Illustration of a beginner bodybuilder suffering from bloating and indigestion.

When I first started weight training and eating for muscle growth, I expected to have more energy, to become stronger, and to look better. But the first thing I noticed was that my stomach started to bloat up like a blowfish. It wasn’t fat, either. I still had abs. But instead of having a flat, washboard stomach, it was curved outwards like a turtle shell.

As I continued to pound down the calories, I started feeling perpetually full, bloated, and gassy. I’d often get indigestion, I struggled with acid reflux, and sometimes I’d even get diarrhea. Something wasn’t going right, but I didn’t know what it was.

I considered going back to my old diet, but that would mean going back to being skinny, and there was no way I was doing that. Fortunately, I realized that this was a fairly common issue with bodybuilders, and that there were a few good ways to improve digestion. Now, even after gaining 65 pounds, it’s easy for me to get into a comfortable calorie surplus.

So, what’s the best way to fix bloating, gas, indigestion, and acid reflux while building muscle?

Illustration of a skinny-fat man becoming lean and muscular.

Why Is It Hard to Digest Food?

We specialize in helping skinny guys build muscle, which means gaining weight, which means eating more calories—more food. And that extra food can cause problems: bloating, indigestion, gas, and sometimes even diarrhea.

Illustration of the stomach size variation between skinny and overweight people.

One of the reasons why most skinny guys have trouble with traditional bodybuilding diets is because our stomachs are often smaller than average. If you’re a so-called “ectomorph,” with a thinner frame and a shallower ribcage, that means there’s less room for your stomach. If we compare that against the average man, not only does he have more room in his torso for his stomach, but he also has a history of overeating, which can stretch his stomach, making it bigger.

To make matters even more complicated, skinny guys are often “hardgainers,” in the sense that our metabolisms are more adaptive than normal. What happens is that we fidget more, move more, and burn off more energy as heat (study). It’s totally subconscious. We don’t even realize that we’re doing it. But it can burn off as much as 950 extra calories per day:

Graph showing that some people burn more calories that others because of their metabolisms.

So we have a situation where some skinny guys have more meagre appetites, smaller stomachs, and faster metabolisms. But because we’re trying to gain weight, we need to find a way to eat more food. So we shovel mountains of food down, and we wind up feeling bloated and cramped, and we struggle with acid reflux and indigestion.

To be clear, running into digestion problems is common with all bodybuilders. Eating a lot of food is hard. But it can be especially hard for skinny guys who are just getting started. We often find ourselves looking pregnant after eating a big bulking meal.

So, how do you get rid of the bloating and indigestion?

The Problem With Bodybuilding Meal Plans

It’s common for skinny beginners to want to change everything all at once. We’re tired of being skinny, we know we’re doing something wrong, and so we want to completely overhaul our exercise routine, diet, and lifestyle. And I get that. I was the same way. During my first bulking attempt, I cut out all of the junk food I was eating, and I replaced it with a stock bulking diet that I found in a bodybuilding magazine.

Illustration of a skinny hardgainer eating a feast in his attempt to bulk up, gain weight. and build muscle.

Overnight, I changed every single meal I ate. I swapped out all of the foods I was eating with somebody else’s diet. And my stomach didn’t like it. I got bloated, I struggled to digest the food, and I started having acid reflux. And I couldn’t figure out why. I was eating the perfect bodybuilding diet, wasn’t I? What was I doing wrong?

The problem is, we all have slightly different digestive systems. We all get used to eating different foods and digesting different foods. We have different gut bacteria, we have different intolerances, and we get used to digesting different ratios of protein, carbs, and fat.

