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How To Gain Weight

weight watchers scale

We use the Weight Watcher's Scale - It's under my bed

I’m going to make a leap and guess that if you want to know how to put on weight, your goal is not merely to see a larger number on the scale, but also to look better/bigger/more muscular.

I mention this because I used to think that weighing 270 would be great. I don’t even know why I chose the number, it just seemed like something to chase.

At the time (early 20s) I weighed about 220. I was also experimenting with various Tourette’s medications. I wound up taking one called Zyprexa that helped me balloon up to a decidedly non-svelte 260.

Let’s talk about the two ways to gain weight: one is faster and probably not what most people want. The other is slower and has yielded results that I am very happy with.

Soft, flabby, and sad

I wasn’t lifting seriously at the time of the great ballooning. Part of that was because of how bad my symptoms were, part of it was because I was a lazy, depressed bum, and part of it was because I had no idea what I was doing when I was in the gym.

But hey! The scale said 260. And I thought Wow I’m big. And then when I saw myself in photos I thought ….I’m big. When did I get this big?

My face looked like a blimp. I was soft and flabby. Big, yeah, but not what I had wanted. Not at all.

Off the meds, back down in weight

Once I decided to get off the pills, the weight dropped off. Back to being a skinny little stick. I looked better but you would have said “Wow, he’s tall,” rather than “Wow, he looks big/strong.”

Back on the scale in 2011

Last week I got on the scale and weighed myself. Full disclosure: I did it after eating the most ridiculous steak dinner, with about a gallon of water.


And I looked good. I looked more or less how I had envisioned myself looking back when I simply thought that seeing 270 on the scale would be a good thing.

Broad shoulders, a thick back, decent arms, and…tiny, tiny little calves, but I’ve given up on that.

The next morning it was back down to about 255. So a big swing during the night, but pretty solid. This is up 35 pounds from September of 2009.

It wasn’t surprising

Adam Glass has said many times that neither weight loss or weight gain should come as a surprise. He is also an advocate for tracking what we eat. I agree with this, although I doubt I track things with as much detail as he does.

It is impossible to remain unaware of what is going in our mouths if we are honest when we write down what we’re eating. I’m not even talking about counting calories, necessarily. When I started writing down what I eat, the only thing I committed to was writing down the actual foods.

When I looked back at a random week and saw that I had eaten two quarts of ice cream, I had a useful data point. Hmm…what would happen if I didn’t eat all that ice cream? Or if I cut it in half?

It gave me something to experiment with. Less of this, more of that, and then reassessments and changes of directions as needed.

The better I got at experimenting, the less surprising the changes in my weight and body composition became.

How I lift to gain weight and change body composition

Most of my workouts are fairly high volume (pounds moved during the session), but almost without exception, they are fast.

How fast?

As fast as I can go without making mistakes of tension, alignment, etc. For more about the elements of effort, please check out Grip N Rip.

In short, I move lots of weight and I move it quickly. I track what I am doing and I set PRs in every workout.

As long as the data shows that I am getting stronger, I am usually accurate in predicting that I am putting on muscle and losing fat as well. It isn’t necessary to get stronger in order to build muscle, but I want both.

Eating to gain weight and change body composition

Mike T. Nelson from Extreme Human Performance has done much to inform my thinking about this. He has stated that in order to lose fat on the way to the goal weight, nutritional compliance should be at the Maximal Effective Amount.

This is the time to limit ourselves, to fit into the wedding dress, to get in bed without a snack, not to eat in front of the TV, etc. When there’s a timeline or a sense of urgency, do as many of the things that work as possible, and do them as often as possible.

If you’d like to know more about Mike and Metabolic Flexibility, please read that post.

Once the weight is reached

Once you hit the goal weight, whether you’re trying to go up or down, the frame changes. At this point I am trying to find the Minimal Effective Amount of compliance necessary to stay where I want to be.

Meaning: how much can I get away with at this point? I got here, now how do I stay here without limiting myself?

This is the fun part for me, because I’ve gotten to the point where I basically deny myself nothing. At most I tweak the times that I eat, or the amounts that I eat, but I don’t really worry about the fact that I’m eating candy again because I can look at my notebooks and spot trends and change direction accordingly.

Nice and easy

Jim Wendler has joked that he will write a book one day called “24 Months To The Body You Want.”

Asking how to gain weight fast has never lead to me to answers that made me feel or look very good.

I love what Jim says because it is the opposite of what anyone wants, but it so much closer to reality. I don’t think it needs to take 24 months for everyone, but I love the premise.

It is liberating to see the weight come on or off at a pound a week, give or take a little.

Steady, easy, measurable progress that anyone can accomplish.


If you want to gain weight and look better:

  • Lift, exercise, or do something active
  • Get stronger and improve your performance at whatever it is you choose to do
  • Track everything
  • Use your notes to make changes–for instance, if eating 500 calories a day does not give you the result you want, add calories and reevaluate
  • If you’re not getting stronger, figure out how to change that and then reevaluate
  • Move from higher compliance to lower compliance as you get closer to your goals. Figure out how much you can get away with once you arrive at your destination. I want to enjoy my life and I hope you do to.
  • Don’t discount body fat percentage when training for the appearance of size. You might be able to look as big and muscular as whatever that imaginary scale in your head suggests by dropping fat and slowly gaining muscle, versus just bulking up

If gaining weight is one of your goals, I’d love to know how you’re approaching it and how it is going. And if you have questions, please ask. If I can help I will, if I can’t I won’t pretend I can.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • chris May 25, 2011, 9:13 am

    I got linked here for the Vonnegut article but then stayed for the candy. I mean, the exercise.

    So I’m gaining weight at the moment. It wasn’t intentional at first – I like to ride, and I’m trying to get a local hillclimb (2.3km with a 285m vertical elevation) in under 10 minutes. So I had a friend who was into weights show me the ropes of squats and deadlifts. But then while we were there, we did some bench presses, military presses, and clean lifts. Within a week my appetite had gone through the roof, so I started feeding it; a far sight from my previous MO of eating only enough to stop being hungry. Then with more food came better results, more definition, more strength. Within a month I’d gone from benching 40kg to 60kg. Then I started looking in the mirror and going ‘holy shit, what?’.

    Long story short, my experience has been that strength and size are built in the gym and in the kitchen. I’m doing weights in a 5×5 pattern and it’s working out amazingly in all ways; strength, mass and definition. The only thing about such a hyper-caloric diet is that you will be carrying some extra fat – a small price to pay, I think, for making sure the body always has what it needs to keep building. I can always lean out when I’m done, which for me I suspect will be around 85kg (I was 75 when I started, now at 80).

    Dietary method is a seafood diet – I see food, I eat it. Haha no, not really. I mostly eat lean meat (generally steak, salmon or chicken) with some vegetables and pasta, and try to eat as much as I can at any given meal. I tend to use Musashi protein powder with milk once a day, but especially after a workout. No special vitamins really, just the odd Centrum or Berocca.

    All of what I’ve learnt from this and my previous attempts can be condensed to three simple ideas:

    1. You can’t out-exercise a bad diet. A good diet does not necessarily mean small amounts of food, just not shit. The appeal of junk food is surprisingly less when you are full of delicious steak.
    2. Exercise frequently, and hard. Be exhausted at the end of every session. If you are not destroyed by the end you could have gone harder. Work as hard as you can without failing.

    Wow, big rant.