Mass gaining supplements are very popular with bodybuilders because they offer maximal recovery from intense workouts, and help provide enough calories to gain muscle.
Mass gainers often contain a mix of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
The amounts can differ from product to product. Common protein sources include whey, casein, soy and/or plant based proteins. There are no “standard” fat sources per say, but many companies prefer flax. The carbohydrates almost always from either dextrose, maltodextrin or waxy maize (or some sort of combination of the three).
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1Mass Gainers can help build muscle faster. This benefit is probably the most obvious one, and is the most common reason why people take mass gainers.
A 2013 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that “no further beneficial actions of carbohydrates, irrespective of GI, are evident concerning muscle hypertrophy when a protein supplement that maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis is ingested” (1).
But just because a protein and carbohydrate supplement does not perform better than a protein supplement, does not mean that the protein and carbohydrate supplement will perform worse. In fact, most mass gainers contain much more protein per serving than a normal whey protein shake – which could help increase protein synthesis.
A 2007 study found that minimal protein (10g) combined with carbohydrates was enough to stimulate protein synthesis, while a typical mass gainer will contain up to 50g of whey protein per serving (2).
Mass gainers that contain creatine can be even more effective at increasing muscle hypertrophy. A 2007 study in Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise found that “supplementation with creatine, protein and carbs was more effective than the carbs and protein combination (3)”.
2Mass Gainers can help enhance recovery from exercise. Muscle glycogen is an essential fuel for intense exercise, whether the exercise is of an aerobic or anaerobic nature. Glycogen synthesis is a relatively slow process, and therefore the restoration of muscle glycogen requires special considerations when there is limited time between training sessions or competition. (4)
Increasing the speed at which muscle glycogen is recovered after exercise could be very helpful for anyone looking to gain mass. Particularly athletes or bodybuilders who are looking to gain size while still competing at a high level during training.
A 2002 study found that a supplement that contained both carbohydrates and protein increased muscle glycogen recovery post-exercise significantly more than a control (just carbohydrate drink) (5).
A similar study by Berardi, Price, Noreen, & Lemon (2006) found that a carbohydrate and protein supplement were more effective at enhancing muscle glycogen recovery than a typical carbohydrate drink (6).
A 1992 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology compared a protein shake (40.7g of protein), a carbohydrate drink (112g of carbs), and a protein carbohydrate blend (40.7g of protein and 112g of carbohydrates), in their effects on muscle glycogen recovery (7).
The study found that the protein and carbohydrate blend produced the best results.
A 2004 study by Saunders, Kane, & Todd looked at the effect of a carbohydrate and protein beverage on cycling endurance and muscle damage (8).
The study found that adding protein to a high carbohydrate drink was more effective at improving time to fatigue and reducing muscle damage. The study was unsure whether this was due to the drink containing higher calories or whether it was the effect of the protein.
A study in 2007 investigated the effects of a carbohydrate and protein supplement on resistance exercise performance and on muscle damage (9).
The study found no difference in performance, but a significant reduction in muscle damage when taking a protein and carbohydrate supplement.
A study on rats found that a post-exercise carbohydrate and protein supplement could increase skeletal muscle glycogen levels (10).
A study in 2000 in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that a combination of essential amino acids and carbohydrates was able to increase protein synthesis after a workout (11).
Of course, whey protein alone is incredibly effective at enhancing recovery from exercise. A 2010 study looked at the effect of a proprietary protein supplement on recovery following a resistance workout (12).
Subjects took 42g of protein pre and post exercise or a placebo. The study found that protein “consumed before and after a resistance training session significantly contributes to improvements in exercise recovery 24 and 48h post exercise”.
A similar study in 2008 found that a post exercise protein meal (100g) increased recovery of force and power over 48 hours “suggesting potential for protein as an ergogenic aid during the DOMS period” (13).
Amino acids, which whey protein contains and are also added to many mass gainers, are also excellent for reducing muscle damage. A 2003 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning found that taking an amino acid supplement before a workout could attenuate the reduction of strength and power that occurs due to fatigue (14).
A similar study in 2006 in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism found that amino acid supplementation before training and as part of recovery from training led to a reduction in muscle damage, and a reduction in delayed onset muscle soreness (15).
A 2010 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sport Nutrition found that whey protein helped improve recovery in untrained males who performed unilateral eccentric contraction-based resistance exercise (16).
So, therefore, it requires the best recovery methods.
Remember that there are often many other ingredients present in a mass gaining supplement. Creatine for example may not be particularly effective at reducing delayed onset muscle soreness or recovery, but it can replenish creatine levels in the body after a workout and therefore allow you to train hard again in the next session (20, 21).
Overall, a protein and carbohydrate supplement (i.e. almost all mass gainers) seems to be more effective at improving recovery from intense exercise than a protein shake alone. This means that taking a mass gainer can allow you to recover quicker, and keep exercise intensity high throughout your training.
3Mass gaining supplements can improve exercise performance. Mass gainers are often thought of as a fantastic supplement for building muscle, but can they actually improve performance?
A study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism (2003) examined the effect of a protein and carbohydrate supplement on aerobic performance. The study found that “the addition of protein to a carbohydrate supplement enhanced aerobic endurance performance above that which occurred with carbohydrate alone” (22).
While you might not think of aerobic exercise as useful for someone looking to build mass, you should remember that a poor aerobic capacity can affect weight training.
A 2001 study looked into the effect of whey protein and creatine on muscle mass and bench press performance (23).
