Building eye-popping muscle mass takes dedication, both in the gym and at the kitchen table. While a strict training program and a solid diet are essentials, taking the right supplements will help you get there faster and go further than you thought possible. But with so many mass-building products to choose from, which ones are right for you?

The good news is that many of the supplements available are effective; our ever-advancing scientific knowledge helps product manufacturers provide you with the ingredients that can help you reach your muscle-building goals. The bad news is that in the land of the free, not much is free. So while finding good products is less challenging, deciding which ones you can afford isn’t. But with our help, you can design a supplement plan to fit your body and your budget.

Like restaurant meals, supplements come in a wide range of prices. Some will set you back a few coins from your piggybank, while others require a well-padded wallet. The first group is made up of essentials you’ll need to put on healthy muscle. The second group will cost more but covers all major bases – the less-expensive items, plus a few extras to help you add a few more pounds of muscle. The third group subs in a couple of special utility supplements for a bit more bang, and includes some hot items you’ll want in order to add even more muscle. Happy shopping, and even happier growing.

Bodybuilding Staples

Like a meal from a cafeteria, this class of supplements is perfect for students or anyone on a budget. These recommendations give you solid support for your training, helping you improve your lifts and gain muscle size.

Whey protein isolates (WPI) provide all nine essential amino acids, including a hit of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). BCAAs conserve muscle glycogen and are essential for growing muscle. Whey also bolsters a muscle-preserving antioxidant called glutathione, which may reduce muscle loss after training. Taking 20-40 grams of whey with creatine after pumping iron, along with a high-glycemic carbohydrate that raises blood glucose fast, like bread or a potato, bolsters the insulin-releasing effect of carbs and enhances the muscle-building effects of your training.

This is probably one of the most studied and effective supplements ever. Most bodybuilders can expect to gain close to five pounds of lean body mass, and some even more. And after years of safe use by athletes, scientists recently gave creatine a clean bill of health. We recommend 5 grams (a heaping teaspoon or a serving of most creatine products) per day with your whey and carbohydrate source. It’s best after your workout on the days you lift, or at a similar time on days off.

Multivitamins are an excellent investment, containing 20-30 vital micronutrients in every pill. Running low on any of these essential components can sabotage your physique. You can’t manage protein without B6, any more than you can build oxygen-delivering blood cells without B12. With vitamin deficiency, it’s fatigue, shriveled muscles and frequent infections. Minerals are often overlooked as well, but the benefits of correcting even a marginal deficiency are obvious: While a zinc deficiency lowers testosterone, restoring inadequate levels to normal bolsters it. Guys should buy one without iron, like Centrum Silver, unless you’re a vegetarian. Take 1-2 doses with food at different times of the day.

As long as you’re already eating a good diet, you’re now covered for most of what you need to pack on quality muscle. Of course, you don’t have to stop there.

The Complete Muscle Cocktail

By adding the following supplements to the bodybuilding staples at left, you can boost your muscle gains noticeably without a big change in your bank account. But sometimes you do have to spend a bit more to get more for your money.

The most abundant amino acid in skeletal muscle, no other amino known to man can match glutamine’s ability to draw water – and glycogen – into muscle cells. Simply put, that means size, baby! This versatile amino is also an energy source for disease-fighting white blood cells – and there’s nothing worse than a cold to unhorse you from the leg press machine.

Glutamine’s role in the body is fundamental, and serious bodybuilders take it routinely as part of their overall supplement regimen. It fulfills primary needs of gut, liver and immune cells, effectively preventing amino acids from being diverted from muscle growth to less important tasks (at least in our book). Take 5 grams of glutamine first thing in the morning, and another 5 grams after training.

Magnesium or ZMA
Another fundamental – without magnesium, you can’t contract a muscle fiber. Not surprisingly, studies show magnesium enhances performance of high-octane bodybuilding training. It has been reported that college football players performed better when taking a zinc and magnesium supplement called ZMA (zinc magnesium aspartate). Other research has found performance-enhancing effects for magnesium by itself. Apparently, getting enough magnesium is vital for developing power, and many athletes’ diets are marginal in this nutrient. Take 250-450 mg of magnesium every day, preferably an organic form like magnesium succinate or magnesium aspartate. With the top-notch but higher-cost version called ZMA (magnesium aspartate with zinc monomethionine aspartate), three capsules before bed give you a total of 450 mg magnesium (as aspartate), 30 mg of zinc (as monomethionine aspartate) and 10.5 mg Vitamin B6.

