How to Gain Weight the Right Way
Did you know that about two percent of American adults 20 and older are actually underweight? Admit it: You’re probably thinking, “Lucky dogs! I wish I had that problem!” right now.
But being underweight can lead to health problems. It’s not just being overweight that’s a concern. And believe it or not, gaining weight — the right way, at least — can be just as challenging as losing weight.
Sure, you can start gobbling down bags of chips and boxes of donuts, but just like when you’re losing weight, the quality of the calories you’re consuming is just as important as the quantity. If you’re trying to gain weight, odds are you’re aiming to gain muscle mass, not fat.
(Note: There are medical conditions, like hyperthyroidism, that can affect weight gain, so consult your health care provider for treatment that’s appropriate for your situation.)
How Can I Tell if I’m Underweight?
When it comes to losing or gaining weight, it’s natural to want to focus on a specific number so you can say, “A-ha! Here is my goal. All I need to do is reach # pounds!”
But a lot of things can influence the number on the scale, like height, gender, age, and genetics. On top of that, the scale can’t tell the difference between muscle, fat, bones, organs, etc., so it can’t tell you how fit or healthy you are.
You’ve probably heard of body mass index (BMI), which is a simple height-to-weight ratio: your weight (in kilograms) divided by the square of your height (in meters). That number determines which general weight category you fall into, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Below 18.5 = Underweight
- 18.5 – 24.9 = Normal or healthy weight
- 25.0 – 29.9 = Overweight
- 30.0 and Above = Obese
Like your bathroom scale, your BMI doesn’t take into account your body composition (i.e., your ratio of lean mass to fat mass), so if you’re quite lean and muscular, it’s entirely possible to have a BMI that qualifies you as “overweight” despite having a very low body fat percentage. Accordingly, the CDC acknowledges that BMI is not the final word on your fat levels or health. But if you don’t exercise regularly, it can be used to determine your general weight category and the possible health risks associated with it.
Instead, it may be wiser to focus on your body fat percentage, which measures your body composition and how much of that is fat. When you’re trying to gain weight, it’s a good ratio to be aware of to make sure you’re gaining muscle, not fat. It can help you set realistic nutrition and fitness goals and expectations.
What’s Wrong With Being Underweight?
If you’re underweight, you may be missing essential nutrients, which can affect key body processes; in addition, low body weight in women can lead to a disruption of the menstrual cycle.
Meanwhile, there are also people who have what is considered a “healthy weight” for their height but who don’t have enough muscle on their frames to actually be healthy, says Marie Spano, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., C.S.S.D., sports nutritionist for the Atlanta Hawks. If you’ve ever heard the term “skinny fat,” this is what it describes.
In people who are largely sedentary and eat low-calorie, low-quality diets, muscle mass can frequently be lower than is optimal for good health. The problems stemming from a lack of physical activity and a poor diet can be compounded with age, as it gets harder to maintain and increase muscle mass as you get older.
“Improving muscle mass can lead to gains in strength, endurance, and functional living,” Spano says.
How Fast Can I Gain Weight?
How much lean mass you can gain in a given amount of time depends on multiple factors, including your genetics, gender, age, and others.
But generally, if you’re trying to sustainably gain lean mass, the average person can build around 0.25 pounds of muscle per week, explains Sam Simpson, C.S.C.S., C.P.T., co-owner and vice president of B-Fit Training Studio in Miami. Meanwhile, it’s possible to gain upward of two pounds of fat per week, although water weight would potentially be the cause of any further increases on the scale.
To determine where your weight gain is coming from (from fat vs. muscle), regularly measure both your weight as well as body fat percentage, recommends nutrition scientist Lisa Davis, Ph.D. Your gym may have a bioimpedance (BIA) device that’s available for use, or you can invest in an at-home scale that is equipped to measure body fat percentage.
How to Gain Weight the Healthy Way
Gaining weight in a healthy way — whether from fat or muscle — isn’t as simple as letting yourself go at the all-you-can-eat buffet or pumping iron 24/7. You have to take a targeted, science-backed approach that keeps your health at the forefront and yields the results you want.
