Admit it, most of us are envious of the leanest guy (or lady) in the room – the one who glides through life without a body image concern and has no need to worry about diet. It must be nice to be carefree about intake and yet always look good in your clothes. Guess what? Many of them are as concerned with lack of muscle as others are with reducing their BMI. The ectomorph (hard gainer) is also concerned with calories in versus calories out – only they need to create a surplus to add size, muscle, and get bigger.
This article discusses strategies to get bigger, stronger, with more lean muscle, without adding body fat – no one wants to be skinny fat. Our base plan approaches getting bigger through diet and exercise, following our often-cited “food first” mantra. Once your diet and exercise programs are dialed in, we visit a subset of the protein supplement category, the mass gainer. We define mass gainer for you, explain what to look for in a quality gainer product, and compare products from some of the biggest names in sports nutrition. Finally, we suggest a few additional supplements you may wish to stack with your gainer to accelerate or amplify your results.
Ready to learn exactly how to use a mass gainer? Let’s get started!
Defining Your Weight Gain Objectives for Your Mass Gainer
You’ve decided to get serious about adding muscle and size. Be prepared. Doing so may be as challenging as cutting weight. Your journey requires a scientific approach. Simply seeing weight gain on the scale is not your objective – you want to gain lean muscle without adding body fat. You will need to monitor your BMI (Body Mass Index) as well as body weight and tweak your program through trial and error.
Industry experts concur that a goal of 0.2 to 0.5 pounds of lean muscle per week is a worthy goal. More aggressive bodybuilding trainers think it possible to gain 0.5-1.0 percent of your body weight per week. Both groups agree that gaining any faster puts you at serious risk of adding substantial body fat.
An initial consultation with a nutritionist or dietitian will help determine your BMI and caloric intake required to add good weight. Key metrics needed to begin your journey include your BMI, pounds of lean and fat mass, and your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), the amount of energy (calories) needed while resting. Add calories for normal daily energy expenditure, your exercise expenditure, plus the thermic effect of food (we expend energy and calories in processing our food). Total these, and you know your current daily caloric expenditure, adjust downwards to lose weight, or for our purposes, increase, to put on weight. Add 200 – 300 calories per day over your maintenance intake to gain weight – monitor and adjust.
Another approach to increase mass is to target 20-22 calories per pound of bodyweight on workout days – about 3,500 to 3,850 calories per day for a 175-pound person. Equally important is the macronutrient ratio of those calories from quality protein, carbs, and healthy fats. Most trainers recommend 30%-40% from protein, 30%-40% from carbs, and 20%-30% from fats, or about 1.5 – 2.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight, a like amount of carbohydrates, and .5 grams of fat. Your take-away from this segment? Trial and error, monitor and adjust, tweak the variables until you find the calorie count and macronutrient ratio that delivers the desired results.
A Base Plan for Gaining Mass
It all starts with the diet and a training program tailored to add mass. Fail to get these two aspects of your program dialed in, and even a great mass gainer product won’t accomplish your goals.
The Mass Diet
Adding mass requires similar discipline to cutting weight. You will need to eat – a lot, perhaps to the point, it may be uncomfortable. That means six meals per day, spaced at every two and a half to three waking hours. Protein intake is crucial, so plan on 20 – 50 grams per meal. Muscle is made of protein, so your goal is to optimize your anabolic window to increase protein synthesis while reducing muscle breakdown. Excellent protein sources are lean beef, chicken, turkey, fish, and eggs.
Meal frequency and timing are key factors. Smaller doses of protein more frequently are more effective than larger dosages over a prolonged period. A post-workout meal and one before bed are also important. High glycemic/fast-digesting carbs are best with your post-workout for glycogen replenishment and to deliver nutrients to your muscles. A slower digesting protein such as casein (or cottage cheese) before bed is best to keep muscles in a non-cannibalizing, anabolic state.
We suggest you prepare a daily meal plan to deliver the appropriate surplus calories at the correct macronutrient levels to achieve your goals. The internet is replete with sample menu plans for mass gaining. The best carb sources for a mass diet include vegetables, sweet potatoes, legumes, nuts, seeds, oats, and quinoa. Good, healthy fats also include nuts and seeds, fatty fish, avocados and avocado oil, olive oil, and flaxseed oil.
Endless hours in the gym featuring isolation exercises will not promote mass. Instead, we suggest limiting your workouts to no more than one hour of intense training per session. Below are our additional recommendations for your mass training sessions.
- Consider consulting with a trainer for initial program design and proper exercise form
- Focus on multi-joint exercises such as squats, deadlifts, the bench press, and shoulder press
- Use free weights versus machines
- Progressive overload, always with proper form
- Intensity, challenge yourself
- Volume – multiple sets per body part versus single sets
Adhering to the principles of mass training requires that you fuel your body adequately with the appropriate calories and nutrients. Many people, particularly younger athletes and hard gainers, struggle to consume more calories than they burn. For them, a mass gainer supplement can be an effective method to achieve their intake goals.
What is a Mass Gainer?
From a business perspective, the mass gainer is a subset of the protein category. The primary difference between a mass gainer and a typical protein shake is the number of calories, often times the protein content, the addition of carbohydrates, and healthy fats. The gainer is a dietary supplement in powder form designed to add size and muscle mass by helping you meet your daily calorie and macronutrient needs.