Here are some common examples:

  • If you started eating a ketogenic diet, you’d go through something called the “keto flu,” where you feel awful as your body adapts to getting more of its energy from fat. Keto isn’t good for building muscle, so that isn’t a concern for us, but it goes to show that it takes some time to adapt to different diets.
  • If you started intermittent fasting, you’d probably find yourself really hungry during the morning, struggling with cravings. And then when it’s finally time to eat, you might find yourself eating too much too fast, and running into digestion problems because of it. Again, intermittent fasting isn’t good for building muscle, but this is an example of how changing our meal schedule can cause problems.
  • If you start drinking more milk, that’s great. Drinking more milk is a great way to get more calories, get more protein, and gain weight. However, to digest milk, we need a digestive enzyme called lactase. This is an enzyme that most people can produce themselves, but if you start drinking an extra litre of milk every day, you might not have enough of it! Over time, your body will adapt. You’ll produce more lactase. But jumping straight into it can cause digestive problems.
  • If you start eating bigger meals, again, that’s great. Eating bigger meals is a good way to eat more calories. The problem is, if your stomach is still small, those bigger meals might not fit. You might find that you have trouble digesting those meals, making you feel tired for several hours afterwards. You may even get acid reflux. And that’s normal. Most people feel that way after Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner, when they eat an abnormally large amount of food. But you may find it more enjoyable to eat smaller meals more often. Instead of eating bigger meals, eat more snacks.
  • If you start eating more fruits, veggies, legumes, and grains, that means you’ll be eating more fibre. And fibre is great. It’s healthy. It’s good for your digestive system. But it’s possible to get too much of a good thing. Eating 30 grams of fibre per day is great, but what about eating 60 grams? What about 90 grams? For most of us, that’s too much. It’s too hard to digest. That’s why so many bodybuilders bulk on white rice instead of brown rice. It’s not that white rice is “healthier,” it’s just that white rice is lower in fibre, and so it causes fewer digestive issues.

Most of these digestion issues are caused by changing our diets too much too soon. We’re eating enormous meals before our stomachs have expanded enough to be able to hold them. We’re drinking too much milk before we’re producing the digestive enzymes we need to digest it. We’re changing where where we get our energy before our body has adapted to it. And we’re eating too much fibre all of us a sudden, before the bacteria in our stomach can learn to manage it.

The absolute worst way to approach a bulking diet, then, is to start copying some bodybuilder’s meal plan. You’ll be abandoning all of the foods that you’re good at digesting, replacing them with foods you don’t know how to digest. You’ll be abandoning the schedule that your body has acclimatized to, replacing it with a schedule that you aren’t prepared for. This can affect us in a variety of ways, ranging from bloating to gas to indigestion, and it can even make us wake up in the middle of the night needing to pee.

The best way to build a bulking diet, then, is to gradually change your current diet.

How to Digest Food More Easily While Bulking

When we start eating for muscle growth, we want to build on our current diet, making strategic changes gradually. Here are some good ways to approach it:

  • Increase your calorie intake by making your meals a little bit bigger, and by adding foods that are easy to digest, such as white rice or bananas.
  • If you need even more calories, try adding snacks. And again, choose snacks are easy to digest. Trail mix often works well, especially if you choose trail mix made out of foods that you enjoy. (I use a mix of peanuts, almonds, cranberries, and raisins.)
  • Keep eating the good foods that you already eat. If you enjoy eating tortilla, you don’t need to swap them out for potatoes. If you’re eating potatoes, you don’t need to swap them out for rice. You can keep eating the foods you’re already eating.
  • Choose foods that are easy to digest. If steak is hard to digest, try eating ground meat instead. It’s equally nutritious, but the grinding will make it easier to chew and digest. If you’re using protein powder, whey is often easiest to digest (unless you have trouble digesting dairy).
  • When adding in foods, be careful with fibre. If you’re adding carbs to meal, consider low-fibre options like white rice or white pasta. If you’re making a workout shake or mass gainer, use maltodextrin instead of ground oats.
  • Add in foods that improve digestion, such as yoghurt, hard cheeses, bananas, and onions. But again, add these foods in little by little.
  • Be careful with fad diets. It’s usually better to avoid pop culture diets, such as keto, paleo, and intermittent fasting. It’s not that these diets are bad, it’s just that they aren’t designed for helping people build muscle or gain weight. They’re designed for weight loss. That’s the opposite goal.
  • Don’t be too extreme. It’s common for skinny guys to start drinking a gallon of milk per day, or chugging 5 raw eggs every morning, or taking shots of olive oil, or chugging pre-workouts full of stimulants before their workouts. That’s usually a bad idea. There’s nothing wrong with milk, eggs, olive oil, or pre-workouts, but ease into it more gradually. Don’t be so extreme with it. Start with a glass of milk with meals, eating 2–3 eggs per day, drizzling olive oil on your vegetables, and drinking a cup of coffee before working out. It’s less exciting, but your digestive system might thank you for it.
  • Avoid intolerances. Some people are allergic to eggs, have trouble digesting gluten, or can’t produce enough lactase to digest milk very well. The problem is, you might not know what your allergies and intolerances are. That’s another reason why bulking might not be the best time to completely change your diet. You might run into foods that disagree with you, and it will be hard to figure out what they are.
  • Go on a walk after eating. A good way to get your digestive system moving is to get up and go on a walk after eating a big meal. It doesn’t need to be a long walk, and you don’t need to do it after every meal, but if you’ve eaten so much that you want to lie down, it might be best to stand up instead.

