Name: Greg Robins, CPT
Education: University of Massachusetts Boston
Occupation: Strength and Conditioning Coach at Cressey Performance
Location: Hudson, MA
Gaining weight can be incredibly difficult and stressful for certain people. For these folks, commonly called "hardgainers," adding even a little size can seem like a monumental task. Personally, I'm skeptical about the extent of this difficulty. From my time in the military to setting recent personal powerlifting goals, I've had my fair share of experiences gaining healthy weight.
At my lowest weight of 173 in the military, I had the energy of a bull and personal bests that included a 435-pound deadlift, a 315-pound squat, and a 285-pound bench press. Later, when I flew up to 230 pounds, these same lifts shot up over one hundred pounds apiece, and I still boast a better-than-average work capacity.
Over the years, I've learned that tackling any goal comes down to being honest, acknowledging how much work it will take, and pushing through that work. If you're a hardgainer who wants to gain weight, you probably won't feel hungry all the time, but you'll still have to eat. If you really want to grow, you need to silence your fears of getting fat, of your performance suffering, and of eating 100 percent clean.
I don't care how hard it is for you to gain weight. With proper training and willingness to do the work, you can build quality muscle and add healthy size. Do you have the courage to actually step outside your comfort zone and get something done? If you want to grow, start with these seven tips!
Use data over guesswork
The guessing game and going by "feel" never give you an accurate picture of what you eat on a daily basis. So do the math and figure it out!
Write down your daily diet in a notebook or food-tracking mobile app, crunch the numbers, and seek help if you need additional eyes. You may be surprised by what you find. Perhaps you thought you ate 3,300 calories one day when, in fact, you ate only 2,900. That's a 400-calorie difference that can add up overtime.
Often, you just need something as visual as a food log for a couple weeks to fully grasp what you put into your diet—or not, in many cases.
Action point: Spend at least one month writing down your meals, snacks, and calories of any form that touch your lips. This serves as a mental exercise to get yourself used to eyeballing portion sizes and grasping the frequency and size of the meals you can consistently suck in on a daily basis.
Take advantage of this experimental period to tweak your diet according to results and how you feel, and learn how your body responds. For example, if you haven't been gaining as much muscle as you'd like, check your protein intake to see if it's adequate; if not, bump it up by increasing protein portion size or shift foods around a bit. One gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is a solid daily target.
One month is all you need to get a good picture of your caloric intake, but if you feel like it really helps, by all means, continue doing it until you can confidently start assembling meals through approximation and still achieve the results you want.
Just be sure to avoid getting consumed by the idea that you need to count every calorie all the time.
Add calorie bonuses in addition to planned meals
Hardgainers don't gain weight for a slew of reasons. Chief among them is that they don't sneak in enough extra calories into their diet. Finding something to add as a surplus source of quick and easy calories is clutch for major gains.
Sure, this might be easier said than done, but it's a matter of identifying foods and recipes that are calorie-dense but light on stomach space. These foods include nut butters, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, grass-fed butters, honey, full-fat coconut milk, and full-fat Greek yogurt. Some other viable options consist of drinking milk throughout the day, making peanut butter and (insert your choice of condiment) sandwiches, homemade 1,000-calorie protein shakes, and homemade energy bars or "cookies."
Once you figure out the foods which bloat the calorie count but not the stomach, plan to put them into your meals. That means making things in advance, thinking ahead, and having foods like full-fat Greek yogurt and nut butters within arm's reach and ready. Don't be lazy about it.
More calories = more growth, so pack on the calories and cram them in where you can.
Action point: one of my favorite quick and easy snacks
- Grab a jar of all-natural peanut butter (none of that added sugar and oils funny business!) and empty it into a bowl.
- Add two or three scoops of quality protein powder, a little honey to taste, and about 1/2 cup of dried oats.
- Add just enough water to make it mixable but not soupy at all.
- Mix all together.
- Separate into little balls that can hold together and refrigerate.
- Eat one with each of your meals over the next few days.
Other good options include many awesome high protein recipes by Protein Powder Chef, Anna Sward.
You need to eat carbs (yes, even the starchy ones)
This tip seems pretty straightforward, but you'd be surprised by how many people ask me why they're not gaining weight when their only carbohydrate sources come from vegetables, trace amounts of sugars, fruits, and legumes.
I'm not saying to go completely crazy on trashy carbohydrates, but your body will gain better results from additional carb sources such as rice, oats, sweet potatoes, and—dare I say it—bread. This is especially true with heavy weightlifting, since carbs are needed to replenish glycogen stores that a particularly grueling lifting session devours. Some studies suggest that timing the majority of your starches around when you train may shunt unnecessary fat storage. For example, eat these starches either pre- or post-workout.
Action point: Add two bananas, a bowl of oatmeal (one cup measured uncooked), or half a cup of rice (measured uncooked) to your post-training meals.
Fat is where it's at
Fats are essential to your diet because they cushion your vital organs, help you digest certain types of vitamins, maintain optimum brain function, and more. Plus, fats are the easiest way to add extra calories. Fat sources are calorically dense, go down quickly, provide a lot of energy, and of course, they're damn tasty. Before you go to town on heavy cream and lard, fats should come from quality sources, like raw nuts, sunflower seeds, nut butters, avocado, fattier cuts of meat, olive oil, real mayonnaise, and some cheese.
Fats should comprise most of your meals when you're not training or close to training times.
Action points: things you can do to add more fats and thus more calories to your diet
- Liberally douse your veggies in grass-fed butter or olive oil.
- Pat some butter in your sweet potato.
- Add extra olive oil in your marinara sauce.
- Use real mayonnaise in your sandwiches.
- Eat a whole avocado with your meal (they go with everything!).
- Snack on macadamia nuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, and any of the other more nutrient-dense nuts throughout the day.
Before your body has the chance to feel satiated, fill 'er up! If you eat too slowly, you give your brain a chance to catch up on your stomach's actual satiety levels, which is usually about a 20-minute delay. When you sit down to eat, start shoveling as much food as you comfortably can into your gaping maw. That means the opposite of what most weight loss experts will tell you. Never put your utensils down during your meal.
Action point: Make it a point to eat your meals with training buddies or friends who eat more food than you do. That way it becomes sort of a competition. It also puts "eating a lot" into a humbling perspective when you can see how much other people eat in comparison to yourself.
Drink more calories
Chewing takes work and time. Drink your calories whenever you can, whether that ends up being milk, coconut water, or a simple shake. Big, nutritional shakes you make at home are the real moneymaker here. You can add extra calories from coconut milk, nut butters, high-quality protein powders, and fistfuls of greens to make that shake give you both weight and nutritional gains.
Action point: Drink beverages like coconut milk, milk, or coconut water with each meal.
Have a positive relationship with your food
Far too often, people get consumed by the act of eating that they forget to savor food and view food as more than just numbers. Learn to cook, enjoy your food, and stop eating alone.
Having a positive relationship with food will do wonders for the poor habits you don't even realize are taking place. It's often the negative association that stems from the "need to eat" and makes hardgainers less likely to be able to adhere to consuming more calories. In these cases, it just helps to have a friend to be there along the way.
Action point: Plan to have dinner with a friend at least twice each week over the next month. As I already mentioned, try to make plans with friends who aren't afraid to say yes to two entrees or second (or even third) helpings!
Do you have any other weight-gaining secrets to share with other hardgainers? Share your thoughts in the comments below!