There are a few great muscle-building supplements out there. They’re affordable, healthy, safe and very effective. The problem is that there are thousands of supplements out there, and most of them are overpriced, sketchy and ineffective.
The even bigger problem is you want to build muscle and gain weight.
“Are you crazy!?”
Sob. No. We aren’t crazy, just naturally skinny. And it’s about time that we write an article about how to buy supplements properly with our unique goal in mind.
We’ll explain the pros and cons of each, and then, if you decide to take them, we’ll teach you how.
Finally, if you hear about a supplement that is not mentioned here, it’s likely because we don’t feel that there is enough high quality evidence to support it yet. Maybe not, though. Feel free to ask us about absolutely anything in the comments.
Naturally Thin Women Have Super Weird Goals
You’re weird, at least statistically speaking. Only 3% of people are looking to gain weight, and most of them are men. When companies are making a supplement, women who want to gain weight are such a small minority that they often forget about them entirely.
They don’t forget to make the supplements. There are lots of athletes out there, after all. And lots of guys eager to get huge. It’s just that they don’t do a very good job of marketing those supplements to women.
That brings up the next question. Should women who want to build muscle take the same supplements as men who want to build muscle? Oftentimes yes, but not always.
For example, in this study, men who added whey protein and maltodextrin into their diet gained 7.5 pounds of muscle more than the control group over the course of 8 weeks while simultaneously losing fat. Fantastic results, but will it work equally well on women? Probably not.
Maltodextrin is a powdered carb that’s nutritionally pretty similar to a bowl of rice. Men will digest it and store it as simple sugar in their muscles, giving their muscles a bulkier, more inflated kind of look. When they lift weights, they use this sugar in their muscles (glycogen) as fuel.
Women have more estrogen than men, which reduces the amount of sugar you store in your muscles, and causes you to get more energy from your fat stores while training. This gives your muscles a less inflated appearance, and it means that “carb loading” and “cheat meals” and whatnot don’t work quite as well. (It does mean that you burn more fat while in the gym, though.)
So while weight gainers work quite well in men, they might not help you that much. Still, if you’re very skinny and really struggling to eat enough, feel free to give weight gainers a try—just cut the serving size in half. (Here’s a good weight gainer.) One trick we like to use is buying carbohydrate powder (maltodextrin) and whey protein separately so that you can lower the amount of carbs a little bit while keeping the protein content high. 50 grams of maltodextrin + 40 grams of whey protein makes for a good homemade women’s weight gainer shake that you can drink after lifting weights.
Anyway, this supplement guide has just one type of person in mind: the naturally skinny woman who’s looking to build muscle and gain weight as quickly and healthfully as possible. I’m hoping that’s you.
We’ve done our best to find brands with a good reputation for being honest and reasonably priced. If you like our content and you want to support this website, you can purchase the supplements using the links, earning us a 4% commission. No extra cost to you (and these supplements didn’t pay us to write this article or anything, we’re just using Amazon.) If you don’t want to support us, you can just get them without using the links.
Oh, and, of course, consult your doctor before beginning any supplement protocol that you find on the internet 😉
Creatine is extremely popular with men, but not so popular with women yet. I suspect that will soon change, given how healthy and effective it’s proving to be. It has zero negative side effects even after several decades of research (study, study, study), it’s so healthy for your brain that it’s being investigated as a way to prevent depression and Alzheimer’s, and most studies show that creatine is by far the most effective muscle-building supplement (study, study, study, study, study).
Some studies show as much as a 50% improvement in how much muscle you can build, but if we look at the overall body of research, especially the studies focusing on women between the ages of 18–40, I think it would be more reasonable to expect a 25% improvement, as shown in this study. This puts it way ahead of the other similar muscle-building supplements on the market (such as beta alanine).
Creatine is generally considered the muscle-building supplement. It’s so good that most expensive supplement concoctions will tuck away a few grams of creatine into every serving. You could think of most supplements like mix drinks. There are a lot of cool colours, flavours and ingredients, but the whole point of them is the alcohol. Creatine is the alcohol.
So why do some women avoid it? Creatine will cause your muscles to swell, and the more muscle mass you have, the more swelling you’ll experience. In an overweight person with plenty of muscle, plenty of fat, and poor muscle definition, this can make them look more bloated and bulky. Because most people are overweight, this describes the typical experience people have with creatine. (The same would be true if they built muscle the regular way.)
