Men aren’t the only ones with muscles, so it makes sense, then, that muscle-building supplements aren’t just for men. But that doesn’t mean you can dip willy-nilly into your buff guy’s supplement cabinet. At the risk of stating the snoringly obvious, women are immensely different in both size and biological makeup than men, and while the size issue will affect dosage, the biology affects what you can and cannot take.

For example, while testosterone is a powerful anabolic hormone that’s essential to building muscle even in women, testosterone-boosting supplements (such as tribulus) won’t work the same way in women as they do in men because the mechanism of testosterone production is different. Yet there are other supplements that men thrive on that you will, too. Here’s what you should pilfer for the next month — starting today.

Take Now
If you’re taking a multivitamin, some fish oil and maybe even a daily dose of green tea extract, we’ll assume you know a little something about supplementation. But beginning a muscle-building regimen is different. There’s a science to figuring out how to put the supplements together in a way that fuels your workouts (and your gains) without flummoxing your stomach. You need to build slowly, allowing your body to adjust before adding to your stack. For a strong foundation, start with these three basics.

Protein is absolutely crucial. Sure, you eat chicken and steak, but if you’re not consuming protein powder, you’re not on the fast track to gaining lean muscle mass. After workouts, getting protein to your muscles quickly boosts protein synthesis and, therefore, muscle growth. But which protein to use? Current research, including a Baylor University (Waco, Texas) study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2006, shows that supplementing with a combination of whey and casein proteins after working out spurs the greatest increases in lean muscle mass.

Creatine is the second most important part of your new plan. Produced naturally by muscles, creatine “has been reported to promote significantly greater gains in strength, fat-free mass and performance primarily of high-intensity exercise tasks,” writes Richard Kreider, PhD, in a February 2003 study on the effects of creatine and exercise published in Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry. It also increases endurance and helps create the pump that makes your muscles look so full at the end of a workout.

Zinc magnesium aspartate (ZMA) is the final ingredient here. But wait, you say, I already get zinc and magnesium in my daily multi. And you do, just not enough. The most definitive study to date, published in the October 2000 issue of the Journal of Exercise Physiology, found that subjects who took ZMA experienced higher levels of two muscle-boosting hormones: testosterone and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). Zinc is also known to be involved in protein synthesis, and magnesium works on the pathways that influence muscle growth.

Using Your First Big Haul

❯❯ Preworkout (30 minutes before): 10–15 g protein with 3–5 g creatine

❯❯ Postworkout (immediately afterward): 20–30 g protein with 3–5 g creatine

❯❯ Before bed: Take two capsules of standardized ZMA — 20 mg zinc and 300 mg magnesium. [Editor’s Note: The upper limit for zinc and magnesium is 40 mg and 350 mg, respectively. Check your multivitamin to make sure you don’t reach these levels.

Three Months Later, Start Sneaking…
By now, your body should show some signs of growth, and all your systems should be used to the new regimen. That means it’s time to mix things up by adding a dose of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) daily. This alphabet soup is three essential aminos (those that can’t be produced by the body and, therefore, must be ingested) that have a similar molecular makeup and are taken together for optimal effect. Of the three BCAAs — isoleucine, leucine and valine — leucine is the star when it comes to muscle building because it both increases production of insulin, an anabolic hormone, and boosts protein synthesis. Taking all three BCAAs together is ideal, though, because they’re easily converted to glucose, which spares muscle glycogen and amino acid stores and gives you an extra surge of energy when you’re working out.

A Month Later, Pull Off Your Final Heist…
Nitric oxide is not laughing gas (that’s nitrous oxide); it’s a gas produced in the body that dilates blood vessels, and wider blood vessels mean more blood flow, which allows more nutrients, supplements and other good stuff to reach the muscles. But you can’t just pop an NO pill and wait for your muscles to grow. To increase your NO levels, you have to take arginine, an amino acid that the body breaks down into another amino acid, called citrulline, and NO. Arginine is so popular today that scientists have used it to create compounds such as arginine alpha-keto-glutarate and arginine alpha-ketoisocaproate, which are said to be absorbed better by the body.


❯❯ Pre- and postworkout: Take 2–3 g arginine

Time to Start Buying Your Own
After four months of supplement swapping, the benefits should be obvious. (And your man might have started to notice his dwindling supply.) You’ll be sporting lean, defined muscle and have extra endurance in the weight room and the confidence to talk supplements with the brawniest guys in the gym.