or, Why You’re Still Skinny
Skinny. Scrawny. Underweight. Lanky. Hard-gainer. Ectomorph. These are all different (and not typically complimentary) terms for people who are naturally predisposed to a leaner body type with less muscle mass compared to people who gain (and maintain) both muscle and fat more easily. I’m sure you know someone who fits each of these types: the friend who can eat anything she wants (pizza! brownies! ice cream!) and still keep her stomach just as ripped as ever, and the guy who just thinks about lifting weights and puts on muscle.
To those of us with the opposite body type, these people have been pretty annoying—but that stops now. Here’s why.
When people say, “I want to gain weight,” they really mean, “I want to gain muscle.” (I’ve never heard anyone ask for help gaining just fat.) But as I wrote in my Clean Mass Gain article a couple years back, it’s important to know where you want to go if you want to be successful getting there. I know, it sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s overlooked more often than you’d think—you must know the why before you jump into the how.
Why do you think you need to gain weight? What is the desired outcome, and what does it mean to you? Almost all reasons for wanting to gain weight fall into one of these broad categories:
One: “I want to gain muscle mass to look stronger, bigger, or just more attractive in general.” Both men and women express this aesthetic goal on a regular basis, though it’s usually men who come out and say it this way. The aesthetic influence of muscle mass is what gives both men and women a sexy shape. Sure, it’s great to be able to see muscles by being relatively lean, but it’s the presence of strong, capable muscles that really makes people come across as vibrant, attractive human beings. In my experience, many people focus excessively on leanness for aesthetic outcomes and generally undervalue the influence of strong, shapely muscles.
Two: “I want to gain muscle mass to be healthier, more capable and resilient, and to have a higher quality of life.” You know that strength is a universal property of vibrant, active people, and you know that being underweight and/or weak (which may or may not be an accurate perception of yourself) isn’t the healthiest situation long-term.
Three: “I want to gain muscle mass to perform better at my sport or competitive exercise event.” This is a tricky one, because gaining muscle mass does not guarantee better strength or power production, and in sports where speed or strength-to-weight ratio matters, gaining muscle mass may actually hinder your performance, or push you into a different weight class. Nonetheless, many athletes do need to get stronger, and an appropriately designed training program can help achieve those performance goals, and stimulate muscle growth (when supported by smart lifestyle choices).
Do a little introspection, and see if you can determine which of these three statements above most accurately describes your motivation for wanting to gain muscle mass. Once you know why you want to gain muscle, that knowledge can help to guide the steps you take to achieve your goal.
Limitations to gaining weight (i.e. muscle) are highly personal. For legitimately underweight folks, the challenges and mechanisms that limit weight gain are very different than lean, muscular folks who simply want even more muscle mass.
You can loosely categorize challenges for muscle growth into two categories:
One: Getting building blocks for muscle to where it matters—not just into your mouth. “Just eat more” is only partially solving the problem, since you have to get the right molecules to the right places in order to build muscle. Eating – and absorbing – the right food is the name of this game. You may or may not be addressing these things properly.
Two: Creating and supporting the physical and psychological context that prompts your body to build that Former Food into muscle tissue. This is the much harder (and most overlooked) aspect of mass gain. We’ll be breaking this huge topic down in part two of this series.
We’re going to start out by talking about the food. It goes without saying that if you don’t eat enough of the right food, gaining muscle will be very difficult, if not impossible (barring the use of synthetic hormones). But it’s not just about how much of what you’re eating.
Here are most of the food-related reasons that weight gain may be difficult:
Food troubleshooting #1: You’re not eating enough.
While this is often an incorrect, one-size-fits-all cop-out explanation for mass gain difficulties, it’s also often true. Eat more. Add 1,000 calories a day for a month (that means you have to track your intake for a while in order to know how much you are actually eating—sorry). If that does not start to shift your progress in a bigger direction, read on.
Food troubleshooting #2: You have under-eaten for a long time, and you are what I call “underfed & undernourished.”
A lack of micronutrients like vitamins, minerals, cofactors and phytonutrients will make it very difficult for your body to be in an anabolic (growth) state. Choosing nutrient-dense foods and perhaps taking a high-quality multi-nutrient supplement will help to supply the tools with which your body will build new muscle tissue. Nutrient deficiencies can create a considerable stress on the body, and excessive stress = no muscle gain.
Food troubleshooting #3: You’re not digesting and assimilating the food you eat.
Remember, jamming food down your gullet doesn’t mean you’re actually able to make use of that food. I work with people regularly with low stomach acid, low pancreatic enzyme secretion, intestinal dysbiosis, parasites (more common than you might think), food sensitivities, and chronic gut permeability—all of which can impair your body’s ability to access the valuable nutrients in your food and to turn those nutrients into muscle. If you have heartburn, indigestion, bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation with any regularity (pun intended), it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor or functional medicine practitioner about solving some of those digestive tract problems. An unhappy gut makes for an unhappy (and unsuccessful) mass gainer.
Food troubleshooting #4: You’re choosing the wrong foods.
Protein, fiber, and water (in food as well as liquids consumed with food) are major drivers of satiety, and if you choose foods that are too satiating, you’ll be unable to consume enough calories to support mass gain. Don’t drink water (or other liquids) with meals. Select foods that are calorie-dense like meat, seafood, eggs, starchy vegetables, fruit, avocado, coconut and olive oil. Prioritizing calorie-dense, nutritious food over lower-calorie nutritious food (or just calorie-dense, low-nutrient food products) is the key. Arugula and cauliflower and zucchini are not mass gain fuel, even though they’re healthy choices. Don’t be afraid of fruit, carb-dense vegetables, and (if you tolerate them) white rice or potatoes, especially post-workout. In terms of supporting a growth environment, nutrient-dense carbohydrate is a friend, not a foe.
Food troubleshooting #5: You’re trying to maintain certain mathematical proportions of macronutrients.
How many grams of protein/carbohydrate/fat do you need to eat to gain mass? More. Skip the math. P.S. The Zone is Weight Watchers for underfed exercisers. Fact.
Food troubleshooting #6: You’re being neurotic about food choices/sourcing.
If you’re stressing out about whether your eggs were laid by hens that consumed some GMO feed, you’re expending considerable mental energy focusing on things that probably detract from your task at hand. (And no, I don’t think that GMO commodity crops are awesome, but you have to choose your battles.)
If you haven’t addressed all of these food-related limitations, now is the time. If most of this stuff sounds familiar and you’re totally nailing it, stay tuned for next week’s installment. We’ll talk about the rest of your muscle-gaining limitations… all the stuff that isn’t food-related. Now go eat something nutritious.