Five things to look for in the new breed of mass-boosting products.
By Rudy Mawer
Mass gainers have recently gained a lot of popularity in the fitness industry. What had been maligned and lampooned for decades (who can forget Cartman’s Weight Gain 4000 on South Park?) has been updated and innovated into relevancy. For those who may struggle to consume adequate calories throughout the day or are trying to increase muscle mass, mass gainers are a great way to get extra calories and protein.
The phrase “mass gainer” hearken back to the worst of bodybuilding culture: the parachute pants, the mesh tank tops, and the quest for size just for size’s sake, with no thought to aesthetics or symmetry. Consumer demand has driven R&D and given birth to what we call smart gainers. These are products that are designed to stimulate gains in lean muscle tissue, but without being simply a “dirty bulk” in a can.
However, it’s important that you are aware of just what is in your mass gainer, as they are not all created equally. Some mass gainers have not improved upon the old stereotype and may still be underdosing vital amino acids and pumping them up with cheap carbohydrate fillers (aka sugar). We’ve outlined five key aspects that make up the perfect smart gainer. Here’s what to look for and what you need to know.
1.) Whey/Milk Proteins
The main ingredient in any mass gainer should be a high-quality protein source. Milk proteins (whey and casein) contain large amounts of essential amino acids necessary for stimulating muscle protein synthesis and long-term muscle growth.
Whey protein is known as fast-digesting protein, as it breaks down from whole proteins into usable amino acids at a relatively fast rate. In turn, this initiates muscle protein synthesis (the key mechanism behind muscle growth) at greater rates compared to casein and soy. A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found muscle protein synthesis rates were greater in whey compared to casein or soy, both at rest and after resistance training.
Casein is referred to as a slow-digesting protein. While casein may not stimulate as great an increase in muscle protein synthesis compared to whey, it can provide a slow and steady stream of amino acids throughout the workout and even afterward. In turn, this can help reduce muscle protein breakdown, or the use of amino acids as fuel.
These two types of protein are known as the “gold standard” because of their high-quality amino acid combination and they have proven to be superior at building muscle compared to other vegetarian/vegan proteins. While other forms of protein are not harmful, it’s wise to use a protein supplement that is mainly comprised of high-quality proteins to maximize results, especially in a mass gainer that may be taken pre-workout.
2.) Carb-To-Protein Ratio
The next important aspect to consider with a mass gainer is the carbohydrate-to-protein ratio, often displayed as a CHO:PRO in numerical values such as 2:1, etc. Carbohydrates are key for a mass gainer, as they provide your body with energy or are stored as muscle glycogen if you consume them away from the workout.
Proper carbohydrate consumption is necessary not only for proper performance in the gym, but also adequate recovery. High-intensity workouts such as a bodybuilding gym session may significantly deplete your muscle glycogen levels, and it is essential to replenish your glycogen stores to optimize performance and recovery.
Interestingly, both carbohydrates and protein work in synergy together to boost your gains. For example, research from the European Journal of Sport Science has shown that consuming carbohydrates and protein post-workout increases glycogen resynthesis (carbohydrates storage) and muscle protein synthesis to a greater degree compared to simply protein or carbohydrates alone.
The amount of carbohydrates you will need depends on your activity levels, body type, and goals. However, for most mass gainers, an ideal ratio is 2:1 or possibly 3:1 if you really struggle to meet your daily carbohydrates goals. Both of these ratios are effective and have good research supporting their use. Depending on your tolerance for carbs and any long-distance endurance-style training you might do, certain meals with a 4:1 carb-to-protein ratio might be necessary.
3.) Mixed Carbohydrates Sources
Different carbohydrates have different transporters; this allows us to consume more total carbohydrates in a single sitting. If we were just to consume one source, such as sugar, our body would only be capable of metabolizing around 50 to 60 grams in a 60-minute period. Because athletes and hard gainers may want to consume more than this to support the demands of exercise, mixed carbohydrate mass gainers have now entered the market.
These will often combine two of three types of carbohydrates, which can be processed and metabolized via different transporters within our digestive system. The carbohydrate sources include glucose, fructose, sucrose, and maltodextrin.
Consuming mixed carbohydrates (versus a single source) has been shown to improve performance, recovery, and even prevent gastric distress or stomach issues. Cheaper or old mass gainers may just have one source, so if you are going to consume large amounts, you should always aim for a mass gainer with multiple sources to maximize absorption and optimize digestion rates.
4.) Essential Amino Acids
Amino acids are the building blocks for all proteins and are essential for muscle growth. There are 20 amino acids, nine of which are referred to as essential because they are not produced within the body. These include leucine, isoleucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, histidine, and valine.
Each amino acid has its own unique role within the body. Supplemental amino acids can provide multiple benefits, such as reducing symptoms of post-workout muscle damage. Additionally, extra amino acids have also been shown to reduce muscle breakdown and reduce the amount of amino acids our body burns during exercise.
One essential amino acid that stands out amongst the others is leucine. Leucine has been shown to initiate protein translation, a key biological process that starts the muscle-building process. It’s for these reasons that extra amino acids can provide benefit and are often included in the new generation of advanced mass gainers.
One study, published in Nutrition & Metabolism, examined four different protein sources with varying leucine contents—whey: (10.9 percent), egg (8.8 percent), soy (8 percent), and wheat (6.8 percent). The researchers found that only whey and egg, which had the highest leucine content, were able to initiate protein synthesis.
Often companies will underdose leucine in their products to save on costs. When choosing a mass gainer make sure your product contains at least three grams of leucine and, ideally, added essential amino acids or extra BCAAs.
5.) Digestive Enzyme Blends
As mentioned earlier, whey protein is superior to other proteins due to its fast breakdown rates, which allow the amino acids to move into the blood and then to the muscle very quickly. Based on this, supplement manufacturers and researchers have been investigating the effects of adding digestive enzyme blends to various different types of protein in an attempt to increase digestion rates and bio-availability.
One group of researchers added digestive enzymes to 60 grams of pea and rice protein, and tested its ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis compared to 60 grams of whey. The results, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, showed that the pea and rice protein plus the digestive enzymes increased muscle protein synthesis to a greater degree compared to pea and rice alone and actually matched whey protein.
Digestive enzymes are now being recognized as valuable additives to smart gainers, as they may increase protein digestibility and boost muscle protein synthesis rates. This basically helps you get the key fuel sources you need—amino acids and glucose—to the muscles as soon as possible. Finally, digestive enzymes can, unsurprisingly, also aid in digestion, which helps your system handle a large volume of calories or food—especially important if you are on a “bulking” diet and consuming a large amount of food daily. IM
Smart Gainer Checklist
Mass gainer products are a great way to boost calorie consumption and increase lean mass, especially if you struggle to plan your meals, meet your daily intake, or are a typical “hard gainer.”
However, like with any supplement, it is important you choose the highest-quality mass gainer with the key ingredient groups in the right formation. Remember, there are five criteria your mass gainer should meet for best results.
A dose of 30 to 50 grams of high-quality whey/milk/egg protein, which seems to have the strongest protein synthesis response.
- A carbohydrate ratio of 2:1 or 3:1.
- Ideally a mixed carbohydrate source to increase carbohydrate utilization and absorption.
- A high amount of essential amino acids or BCAA, especially the key amino acid, leucine.
- Added digestive enzyme blends to increase digestion rates, reduce stomach issues, and increase the bio-availability, especially with vegetable-based proteins.
Approximately 40-50 words under each product image
- Blackstone Labs Fast Food
- Beyond Raw Re-Built Mass XP
- MuscleTech Mass-Tech Extreme
- Dymatize Super Mass Gainer Bar