How To Gain Weight — Practical Applications for Eating to Build Muscle, and Why You Might Not Want to Gain Weight Fast

How to gain weight —it sounds like an absurd thing to ask for some, but for others, it’s a real issue. The term ‘how to gain weight’ yields over 46 million results in Google, and ‘how to gain weight fast’ gives us close to 20 million results.

While many people are wondering how to lose weight (full article on this topic: how to lose fat), and keep it off, many others are wondering the opposite: how they can gain weight, and some want to gain weight fast.

To most, it seems fairly simple. Eat more food, and gain weight, right? Sure, that’s the simple answer, but simple’s not always so easy.

What is weight gain?

It’s when the scale weight goes up, also known as adding lean or fatty tissue to the body via excess energy consumption. In other words, a surplus of calories (energy) is what creates the weight gain.

Want to gain weight? Eat more than you burn.

Want to lose it? Eat less than you burn. This is an elementary explanation to an otherwise complex physiological process.
The weight you gain can/will be in the form of fat, muscle, water, food in your belly, etc.

There is a stark difference between true weight gain and perceived weight gain.

True weight gain is adding lean muscle mass, or storing fat in your cells.

Perceived weight gain can come from water retention caused by excess fluid intake, or eating foods that cause water retention (starchy/salty selections).

When you hear of people gaining lots of weight overnight (typically in excess of 10 pounds), a majority of that weight is in the form of water, and glycogen (stored carbohydrates in the muscles and liver).

Very rarely is someone going to store that much fat, or build that much muscle in such a short period of time.

What most people mean when saying they want to gain weight

Most people searching the internet on how to gain weight want it to be in the form of muscle tissue. No one (outside of competitive sumo wrestlers) wants to gain weight with the majority of it being body fat. Not only is excess fat considered unappealing for the majority of viewpoints, but it can also be unhealthy.

And when someone says “I’m trying to gain 20 solid pounds this year,” what they’re really saying is “I want to put on as much muscle with little fat as possible.”

What determines that the weight you gain is purely muscle?

First of all, when you eat specifically to gain weight, there is NO WAY to ensure every gram of weight you synthesize will be purely lean body mass and zero fat.

I wish there were such a method of eating, but the body is far too complex for such equations.

Your body is going to store the nutrients you ingest based on many factors.

Some of those include:

  • your hormonal environment (far too complex for any individual to pinpoint precisely)
  • the type of training you’re doing (frequency, intensity, duration, etc)
  • sleep quality
  • macronutrient intake (protein, fat and carbohydrate)
  • micronutrient intake (minerals and vitamins highly impact how you produce hormones responsible for adding muscle, and burning body fat, among other bodily functions)
  • stress levels (both environmentally and psychically)

Most of the time, when you’re trying to gain weight (in the form of muscle), you’ll typically gain the weight relatively slowly, while training frequently, sleeping and eating well until you hit a goal weight or a body weight you’re generally comfortable with.

This is typically called a ‘bulking cycle’ many bodybuilders have been known to use. After they’ve gained weight, they’ll reverse the process, and slowly diet off the fat, while eating and training to maintain their newly built muscle.

This is a very simplified version of the process, but this is the gist of it all. We’ll cover some of the details below. 

Why do some people struggle with weight gain?

There are many reasons. Here’s a short list:

  1. Fear of gaining too much fat with very little muscle
  2. Fear of regaining a bunch of fat that they’d already burned off (also, see Former Fat Boy Syndrome // Men’s Health gave me credit for the term)
  3. Fear of becoming unaesthetic
  4. Not tracking their intake (which can ensure they eat enough)
  5. Severe lack of appetite (personal physiology, and/or habitual intake and food choices)
  6. Hyperactivity that increases with a larger energy intake

1. Fear Of Unfavorable Gains

This is a legitimate fear. Many read about how to gain weight (in the form of muscle) online, and the lingering thought always creeps up… ‘what if I gain 20 pounds, and most of it’s fat?’

This is a very scary idea for many. You put in a ton of work at the gym, and the dinner table to only end up with a few pounds of muscle with a lot of extra blubber hanging over your pants. Not attractive, and even more frustrating when you realize you’ll have to diet it off.

2. Fear Of Regaining A Bunch of Fat (FFBS)

I went through this a long time ago, being a Former Fat Boy (FFB) myself. This is another legit concern. You know how hard you’ve worked to lose a lot of body fat, keep it off, and maintain your new look.

