(Updated June 2016) We’ve gotten a lot of questions about supplements for ectomorphs—which supplements are best for us, what brands we recommend, whether they’re healthy, and whether we need them at all. The answer to that last question is simple: you don’t need them. You can build muscle just fine with or without them. In fact, until you know how to build muscle without them you really shouldn’t be buying them at all. Once you’ve got the fundamentals down though, adding in some key supplements can drastically improve your results, make your life a helluva lot easier, improve your health and even save you some money… if you’re smart about it.
These probably aren’t the supplements you expect though—you’re going to find one them a little weird. Us ectomorphs need to supplement a little differently. So we’ve put together a protocol. Which supplements to take, how much to take, and when to take them.
(This is a research based article, and there’s a lot of research being done into muscle-building nutrition and muscle-building supplements. We’ll been updating this post every month with all the relevant new studies that come out.)
- Beta-alanine is proving to be quite effective. It’s not on the golden list yet, but for those eager to experiment with new supplements, this could noticeably improve the speed with which you can build muscle. The ideal dosage seems to be around 4 grams per day at any time (similar to how you take creatine). Be warned though—it can make your skin tingle in a weird way. Harmless, but weird. (Our stance on beta-alanine: worthwhile for enthusiasts.)
- HMB is still a mystery. Some forms are promising, but it’s way too early for us to recommend it. (Our stance on HMB: better to stick to the more proven stuff for now.)
- Another study just came out showing that fish oil can slightly improve weightlifting performance. There are others showing that it can allow you to build slightly more muscle slightly more leanly. There are many studies showing that it can improve overall health. And it can reduce soreness from training. Not bad, but these effects are very minor compared to the core supplements that we recommend. (Our stance on fish oil: worthwhile but not essential.)
- Vitamin D can increase testosterone output if you’re deficient in vitamin D. However, unlike steroids, it won’t boost your testosterone production outside of normal ranges. For guys who don’t get enough sun though, this can bring their muscle-building potential back to baseline while improving their general health. Great supplement for those who are deficient, and most people are deficient. (Our stance on vitamin D: recommended only if you are deficient.)
- A new study just came out showing that collagen powder can be effective for building muscle in old people with sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss). Whey protein is likely still a better bet for young skinny guys trying to build muscle though, since the protein content is the same but it has more of the amino acid leucine, and leucine is the amino acid that optimally stimulates muscle protein synthesis. (Our stance on collagen powder: stick to regular protein powders.)
- Some cool research is going on with plain old baking powder, and a new study just came out showing that it improved muscular endurance by 42%! Very cool. Something we’re keeping our eyes on, as it may also help us increase muscular strength/size. The dosage in the study was 0.2 grams / kilogram bodyweight taken one hour before training. I tried this and I really do not recommend it—very unpleasant. (Our stance on baking soda: to soon to tell.)
- The nitrates in beets and leafy greens are super healthy and there was a buzz about them improving gains, but as more research comes out it’s seeming like supplementing with them isn’t as effective as people hoped. Great for general health, but probably not a good muscle-building “supplement.” (Our stance on nitrates: just eat the best diet you can.)
With that handled, let’s move on to the amazing muscle-building supplements with tons of rigorous research to back them up.
Ectomorphs need to approach supplements differently
Only 3% of people are looking to gain weight. When companies are making a supplement for the masses, we are not the masses.
Most supplements are targeted at the average guy. The average guy is overweight and looking to get leaner. Being muscular is considered very attractive these days, so perhaps he’s also looking to build muscle while he’s at it. This is what the vast majority of muscle-building supplements are designed for—for helping overweight guys lose fat while retaining their muscle mass.
Us ectomorphs looking to build muscle must take a very different approach in order to accomplish our goals.
For example, consider branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). They’re an ingredient in pretty much every workout supplement out there, yet us ectomorphs don’t need them at all.
When you digest protein, part of what you get is BCAAs. You also get lots of other great amino acids and nutrients. However, BCAAs contain no calories, so they don’t facilitate weight gain. Even though they contain fewer amino acids and nutrients, this can make them a better choice for people trying to lose weight.
As naturally skinny guys we’re much better off eating their calorie-rich cousin—protein. This is a no brainer, given our goals. A standard 30g scoop of whey protein actually has about 6g of BCAAs in it, which is more than a typical 5g scoop of BCAAs has. (Obviously.) Besides, the other nutrients present in whey spike muscle protein synthesis far higher than BCAAs taken alone, making whey protein far better for building muscle (study).
