Last Updated: September 15, 2016
If you’re sick of being skinny and weak and want to know how to gain weight (and not fat) fast…then you want to read this article.
“What the hell does it really take to gain some serious weight?”
That question used to bug the hell out of me.
You see, when I was 18, I was about 6 feet tall and 155 pounds and, like most skinny, hormone-addled guys, I really wanted to impress girls.
And girls like muscles so off I went to the gym with workout magazines and a protein shake in hand. And so it began.
I huffed and puffed and chugged and chuffed for about 2 hours per day, 6 days per week, and here’s what just over two years of grinding got me:
I weighed about 170 pounds here, so my 1,200+ hours of hard work netted me about 15 pounds. And 10 pounds of it came within the first year. And my weight was now stuck.
As you can imagine, I wasn’t thrilled.
I was frustrated and confused. I just wanted to know the “secret” to gaining weight faster than a measly few pounds per year.
- “Should I stuff myself silly with food?”
- “Am I just not eating enough protein?”
- “Do I need a daily cocktail of supplements?”
- “Do I need to work out more? Less? Differently?”
- “Or am I just a genetically cursed ‘hardgainer’?”
Well, I’m fortunate enough to have learned the right answers to these questions and here’s where I am today:
The two biggest mistakes most people make in their shoulder workouts are: 1. Focusing on the wrong shoulder exercises. Many people focus too much on machine and isolation exercises, which are not the key to building big, round delts. 2. Focusing on high-rep training. This mistake will stunt the growth of any major muscle group in the body, but it’s particularly detrimental when it comes to shoulder development. These two points go against what a lot of people hear and assume about shoulder training. Namely the assumption that because the deltoids are smaller muscles, they respond better to high-rep training. This is false. The right approach as a natural weightlifter is very simple: 1. Focus on lifting heavy weights in your shoulder workouts. If you want your shoulders to get big and strong, you’ll want to focus on the 4 – 6 or 5 – 7 rep range. 2. Focus on the shoulder exercises that safely allow for sufficient progressive overload. These are exercises like the Military Press, various types of Dumbbell presses, the Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise, and more.
In this article, I’m going to point out some of the open manhole covers in the area of gaining weight that you should know about.
I’m also going to share with you the biggest lessons I’ve learned along the way, and how you too can gain weight (and muscle) as quickly as possible.
So, let’s start with a clarification of the actual goal…
Gain Weight Fast Without Just Getting Fat
That’s the goal.
Anyone can get fat. Yes, even you.
Don’t believe me? Give the following meal plan a go for the next couple of weeks:
That’s about 10,000 calories of food with over 350 grams of dietary fat.
I promise you–get all that down…or hell, even half of that down–every day for 14 days and you may never want to eat again, but you’ll gain a noticeable amount of weight. And fat.
That’s not what we want, though.
When you’re eating and training to maximize muscle growth, you can assume you’re going to gain some fat (and you’ll learn why soon).
But you should be gaining muscle too. In fact, you should be gaining just as much muscle as fat.
So that’s what this article is going to be about: how to gain weight, and muscle, as quickly as possible.
And as you’ll see, it doesn’t require any strange diets or over-the-top training routines or super-expensive supplements.
How Much You Should Eat to Gain Weight
I figured we should start here because it’s the number one question asked by “hardgainers.”
You’ve undoubtedly heard that you have to “eat big to get big,” but vague cliches like these raise more questions than they provide answers.
How “big” is big? What types of foods? What kind of macronutrient breakdown?
So let’s get more specific than that. A lot more specific.
And let’s start with the first principle of gaining weight (and muscle): maintaining a calorie surplus.
Why Caloric Intake Dictates Weight Gain
When it comes to building muscle (and gaining weight), what do you think is the most important dietary factor?
If you’re like most people, your answer is “protein.” And you’re wrong.
Yes, a high-protein diet is necessary for maximizing muscle growth, but you could eat hundreds of grams of protein every day, train hard, and fail to gain an ounce.
You see, here’s a simple fact of muscle growth that many people don’t understand:
If you want to build muscle and gain weight as quickly as possible, then you need to eat enough calories. If you don’t, you won’t build any muscle or gain any weight to speak of.
For example, I know that I need to eat somewhere between 3,300 and 3,600 calories per day to consistently gain weight. If that sounds like a lot of food to you, it is. It’s fun at first but gets old after a while.
I can’t complain, though because I’ve seen much worse. I’ve worked with hundreds of skinny guys that couldn’t gain a single pound until their daily intake exceeded 4,000 to 4,500 calories per day…seven days per week (no missing meals on the weekends!).
Some people are just “high-burning” types and require a lot of calories to support the weight and muscle gain process.
And the first thing you need to understand about that process is the principle of energy balance.
Simply put, energy balance is the relationship between the amount of energy you eat and the amount you burn.
- If you burn more energy than you eat, that’s a “negative energy balance” or “calorie deficit.”
- If you eat more than you burn, that’s a “positive energy balance” or “calorie surplus.”
