While everyone you know seems to be talking about trying to lose weight, there you are, working hard trying to gain it. Some may envy that you're allowed to eat so much and have the energy to spare, but only those who've been in your shoes before know how truly challenging and frustrating it can be.
One week, your weight goes up a little — your workouts are feeling great and you're hitting personal bests. Then the next, your weight drops down again, your muscles are feeling flat and you feel like you're back to square one. It's like a yo-yo diet in reverse.
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So if you're consistent with your diet and exercise but still not seeing the results you want, here are four big things that could be sabotaging your your weight-/muscle-gaining efforts.
1. You're Doing Too Much Cardio
You may feel you have to be doing cardio to keep your body fit and your heart healthy. There's nothing wrong with a little cardio, and in fact, your overall health should always be the top priority. But most forms of traditional cardiovascular exercise negatively impact your ability to gain lean mass.
Why? Well, to get technical for a minute, you need to know about Mammalian Target of Rapamycin (mTOR) — a key signalling pathway that regulates changes in muscle protein synthesis, according to 2009 research in the Journal of Physiology. Basically, you need mTOR activated to build muscle. (Note: This is an older study. More research needs to be done to confirm this connection.)
It's very hard to gain lean mass without mTOR being activated or if it's being shut off all the time. And while resistance training activates mTOR, cardiovascular training shuts it off by activating something else called AMPK. Once you flip on AMPK, mTOR shuts off, impeding your ability to grow muscle.
So if gaining lean body weight is your priority (and it should be, as opposed to gaining fat), you should limit your cardio workouts to the bare minimum. And if you want to max out your muscle-building potential, you might want to consider cutting it out completely for the time being. Although, for health reasons, a brisk 40-minute walk a few times a week is never a bad idea.
2. You're Working Out Too Hard or for Too Long
You know you should be training smarter versus harder, but what exactly does that mean? First off, it means training to stimulate rather than annihilate your body.
You're exercising to change your body. But that change only happens when you've provided your body with the right stimuli (in the right amount) to adapt, with consistent effort and adequate rest over time. Unfortunately, spending hours in the gym or working out until complete and utter exhaustion every single session is sending the wrong message to your body.
Excessive training impacts the stress hormone cortisol as well as other key hormones. The results of a 2004 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that athletes who trained excessively had reduced their testosterone levels by around 30 percent below the normal range. (Note: This is an older study.)
You want to reach a sweet spot where your training volume and intensity is at a good balance with recovery. Track your workouts and never spend more than 50 to 70 minutes in a resistance workout and no more than four to five strength training sessions a week. Aiming for 24 total sets of exercise in an entire workout is a good starting point for beginners and intermediates, with up to 36 sets for more advanced.
3. You're Not Actually Eating Enough
The first rule of gaining weight is creating a calorie surplus (consuming more calories than you're burning), but for many, that's easier said than done. Some people have a faster metabolism than others, burning more calories at rest. But this simply means you need a higher calorie intake. If you're not gaining weight, you're not in an energy surplus.
That may also be because you either don't know the correct daily caloric goal or are incorrectly estimating how much you're consuming or burning. To start, estimate your daily calorie needs and start tracking right away. Start with your target body weight, and then use the following equation as a starting point:
Target body weight x [(11 or 13) + average total weekly training hours]
If you're a slow metabolizer (you know you don't require many calories) use 11, or if you're a fast metabolizer (you know you typically need a larger amount of calories), multiply by 13. Any weights, cardio, vigorous activities (sports, farming, hiking, etc.) count toward your weekly training hours. It's forgetting factors like this that often cause people to underestimate their energy intake and limit weight gain.
Calculating this number is your first priority. If you're tracking and hitting this number each day for a few weeks and still not gaining weight, increase your caloric intake by five percent until you're gaining 0.5 to 1 pound each week. You may gain more, but it's more likely that will be a gain in fat, rather than muscle. Just like with weight loss, slow and steady wins the race.
Or if you struggle with hitting your daily targets, consider some calorie- and nutrient-dense foods like nuts, nut butters, tahini, healthy oils and full-fat (preferably organic) dairy. Eating an entire avocado every day by adding it to meals or blending it into smoothies will add more than 300 calories.
4. You're Not Consuming the Right Macronutrients
But gaining weight often isn't merely a case of training harder and eating more (if it were, you wouldn't be reading this!). You need to be eating the right things at the right times. Once you know how many calories you should be aiming for, it's important to establish the right macronutrients.
Nutrition researcher and educator, Alan Aragon, suggests the following:
- Protein (contains 4 kcal/gram): Use
a baseline of 1 gram of protein for every pound of target body weight. So if your
target is 160 pounds, aim for 160 grams of protein every day.
- Fat (contains 9 kcal/gram): Aim for
0.3 to 0.6 grams of fat per pound of target body weight, depending on individual preference and
tolerance. If your target is 160 pounds that's 48 to 96 grams of fats per day, from a
variety of sources such as nuts, avocados, olive oil and oily fish.
- Carbohydrates (contains 4 kcal/gram): Whatever calories are left over should come from carbohydrates. If, for
example, you need 2,500 kcal a day with a target weight of 160 pounds, that's 640
kcal of protein and at least 432 kcal of fat. That means you have 1,428 kcal (357 grams) of carbohydrates a day. Or using the upper end of fat intake (865 kcal), that would be 995 kcal of carbs (249 grams).
Grab a notepad and do this now. Estimate the starting point for your calories and macronutrients and compare them to what you've been eating. The careful balance of training and nutrition is key, but it's the amount of fuel you put in your body that's the key to achieving health weight gain.