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You have been hitting the gym a lot lately, but are not quite seeing the gains you had hoped. Honestly, you are feeling a little skinny and weak compared to the other guys in there pumping iron.
You would love to gain some weight in a healthy way and maybe put on a few pounds of muscle. That way you will at least LOOK like you have been working out, right?
Gaining weight healthfully is not just about eating a ton of extra calories a day (although that does somewhat help), you may also want to throw a few supplements into the mix to support your efforts.
These supplements work in different ways, some can help add additional calories, while others help boost performance so you can work out harder.
How Weight Gain Works
First, you need to understand how weight works. The body resists gaining or losing weight. It tries really hard to stay the same. So, in order to gain or lose weight you have to put in some effort. For weight loss, you have to eat less and for weight gain, you have to eat more.
You can figure out how many calories you burn with a simple calorie calculator (be sure to look for one that uses the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation). This will give you the number you need to maintain your weight. You will then need to eat more calories than that. Aim for 500 extra to start, so you don’t feel overly stuffed or full.
But, if you want to gain weight you probably don’t want to gain it all in fat. This means just eating a bunch of extra calories won’t be enough. You will have to take into account the type of extra calories you will be eating.
The muscles need protein to build muscle. After you exercise, the muscles will only grow if there is enough protein available and if that amount exceeds the protein that was lost during the workout. Without protein to replenish the muscles after a tough workout, the muscle will just consume itself.
Your muscles continue to breakdown about 24-48 hours after the workout, so you don’t need to worry about your protein immediately after finishing your workout. You have forty-eight hours, which is the critical window where you need to continue to eat enough protein.
How much protein do you need?
Credit: Rob Hadley
The recommendation is based on body weight. In order to gain weight, you want to eat 0.5-0.9 grams per pound. This means if you weigh 150 pounds, you will need 75-135 grams of protein per day (1).
Four ounces of meat, chicken, or fish has about 28 grams of protein. This means you will have to eat about 11-20 ounces to meet your daily protein requirements. You can also use supplements if that is easier.
Hormones also impact muscle growth, particularly insulin and testosterone. We will talk about some ways to increase testosterone, but insulin is also important. After a workout, if insulin is high, then muscle breakdown will be prevented.
The bottom line to gain weight with your diet is to:
- Eat more calories; add healthy fats to get your calories up.
- Eat more protein to be sure you are putting on muscle.
- Don’t forget those carbs to keep insulin levels up and prevent muscle breakdown.
Once you get your diet dialed-in you can use proper supplementation to give you the edge you need to help you reach you weight gain goals.
9 Helpful Supplements for Gaining Weight
You need protein to gain muscle mass and a whey protein supplement is the best way to do this.
Whey consistently demonstrates that it is the best type of protein for building muscle, basically it out performs all other types.
Whey is one of the two proteins found in cow’s milk, the other is casein. It is a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids needed for human health. In addition, the amino acid composition in whey is ideal for muscle building. It is high in branch-chain amino acids, particularly leucine, that helps promote muscle growth by stimulating the release of muscle-building hormones (3).
Due to its composition, it is easily absorbed, which helps ensure the amino acids where get to the muscles where they are needed. Adding whey to your routine is the best way to get your muscles the protein they need to help you gain weight.
How to Take Whey Protein
When you go out to look for a whey supplement, you might feel overwhelmed because there are so many different kinds. The three main types available are whey concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. The main difference is how they have been processed. The more processed they are, usually the higher the price.
Whey concentrate is usually the best tasting and cheapest because it is higher in fat and lactose (milk sugar) when compared to the other two. This would not be a good choice for someone who is lactose intolerant.
Whey isolate also has a bit of lactose so you may want to avoid this if you are very sensitive to it. It is slightly more processed than concentrate and more expensive.
The best choice for someone who wants to gain weight is whey hydrolysate. This is generally the most expensive, but has additional benefits for weight gain. It has been found to increase insulin levels, which is necessary to put on muscle (4). Whey hydrolysate probably tastes the worst out of all three options, but feel free to add fruit, nut butter, or other flavorings to it.
