Putting on some pounds by gaining muscle mass is not as easy as you may think and it can be just as much of a challenge or even more challenging than losing body fat.
There are many medical reasons for being underweight and it is really no fun when you are desperately trying to put on weight but the scale won't move. I know many girls who are aiming to look like a string bean, but it’s definitely nothing to be jealous of. Strong is the new skinny, girls!
In fact, underweight people face as many health concerns as overweight people. For instance a lack of energy, nutritional deficiencies, hormonal unbalances, a weak immune system, osteoporosis and loss of menstrual function for women.
If you want to gain muscle mass the healthy way, it’s not about eating ice cream, chocolate and countless slices of pizza. You can’t just add high-calorie junk foods to your diet, because that would cause high cholesterol and several other cardiovascular diseases, as well as simple fat gain. And you want to put on quality mass, not fat right? Instead, you need to add foods with lots of nutrients and lots of calories to your diet.
Basically, it's the same as with weight loss, just the other way around: The key is to consume more calories than you burn.
Doesn't matter if you are clinically underweight or simply a “hard gainer”. These few tips should help you, to get the number on the scale moving:
There a really good tools out there to track your calorie intake whether you want to gain muscle mass or lose body fat.
Figure out how many calories you need to consume on a daily basis to maintain your weight. To make it much easier for you we created a calorie calculator. Note that it's a good estimation, but only an estimation. If you have an above average metabolism, you might have to eat several hundred calories more, because you burn so many.
You have to eat more calories than you burn in order to build muscle mass. It's always calories in vs. calories out. You need to measure your progress to see if you’re moving in the right direction.
Calories are important, but not everything
It requires a lot of energy to build muscle mass. And by energy I mean calories. But also to make sure you don't overestimate your caloric needs. Some people think they have a "fast metabolism", but they don't actually have one.
An extreme high-calorie intake is the worst you can do. Sure you will gain weight, but most of it will be fat. Aim for 10% more calories than you need, to maintain your weight. Add more if you don't gain fast enough.
Enjoy calorie and nutrient dense foods which are low in volume. It is the easiest way to get the calories in without filling you up too fast.
Nut butters are perfect for that. A teaspoon of peanut butter has about 100 calories. Almond butter is also very nutrient-dense. Plus, add fresh, dense fruits to your plate, like mangos or avocados.
Speaking of healthy fats, you can get 120 calories from one tablespoon coconut oil. Adding healthy oils and fats to your diet is essential for your success. Simply swirl it into your oatmeal, mashed potatoes or even your smoothies. It’s such a great and easy way to add calories without even noticing it.
If it’s difficult for you to eat that much, try to drink your calories. Instead of using water for your smoothies or shakes, aim for rich, cream-based liquids, like whole milk or vanilla yogurt. Also makes the smoothie taste better :)
You can also add nut butters, avocado, protein powder and bananas. Liquids aren’t as filling as solid food, so adding a smoothie here and there can add nutritious calories without feeling too full or bloated.
Don’t drink diet soda, hot sugary drinks or cocktails with very little nutritional value to fill you up. We’re aiming for nutrient-dense foods loaded with vitamins and minerals, not empty calories!
You probably can’t hear it anymore, but eating more protein is very important to gain weight. Without eating enough protein, your body will have a hard time building muscle mass, because there are no building blocks to use. You can't build a lego house with only 2 pieces, can you?
Consider peanuts, peanut butter, soybeans, lentils, chicken, tuna, lean steak, eggs, cottage cheese, tofu or whey/soy/rice/pea protein powder if you struggle to get enough protein in your diet. But keep in mind, protein is highly filling, which can reduce your appetite.
Aim for up to 1.8g (to make it easier remember you can use 2g) of protein per kg of bodyweight (0.82g per pound). You don't need more. The research is super clear on this.
There's no harm in getting in a bit more, but you won't grow faster and your wallet will certainly not grow... Spend your money on good carbs and fat instead!
Snacking can help you to get more calories in on the go. Calorie-dense options like oats with yogurt, crackers with nut butters, dried fruits and nuts or avocados are always a good choice.
Always have something in your bag when your leaving the house for a longer time.
Lift heavy weights
Cardio is really something you should avoid, because you’ll end up burning more calories than you eat. It also doesn't build any muscle (It can actually burn muscle mass).
Instead focus on strength training, weight lifting or bodybuilding. However you want to call it. Lift heavy. Period.
All those extra calories in your body will make you feel great in the gym. Use your extra energy to put on more weights and to train more often during the week.
Put so much weight on the bar that you'll hit failure for at least one set. But remember: More muscle mass means you’ll need to consume more calories to maintain or gain weight!
Don't do isolation exercises. Focus on heavy compound movements like squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press and some heavy rowing. 4-8 reps.
And then progress! Add more weight when possible. You have to increase your strength. Using the same weight for months will not lead to anything. Don't overdo it, but make sure to have a healthy progression in your main lifts.
Never skip a post workout meal
It's really important to eat a protein-rich meal after your workout.
Why protein? It spikes insulin and gives the body amino acids to repair the muscles.
Add some carbs to replenish glycogen stores. Not necessary after a workout, but it's a good time for carbs.
What you already know about insulin is that this anabolic hormone puts the nutrients exactly where we want them to be: into the muscle cells.
There's no "anabolic window". So you don't have to get your protein shake 1.93 seconds after your workout. If you shower, drive home and have a nice protein-rich meal 60 minutes after your workout, that's totally fine too! Don't stress about it.
Do yourself a favour and drink, drink, drink plenty of water. Especially during your workout. Otherwise your performance will suffer, because your body is dehydrated.
Don't wait until you are thirsty, because then you're already dehydrated.
While we sleep, a lot of our regeneration, repair and healing happens. Eating a healthy, high protein snack before you go to sleep ensures a fresh supply of nutrients, which your body needs in order to recover properly.
1-2 hours before bed time is a good window to aim for a nice snack like cottage cheese with berries.
You won’t see results over night, you have to be patient. Consistency and time is important, so give yourself a few weeks.
Give your body the time it needs to respond to all the food and training and don’t get frustrated.
We know it can be really difficult to gain muscle. There will often be times where you have to force yourself to eat.
But remember: Changing your body is a marathon, not a sprint.