The most important stack for bodybuilding … plates. As in 45’s, quarters, and dimes stacked at the end of a barbell. And plates of healthy protein, fats, and carbohydrates in the correct macronutrient ratio, at the proper frequency, and in the right amount. Unless and until you have your training program and diet dialed in, any discussion of dietary supplements is premature.
An intelligent approach to bodybuilding starts with your training regimen coupled with quality nutrition, setting aggressive yet realistic goals, focusing on rest and recovery, and discipline. A personal trainer to help with proper exercise form and program design and a nutritionist to develop your eating plan are great first steps. They can even help with goal setting and advising appropriate recovery times. The discipline is yours alone.
Once you have mastered your basic training and nutrition programs, it’s time to consider supplementation to help take you to the next level. So, how do you supplement for bodybuilding? We’ll take a deep dive into what supplementing as a bodybuilder should look like, and, of course, we’ll give you our choices for the best bodybuilding supplement stack. Let’s get started!
Stacking – A Supplementation Strategy To Accelerate Performance
Your diet is the foundation of your program. We cannot overemphasize the crucial importance of getting the appropriate number of calories to achieve your goals in the correct ratio of macronutrients from whole foods. Only then do we move on to supplementing your diet with performance-enhancing nutritional supplements.
The stacking strategy is designed to incorporate different products into your regimen to gain a synergistic effect amplifying your results. We approach stacking in this article as an add-on strategy, starting with the basics for general health and wellbeing and then pivoting to add products to achieve specific objectives such as:
- Adding Lean Muscle
- Building Extreme Mass
- Weight Loss
Typically, we recommend layering new supplements gradually, adding one new product at a time, determining its effectiveness in reaching your goals over a specified period, and only then adding the next supplement. We deviate from that approach in this article, adding products/ingredients in combinations (stacks) to advance results towards your goals and objectives. Many of the ingredients/supplements included in this Best Of article are delivered in a single product, such as my current pre-workout, PreJYM from Supplement Science (the same makers as Pro JYM). PreJYM contains the following ingredients in its formulation:
- N-Acetyl L-Cysteine
- Citrulline Malate
- Beet Extract
We intend to help you identify those ingredients/supplements best suited to help you reach your goals. When deciding on a pre-workout, I knew that I wanted quality creatine, Beta-Alanine, Citrulline Malate, BCAAs, and Caffeine. Why? I wanted a product to help with strength gains, to build lean muscle, nitric oxide, and energy to fuel my workouts. PreJYM delivers all that and more. We review each of these ingredients and their role within this article.
A post-workout product may deliver similar results combining multiple components. Let’s take a popular post-workout recovery drink such as ReKaged, which includes:
- Digestive Enzymes
Many other post-workout products will include dextrose or maltodextrin, fast-acting carbohydrates to drive nutrients into the muscles.
It’s not unusual to find products designed for one activity/benefit, such as an intra-workout BCAA, to include ingredients formulated for additional benefits, such as an energy component or a cutting element to enhance weight loss. The originator of intra-workout products, Scivation, currently markets its best-selling Xtend BCAAs with added energy (caffeine) and weight loss (CLA and CapsiMax-Cayenne Fruit Extract).
We will help you identify those ingredients/supplements/components best suited to help you achieve your objectives, but in most instances, stop short of recommending specific products. However, in our Best Of section, we provide our recommendations for the best companies/brands in specific categories.
The Basic Supplements For General Health And Wellbeing
These products are designed for general health and wellness and should be a part of your basic nutritional plan when engaged in a training regimen:
- Multivitamin/Mineral – your insurance policy to address any dietary deficiencies. We recommend a product with a broad spectrum of vitamins and minerals designed to deliver 100% of their Recommended Daily Values. Note: in the mass building and weight loss stacks, we reserve the right to upgrade your MVM to include additional ingredients.
- Protein – Most strength training athletes, even those who achieve the U.S. RDA of .8 grams per kg of body weight, will not meet their protein needs through diet alone. Protein is required to stimulate muscle protein synthesis to repair the micro-traumas incurred during exercise and build and maintain lean muscle mass.