Oh, and there’s nothing wrong with having 2–3 scoops of whey protein every day if you’re having trouble hitting your daily protein goals. But if you start getting diarrhea, that might be why! That’s often the first sign that you’re overdoing it on the whey protein. So if that happens, diversify your protein sources. Try getting your protein from meat, fish, milk, eggs, legumes, or even from other protein powders.

Summary

It’s common for skinny guys to run into trouble when they first start eating a bulking diet. This is something that most bodybuilders struggle with. It’s hard to digest a lot of calories. But even so, there are some things we can do to make it much easier.

There are a lot of tricks, and we’ve covered them above, but most of it boils down to changing your diet gradually, avoiding abnormally large meals, getting more of your calories from snacks, and being mindful of overdoing your fibre intake.

Before/after photo of Shane Duquette starting skinny, bulking up, and building muscle.
Shane Duquette, 130 pounds (left) and 195 pounds (right).

When I first started building muscle, my bulking diet was giving me a lot of grief. But over time, my stomach got bigger, my digestion system got stronger, and I started being able to digest a wider variety of foods more easily. We just have to be patient with it.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder and creative lead of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and has a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained sixty pounds at 11% body fat and has nine years of experience helping nearly ten thousand skinny people bulk up.

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27 Comments

  1. Breonna on June 12, 2012 at 2:37 am

    Shane, I think you’re allergic to eggs, dairy, protein powder, and nuts. Gassy monster indeed.

    • Shane Duquette on June 12, 2012 at 3:03 am

      Hey a burp now and then isn’t so bad 🙂

  2. roz on November 9, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    sounds like my life!

  3. Alexander on June 7, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    I thought it’s gluten and milk that bloats me but it turned out its fibre and processed milk. No wholemeal no too many veg and no whey protein and life is good once again.

    • Amin on August 23, 2016 at 3:28 pm

      Hey Alexander I wonder do you steam your veggies or eat them raw?

  4. Galev on March 8, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    So here I was wondering “I should google this gas thing, it mustn’t be normal, there must be a way to deal with it.” And google gave me some results and I was confirmed in my suspicion that it is probably the supplement I started taking (beef protein with some carbs).
    There weren’t any suggestions other than “it should go away in a few weeks”.
    “I wish there was something about thin on Bony to Beastly…” And then I spotted the link. Crazy how you guys really cover everything. 😀

    I’m not going to be able to mix my supplement with anything because I only take the one (and only twice a week). But I’ll try out pro-biotic yoghurt. My only concern is that I may be lactose intolerant (I have an appointment to have it tested). So I don’t know what I’ll do if that turns out to be the case.

    • Shane Duquette on March 8, 2015 at 10:19 pm

      Ahaha we try our best! Glad we could help.

