It’s always pretty entertaining reading articles meant for skinny guys looking for information on how to gain weight that are written by well-meaning but naturally muscular or obese writers.
They just don’t get how tough it is for us skinny guys to gain weight.
It’s like an obese person taking weight loss advice from someone who’s naturally skinny. The skinny guy would confidently say, “Well, yeah, just stop eating. It’s easy. I do it all the time.”
It took me years to realize how much of the mainstream fitness information is really weight loss information in disguise. It took me even longer to figure out how to convert all of it into information that we can use. And longer still to break it down into 5 simple concepts.
This information is hard to find, evidence-based, and if you put it into action, it will radically change your life. Just like it did for the thousands of members in our program.
1. Eat More Food Than Your Body Needs—Consistently
Your body gets the energy that it needs from food. Your body then uses this energy to breathe, generate new cells, think, move around, etc. If you want to gain weight, you’ll need to eat more energy than your body needs.
Remember our well-meaning and naturally muscular writers? They tell us skinny guys to “just eat more”, or lecture us about how we “obviously don’t eat very much food because we’re skinny.” This is what they’ll typically write and then move on.
We may indeed need to eat more, but simply telling us that isn’t helping us actually do it.
We know what it’s like to be a skinny guy, and how hard it is gain weight. The skinny struggle is real.
I remember the bony version of myself would commonly eat an obscene amount of food. Back when I was skinny, I calculated one day of eating, and it was well beyond 3200+ calories.
So how come I wasn’t gaining weight?
There’s this scientific term, homoeostasis, and it describes the physiological process where a variable is held constant through active regulation.
What does that even mean?
It means our bodies are actively trying to maintain their current weight.
If you eat more energy one day than your body needs, what do you think your body will do with that extra energy? A naturally fat guy might store that weight, but as hardgainers, our bodies will try to burn it before storing it.
We naturally try to maintain our current weight!
You may notice that you start to fidget more. You might feel energised to go for a walk somewhere, or play some sports. You might even do some extra deep thinking and burn more energy that way.
If you still have a surplus after all of that, your body will approach the problem from another angle—by limiting the amount of food coming in. The next day you might forget to eat a meal, or consistently under-eat at every meal that day.
So that day I ate a whole bag of chips with 1200 calories, a box of cookies, and a pint of ice cream on top of my regular meals—what happened on the next day?
I moved more. I thought more. And I probably ate less. And that balanced everything out. No weight gain for me.
If you’re struggling to gain weight too, it’s because you’re running into that exact same issue. Every time you get ahead, your body cancels out your efforts retroactively.
So here’s how to beat your body’s natural systems:
- Track your energy objectively through an app like MyFitnessPal. If you try to “just eat more,” you won’t be able to account for your body making you forget things. It sounds crazy how your body might make you “forget” to eat breakfast the day after a previous day of eating big, but that’s just because you don’t remember all the times it happened to you!
- Track your calories weekly too. You might eat a lot of food 6 out of 7 days, be on track to gain weight, and then under-eat on the 7th day by quite a lot because you’re busy or stressed. That could wipe out all that extra energy you stored up over the week.
Eating More Can Be Tough
What if you find it hard to eat more than you need? Shane’s written an excellent article that breaks down all the science on this, and he shares research-backed tips. Here’s the breakdown:
- Drink your energy. Drinking calories doesn’t make us feel full in the same way as chewing our food. Smoothies, protein shakes and milk are excellent choices. In our program, we have a half-dozen recipes for a custom, homemade workout drink which will help you annihilate up to 1,000 calories in just one shake.
- Eat foods that are less filling. Foods that have less fibre (like nuts) and less water (like dried fruits) tend to be less filling. This makes foods like trail mix great for sneaking in extra calories.
- Eat more often. Studies show that those who snack between meals eat more calories than those who eat larger meals less often.
- Make your food taste incredible. A bit of salt, sugar, and oil goes a long way. It’s pretty hard to eat a lot of plain boiled chicken wings—even just writing that is making me less hungry—but if you make a delicious homemade sauce, you can eat wings forever. (And no, a little salt, oil and sugar will not make you gain more fat while bulking.)
- Add a variety of foods and flavours to your diet. Studies have shown that if you eat foods with different flavours during a meal, you’ll eat more. Perhaps this is one contributor to why so many people gain weight during Thanksgiving and Christmas potluck dinners, where there are 20 different flavours to taste.
How Much More Should I Eat?
A conservative (aka slow, lean gains) starting point is to take your bodyweight and multiply it by 18. So if you weigh 130 pounds, you’d start off eating around 2300-2400 calories daily. Since you’ll also be tracking your calories daily, your weekly goal will be 16,380 calories.