The study found that combining whey protein and creatine led to significantly improved bench press results compared to just protein or a placebo.
A 2014 study looked at the effects of a pre and post workout protein and carbohydrate supplement, it found that protein and carbs “provide benefits during certain sport-specific performance in trained CrossFit athletes” (24).
A 2007 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that a combination of carbohydrates and protein were more effective than carbohydrate-only supplements for improving cycling performance (25).
The study specifically looked at performance enhancing gels, which are different to mass gaining supplements, but the science behind their reasoning is still the same.
Another study on cyclists also found that a combination of carbohydrates and protein were effective at increasing time to fatigue during a workout (26).
A 1998 study by Mittleman, Ricci, & Bailey looked at the effects of amino acids on exercise performance during heat stress (27).
The study found that amino acid supplements can “prolong moderate exercise performance in the heat”.
A 2003 study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism found that a protein and carbohydrate supplement “enhanced aerobic performance” (28).
A well known study in 2009 looked at the effects of chocolate milk consumption on exercise (performance and recovery) (29).
Chocolate milk is a combination of protein, fat, and carbohydrates, just like a mass gaining supplement.
Looking at the available evidence, it seems likely that a mass gaining supplement would help improve exercise performance when compared to a carbohydrate-only supplement, or nothing. Mass gaining supplements that contain creatine are even more effective at this.
4Mass gainers can improve protein balance. Protein balance is an important aspect of recovery and muscle growth. To maintain muscle you need to be synthesizing enough protein. To gain muscle you need to have a positive protein balance (consuming more than you are using). Exercise can create a negative protein balance, by using up a lot of protein (30).
Supplementing with protein shakes is a common way to create a positive protein balance.
A study on endurance exercise in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that a combination of protein and carbohydrates was more effective than a carbohydrate-only supplement at increasing whole body net protein balance (31).
Another study in 2004 examined the effect of a protein and carbohydrate supplement on ultra-endurance competitors (32).
The study found that the protein and carbohydrate supplement was effective at increasing net protein balance at rest and during exercise.
A 2009 study by Kumar, Atherton, & Smith in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that a combination of protein and carbohydrates was effective at restoring a net protein balance after fasted training (33).
If you are looking to build muscle, or at the very least maintain muscle then you need to increase protein intake after a workout (34).
Mass gainers appear to be very effective at restoring net protein balance – though many of the studies mentioned were comparing a protein and carbohydrate supplement to a carb only supplement. It would have been interesting to see a comparison to a protein only supplement.
1Mass gainers containing creatine can cause gastrointestinal distress – though this can be prevented by managing your dosage.
2Mass gainers can cause cramping. This can occur when the person taking a creatine infused mass gainer doesn’t increase their water intake (35).
Whey protein and carbohydrates do not have any side effects, though together combined with creatine they could potentially cause gastrointestinal issues.
3Mass gainers can cause body fat gain. Many people taking mass gainers tend to assume that all the excess calories will automatically turn into muscle. But they will also turn into adipose tissue (unless the person taking it is burning more calories than they are consuming).
Creatine and whey protein are two of the most commonly tested supplements around. Thanks to common misconceptions surrounding both, the public has often believed them to cause kidney issues. Examine.com explains this issue quite well (36):
“Kidney damage (from anything) will cause high levels of creatinine in the blood, and creatine can also increase blood creatinine levels in a manner that is not due to damaging the kidneys. This results in a false positive when trying to diagnose kidney damage when the subject also supplements creatine, and does not signify any actual damage to the kidneys”.
Creatine can be taken in doses up to around 0.3g per kg of bodyweight during a loading phase, but this could cause the side effects mentioned above (37).
Many studies have found that long term, taking a lower dose is just effective. This would be 0.03g per kg.
Protein intake per day can be anywhere from 1.1-3.1g/kg (lean body mass) per day (38). There is no upper limit to how much protein can be taken in one meal, so it doesn’t particularly matter how much whey protein you take in a meal or per day.
The recommended dosage for a mass gainer does not depend on health reasons, it comes down to what your weight gain goals are. Take too much and you will start to gain body fat, take too little and you will fail to build enough muscle.
Are mass gainer’s safe? Mass gainers and protein powders are both commonplace in many a bodybuilder’s supplement arsenal. When used as part of a healthy, balanced diet, they can each be used to help support recovery and aid with muscle building and weight gain.
Do mass gainer’s only add muscle? No. In combination with a good diet and exercise routine, they can help expedite muscle growth. However, they can also lead to fat gain if used irresponsibly.
What’s the difference between mass gainer’s and whey protein? Mass gainer’s contain more calories than regular whey protein. Mass gainer’s contain larger amounts of carbohydrates and fats to boost your calorie intake.
Can you take a mass gainer with creatine? Yes, the two supplements complement each other.
Are mass gainer’s vegan? Usually not, but they can be if specified.
Can I overdose on a mass gainer? It is virtually impossible to overdose on a mass gaining supplement. Even if you did, the only consequence would be an upset stomach and maybe some temporary digestive distress.
Do I need to take a mass gainer every day? It depends on your caloric needs as an individual to build muscle. Some people need it twice a day while others can get away with consuming it every other day.
Mass gainers have a lot of benefits: they can help improve sporting and gym performance, recovery from exercise, protein balance, and lead to muscle hypertrophy (provided that you exercise).
There are no real side effects to taking mass gainers, however, taking them in excess can lead to fat accumulation and all of the health issues that can be associated with being overweight.