      Even if you’re lactose intolerant some types of dairy may still agree with you. There are digestive enzymes and lactose free milk. And your lactose intolerance may go away over a few weeks as you slowly acclimatize to drinking milk.

      That’s a very novel type of protein powder too. You may have more luck with something classic like whey protein isolate (which doesn’t have lactose—the sugar in milk—in it).

      Good luck!

  5. Scott Pilgrim on May 24, 2015 at 9:05 pm

    digestive enzymes from actual pineapples?
    or will Pineapple juice do?

    • Shane Duquette on May 26, 2015 at 4:18 pm

      The more processing a food goes through the less cool stuff it’ll do. Less fibre, or vitamins, or perhaps digestive enzymes, etc. If you blend a pineapple up into a smoothie that’d probably be comparable to a fresh pineapple. If you juice it using a juicer, a little less. If you’re getting pasteurized store-bought juice, even less. At what point do you lose the enzymes? I don’t know :S

  6. Derek on August 9, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    How the heck can you put on weight as a skinny guy if you have an intolerance to Dairy, Eggs, Nuts, and Wheat?! Those are like the primary muscle building foods right there. When you throw out Whey, Dairy products like Cottage Cheese, Milk, Almonds, Nut Butters, Eggs, and breads and pastas; What are you left with? Chicken, Rice and Brocolli at every meal? Yay…. (sarcasm)

    • Shane Duquette on August 10, 2015 at 10:44 am

      Hey Derek,

      It’s definitely discouraging when you’re faced with a lot of restrictions, but it’s definitely still possible. We have members who are following strict paleo diets (low carb, no potatoes or fruits, no grains, no legumes, etc), vegans, people with type 1 diabetes, people with Crohn’s disease. Just takes more cleverness.

      My favourite muscle-building meal is chili cooked a dozen servings at a time. Pretty delicious, quick to cook the first time, very easy to reheat at your convenience. My second favourite recipe is stew, for similar reasons. Lately I’ve been trying to do the same thing with stir fries and curries to mix things up. None of these have dairy, eggs, nuts or wheat.

      If you wanted a protein powder, instead of whey protein, for example, you could get rice/pea protein powder. Something like SunWarrior or Vega.

      Does that help at all?

  7. Ea on October 7, 2015 at 8:31 am

    Hi Shane ,
    I have been using maltodextrin after workouts for quite a while now, and it s working crazy good. The thing is gulping down 100grams of if started to give me nausea and i cant eat for like 3-4 hours afted that . This started a few weeks ago. Should i stop using it and eat food ? ( i really dont wanna do that)

    • Shane Duquette on October 7, 2015 at 7:16 pm

      Hey Ea,

      Really glad to hear the maltodextrin has been helping!

      I think the first step will be trying to narrow down why all of a sudden you’re getting nauseas. Your body has a bunch of regulatory systems designed to keep you weighing about the same as you did yesterday, last week, and last month. Eating easily digestible low fibre liquid calories is a brilliant way to slip under the radar of those various regulatory systems. However, oftentimes there’s only so much we can do to trick them. After a while your body realizes that you’re gaining weight and it tries to re-establish homeostasis.

      The good news is that if you gain 20 pounds and maintain those gains for a little period of time, you may very well find that you naturally maintain that weight forever. Those same mechanisms start working in your favour, maintaining your new burly figure.

      For now, maybe just take a break from the maltodextrin. Take a couple weeks off. Stop overeating. Maintain your gains. Regain some motivation. Remember what hunger feels like. Then go back to bulking 🙂

      Perhaps have some fermented foods, onions, and plenty of fibre (fruits, veggies, grains, legumes, oats, etc). That should help your digestive system by encouraging a nice lush microbiome.

      Does that make sense / help?