This supplement protocol has one type of guy in mind: the naturally skinny ectomorph who’s looking to build muscle, i.e., gain weight.
Do us ectomorphs need supplements?
Hell no. Supplements aren’t magic, and they won’t build muscles out of thin air. Until you know what you’re doing, all the money you spend on supplements will be wasted. You won’t be getting anything out of them. In fact, once you know what you’re doing, you’ll realize that you don’t even need supplements to build muscle at all.
Check this out:
- Crappy program + supplements = no results, frustration, wasted money, cursing your skinny genetics and giving up
- Mediocre program + supplements = slow and unpredictable results. You’ll think that building muscle is a slow and frustrating process, but you’ll be making progress.
- Great program + no supplements = great, steady, reliable results. You’ll soon have a burly bear-like body. Other people will soon be jealous of your genetics.
- Great program + intelligent supplements = “holy $%& man! Where did all those muscles come from!? Last Thanksgiving you were skinny!!”
A good program (like ours!) that includes both training and nutrition is the #1 place that you want to invest. Hehe, okay, yeah, so we’re a little biased there. But it’s still true. The benefits of investing in a solid plan last for life. You won’t eat your way through $200 of information and then have to go buy more. You can invest once, develop a solid training and nutritional foundation, and collect your results over the coming weeks, months and years.
The next crucial ingredient for success is actually doing the program. These two things will get you further than any combination of supplements—guaranteed. No amount of supplements make up for a not getting your ass off the couch. (That includes the people who are stuck in the “research” phase, waiting to know everything before starting anything.)
So, this supplement plan assumes that you’re an ectomorph with a weightlifting and nutrition plan. I’ll even take this one step further—this supplement list is for guys who are already having success building muscle. If you’re still working out the weightlifting and nutrition kinks, save this stuff for later.
With weightlifting and nutrition handled though, these supplements will help you transform yourself much faster. This protocol is backed up by well established research, this is the approach we took personally to gain over 150 pounds of muscle between the three of us, and this is part of what allows our members to consistently gain 20+ pounds within just a few months of joining us.
Albert’s a good example of someone kicking ass despite being a naturally skinny guy with a busy schedule. He’s a young doctor with 14+ hour shifts still finding a way to eat enough, training when he can, and supplementing intelligently to give his results that extra little boost. The supplements aren’t the key factor in his gains, but they helped.
Simple Calories > Fancy Ingredients
Us skinny guys need to be eating more calories than we want to. We don’t want a supplement protocol that’s just a bunch of vitamins and fancy patent protected formulas. Instead, we want one that contains a hell of a lot of calories. Using smart supplementation, we can take that one step further: consuming the right calories during the right circumstances can greatly increase your ability to build muscle without gaining fat.
In this study guys who added whey protein and maltodextrin into their diet gained an extra 7.5 pounds of muscle over the course of 8 weeks while simultaneously losing fat.
Now I want to be clear here. Workout nutrition is overhyped. Nothing trumps overall calorie and protein intake when it comes to building muscle. You’ll build muscle whether you take this drink first thing in the morning, while training or right before bed (so long as you have a good weightlifting program). That’s because the caloric, carb and protein content of the workout drink supersedes the timing of it (study, study, study).
We do recommend that you take it while training though. Why? Because insulin sensitivity in your muscle cells will be heightened after training, meaning that your body will use the nutrients to construct muscle mass instead of storing them as fat (study).
The fact that you’ll be consuming these supplements in liquid form makes this combo even more significant for us ectomorphs. Since liquid calories aren’t very filling, they subconsciously cause us to consume more calories (study, study). Downing 1000+ liquid calories while weightlifting is a total breeze, and it makes hitting your daily calorie goals much more achievable.
Okay so maybe downing the workout shake isn’t a total breeze. For us naturally skinny guys this is the Buckley’s of workout nutrition. It’s a gruesome drink—but it works!
We’re making pretty large claims, so we wanted to double check our facts. Who do you go to when it comes to analyzing muscle-building nutrition research? Alan Aragon. He’s one of the most unbiased, well respected and evidence-based researchers out there, he’s got a masters in nutrition, and he’s handled the nutrition of a pretty fearsome roster of athletes: Olympians, the Lakers, bodybuilders, fitness models, etc.
