Gaining weight and lean muscle can be a daunting process.
If you’re a consistent ‘hardgainer’ or you’re struggling to gain muscle for any reason, it can be a real challenge to gain high-quality weight. There are always risks: will I gain too much fat? Will I be able to gain high-quality muscle? Will I be able to stay healthy when eating so much?
These are concerns we’re going to address today, as we take you through everything you need to know in order to gain weight in the form of effective lean muscle.[click_to_tweet tweet=”Eating and training to increase muscle gain is simply a matter of consistency and good habits: not fancy workouts or complicated supplement stacks.” quote=”Eating and training to increase muscle gain is simply a matter of consistency and good habits: not fancy workouts or complicated supplement stacks.”]
Stick with me, and you’ll learn how weight gain works, how you can ensure it works for you, and how to avoid some of the common concerns you might have.
Metabolic Maths: How Weight Gain Works
Muscle growth and weight gain rely on a very simple mathematical process between the amount of energy you take in and the amount that you use. The way we measure this is with calories – the most basic measure of food-energy.
Calories-In/Calories-Out (CICO) is a model that says that you will gain weight if your “calories in” (from food and drink) are higher than your “calories out” (in the form of exercise, activity, and your resting metabolism).
To make it even more simple: if intake is greater than output, you’re going to gain weight and muscle. A good weight gainer plan starts with CICO, but it’s not just calories.
Quality Weight: What Makes Muscle?
If you’ve been paying attention to how your body works, you’ll notice that eating lots of calories alone isn’t enough to build muscle. Weight gain is different from muscle gain and we’re going to take a guess that you want muscle, not fat.
The way that your body decides what to build is based on a few very complicated factors that, in practice, are actually simple to master:
- Training: if you’re not using your muscles, you’re going to gain fat instead of muscle. This is what happens with most people when they eat too much – they just gain bodyfat. Resistance training builds muscle.
- Protein Intake: Protein is a source of calories, but it’s also a building-block of muscle. Muscles contain 98% of the body’s protein – you need the raw materials to replace these after exercise and ensure that they’ve got enough to grow.
- Leucine: this is a part of protein intake – leucine is an amino acid. These are the bits that make up proteins, and leucine is the most important for muscle. If you have enough leucine and protein in your body, you’re going to trigger muscle-building processes. Avoid deficiency!
- Hormonal Patterns: your hormones are all kinds of complicated, but they also dictate what your body does. Regulating hormones is tied into diet and exercise – but we’ll talk about this more later on.
The reality is that you need to eat enough of the right stuff while training properly. This is how muscle-growth works. It’s simple, not easy: it is a slow process and the way you approach it is a major factor in how much you can gain. Gaining weight fast is tough, but it is much easier for new gym-goers – and those getting everything right!
The Importance of Sleep
This one is very, very simple.
Sleep is the time when your body produces the hormones necessary for muscle-gain, while actually doing most of the work of synthesising them. You need sleep to build muscle: eat big, sleep big, train big.
If you’re sleeping less than 8 hours a night, you’re missing out. If you’re sleeping less than 9-10 a night, you’re sub-optimal. The more high-quality sleep you can get, the better your results will be. Being sleep deprived is one of the fastest ways to ruin your performance and results.
Get 8-10 hours in a cool, dark room. Turn your phone off – or hide it – an hour before bed. This is going to help you improve bedtime habits and reduce the blue light hitting your eyes.
Basics of Gaining Weight
The basics of gaining weight start with your diet. Much like the way that you diet for weight-loss, this process is going to be 80% diet/recovery and roughly 20% training. The way you eat is going to be more important than the way you train in terms of changing your weight.
You don’t always have to gain weight to build muscle, but if you’re looking to gain weight fast, it’s key. Simply put: for the best results you need to gain weight to build muscle.
How Fast Should I Gain Weight?
This is a serious thing we all need to think about before gaining weight. How much do you want to gain? How to gain weight fast? How much is possible?
To start with, there are a lot of factors that increase your ability to gain muscle rapidly:
- Starting size: this is about your height and build, not how much muscle you have.
- Genetic factors: you can’t change this very much, unfortunately.
- Athletic history: beginners can achieve ridiculously fast muscle growth.
- Sex: males gain muscle mass faster than their female counterparts.
- Hormonal health: the more testosterone you have, the more muscle you can gain.
Despite this, we like to run with the rule that most people who are trained (at least 3-6months of experience) can gain 0.3kg-0.6kg of lean muscle per month. Obviously, being smaller or female puts you on the lower end of the scale, while being a larger male puts you towards the upper end.
It’s almost impossible to avoid fat-gain while you’re focusing on building muscle and strength. A calorie-surplus diet is going to be split between muscle and fat no matter what you do. However, this can be avoided by taking a slow, steady approach to muscle gain.
Your body only needs a certain number of calories to build muscle, after which it will store them as fat. While it might make sense to eat over your maintenance, its not a smart move to go absolutely crazy and eat everything you can get your hands on!
How Many Calories Should I Take in for Muscle Growth?
This is always an estimate, and it’s always individual. Your needs are going to be different to someone who is the same height and weight as you.
We start this process with figuring out how many you need – roughly – to stay where you are. This is called your TDEE – total daily energy expenditure. It’s an estimate of how many you use, and we work up or down from there to gain muscle or lose fat. You can find a calculator for your maintenance calorie estimate online.
Once you’ve got a rough estimate, we recommend starting by taking in around 120% per day. This means that, if your TDEE is 2000, you’d be consuming around 2400 calories a day. This provides enough energy to fuel your recovery processes and build muscle, but it isn’t likely to build excess fat.
After a while, this is going to change and you’re going to need to change with it. There are two situations where you need to update your TDEE: weight gain or stalling performance.
Your TDEE should be refreshed once a month at the start of training just to keep up with the rapid muscle gain. However, if you’re experienced and your weight-gain has slowed, you can reset every 6-8 weeks. Any serious changes to your bodyweight will need re-calculating.
The second reason to adjust your TDEE is the most simple and intuitive: you’re not recovering between training sessions and your performance is stalling. Since muscle gain is usually a key factor in strength, an unexpected dip in strength performance is a concern for re-evaluating your diet.
If you’re not eating enough to recover, you may need to eat more. This is a process you need to adapt on-the-go, but it’s pretty simple. 120% of maintenance not doing it for you? Add another 5% and see if it deals with the problem. There are other factors we’ll discuss later, but this is the place to start!
Nitrogen Balance: How Protein Makes Muscle Growth Happen
Protein is important. We’ve already said that. There are 3 key ways that it determines muscle recovery and gain – we’ll give you a brief run-down of how these work and what it means for your diet.
Firstly, protein is crucial to the recovery process after exercise. This is simple – you need to replace the muscle proteins that are damaged during heavy training. If you can’t recover, you’re not going to be able to grow. You need to meet the minimum amount of dietary protein to ensure you can even begin to gain muscle.
Once you’ve provided necessary proteins for recovery, you can start creating a surplus. This is simple: you can’t build a house if you don’t have enough bricks. The more bricks you have, the more you can build. Muscles are directly made up of proteins, so you need to have enough in your diet to allow your body to carry out the recovery/growth process.
The Take-Home: Protein is key for recovery and raw materials. There are some benefits to consuming your protein directly after exercise. Generally, as long as your pre-exercise and post-exercise meals aren’t more than 4-6 hours apart you’ll do fine.
Secondly, dietary protein is key in signalling. This is basically the process where your body communicates within itself to start the muscle-building process. If there’s no signal, there’s no growth.
This is usually done in two ways: nitrogen balance in the muscle and leucine-content. Nitrogen balance is affected by the presence of proteins or other crucial substances in the muscles and bloodstream. Eating more protein improves nitrogen balance and tells your body there’s sufficient materials to build more muscle.
The Take-Home: Protein throughout the day – your overall intake – is key for building muscle.
Finally, protein is a carrier for leucine. This is the second part of signalling – leucine is detected in the blood or muscles to start the signalling process. The more protein you have, the more free leucine you can expect, meaning more reliable signals to build more muscle proteins.
This means you need to be taking in lots of complete proteins: the kind that contain all the amino acids. These provide leucine and can be used to spur the muscle-building process more effectively. You can supplement leucine, but in the beginning its more important to just get it from whole proteins.
Making the Muscle-Building Diet Easy: Habit Changes
So, you know you need more calories – and more protein specifically (the balance of fats to carbs isn’t a huge deal for this process).
