Everything you need to know to get you started fast: How to gain weight
- Background story
– normal nutrition
– nutrition around workout
– workout routine
- Excuses and Answers to Excuses
I have been there. I used to be very thin back in my high school days. I did have some muscle and I was athletic, but I was very thin. At times you could actually see the bones from my rib cage poking out. I was eating everything that was given to me, even fast food. I still could not rise past my skinny frame and gain weight.
All around me, in the wider society, everyone was talking about the obesity epidemic, how people were gaining too much weight and getting extremely fat. And here I was, struggling to gain even a measly kilogram. People were telling me how it is a blessing that I can eat whatever I want and not gain weight. They were telling me how jealous they were of me. Yet here I was, wishing that I could gain some weight and become a big muscular guy.
There are several reasons why I wanted to be big and muscular. If you are big and have muscles, you get respect. People are naturally intimidated by you, even afraid of you and therefore don’t mess with you. You have the freedom to do things that you cannot do as a puny guy. Size and muscle also translates to functional elements. As a big and strong guy, you can lift things, run faster, and maybe even beat someone up if need be. And best of all, girls like it! 🙂
Overall, as a big muscular guy, you look better, you perform better and you get more respect. However, how do you become this big muscular guy? How do you bulk up and gain weight?
Gaining weight was one of the problems that I decided to tackle my first year of university. I had access to a nice gym and decided to go there regularly. I had always played sports, but never went to weightlift just for the sake of weightlifting. Here for the first time, I was going regularly to the gym and trying to work on getting bigger muscles.
This was in the early 2000s and while the internet was in full swing, there was not much information available on gaining weight. Sure there were tons of bodybuilding magazines and descriptions of routines, but nothing that was really for me. However I did not know that at the time. I thought that if the pros are doing those routines, that’s something that I should be doing as well.
So I started doing a split body routine, focusing on splitting up the body parts. Like most guys starting out lifting, I did more exercises for things like the chest and biceps and was neglecting the legs. I was getting cut and my muscles were showing, but I still wasn’t getting bigger. My first breakthrough came when I added creatine by drinking a scoop of it mixed with water before the workout. I had initially neglected creatine or any types of supplements thinking they were bad (or could be banned substances). However I read more into it and decided that it’s not an illegal substance and I should try it. I did and it was probably one of the reasons why I gained a significant amount of weight the first time around. It most likely allowed me to train harder and lift heavier weights and so thereby also gain weight and muscle.
You see that I grew bigger, even despite my crappy routine. The fact that I was consistent and hitting the gym, gave me some gains. As a beginner, you can see significant gains just by being consistent. What also allowed me to gain weight is that I was hitting the free weights and not doing solely machines as some other guys were. Had I known better, my gains could have been significantly better.
At the time I also did not realize the importance of nutrition. I was under-eating, but I guess that’s what happens to a lot of guys who live by themselves. However I did know that you need to take in a lot of calories in order to gain weight and so in order to do that, I was hitting them burger joints at least once or twice a week and getting some quality junk food in. 🙂 I wouldn’t recommend this strategy for everyone, but if you are a young active guy with a very fast metabolism, it can be one of the ways of getting some calories in.
This was my first bulk period. During my second and third bulk periods (all several years apart), I was constantly getting better knowledge and so my workout routine, my eating and everything else improved. Let’s just say my gains were very good. 🙂
But enough of the story and let’s get down to business, giving you the knowledge and tips needed in order for you to be able to bulk up, gain weight and get lean muscles. I had to piece all this knowledge together for several years, but now intend to share it with everyone, so that you don’t have to go through the years of trial and error that I did. Instead you can focus on gaining weight and getting all muscular.
If you want something, you can’t be lazy about it. Achieving most things usually takes hard work, and gaining weight and lean muscle is no exception. It ain’t gonna be an easy ride, but if you stick to it, you will succeed.
There are many things that you will have to do in order to be successful in gaining weight. The first thing you need to do is learn how to set goals. Most people don’t realize it, but this is one of the crucial first steps that you need to do. Seriously! 🙂
Being able to form concrete and clear goals will be your main key to success. So take out a pen and paper and start brainstorming on what you want to achieve.
