So you want to bulk up, huh?
Gaining weight can be a great thing for an athlete, especially when it's done intelligently and responsibly. Gaining muscular size and strength is no easy task in terms of effort and consistency, but it may not be as complex as you think.
If you're someone who struggles to bulk up, your lack of weight gain is very traceable back to your dietary habits. So this article is going to give you some vital details on how to pack on size with what you eat. We will save the training and recovery topics for another day.
Ironically, I sit between 190-200 pounds on a day-to-day basis. So I'm not a huge guy. I already know this, internet trolls, so save your comments. But in 2012, as a 23-year-old, I hit the lowest weight I've ever been since middle school. My 155-pound bony frame was largely due to some health issues I was battling at the time, but it sparked my quest to pack on the pounds.
50-plus pounds and 5-plus years later, here are some key elements regarding what your meals should look like if you're trying to gain weight.
Start Where You Are
You need to know where you are now to create a plan to move forward. There are tons of high-tech ways to measure exact body fat percentage, total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), basal metabolic rate (BMR), and other body performance indicators. Let's pretend those don't exist right now.
Keep it basic.
Weigh yourself. Take your weight (to the nearest pound, no decimals) and multiply it by 16. Let's say you weigh 200 pounds, so 200 x 16 is 3,200. That is your goal for daily calorie intake. If you want to gain weight, start by aiming for that number and adjust either up or down based on the your results, how you feel, etc.
Your first priority is to consume adequate protein. Aim for 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. In the case of the 200-pound athlete, we're going to want to eat 200 grams of protein a day. One gram of protein contains 4 calories, so 200 grams of protein is equal to 800 calories.
Protein is massively important for athletes who want to bulk up the right way. If you're striving to gain weight, I'm guessing you want it to be good weight (meaning muscle, not fat). Protein stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis, which is the one surefire way to build muscle rapidly. Tapping into that makes a world of difference.
The next biggest macronutrient is fat, not carbohydrates. Fat has a very important role in managing hormone levels. So while protein sparks Muscle Protein Synthesis, fat makes sure your internal wiring isn't fried and insures you can use that protein efficiently.
A good rule of thumb is to aim for 25 percent of your total caloric intake to come from fat. For the aforementioned 200-pound athlete, that's equal to 800 calories. Since 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories, you're looking at about 89 grams of fat per day.
Lastly, you'll fill in your remaining calorie gap with your carbohydrate intake. Here's how it breaks down for the 200-pound athlete aiming for 3,200 calories a day:
- Protein: 200g or 800 kcal
- Fat: 89g or 800 kcal
- Total calories needed: 3200 kcal
- Total calories between Protein & Fat: 1,600 kcal
- Remaining Calorie Deficit to Fill with Carbs: 1600 kcal
To fill the gaps with carbs, you do the math on how many calories you have left to eat. Since there are 4 calories in 1g of carbs, you want to divide that number by 4. In this example, we have 1,600 calories left to consume, 1,600/4 is 400. You add 400g of carbs to your diet.
Your macronutrient goals in this example are:
- 3,200 kcal
- 200g protein
- 400g carbs
- 89g fat
Now, it's massively important to know that these recommendations are just a baseline. The exact amount of calories and macronutrients you consume on a daily basis will ultimately be totally dependent on you. This formula should give you a solid starting point, but don't take it as a guaranteed road map to getting swole. Your body may react differently than others. Start where you are, use this as a guide, and adjust as needed until you start to like the trends you see in how you look and feel.
Use What You Have
Now that you have a slight idea of the quantity you'll need to fuel your body with, let's take a look at some actual food options. Here's the deal—we all have different financial situations, dietary needs and/or restrictions, food preferences, etc. For me to sit here and tell you exactly what to eat is:
- Not in my scope of practice
- Not going to to be realistic for many of you
Instead, I can give you some nutritional guidelines and blueprints that will give you some insight on how you can better fuel yourself.
The key is to fit food into your lifestyle rather than make your entire life around food. Use what you have access to when it comes to grocery stores, restaurants, cooking appliances, etc. Below is a brief list of some foods many people have found to be successful in aiding good weight gain. These are usually not going pose as an issue for most people's dietary needs.
- Beef (90/10 Ground, Patties or Lean Cuts)
- Turkey (Breast or Ground)
- Seafood (Cod, Salmon, Shrimp and Tuna)
- Greek Yogurt
- Every type of vegetable
- All fruit
- Brown and white rice
- Sweet and russet potatoes
- Black and pinto beans
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios and Brazil nuts)
- Nut butters
Most, if not all, of these foods should be on your grocery list! Combine many of these nutrient-dense, affordable food options with your formula on how much to eat, and you'll be in a pretty good position.
Remember, just because you want to gain weight doesn't mean you can get super sloppy with your food choices. Sure, you can probably get away with a burger, some pizza or the occasional sundae here or there, but you want to make sure you are staying focused on quality just as much as quantity. The type of weight you gain can either help or hinder your performance, so quality matters.
Everyone has a life. You should live yours to the fullest. Do not consistently deprive yourself of foods or experiences because of your diet. Simply make your diet a lifestyle so that one crazy meal every once-in-a-while doesn't completely derail you. In fact, you may find that it helps you lock-in with even more focus when you go back to your normal style of eating!
Do Your Best, Whatever it May Be
With an outline of what you should eat and how much of it, now it's time to execute. I used the quote, "Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can," to guide the theme of this article, because it's a really great way to look at your nutrition (and life in general, honestly).
It's rare that anything in fitness or nutrition is absolute. There are so many variables that it's really your best bet to approach your diet as your own personal science experiment.
"Do what you can" means make this a part of your lifestyle. Not a task. Not a chore. Not something you have to do, but rather something you do because it makes you feel great and you want to see positive change in your life.
One thing you can do is plan ahead. Be prepared. Take the guesswork out of it and go on autopilot. Every Sunday, sit down and do some math. What do I need to eat? How much protein, carbs, fat and calories? What food did I get at the grocery store that can help me accomplish that?
Formulate a plan of attack, prepare the meals, and then eat them accordingly. Doing this will allow you to be two steps ahead of the game, which means that when life happens (and it will), you'll be prepared to stay on track instead of having to completely change the details of your day.
Investing $30 in some reusable meal prep containers and committing about two hours a week to buying and prepping the food can do wonders. If you're not doing it, I would guess you're not taking your goals that all seriously.
Just remember: Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
Photo Credit: Lacheev/iStock, grandriver/iStock, Vsanandhakrishna/iStock
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