People think losing weight is hard. Gaining it is no easier. This complete guide will show you how to gain weight the right way—with a minimum of body fat and lots of good muscle.
There are millions of plans available for people who want to lose weight. But what if you want to gain weight? With more than 32 million visits to our website every month, we get a lot more questions about how to gain weight than you might think. Skinny teenagers, underweight adults, and hardgainers of all stripes constantly search the Internet for guidance on how to gain weight. Well, if you’re one of them, your search is over.
How To Gain Weight: Your Basic Toolkit
If you’re about to set off on a road trip, you need some basic tools: a car, good tires, gas, a road map, some snacks (healthy ones, of course), and a destination. It’s the same with gaining weight. As you set off on your journey to increase your body weight, these are your basic tools:
- Eat more calories than you expend.
- Eat nutrient-dense, calorie-rich food.
- Increase dietary fat intake.
- Add a weight-gainer supplement.
- Lift heavy weight.
“Hardgainers” are people who have tried in the past to gain weight and know how hard it can be. After repeated attempts, hardgainers have learned the simple, golden rule of weight gain: Eat up.
You might feel like you just can’t eat any more than you’re eating now—it just feels too uncomfortable. It isn’t easy to consume more calories than your body is telling you it needs, but if you want to gain weight, that’s exactly what you have to do. And then you need to train heavy, supplement wisely, and give your body time to rest.
But to successfully gain weight, you need one more thing: A good reason to do it. Just telling yourself “I want to gain weight” may not be enough to keep you on track. So think about why you’re going down this path. Did a loved one or health professional tell you that you’re underweight? Do you want to feel stronger and be more active, and need more bulk to add more muscle? Maybe you just want to look less skinny. Whatever your reason, think about what your ideal weight should be for you to meet your goals. Having a specific weight goal will make it easier for you to track your progress.
Expect Some Weight Gain To Be Body Fat
Before we get started, let’s address some possible concerns you might have. You may know someone who ate a lot more than necessary, didn’t exercise and, big surprise, ended up packing on lots of excess fat. That’s not what we’re here to do. We want to give you the tools to help you add “good weight” (muscle), and not “bad” weight (excess fat).
That is not to say that you won’t gain any fat. Increasing the calories you eat to add muscle will also bring along some extra fat mass. Don’t panic. With the right type of exercise, your fat gain can be minimal. And remember, if you’ve been struggling to gain weight, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll put on 20 pounds of unwanted fat—especially if you don’t make the mistake others do by not getting enough exercise.
How Many Calories Do You Need To Gain Weight?
The formula for gaining weight is really pretty simple: the amount of calories you take in has to be larger than the amount of calories you burn. To get a feeling for how many calories you’ll need to put on weight, start by using calculator to determine your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
When you use the calculator, it will ask you to choose an activity level that best represents your lifestyle. Be honest! If you say you’re very active and you’re not, the extra calories per day the calculator will give you can easily end up as fat instead of muscle.
Once you get your TDEE number, add at least 500 calories to it. Continue eating at least 500 over your TDEE for a couple weeks to see what happens. If you don’t notice any change in your weight, increase it to 750 or even 1000 calories above your TDEE.
If you start gaining weight too quickly, drop it back down to 200 or 300 extra per day. With the right calorie intake and the right workout, you can expect an increase of 0.5-1.5 pounds in body weight each week. If you’re nowhere near that range, adjust your calorie intake.
Yes, You Have To Eat More Food, So Choose Wisely
The biggest issue people have when trying to put on muscle is the sheer amount of food they have to consume. You’re definitely going to have to eat a lot of calories, but there are a few tricks to decrease the volume of food you have to consume so you don’t constantly feel like an overstuffed teddy bear.
Do your best to consume nutrient-dense, calorie-rich food. Fats and oils, nuts and seeds, avocado, red meat, whole eggs, full-fat dairy, and oily fish are great choices for getting a lot of calories without having to fill your stomach to the brim. Don’t waste your time trying to fill up on gummy bears or saltine crackers—they just don’t provide enough calories or nutrients to be worth the effort.
Protein is an important part of your weight-gain diet, but that doesn’t mean you have to eat 2-4 grams of protein per pound of body weight, as some weight-gain diets suggest. No scientific evidence suggests that eating all that extra protein will increase muscle mass—plus, that kind of diet can get pretty expensive.
Carbohydrates can offer the same number of calories per gram as protein, and they’re a lot more affordable. On the other hand, they don’t make you feel as full as when you eat protein or fat, so you tend to eat more. Even so, don’t be afraid to add some extra carbs to your meals. When you do, go for carbs like noodles, white rice, and bread that have a lower fiber content so you don’t fill up as quickly.
Fruits and veggies are carbs, too, and a great source of vitamins and minerals. They are also a great source of…water. All the water they contain can leave you feeling full and make you feel less like going back for seconds. If you’re worried about coming up short on your micronutrients while you’re in the middle of this hardcore campaign to gain weight, take a daily multivitamin.
