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Want to gain weight? Focus on muscle-building, not calories

Every Friday is Health Tip Day at Zen Habits.

Reader stayfly wrote to ask about healthy eating and gaining weight:

I really want to eat as healthy as possible and also to gain some weight (I’m currently a bit underweight at 60 kilos and I’m wanting to put on about 10 kilos over the rest of the year). I’ve read a fair few health books but there is so much conflicting information that it’s difficult to know what to eat. With most other ares of my life I feel in control thanks to researching and finding great information that I believe in and trust (including from your blog) but with heath I’m struggling. I really feel as though as you are spot on with things like productivity, goals, habits, finances and I would love to hear more about your beliefs regarding health and hopefully you can possible recommend some excellent books on the subject of health as well.


In terms of healthy eating, here are a couple of posts that might help:

Trying to eat healthier? Make lifestyle changes, and have a weekly cheat day

Health tip: Try eating vegetarian sometimes

These are geared to people like me who are trying to eat healthy and also lose some fat. You want to eat healthy (rightfully so) and at the same time, gain some weight. However, I’m assuming you want to gain muscle weight and not just fat. To do that, you need to eat more lean protein while cutting back on the fat (don’t eliminate it, just try to eat less saturated fats and more good fats), while doing some weight-bearing exercises such as lifting weights.

Here’s what I would do in your situation:

  1. Focus first on your eating habits, as those are most important to long term health. Do a one-month challenge that focuses on replacing some of the unhealthier things you might eat with healthy things like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein (either lean meats, poultry and fish, or vegetarian protein like nuts, beans, tofu, soy meats, etc) and the like.
  2. After that one-month challenge, focus on strength training. You don’t need to become a bodybuilder or anything, but really there’s no way to build muscle without some kind of exercise, and weights are best. You don’t need to do a lot of exercises and spend hours doing them. Do some research on the web, but I would suggest starting with simple exercises like pushups, crunches, lunges, squats with no weights, pullups, etc that you can do at home. After a few weeks, you can add some dumbbells or a barbell with weights, and do some compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, and the like.
  3. Protein power. When you do strength training, get some extra protein both before and after your workout to maximize muscle building. Again, you don’t need to bulk up or anything, but if you want to add a little muscle to your frame, you’ll need to get some protein. I suggest whey or soy protein powder to make a shake with milk or soymilk … drink some before and after a workout.
  4. Low reps, higher weights. A lot of people try to do a high number of repetition for low number of weights, but it’s really best to do a higher amount of weight (build up to it though!) with lower amount of reps — that’s how you build muscle. Again, we’re not talking about bodybuilder muscle, just about building muscle without having to spend all day in the gym.
  5. Legs, not your biceps. When doing strength workouts as mentioned above, focus on your bigger muscles rather than smaller ones. Big ones are in the legs and back, while smaller ones include things like biceps. It’s much easier to build some mass in your legs than it is in your arms. I’m not saying to ignore your smaller muscles, I’m just saying that you’ll maximize your workout time by focusing on the big muscles — and if you do the compound exercises I mentioned, you will also be including the smaller muscles, which is why those are the best exercises.

I’m not an expert, but I have done a lot of reading on this topic, and that’s what I recommend. I’ve used these methods to build some muscle, although my focus has been more on losing fat than on building muscle so far. I hope to change that once I get a flatter stomach.

See also: