On a daily basis, I’m asked by at least one skinny high school athlete, “How do I gain weight?”
Miguel Aragoncillo and I have often joked that we just need to lock these guys in Chipotle and not let them leave til they’ve gained 20 pounds each, but then we’d have to wait in line way too long to get our burritos.
If you’re a skinny guy trying to gain weight, I don’t envy you. Sure, it’s fun to gorge yourself with food all day every day, but that fun eventually turns into grueling hard work. And that’s exactly what it is – work.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it (pun intended), gaining weight isn’t easy for a lot of guys, especially if you’re making any of these four mistakes.
1. EATING TOO MUCH PROTEIN
This sounds ludicrous because everyone’s first instinct when they want to gain weight is to jack up their protein intake. But that’s a huge mistake, and here’s why:
Protein may be the building block of muscle, but you don’t need nearly as much of it as you think. About 1 gram per pound of goal body weight (i.e. if you weigh 150 pounds but want to get to 180, eat 180 grams of protein per day) still holds true as the optimal amount for building muscle.
Also, protein is tough to digest and has a much greater thermic effect of food than carbs or fat. This means that a larger percentage of calories consumed from protein are burned off in the digestion process compared to carbs and fat, which are more easily stored in the body.
Finally, protein makes you feel full. And if you’re crushing tons of protein, you’ll get full too fast and be unable to consume enough food to ensure weight gain.
ACTION ITEM: Eat 1-2 palm-sized portions of protein 3-4 times per day. That’s enough to gain muscle but too not much to reduce appetite.
2. EATING TOO MANY NUTRIENT-DENSE FOODS
For my fat loss clients, I’m always preaching the importance of eating nutrient-dense foods. We’re talking foods with lots of vitamins, minerals and fiber. Fruits and vegetables fit the bill, of course, but we also opt for nutrient-dense carbs like sweet potatoes, beans and some whole grains.
But if gaining weight is your goal, nutrient-dense foods can stop your progress dead in your tracks.
Yes, eating too many vegetables will hurt your weight-gaining efforts. Especially if you eat them instead of eating carbs and healthy fats.
For similar reasons as protein, too many low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods (like veggies and unrefined grains) will fill you up before you can get as many calories as you need to gain weight. Remember, “calories in vs. calories out” is still the immortal nutrition law that governs whether you gain or lose weight.
Two of the most common questions I’m asked by athletes and parents are:
“Should I (or my kid) eat white or brown rice?”
“Is quinoa healthier than [insert starchy food here]?”
In both instances, I answer with a question of my own:
“Which one is easier to eat more of?”
The answer is always obvious: white rice and whatever starch was going up against quinoa, both of which are labeled “less healthy”.
The bottom line is this: eat your starches for fuel, not nutrition. Let your meats, fruits and veggies take care of the good stuff, but let your rice, potatoes and pasta serve as the fuel necessary to train hard and gain weight.
ACTION ITEM: Eat a fistful of fruits or veggies at each meal, but crush 2-3 fistfuls of starchy carbs at every meal too. Opt for white rice and potatoes instead of “healthier” choices like quinoa or whole-grain pasta. You’re getting plenty of nutrition from your fruits and veggies.
3. EATING TOO INFREQUENTLY
I go over a LOT of food logs. I have every client that approaches me about nutrition fill out a 3-day food log that we go over together. This is a great exercise to help clients be mindful about what they’re eating, plus it gives me an objective measure to point toward when discussing food choices and portions.
Over and over again, I see young skinny athletes trying to gain weight who eat 2-3 meals per day. Maybe they skip breakfast and just eat lunch and dinner. Or maybe they have a tiny breakfast, buy lunch at school and eat whatever mom and dad make at night. Neither of these approaches leads to enough calories.
The solution? Eat more frequently. Especially for the guys who are “never hungry,” eating the normal 3-times-a-day isn’t going to cut it. Breaking up 4,000 calories into six meals is much more manageable for the appetite-challenged than three meals.
This is why I cringe at the popularity of intermittent fasting in the lifting community a few years ago. Since when did not eating make sense for trying to get big and strong? Thank goodness that trend has passed.
ACTION ITEM: Eat at least four whole-food meals per day and increase from there until the scale moves steadily. If necessary, fill in the rest with shakes or smoothies (include protein powder and extra carbs via bananas or oats).
4. NOT PREPARING AHEAD OF TIME
If you’re trying to gain weight, there’s no excuse for getting caught without food. Preparing food in bulk ahead of time leaves you in complete control of when and where you eat, setting you up for success.
Sure, it’s easy to pick on the Tupperware-touting muscle heads that eat nothing but tilapia and asparagus for every meal, but guess what? They’re reaching their goals faster than the guy who doesn’t eat for six hours because he didn’t pack a lunch.
There’s a simple strategy to preparing food in bulk:
- Pick one day of the week (Sunday works best) and cook as much food as possible.
- Cook an entire family pack of chicken breast or ground beef.
- Cook 3-4 cups of rice or 3-4 potatoes.
- Chop up as much of your favorite vegetable(s) as will fit on a large roasting pan and cook those too.
- Store all these in large containers (I like Pyrex) and portion out as needed.
- If you run out during the week, do it all again.
That will give you everything you need, minus healthy fats, which can easily be added by putting olive oil, butter or avocado into any of these meals. Also, carry around containers of almonds or cashews to snack on between meals for easy calories.
ACTION ITEM: Prepare as much food ahead of time as possible so you’re never forced to go hungry. Carry food with you wherever you go. If your friends make fun of you for it, tell them to go kick rocks. You’ll be bigger and stronger than them soon anyways.
Struggling to gain weight can be incredibly frustrating, but having a plan can make it more manageable. Avoid these four mistakes to get the scale moving in the right direction.