However, in someone thinner with less muscle mass, less fat and more muscle definition, it will make them look fitter and stronger. After all, it’s your muscles that swell up. Besides, the bigger your muscles are, the more they’ll swell. This means that it’s your largest muscles—your thighs and butt—that will swell the most. Not something that every women wants, but definitely something that most naturally thin women want.
Anyway, the swelling of your muscles isn’t even the purpose of creatine, just a cool bonus. The main benefit of creatine is that it increases how many reps you can do when lifting weights (by replenishing your ATP), allowing you to better stimulate growth in your muscles. It also improves your body’s ability to construct new muscle mass.
You’ll also gain less fat. Creatine improves insulin sensitivity in your muscle cells, and more insulin sensitivity in your muscle cells means that more of the calories you eat are used for muscle growth instead of fat storage.
Another nice thing about creatine is that it’s cheap. It’s been around for so long that the price has plummeted. You can buy the best quality stuff for cents per serving. On that note, keep in mind that we’re looking for the highest quality creatine, not the most expensive. The best manufacturer, CreaPure, makes a high quality creatine monohydrate that has decades of research proving its effectiveness. CreaPure then sells their creatine to many of the best supplement brands, such as AllMax. There’s no reason to try a new, expensive, experimental type of creatine.
As for when, how, and how much to take, we’ll cover all of that at the end of the article.
*Creatine is synthesized in a lab so it’s safe for vegetarians and vegans too.
**If you’re a vegan, you’ll be more likely to have a deficiency in creatine, making supplementation even more beneficial. (study)
Our muscles are made out of the protein we eat, so not eating enough protein puts a firm limit on the amount of muscle we can build. Since most people aren’t consuming enough protein to build muscle at an optimal rate—about 1 gram per pound bodyweight per day—eating more protein should allow you to build more muscle more quickly (study, study). Whether you choose to eat more chicken, greek yoghurt, whey protein, plant-based protein powder, or pumpkin seeds is up to you, though. All will work.
Of all the protein powders, whey protein isolate is the best default option, with a concentrate blend not far behind. Whey protein is a byproduct formed during the creation of milk. Farmers used to throw it away, now they sell it to weightlifters. Unlike many other supplements, the processing of whey is fairly minimal, allowing it to retain many vitamins and minerals as well as being a great source of protein. Many nutritionists and dieticians consider it a whole food, as they would with other minimally processed dairy products, like cheese and yoghurt.
However, if you don’t handle whey protein well (allergies) or you’re avoiding it for moral reasons (e.g. you’re a vegan) then you can go with soy protein, pea+pumpkin seed protein, or another blend of plant-based protein. (Those eating a vegan or vegetarian diet can see our full article on plant-based protein options here.)
Pre-Workout Supplements (Caffeine)
A good pre-workout supplement won’t directly build more muscle, but it will allow you to train harder in the gym, and training harder in the gym will directly build more muscle.
As with most supplement blends, most pre-workout supplements combine a bunch of different ingredients of varying effectiveness together instead of using just a single effective ingredient. With muscle-building supplements, the key ingredient is always creatine. With pre-workout supplements, the key ingredient is always caffeine. Caffeine allows you to squeeze out more reps and do more sets before becoming fatigued, increasing your lifting volume, and thus allowing you to build more muscle more quickly.
Don’t click here because you can just have a strong coffee or tea before going to the gym
Unfortunately, our bodies quickly become accustomed to caffeine. If you drink more than a coffee or so per day, you’ll be immune to the performance-enhancing benefits caffeine can provide (although it will still help remove mental fatigue). You can still drink caffeine, and I’m sure you will, but you don’t need to have it right before going to the gym.
There’s a plus side to the addictive nature of caffeine, though. If you build a ritual out of your pre-workout caffeine, you can become addicted to your gym habit. You’ll crave the coffee, the coffee will make you think of going to the gym, and your healthy exercise habit will be that much easier to stick to.
If you aren’t a coffee or tea fan, Citadel Nutrition’s Tier One supplement is a good choice. It has 5 grams of creatine from CreaPure, 3.2 grams of beta-alanine from Carnosyn (which is similar to but less effective than creatine), and 150-200mg of caffeine (which is quite a lot!). Every ingredient is effective, the quality is very high, and it saves you from having to take your creatine in the morning on workout days.