The process of forming goals is a straight-forward one, but it requires a lot of reflection on your side. Think about the big picture, your life, your hopes and dreams. Who is it that you are and who is it that you want to be?
Come up with a few general statements of what you want to achieve and what you want your life to be. For example:
“I want to be happy.”
These are the overall driving forces that give your life meaning. However by themselves they are pretty vague and don’t mean much. If you want to fulfill these basic driving forces, you need to drill down and come up with more specific statements and goals. You can break it down into categories, for example: job, money, health…etc. What will make you happy?
So you start down with a very general goal: “I want to be happy.” What is the meaning of “happy” for you? What will make you happy? You determine that you will be happy if you achieve certain things in the different categories that you came up with. For example in the Health category, you have an overarching goal of “being fit”.
From the general picture, we are going on a lower level and making more specific goals. An important note is that when you actually start writing the goals down, change all the “wants” to “wills”. It looks like this:
General Overarching Goals:
“I will be happy.”
Then we can pick the Health category in order to drill down.
“I will be fit.”
What does that mean to you? Look at yourself. Examine what type of problems you have. For example you determine that you are extremely skinny. So one of the more specific goals that will make you fit will be:
“I will gain weight.”
Once we are down on this level, we can use the SMART method in order to come up with actionable and measurable goals.
specific – the goals need to answer these questions: who, what, when, where, why
At this level you need to be very specific about what you want to achieve. The goal needs to be clear. A specific goal should be able to be led to a concrete course of action.
measurable – the goals should be quantifiable
However don’t leave the above goal too vague. You need to make it measurable. For example, we could start by gaining 5 kilograms of lean muscle. You do this by doing a gap analysis. Where are you at now and where do you want to be?
attainable – the goals need to be realistic
The goal should also be attainable. So start off with small incremental steps. You might want to become the strongest person in the world, however at first you need to think a bit more realistically and once you achieve that more realistic goal, you can increase your goal a bit more.
relevant – the goal should be relevant to your overall goals
So here you should choose goals that will help you achieve your overarching general goals like: “I will be happy.” For example, we will use the goal of gaining weight. You need to think about why you want to do that. What will this help you achieve? For example, you want to do that because you seem weak and people pick on you. So gaining weight will make you stronger, and have people give you more respect. Once you have all this, you will feel more assured and happy.
time-related – you need to set a due date by when you want to achieve those goals.
You also need to set a time limit in how fast you want to achieve your goals. So here you would make the goal: “I will gain 5 kilograms in 6 months.”
So the result of this is a very actionable and measurable goal:
“I will gain 5 kilograms of weight and lean muscle and do all this in 6 months.”
Now you have a specific goal and a time limit by when you want to achieve it. What you have to do now is develop a road map and an action plan on how to achieve this.
You will need to unlearn a lot of the things you have been doing up to now. This means changing some of the bad habits you have been doing into good habits. Most people can’t do this overnight. So you can start off slow, changing a few habits at a time, until it becomes second nature to you. This way you can develop a new routine which will be the basis for a new healthier self.
Nutrition will be the most important part of what you do. It’s quite simple really: You don’t eat, you don’t grow. If you don’t eat enough calories you are never going to gain weight and muscle. Your body needs nutrients in order to be able to grow.
Many hard gainers think they are eating a lot of food and are wondering how they are not gaining weight. Simple answer: they are not eating enough. They only have the perception of eating a lot, but in reality they are eating at or below their maintenance level.
You maintenance level of calories means the amount of calories you need to eat in order for your weight to stay the same. This includes all the calories needed for your body to perform all its routine functions like breathing and pumping blood, and also all the calories expended doing all the activities that you do during the day, like walking or running.
In order for you to gain weight, you need to eat more calories than your maintenance level. There are plenty of maintenance calories calculators on the internet that you can use to determine what is the amount of calories you need to eat in order to maintain your weight. You can also determine this by yourself.
What you should do the first week is go around and track everything that you are eating, noting it down and determining how many calories it is. You can find plenty of websites (for example CalorieKing or LiveStrong Calorie Counter) that will help you track your calories. You can use them to find out how many calories are in the foods you are eating. For example if you ate a chicken breast, you can go on one of these sites, search through it and find the average amount of calories you find in a chicken breast. You should then note this down. At the end of the week you should have a quite a good idea of what you are eating and how many calories that is.
