Although most individuals start a diet and exercise program to lose weight, there are some who have opposite goals and actually wish to gain weight, or more specifically, gain muscle mass.
If you are someone, like myself, who has always struggled with either maintaining weight, let alone gaining weight, you can appreciate the fact that this can be a difficult task. Although gaining weight can seem so basic and easy for so many, it is not easy if you are extremely active or have always struggled with weight gain. Trust me, I've been there. I know, this sounds like such an "easy" problem to have, but putting on mass is actually a common goal for many.
At the end of the day, it comes down to calories in vs. calories out, just like how we have discussed in earlier blogs. In order to gain weight, you must eat more than you burn. If you aren't gaining weight, eat more. Find foods that are calorie dense (milk, cheese, peanut butter, peanuts, almonds, etc.) and eat them as often as you can throughout the day.
If you struggle to eat enough calories during your day, increase your eating window. So, for example, you wake up at 6am, don't wait until 8 to eat breakfast, eat right away and then eat often. If you break your fast at 6am, you then have until 10 or 11pm when you go to bed to consume as many calories as you possibly can.
Like losing weight, you should still calorie count for at least a short-term period in order to get a rough idea on how many calories you are consuming to not only ensure you are consuming enough calories to gain, but on the flip side of that coin eating too many calories isn't necessarily "better" either.
So how much should you be eating? Well, most studies suggest anywhere from 250-500+ calories over your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). Keep in mind that this is far from a scientific calculation, so you should pay attention to your own body mass over time keeping a few things in mind.
- "Clean" bulks, where you are mainly trying to add just muscle tissue with limited fat gain are going to put you closer to the 250+ caloric surplus range. I don't want to say that this method is impossible, because it's not, but it certainly takes much longer to bulk this way and can be incredibly difficult. Only the most seasoned of bodybuilders and physique competitors (or those who get lucky with great genetics) are able to put on just muscle mass. It takes a lot more time and dedication, so be prepared for this option.
- Weight gain at the beginning of a bulk is generally much quicker prior to your weight plateauing a bit. If you are working out and supplementing with creatine, then your body will retain glycogen and water causing your weight to spike quite a bit in the first few weeks. Keep in mind that this does not necessarily mean that you are eating too much, so stay committed and watch your weight trend over time and adjust accordingly.
- With absolute prime conditions, you are only going to be adding about 0.25-0.5lbs of muscle mass in a week. So, after that initial weight spike has happened, focus on aiming for maybe 0.5-1lb of total weight gain in a week. If you aren't gaining weight, eat more. If you are gaining too much weight, eat a bit less. Be flexible with the amount of calories you are consuming.
- As you gain weight, you will need to continually up your calories. Bodies with heavier mass have a higher resting metabolic rate, or in other words, burn more calories throughout the day. So, as you pack on some muscle, you will need to continue to eat more and more to continue to gain weight. I recommend officially weighing yourself once-twice/week and then adjust your calorie intake accordingly.
A few myths/misconceptions to clear up:
Weight Gainer Shakes
Oftentimes individuals will fall victim to the marketing hype and reach for a weight gainer shake. Realize that a lot of these shakes have fillers and additives that aren't needed. Instead, I always recommend reaching for good, whole food. Don't necessarily get caught up with what you're eating, but try and make it as healthy as possible. Gaining weight by eating broccoli can be an arduous task. Instead, use healthy fruits and vegetables as the cornerstone of your diet, making sure you are getting plenty of vitamins and nutrients, and then crush some calories with more calorie-dense foods such as meats, dairy, peanut butter, eggs, etc.
Fast Initial Gains
Starting a resistance training program can cause an initial spike in weight. Our muscles turn into sugar and water sponges making us gain weight pretty quick in the beginning. This does not mean that you're gaining muscle structurally, however. It is like filling a house up with water. The house may weight more and be denser, but it isn't getting any bigger - yet. It can take upwards of 8 weeks before the body begins to structurally change and increase the size of the muscle fibers themselves. Stick with your program for at least that long to start that addition to the house.
Too Much Protein
Your body can only utilize so much protein, regardless of how much you are eating. Aim for about 1g of protein per pound of body weight, daily, in protein to ensure you're getting enough - a 180lb person would aim for 180g of protein/day. Beyond that, you need energy (carbs, fats) to build the new tissues, so that's where the rest of your calories can come from.
Tyler Robbins B.Sc. CSCS
Director of Fitness
Head of CrossFit