Weight-gaining supplements – When, what amount, how, and why?

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It is cold outside, we are kept warm by the fats gained during the festivities (loaded with thrashy food), and thick clothing hides your body away – that’s the time to gain some more weight. Well, that’s what the majority thinks. The first thing that 90% of people think of about some fine winter weight-gaining period is having the weight-gaining supplement purchased, as “that would surely build muscles nicely”. However it is not that simple. So let’s see when and about what a weight-gaining supplement could help us, and do we really need to include such a thing in our weight-gaining program at all?

Weight-gaining supplements – The basics

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We’ll talk about products with 15-30% or higher protein content. These are the most commonly used supplements, and they belong to a category that we rate as “real weight-gaining products”, and not just some low-protein carb stuff. So what is a weight-gaining supplement: when looking at the base product (stripped of extra agents like creatine, herbal extracts, additional amino acids), ingredients are pretty easy to sort out. At the heart of it all such a product consists of protein and carbohydrates. The protein content can be of the multi-component type (i.e. having several kinds of proteins, like concentrated whey protein, isolates, casein, egg white, soy protein, beef protein, etc. and their different combinations) with various ratios. The same applies to the carbohydrate content. Most of the products contain one mixture of carbohydrates that is based on fast absorbing carbohydrates: glucose, maltodextrin, sometimes fructose, Palatinose, and a few have Vitargo in them. So there is no magic about it, no super-wonder muscle-blaster bullshit: weight-gaining supplements are protein- and carbohydrate-based nutrient concentrates, that the body can utilize fast and easy.

Some scientific gibberish

When doing hard physical activities that requires intense and heavy muscle work, the energy warehouses of the muscles, i.e. muscle glycogen stocks start to deplete. Muscle glycogen is a kind of energy source for the body that is stored by the liver and muscles. The body creates glycogen from the carbohydrates consumed, and then replenishes the stores in the liver and in the muscles.

It is a fast mobilizing energy source, meaning that intense muscle work starts to use up the muscle glyocogen first. Depleting of glycogen is also a catabolic (muscle deconstructing) process; the body prepares to substitute the energy that originally comes from the glycogen, so after a while it starts to decompose muscle tissue into free amino acids, and those are used up as direct sources of energy.

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Reaching the catabolic state is inevitable, for instance during workouts, and to some extent it depends on how depleted the glycogen stores are.

The things mentioned above indicate that practically all activities that require heavy muscle work (e.g. working out with weights), will lead to a catabolic state. A common misconception that has not faltered over the years is that "muscles grow during training" – which is correct as long as the body is ‘pumped up’, having the muscles filled up with blood, but it is not the same as real muscle growth. Actually the aforementioned processes are always taking place in the background. So the big picture looks like this: we decompose our muscles during workouts (introducing a state that triggers them to regenerate, and to grow), and after the workout (during rest and eating) we build them up.

The role of weight-gaining supplements in a body-builder’s diet

Okay, so we’re working out, our energy stores are getting depleted, and we are in a catabolic state. The peak of this catabolic state is right after the workout. This is the time for a post-workout formula that:

  • Provides quality protein sources that are absorbed quickly, that are easy to utilize by the body, and are fast in replenishing the amino acids required for muscles;
  • Provides at least 30 grams of protein;
  • Contains fast absorbing simple carbohydrates (e.g. glucose) or carbohydrate mixtures that are easy to digest, and that are readily available for the body to fill up the emptied glycogen stores fast;
  • Contains proteins and carbohydrates in an appropriate ratio, and both nutrient types come in good quality and in the right quantity.

These four aspects are the main ones, the most important ones.

These facts render the weight-gaining supplements with about 15% protein content useless, even though when used wisely, they can also fulfil the demands mentioned above. Such products are recommended to beginners mostly, who need less nutrients, but it can also be a fine base to start with when concocting home-made weight-gaining stuff. So you should not underestimate them, but do accept the fact that above a certain level they are pretty useless in a body-builder’s diet.

So catabolism means losing muscle mass, and a catabolic state can be counteracted best if the tired muscles get their key nutrients as soon as possible. This is not just something to compensate for catabolism: supplying nutrients fast can literally “ignite” anabolic processes that are crucial to initiating regeneration.

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Simple carbohydrates raise the insulin levels, which makes it possible for the nutrients to reach muscle cells more efficiently within the crucial 2-hour intake time window (after working out). The same aspect can be the origin of the following misconception too: you can always eat weight-gaining supplements, and simple carbohydrates, especially when combined with taking creatine too, and the positive effects listed above would always show up (this is a more conscious mistake).

Another – less conscious, and very dumb – use of weight-gaining supplements is to consume them like there was no tomorrow, substituting proper meals with them.

Great. So how should we use weight-gaining supplements then?

Use them in a simple and functional way. The things mentioned previously clearly show that these products have their uses mostly in the post-workout periods. The very first task is to define the best nutrient profile – to provide proteins and carbohydrates in amounts that is appropriate for the body with the given physical parameters and capabilities. You can always vary the number of doses; the shake can contain half a dose, a full dose, or even several doses. If a product is found that meets the demands, then the following protocol applies to the weight-gaining supplement protocol (watch out, it is going to be difficult to follow): take a shake right after the workouts.

