Most of the people who see me about their weight want to lose it, not gain it. (If you’re one of them, you’re reading the wrong article. Read this one instead.)
If you do want to gain weight (muscle), the process is actually fairly intuitive, although not necessarily quick…
1) Figure out how many calories you need to consume to maintain your weight. You do burn some calories just sitting on the couch: this is your basal metabolic rate. Use this calculator to find what yours should be.
2) Multiply your BMR by your activity level to determine how many calories you burn in a given day.
- If you are sedentary: BMR x 1.2
- If you do light exercise 1-3 days/week: BMR x 1.375
- If you do moderate exercise 3-5 days/week: BMR x 1.55
- If you do hard exercise 6-7 days a week: BMR x 1.725
- If you do very hard exercise and a physical job, or work out twice daily: BMR x 1.9
- For example, a 5’4, 125 lb, 32 yo woman would have a BMR of 1,262. If she exercises 6-7 days per week, she would need to consume 2177 calories daily to maintain her current weight.
3) Calculate how many more calories you will need to consume to pack on the pounds safely — aim for 1-2 pounds per week. 1 lb = 3500 calories, so in order to gain a pound in a week, you would need to consume 500 extra calories per day.
- So in our example above, the woman would need to consume 2677 calories daily to gain a pound in a week.
4) Eat FREQUENTLY and add condiments and spreads to your normal intake. Make sure you are eating small, frequent meals (shoot for 6 times per day), and that you are adding high quality calories to places where there usually weren’t any. Do not overdo the sugar in order to do this—too much sugar will make you gain weight, but the wrong kind. It’s not worth sacrificing your health to gain weight! The best time for sugar is right before a workout, as this will give you a boost of energy and will make your workout that much more effective.
5) Increase protein. Muscle is made of protein, and this is the reason why protein shakes are often recommended to increase muscle mass. You have to give your body the building blocks before it can create what you want. However, if you just consume protein and don’t exercise, the 4 calories per gram of protein you consume will turn into fat also. (However, it won’t turn into fat as fast as sugar or white carbs will, because those hit your bloodstream quicker than protein does.) It’s best to eat your protein shortly after you exercise, as this is when your body will be repairing and building more muscle. If you go the protein shake route, make sure you choose protein shakes that do not have a lot of additives in them. Pure whey, non-GMO soy, hemp, pea, or rice protein are all good choices, with no added sugar or artificial sweeteners.
6) Increase healthy fat intake. While both protein and carbs confer only 4 calories per gram, fat provides 9 calories per gram, making fat intake the more efficient method of weight gain. Make sure you are choosing healthy fats, though (i.e. those that are nutrient dense, and not simply calorically dense, and those that are real food, not processed crap.)
7) Weight train! Cardio exercise is important for your health, but it won’t help you bulk up.
Resistance exercise is necessary for that.
- Begin a strength training program that works all of the major muscle groups of the upper and lower body. Below is a list of exercises that fall into these categories. Ask the trainers at your gym to identify these machines for you if you are unfamiliar with them.
- Upper body exercises include bicep curls, tricep extensions, lat pull downs, seated rows, chest press/fly, shoulder press, and upright rows.
- Lower body exercises include the leg press, squats, or lunges; leg curls, calf raises, and abdominal crunches.
- A repetition is the number of times you repeat a particular exercise. Each time you complete this number of repetitions, it’s called a set. As a rule of thumb, most trainers recommend three sets of each exercise, with 8 to 12 repetitions. If your goal is to lose weight or create lean muscle, lower weight and higher repetitions is recommended, while higher weight and fewer repetitions are preferred to bulk up.
- Repetitions should be slow – lift to a count of 2 and hold at the top of the contraction for about 1 second. Lower to the count of 4. Going faster while lifting or lowering the resistance uses momentum, not muscle, which both increases the chance of injury and decreases effectiveness of the exercise.
- Rest your muscles in between sets. 60-90 seconds is recommended for muscle recovery.
- Work each muscle group until you can’t lift the weight any more without a rest. Trainers call this working the muscle to fatigue. This will ensure that you get the maximum benefits from your exercise.
- Perform strength training on a given muscle group only every other day. It takes two days for your muscles to heal from microtears incurred during strength training. Many trainers recommend strength training only three days per week. Alternatively, you can do some strength training daily but alternate between upper and lower body workouts.
- Increase your resistance as you gain strength. If you stop increasing resistance, your gains will plateau.
If you still have trouble gaining weight, you may be eating less than you think you are. Start tracking your calories and make sure you really are hitting the mark your goal requires. Depending on your age, if you are having a hard time gaining muscle, you might want to have your testosterone levels checked as well. These days there are a number of reasons why it might be low, and this could make it harder to bulk up.
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