(Updated October 2017) There are a few great muscle-building supplements out there. They’re affordable, healthy, safe and very effective. But good luck finding them amongst the thousands of supplements lining the shelves.
The even bigger problem is that you want to gain weight.
“Are you crazy!?”
Sob. No. We aren’t crazy, just naturally skinny.
So here’s an article about how to buy supplements 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’s not mentioned here, it’s likely because we don’t feel that there is enough evidence to support it yet. But feel free to ask us about any supplements you’re curious about in the comments.
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 weird supplement protocol that you find on the internet 😉
Without further ado, let’s begin.
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?
Yes and no.
Maltodextrin is a source of carbohydrates. More specifically, it’s a powdered starch, like flour. However, unlike flour, it can be mixed with water and consumed raw. This makes it arguably the most convenient source of calories on the planet.
Why on earth would someone want to drink a carb shake?
Well, most people wouldn’t. Overweight people don’t benefit from adding extra calories into their diets. That would just make them gain even more weight. And sedentary people don’t benefit from adding more carbs into their diets. Since they aren’t active, they don’t need extra fuel.
But for women trying to get bigger and stronger, maltodextrin can be a godsend.
We store starch in our muscles (as glycogen), and then use it as fuel while working out. This improves our workout performance.
After working out, we need to get into a calorie surplus in order to build muscle. However, we don’t just want to get into any old sort of calorie surplus, we want most of those surplus calories to come from cabs and protein.
The carbs re-inflate our muscles with glycogen, the protein allows us to construct new muscle tissue.
Fat, on the other hand, is very easily stored as fat. After all, fat is already fat. Our body can just dump it into fat storage without even needing to convert it into a different form of energy.
Not so with carbs. In order for our bodies to store carbs as fat, it would first need to convert them into fat. During that process, most of the calories would be burned off as heat.
This means that having extra carbs and protein after workout will make you bigger and hotter, whereas having extra fat would make you bigger and fatter.
Now, here is the issue. The research is very clear that having carbs and protein after working out is great for people who are trying to gain weight and build muscle. As a result, weight-gainer supplements are extremely common.
However, most of the people trying to gain weight are men. As a result, most of the weight-gainer supplements on the market are designed for them, not you.
This is a problem because women have more estrogen than men. Estrogen reduces the amount of glycogen you can store in your muscles, and causes you to get more energy from your fat stores while training. This is good because it means you burn more fat while in the gym, but it’s bad because it changes the ratio of carbs and protein you need after working out.
So while weight gainers work quite well in men, they might not help you that much. You need a weight gainer that’s higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates, but that’s also still mercilessly going after weight gain as the primary goal.
That supplement doesn’t exist. So we make it ourselves.
You can do this by buying maltodextrin (maltodextrin) and whey protein separately. That allows you to lower the amount of carbs while keeping the protein content high. 50 grams of maltodextrin + 40 grams of whey protein makes for an ideal women’s weight gainer shake that you can drink after lifting weights.
This has the added benefit of letting you control the ingredients you’re using. For example, you get to pick whether you use artificial flavours and sweeteners or not. Personally, I mix unflavoured whey protein and maltodextrin with a scoop of Athlete Vitamin. Or you could even flavour it by mixing it with your favourite flavour of tea.
Okay, now let’s move on to the second half of this shake.
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.
Eating roughly 1 gram of protein per pound bodyweight per day has been proven to be ideal for muscle growth. Most people don’t eat quite that much, so if you’re like most people, 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.
Having whey protein after working out has been proven to stimulate extra muscle growth. You’ve got up to 2 hours after training to have the protein (study, study), but I’d recommend having it right away just to get into the habit of working out + protein. It will also allow you to get back to eating your regular meals more quickly.
As for how much to take, a scoop of protein powder usually contains 24–27 grams of protein, which is ideal for many people. However, when you train your entire body each workout, as we recommend, we’re stimulating an unusually large number of muscles all at once, so we benefit from a slightly higher protein intake after training.
More muscles stimulated at once = quicker muscle growth = higher protein needs.
So we recommend having 40 grams of whey protein powder after working out. This has the added benefit of giving you extra calories as well, and as with maltodextrin, it’s very difficult for your body to store these extra calories as fat. This should help you make leaner gains.
Of all the protein powders, whey protein isolate is the best default option. Whey protein is a byproduct formed during the creation of milk. Farmers used to throw it away, now they sell it to weightlifters.
The processing of whey is fairly minimal, allowing it to retain many vitamins and minerals. Many nutritionists consider it a whole food, similar to cheese and yoghurt.
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 plant-based protein powder. Here’s our article on plant-based protein options.
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 women are overweight, this describes the typical experience women have with creatine.
Of course, the same would be true if they built muscle the regular way. It’s not that they’re not enjoying the effects of creatine, it’s that they’re not enjoying the experience of having more muscle mass underneath their fat.
However, as someone who’s thinner, it will make you 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.
There’s no reason to try a new, expensive, experimental type of creatine.
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.
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)
The problem with a basic multivitamin is that it’s made for an average person with average goals. That goal is usually: to be a little bit healthier while sitting at a desk all day.
These general multivitamins contain a whole bunch of different vitamins and minerals in doses that won’t help us build muscle at all. Or at least in such a minor way that studies can’t even detect the benefits.
However, some vitamins and minerals in certain doses can indeed help us to build muscle more quickly and healthfully, so 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.
Should you take a pre-workout supplement?
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. So for most people, they wind up helping.
Most pre-workout supplements combine a bunch of different ingredients of varying effectiveness 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
There’s a plus side to the addictive nature of caffeine, too. 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 your workout days.
Our muscle-building supplement protocol for women who want to gain weight
Here are the supplements you should get. None are mandatory to get great results, but if you’re looking to accelerate your results, I recommend buying one of each to start.
- Maltodextrin to help you gain weight leanly.
- Whey protein to provide the raw building materials for muscle growth.
- Creatine for the improved rate of muscle growth.
- 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.
Once you have those supplements in your hands, here’s how to take them:
Creatine + vitamins every morning: 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.)
Caffeine or pre-workout supplement before working out: 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.
Muscle-building shake after working out: 40 grams of whey protein isolate (or plant-based alternative) mixed with water after you finish your workout. If you have trouble gaining weight, add 50 grams of carbohydrate powder (maltodextrin) to the shake.