1. Nix processed foods
Even if you’re trying to bulk up, it’s still important for your overall health that you’re filling your body with whole foods, says Davis. She notes that trying to gain weight by eating excessive amounts of processed foods like soda, refined grains, bacon, and trans fats can increase your risk of conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Instead, focus on healthy, balanced meals in proper proportions.
2. Increase your calories
“No one can be in a significant calorie deficit and build muscle,” says Albert Matheny, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab.
To find out how many more calories you need to consume to gain weight, you need to first figure out your baseline, or how many calories you need to maintain your current weight, then add 300 calories to gain muscle mass. (And don’t forget the weight training; see #4)
3. Pay attention to macros
How you divvy up those calories between carbs, protein, and fat largely determines if your weight gained is from muscle or from fat.
Having an adequate amount of protein in your diet is necessary to build muscle. When you’re working out, you’re basically “breaking down” your muscles; the muscle-building phase happens when your body is repairing the damage — which is where protein comes in.
Protein is made up of amino acids, which your body uses as the “building blocks” to create new muscle tissue. But how much protein should you be eating? To build muscle, consume between 1.4 to 2.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day — and no more than about 25-30 grams per meal.
To increase weight gain from fat, your macros should skew higher toward carbohydrates and fat since they’re the most calorically dense macronutrients, Davis says. The bulk of your fat should come from unsaturated sources like avocado, olive oil, and salmon.
An easier and faster way to increase lean mass is first to bulk, then lean out. Using this method, you only have to focus on one thing at a time — building, then leaning out, versus trying to build muscle AND prevent fat gain at the same time.
4. Strength train at least three times a week
To build muscle, you should ideally strength train each muscle group at least two to three times per week. If you typically do total-body workouts, you’re covered. But this general rule is good to keep in mind if you do split training, targeting specific areas of your body each training session (e.g., back and bis, chest and tris, etc.). That said, it’s also important not to train so often that your muscles aren’t able to recover sufficiently. Remember, muscle growth happens between workouts, not during them.
5. Focus on compound lifts
Isolation exercises (e.g., biceps curls and triceps extensions, which move a single joint) have their place in just about any workout plan, but the bulk of your workout should focus on compound (multi-joint) lifts, says Matheny.
That’s because compound lifts like the squat, deadlift, bench press, and pull-up hammer the big muscle groups (e.g., quads, hams, pecs, etc.), which have the greatest growth potential, while also recruiting the smaller muscle groups (e.g., calves, biceps, triceps, etc.). The more muscle you work, the more muscle you build. It’s that simple.
6. Focus on hypertrophy rep schemes
To maximally increase muscle size, your workouts should focus on a hypertrophy rep and set scheme, which represents the middle ground between strength and muscular endurance training. Simpson recommends three to four sets of eight to 12 reps, with loads heavy enough that you can just eke out your last rep of every set with proper form. Give yourself a minute to rest between sets.
7. Dial-in your post-workout nutrition
“Remember, your muscles don’t grow while you lift, they grow afterward in response to the stress of your workouts,” Matheny says. “Giving your muscles well-timed and sufficient protein to build and repair lean muscle while also supplying them with carbs to support the refueling of glycogen stores [is key].”
Generally, you should consume about 20 grams of protein with some carbs shortly after you work out. While recent research suggests that the post-exercise anabolic window might extend several hours post-exercise, it’s smart to refuel ASAP after a workout.
8. Supplements that can help you gain muscle
Openfit has two supplements developed by a team of scientists and registered dietitians that can help you increase your protein intake and help you reach your fitness goals.
- Ladder Whey Protein and Ladder Plant Protein: Great for post-workout consumption, these protein supplements provide key building blocks your muscles need to help promote the repair and adaptation processes.
- Openfit Plant-Based Nutrition Shake: Made with pea-protein, this shake is vegan-friendly and high-protein, making it a great snack or meal addition.
When taken as directed, these supplements help add healthy nutrients to your diet.