- Omega 3 Fish Oils – Your body needs these fatty acids either through diet or supplementation for muscle activity and cell growth. Their anti-inflammatory properties also play a role in recovery from intense workouts.
- Probiotics – are proven to improve digestive health, reduce intestinal inflammation, and bolster your immune system. If you want to stay healthy, taking care of your gut health is crucial.
The Lean Muscle – Getting Bigger Bodybuilder Stack
Ask any aspiring bodybuilder their number one priority, and we guarantee the words “getting bigger” and adding “lean muscle” will be a part of their response. In the early stages, gaining muscle is paramount and trumps cuts and vascularity. Here is your introductory stack (in addition to the Basics) for adding muscle:
- Creatine – Like the Rose Bowl, creatine is the “Granddaddy of Them All.” Creatine is the most clinically studied supplement ever and is the best supplement for increasing muscle size and strength. Although sports nutrition manufacturers continue to introduce new forms of creatine, esters, chelates, and hydrochlorides, we recommend the original monohydrate in a 3 – 5 grams dose per day, either pre, post, or both pre and post, per day. Some popular creatine supplements include CON-CRET Creatine, Bulk Supplements Creatine Monohydrate, and Creatine X3.
- Whey Protein – To gain muscle mass, you need a surplus of calories in your diet and more high-quality protein. Strength athletes need to double their protein RDA for muscle gain to a minimum of 1.6 grams per kg of body weight. We suggest whey protein supplementation due to its high leucine content – a branched-chain amino acid that supports protein synthesis for the repair and recovery of muscles. There are many whey protein options available; some worth checking out are Gnarly Whey Protein, 1UP WHEY Protein, and Naked Whey.
- Beta-Alanine – Beta-Alanine is a non-essential amino acid for endurance and more forceful muscle contractions to enhance performance. It allows you to go longer and harder by buffering lactic acid in the muscle. The recommended dosage is 1.6 – 3.2 grams per day, taken either pre-or intra-workout. Beta-Alanine is the ingredient in pre-workout drinks responsible for the tingling feeling.
- Citrulline Malate – Citrulline malate is an amino acid and a powerful nitric-oxide booster, a vasodilator, which helps widen your arteries and improve blood flow. Citrulline is converted into arginine in the body – and may increase arginine and NO levels in the blood better than arginine itself. It also plays a role in the urea cycle, removing harmful compounds that accumulate during intense exercise; recommended dosage, 6 grams per day.
- BCAAs – The BCAAs leucine, isoleucine, and valine are three of the nine essential amino acids – the building blocks required to synthesize other amino acids and proteins. BCAAs help build, maintain, and repair muscle. The correct ratio of BCAAs is 2:1:1 – 2 parts Leucine, 1 part Isoleucine, and 1 part valine. Some solid BCAA supplement options include K Nutri BCAAs + Collagen and IdealLean BCAAs.
- Caffeine – Caffeine is a powerful, evidence-based stimulant used extensively in pre-workouts and energy drinks. Some will use caffeine as a stand-alone supplement in powder, tablet, or capsule form for energy in the gym – we recommend capsules or tablets versus powder to ensure the proper dosages. Caffeine is one of the most effective and extensively researched supplements today for cognitive function, energy and to boost endurance performance.
- L-Glutamine – The most prevalent free amino acid found naturally in the body. Glutamine is one of our favorites and among the most widely used ingredients in the gym. Glutamine plays a crucial role in repair and recovery, alleviating soreness after intense exercise, and is an essential component for gut health supporting the immune function. Five to ten grams post-workout is sufficient to mitigate exercise-induced muscle soreness.
Accessing the above components for your getting bigger stack typically will require a pre-workout product, an intra-workout, and separate sources for whey protein and possibly your glutamine. L-Arginine or AAKG (Arginine-alpha-ketoglutarate) are other nitric oxide/vasodilators that may readily be substituted for Citrulline Malate.