The last thing you want is to undo all the progress you made by layering on a bunch of body fat you’ve always hated carrying around.

Remember what it was like looking in the mirror and hating how you felt about yourself? I definitely don’t want to deal with that ever again. 

3. Fear Of Becoming Unaesthetic

This one’s a no-brainer… You work hard, eat well, and do all the right things to not look the part. See points 1 and 2 if you don’t quite understand these fears well enough. This is why I created LGN365 — to help folks consistently put in the work to create a body they’re proud of. 

4. Not Tracking Your Caloric Intake

Many people who want to gain weight often complain that no matter how much they eat, they just can’t gain any weight.

This is also after they whine and moan about eating so much food and how it’s such a chore, blah blah blah. I don’t have a ton of patience for this type of mentality, and trust me — I can completely empathize as I find it hard to eat enough to maintain my weight sometimes.

However, I am responsible for my own actions, and outcomes, so I do what I must.

There’s one solution for this: track your caloric intake, and do it diligently. Why? You cannot manage what is not measured. Not sure how to track your calories and macros efficiently? Read this: Counting Calories: A No-BS Guide. 

Tracking your intake is a lot like tracking your sets and reps in the gym. In order to make sure you’re gaining muscle, you know you should be lifting frequently enough and tracking progress with the aim of getting stronger, and better at your lifts over time. 

So why should your diet-related efforts be any different? Hint: they shouldn’t.

I use Cronometer to track my calories, macro and micronutrients. I’m also a fan of using the antiquated pen and pad.

5. Severe Lack Of Appetite Can Be Troublesome For Many

There are some people who just don’t have much of an appetite, and subsequently remain under-muscled, and usually fairly lean without a ton of effort. Now this is often due to a few factors, such as physiology, habitual intake, food choices, or bad habits.

If it’s physiological, you might just not be very hungry that often, or find yourself getting full on a small amount of food.

If it’s habitual, you’ll probably find yourself in a pattern that is not conducive to eating enough to gain weight. You might have a habit of eating in a manner that doesn’t allow for big meals, or enough frequency to hit the calories required to gain weight.

If it’s your food choices, you might be choosing foods that are high in the satiety index, but low on actual energy. An example would be a large bowl of lettuce (50 calories) or a few tablespoons of peanut butter (~200 calories).

A big bowl of lettuce will tend to make you full on very few calories, while 2 tbsp of peanut butter is merely a tease to the taste buds.

If bad habits that are keeping you from gaining weight fast, then you might fall in the category of those people who skip breakfast because you don’t have time or aren’t hungry.

You might be one of those people who works through lunch time, and can’t eat enough in the evening to hit your energy requirements. See the problem? It’s not the food, or your body, or something else. It’s your habits that need fixing.

6. Hyperactivity Might Increase For Those Who Aim To Eat More

And then you actually have those people who force themselves to eat more, but still don’t gain weight. Typically, these people will increase their energy expenditure (often subconsciously), to a point of it matching their new intake, even if it’s to the tune of an extra 500 calories per day.

Some research reveals something called NEAT, which stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis. So this basically means that people tend to move more when they have more energy to use.

Personally, when I start to train more frequently (5-6 days per week), my maintenance expenditure can go up 300-400 calories per day easily just due to the change in my schedule.

What’s the solution? If you’ve made it this far, you’re about to find out.

Weight gainer shakes, or weight gain diets?

For all of those who have a problem gaining weight, a solution has cropped up in the form of weight gainer shakes, which are typically expensive sugary protein powders, or specific diets that promise you’ll gain weight fast and experience all the benefits of more muscle, strength, and a lean physique.

Here’s the problem with weight gainer shakes.

The ingredients are mostly subpar and overpriced. Why pay an average of .50 cents to a dollar per serving for some crappy soy protein and maltodextrin, when you can buy a gallon of milk for $3.50? Even if you happen to get a cheaper price per serving, the taste doesn’t justify the savings. 

It’s easier, and better to simply eat whole foods. Need a high-calorie shake to ensure you get enough calories? Make your own smoothie at home. We’ll go over this in a second.

What about the Suggested ‘How To Gain Weight Fast’ Diets?

You may have heard of GOMAD, which is one of the most popular weight gain diets out there. The goal is to drink a gallon of whole milk per day to ensure you get enough calories for growth.

I love milk, but I’d never wish a gallon of it per day on anyone. Ever tried to drink a gallon of water per day? It can be done, but it’s not the easiest thing in the world, especially if you’re used to drinking other liquids throughout the day and eating like a normal person.