So I sent him the study and asked him his thoughts on our supplement protocol. He thought that the premise made sense, but he wasn’t familiar with the study we were basing it on. He was a little dubious and a lot intrigued, so he wanted to take the time to fully review it. He did. He posted a review and breakdown of the study in the December 2012 edition of his monthly research review.
It checked out. He concluded that the study was properly conducted and that the trainees really did gain tons of muscle while losing a bit of fat. Let me add, as he did, that gains this incredibly rapid are only possible in relatively untrained dudes. Perfectly relevant for guys who are still relatively skinny, but if you’ve already built a ton of muscle you can’t expect your gains to be as extreme.
So what did Alan think about downing tons of liquid calories to finally overcome our ectomorph appetites (or lack thereof) and build tons of muscle?
“I highly agree with you that the liquid meal can boil down to an appetite & compliance thing rather than a timing thing. No objections there at all. There are plenty of athletes whose energy demands benefit from liquid/refined nutrition, and they don’t necessarily fit the endurance athlete mold.” – Alan Aragon
Plus this stuff is cheap. It’s cheap compared with other supplements and even cheap compared with regular boring old food. I mean if you want to build muscle your calories need to come from somewhere. Whey protein is a very affordable type of high efficiency protein (compared with meat, eggs and dairy, which are also high efficiency protein sources). Carbohydrates are usually pretty cheap, but the maltodextrin that we’re recommending is extremely cheap.
If there were fancier supplements out there that worked better than these we’d tell you about them. There aren’t.
We’ve done our best to find brands with a good reputation for being honest and reasonably priced. Full transparency: these are affiliate links, so you’ll earn us around 4% commission if you buy them via the links—which would be fantastic. However, these are the supplements we use as well. This is also what we tell our members to use.
I’m going to explain the three different ectomorph muscle-building supplements that we recommend. I know this stuff can often be hard to piece together, so at the end of the article I’ll outline the specific protocol we’ve designed so that you know exactly how and when to take all this stuff.
Oh, and, of course, consult your doctor before beginning any supplement regimen that you find on the internet 😉
More muscle. Creatine is by far the most powerful legal muscle-building supplement available (study). Studies unanimously show that it builds remarkable amounts of muscle and strength (study, study, study, study). Secretly mixing creatine into a trainee’s coffee in the morning significantly improves his muscle gains? Pretty fearsome.
For example, this study found that guys who began weightlifting and taking a post-workout carbohydrate shake gained 6 pounds of muscle over the course of eight weeks. A separate group of guys who had creatine secretly mixed into the carb shake gained 9 pounds of muscle. That’s a 50% improvement in muscle mass due to creatine. (And the post-workout carb shake? That’s up next.)
Less fat. You’ll also gain less fat. This is because creatine is a potent supplement for improving insulin sensitivity in your muscle cells. More insulin sensitivity in your muscle cells means that more of the calories you eat are used for muscle growth instead of fat storage.
Many studies are conducted on overweight people with poor insulin sensitivity, so as a skinny guy these findings always need to be taken with a grain of salt. However, creatine was found to improve insulin sensitivity even in those with decent insulin sensitivity to begin with (like most of us skinny guys.)
Safety and health: Of all the muscle-building supplements out there, creatine is by far the safest. After decades of rigorous testing researchers haven’t found a single harmful side effect (study, study, study). In fact, they were surprised to find several beneficial side effects. Creatine is now being research as a way to prevent depression, Alzheimers, improve mood, etc. It may soon be known as a general health supplement.
The only reported negative side effect is that some people get stomach discomfort after consuming it. That’s not harmful, it’s just due to mild dehydration. Creatine will pull fluid into your muscles, so you may need to drink a little bit of extra water.
How does it work? Creatine helps your body replenish ATP, which increases anaerobic power—the type of power you need to haul heavy-ass weights. Being able to lift more weight increases the mechanical tension you’re placing on your muscles and on your body, meaning that you’ll have pretty fantastic muscle stimulation and a greater acute hormonal response to your training. The real benefit comes from the increased skeletal muscle synthesis and glycogen storage that comes along with having high concentrations of creatine in your system. This means that not only will you build more muscle via your training, you’ll also get more muscle out of the food that you’re eating.