In a later segment, we provide a comparison chart that illustrates the differences between gainer products from several prominent sports nutrition manufacturers. Calories and cost per serving vary significantly; however, most are high in protein, even higher in carbohydrates, and feature a blend of protein types. Whey isolates, concentrates, hydrolysates, casein, egg, and milk are the primary protein sources, with maltodextrin from wheat, rice, or corn the carbohydrate source. Brands also include vitamins, minerals, digestive enzymes, and anabolic aids such as creatine.
A typical gainer Supplement Facts Panel might look something like this:
- Scoops per Serving – 2 Heaping Scoops
- Calories – 1,300
- Protein – 52 grams
- Carbohydrates – 252 grams
- Fats – 9 grams
- Sugars – 25 grams
- Protein Source – Whey Protein Concentrate, Whey Protein Isolate, Whey Protein Hydrolysate, Milk Protein Isolate, Micellar Casein, Egg Albumin
- Carbohydrate Source – Maltodextrin
This example (Dymatize Super Mass Gainer) includes twenty-two vitamins and minerals, digestive enzymes, and creatine monohydrate.
When to Take Your Mass Gainer
You can split your serving into two shakes for those who find 1,300 calories at one sitting a bit onerous or are concerned about their body’s ability to digest and absorb a full 52 grams of protein. One of the benefits of a mass gainer is multiple scoops per serving. One strategy is to take a scoop in the morning to fuel you for the day and a second scoop post-workout after expending significant calories. The post-workout scoop provides carbohydrates to replenish glycogen levels and shuttles protein to your muscles for repair and recovery.
Considerations for Selecting a Mass Gainer
Below is a list of things to consider when selecting a mass gainer product. Many of the below attributes represent best-in-class practices of manufacturers and their products in the dietary supplement space.
- Produced in a cGMP-certified facility
- Label transparency – no proprietary blends
- Third-party tested for quality and purity
- Certifications – NSF, Safe for Sport, gluten-free, non-GMO
- Caloric content
- Macronutrient ratio
- Type of proteins used
- Other ingredients – vitamins, minerals, digestive enzymes, anabolic aids, added sugars, artificial flavorings, etc.
- Cost per serving
Mass Gainer Sample Comparison Chart
To aid in your selection of the best gainer on the market for you, we prepared a comparison chart featuring the gainer offerings from some of the most respected names in bodybuilding and sports nutrition supplementation.
The outlier in this comparison is the first item listed, the Stoppani Mass Jym product, featuring significantly fewer calories and carbohydrates than the others and at a substantially lower cost per serving. This reflects the formulator’s attitude regarding lean mass versus weight gain. Further, the Mass Jym product was the only brand to detail the grams of protein used by type.
Are Mass Gainers Safe?
Mass gainers are typically safe for most healthy individuals. However, the sheer size of the serving may cause digestive issues such as bloating, flatulence, and cramps, so we recommend you start with a single scoop and titrate usage as tolerated.
As always, make sure to consult with your healthcare practitioner before adding any new supplement to your regimen, particularly if you have food intolerances.
With gainers, especially with excessive use, other potential adverse side effects should be monitored:
- Unhealthy weight gain
- May increase your risk of type 2 diabetes
- Liver damage, increase your water intake while using a gainer
- Kidney stones
Stacking Supplements to Accelerate Mass Gains
We’ve addressed mass training principles, the necessity of a surplus of calories, and supplementing with a mass gainer to help meet your macros. Below are additional supplements that may help you meet or exceed your muscle gain objectives:
- Creatine – many sports nutrition brands (Dymatize, Optimum Nutrition, and MuscleTech) incorporate creatine (typically monohydrate) in their mass gainer formulations. As one of the most studied sports performance ingredients ever, adding supplemental creatine, either monohydrate or HCL (Hydrochloride), in your pre-and or post-workout can also help add muscle. Studies indicate that up to 20 grams per day are safe and create no detrimental health effects.
- Beta-Alanine – a non-essential amino acid that produces carnosine when combined with histidine in your muscles. Carnosine buffers lactic acid build-up to promote endurance, muscle strength, and power, allowing you to do more sets and reps.
- Nitric Oxide – citrulline malate or arginine to increase nitric oxide production for vasodilation.
- BCAAs – the branched-chain amino acids, Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine, help build muscle, decrease muscle fatigue, and alleviate soreness. BCAAs are found in pre-, intra-, and post-workout products with the normal dosage of 5-6 grams. The established ratio is two-parts leucine to one-part each of isoleucine and valine.
- L-Glutamine – is the most prevalent amino acid in the body and, like creatine, is used in several sports nutrition mass gainers. Glutamine is essential for repair, recovery, gut health, and alleviating DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).
The good news regarding stacking is that you needn’t try to access the above supplements independently. Most quality pre-workout products will contain these ingredients, or a variation of these ingredients, in addition to a stimulant, commonly caffeine, Theacrine, or green tea.
In Summary: Using a Mass Gainer
A mass gainer is an aid to the athlete or ectomorph seeking to add size, strength, and muscle mass. Without executing the base plan, diet, and the correct type of exercise program, a gainer will not lead to the results being sought. As previously mentioned, gaining lean mass takes a disciplined approach of trial and error, monitoring results in the changes to your body composition as well as looking at the scale. Perhaps the industry should consider re-naming the segment from mass gainer to lean muscle gainer, considering that is the desired outcome for most consumers.