You hit the gym religiously, pushing yourself to train harder, longer and heavier than the last time, because that’s the price of progress. Skipping a single second of cardio is a sin, so instead of whining you just do it. The payoff for your sacrifice and dedication? A big, ripped physique. But (and this is a huge but), that's only if your meal and supplementation plan is on point. Without the right nutrients, most of your gym efforts will be wasted.

So what are the key nutrients? How much do you need and when is the best time to take them? You asked the questions and FLEX Senior Science Editor Jim Stoppani answered, giving you advice on how to get the most out of your training. We’ll cover a lot of territory, but if we miss something that you absolutely need to know, it’s as easy as dropping the Doc a line at

Q: I was wondering if you had any tips for bulking up on a budget. What supplements, besides creatine, are absolutely necessary but won’t break the bank? How necessary are supplements that claim huge gains and how safe are they? Also, do the long-term effects outweigh (no pun intended) the short-term gains that they provide?

A: Supplements are very effective for promoting muscle gains. The most critical would be: 1) Whey protein: Since it is so fast-digesting it aids muscle growth around workouts, which whole foods will not do as effectively; 2) A multivitamin: This will help you to cover all your micronutrient bases; 3) Creatine: This is fairly cheap and very effective; and 4) Branched-chain amino acids: These definitely will help promote muscle growth.

Q: Should I be cycling my supplements? If I am on them for an extended period of time, will they stop being as effective? If so, what would be a good cycle?

A: There really is no need to cycle supplements. They are nutrients that are found in the food we eat, so you wouldn’t be able to truly cycle
off of them anyway. There was once
 a belief that the receptors in muscle cells would “burn out” and not be as effective at taking nutrients into the muscle. This is more hyperbole than fact. That said, you certainly can cycle off of these supplements for financial reasons if you want to give your wallet a break. One study found that men taking creatine who stopped for four weeks lost no muscle mass or strength. So it is possible to stop some supplements for a while with little detriment to your physique or your performance and then go back on. Just limit the “off” cycle to four weeks or less.

Q: I Just got my hands on some beta-alanine. I was wondering if the tingling sensations and the flushing of the skin were normal in all brands. It doesn’t hurt, but it does feel funny.

A: Yes, that is normal. It’s known as paresthesia and is caused by beta-alanine binding to nerve receptors, which causes the nerves that are below the skin to fire. This sensation is enhanced when taking beta-alanine along with caffeine, which is in many preworkout formulas. It does go away with continued use.

Q: What is the proper intake of proteins per meal? Is it true that the body can absorb 30 grams per meal? Is there such a thing as too much protein? I see some people eating 80 g of protein per meal.

A: You should shoot for about 30 to 40 g of protein per meal.

Q: I’ve heard a lot about carb cycling — what is it? Why should I do it? What is an example of carb-cycling for a 200-pound guy?

A: Carb cycling refers to alternating periods of low- and high-carb intake, maximizing both fat loss and muscle growth. For fat loss, your default diet would be somewhat under 1 g of carbs per pound of bodyweight. You would cycle in a high-carb day (greater than 2 g per pound) every five 
to seven days. Since carb-restricted diets can lower your metabolic rate by decreasing leptin levels, the high-carb day helps to reset your leptin levels and keep your metabolic rate up. To add size, your default diet would be 2 to 3 g per pound. You can go lower, either to about 1 g per pound on nontraining days, or you can have two low-carb days after every three or four high-carb days to minimize fat gain.

Q: I am a hardgainer and I feel bloated a lot of the time and don’t have much definition or muscle hardness. I believe I have gained water weight and not fat. Do you recommend using a diuretic? I heard that diuretics can result in loss of strength and muscle. Also, I slack off on breakfast and was wondering if taking a weight-gainer shake in the morning would help me.

A: A natural diuretic won’t fix the issue. Water weight tends to be a transient thing. If it’s chronic, make sure you are not consuming excessive amounts of sodium. Although we don’t typically recommend cutting back on sodium, you may be more sensitive to sodium than most. In that case, if you are getting in more than 4,000 milligrams per day, consider cutting back. High sodium culprits include deli meats and other cured meats, and canned and packaged foods. Certain medical conditions can also cause water retention. So if you think the water weight is a bit excessive, see your doctor.

I only recommend weight gainers for those who are really on the thin side and have difficulty adding weight. I would suggest a meal replacement shake for breakfast.

Q: I’m trying to gain mass but
 I work out in the morning, so my preworkout nutrition is hard to get in. I know that I should take my nitric oxide booster on an empty stomach, but how do I also get in my protein shake and carbs?

A: Take your NO booster as soon as you wake up. Then, 30 minutes later, drink a protein shake with about 20 g of whey. Also, have about 20 to 40 g of carbs from fruit to help stop the catabolism from your night of sleep and to fuel your workout.

Q: Are extra amino acids a waste of time? Will I really see a difference?

A: As a whole, they are the most critical amino acids to take. Researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch (Galveston) found that leucine (the key branched-chain amino acid) is crucial for kick-starting the muscle growth process. Leucine is one of three BCAAs. In a study that I conducted with colleagues from the College of Charleston (South Carolina), we found that trained bodybuilders taking additional BCAAs gained more than twice the strength and muscle mass — and lost more than twice as much bodyfat — as those not taking them.

Q: When is the best time to take L-arginine — before a workout or before going to sleep?

A: Arginine is best taken without food. I suggest 3–5 g first thing in the morning before eating, 30 to 60 minutes before workouts and 30 to 60 minutes before bed.