Now, when you place your body in a calorie deficit, you lose fat (and maintaining a calorie deficit is the primary factor that drives fat loss).
A calorie deficit has downsides, however.
Your body has trouble repairing and adding to muscle tissue when in a calorie deficit.
Specifically, it reduces testosterone and increases cortisol levels, which further blocks your body’s ability to build muscle.
- It causes workout performance to decline.
If you’re new to weightlifting you won’t experience this, but as you become more seasoned, you will. When in a calorie deficit, you can count on having your strength plateau and your energy levels to dwindle.
As you can imagine, you’re not going to build much muscle doing low-energy workouts that have you basically treading water. Without progression, the body doesn’t change much.
Now, what can these things teach us about gaining weight?
If you want to gain muscle and weight quickly, you must NOT be in a calorie deficit.
In fact, you want to slightly overshoot your body’s energy needs, placing it in a slight calorie surplus instead.
This brings us back to the “eat big to get big” bit of gymlore and provides context.
A more accurate axiom would be “you have to be in a calorie surplus to get big.”
How Big Do You Really Have to Eat to Get Big?
Peruse some of the more popular bodybuilding programs out there for “bulking” and you’ll likely be mortified at the dietary prescriptions: thousands and thousands and thousands of calories…every day…for everyone.
Well, I have good news for you: bulking up doesn’t require a dietary sledgehammer.
You see, the mistake these bulking programs make is they assume that a large calorie surplus is more effective for building muscle than a small one.
Well, it’s just not true.
A slight calorie surplus is just as conducive to muscle growth as a large one.
That is, if you eat an average of 10% more calories than you burn every day, you’ll be just as “primed” for muscle growth as eating 30% more.
In fact, a slight calorie surplus has the upper hand because maintaining a 30% calorie surplus will result in a lot more fat gain.
- If you maintain a 10% calorie surplus and train properly, you’ll slowly gain fat along with muscle. I’ve found a 1:1 ratio is common among most people.
- If you maintain a 30% calorie surplus, you’ll gain a lot more fat than muscle regardless of how you train.
And when you’re rapidly gaining fat, it can actually “feed” on itself and further accelerate fat storage and blunt muscle growth.
You see, as you gain body fat…
As insulin sensitivity gets worse, your body’s ability to burn fat decreases, the likelihood of fat gain increases, and your body’s ability to create muscle proteins is blunted.
Maintaining high (and healthy) insulin sensitivity is an important part of optimizing body composition. It helps your body build muscle and reduce fat storage.
This is, of course, the exact opposite of what you want. Testosterone is the primary hormone responsible for muscle growth and high estrogen levels promotes fat gain.
As you can see, recklessly eating everything in sight “because you’re bulking” accomplishes little more than piling on body fat and interfering with muscle gain.
This is one of the main reasons why “bulking” has such a bad reputation among various fitness pundits.
It’s unfortunate, though, because they’re throwing the baby out with the bath water.
“Dirty bulking,” as it’s known, deserves contempt, but you don’t want to lose sight of the scientific fact that maintaining a calorie surplus is an important part of building muscle and strength.
So, here’s how to do it right:
Maximize muscle gain and minimize fat gain with a slight calorie surplus of 5 to 10%.
You’re looking to gain 0.5 to 1 pound per week, and you should see a slow and steady increase in both muscle and body fat.
If you don’t know how to calculate a proper calorie surplus and macronutrient profile, check out this article on flexible dieting.
Don’t pack on fat with huge cheat meals/days.
When you’re maintaining a calorie surplus every day, you really want to avoid bingeing because it can cause significant jumps in body fat levels.
Trust me, I’m speaking from experience here. I’ve nearly doubled my rate of fat gain over the course of a few months by eating way too much a couple days per week.
Don’t make the same mistake. Learn how to “cheat” properly and you’ll be glad you did.
The Best Foods for Gaining Weight
Certain foods are better for gaining (and losing) weight than others, but not for the reasons commonly claimed.
The reality is individual foods don’t have any special qualities that directly lead to weight gain or weight loss.
They don’t “clog your hormones” or get converted directly into body fat due to strange physiological processes or do anything else nefarious or mysterious in the body.
Sugar isn’t a metabolic miscreant, carbs don’t make you fat, “healthy” fats don’t make you lean, and “eating clean” guarantees nothing in the way of body composition.
That said, certain foods are more conducive to weight gain or loss than others. And the factors that determine this are…
- Calorie density
- Macronutrient breakdown
- Satiety (how filling the food is)
Simply put, high-calorie foods, and especially high-fat foods, and especially those that aren’t very filling, are great for gaining weight because they help you meet your high-calorie needs.
They’re not so great for losing weight, however, because they eat up large amounts of your daily calories, which leaves less “room” for your other meals.
For example, if you need to eat 2,000 calories per day to lose fat and ate 1,000 calories of pancakes, butter, and syrup for breakfast, you’re in trouble. You’re probably going to be hungry within a few hours but you only have 1,000 calories left for the entire day.