  8. Brian on October 20, 2015 at 12:46 am

    After every heavy workout I use a Blender Bottle, with 14 mL of milk and ~60 grams of whey protein and gulp it quickly.(I weigh 135 lbs and consume roughly ~120-150 grams or protein per day) After my most recent workout, I felt bloated, precisely on my lower abdomen, and terribly constipated. Is this normal, as for completely changing my diet? Or am I doing something wrong?

    Thanks.

    • Shane Duquette on October 20, 2015 at 12:09 pm

      It’s pretty normal to have trouble digesting large amounts of protein if you suddenly start eating large amounts of protein. As far as I understand it, your body hasn’t prepared the digestive enzymes that it needs yet. This shouldn’t be harmful, and your body will in time start producing the digestive enzymes that it needs to efficiently digest all of that protein.

      In the meantime though

      With weightlifting you start with light weights, become stronger, progress to heavier weights. Similarly, you could consume smaller amounts of protein at a time, increasing that amount slowly—a little bit at a time—and gradually improve upon the amount that you can comfortably consume 🙂

  9. ajay on July 3, 2017 at 9:43 am

    hello shane my name is ajay from india ,i started bodybuilding in 2004 switched to strength training which i have continued till date .i was 56 kg when i started now i am 71 kg(i dit a cutting cycle reduced 15 kg because it was fat ,no strength loss) my stats are deadlift conv. 164 kg squat 120 kg bench prob 90 kg weighted dip 40 kg 3-4 reps weighted chin up 40 kg 3 reps .i also run twice a week alternately 8 km(36 min) 100 mt 12sec .(i have to run no option)what i want to know is this is there any way to know when to increase my diet ? i exercise 2-3 times a week 4 hrs and i dn’t have any symptoms of overtraining and i sleep< 7 hrs can't sleep more .also my wrist circumference is 16.5 cm ankle width 21.5 cm height 177 cm .is there some time after which i know i can be no more neuro muscularly efficient and have to increase my diet ?

    • Shane Duquette on July 4, 2017 at 1:53 pm

      Hey Ajay,

      Calories, thankfully, are simple. If you aren’t gaining weight, it means you aren’t eating enough calories to gain weight. So you know when you need to increase calories if you’re not gaining as much weight as you’d like to be gaining. On the other end of the spectrum, you’re eating too many calories when you’re gaining so much weight that you’re gaining fat.

      Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it easy. It can be a pain to track calories, and it can be very difficult to eat enough to gain weight. The path, however, is clear. So be smart, and good luck! 🙂

      • ajay on July 5, 2017 at 12:34 am

        thank you for the reply ,the strength that i have gained should i have gained more of it ,i mean what about the other members here of the same height and dimensions does anyone for eg deadlift 200 kg or squat 150 or 140 kg for eg. i’ve spnt long time in this so i’m just curious

        • Shane Duquette on July 6, 2017 at 1:19 pm

          We’ve got a few members deadlifting at least 200kg, benching at least 100kg and squatting around 150kg. Most of them are around the 80kg mark, give or take a few kg. Mind you, these are proportionally very long guys who are averaging around 6′ tall. It’s totally possible for a regular guy to get those numbers with a lighter bodyweight, but I would imagine that he would be on the shorter side because that would mean more of his weight would be muscle (rather than bone, tendon, etc), and there would be a shorter distance he would need to lift the weights.

          With more mastery of the lifts, you can definitely get stronger while staying at a similar bodyweight. If your goal is to get stronger at a good speed, though, I would recommend trying to build more muscle mass.

  10. Matt on November 6, 2017 at 4:37 pm

    Hi Shane- I’ve been weight-training for almost a year now. I’m a hardgainer ectomorph and since starting I’ve been taking 2-3 servings of whey isolate to reach my macros. I recently added a “lactose-free” whey gainer since I’m struggling to gain weight. However, since starting weight training, I’ve been chronically bloated, could this be due to the shake’s artificial sweeteners or lactose? I’ve tried lactase and digestive enzymes and they didn’t work. I have Crohn’s, I believed you mention those with Crohn’s should focus on a Paleo diet. I’d appreciate any feedback. Thanks!

