As an ectomorph in a previous life, nothing is more frustrating to me than hearing someone say they can’t gain weight. First of all, I’m not going to let you say can’t. My canned response to the complaint is a simple, “You’re not eating enough.” To which I nearly always get the reply, “But I’m eating so much.” Then I repeat myself. Then we get stuck in an infinite loop and I have to reboot after a blue screen of death.
After the reboot, we’ll usually get into easy ways to add some calories. The easiest is to add fat. Fat has 9 calories per gram and usually comes in a pretty compact form factor. A tablespoon of olive oil adds 120 calories to your day. That scales pretty linearly, so 10 tbsp of olive oil in your day bumps your calories by… 1,200 calories. If you add 8,000 calories a week to your diet, you will gain weight. A peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread will add about 410 calories if you use 2 tbsp of peanut butter. No one I know only scoops out 2 tbsp, so you’ll probably end up closer to 500 calories. Two of those a day will net you an extra 7,000 calories a week in addition to your normal food. We can ballpark the numbers and understand that adding 3,500 calories per week will usually result in about 1 lb of weight gain.
Uh oh, here comes the next objection. I can feel it bubbling up from your 123 lb washboard abs. Won’t I get “fat” if I eat so much? Here I was thinking that we were having a conversation about gaining weight and now you’re worried about gaining weight. It is pretty well settled that putting on muscle mass is much more difficult than losing fat. Especially for an ectomorph who will lose weight pretty quickly if they drop their daily calories back down a little bit. The simple answer is yes, you might smooth out a little bit while you work to put on some quality muscle mass. Trying to build muscle and stay in the single digits of body fat is an exercise in futility. Trying to do 1 thing at a time is a great way to get 1 thing done. Trying to do 10 things at a time is a great way to get nothing done. Focus on the most difficult part of the process (gaining muscle) and then tackle the easier part (fat loss) after you’ve done some quality growing.
I’m not an advocate of “dirty bulking” where you eat anything and everything to put on weight. There’s no reason to get sloppy while working on building up your body. At one point in the past I gained 80 lbs in about 3.5 months. It wasn’t all muscle. It was the epitome of dirty bulking. At least a gallon of whole milk a day, multiple entrees in restaurants, shoveling in any high calorie food I could find. It would have been smarter to go a little slower and do it in a healthier fashion, I just didn’t know then what I know now. I don’t want most athletes to go up faster than about 1% of their body weight per week. Faster than that, and you’ll be putting on more body fat than is necessary to build the muscle you want. Slower than that and you’re making an already slow process take forever.
To that note, it’s not a quick process. Anything that promises slabs of new muscle is probably either 100% marketing or at least 50% illegal for the general population. The basics for food are getting in 1 gram per pound of body weight of protein and enough carbs and fat to stay in a slight caloric surplus. 300-500 calories over what you need to maintain weight is a happy place, although sometimes we’ll need more. It’s a simple testing process to figure out how much you should be eating. Track what you eat and get a baseline for what that does to your scale weight. Then add 100-300 calories a day for a week and see if you start trending up. If yes, congrats! If no, add another 100-300 calories a day. You will eventually start gaining weight. Be sure to consume at least 25g of fiber per day as you start eating a lot more food, or you might have some unpleasant side effects of constantly eating. All of that food waste has to go somewhere, and we’d rather keep the process running smoothly.
Next time someone tells you they can’t gain weight, you can tell them they aren’t eating enough. Or, if you’d rather I argue with them, refer them back to this article. You don’t have to stay skinny forever, but you will have to eat more than you probably want to if you struggle with putting on weight. As always, if this is a confusing or challenging topic, I’d love to help you understand it better. You can contact me through email or direct message on instagram.
When he’s not asking why or saying it depends, Brandon is trying to pick up progressively heavier things and recording the disruptivecast, a strength and conditioning podcast. He loves working with athletes 1 on 1 to teach and correct movement, helping them do things they didn’t even know were possible. Brandon is a Precision Nutrition certified nutrition coach who serves clients with a light touch understanding that making big life changes is tough and having someone in your corner makes a huge difference.