On top of that, there are no real guidelines with relation to the individuals needs. The standard simply states ‘drink a gallon of milk per day in addition to your other meals.’

This may be great for the under-muscled 16-year-old who is hyperactive and has a small appetite, but it’s not great for the physique-conscious late beginner, or early-intermediate trainee wanting to add size and strength in a sensible manner, without getting overly pudgy. (note: if you’re a pure beginner, try my beginner workout routine for getting started)

The same goes for the idea of eating everything in the name of ‘bulking.’ Some call it the see-food diet, as in you eat everything you see… pizza, cakes, ice cream, burritos, all-you-can-eat buffets, unlimited wing nights, etc.

And then there are even some programs encouraging you gain 20 pounds in a month, or 30 pounds in 30 days, or whatever. All of these are bad ideas for various reasons, but the main one is just how quickly you’ll pack on the fat. It’s just not worth it, bro.

Why gaining weight fast is almost always a bad idea…

GOMAD, and the other ideations I mentioned above are not the best of ideas because you can only synthesize so much muscle at any given time.

If gaining 30 pounds of muscle in 30 days was entirely possible, every keyboard cowboy would be posting selfies, and bragging on Reddit about their newly acquired six packs, boulder shoulders, and burly chests.

Building muscle takes time, lots of effort, a good amount of food, and most importantly, intelligent training. The idea of rapid weight gain is appetizing to those who hope for a body recomposition panacea, but stuffing yourself to the gills and packing on the pounds rapidly is mostly going to leave you fluffy, and plump, and not as muscled as you’d hope for.

How To Gain Weight: practical application

Gaining weight is simple. You need a calorie surplus, meaning you’re eating more than you’re expending. To put it another way, you require a certain amount of food daily to keep you alive, to fuel your daily activities, such as walking, talking, breathing, even thinking.

All of those activities require energy, in the form of food, and in order to gain weight, you need to consume food above and beyond those needs. 

To be hypothetical, we will take the following scenario:

  • Male, 18 years old
  • 150 pounds
  • Barbell training 3 times per week
  • college student (lives on campus, lots of walking)
  • Maintenance intake of around 3000 calories

From the above, we know for him to maintain his weight, he needs at least 3000 calories per day.

Now according to what I wrote above, he needs to be eating more than this amount to make sure he gains weight steadily. There is no perfect surplus, but in general, the smaller the amount, the less fat he’ll gain. The bigger the surplus, the more fat he’ll gain. 

To make it easy, let’s allow 500 extra calories for the surplus amount.

By adding 500 calories to his intake daily, he should begin to gain weight at a fairly moderate rate. It may be .5-1 pound per week based on his total activity, food choices, sleep, and other variables we can’t possible micromanage.

So now that you know the basics, let’s go into some strategies for how to gain weight, how to overcome some of the common weight gain problems, and how to tweak the process over time. 

Macro and Calorie Intake Suggestions

Since you want the absolute maximum of the weight you gain to be in the form of muscle, your macronutrient ratios and totals are of utmost importance.

There are many types of diets to follow, but for the most part, when gaining body weight, and focusing on weight training to build muscle, you want to first take care of your protein needs, then fatty acid needs, and finally, your carbohydrate needs.

Here’s a bit of a primer on what each macronutrient does, and the importance of each.

Protein is the nutrient responsible for the growth and repair of broken down tissues. As you train hard, and heavy, adequate protein intake is essential if you want to make sure the weight you gain is in the form of muscle.

For the scope of this article, protein needs are going to differ very little among individuals who are training regularly (at least 3 times per week). Depending on which research you read, the general requirements seem to be around .8 – 1 gram per pound of lean body mass when in a caloric surplus.

To make it simple, and easy on the individual, I typically recommend the common idea of 1 gram per pound of total body weight as a static number. If you like, you can use your target weight as a starting point (hat-tip to Alan Aragon for this recommendation).

So for a 150-pound male, you’ll aim for 150 grams of protein. For a 200 pound male, it’s 200 grams of protein. Easy enough.

Note: I don’t typically recommend eating more protein than this because once you meet requirements, protein will be turned into sugar for fuel via the stressful physiological process called gluconeogenesis.

Therefore, you should make room for the cake or ice cream you’ve been missing out on, instead of eating so much protein.

See this article: How much protein do I need?