Some guys joke that creatine supports the entire muscle-building supplement industry, and that isn’t too far from the truth. When you start reading supplement ingredients you’ll be amazed at how many of them have a few grams of creatine tucked away into every serving. How many supplements out there would still produce results if you yanked the creatine out of them? Not many. Not many at all.
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. We aren’t really fans of mix drinks, so we’re recommending that you skip all the fancy proprietary blends and just head straight to the good stuff.
Now, as with virtually everything in the supplement world, there are a lot of extremely expensive and fancy variations out there. You don’t need them. Simple creatine monohydrate is still the king of creatine. You’ll save a ton of money and get all the benefits. You also don’t need to get fancy with how you take it, as you may have heard. Mix it into your tea, coffee, water—whatever.
*Creatine is synthesized in a lab so it’s safe for vegetarians and vegans too.
**If you’re a vegan I would say it’s nearly mandatory, as you’ll be more likely to have a deficiency in creatine, which can cause some longterm health problems and reduce your cognitive function. (study)
***Beta-alanine is a similar supplement that can be taken in addition to creatine. You’d take 3-4 grams per day at any point during the day. It’s newer and there’s limited research available, but it’s very promising so far. Not as promising as creatine, but promising nonetheless (study, study).
****HMB is also interesting, and some studies are showing some promise. It’s still too early to say though. We’ll be keeping an eye on it and will post an update when it’s appropriate.
Most expensive recovery drinks are packed full of dextrose or maltodextrin. It’s actually a little alarming how cheap these supplements can be when you buy them separately. Given how cheap they are, you’d think you were buying a tub of flour… and you’d be correct.
The supplement that we’re recommending is maltodextrin, which is a glucose polymer. It’s made up of many glucose units bound together. It’s a starch, like flour, rice and potatoes. Unlike flour, rice and potatoes though, if can be consumed in liquid form. This makes it easier to consume in large quantities without your stomach feeling like it’s going to explode. It’s also very low in fibre, so it’s easy on the appetite and will clear out of our stomachs relatively quickly.
This carb powder will allow us to eat more overall, which is a very a big deal for us skinny dudes.
That study in the creatine section is said to have produced “some of the highest non-steroid increases in lean mass” ever seen. While the study was technically studying creatine, the carbohydrates they were giving them were a huge factor in producing the ridiculous amounts of muscle growth the participants were getting. After all, even the study participants who just had the “placebo” carb drink gained 6 pounds of lean muscle in 8 weeks. (The training program itself was also a factor. It was a very well designed muscle-building program. This is surprisingly rare for studies.)
“But Shane, won’t consuming all these refined carbohydrates make me fat?!”
No. Perhaps surprisingly, this is actually a pretty good way to minimize your chances of getting fat. This has to do with the heightened insulin sensitivity in your muscle cells that accompanies weightlifting, the synergistic anabolic effect that the protein creates (whey protein creates a very strong insulin response), the fact that we’re strategically creating a calorie surplus and spiking insulin, and the fact that carbs aren’t very easily converted into fatty acids and thus aren’t very easily stored as fat.
To quote the brilliant nutrition researcher and fat loss expert James Krieger, who has a master’s degree in nutrition and has published of some of the best muscle-building nutrition studies out there—”Post-workout carbohydrates shouldn’t cause you any trouble in the long-run as you are extremely insulin sensitive after training. As long as you maintain a good diet, good activity, keep your body fat low, and your fasting blood sugar remains normal, then you should be fine.”
We picked this brand because it’s pure and affordable. It has one and only one ingredient—maltodextrin.
Whey protein is the easily digested protein found in dairy products. Unlike many other supplements, the processing of whey is fairly minimal. It has several 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, milk and yoghurt.
Muscle can only by synthesized out of amino acids (found in protein) so a shortage of those can easily slow down your efforts. Since most of us ectomorphic guys aren’t consuming enough protein to optimally build muscle, adding whey protein into your diet will improve the rate that you can build muscle (study, study).
Whey protein powder is similar to a chicken breast. A chicken breast would taste pretty funky blended up into a fruit smoothie though, so sometimes whey is preferable.
Whey is especially preferable when taken surrounding training (study, study). It digests quickly and contains a pretty stellar blend of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). If you really want to kick things up a notch, it works even better at stimulating muscle growth when combined with a carb source like maltodextrin (study). This is why most commercial weight gainers will combine these two ingredients.