As promised, we complete the analysis of the ingredients in my PreJYM pre-workout product:
- Betaine – Is a unique amino acid known for its health benefits for the liver and joints. Recent studies indicate Betaine may also play a role in muscle strength and growth, and fat loss.
- Taurine – Frequently used in pre-workouts and energy drinks to support energy levels during intense workouts. A functional amino acid that acts as an antioxidant to combat free radicals induced by exercise.
- N-Acetyl L-Cysteine – N-acetyl cysteine comes from the amino acid L-cysteine. Primarily used in sports nutrition by endurance athletes for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Alpha-Glycerol – Alpha-Glycerylphosphorylcholine (Alpha GPC) provides the body with a source of choline, known for its brain-boosting effects. Choline is a nutrient used by the brain to produce acetylcholine – a neurotransmitter responsible for muscle contractions.
- Beet Extract – Rich in nitrates, beet extract is used as a nitric oxide for vasodilation, allowing more blood to working muscles to deliver more oxygen and nutrients.
- L-Tyrosine – Tyrosine, another amino acid – supports your metabolism to aid in burning fat, provides energy during exercise, improves focus, and reduces training-induced fatigue.
- Huperzine A – Huperzine is a plant extract gaining popularity in pre-workouts and nootropics (cognition products) to promote better focus, enhanced memory, and improved mood.
- BioPerine – Is a black pepper extract used extensively in dietary supplements of all types to enhance absorption.
As you can see, when selecting a sports nutrition supplement, it’s crucial to scrutinize the Supplement Facts panel to ensure you are getting the components you are seeking and to understand the role of additional ingredients.
The Mass Stack – Building Even More Mass
The more advanced bodybuilder goes beyond “adding lean muscle” to generating significant mass. Go big or go home is the mantra. Here are our recommendations when adding even more mass is the goal. These recommendations are in addition to the Basics and include many of the Lean Muscle components.
Once you have progressed beyond the Basics and the Lean Muscle Stacks, we revert to the previously discussed strategy of adding one new product at a time, determining its effectiveness, and then adding the next supplement. For example, add a post-workout shake to your regimen and assess progress before layering on the mass gainer. If progress is lagging, perhaps adding ZMA alone or a test booster is in order. Again, evaluate and then move on to the next product.
- Creatine – A staple in the lean mass stack, we now add creatine both pre- and post-workout.
- Protein Powders – For mass gains, we increase the recommended daily intake to 1.6 – 2.4 grams per kg of body weight and include casein in addition to whey protein. Casein, like that found in Trutein, is a slower-digesting protein, ideal before bedtime for providing a steady supply of aminos during your overnight fast. Casein, when added to whey in your post-workout shake, will enhance muscle gains.
- Beta-Alanine – in the more extreme mass stack, we increase the dosage to 6.4 grams/day
- Citrulline Malate, L-Arginine, or AAKG
- BCAAs and EAAs – In addition to your BCAAs, we add full-spectrum EAAs (essential amino acids). The EAAs products include the three BCAAs, plus the other six essential amino acids:
Recent studies indicate that EAAs may sustain protein synthesis in post-workout recovery more effectively than BCAAs alone.
- Multivitamin Mineral with Added Elements – Universal Nutrition has a line-up of vitamin packs with additional components, such as a Performance Blend and Energy Blend in their Animal Pack. For serious mass, they also have Animal Staks with hormonal (testosterone and GH) support.
- Betaine – In addition to its liver and joint health benefits, Betaine aids in the release of growth hormone and IGF-1 while reducing catabolic hormones like cortisol. Supplementing with 2.5 grams per day may increase muscle growth, decrease muscle breakdown, and improve body composition.
- Post-Workout Shake with Dextrose, Maltodextrin, Waxy Maize – We recommend a post-workout shake with whey protein, a minimum of 20 – 30 grams, and fast-acting carbohydrates as found in dextrose, maltodextrin, or waxy maize, for fast glycogen replacement to increase muscle recovery and growth. Many prepared post-workout products include several of the other components recommended in this section.
