The best supplements for a hardgainer are those that are not overly marketed with catchy slogans and promises but rather basic products backed proven results.
The first thing that needs to be noted before looking at the best supplements a hardgainer can use to build muscle, is that these should be looked at and not be your number one priority. What I mean by that is people tend to look at supplements as a quick route to results due to marketing and social media however In terms of building muscle as a hardgainer they will have a marginal impact on your overall progress.
The focus should be on getting stronger, eating in a calorie surplus and getting sufficient rest and recovery from training, this will account for 80% – 90% of your results. Supplements, as the name suggests are tools that can be used to gain an extra edge. For this reason the title is ‘best’ and not ‘essential’ supplements.
Having said this, the below are 8 of the best supplements that a hardgainer can use to boost progress and performance in the gym, these are not all necessary to take however depending on your goals and current physique it will be a straightforward case of picking those that apply to you and testing them out.
When it comes to supplements that have an actual, scientifically backed impact on your performance and physique creatine is right at the top of the list.
This incredibly cheap white powder provides performance enhancing benefits without actually being a performance enhancing drug. It’s worth knowing that being deficient in a mineral can have significant impact on performance and that once the deficiency is rectified you will notice the change.
Being dehydrated is the best example, if you train dehydrated one session and then the next train fully hydrated you will feel and likely perform completely differently between the two sessions.
Creatine acts in a similar way, the body naturally creates its own creatine stores (creatine converts to ATP which is the energy source for muscular contractions) however it’s very difficult to fill these creatine stores through diet alone. Therefore not having optimal creatine stores means you are leaving a few reps in the tank every workout.
Supplementing 3g – 5g of creatine daily is all you need to keep creatine stores optimal, there is debate about whether a loading phase (supplementing 20g daily for 5 days to preload the muscles creatine stores) is necessary, I’d personally say do it because it’s cheap enough to test yourself for 5 days, the potential gain outweighs any loss.
In terms of product any creatine monohydrate will do the job, there is however a regulated brand (creapure), it costs a little bit more but has to meet certain regulatory requirements so you can be 100% certain of the product quality.
You will likely see yourself gain some weight once you start supplementing creatine however this is purely water weight and is mainly stored in the muscle. It will actually give your muscles a fuller look so don’t look at any weight gain from creatine as a negative.
This is the most advertised supplement on the market however if you are a true hardgainer then supplementing with whey protein can be a game changer.
This is purely a result of how convenient it is to help you hit your daily protein intake requirements for building muscle. On average you should be looking to consume roughly 0.8g – 1g protein per 1lb body weight.
For ease we’ll use 1g per 1lb as a baseline, therefore if you weigh 185lbs then your daily protein intake should be 185g. This may not seem like a lot to some however protein is highly satiating, hardgainers struggle with eating the high volume of food needed to build muscle without having certain foods reduce your hunger receptors.
Whey is therefore perfect for upping your daily intake without being heavy on your stomach and with minimal effect on appetite. Two scoops in water or milk will give an additional 40g protein on average, the equivalent in food for example would be two tins of tuna, 6 large eggs or 1 medium sized chicken breast.
This fast absorbing protein is ideally used post workout to kick start protein synthesis and the muscle building/recovery process asap. You would then have a solid food meal 1 – 2 hours after training whilst hunger is still high from the session.
There are two sources of carb supplements that are ideal for hardgainers, the first is a boring option but highly effective for upping your daily calories and that is refined, powdered oats. Regular oats are an excellent carb source and you will see them appear on many a bodybuilder diet plans. These are especially utilised by those that bulk on a budget as its a very cheap carb source.
The reason that I like powdered oats however is because they make an excellent component of a high calorie shake, a meal that all hardgainers should be taking advantage of. Below is an example bulking shake with powdered oats as the primary carb source, as you can see getting 1,000 calories in one meal that is easily digestible is a massive diet hack for hardgainers on a bulk.
25g whey protein (flavour of your choice)
100g Scottish rolled oats
50g peanut butter
50g frozen berries
1 tsp cinnamon powder
300ml – 500ml milk (water can also be used but will lower the calorie count)
Blend all ingredients together
Total calorie breakdown – 1,050kcal. Protein 60g. Carbohydrates 103g. Fat 42g
The other carb source in supplement form that I’d recommend is a fast releasing carb like dextrose, maltodextrin or highly branched cyclic dextrin. Whilst these sound like complicated names they are basically a fast absorbing sugar that is easily converted into glucose (the muscles energy source).
These fast acting carbs have become popular in recent years as they are studied for the benefits intra workout as an energy source. Muscle glycogen is depleted during weight training session and you’ll feel muscular fatigue, sprinting is an example of a highly depleting movement which is why it can only be sustained for short periods at maximal effort.
Getting a fast acting carb source during and after a workout is an excellent way to replenish these stores and ensure you are not only recovering from each session fully but are able to perform optimally during each session. If you watch cycling you’ll see the cyclists have tubes of a glucose solution for this very reason, it has now been recognised by the mainstream for the benefits during training.
Essential Amino Acids
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and therefore the building blocks of muscles themselves. You might have noticed people sipping BCAA’s (branched chain amino acids) during a workout or during the day, usually bright coloured in a large water jug. These are good for dieting to keep the body in a state of protein synthesis, this is basically a muscle building process, the reverse is protein breakdown which is a catabolic process, you always want to be in a state of protein synthesis to build muscle.