This isn’t a meal plan for weight gain – you just need a few simple changes that make the process of gaining weight and muscle much easier:
- Food Swaps: switch out lean meats for fattier cuts, use higher-calorie alternatives where possible, and avoid the trap of trying to keep everything “clean”.
- Healthy Fats: fats are more calorie-dense than any other type of nutrient – 250% as much! This makes them great foods to gain weight. Nut butters, oils (like coconut or olive), buttery foods (like avocado) or other forms of fats are a great choice to add quick calories.
- Eat More Often: there’s no magic benefits to eating more meals – you’re just not as likely to get full as quickly. More meals means less fullness and easier gains.
- Begin with Quality, Finish with Quantity: start with nutrient-dense, healthy foods to make sure you have enough. Once you’ve reached your protein and nutrient goals, focus on getting your calories however you can. If that means a pizza, that’s just fine.
- Blenders are a Diet Hack: if you blend foods into a weight-gain shake, you can easily get another 1000 high-quality calories into your diet. Bananas, oats, peanut butter, protein powder – easy. These are easy foods to gain weight – add them to your diet and you’ll see change!
- Add Creatine: no matter what your mom says, it’s not a steroid or unhealthy. In fact, it’s a pseudo-vitamin and protects you from cancer risks while building more muscle. It contributes to that nitrogen balance we were talking about before and it improves your strength, indirectly giving you better muscle-building capacity.
These aren’t complicated or time-consuming changes. They’re small tweaks to your diet that can make a big difference. Try implementing them one at a time and see how they affect your physique/performance. Once you’ve got them all down, you’ll be well on your way to high-quality weight gain.
Training for weight gain
So, now you know how to diet and you’re ready to lock that down and start building muscle. How do you make sure your training is optimal for this goal?
From a scientific perspective, it’s this: produce maximum neuromuscular mechanical loading as often as possible using as many muscle fibres as possible with a slow movement speed.
This translates, more simply, to “lift heavy weights as often as you can recover from”. Easy peasy.
How to Maximise Muscle Growth with Your Training Routine
For beginners, using a bodybuilding split is a waste of time. Your muscles can recover from almost anything you can do to them because you’re still not strong enough to need much rest. You don’t need to train your legs once a week – they can recover from heavy training every other day for the first few months.
This means starting with a full-body program: you can work every muscle every training session as a beginner. Your weights should still be light, you’ll make rapid progress, and your recovery capacity is great. Work on learning the movements, slowly loading weights, and building consistent training habits.
The science already shows that you should be training a muscle group at least 2 times a week for the best results. However, this is often a minimum – as a beginner you should be training with weights 3 times a week to make the most of your amazing rate of progress during these early days.
Choosing Exercises for Muscle Growth
If you’re a beginner, you can work with very general exercises and see impressive results across all the muscles that are involved. As you get better, you need to be more specific, but in your first year of training the focus should be on heavy, multi-joint compound movements.
These are basic movements like the squat, deadlift, overhead press, row, chin-up, dip, etc. They use lots of joints, lots of muscles, and you can progress on them consistently for a long time. There should also be a balance in your training when it comes to the body parts/muscles you use.
For example, you should be training the muscles on both sides of the body, the movements on both sides, and both upper and lower body movements. Consider a simple template for your workouts:
- 1 Lower body push (e.g. the Squat)
- 1 Lower body pull (e.g. the Deadlift)
- 1 Upper body push (e.g. the Dip)
- 1 Upper body pull (e.g. the Chin-up)
This is the most simple, balanced workout you can perform. You can always add your favourite show-muscle exercises afterwards (like the biceps, duh), but this is the foundation. It ensures you get the maximum bang for your buck, meaning you can get a great workout in an hour or so, and hitting every muscle.
Choosing Weights, Reps and Sets
You should always be dealing with challenging weights. The way we tend to figure out the right weight is simple: you should only be able to perform 1-2 more reps once you finish a set. Focus on sets of 5-8 repetitions to start with. This is enough to be heavy enough to challenge you, but not be so much as to cause technical breakdown because of fatigue.
Muscles only grow when you expose them to challenging weights – these are called “stimulating reps” and you’re only going to get 4-5 of them per set. You should focus on getting a few sets of stimulating reps, and then focus on recovery.