This will help you determine your eating strategy for gaining weight. Once you know how many calories you are eating and what your maintenance level is, you can add 500 to 1000 more calories above your maintenance level in order to ensure growth and weight gain.
You should start adding the calories slowly and examine what type of effect it has on you. If you are not gaining weight, add maybe 250 more calories to that amount. Once you gain a level of calories which you feel is the optimal level for you to gain a good amount of lean muscle and not too much fat, then continue to eat at that level.
Any diet is made up of three main macronutrient types: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. You will need to divide your calories between these three types. The percentage of carbohydrates should be somewhere between 45% to 60% of your calories, the amount of proteins from 30% to 35%, and the amount of fats from 20% to 30%.
Carbohydrates are the basic fuel for your body. They come in different forms, but the basic and most simple type of carbohydrate is glucose. Glucose can be broken down to form adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is sometimes called the body’s “currency of energy” and basically is the energy that is used to spark different processes in the cells. That’s why your body needs a good supply of carbohydrates, especially when you are working out.
Nutritionists usually classify carbohydrates into simple and complex. These two terms don’t have an agreed upon meaning and one nutritionist’s definition can differ from the definition of another one. However the easy way to think of these two terms is to think of simple carbohydrates as being all those that are in mono- or disaccharides and the complex carbs are the ones that are classed as polysaccharides. So anything that an average person on the street calls “sugar” is a simple carbohydrate (they usually taste sweet as well), while most of the other ones are complex.
One often also comes across talk of “good” and “bad” carbs. Bad carbs are usually from all the refined and processed foods (such as white flour and refined sugar) that contain what is called “empty” calories, that is a high amount of calories, but no other things such as vitamins, minerals and other good stuff. Eating too many of them can spike up triglyceride (fat) and cholesterol levels in the body. Good carbs come from foods that also give a lot of other things (such as vitamins) besides just the carbs. Good carbs are also often complex carbs, which take a longer time to be broken down in the body.
There are three basic tools that can help you in determining what types of foods to eat. The most well-known one is called the glycemic index. It is based on a score of 0 to 100. Pure glucose gets a score of 100, so all the foods are measured relative to pure glucose.
The glycemic index measures how fast glucose levels rise inside the body after the ingestion of a particular food. High glycemic foods often spike up the glucose levels fast. This means these carbohydrates break down quickly and release their glucose into the bloodstream really fast. Low glycemic foods are the ones with carbohydrates that break down slower and their glucose is released more gradually into the bloodstream.
The properties of the different types of carbohydrates dictate when is the optimal time to eat them. You should eat complex carbohydrates from low glycemic sources during the day and try to stay away from simple and high glycemic sources of carbohydrates as much as you can during that time.
The ideal time to eat simple carbohydrates is around the time you are working out. When you are engaging in strenuous exercise your body needs energy. The fact that simple carbs are quickly released into the bloodstream means that they can be used by your body for fuel rather quickly.
Muscles are made up of proteins. So logically if you want to build muscle you need to eat a lot of proteins. Proteins are further subdivided into amino acids, which are the basic building blocks of your body. There are 22 types of amino acids that are used by your body, however only 9 are considered essential.
Essential amino acids are the ones that cannot be produced by your body and so need to be ingested into your body from the outside. This means that your diet needs to be rich in foods that contain these essential amino acids.
Fats are probably the most misunderstood macronutrient. Many people try to avoid them, but the fact is that you need to eat them. Especially if you want to gain weight and get bigger, fats are a necessary part of your diet.
Some types of fats are in fact essential for you. There are some fatty acids that your body cannot produce by itself and they need to be taken in from the outside. Especially beneficial for you are Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids. You should especially try to eat a lot of Omega-3 fatty acids, as the average modern diet is especially low on these.