(If you’re already tracking your calorie intake, even better—increase your daily calories by 250, which should get you gaining about half a pound per week.)
What if you do this and you don’t gain weight? We answer this in step 4.
2. Don’t Just Build Fat, Build Muscle
Okay. Now that you’re eating more food than you need, and you keep it up, where does all this extra energy go?
Well, if the closest you get to lifting weights is sitting here reading about them on this blog, that energy is going to be stored as fat.
If you’re see-your-rib-cage kind of skinny, like we were, you might not care if you gain fat. In fact, if you’re under 10% body fat, gaining some fat could even be healthy for you.
But if your goal is to take up more space, look better, stand taller, and be stronger, you’ll still want to build mostly muscle with all that extra energy. Even if you’re starting out at 8% body fat, wouldn’t it be great if you gained 20 pounds of muscle before you hit a nice, healthy 10%?
So how do you tell your body to take that extra energy and turn it into muscle instead of fat?
The answer is by lifting weights and eating enough protein to support muscle growth.
HEADS UP: It’s important to remember that you shouldn’t increase the amount of food you’re eating until after you start working out. If you start eating big before you start lifting, you’ll be gaining mostly fat until you start up your lifting program.
The simplest way of putting it is, lifting weights helps you build muscle because when you stress your muscles enough, your body thinks that it must need bigger muscles to better handle that kind of stress.
The complicated answer, well, get’s quite complicated. We could talk about how stressing your muscles by focusing on mechanical tension is superior to focusing on just muscle damage. Or how without a solid workout program, you could fail to stress your muscles enough and gain more fat than you need to. And not just gain fat but also injure yourself.
There’s a lot of science available now about how to build muscle optimally. And we integrated and considered all of it when putting together our program. You just do it and know that it works.
If you’re a curious fellow, Shane’s written an excellent article titled “The Skinny on Just Lift Heavy.” It covers all the popular methods of working out and gives their pros and cons.
We would highly recommend that you do not make your own workout. There’s a lot to consider regarding movement patterns, volume, intensity, injury prevention, progression, picking exercises to match your skill level and mobility, and even scientific behavioral tricks to make working out more addictive.
If you haven’t studied how to design workout programs you could injure yourself, get terrible results (just gain fat), build an unbalanced physique that is more prone to injuries down the road, and just waste time that you could have been used to build muscle. If you’re a personal trainer, you probably aren’t reading this, but even the smartest coaches we know get other trainers to program their workouts. It’s the only way to get what you need instead of what you want to do.
Lifting is not so unlike eating. Your body will usually get tired or lazy at the homeostasis point. If you wing it, you’ll probably stop your workout at the exact moment that will have you perfectly maintaining your results. Automatic plateau.
Eating Enough Protein
Muscle requires protein. To build new muscle, you’ll need more protein in your diet than someone who isn’t trying to build muscle. And the average guy under-eats protein anyway. So you probably need to eat more.
But eating enough protein is hard for a couple of reasons.
The first issue is that protein is incredibly filling. Try eating three chicken breasts and tell me you’re still hungry. Having a protein shake like whey makes this a lot easier as it uses the tricks from earlier (no chewing and no fibre). If you want to see what protein powders we recommend, see our supplement guide.
The second issue is that protein is expensive. Whey protein powder tends to be cheaper per gram than eating chicken, so it’s possible that protein supplements could be helpful in keeping your costs down. Keep in mind that not all your protein needs to come from animal sources. There’s a little bit of protein in beans and nuts, which will get automatically tracked in your tracking app. If you’re eating lots of food in general, and you will be, then all those little bits of extra protein will help you reach your goals.
But what should your daily protein goal be?
Make sure to get at least 1 gram of protein per pound bodyweight (2.2 grams per kilo).
3. Rest Well
When you stress your body, your body uses sleep to recover from that stress. Without proper rest, your hormones get bent all out of shape. When that happens, your body is more likely to store the extra energy you’re eating as fat (study, study).
Being sleep deprived is catabolic, which is a sciencey way of saying it puts you into a state where you break down more muscle mass.
Sleeping well is anabolic, meaning you’ll be building more muscle and storing less fat.
If gaining weight and building muscle is important to you, you should make an effort to improve your sleep.
Some extra bonuses from sleeping enough are:
- You’ll look better
- You’ll be smarter
How do you rest well? You’ll need to sleep enough and also get good sleep. So the quantity and the quality matters.
Most of the research says that if you’re one of the overwhelming majority, you’ll need at least 7.25 hours, and probably closer to 8 hours, of sleep every single night.
Okay, so how do you improve the quality of your sleep?