An interesting (indie) study recently looked into many of the popular brands of whey protein. The study got a lot of attention because of how controversial it was – a lot of popular brands were making false claims. This brand (Optimum Nutrition) wasn’t, and was thus ranked the highest.
*If you want a non-workout protein powder to take along with meals use this casein protein, but keep in mind it presents no advantage over real food. It’s handy and affordable though if you’re not much one for cooking.
**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 rice+pea protein, or another blend of plant-based protein sources. (The amino acid profile in individual plant-based sources isn’t complete, so blends are ideal.) SunWarrior is pretty fantastic both from a quality standpoint and from a taste standpoint. I use it sometimes and I’m not even a vegan.
Daily Creatine: Take 3-5 grams every day. Sprinkle it on your cereal, put it in your coffee/tea, mix it with water—whatever you like. On workout days you’ll be putting it right in your workout drink.
With 5 grams per day it will take around a month for your creatine levels to rise to max levels. To cut that loading period down to a week, you could take four 5 gram doses each day during the first week. However, it’s unclear whether there’s an advantage to loading up quickly like that.
Training drink: 30-90 grams Whey + 60-180 grams maltodextrin + 5 grams creatine. A typical guy would want 30g whey, 60g maltodextrin and 5g creatine to create a good hormonal situation (insulin primarily) and optimal recovery from his workouts. That would maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis and take care of the nutrient timing benefits (study). You’d want to have this shake within 1-2 hours of training for optimal results (study, study). There are even nutrient timing benefits to taking the creatine surrounding your workouts (study, study).
I start sipping on it as I warm up, and I chug whatever’s left when I finish my workout. It tastes pretty crappy (think liquid cake), but nothing will guarantee muscle growth like consuming tons of extremely effective calories at the most crucial muscle-building moment.
For most of us skinny guys, who often have trouble consuming enough calories, this is the magic formula we’ve been missing. With a good workout program, soon you’ll be (falsely) accused of rampant steroid abuse and/or participating in a top secret military muscle-building experiment.
If you use our links to buy the supplements, thank you! We appreciate it. If you don’t, that’s cool too. The supplements will work just as well wherever you find them. Here they are all in a row:
- Creatine for the improved rate of muscle growth.
- Maltodextrin for the extra easily digested calories.
- Whey for the muscle protein synthesis (and calories).
And once again, if you aren’t already getting results don’t spend any money on supplements. They won’t help. I know we have a bias here, since we have a muscle-building program for skinny guys, but if you aren’t getting results it’s best to invest in a good plan first, then delve into the world of supplements further down the road—if ever.
Think of supplements like a multiplier. If you build zero pounds of muscle and increase your results by 50%… you’ve still built zero pounds of muscle. If you’re gaining a pound of muscle every week and you add in that same 50% increase though, you’re now gaining 1.5 pounds of muscle every week. As an ectomorph who’s tired of being skinny that may be worth your hard earned money. Or it might not be, because, see, either way you’ll end up a beast!
Questions? Ask ’em in the comments!
Edit—Common Question: What’s the best pre-workout supplement?
The idea of a pre-workout supplement isn’t to give you the calories and macronutrients to build muscle, nor to accelerate your body’s ability to build muscle. This is why we left it off the list. That doesn’t mean that they’re ineffective though. By giving you the energy you need to get to the gym and finish your workout, these supplements can indirectly lead to better muscle growth.
There are a lot of pre-workout supplements on the market. Most of them are “proprietary blends” of poorly tested ingredients in doses that are too small to be effective. However, the fact that these experimental stimulants are in too-small doses is usually a good thing, because many of these stimulants haven’t yet been proven safe.
There are really only a couple ingredients you need to pay attention to:
- Caffeine. The king of physical performance boosters. It increases endurance, improves high intensity training performance and reduces fatigue. You want about 3-5mg per kg in order to optimally boost physical performance (study). A 150 pound man would want something like 272mg.
Actually that’s pretty much it. Caffeine is quite safe, very well studied and extremely effective.
Since caffeine is really all you need, and since you need a very specific dose to get the promised effect, there’s really only one amazing pre-workout supplement on the market as far as we know: Citadel Nutrition’s Tier One. (This one is not an affiliate link.)
It has 5 grams of creatine from Creapure, 3.2 grams of beta-alanine from Carnosyn, and 150-200mg of caffeine. Pretty simple, pretty effective.