Strength training is essential when weight gain is the goal. On a hormonal and muscular level, there's nothing better to give your body an unmistakable message to grow. Plus, it just makes you hungry!
When you're working on gaining weight, the most important thing is to make sure you're doing some kind of strength training at least 3-4 days a week without exception. What style you do matters less than doing it consistently. You can gain weight doing bodyweight workouts in your living room if they're sufficiently difficult and you're eating right! But weights and a gym can also be a great tool for weight gain if you have access to them.
If you really want to optimize your gains, here are some guidelines:
- Stick with strength and hypertrophy-focused protocols. These can look many different ways, but most of them involve lots of work using multiple sets of 8-12 reps with between 60-80 percent of your one-rep max. This type of training has been shown to cause significant increases in the muscle-building hormones testosterone and growth hormone. You may do some higher-rep burnout work or lower-rep strength work, as well, but having some of your training in that muscle-gain "sweet spot" is a good idea.
- Train hard, but also give yourself time to rest in between sets. When in doubt, rest 60-90 seconds between hard sets of 8-12 reps. Why? Because if you push it to the limit each set and then dive back in right away, you'll recover so little that you'll probably accomplish less total work over the course of a workout. Adequate rest periods will also help get your heart rate down before you begin your next set. Keeping your heart rate lowered will help you protect those calories you're eating so you don't use all of them up while training.
- As you gain weight, try to push, pull, or squat more weight. Muscle and strength go hand in hand! And "mechanical tension," which is the tension your muscles generate when struggling against a heavy weight, is one of the known mechanisms of muscle growth. The others include cell swelling (aka "the pump"), and muscle damage, which is what you're doing in those hard sets of 8-12 reps.
- Exercise selection is just as important as the number of sets you do. Put another way, you're not going to get huge doing nothing but wrist curls! Big lifts, including the squat, bench press, deadlift, row variations, and shoulder press, are tough to beat for packing on the most mass. But you can still do single-joint work. Leg extensions and curls, lateral raises, and arm workouts can still help increase strength and size by maximizing cell swelling. No, they're not enough on their own, but they do have their place!
- Don't feel like you have to be your own nutritionist and personal trainer. Sorry, but you're probably not qualified! Try programs that have been shown time and time again to help people gain weight and see increases in muscle and strength.
Some of the most popular muscle-gaining programs in Bodybuilding.com All Access include: