For many people, exercise and fitness are forever linked to weight loss. But there’s a time and a place to gain weight, as well—and it can be just as tough! Athletes and everyday people need or want to gain muscular weight for aesthetic goals, sports, or health reasons. And their first impulse is often simply to “eat a lot more,” without much strategy beyond that.
So let’s set the record straight. Just like with weight loss, it’s important to gain weight in a healthy way. This is sometimes known as a “clean bulk.” Doing a clean bulk means combining strength training and eating nutrient and calorie-dense foods to gain as much “quality” weight, or lean muscle mass, as possible. The nutrients in whole, unprocessed foods will help you build it, and support the rest of your body’s systems along the way. Processed foods and empty calories, on the other hand, are more likely to add fat than muscle.
How To Gain Weight: The Fast Version
Here’s a simple formula for gaining quality muscular weight.
- Track your nutrition to see how you’re eating now.
- Eat healthy food—a lot of it.
- Drink shakes rich in nutrients, calories, and protein if eating gets exhausting or expensive.
- Strength train at least 3-4 times a week.
- Sleep big—6 hours minimum, 8 hours ideally, plus naps if you can.
Do the work and be patient, adjusting as necessary. “If you’re not gaining half a pound a week… eat even more,” Doug Kalman, Ph.D., RD, advises. “If you’re gaining 1 pound a week, keep doing what you’re doing. If you’re gaining much more than that, dial it back just a bit.”
But don’t try to keep gaining forever. “Give this approach 6-8 solid weeks, and then dial back a bit and see what has changed,” Kalman says. “Doing it for months and months at a time will probably just wear you out, and increase the possibility that you’re adding fat, not muscle.”
What To Eat To Gain Weight
When you’re struggling to gain weight, eating enough food to see the scale go up can be overwhelming. It’s tempting to simply grab junk food or fast food to boost your calories, but you have better options. Before you resort to the drive-thru, make a concerted effort to eat more of these specific muscle-building foods, all of which are nutrient-dense and calorie-rich.
Take the list below to the store. Then plug each item into the eating schedule below and see if it helps the scale move in the right direction. Sure, you could get plenty of the same nutrients simply by drinking a gallon of milk a day, but mixing up your diet will give you a wider range of nutrients—and be a lot less boring over the course of weeks or months!
The Best Weight-Gain Foods
- Oily fish like salmon and sardines
- Red meat
- Dark meat chicken and turkey (thighs, drumsticks)
- Protein powders and bars
- Homemade protein treats
- Whole eggs
- Nuts and nut butters
- Avocados and avocado oil
- Olives and olive oil
- Coconut, coconut milk, and coconut oil
- Full-fat milk, butter, and cheese
- Fresh and dried fruit
- Starchy vegetables like carrots and peas
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes
- Whole-grain bread, bagels, and pasta
Weight-Gain Meal Plan
- 7:30 or 8 a.m.: 3-4 eggs, 2 slices of whole-wheat toast with nut butter, bowl of fruit, glass of milk
- 11 a.m.: Grilled chicken breast or thigh, broccoli, a cup or more of brown rice with olive oil and nuts
- 3 p.m.: A couple more big handfuls of nuts, plus some dried fruit or granola
- 6 p.m.: Post-workout protein shake (if you train at night)
- 7 p.m.: Flank steak, sweet potatoes or a grain, huge salad with avocado
- 10 p.m.: Yogurt, cottage cheese, or casein protein mixed with nut butter
At some point, cooking and eating all that food can start to feel like a chore. This is where shakes come in.
Weight-gainer shakes are high-calorie drinks or smoothies that let you rapidly ingest a ton of calories along with protein and other macros. Use them as a quick but substantial meal replacement when you’re on the go, drink them with meals for extra calories, or snack on them before bed.
There are two basic ways to do gainers: You can buy a mass-gainer supplement, or make your own. There are benefits to both. Making your own with real foods provides more micronutrients, but the muscle-gainer powders are definitely convenient. Even if you plan to mostly DIY it, having a powder is great for those times it isn’t practical to break out the blender. Keep one of our best muscle-building protein powders on hand for these situations.
How To Make Your Own Weight-Gain Shakes
Start with protein powder and add extra calories any way you can. Get creative! Pick at least one ingredient from each category and blend until smooth.
- Protein: whey protein powder, plant protein powder, mass gainer powder, Greek yogurt, silken tofu
- Carbs: fruit, honey, molasses, oats, sweet potatoes (seriously!)
- Fats: nut butters, coconut oil, tahini, avocado, avocado oil
- Liquid: milk, cream, almond milk, soy milk, coconut milk, coconut water, fruit juice