Don’t Fear The Fat
Let’s face it: Fat has become a dirty word in our society. We want everything lean and low-fat. In the first place, fats are an important part of the human diet. They cushion your vital organs, help you digest certain types of vitamins, and maintain optimum brain function. And they are the easiest way to add extra calories—up to twice the number of calories per gram than protein and carbs.
Fat sources are calorically dense so they provide a lot of energy, and they usually taste really good. But don’t stock up on donuts and lard. Your fats should come from quality sources including raw nuts, sunflower seeds, nut butters, avocado, fattier cuts of meat, olive oil, real mayonnaise, and some cheeses.
Fats also have the lowest thermic effect of food compared to carbs and protein. That means that your body burns anywhere from 5-30 percent fewer calories digesting fats than it does the other two macronutrients. The fewer calories your body expends to digest the food, the more weight you can retain.
An easy way to up your diet’s fat content is to cook your meat and vegetables in olive, coconut, or other calorie-rich oils. In a pinch, add a little oil to your protein shakes. You can also sneak in some extra fat with your selection of protein. Instead of going for super-lean meat, choose 80/20 ground beef, chicken thighs instead of chicken breasts, and look for a little more marbling in your steaks. Good options include rib-eye and T-bone.
Foods To Gain Weight
As you plan your meals for weight gain, remember that you don’t have to follow the usual no-salt, no-butter, no-flavor rules. Add gravy, sauces, creamy dressings, and other toppings to your food. Not only do these embellishments make the food taste better so you’ll want to eat more, they also add lots of those necessary extra calories.
When you’re trying to gain weight, the world is your oyster, which, by the way, come in at about 175 calories apiece. Foods to gain weight include nut butters, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, grass-fed butters, honey, full-fat coconut milk, and full-fat Greek yogurt. Drinking milk throughout the day, eating peanut butter sandwiches, blending up homemade 1,000-calorie protein shakes, and chowing down on homemade energy barsor “cookies” are among the fastest ways to gain weight.
For people who are constantly trying to lose weight, being able to eat all of these foods might seem like heaven on earth. But as you may have discovered, consuming surplus calories every day is no easy feat. If you’re serious about packing on the pounds, you’re going to have to eat every 2-3 hours.
Constantly having all of these wholesome, calorie-dense foods on hand takes planning. Your go-to snacks can include trail mix, granola, peanut butter sandwiches, protein shakes, and bagels. The list goes on and on.
Refuel Your Body Over And Over
Once you have your nutrition figured out, you can make some tweaks to your exercise regimen. The first tweak is a big one for people trying to gain weight: Never train while hungry. Going into a workout without fueling your body beforehand forces your body to get energy by burning stored body fat and muscle tissue. You won’t gain much weight when that’s going on.
You need to keep your body fueled. Aim to consume at least three solid meals prior to training. If you train in the morning, make the biggest meal of your day the one you have immediately after your morning workout. When you finish a workout, your body is in a state where it will suck up any calories you supply it with. Failing to consume a huge dose of carbs and protein after your workout starves the recovery process, that post-workout period when your body builds new muscle tissue. If there is one time of day you want to slam back a higher calorie shake, this is it.
The great thing about having all those extra calories in your body is that it can make you feel great in the gym. Use the extra energy to put up some bigger weight and train more days during the week. If it feels like your new job is to eat and train, you’re on the right track.
Gain Weight By Gaining Muscle
Next, you can follow a good resistance-training protocol to build muscle—as long as you’re ready to consume all the extra calories to get through these workouts, with enough left over to continue adding weight.
If you want to put on some noticeable muscle mass, stick with strength and hypertrophy protocols. Hypertrophy-based protocols require 3-4 sets using a moderate weight—around 70-80 percent of your one-rep max. This type of training has been shown to cause significant increases in the muscle-building hormones testosterone and growth hormone.
Train hard, but make sure you’re giving yourself enough rest in between sets—around 1-2 minutes. Adequate rest periods will help get your heart rate down before you begin your next set. Keeping your heart rate lowered will help you protect those calories you’re eating so you don’t use them up while training.
Increasing your rest periods will increase your gym time. If you have a set amount of time to dedicate to your workouts, reduce the number of exercises you do. Approach your workout like a powerlifter would: Use big weight and take long breaks between sets.
Exercise selection is just as important as the number of sets you do. Big lifts, including the squat, bench press, deadlift, row, and shoulder press, are the best for packing on the most mass. But you can still do single-joint work. Even leg extensions and leg curls can help increase strength and size, although not as much as compound movements.
If you do both compound and isolation types of lifting, do the movements that target the largest muscle groups first, and save the isolation exercises for later in your workout.
Supplements That Help You Gain Weight
Supplements were created for a reason: Everybody needs a little help now and then. Putting on muscle can be just as much work as trying to lose body fat. Adding some of these simple supplements to your diet can make gaining weight a little easier.
Weight Gainer: Weight-gainer supplements often come loaded with protein, carbs, and fat so you can quickly increase your calories. Some products enable you to consume more than 1,000 calories in a single serving!