Fats come in two forms: liquid and solid. The ones that at room temperature come in liquid form are called oils. Most oils come from plants (edible plant fats). Examples of these oils include ones from: palms, soybean, rapeseed (a subtype of rapeseed is for example canola oil), sunflower seeds, peanuts, cottonseeds, palm kernels, coconuts, olives, corn…etc. Solid fats usually come from animals. The main example are the fats from under the skin of different animals. In some cases, fats from animals can also come as oils, for example fish oils.
Fatty acids differ in length and how “saturated” they are. They are usually composed of carbon molecules attached to hydrogen molecules. These are attached together through different types of bonds, for example single or double bonds. Saturation is determined by the number of hydrogen attached. If the maximum number possible of hydrogen molecules is attached, then the fat is saturated. If there are holes, then the fat is unsaturated.
- Saturated Fat
Saturated fats usually come from animal sources (although palm and coconut oils are also major sources of saturated fats), and a lot of times are solid at room temperature. They are also usually pretty stable. They also contain no double bonds between the different carbons in their chains and the number of carbons in each chain can differ from 3 to 36.
- Unsaturated Fat
Most unsaturated fats come from plant sources and are usually liquid at room temperature (therefore referred to as oils). Unsaturated fats are highly unstable, especially at room temperature. The carbons in their chains usually contain at least some double bonds and there are certain hydrogen molecules missing.
There are two kinds of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Monounsaturated fats are composed of fatty acids that have only one double bond in their carbon chain and the rest are single bonds. This means there is room for only one more pair of hydrogen atoms. On the other hand, polyunsaturated fats have several double bonds and several hydrogen atoms can be accepted and linked into the chain. These double bonds can be arranged in two ways, either as -cis or -trans. Cis fats are usually naturally occurring, while trans fats are usually manufactured.
Now that you know a little about the basic macronutrients, let’s discuss what your actual diet should look like. The key here is not be too strict on having too many rules on what you eat and when you eat it, however it is best to follow a few basic principles. These principles should guide your diet.
You are trying to gain weight and do it in a lean way, so your strategy for eating will be different from that of someone trying to lose weight. Most diets out there are designed for people who are trying to lose weight and so offer you very little benefit. Your basic goal here is to eat and eat as much as you can. That is the only way you will gain weight.
In order to gain weight, your diet should be based on some basic principles:
- Eat more calories than your maintenance level
In order to gain weight you need to eat more. That’s one of the main problems of people who are skinny. They don’t eat enough. Try to figure out what your level of maintenance calories is and eat anywhere from 500 to 1000 more calories than that.
- Eat frequently
You should eat about 6 times a day. This is especially important for hard gainers who have problems swallowing down a large amount of food in one sitting.
- Different foods are good at different parts of the day
Especially things like carbohydrates be eaten at certain parts of the day. Try to eat carbohydrates in the morning and midday and avoid them before going to sleep. Also take in simple carbs around the time of your workouts. They get broken down fast and absorbed by the body, giving you energy.
- Take in lots of protein
Proteins are the building blocks of muscles and in order to get big lean muscles, you need to eat a lot of proteins.
- Try to stick to low-glycemic complex carbohydrates
During most times of the day, when eating carbs, try to stick to low-glycemic complex carbs. They don’t break down as quickly and don’t spike your insulin level, so don’t have as strong of a tendency to turn to fat. You should also eat lots of vegetables. They are a source of good carbohydrates and all kinds of other healthy things like vitamins and minerals.
- Get in lots of Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids have a lot of beneficial properties and our diets usually don’t contain enough of them. Try to take in foods high in Omega-3s and maybe also supplement with fish oil.
- Drink a lot of water
You need to drink a lot of water, during the day and especially when you are working out.
Here is a short lists of some of the foods that you should eat in order to gain weight and lean muscle and how many calories they have:
- chicken breast (145 grams) = 280 calories
- turkey breast (115 grams or 4 ounces) = 150 calories
- salmon (half a fillet or 200 grams) = 400 calories
- egg = 80 calories
- brown rice (195 grams or 1 cup) = 215 calories
- sweet potato (130 grams) = 115 calories
- banana = 100 calories
- avocado = 230 calories
- almonds (90 grams or 1 cup) = 530 calories
As a beginner, don’t really worry about supplements too much. For beginners, you should focus on eating right. However there are certain supplements that a beginner can take to help them grow bigger muscles. You should probably take a scoop of whey protein mixed with milk after your workout, and a scoop of casein protein mixed with milk before you go to bed.