Because whey is fast acting, it may be less effective when taken before bed. Most whey products cause a dramatic but short-lived rise in blood amino-acid levels, so they’re a perfect post-workout choice. At bedtime, try subbing casein, a milk protein that’s digested more slowly than whey. The best form for this is micellar casein (casein in its natural form), which can supply your muscles with amino acids for up to seven hours. Products with micellar casein include Micellar PM (Molecular Nutrition), Anabolic Driver (HSN) and Micellean (VPX).

Another option is a slow-release whey product called GlycerLEAN (Designer Whey). It uses glycerol and other ingredients to delay absorption, lasting up to eight hours, according to the manufacturer. We recommend about 20-40 grams of micellar casein or GlycerLEAN (about one or two scoops), taken before you hit the sack.

High-Tech Muscle Stack

Some goals are worth attaining, regardless of the cost involved. But if you want the best in muscle-building products, you have to pay more. We’ve replaced regular whey protein isolates with classy hydrolysates, and added insulin mimickers to enhance muscle creatine retention and muscle growth. We also include nitric oxide-boosting supplements and a newer testosterone booster that’s getting rave reviews. Take these with the supplements listed previously unless otherwise indicated.

Insulin Mimickers
Because of creatine’s success, many researchers are looking for ways to enhance its muscle-building and performance-enhancing effects. The prototypical way to do this is to take creatine with a high-glycemic-index starch like dextrose. The resulting insulin boost forces your muscles to take up and store more creatine.

With the insulin link confirmed, along came formulas combining creatine with supplements that mimic the effects of insulin on the muscle cells or enhance its release.

Three of the most promising ingredients in this category include d-pinitol, alpha lipoic acid (preferably the form known as R-alpha lipoic acid) and 4-hydroxyisoleucine. D-pinitol (3-0-methyl chiroinositol) works like insulin to enhance glucose and creatine uptake by muscle cells. This has been confirmed both scientifically and in the gym. R-alpha lipoic acid (ALA) also improves glucose and creatine uptake. Like ALA, 4-hydroxyisoleucine is being explored for use by type 2 diabetics. Extracted from fenugreek seeds, the supplement works by triggering insulin release. What’s special about 4-hydroxyisoleucine is that it boosts insulin release only when blood sugar is high.

Take up to 1 gram of ALA with 5 grams of creatine, 40-50 grams (about two scoops) of whey hydrolysates and 50 grams of a high-glycemic-index carbohydrate – find a dextrose or maltodextrin mix if you want to splurge, or go with 3-4 slices of bread. You can also use creatine products with ALA already added, such as Cell-Tech (MuscleTech), which delivers 200 mg of ALA per serving. Because biotin is supportive of ALA, consider taking a multivitamin that lists biotin as an ingredient. You can find creatine products with 4-hydroxyisoleucine added, such as Phosphagen XT (EAS), which gives you 600 mg of 4-hydroxyisoleucine.

Nitric Oxide (NO) Enhancers
Once met with skepticism, NO products are now believed to hold a lot of promise. After all, if they weren’t effective, you wouldn’t see so many companies jumping on the bandwagon.

NO is essentially a signaling molecule that helps control a seemingly limitless range of processes in the body, including nerve signaling, immune functions, the dilation of blood vessels and even muscle growth. Due to the fact that it does dilate blood vessels – meaning more blood to the muscles and a better pump – most NO supplements are marketed as pump extenders.

Most muscle breakdown happens in the first few hours after training, exactly when an extended pump would have an effect. Getting a pump engorges your muscles with blood, stretching the muscle’s outer sheath and dampening the activity of protein-destroying enzymes inside muscle cells. A longer-lasting pump could have a potent anticatabolic effect at a time when it’s most needed.

But NO products don’t actually contain NO; they contain some form of the amino acid arginine, which your body uses to make NO. Most NO products contain arginine alpha-ketoglutarate because it’s supposedly absorbed easier. Examples are Nitrogenix (Pharmagenics), NOX2 (Pinnacle), NO2 (MRI) and NOX3 (Universal). Take 3 grams (3,000 mg) of arginine before breakfast, and another 3 grams half an hour before you work out.

An exotic extra is the herb Eurycoma longifolia jack. Found in testosterone-enhancing supplements like Muscle Jack (BBS) and Vitrix (Nutrex), the herb has been used for centuries in Malaysia as a sex tonic for men. While its muscle-building effects are still being explored, many natural bodybuilders report great results with it. Close to a dozen studies have found aphrodisiac effects for the herb, and a testosteronelike effect may be involved. One lab study found that the herb makes muscles grow bigger in a test tube and in animals. The anabolic effect of longifolia is most likely caused by something in the herb activating the androgen receptor, which testosterone uses to pump up muscle growth. We recommend 400-800 mg per day of longifolia taken before a workout or before bed, or you can follow label recommendations.