The problem with a basic multivitamin is that it contains a whole bunch of different vitamins and minerals in non-specific doses. We do benefit from certain vitamins in certain situations, such as when trying to build muscle, but we need to pay attention to which vitamins and minerals we’ll benefit from, and also what the ideal dosage is.
Let’s go over a couple vitamins and minerals that you’ll want to pay attention to as a lifter.
Vitamin D is the “sunlight vitamin,” and we synthesize it naturally when we get enough sun exposure. While we’re ‘supposed’ to get it from the sun, we can also get small amounts from eggs, fish and dairy. The problem is that what we get from food usually isn’t enough to make up for the fact that most of us behave like vampires. The vast majority of people in North America (79%) and Europe have a D-ficiency (study, study). If you fix your vitamin D deficiency, it will help balance out hormone irregularities, improve your insulin sensitivity, improve your cardiovascular health, increase your bone density, improve your mood, and help prevent cancer (study, study, study, study).
Vitamin K is the dark green vegetable vitamin, and it helps your bones, your heart, and it slightly improves your insulin sensitivity. It also works synergistically with vitamin D: if you take both, the effects of each are enhanced.
Then we have a few minerals that lifters often benefit from: zinc, magnesium and calcium. Zinc is lost when we sweat, making it a good supplement for lifters and athletes, especially if they sweat profusely while training. Magnesium deficiencies are common in Western countries, so a magnesium supplement can often be helpful. And calcium is great for bone health, although it’s quite easy to get enough from your diet if your diet includes dairy.
Fortunately, there are a couple evidence-based vitamins designed for people trying to build muscle, and this can save you the trouble of having to get each one individually.
Another option, especially if your diet is already very good—rich in dark green vegetables, legumes, dairy, etc—is to just get vitamin D mixed into fish oil. Vitamin D isn’t something you can get by eating a good diet, and it’s a fat soluble vitamin, so having it alongside a fat will increase the benefit that you get from it. Fish oil also has some research showing that it can help with building muscle leanly (study, study).
Our muscle-building supplement protocol for women who want to gain weight
Daily creatine + vitamins: Take 5 grams of creatine every day. You don’t need to be all that particular about how you take it: you can sprinkle it on your cereal like fairy dust, or stir it into your morning coffee (which is how they usually do it in studies). Mixing it with water is fine also. (Some people think that taking 5-gram doses of creatine several times per day during your first week will yield quicker results. That hasn’t been proven yet. As it stands, it’s perfectly fine to have just 5 grams per day so that your creatine levels rise slowly over the course of a month. This should also keep you from becoming dehydrated while your muscles begin storing more liquid.)
Also make sure you aren’t deficient in vitamin D, vitamin K, magnesium, zinc, or calcium. How much you should take of each depends on how deficient you are and what country you live in, but for people trying to build muscle in general, this athlete’s vitamin should be a good default choice. (Another option would be to eat tons of veggies, legumes and dairy and then take a tablespoon of Nutrasea + D every morning alongside your creatine.)
Pre-workout caffeine: You can have a strong coffee or tea 30 minutes before going to the gym, or you could drink a pre-workout supplement like Tier One. (Note that this only works if you aren’t addicted to caffeine already.)
Post-workout protein: 40 grams of whey protein isolate (or plant-based alternative) mixed with water after you finish your workout. You’ve got up to 2 hours after training to have the shake (study, study), but I’d recommend having it right away just to get into the habit of working out + protein, and so that you can get back to eating regular meals more quickly. (A scoop of protein powder will often contain around 27 grams of protein, which is ideal in most cases, but when you train your entire body each workout, as we do, we’re stimulating an unusually large number of muscles all at once, so we benefit from a slightly higher protein intake after training.)
Note: If you’re especially skinny and really struggling to eat enough to gain weight even after trying the tips in our nutrition article, feel free to make your own weight gainer: 40 grams of protein powder + 50 grams of carbohydrate powder (maltodextrin). You can have this homemade gainer after working out instead of just protein powder.
Just to make things easier if you decide to buy these supplements, here they all are in a row:
- Creatine for the improved rate of muscle growth.
- Protein Powder (whey protein isolate) to provide the raw building materials for muscle growth (and also calories).
- A good athlete’s multivitamin for better overall health and leaner gains.
- Coffee or Tier One to give you the energy to kick ass in the gym.
I hope this helps! And if you’re curious about any other supplements, I’d be happy to explain the pros and cons of them in the comments. There are a ton of supplements out there, and we’ve been staying up to date by reading all the new studies that come out on them each month 🙂