Q&A: Why Can't I Gain Weight?

by Robert Maxwell

Q: I’m having trouble gaining muscular size. I’ve been lifting weights for about six months, and although I see more muscle definition now than when I started, I’m still skinny. Is there anything I can do about this? I’m worried I might just be cursed with poor muscle building genetics.

Me circa 2010, during a frustrating period in my training when I couldn't seem to gain any weight. Turns out I just wasn't eating enough.
Me circa 2010, during a frustrating period in my training when I couldn't seem to gain any weight. Turns out I just wasn't eating enough.

Your strength levels and physique are a product of two things – your genetics, which you can’t change, and your lifestyle which you can. While some people certainly have an easier time gaining muscle than others, I’ve never met or trained anyone yet who is not able to gain significant size and strength when they’re doing all the right things, even when they start off very thin. The first step is to examine your training program. You should be doing the big, compound barbell lifts: squats, deadlifts, bench press, and overhead press, all at least once a week. Perform these movements for at least three sets of 8 to 10 reps - the best rep range for most guys to add size. Pick a weight challenging enough that by the time you reach the final few reps of your last set, you’re near your limit. In addition to the exercises mentioned above, make sure you’re doing some assistance movements to hit the other parts of your body: biceps, triceps, back, core, etc. For more details on exactly how to work out, click here.


The next thing to examine is your nutrition. Chances are this is where the reason for your lack of progress lies. Fact is, most guys new to strength and muscle building don’t eat nearly enough food, especially the skinny ones. You might think you’re eating a lot, but chances are you’re not. Not enough to grow. To gain significant muscular size and strength, it’s astounding how much food you have to consume. In my own training, it took me several years before this truth really sunk in. I was training hard five days per week, and gaining almost no muscle. Talk about frustrating. Turns out, I just wasn’t eating enough. When I realized this, I upped my food intake drastically and started making gains almost immediately. I started my day with six eggs, three or four pieces of whole wheat toast, some cheese, and a couple of slabs of peameal bacon (Canadian bacon if you’re in the USA). If this seems like an absurd amount of to food you, it’s time to readjust your view of what a lot of food is. Either that, or give up your goal of gaining lots of strength and muscle. Seriously, it’s not for everyone, and that’s OK. Maybe you’d prefer to be one of those slim, athletic guys. Having to eat so much food is a real deterrent for some trainees. Luckily for me, I’ve always loved food, and have no difficulty eating sufficient amounts to get strong. The most important thing in my own training was simply realizing just how much food was needed. So exactly how much should you eat? The short answer is that it depends. I can’t give you an exact caloric readout without seeing you in person, but I’m not convinced that counting calories isn’t the best way, anyway. You could just fill your plate by feel and re-adjust as needed, but if you’re looking for a more precise method, check out the hand rule here.


Quantity of food is one issue, quality another. You can lift weights until you’re blue in the face and eat lots of food, but if that food is donuts and potato chips, you won’t make much progress, unless your goal is getting fat. If so, you’ll progress like lightning. To be clear, I’m not big on micromanaging your diet. If you’re interested in counting calories and tallying ever macro and micro nutrient that enters your body, you won’t find the information you’re looking for on this website. That’s not my style. All you really need to know is this: eat at least 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day, plenty of veggies and healthy fats, and not much junk. If you have trouble choking down this much protein, get yourself some good whey protein powder. I get mine in bulk from Canadiannutrition.com. Train hard and consistently. If you start gaining the right kind of weight, great. If not, eat more food. I could go into much more detail, but that’s really all there is to it.


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