Q: I’ve been doing 20 minutes of high-intensity interval training four or five days a week after my weightlifting sessions. I’m on a reduced-carb diet and my legs are starting to lose all their energy. Should I switch to a more moderate intensity? I’m afraid I may be starting to lose some muscle.

A: That’s common when doing HIIT on low carbs. The good news is that when your legs fatigue like that, it’s a sure sign that you are burning major bodyfat. When you are losing bodyfat, you will lose overall size, but not necessarily muscle. That’s why it’s good to have your bodyfat tested before you start a diet to know what you are losing. If you think you are losing muscle, be sure that your protein intake is about 1.5 g per pound of bodyweight and consider adding one high-carb day per week. Also consider supplementing with creatine and beta-alanine for the stop-and-go energy you need for HIIT.

Q: I read that cyclic ketogenic diets are effective at dropping bodyfat and preserving hard-earned muscle mass. Is CKD relatively safe? How can I get into the ketogenic state quickly? Will vegetables and almonds and peanut butter consumption upset the ketogenic state? I also read that protein has a 58 percent conversion rate to glucose. Does that mean that I must be strict with my protein consumption?

A: Yes, going ketogenic is very safe. But you don’t need to
 be so strict that you eat no carbs 
and worry about nuts and vegetables. Also, do not restrict your protein (in fact, increase it) if you do not want to lose muscle. Just keep your carbs very low by eating only animal protein and a serving of vegetables at every meal. Nuts and peanut butter are fine, too, in moderation. Keep reps high (12 to 20) and rest low (30 seconds) between sets to burn up the most muscle glycogen. Also, add HIIT cardio to your regimen.

Q: Is it OK to add a scoop of protein to nitric oxide before my workout?

A: Keep your NO product separate from your protein powder by 30 to 60 minutes. The arginine in most NO boosters is poorly absorbed by the intestines when other amino acids are around — you won’t absorb adequate amounts to raise NO levels. If you must combine the two for convenience, look for NO boosters that use citrulline or GPLC instead of arginine, as absorption of these ingredients won’t be compromised when you take protein with them.

Q: If I’m taking creatine, do I need to do the loading phase first? What is a typical loading phase?

A: You only need a loading phase if you want to see immediate results. A good loading phase should last five to seven days. Take 5 g of creatine four or five times per day. Definitely take creatine with protein and carbs, and on workout days make one 
of those doses with your preworkout shake and carbs, and another one immediately postworkout with your shake and carbs. If you don’t want to bother with the loading phase and still want to see immediate results, use a creatine that does not require a loading phase, such as Con-Cret or Kre-Alkalyn.

Q: When reading labels, how do I know if the carbs in the item are fast- or slow-digesting? When the label says it has 16 g of fat per serving but then says it has only 4g of saturated fats and 0 g of trans fats, does that automatically mean the rest are poly- and monounsaturated fats?

A: The packaging of a food that is a slow-digesting carb should name one of these ingredients first on the list: whole grain, whole
wheat, whole (other grain), stone-ground whole
(grain), brown rice, oats, oatmeal or wheatberries.
 Also, the Whole Grains Council has developed the Whole Grain Stamp, which appears on products that contain 
at least half a serving (8 g) of whole grains per serving. Products with a full serving (16 g) of whole grains get the “100 percent Whole Grain” banner, to boot. Regarding fats, yes, the remainder would be poly- and monounsaturated.

Q: Is it possible to stay ketogenic with a 50 g glucose postworkout shake and just fibrous carbs the rest of the day? I would not want to compromise my muscle growth during this keto-cutting phase.

A: You really don’t need to worry about staying ketogenic when you go low carb. That was one mistake of the old Atkins plan. Although being ketogenic does ensure that you’re burning fat, that is more critical for those trying to lose bodyfat without exercise. If you work out regularly, you don’t need to be so restrictive with the carbs, as the workouts deplete your body’s stored carbs (glycogen). So, yes, I would recommend going with some fast carbs, like 30–40 g of dextrose with your postworkout protein and sticking to fibrous carbs the rest of the day.

Q: I take 40-45 g of protein and 5 g of creatine in my postworkout shake. What is the best source of carbs to take at that time — a supplement powder I could combine with my shake or a food source?

A: Postworkout, it doesn’t matter, as long as they are fast-digesting or high-glycemic carbs. For supplements, nothing beats Vitargo, a powdered complex carb supplement that actually digests about twice as fast as most sugars. Another option is simply dextrose powder.

For foods, fat-free sugary 
candies are best. One 
company that stands out 
is Wonka. Many of their
candies, such as Pixy Stix,
 Sweet Tarts and Bottle Caps
 are made with either dextrose or maltodextrin, which are both basically pure glucose and will spike insulin and drive amino acids, carbs and creatine 
into your muscles, and turn on muscle protein synthesis to stimulate growth. Slow-digesting carbs, such as most fruit, oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, etc., are not the best choice, as they keep insulin levels low and steady.

Q: Is it true that higher levels of testosterone weaken the immune system? If so, what do you recommend to help keep the immune system strong? I am very active and follow a healthy diet with supplements, but still get sick about three or four times per year.

A: Yes, there is some truth to that since testosterone is involved in controlling the T-cells. But instead of dropping your testosterone on purpose, 
I suggest you keep your muscle and
 boost your immunity with vitamin C
 (2 to 4 g per day), vitamin D (2,000 to 4,000 international units per day) and echinacea (500 to 1,500 mg per day).