Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Eating to Gain, for Skinny Guys: Part II

Yesterday was Part I in this series.

How Many Meals A Day?

It's up to you - as long as you eat more than you are eating now in your skinny state. If that means a few big meals, fine. If it means a lot of little meals to get it done, fine. I don't get hung up on nutrient timing (except for workout nutrition, see below) or number of meals. Just eat, and eat more and better food.

Prioritize Eating over Eating Clean

You have to eat like it's homework. This usually means preparing food and bringing it with you. If you can't do this, don't skip a meal. Find something to eat - plan ahead with backups. Mine was Wendy's chili (I'd get 2 or 3 of them). Skipping a meal when you're trying to gain weight is like having an extra meal when you're trying to lose it. You might get away with it, but it's not an optimal path to success.

So first off, make sure you eat.

Next, eat good, healthy foods whenever you can. Make sure you're getting plenty of vegetables along with your foods. Don't use "bulking" as an excuse to just eat whatever and call it a diet. The "See Food" diet can work, but it's sub-optimal. You end up consuming a lot of junk calories, getting bad habits you'll want to undo when you're getting to your goal. It's better to approach it a little more systematically.

That said, when you're skinny and trying to gain muscular weight, all-you-can-eat places and special occasion splurge foods have a place in your eating. I especially like AYCE after a heavy lifting day. But make sure you don't eat so much that you skip another meal or eat less the next day.

Dan John once said the secret to gaining muscle isn't lifting heavy weights or lifting for many reps. It's lifting heavy weights for many reps. Gaining weight is not eating a lot of food or good food, it's eating a lot of good food.

Still, you don't have to eat cleanly 100% of the time.

One client I trained eats extremely cleanly, but finally started to pack on muscle quickly when he added a pre-bed cheat meal every day. Generally it was something like a calzone, pizza, sub sandwich, etc. It could have been anything, really, but the variety of a less-than-perfectly-healthy addition might have been what made it easy to get and eat.

Take advantage and have some extras you don't normally eat, but make sure you're getting in quality food whenever possible. It's not just the macronutrients and calories that matter; you also need to get in the micronutrients . . . and getting them from food is the ideal way to do it.

Add Quantity

If you are eating clean, then also eat BIG. Basically, eat more of the same things you already eat. Double your meals.

What makes this approach useful is that you're already eating this way, you're just adding more of it. If you have an 8oz chicken breast, a salad, steamed broccoli, and brown rice for lunch, great. Make the 1 cup of rice 2 or 3 cups. Add a second chicken breast - maybe throw it on the salad. Put some extra olive oil on the salad.

Having 2 eggs for breakfast? Have 4. Add a bowl of oatmeal on the side if that's not enough, or add more eggs. I used to eat two different breakfasts when I was maintaining weight - either an omelet, or oatmeal. When I wanted to gain, I ate both every day.

The nice thing about this approach is that it is modular. You can start small, and add more and more food until the scale goes up. You can dial it back just as easily when you reach your goal. You can alternatively start big (which I prefer) and then dial it back if it is too big.

Starting big is useful because you are much more likely to be eating enough. It's better to jump from 2500 kcals a day to 4000 kcals and find out immediately if that's enough, too much, or not enought, than to jump 100-200 kcals at a time and wait a week each time to see what happens. Bump it up a lot, immediately, and dial it up or down from there.

Some good sources of healthy food, especially protein:

- Frozen Chicken Breasts. By the big bags at your local warehouse store or grocery. Add one to each and every meal. This is by far the easiest way to go, in my experience - buy bags of frozen chicken breasts, and have 2-3 extra each day.

- Eggs. Inexpensive source of protein and fat. Some prefer egg whites; I hate the look and mouth feel of them, and I only eat whole eggs.

- Protein Power. I have some milk issues, so I've moved away from whey to vegan proteins. But any protein you can handle, except Soy, is worth trying. Consider mixing them up.

- Olive oil. You can add it to shakes, or just drink it.

- Coconut oil and/or shredded coconut. Great in shakes, and coconut oil is great for cooking.

- Nuts. Have a handful of nuts with each meal.

- Rice. Add some rice to each meal. A rice cooker is extremely handy, here.

- Frozen vegetables. Have some at every meal. I eat through a 1-pound bag of frozen spinach over 3 days with my breakfast. Add it in. You can blend some into shakes, too. Vegetables are very bulky for their calories, but you must eat your vegetables. Gaining muscle doesn't forgive you from basic healthy eating needs.

- Ground meat. Cheaper than un-ground steak or turkey. Mixed with beans for chili will make it even more nutrient and calorie-rich.

For a more complex approach, learn how to cook good stews, such as chankonabe.

Drink Some Calories

Find a brand of protein you can digest easily (in other words, no gas or flatulance) and learn how to make some protein shakes. You can often drink a shake (especially a water-based one) along with a meal.

Consider GOMAD. If you can digest milk, this can work. If you can't, avoid it. There aren't enough lactase tablets in the world to let you completely avoid the problems you'd face. Plus, if you can't fully digest the milk, you aren't getting the full benefits. But if you can, eating what you do now plus a gallon of whole milk a day will do it.

Either way, you can more easily add more liquid calories than non-liquid calories. Find something beneficial (i.e. not soda or juice) and drink up.

Eat During Your Workout

Back when I was lifting heavy and putting on real muscle, I brought the following every workout:

2 protein shakes, each with 25g of whey, 5g of creatine, 50g of dextrose/maltodextrin blend, my homemade electrolyte mix, and a drop or two of honey or another flavoring.
1 protein bar or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I'd drink 1 shake during the workout, the second right after while I ate the solid food I brought. I'd eat again one hour later, either at home or between clients at the gym I work at. This would be a "normal" meal but emphasize more carbohydrates than fats, and lots of protein.

You can follow this excellent advice here, too.

Eat before bed

Right before bed, have something to eat. Cottage cheese is good, as is protein mixed with oatmeal and milk or almond milk.

A shake will do if you're able to sleep through the night without waking to urinate out the liquids.


Get your sleep. You gain muscle while sleeping, not while lifting. So lift, eat, and then get to bed. Take a nap if you can squeeze it in; odds are it'll be more valuable than extra lifting.


I did well with creatine. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother until you're already eat a lot of food and lifting appropriately (heavy, with enough rest.) Supplements are that final 1% or so of your results. Concentrate on the other 99% and you won't even need them. Save your money for chicken breasts.

The long and short of this is:

- Keep eating (or start eating) healthy, BUT EAT MORE.

- It's easier to multiply what you're eating now than to learn a new way to eat. Add more food.

- It's easier to start big and dial back than to start small and dial up.

- Eating and Lifting, not supplements, are the key. Eat more.


  1. Good. Now you need an article on the differences for women gaining weight.

    1. I wish I could write one, but I never had a female client who wanted to gain weight. Lose, yes, maintain, yes, but not gain. Not even the athletes - they generally wanted to come down in weight to compete, not gain. So I'd be speaking from a total lack of experience, and the internet already has that covered without my help.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...