To keep it simple: work 3-6 sets of 4-8 reps for the big 4 movement patterns/exercises mentioned above. Once you can perform those 4-6 sets of 4-8 with a weight, make the next session more challenging.
This is the principle of progressive overload – you have to do more work to get more results. You can make your workout tougher with more reps, more weight, or a more difficult movement. For beginners, this usually means adding 2.5kg/5lbs per session until this starts to interfere with technique.
The World’s Simplest Workout Program for Muscle Gain
This is where we put all these principles to work – it’s a simple weight gainer programme. It’s all about gaining weight and muscle: alternate Day 1 and Day 2 every session, training Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
|Inverted (or Ring) Row||4||8|
|Chin-Up (or Barbell Row)||4||8|
A Few Common Problems and Frequently Asked Questions
If you’re reading this, you’re either a total novice or you’re struggling to gain weight. Both of these are problems to solve – we also run into a few other common problems. We’re going to deal with these first, since they’re probably holding you up and it might be as simple as fixing a problem.
#1 “I’m a hardgainer”: How to Gain Weight with a Fast Metabolism
We hear this all the time: “I can’t gain weight with a fast metabolism”. This is something we usually hear when we talk about weight gain for skinny guys.
A fast metabolism is simply a high resting metabolic rate. It’s nothing fancy – neither a curse or a gift. This makes gaining weight a little harder but makes shredding down easier. It’s going to come in handy one day.
The best way to get past this is to just track what you eat! You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Are you really a hardgainer or do you just over-estimate how much you’re eating? We find that it’s usually the latter – hardgainers are just skinny guys who don’t know how much they need to eat.
You should treat a weight-gain diet like a weight-loss diet: it’s not an easy or rapid process. You should be working to make lifestyle changes: sometimes you might need to eat when you’re not hungry, swap out foods that aren’t working for you, or change other habits. It takes commitment.
#2 Is Weight Gain Unhealthy?
This one is simple: it depends what you’re eating – and what you’re gaining!
There’s nothing inherently unhealthy about gaining weight. If it’s dozens of kilos of bodyfat then it’s unhealthy, if it’s a whole bunch of lean muscle then you’re going to see positive health changes (if you do it right).
Wile we’ve managed to mix up weight-gain and obesity or other health risks, it’s a bit more nuanced than that. The way that you eat, and train are big factors. If you’re active and you’re not just eating junk food to gain weight, you’ll do just fine.
#3 Do I Need Weight-Gainer Supplements?
Most commercial mass gainers are just junky sugars and protein powder. The shake we mentioned above is a better choice – there are plenty of natural products that do it better without as much simple sugar and far more nutrients.
#4 Are Protein Shakes Necessary?
They’re not necessary, but they can be useful for rapidly getting your protein in after a workout. They’re also useful if you’re struggling to get your daily protein requirements.
The first choice should always be diet – get the basics right and then worry about supplements.
#5 How Can I Increase My Results?
There are a few ways of getting even more from your training once you’ve got everything else right!
There are a few supplements that help: Acetyl-L-Carnitine, pure Leucine, Creatine, Phosphatidic acid, and a few others. These are really only going to be important if you’re already hitting all the boxes we mentioned above.
For a beginner, supplementation isn’t important. What is important is building great diet/training habits.
As we said at the start: weight gain can be a daunting process. However, equipping yourself with the knowledge and habits we’ve talked about can make it a much easier process. It’s not only a way of looking better, but of improving performance and increasing your strength.
Eating and training to increase muscle gain really aren’t as complicated as you’ve been led to believe. It’s a matter of consistency and good habits: not fancy workouts or complicated supplement stacks.
Put in the work with heavy weights at the gym, eat lots and mostly-well, and don’t be afraid to eat a little dirty when you need to make up those extra calories. Track what you eat, get stronger, get your protein in, and sleep hard.
If you follow the advice here, it’s scientifically impossible to not gain weight unless you’re dealing with a serious health problem.
Professional sport/fitness writer
Professional sport/fitness writer, Weightlifter, S&C enthusiast. Liam wears many hats, but they’re unified by a love for competition, performance, and engaging writing. You can throw abuse (and questions) his way at ApexContent.Org.