BCAA’s however can easily be covered by your diet, a better option to supplement is EAA’s (essential amino acids). Essential amino acids cannot be made by the body and therefore you need to get these through diet or supplementation. Not to be contradictory but it needs to be emphasised how easily you can cover the BCAA’s through your diet just by eating meat/poultry and other protein sources.
To cover all the essential amino acids however you would need to eat a much broader food range to get the correct quantities, for optimal muscle growth it is much easier to just consume these in supplement form. I’d always advocate going with whole foods however supplementing EAA’s would make sure all bases are covered and that your protein requirements are met.
In terms of BCAA’s I wouldn’t really recommend them except for the fact that they seem to be produced using much better flavours whereas EAA’s have a bitter taste so take some getting used to. If you can’t stand the taste then this is the only reason I can imagine BCAA’s would be a better option.
Hardgainer, bulking and greens do not go well together. Green veg whilst jam packed with vitamins and minerals, are also very high in fibre and therefore significantly reduce appetite. When dieting they are essential because of the volume you can eat with minimal macronutrient carry over due to the high fibre content.
By minimal macronutrient carry over I mean that eating a 200g burger will have a certain level of fat and carbs which will take a large portion or your daily macros, 200g broccoli however will have marginal calorie amounts and therefore you will often see fat loss or competition prep diets full of green veg. When it comes to building muscle however you want your stomach full with muscle building macros in protein and carbs, having filling green veg is therefore far from ideal.
And easy solution to this is a green powder. You could make your own greens shake however these are tricky to make a nice tasting one (I’ve made some vile attempts in the past with spinach and kale ingredients), whilst a green powder won’t be the most appetising supplement you will ever have it is very easy to just down it in one and get you daily vitamins and minerals in without having to worry about it affecting your appetite.
It’s still best to get some greens with your meals as chewing food releases enzymes to break down food and absorb the nutrients whereas shakes bypass this process, another reason I’d recommend prioritising whole foods, I don’t just say it because it’s what everyone says. Shakes do however still have their place in a diet and should be utilised.
ZMA is actually my personal favourite supplement and would be included in an essential top 3 alongside creatine and whey protein. My reason for favouring ZMA (Zinc & Magnesium supplement) is because of the improved sleep when having it. I’ve never been able to find solid scientific evidence to support the cause of improved sleep when supplementing with ZMA however it’s a side effect that many notice when supplementing with ZMA so at least has the merit of social approval even if it lacks pure scientific evidence.
The actual science behind supplementing with ZMA however is that most people are deficient in zinc, magnesium or both. These are nutrients that are essential for testosterone production and therefore muscle growth. These minerals are lost through sweat which is obviously a result of the hard training needed to build muscle and also stress. There’s no denying that stress levels are high in modern society and therefore it’s easy to see that these deficiencies will apply to most reading this.
ZMA will therefore reduce/eliminate these deficiencies and as a result you should see an immediate impact (by immediate I mean up to two weeks) on your training performance.
I’ve specified pump formula and not ‘pre workout’ because I’m not a fan of heavily stimulated pre workouts, this is from personal use and also long term impact on the mental aspect of training. To make real progress in the gym you need to at least enjoy a part of the process and if you need to get hyped up for every workout with a pre workout loaded with caffeine and other stimulants than it’s difficult to see how you can sustain that long term as your body becomes resistant to the stimulants effects.
I also think that caffeine on it’s own is a more than adequate pre workout and there are actual health benefits that go with caffeine consumption (particularly through coffee) which you can check out here.
A pump formula on the other hand is not used to get you hyped up for a lift but to increase blood flow to your muscles when training. There are a few active ingredients that make for a good pump formula in beta alanine, citrulline malate, AAKG (arginine alpha ketoglutarate) and a nitric oxide.
Having better blood flow to the muscles will have numerous benefits, the best from a training standpoint is a better mind-muscle connection, being able to feel the target muscle working will ensure that you are properly isolating the muscle and working it effectively. Not being able to feel the muscle is a sure sign that you are not properly engaging the muscle which is a fundamental basic for building muscle on par with simply getting stronger.
Better blood flow will also aid recovery, as you send nutrient rich blood to the muscles which will not only be utilised during the set but also post workout to facilitate recovery.
A good multivitamin tablet or powder rounds off the best supplements for a hardgainer building muscle. If you are dieting well and consuming a good variety of whole foods then you will likely have your vitamin requirements covered. There are however aspects of everyday life that are unavoidable and require supplementing.
Places with minimal sunshine (North in the UK for example..) will leave people with lower vitamin D levels than those with sunshine available daily. If you also live in a city centre then supermarket food that has been mass produced will have the essential vitamins destroyed during production as a result of the pesticides and other manufacturing methods. Even the plastic packaging that food is prepared, stored and cooked in is damaging the food quality that we consume.
I don’t grow my own crops and follow a strict paleo diet like that last sentence would lead you to believe but I’m very aware that the food quality we consume is a lot lower than manufacturers would like us to believe. Therefore small steps should be taken to minimise this and taking a multivitamin daily is a very small but easily achievable thing that will make sure you are not deficient in any of the essential vitamins that your body needs.
It’s good to pound back a meal consisting of steak, sweet potatoes and broccoli to cover your muscle building macros but make sure you are thinking about the micro as well.
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