- Sleep in a quiet bedroom. If you live in the city, use a noise machine to cover up startling sounds (loud drunk people, sirens, dogs barking)
- Sleep in a dark bedroom. Get blackout curtains to block out streetlights or be thankful that you live in the country-side.
- Sleep in a climate-controlled room. Keep it cool enough that you can use at least one blanket. Having a blanket will prevent rapid heat changes that can disrupt your sleep.
- Avoid screens 1–2 hours before you go to bed. I know it’s the 21st century, and this is incredibly hard, so just get F.lux to reduce the effect. Or make baby steps and listen to podcasts/radio pre-bed.
- Try not to eat within 30 minutes of going to bed. If you’re trying to gain weight, this might mean cramming calories in right until you go to bed. But if you can do it a bit earlier, your sleep may be better.
4. Measure & Pivot
The masses often paraphrase Peter Drucker as having written, “What get’s measured, gets managed.” And he’s 100% right.
If we want to gain weight as naturally skinny guys, we can’t just do what we naturally do… because we’re naturally skinny. But the good news is that once we gain weight, that becomes the new natural. (Remember that homoeostasis effect? It will help you stay big and muscular too.)
So if you want to gain weight, you’ll need to measure your weight each week. Make sense?
Buy a digital scale; they’re more accurate out of the box than a mechanical one.
Weigh yourself once a week right after you wake up and use the washroom. Alternatively, you can also weigh yourself daily and then divide the number by 7 at the end of the week. It’s normal for your weight to fluctuate a bit depending on water retention, food in your system, etc. Measuring yourself every day and then taking an average can help deal with that. So can waiting for a week’s worth of muscle gain to add up before weighing yourself.
If after your first week, the scale did not budge, here how to get back to gaining weight:
- Increase your daily energy intake by 250 calories (to create the surplus that was missing)
- Improve your daily and weekly calorie consistency (to actually hit your targets)
You can use an app on your phone or computer like MyFitnessPal to make tracking a lot easier (member’s guide here).
5. Make It Easy & Bet On Yourself
It’s going to take a lot of smart planning, effort, and consistency for quite a while in order to gain a significant amount of weight and muscle.
It doesn’t matter if what you’re doing is 100% optimal for gaining weight if the routine isn’t sustainable.
While your motivation is high, it’s easy to force yourself through the tougher parts of a plan. But eventually some stressor will come into your life. If the routine isn’t easy to maintain, you’ll stop doing it. So your plan should not have parts that are too tough.
Getting a cold, work downsizing, breaking up a long-term relationship—things like this can totally throw your routine out the window. Even good things like vacations or holidays can replace a weight-gain routine with higher priorities like spending time with family. It’s not realistic to think that you’ll never have something knock you off your plan. So your plan needs to be able to survive a good punch.
Focus on the 20% of what you’re doing that’s giving you 80% of your results.
- Eat enough food consistently
- Eat enough protein consistently
- Lift weights 3x a week consistently (and follow a good program!)
How can you do that?
The way to do that is by making all these things into habits so that you do them instinctively. If you want to know more about the science behind building a habit, check out our habit article. Here’s a quick breakdown:
- Goal-setting: Pick one tangible and realistic goal, such as gaining 5 pounds in 5 weeks.
- Make it easy to stick to the plan: Pick a program that’s designed well, change things in your environment to make it easier to stick to your goal (cook food and freeze it in advance, build a home gym if the gym is too far away, make small gradual changes to your diet, etc.), eat foods that are easy to eat lots of (liquids, dried fruits, etc.).
- Improve your willpower: Get enough sleep (which will also make your gains leaner.)
- Use willpower to get started: It takes 18-66 days to build a habit so consider using accountability as a failsafe such as betting with a friend to help you last that long. We recommend 5 weeks to start.
- A reward is part of habit building: Celebrate every milestone you reach. A milestones is something that is measurable and important in your progress. Not just regular ol’ stones a few feet ahead of you along the road.
If you’ve previously struggled with gaining weight, you now have the 5-step action plan of what you need to do. Here’s how it’d look with everything together.
- Get an evidence-based training program that will help you build muscle leanly (like ours)
- Go to the gym 3x a week
- Hit your energy goals daily, weekly, monthly (we have a guides on making this easier in our program)
- Hit your protein goals daily, weekly, monthly
- Work on improving your sleep quantity and then quality (member’s guide by DoctorB here)
- Measure your progress weekly and adjust what you’re doing if it’s not working
- Use accountability to help you stick to the plan long term (that’s why we have the Beastly community)
Have you gained weight before? And what worked well for you? Do you have any questions we can help to answer? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.