
If you’re a hardgainer with a small appetite and on a bulk then consume 40mg per kilogram of bodyweight to increase hunger levels.12 Although I’ve never had a problem gorging on 3000+ calories per day, Fenugreek is a rock solid option for keeping appetite high and testosterone levels optimal during your bulk.
Beta-alanine is one of the precursors to carnosine which is found in large quantities in muscle and brain tissue. Beta-alanine supplementation increases muscular carnosine levels which can increase muscular endurance, power output, anaerobic exercise output, and decrease workout fatigue.13 A portion of 22 Division II college wrestlers and 15 football players consumed 4g of beta-alanine per day for 8 weeks and gained more lean mass than the placebo participants.14 Given that the goal of a bulking phase is to add as much lean mass as possible with minimal fat gain, beta-alanine appears to be an effective supplement to accomplish this goal!
Although beta-alanine doesn’t have to be consumed in the pre-workout window to be effective, many users prefer to dose their 2-5g serving in their pre-workout shake.15 If you’ve ever taken this quantity of beta-alanine in one dose, then you might get the infamous “beta-alanine tingles”. Although this tingling feeling is harmless, you can minimize its occurrence by splitting up your beta-alanine dosage across the day. Research also indicates that stacking creatine and beta-alanine helps improve body composition more effectively than just supplementing only beta-alanine.16,17 Beta-alanine should be a staple supplement during bulking, cutting, maintenance, and recomposition phases due to its general performance enhancing benefits.
8. Sodium Bicarbonate
You probably have this supplement in your arsenal and don’t even know it! Sodium Bicarbonate, also known as Baking Soda, is a household staple that can improve power output, muscular endurance, anaerobic work capacity, and aerobic output.17 Consuming baking soda increases blood bicarbonate levels, which can increase peak power and total work of anaerobic work periods of 120-240 seconds.19 Increased peak power and total work means more weight moved at a faster velocity which provides more stimuli for muscle growth and strength gain.
When training for repetitions, increasing blood sodium bicarbonate increased the total number of repetitions performed at 10-12RM loads and 80% of 1RM loads over placebo.20,21 Additionally, ingesting sodium bicarbonate alongside beta-alanine and creatine can increase power output and decrease fatigue compared to taking only sodium bicarbonate.22,23 As for timing and dosage, consume sodium bicarbonate 45-90 minutes pre-workout at a dosage of 200-300mg/kg of bodyweight.13
Please note that sodium bicarbonate is extremely high in sodium and although much of this sodium will flush out of the body quickly with adequate fluid intake, those on sodium-restricted diets should avoid this supplement. Furthermore, some users report significant gastrointestinal issues after consuming sodium bicarbonate, so I encourage you to adjust timing and dosage based on how your body responds.
L-Citrulline is an amino acid converted in to L-arginine by the human body. L-arginine supplementation was once thought to be the best vasodilator, but new research indicates that it has little to no impact on nitric oxide levels whereas L-citrulline supplementation does have an impact.24 One study provided 8g of citrulline malate (a popular form of L-Citrulline) to 12 males undergoing resistance training protocols who noted a 40% decrease in perceived muscle soreness two days post-workout.25
While bulking, adequate training volume and muscle stimuli are crucial for both muscle and strength gain. L-citrulline appears to be a solid supplement for ensuring you recover from demanding training sessions and ensure you continue crushing it in the weight room. Plus, who doesn’t love leaving the gym with a solid pump while also not feeling completely exhausted? Consume 6-8g of L-citrulline 45-60 minutes pre-workout to increase nitric oxide levels, increase exercise endurance, and minimize delayed onset muscle soreness.26
10. Digestive Health Supplements
A bulking phase requires eating in a caloric surplus, so we need to ensure these excess nutrient calories and nutrients are being adequately absorbed and contributing to muscle gain rather than fat storage. A digestive health supplement can help with the absorption of nutrients from food in the stomach and intestines, help minimize gas and bloating, and help regulate the excrement of waste from the body. When your digestive system is happy, you’ll be functioning optimally in the weight room and ensuring that food is contributing towards recovery rather than digestive stress. Below are a few digestive health supplements I recommend:
- Probiotics - Refer to directions on the supplement label and start with one full dose per day and increase up or down depending on response. May include one or more of the following: Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium lactis, Lactobacillus brevis, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus plantarum, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus salivarius, Lactobacillus paracasei, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium brevis, Bifidobacterium longum.27
- Digestive Enzymes - Refer to directions on the supplement label and start with one full dose per day and increase up or down depending on response. May include one or more of the following: Papain, Bromelain, Amylase (to break down carbohydrates), Lipase (to break down fats), Lactase (to break down milk sugar), Pancreatin (to break down protein), and Cellulase (to break down fiber).28
- Ginger - Used to increase digestion speed. Take 1 to 3 grams of ginger extract per day or one 8 ounce cup of ginger ale made with ginger root or 4 cups of ginger tea steeped for 5 to 10 minutes with ½ teaspoon of grater ginger per cup.29
- Betaine Hydrochloride (HCL) - Used to increase the acidity of stomach acid and assist with protein absorption. Consume 650mg per meal with protein and adjust up or down accordingly depending on how your stomach feels. Some people take three 650mg tablets per meal and stack this product with Pepsin to improve its efficacy.
11. Protein Powder
I included protein powder last on this list because I believe it’s more of a food item than a supplement. Nonetheless, it’s extremely helpful for muscle-gain. Protein powder is a cost-efficient and convenient way to increase your protein intake, improve muscle recovery, increase protein synthesis, and increase lean mass. Low protein intake can drastically slow your muscle gain progress and decrease your gym performance due to subpar recovery.
If you’re attempting to increase lean muscle mass, a daily intake of 1.5-2.2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight (0.68-1 grams per pound of bodyweight) is a good goal.30 Beyond 1 gram per pound of bodyweight, the law of diminishing returns kick in with regards to body composition benefits, but there aren’t significant negatives effects from protein consumption in the 1-2 grams per pound of bodyweight range; the excess protein is typically converted to glucose, which the body uses for energy. I personally consume about 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight because animal flesh and protein powder is delicious.