Since muscles need protein for 24-48 hours after a workout to re-build, consider adding whey to your daily routine. It is most beneficial right after a workout. Try to get in 20-30 grams of whey protein immediately following a weight training session.
Creatine monohydrate is one of the most extensively researched dietary supplements. Over 500 studies have shown that it can increase muscle and strength gain by 5-15%. It works by boosting creatine and phosphocreatine in the muscles.
When these two substances are high, you can push harder during your workout, so you can see muscle gains faster (5). It also helps improve muscle strength and increases hormones responsible for muscle building. (6, 7).
Creatine can also help your muscles look bigger by increasing water in the cells (8). Sometimes it is all about the look, isn’t it?
But, no matter how great creatine might be as a supplement, it won’t work if you don’t exercise, as it doesn’t magically make your body build muscle.
How to Take Creatine
If you are taking creatine for gaining weight, you want to “load” the creatine the first week. This means you will take 20 grams per day for the first 5-7 days. During this time, expect to see a 2-4 pound weight gain from the water the muscles will pull in to hold on to the creatine in the cells. After that, you can drop down to 5 grams per day for maintenance.
Weight gainers are supplements with huge amounts of protein and calories to help you gain weight. Eating more calories, especially from protein, can be really hard because protein is so filling. These types of supplements were designed to help you out.
Many of these supplements contain over 1,000 calories per serving. It would be really hard to make a 1,000 calorie supplement of protein alone, so many of these also have a mega dose of carbs included. The macronutrient breakdown for most of these supplements is anywhere from 75-300 grams of carbs and 20-60 grams of protein.
There isn’t a huge amount of research on these products specifically, although not all people react the same to such a large boost in calories and protein (9). Meaning, you may not see the huge mass gains you expect from using these supplements.
How to Take Weight Gainers
Weight gainers are ideal for people on the go who have trouble eating enough food. They allow you to get a ton of calories in one easy step. They can be used as a meal replacement or snack.
Many of them contain vitamins, minerals, or other added nutrients. You want to be sure that you are not getting too much of any one nutrient if you are taking other supplements in addition to the weight gainer, so be sure to carefully check the labels.
Beta-alanine doesn’t promote weight gain per se, but can help reduce fatigue and increase exercise performance so you can work out harder. It works by preventing the build-up of acidic compounds that are created during workouts.
Basically, it reduces muscle burn, so you can work out longer. It does so by increasing the levels of a compound called carnosine in the muscles. Carnosine helps neutralize the acidity created during weight training.
How to Take Beta-alanine
Supplementing with 2-6 mg per day can help increase carnosine by 20-80% (10). Beta-alanine needs to be taken consistently to increase levels of carnosine in the muscles, just taking it occasionally won’t help.
When looking for a beta-alanine supplement you might encounter a few carnosine supplements as well. But, those surprisingly are not as effective as beta-alanine in increasing carnosine in muscles. Carnosine when taken orally gets broken down into other compounds, so it never reaches the muscles where it is needed.
Beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate (HMB) can help reduce muscle breakdown after a workout and is one of those suplements that boost recovery. HMB is a molecule that is produced during the processing of the branch-chain amino acid leucine. It is one of the reasons why leucine is always recommended for muscle building (11).
Although the body naturally produces HMB, taking it as a supplement has shown to encourage muscle growth and reduce muscle break down. Ideally, HMB should be taken immediately after a workout for the most benefit (12).
How to Take HMB
Dosage of HMB is based on body weight. The recommended amount is 17 mg per pound of body weight. This would mean a 140 pound person would need about 2.5 grams a day. It will take about 2 weeks to see the benefit of HMB.
Testosterone is a hormone that is needed to build muscle. There are several different supplements that claim to boost testosterone. Some have more research behind them than others. A few popular ones are:
The research on these supplements is mixed. For example, one small study on ashwagandha, muscle strength, and testosterone, showed that 300 mg of ashwagandha twice a day did increase testosterone levels, muscle mass, and strength for young men (13).
A 2013 study found supplementing with 3g of D-aspartic acid in combination with a weight training program significantly increased muscle strength and mass. But, interestingly enough, there was no increase in testosterone levels (14).
