Tips to Safely Gain Weight

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By Katherine Cork on February 19, 2019

Gaining weight can sometimes be as difficult as losing weight. And just like losing weight, it turns out that combining diet and exercise is the best way to maximize your efforts.

We spoke with a dietitian and exercise physiologist to find out their recommendations for healthy weight gain.

It's important to avoid empty calories to reach your goals. Instead, choose calories from nutrient-dense foods that provide real nourishment. Robin Rohrig, a registered dietitian at Carilion Wellness, offers suggestions for easy, healthful ways to increase your caloric intake:

  • Add snacks between meals. This is a better option than just increasing portion sizes at meal times because overeating can cause you to feel full and lead to skipping the next meal. Good snack choices include peanut butter, nuts, yogurt, cottage cheese and single cheese sticks.
  • Cook with olive oil or canola oil. These oils provide high calories from good sources of mostly unsaturated fat. They are a better choice than coconut oil, which has a higher content of saturated fat.
  • Add high-calorie toppings to your meals. Cheese, avocados and sour cream are simple foods to bulk up calories at meal time. Adding gravy and butter will also increase calories, but be careful not to use these options too much, since they have fewer healthy nutrients.
  • Use whole milk instead of skim milk. This includes milk you drink as well as foods made with milk, like yogurt.
  • Indulge your sweet tooth (but not too much). Sweets are definitely high in calories but are also low in nutrients. Stick to unprocessed sweets like dark chocolate.

When it comes to exercise, simply “working out more” may not be enough to help you gain healthy weight. But working out with intent can help you put on lean weight in the form of muscle! 

Strength training will greatly increase your chances of putting on muscle. While general strength training is important, certain intensities, rest periods and exercises will benefit you more than others.

Follow these exercise guidelines from Patrick Dunham, clinical training manager at Carilion Wellness, to up your chances of putting on lean weight:

  • Use free weights instead of strength machines. Free weights force the body to contract more muscle for the duration that the weight is lifted, and more stress on the muscles means more micro tears and greater muscle recovery and growth.
  • Use compound movements. Isolating muscles will create muscle growth, but utilizing compound lifts that recruit several major muscle groups together will elicit a greater response for muscle growth. Examples are deadlifts, presses and pulls.
  • Do the hard work. Remember that strength training needs to be difficult to be effective. This doesn't mean you necessarily need to lift a large amount of weight. Proper form, full range of motion and spending three to five seconds per repetition will benefit you more than putting too much weight on the bar and using bad form.

One way to figure out if you are lifting enough weight is to try eight to 10 reps. At eight, it should be pretty difficult—at 10 it should be hard to complete. Next, wait one minute.

If you are able to do another set of eight to 10 reps within 10-30 seconds of finishing your first set, either the weight is too light or you are rushing through the work. If you think you’re spending enough time on the reps, bump that weight up!

Working with a certified strength and conditioning specialist, exercise physiologist or nationally accredited personal trainer will help you reach your goals of gaining healthy weight safely and effectively.