- Weight Gainer – To gain mass, you need a caloric surplus in your daily consumption. If you are not getting sufficient calories and protein, we recommend a dedicated weight gain product. Most major brands will deliver more than 1,000 calories and 50 grams of protein plus a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals per serving.
- ZMA – ZMA (or zinc-magnesium aspartate) is a vitamin and mineral supplement. Intense exercise can deplete these essential nutrients. Best taken before bed, ZMA can improve sleep, aid in testosterone production, and release insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1).
- Testosterone Support / Aromatase (Estrogen) Inhibitors – Testosterone is crucial for increased muscle mass and fat reduction in men. There are numerous testosterone support products on the market; many include an aromatase inhibitor (estrogen blocker) and ZMA. Ashwagandha, Vitamin D3, DHEA, Tongkat Ali Extract, Tribulus Terrestris, and Testofen are common ingredients in male testosterone products.
Best Supplement Stack For Weight Loss
Almost as common as the “add lean muscle” comment is the “add lean muscle while losing weight” program objective. Not an easy goal, but one that is aided by the proper nutrition and supplements. In any weight loss or cutting phase, a caloric deficiency is required. In addition to the Basics, below are the best supplements to use in a weight loss regimen while retaining your hard-earned muscle.
- We retain several of the supplements from the Lean Muscle Stack – BCAAs, Beta-Alanine, L-Glutamine.
A weight-loss stack will also include a thermogenic (fat burning component), appetite suppressants, possibly carb and fat blockers, and other key ingredients such as the below.
Thermogenic acids are needed for fat burning. Many brands will formulate with one or more of the following in their diet aid products:
- Caffeine – takes on a more prominent role in a weight loss stack as a thermogenic in addition to its energy benefits
- Green Tea Extract/EGCG – contains caffeine
- Yohimbe Bark Extract – another potent fat loss aid
- Capsaicin – Cayenne Pepper
- Garcinia Cambogia – contains hydroxycitric acid (HCA)
- Bitter Orange/Synephrine
- Theacrine – a patented ingredient, similar to caffeine, marketed as TeaCrine®
Appetite suppressants help to decrease the appetite and prevent overeating. Some of the more popular suppressants are:
- Chromium Picolinate
- Green Tea Extract
- Cayenne Pepper
- Black Pepper
Carb And Fat Blockers
- ALA (Alpha-Lipoic Acid) – Alpha-lipoic acid is a fatty acid with powerful antioxidant properties found naturally inside every cell in the human body.
- Fiber – adding a fiber supplement to your protein shakes increases satiety, limiting your appetite and preventing overeating at meals
- Multivitamin Mineral with Added Elements – Once again, Universal provides a multivitamin with added elements for weight loss – the Animal Cuts formula covers the waterfront with thermogenic ingredients, suppressants, and water shed ingredients
- Whey Protein and Creatine optional – while in a calorie deficit, whey can help to protect your lean muscle, and creatine allows you to maintain strength
We understand the above is a lot to digest (pun intended). Although we do not indicate specific products (other than the Universal Multis) to meet these recommendations, we felt it proper to include a list of some of the best brands in specific categories.
Best Bobodybuilding Supplement Stack Brands
Each of the below brands/companies adheres to best-in-class practices in their supplement businesses. Each company’s products are made in certified cGMP (current Good Manufacturing Principles) facilities. Many of the products from these companies contain patented, trademarked ingredients, with clinical studies to validate their structure/function claims at the appropriate dosages.
Every company’s products are tested in an independent third-party lab for quality assurance, and most are certified by USP, NSF, Safe for Sport. etc. In short, these are reputable, industry-leading companies we endorse as excellent sources for the ingredients we recommend.
- Multivitamin / Basics – Garden of Life
- Multivitamin / Mass or Cuts – Universal Nutrition
- Pre-Workout – BSN, JYM
- BCAAs (Intra-Workout) – Scivation BSN
- Protein – Optimum Nutrition / Isopure
- Post-Workout – JYM, BSN
- Mass Gainer – Optimum Nutrition
- Thermogenic – Cellucor
- Fish Oil – Nordic Naturals
- Probiotic – Gundry MD