    • Shane Duquette on November 10, 2017 at 7:22 pm

      Hey Matt,

      For whatever reason, we have a lot of complaints about weight gainers from our members. Some guys do fine, but many are chronically bloated, permanently full, or running into a whole variety of digestive issues. That certainly happened to me when I tried them. I’d feel lethargic for hours afterwards. I’m sure some are better than others, but all of the ones I tried had that effect on me.

      Why? It’s hard to say. But the quality of them is pretty low, so it’s not that surprising either. If you force-fed yourself a few slices of cake every day, you’d expect to feel like crap. Same deal with weight gainers.

      We recommend making your own, homemade weight gainer, and then only it having post-workout. That seems to prevent a number of issues:
      https://bonytobeastly.com/ectomorph-muscle-building-supplement-protocol/

      As for Crohn’s, I don’t really want to step in there. That’s not my area of expertise and I’m neither a dietitian nor a nutritionist. We can definitely help you build muscle with your diet, but we’d rather do it by working within the nutritional guidelines you get from a medical professional. So we won’t tell you whether you should eat grains or not, but if you can’t, we can definitely help you build a killer muscle-building diet without any grains in it 🙂

  11. Matt on November 11, 2017 at 5:05 pm

    Hi Shane, I appreciate your feedback. I’ll read your article on “Muscle-Building Supplements for Ectomorph” and focus on creating homemade weight gainers and avoiding market mass gainers. As for my protein supplement, I’ll try to switch to another brand of whey isolate without artificial sweeteners and see if I still have bloating issues. If I still do, I’ll go for egg, beef , or plant-based proteins. Thank you for your help!

  12. Harshitha Akhil on December 17, 2017 at 2:52 am

    Hey am Harshitha Akhil from India and I am too skinny … I tried hell lot protein shakes but din work out … I eat too much and since I am vegetarian , I can have nly veg foods …
    How much ever I try I can’t put on weight .. can you please suggest me something about it?

    • Shane Duquette on December 19, 2017 at 1:30 pm

      Hey Harshitha,

      If you want a recommendation for a good muscle-building program that will work even if you’re a vegetarian, I’d recommend our Bony to Beastly Program. Vegetarians build muscle and gain weight just as quickly as everyone else, and we even include vegetarian recipes along with the program 🙂

      https://bonytobeastly.com/the-program//

      If you want some free bulking information, every article on this site should help 🙂

      • Harshitha Akhil on December 20, 2017 at 10:32 pm

        That would surely help me out …
        But the problem is since I stay in hostel and I have to abide by the rules of the hostel I cannot go gym and all .. is there any alternate for that ?

        • Shane Duquette on December 26, 2017 at 10:42 am

          They won’t allow you to lift weights as part of the rules of the hostel? You could do bodyweight exercises instead. They won’t work as well, but you should still be able to make good progress.

  13. Persephone on May 3, 2018 at 9:10 am

    Dunno if anyone reads this thread but I recently found it and wanted to share my problem with you guys.
    I’m female, 30 years old, 1,60m short and currently weigh around 47,5kg.
    To find out my macros/calorie requirements for muscle gains I used an online calculator on bodybuilding.com. I started hitting my macros on a daily basis, eating 80% whole/non-processed foods and a lot of veggies/fruits. It all went finr for 1,5 months, then I added 150kcals more because I wasn’t gaining weight at all and two days ago trouble hit me hard. I’m bloating, feel sick and hate the idea of eating (but I still force myself to do it). My gut still appears to function properly though, I’ve no constipation and my pee has a normal colour.
    Still, I’m getting a bit scared and am wondering if I should stop bulking completely or try to eat a little less.
    When I started bodybuilding I was a skinny type of girl, bones showing and blah (I’m not an anorexic though) and I made some small gains but of course I want more and I know that I have to eat…but since I feel like crap atm, I dunno if I can go on like this.
    Help…

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