Creatine: Creatine helps increase your performance in the gym, making you feel stronger and able to lift more weight, which translates into more muscle. Creatine also draws water into your cells to make your muscles a little bigger and heavier. Creatine is one of the best-studied supplements on the market. There’s really no reason not to take it. Aim for 5-10 grams per day, taken anytime during the day.
Dextrose: The more calories you can get into your diet right now, the better. If you’re already drinking a pre- and post-workout shake, or drinking BCAAs during your workouts, add some dextrose to the mix. Dextrose is an affordable source of carbohydrates, so you can get a lot of it without breaking the bank.
ZMA: If you want your muscles to grow, you need to give them time to recover from workouts. ZMA is one of the leading supplements for overnight muscle repair and recovery. A combination of zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B-6, ZMA is best taken before you go to bed to enhance muscle recovery and boost muscle size and strength.[6,7]
More Tips For Gaining Weight
Eating, training, and supplementing should make up the backbone of your weight-gaining endeavors, but these other helpful tips can make the whole process more efficient.
Get some sleep: As in any fitness regimen, sleeping is an essential part of the recovery process. Your muscles don’t grow when you’re in the gym, they grow when you’re resting. Make sure you spend enough time catching z’s.
Lack of sleep over time can also increase your cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone produced by your adrenal glands that can stimulate muscle breakdown, which leads to loss of muscle mass—and weight. Adequate rest is a good cure for too much cortisol.
Go out to eat: Most restaurants serve meals that are much more calorie-rich than what you’d cook at home. If you’re an in-season bodybuilder, it’s common practice to stay away from restaurants that won’t serve plain chicken breast and vegetables. But because you’re in the calorie-surplus game, you can forget all those rules and order the butter-filled, sauce-laden meal of your dreams.
If you have the money to spend on restaurant meals, go for it. You’ll get a lot of food and a lot of calories that taste way better than the food you’d cook at home, unless you really know what you’re doing in the kitchen.
If you do cook at home a lot, double your portion size. If you normally eat one chicken breast, eat two. Have a slice of toast with your eggs in the morning? Make it two!
Follow that ice cream truck: Want an extra treat? Whatever it is, go for it. Your muscles aren’t really picky about what type of calories they consume. Eating treats like ice cream can be a delicious way to add calories into your diet.
But don’t forget all the things you’ve learned about sugar. Refined sugar, especially in large doses, is still unhealthy and is the most guaranteed way to increase body fat instead of muscle. Drinking a gallon of soda every day will provide you with nothing but a gut and, eventually, type 2 diabetes.
Go big: One of the tricks for losing weight is to put food on small dishes so it looks like you’re eating more than you are. The opposite is true for gaining weight. If you have bigger plates in your cabinet, pull them out and put them to use. Same with your glassware: Put away those 8-ounce glasses and pull out those 16-ounce tumblers and fill ’em up with milk and protein shakes!
Be patient: If you have trouble gaining weight, you know it takes a lot of time and a lot of consistency to add even a pound. If you understand that going in, you’ll be much less likely to get frustrated and quit before your body has time to respond to your new program and get heavy.
Keep track: Log your food, your workouts, your weight, changes you see in the mirror, and how you feel. You might not be into counting calories, and lots of people aren’t, but it might be worth the hassle.
If you’ve figured out that you need 3,300 calories a day to gain weight, keep track to make sure you’re actually consuming that many calories. If you need to get all 3,300 and discover that you’re consuming only 2,900, you’re missing out on 400 calories that can have a big impact on your ability to gain weight.
Eat faster. If you want to lose weight, eat slowly. If you want to gain weight, never put your utensils down during your meal! Eating slowly give your brain a chance to signal to your stomach that you’ve had enough to eat. That signal usually hits the stomach about 20 minutes after you’re actually full.
What you want to do is eat quickly so you can consume as much food as you comfortably can before that signal goes off.
Make it a point to eat your meals with training buddies or friends who eat more food than you do. That way it becomes sort of a competition. It also puts “eating a lot” into a humbling perspective when you can see how much other people eat in comparison.
Drink more calories. Chewing your food takes work and time. If you drink more of your calories, you can add weight more efficiently. Whenever you can, reach for the milk, coconut water, or that dextrose-infused, calorie-rich protein shake. Those big, nutritional shakes you make at home can become weight-gain powerhouses. Add extra calories any way you can. Use coconut milk, nut butters, high-quality protein powders—even a fistful of greens—to make that shake give you both lots of calories and lots of nutrients. Drink these shakes with every meal!
Be at peace with food. Last but not least, work on building a positive relationship with food. Learn to cook your own meals, enjoy your food, and eat meals with others as often as possible. Far too often, people get so caught up in consuming all the calories they can that they forget to savor the food before them—to enjoy the whole process of nourishing themselves.
Plan to have dinner with a friend at least twice each week over the next month. And be sure to invite those friends who aren’t afraid to say yes to second—or even third—helpings!
Krissy Kendall, PhD