On the other hand, if you ate a 300-calorie, high-protein and low-fat breakfast, it’ll keep you full for a couple of hours as well but leaves you with 1,700 calories for the rest of your meals.
So, as you can see, this is why lower-calorie foods, lower-fat, filling foods are great for losing weight. They help you stick to your diet.
One of the most common mistakes I see people having trouble gaining weight make is they eat too much lower-calorie, high-satiety food.
For example, baked potato is extremely filling. Soups are temporarily filling due to the volume of liquid but provide little calories. High-protein yogurts, like Greek yogurt, are more filling than their lower-protein counterparts. Apples and oatmeal are known for their satiating effects.
My point isn’t that you can’t or shouldn’t eat these foods when you’re trying to gain weight, but you may need to eat them sparingly if you’re struggling to eat enough.
Here are some examples of the foods I like to include in my meal plans when I’m “bulking” to help me reach my caloric needs without feeling like I’m eating food all day:
- Red meat
- Coconut and olive oil
- Whole-fat yogurt, milk, and cheese
- Whole-gain pasta and bread
- Almonds and peanuts and their butters
- White and sweet potatoes
As you can see, I’m not eating fast food, candy, Pop Tarts, or other junk foods because they put you on a slippery slope and can easily lead to all-out binges that result in large amounts of fat gain.
That said, it’s okay to include some non-nutritive treats when you’re getting the majority of your calories from nutrient-dense foods. My choices are usually things like chocolate, homemade baked goods, or ice cream.
Some people have trouble eating enough calories regardless of the types of food they eat.
A simple “trick” for overcoming this is healthy caloric beverages like milk, rice milk, and fruit juice. It’s very easy to add anywhere from 500 to 1,000 calories to your daily intake this way (a cup of orange juice is 100 calories, for example).
And in the end, some guys and gals have found that just as restricting calories for fat loss can be slightly uncomfortable at times, eating a surplus of calories for weight gain can be a bit of a grind as well.
They don’t feel like eating all that food but do it to get results.
The Best Workouts for Gaining Weight
If you don’t get your diet right, you won’t gain any weight to speak of regardless of what you do in your training.
If you do know what you’re doing in the kitchen, though, how you train will have a marked effect on your weight and muscle gain.
The long story short is this:
As a natural weightlifter, you need to emphasize heavy, compound weightlifting and ensure you get adequate rest and recovery.
The high-rep, high-volume, high-frequency workouts that you see all over the Internet just aren’t very effective unless you’re on drugs.
If you want to learn more about building an effective weightlifting workout routine, click here.
The Best Supplements for Gaining Weight
The first supplement many people struggling to gain weight go for is, of course, a weight gainer.
I think the idea of a high-calorie meal replacement shake is sound but am not a fan of weight gainers in general. (And this is why LEGION will probably make its own at some point.)
The weight gainers currently available have too much junk for me: junk carbs, junk fats, and in many cases, junk protein powders, not to mention various artificial chemicals and fillers that I’d rather not have to ingest every day.
Weight gainer supplements also often include (and you’re paying a premium for) ingredients that aren’t going to help you gain weight or muscle, like BCAAs, glutamine, MCT oil, and more.
Give the above, I think you’re better off sticking to food. Create your own high-calorie meals and shakes and you’ll do just fine.
Now, one supplement that I do recommend for gaining weight is creatine.
Out of all the workout supplements on the market today, creatine stands out as one of the absolute best.
It’s the most well-researched molecule in all of sports nutrition–the subject of hundreds of scientific studies–and its benefits are clear:
- It helps you build muscle faster.
- It helps you get stronger faster.
- It improves anaerobic endurance.
- It improves muscle recovery.
And the best part is it does all these things naturally and safely.
When it comes to improving body composition and workout performance, creatine is basically all pros and no cons.
And when you look at the research currently available on creatine, the monohydrate form is still the best bang for your buck.
It doesn’t get million-dollar ad campaigns and fancy bottles but there’s a reason why it has remained the creatine form of choice in decades of research. There’s absolutely no doubt about its effectiveness, it’s well tolerated, and it’s relatively inexpensive.
It’s simply the gold standard of creatine supplementation and it isn’t going to be dethroned anytime soon. And that’s why we chose creatine monohydrate for our post-workout supplement RECHARGE:
The long story short is if you’re exercising regularly, you should be taking creatine.
The Bottom Line on Gaining Weight Fast
Don’t just go for “gaining weight” fast–go for gaining muscle and weight as fast as possible. These are two very different mindsets and goals.
People that just want to gain weight fast usually wind up fat and disappointed. People that want to gain muscle and weight as fast as possible are able to make dramatic changes to their physiques.
Use the strategies laid out in this article…
- Maintain a mild calorie surplus
- Eat enough protein
- Don’t pile on fat with large “cheat meals/days”
- Create meal plans using foods that make it easier to hit your calorie needs
- Focus on heavy, compound lifting
- Supplement with creatine
…and you’ll have no trouble gaining weight and muscle.
What’s your take on how to gain weight fast? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!