Carbohydrates serve as a means of energy, and also support repair and recovery. Carbohydrates break down into the simplest form of energy the human body can use: glucose.

When it all comes down to it, simple sugars are the easiest to digest, and are most readily used for energy. So it makes sense to consume plenty of this nutrient to fuel your weight training workouts, as well as to ensure you’re recovering adequately.

Carbohydrates are fairly inexpensive in comparison to protein sources, and also provide a lot of vitamins and minerals. Fresh fruit, and minimally processed carbohydrate sources are always a better choice over the super-refined, packaged versions. 

Most people will say you need most of your nutrients in the form of protein to gain weight, but I will suggest it needs to be primarily carbohydrates… more on this at the end.

Fat is the macronutrient that makes your food tasty. It’s also the nutrient responsible for aiding in hormone production (testosterone, among others), and providing an environment to utilize fat-soluble vitamins like A, E, D, and K. 

Fat is also an energy source, although more so for the body at rest, and not for intense exercise. High-fat diets have their place, but in my opinion, not for the person wanting to gain as much muscle with as little body fat as possible.

NOTE: all three macros are important, and have their role in your weight gain diet. One should not be treated in higher regard over the other.

Strategies for gaining weight

Let’s look at some of the most common problems people have with gaining weight: 

  • Low appetite
  • Not tracking their macros and calories
  • Infrequent eating
  • Eating too many high-satiety foods

For the person who claims “I eat so much, and just cannot gain weight,” we know it all boils down to a lack of energy consumption. They’re expending more than they’re eating. 

This is where being diligent with tracking comes into play. But even if you know exactly how much to eat, how will you ensure you hit these numbers?

Here are some ideas: 

Plan your meals, as opposed to relying on hunger cues. If you know you need 3000 calories by the end of the day, plan ahead to make sure each meal contains enough calories to hit your goal. 

Track your intake as you go, so when you’re making dinner, you can fill in the gaps as necessary to hit your numbers.

The above scenario can also fix the problem of too infrequent feeding times. If you’re a person who tends to eat only once or twice per day due to low appetite, or being busy and focused, this strategy can really help you hit your intake goals.

If you’re someone who doesn’t have issues with eating frequently enough, but find yourself full all the time, you might consider swapping out foods that are very filling for less filling foods.

If you’re lacking in carbs, you might try swapping out your hearty portion of fibrous veggies for some extra rice, or potatoes, or other carbohydrate source that isn’t as filling as the low-calorie vegetables. 

When choosing protein sources, fattier cuts of meat are a great way to hit your calorie goals if you’re consistently missing the mark. Instead of baking your tilapia, try frying it in some butter or coconut oil to add some more calories. 

Or instead of opting for the 95% lean beef when making burgers, use the 90/10 or even 85/15 ground beef.

Another idea is to add cheese to, well anything, if it makes sense.

And if you’re anything like me, you’ll be very thankful for the ease of making a smoothie or milk shake when the time calls for it (and it’s typically every morning).

I will often start my morning with a giant blender full of:

  • ice cream (only Haagen Dazs due to minimal, and natural ingredients in the classic flavors, ie: vanilla, chocolate, coffee)
  • cottage cheese
  • honey
  • milk
  • the occasional protein powder (minimal ingredients. I like TruNutrition)

This way, I can easily pack 800-1200 calories in my first meal which actually helps me front load my calories for the day.

Frontloading is another good way to ensure you hit your macros for the day. When you aim to eat big in the morning, it saves you from having to stuff your face at night to make up for all the food you didn’t eat during the day.

This also helps you get to sleep easier if you’re the type who can’t go to bed on a distended stomach. I know I hate being overly full when it’s time to hit the sack. 

However, if you do like a late-night snack, this is a good article for that.

How To Gain Weight: Recommended macro ratios:

Alright, now for the magical muscle gain macronutrient equation…

For anyone looking to gain weight, here are some easy guides:

Protein: 1x your body weight in grams of protein or 2.2x your weight in kilos

Fat: 20-30% of your total calorie intake (I prefer 20%)

Carbohydrates: the rest of your intake 

To determine maintenance, you can multiply your bodyweight in pounds by 14-16. Use 14 if you’re not very active, and use 16 if you’re active. If you’re using the metric system, use 31-35 multiplied by kilos of body weight.

There are no hard rules here. If you’ve been tracking your intake diligently, and know your maintenance intake already, use that, and simply add the 10-20% recommendation.

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