– letting the info sink in –

Yep, and that’s it. There is no other time when we would need any of the simple carbohydrates these products usually contain. On one hand we give hell to the pancreas for no reason, and on the other hand this kind of consumption would easily put us on track to become seriously chubby. Make a decision: you want to regenerate, and build muscle after workouts, OR you wish to look like a toiler “who looks big, and has some muscles on him too” – this is not a serious threat to stringy fellow sportsmen, but even they cannot profit from gobbling on weight-gaining supplements instead of proper meals. In case you are lucky about your genetics (that you might consider as a curse, but be sure that eating whatever you want without risking fat accumulation is really a gift), you should not ruin it by hogging on sugar. Taking large amounts of sugar regularly would eventually slow down your metabolic rates, and you can say goodbye to your six-pack... Moreover you might fail to build muscles too! Muscles are not grown from sugars and simple carbohydrates, but from complex protein sources of high quality. This is the golden rule to consider when taking a view from the carbohydrates side.

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All these things mentioned above do not mean that you must not substitute a meal with a weight-gaining supplement ever. Lower quality carbohydrates are still better than taking nothing, so avoid starving, but don’t make a habit of it. You can even ‘overrule’ a morning meal by taking some weight-gaining supplements instead, but do pay attention to eat some other carbohydrate sources of high quality (e.g. oat flakes), and some extra protein as well. Such a combo can fuel up your muscles fast after waking up, but be careful: since you did not eat during the night, in the morning your hungry body tends to store simple carbohydrates in the form of body fat (while this process is less typical when drinking a shake in the daytime, in a more active period.)

It is important to note that there are weight-gaining products with more complex carbohydrate content: apart from simple carbohydrates they even have oatmeal in them, or they might contain no sugar at all. Such products should be preferred if a few meals is to be substituted by these formulas too.

Metabolic optimizers

These are weight-gaining supplements basically, but this is the category for products that have some extra active agents (creatine, amino acids, various performance boosters, herbal extracts, etc.) added to them. These are the so called "all-in-one" formulas. They should be taken just as if they were classic weight-gaining products – but taking the active substances into account too. These products are usually much more balanced in their nutrient content ratios, and do not contain excessive amounts of carbohydrates (mostly sugars) per dose; the focus is more on having those extra active substances in them. From some aspects these products are much more versatile than a conventional weight-gaining supplement, as some of them have very low carbohydrate levels, while they provide the right amount of proteins and extra agents – so they represent a fine base to replace a meal, e.g. a breakfast.

“Old-school” weight-gaining products

Sugarbombs with less than 15% protein in them... Some contain more than 250 grams of carbohydrates (sugar) per dose. There is no reason known to mankind that might support the exclusive use of such products. These are the products that build on high carbohydrate content; Johnny Skinny starts to guzzle the stuff, and wow, within two weeks he gains 5 kg (of fat and water). Johnny is still happy though as his body weight increased. Unfortunately Johnny should not be that glad: he has exposed his body to pretty high stress lately, and the results would not last long either in case he cannot maintain this level of caloric intake – it will decrease in his diet, because only by taking such a product or eating enormous amounts of extra food could keep the calories at level, but eating that much is practically impossible. Deal with these products as fast-absorbing sources of carbohydrates rather than as weight-gaining supplements.

Protein sources of weight-gaining products – the critical point

Many producers are very innovative in involving 6-8 different sources of proteins: fast- and slow-absorbing ones, animal proteins, or animal and plant proteins combined. When choosing a weight-gaining product, always consider that these products are primarily to be used right after workout, and at that time the muscles need all the key amino acids to be at hand. Taking casein will never ever help you in that. Pure casein or concetrated milk protein – the two things hardly differ form each other. Soy is there to cover the “anabolic window” period, but its biological value, digestibility and utilization efficiency is much lower than that of pure whey protein.

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So the main idea behind this is that the product would continuously provide amino acids to muscles at different rates: fast, moderately fast, slower, and very slow. Let’s face it that in case of 30 or 40 grams of protein per dose, it is rather a drawback when compared to products with all their protein content originating from pure whey protein or the different types of it (isolated or hydrolised). It takes about 2 hours for the aforementioned formulas (that usually contain slower absorbing sources as well) to be absorbed, and provide amino acids at a lower rate. The body needs about 30-50 grams of fast absorbing proteins in that critical first post-workout hour, and that amount is absorbed from whey-based products in about 30 minutes, and then these formulas can provide the body with crucially important amino acids until the next proper meal.

So the myth of mixed protein weight-gaining supplements is getting weaker and weaker, but they are definitely not useless products. For instance what should you do when you must endure a period of at least 2 hours after workout during which you don’t have any chance to eat solid, ‘chicken-and-rice’ caliber food? Now there’s the key to it! That’s when you can really benefit from using multi-protein weight-gaining supplements.

Never forget that you can always mix your own weight-gaining stuff, you are not forced to choose a complete formula. The biggest advantage to that is the freedom to tune the amount of nutrients in the mixture – you can adjust the protein, carbohydrate, creatine or other extra agents content of your shake according to your personal capacities, demands, or diet. This is a very good alternative as you can change the consumed amounts anytime, and you can also use protein with nothing else added to it. A home-made formula can be particularly useful during special diet periods, where low carbohydrate intake is introduced; it is pretty easy to change the ratios in favour of proteins.

So don’t go crazy, and choose a weight-gaining product if that helps you resupply nutrients after workouts, or even substitute meals occasionally, and drink shakes, but be clever about it!


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