Much of the research on these other “testosterone boosters” has been done on men with low testosterone levels or sexual dysfunction, not on those who want to gain weight. If your testosterone levels are normal, you may not see a huge change with these supplements.
How to Take Testosterone Boosters
Since the research on these is mixed, proceed with caution. Many of these supplements, like vitamin D, ashwagandha, and ginger, are generally considered safe for most people at normal doses. Avoid taking supplements with multiple ingredients, as there isn’t enough research to determine how these boosters interact with each other.
Branch-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
Protein is made up of amino acids, each of which has a different composition. There are three amino acids, valine, leucine, and isoleucine that are referred to as the “branch-chain amino acids” because of how their side chains branch off.
This is probably way more organic chemistry than you need to know. The point is that branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are important for muscle growth and reducing muscle loss (15).
A 2016 study evaluated the use of BCAAs on 17 resistance-trained athletes. They gave the athletes either a BCAA supplement or a carbohydrate-only supplement for 8 weeks, while the subjects continued to work out and follow a low-calorie diet.
Those who received the BCAAs maintained lean muscle mass and increased strength. Researchers concluded that even on a low-calorie diet, those who received the BCAAs still were able to gain muscle mass (16).
How to Take BCAAs
BCAAs are widely available in food, every food with protein has BCAAs. Whey protein is also great source of BCAAs. If you are getting enough protein, you probably don’t need a separate BCAA supplement.
If you want to take BCAAs alone, the dose is 3-6 grams before or during your work out. The supplement you choose should be two parts leucine to one part isoleucine and valine.
Caffeine won’t directly cause you to gain weight. Most caffeinated drinks, like coffee or tea, don’t have any calories and you need calories to gain weight. But, caffeine does enhance performance. There is significant evidence that moderate caffeine intake, about 3-6 mg/kg of body weight, can enhance athletic abilities.
But, there is a limit to caffeine’s ability to increase performance. After about 6 mg/kg, there is no improvement. But, the ability to work harder during a workout could eventually result in muscle gain (17).
How to Take Caffeine
Caffeine is most effective when consumed without water, in a capsule or supplement form. But, regular coffee can work too. A cup of coffee has about 100 mg of caffeine, depending on how strong you make it. For a 150 pound person, 200-400 mg of caffeine is the recommended amount for optimal athletic performance.
But, tread with caution with caffeine. You probably already know how too much caffeine might affect you. If it makes you jittery or anxious, back off. Too much caffeine at once can be dangerous and lead to heart problems.
Citrulline is a non-essential amino acid that the body is able to produce on its own, but is also found in food. Although it won’t directly result in weight gain, it does allow you to work out harder which could eventually help with increasing muscle mass.
A 2010 study evaluated the impact of citrulline on bench press performance and recovery. Forty-one subjects performed two sets of bench presses and were given either 8 grams of citrulline or a placebo. The subjects were asked to do repetitions to fatigue at 80% of their one rep max.
The subjects who received the citrulline were able to do 53% more repetitions than the placebo group. They also reported 40% less muscle soreness after the exercise session. The reason for these findings is that citrulline is able to increase blood flow to the muscles, which may result in a boost in performance (18).
How to Take Citrulline
There are two types of citrulline on the market, L-citrulline and citrulline malate. For sports performance, citrulline malate is the preferred type. The recommended dose is 6-8g of citrulline malate about an hour before exercise.
Final Say on Weight Gain Supplements
The bottom line with weight gain, just like weight loss, is patience. Unfortunately, we are all shaped differently.
For some people, putting on muscle mass can be easy and fast. For others, they may never have the muscles mass they desire.
There is only so much you can do to modify the shape of your body. The best thing you can do is to continue to work out, get enough calories and protein, and try a few supplements that can help, the rest is up to your genetics.
ⓘ Any specific supplement products & brands featured on this website are not necessarily endorsed by Ana.
Stock Photos from Lyudmyla Kharlamova / tankist276 Shutterstock
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About the Author
Ana Reisdorf is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with 11-years experience in the field of nutrition and dietetics. After graduating from California State University, Long Beach, she began her career as health educator, helping educate patients on a variety of nutrition-related conditions. Email Ana.