Whey protein is fast absorbing, so it will help you recover right after a workout, while casein protein is slow absorbing, so it will ensure that your body has enough nutrients for your body to recover and build muscles during the night.
If you are a hard gainer and feel that it is hard for you to get in the amount of calories that you need, you can also add in a weight gainer shake at certain points of the day.
For the intermediate lifters, I would also recommend creatine, as it can really help you with your workouts. So the above listed supplements are the ones that you can take as a beginner. Once you get to a more advanced stage, you can maybe add some other supplements as needed.
However I need to stress once again, that getting in real food will be the most important things. Supplements are just there to do what is in their name, supplement your diet.
Here is a sample diet:
If you want to gain weight and do it in a clean way, then you will need to follow a good workout routine and be consistent with it. Your routine should not be too long and revolve around a few key heavy compound exercises.
Here are the basic principles for a routine for gaining weight and lean muscles.
- Heavy compound exercises should be the backbone of your routine
Compound exercises are exercises that engage several muscles. They work your main muscle chains and help in letting your body release all kinds of hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone, which are very important for letting your body grow.
- Proper form is key
When doing exercises, you need to do them with proper form. Not only will you grow stronger like that, but will also avoid injuries.
- Progressive overload
One of the most important principles is that of progressive overload. You need to be lifting heavier and heavier weights. You need to up the weight periodically to let your body grow bigger.
- Your workout should not be too long
The optimum time for a workout is around 45 minutes.
- Cut down on the cardio
Doing too much cardio can hamper your gains, so try to do only some very basic cardio during your bulking phase.
- You need to be consistent
Make no excuses. Make a schedule and stick to it.
- Take care of your imbalances to lessen the chance of injury
Due to our lifestyles, many of us have some bad imbalances like bad postures, imbalanced muscles, and other problems. You need to take care of these problems first.
- Rest between workout sessions
You should rest at least 48 hours between workout sessions that engage the same body part. You don’t grow when you lift, but instead when you are resting.
Many beginners who have muscle growth as their goal, often don’t know what type of routine to follow. So they go flip through a few bodybuilding magazines and find some routine followed by some big buff guy that consists of many sets of isolation exercises.
These types of routines are not the designed for skinny beginners. You will not see optimum growth with them. Isolation exercises and machines can have their place in a routine, however as a person who is trying to gain weight, heavy compound exercises are the way to go.
Here are the main compound exercises, together with the proper way of doing them:
Bench Press (Barbell)
Bentover Row (Barbell)
Shoulder Press (Dumbbells)
Training for strength vs. training for size
Before going more into describing what type of a workout you should follow, I would like to clarify the distinction between training for strength and training for size. This goes back to the goals section above. Training for size and training for strength are not always the same thing. For most beginners, it doesn’t really matter if they choose a workout for strength or for size, however once you are on a more advanced level, you will have to change up your workouts a bit, depending on whether you want to concentrate on gaining size or gaining strength.
This has a direct effect on how many repetition per set of a workout you should be doing. Here is a general guide:
- 1-5 reps per set = training for strength
- 6-12 reps per set = training for size
- over 12+ = endurance
Of course these are not set in stone and you can get both strength and size with whatever number of repetitions. According to scientific studies, you can even gain strength by doing over 12 repetitions per set, as long as you go close to failure (after all this is the way most of our ancestors trained and they got strong).
However we are not all at the same starting level. Some people have never even touched a weight or done any sports, while others might already be gym veterans. So this will affect how you should proceed with your training.
If you are a complete beginner, it might be good to start off with trying to gain some initial strength and muscle endurance through doing body weight exercises. After you get up to a certain level of fitness, you can proceed with the other phases.
If you have already been involved in sports and have a certain base, but haven’t been in the gym in a long time, you don’t have to go through this phase. You should start going to the gym, but don’t go into your routine straight away. Instead take some time to BS around, familiarize yourself with the gym and try to learn the proper form of different exercises. Before starting this phase, you should have a clear idea of how long this BSing phase should last. For example 1 month. After this 1 month is over, you should go straight into your routine and be consistent with it.
