The fitness world might have you believe that lifting weights is all it takes to build muscle. And make no mistake, you will put on some muscle with a regular lifting routine. However, your gains might not nearly be what you expected.
When the number on the scale barely budges, you may be left wondering if you should just throw in the towel. Don’t go there. It sounds like you’re a hard-gainer—and you’re not the only one out there struggling to gain weight and build muscle.
For many hard-gainers, the golden ticket to putting on size is nutrition. Sure, you may drink protein shakes, but have you really planned out and tracked your food? Without proper nutrition, trying to build the physique you’ve always dreamed of will be next to impossible.
These five nutrition tips will help hard-gainers finally start to build muscle and gain weight.
1. Focus on Calories and Protein
Assuming your exercise routine is dialed in, the next thing you’ll want to focus on is calories. If the amount of calories you consume exceeds the amount you burn, then you are in a positive energy balance state, otherwise known as a calorie surplus. In order to gain weight, you need to be in a caloric surplus, which means consistently eating more calories than you burn. If you struggle with gaining weight, you need to eat more calories than you have in the past. An easy way to go about this is to increase your calorie intake by 300 to 500 calories per day for about a week and see if that begins to increase your body weight. If it does not, add another 300 to 500 calories and repeat.
In addition to eating enough calories to be in a surplus, it’s also important to focus on where those calories come from. Although it’s important to eat good proportions of carbs, proteins, and fats, you probably don’t need to get too hung up on the numbers when it comes to fats and carbs. Protein, though, is a bit of an exception because of its role in building muscle. Consuming sufficient protein increases the probability of weight gained being muscle as opposed to fat. While some fat gain is inevitable during a bulk, you can minimize it by eating enough protein, managing the rate of weight gain, and consistently lifting weights.
Read More: 9 Easy Ways To Increase Your Protein Intake
The amount of protein you want to try and shoot for: a minimum of 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight, which is roughly 0.72 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Because of the high volume of food you’ll be eating, you’ll likely consume more protein than this—and that’s fine!
2. Choose Higher-Calorie Foods
Trying to get 3,000-plus calories into your body each day through chicken and rice alone is going to be tough if you struggle with eating enough food. So, when possible, focus on eating foods that are high in calories. Some examples of these foods include pasta, nuts, plant oils, dried fruit, granola, potatoes, oily fish, and whole milk.
Since many health-focused food products are intended to be lower in calories, they might not always be the best options for those trying to gain weight. Don’t be afraid to get the full-fat or chocolate-covered versions of foods here and there!
3. Eat More Often
Trying to eat more calories can be tricky. You need to eat enough to make gains but also don’t want to eat so much at once that you feel sick. Trying to cram all of your calories into three main meals can be difficult and may lead to several unfinished plates or an upset stomach. One strategy that can help you squeeze in more calories throughout the day is simply to eat more often. This could look like increased snacking and having smaller but more frequent meals. Snacking will help you get in more calories, and eating smaller, more frequent meals will help you avoid getting overly full and feeling sick.
Read More: 4 Snacks That’ll Help You Build Muscle
I recommend hard-gainers start with three meals plus two snacks. (A basic eating template could look like: breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner, snack.) If you still struggle to gain weight following that template, add in more meals or snacks, or increase the size of your meals.
4. Incorporate Liquid Calories
Drinking your calories tends to be a lot easier than eating them. That’s why one of the most common nutrition recommendations out there for those trying to lose or maintain weight is to stop drinking beverages that contain high amounts of calories. It’s all too easy to consume loads of calories from liquids without ever feeling the same level of fullness you would from eating solid whole foods.
For those trying to gain weight, however, liquid calories can be a powerful nutrition strategy. If you’re looking for convenience, there are several mass-gainer shakes—which are mainly a combination of protein powder and carbohydrates—to choose from.
When you have the time, you can also blend up many different whole high-calorie foods to make your own gainer shake. A homemade gainer shake could include oat flour, whey protein, banana, peanut butter, and whole milk. If you’re going the DIY route, I also recommend adding some type of leafy green (like spinach or kale) to your shake. You won’t likely taste the greens and they’re a great source of vitamins and minerals.
5. Track Your Intake
One of the most common mistakes when it comes to intentional weight gain is assuming you are eating enough. Many hard-gainers mistakenly think they are eating enough because they eat foods that tend to make others gain weight or because they feel full after meals.
Again, though, the bottom line is that if you’re not currently gaining weight, then you are not eating enough. If the other tips here have not produced results, begin tracking your food so that you know exactly how many calories you are consuming on a daily basis. You may find that you are actually eating fewer calories than you initially thought, or that the amount of calories you eat on a daily basis fluctuates greatly.
Remember, it’s important to consistently eat enough calories in order to support weight and muscle gain. Some hard-gainers may need to take this very seriously by planning out meals, always having food ready to go, and knowing exactly what they’re eating. Tracking your food intake can be as simple as keeping a food journal with paper and pencil, but you can also use one of the many nutrition-tracking smartphone apps out there today.
The Bottom Line On Nutrition For Hard-Gainers
It’s not that hard-gainers cannot gain muscle; they just may have to do things a little differently than other gym-goers. If you consistently work on the tips above, you’ll be sure to pack on some solid muscle and finally start seeing that number on the scale trend upward! And now that you’re done reading this, it’s probably time for your next meal…