There are many articles about gaining (quality) weight and its importance in performance in strength-related competitions. Most of the articles I’ve seen speak to the extremes (large amounts of gain) without much detail in the plan about how to get there. Just like saying you need to lift more isn’t much of a plan to increase your bench, saying you need to eat more isn’t much of a plan to gain weight.

This is a short note on how I gained my first 20 lbs with an emphasis on the practical day-to-day implications for regular (non-elite) athletes.


I had been training with weights for about five years. In June 2003, I entered my first formal push-pull contest. I deadlifted 405 lbs at 176 lbs. I was very happy with the lift.

Over the next couple of years, my lifts hit a plateau. I couldn’t break 450 lbs in the deadlift and was stuck on my other lifts, too. I went to seminars and tried new techniques and supplements, but I was ready to blame it all on genetics and age. I ran across an article on hard work and decided to keep trying. I was pretty lean and tall compared to other 181-lb guys. So eventually I decided to give gaining weight a try.

Why 20 lbs? Because 20 lbs is a finite goal that can be reached by most people in a reasonable amount of time. It’s roughly one weight class in powerlifting, a belt size (i.e. 32 to 33), and a neck size (i.e. 15 to 16). This has some very important implications. Depending on your wardrobe, you may have to buy more clothes. I got rid of five suits and a dozen shirts during this process.

Forewarned is for-armed…if you’re a powerlifter, you may have to get new gear. The weight gain actually coerced me into moving from gear to lifting raw. I have a shirt, deadlift suit, and squat suit all collecting dust at the moment.

In addition, gaining weight is going to mean eating more food. For some folks, that’s going to mean a lot more food. Although there are less expensive substitutes available, a variety of lean protein and good carbohydrates will be an additional drain on your budget. However, lifting is part of my identity, and I was tired of the lack of progress.

Establishing a baseline

There are many theories out there on diet, but just like any lifting program is likely to help a beginner, any diet program will give a beginner results. All good diets want to know how many calories you take in and the ratio of protein to carbs and fat. I’m not a big proponent of any plan, so I’ll use the “Zone” plan as an example. The most important issue is monitoring the diet and making adjustments as required.

The Zone subscribes to a ratio of 40 percent carbs, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent fat. I googled calorie intake for someone with my age, weight, and body composition and got a good starting point—2300 calories a day.

Fat: 1 gram = 9 calories
Protein: 1 gram = 4 calories
Carbohydrates: 1 gram = 4 calories

Load the numbers into a calculator, and you’ll get around 165 grams of protein. I’ve been as high as 250 grams of protein a day and as low as 90. For me, around 130 grams a day works best. But like all plans, you need to keep records and make adjustments when necessary. Divide this by the number of meals you want to eat a day and try it for a week. Weigh yourself at the same time every day. Usually, the beginning of the day is best. Be consistent, and keep a record of your food intake, workouts, and rest.

Diet adjustments

At the end of a week, I noted my weight and how I felt. If you have gained or lost weight, adjust your diet by 10 percent. If I felt a little sluggish, I added more carbs.  I was eating around four times a day before this started, so I found it easier to add a fifth meal. If you’re trying to change your body composition like this, it’s important to find foods that meet your diet criteria and are affordable and enjoyable. I know people who do very well with tuna and can tolerate large quantities of powdered milk, but I tried those and very quickly started hating my life.

The magic food for me is the Burger King Whopper Junior (no mayo). For a buck and a quarter you get:

·          310 calories

·          13 grams fat

·          17 grams protein

·          31 grams carbs

Buy a second, get rid of the bun, and you get a meal for $2.50 that you can eat at any point in any day. Also, I make a point of having protein and carbs at every meal—some evenings that means eggs and Oreos.

Training adjustments

I found I had to increase the volume of my training to get and maintain my mass gains. To that end, I gradually increased the number of reps per set on the lower weights. After a case of tendonitis, I tried to gain a pound a week, which worked for the first couple of weeks. Then my progress stopped. After several more weeks of my weight plateau, I looked at my exercise program. I was still doing intense cardio three times a week for 30 minutes a session. I tried reducing the cardio but ended up eliminating it altogether. Then, my weight gain started in earnest. You heard it here first—if you want to gain weight, eliminate all high intensity cardio.

I try to keep my conditioning up by keeping the pace of my workouts up and walking. My personal hero, Paul Childress, frequently listed long walks in his training logs. Good enough for him, good enough for me to try.


I primarily take supplements to aid in rest and recovery. Through trial and error, I’ve found what works for me, so it may be worth hearing about it to aid your search of what will work for you.

Protein shakes: For a fast portable meal, these can’t be beat. They aren’t a substitute for real food, but they’re great during or right after a workout.

BCAAs: These really helped me, especially as I started to jack up the volume.

ZMA: Quality of sleep is as important as nutrition and exercise. ZMA helps me to wake up feeling refreshed.

Tribulus: A long time ago, I read an article where Louis Simmons said he used Tribulus. Good enough for him, good enough for me to try. I’ve found out that like everything else, products vary from vendor to vendor. I use Biotest’s Alpha Male.

Everyone needs to find the right balance for them. I spend about $100 a month on this. For some folks, that may be cost prohibitive. For others, it’s laughably low.

Hitting the goal

In December of 2007, I finally got around to doing a full power meet. I hurt my knee three weeks before the meet, the sun was in my eyes, blah, blah, blah. This is me doing 505 lbs at 198 lbs.  Not an earth shattering lift but not an embarrassment. All my lifts have improved since 2003. Better, smarter training may have contributed to the improvement, but without a doubt, the increase in lean muscle mass has made the biggest contribution. Gaining the 20 lbs took me about a year.

Being bigger and stronger isn’t the most important thing in my life, but it doesn’t hurt…

Burns Sebastian.Hard Work. Assessed at: #.

2. Simmons Louie. Importance of Volume. Assessed at: #.

3. Wendler Jim. Beginner Mistakes. Assessed at: #.