If you have already been going to the gym regularly and know the proper form of the different compound exercises, you can start straight away with your routine.
However what routine should you do?
You can construct your own routine based on the different heavy compound exercises or choose one that already exists. Some routines that are often recommended are for example Starting Strength, StrongLifts, or Scrawny to Brawny or Skinny Savior. All these (and also others not listed) are all good. The most important thing is to follow them and to be consistent.
Remember there is no one size fits all type of workout. What works for one person, might not fit for another one. So the key to any workout you adopt will be for you to observe what is for you to experiment and find what works for you.
Here is a sample routine that I have been doing:
pullups 4×10 (back)
squats 4×10 (quadriceps)
overhead presses 4×10 (shoulders) push
bentover rows 4×10 (back) pull
pullups 4×10 (back)
deadlifts 4×10 (hamstrings, lower back)
bench presses 4×10 (pecs) push
bentover rows 4×10 (back) pull
squats 4×10 (quadriceps)
good mornings 4×10 (hamstrings, lower back)
cable rows 4×10 (back) pull
push ups 4×10 (pecs) push
This routine has your pushes and it has your pulls. It also has a big focus on the lower part of the body, which is the part often neglected by many people. In order to grow, feel good and stay away from injuries, you need to have a balanced routine. Many people often concentrate on the “show” muscles like biceps or chest, which does not lead to optimum results and instead oftentimes leads to injuries.
Your routine should incorporate the pulls, the pushes and your legs. In fact, if you sit on your ass all day, you might even want to incorporate more pull exercises than push exercises in order to try to get rid of the imbalances created by your sedentary lifestyle. That’s why my routine pays attention to such important muscles as the ones in the posterior chain (in the back) and also the hamstrings.
You should also incorporate core exercises and a stretching routine into your workout routine. Things like planks, glute bridges and exercises on the medicine balls and bosu balls are very good to work your little stabilizer muscles and make you stronger and fitter overall. Another thing I would recommend is to do foam rolling.
Your lifestyle has a lot to do with the way you are. If you want to be happy and healthy, you need to change it up. Most people today live a sedentary lifestyle, where they sit on their ass all day. That leads to a lot of imbalances and pain.
Try to lead a more active lifestyle. This will get you stronger and healthier. Start off by changing your habits. Figure out the bad habits that you have and also the good habits that you want. Then start applying the good habits.
- Sleep at least 8 or 9 hours during the night
Some of you might be night owls or sleep 4 or 5 hours during the night. In order to grow, you need to get at least 8 or 9 hours of deep sleep and start going to sleep before midnight (two hours before midnight is optimal). When you sleep, your body releases hormones such as the growth hormone and also repairs your muscles. You don’t grow in the gym, but while you are resting. So the number one change that you should make in your lifestyle is to adapt it, so that you get adequate sleep.
This page has all the information that you need in order to get you started on your quest to gain weight and lean muscle. If you want more detailed information, you can go through the different articles on the blog. They should help you.
The hardest part for many people, however, is just getting started in the first place and then being consistent. They often come up with excuses of why they cannot do something. Those excuses are BS.
Here are some common excuses and answers to them.
Excuses 1: “I don’t have time.”
No, in fact you have time, you just have bad time management. I often hear people making the excuse that they don’t have time to do something. In 99% of the cases that is utter BS. They just have bad time management. They BS around, waste time and don’t know how to get organized.
You can always find time, you just need better time management. Get organized, set priorities and stay consistent. If you work long hours, you can always find some time before work or at some other time.
If you don’t have time to pack your lunch in the morning, you can always set a day when you precook your meals for the rest of the week and then put them in the fridge and take them with you.
Excuse 2: “It’s just too hard.”
Yes unfortunately, a lot of things in life are hard. However that’s not a valid excuses. In order to achieve something, you always need to put in an effort. Many other people just like you have done it and achieved their goals. You can too!
So: NO MORE EXCUSES! Go out there and achieve your goals! You can gain weight and lean muscles, you just need a plan and stick to it.
If you want to get more in depth information on any of these subjects, then read some of the articles below:
What are proteins?