Ask LH: How Can I Put On Weight?

Ask LH: How Can I Put On Weight?

Hey Lifehacker, I’m a really skinny guy and it makes me self-conscious. This is the thing I hate most about myself so I want to fix it. I want to put on weight and muscle but I don’t know the best way to do it. Do protein shakes work? What is the best solution? Thanks, Thin Skinned

Skinny picture from Shutterstock

Dear TS,

I used to have much the same problem as you. Then I hit my mid-20s and got a sedentary desk job — these days, my weight problems are in the opposite direction (especially post-Takeaway Truth).

While it might be tempting to load up on fatty foods, this isn’t healthy and wont help with developing muscle mass either. The obvious answer is to combine healthy protein consumption with regular weight training.

We pitched your question to Dr James Fell, a lecturer at the University of Tasmania who specialises in exercise fatigue and recovery. Here’s what he had to say:

Resistance training involving complex movement patterns is the tried and true method of increasing muscle mass. However, a lot of people do struggle to gain muscles and that’s largely to do with not having an optimal diet. One of the keys to getting your diet right is all about the type and timing of your protein intake: not all proteins are equal and just having a lot of protein in your diet isn’t the secret. Instead, it’s the right protein taken at the right time, which is during and post-workout.
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So you need a combination of a good, structured training program and a well planned and optimal diet to meet the needs of that training program. The best thing is to talk to professionals in that regard both in terms of getting your training program and a good dietitian to give you the best energy intake advice for lean muscle gain that’s tailored to your body.

We also spoke to Professor Ken Nosaka from the School of Exercise and Health Sciences at Edith Cowan University:

The first thing you need to perfect is energy balance. If you have a negative energy balance — that is, consuming less than you’re using — you cannot get any muscles. So you need to increase your food intake in the form of protein. Humans needs at least one gram of protein per kilogram of body weight. So, if you weigh 60 kilograms, you need at least 60 grams of good protein. If you’re getting your protein from meat, this works out to around 300 grams of meat per day. They key is that total energy consumption should exceed total energy expenditure; so you should eat a little bit more than you’re using.
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The second key is exercise: you should focus on resistance-type exercise such as lifting weights. In order to increase muscle mass, you should use heavier weights that you can only lift ten to twelve times. If you can lift the weight easily twenty of thirty times this is not strong enough. You should do this three times a week and repeat each set three times. You’ll also need to do separate exercises for your arm muscles, leg muscles and quad muscles. Finding assistance via a registered training specialist can help you a lot in this area. This will cost money but you will get a very good training program.
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If you combine this sort of exercise with a good diet for three months, you will definitely begin to see changes.

And here’s what Christian Miranda from ONE Personal Training Solutions had to say:

Great question, Thin Skinned. You’re certainly not alone mate. It’s great that you’ve identified the fact that you want to put on weight and muscle – we refer to this as lean muscle mass. Assuming you are eating reasonably clean and healthy, this is achieved by increasing your portion sizes to consume more calories each day, and also fuel the body for more intense, strength specific resistance training – don’t be afraid to eat a lot!
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Personally, I like to encourage my clients to get the nutrients they need from the food they eat, as this promotes a more realistic and maintainable lifestyle approach to your health and fitness as opposed to using protein shakes and other supplements.
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1. Prepare your meals.
2. Eat regularly
3. Train with purpose
4. Keep track of your strength gains and girth measurements to monitor progress and continually challenge yourself
5. Enjoy the process!

Hope this helps! You can read up on how to get started with resistance training on a tight budget here.

If any readers have body-building tips of their own, let TS know in the comments section below.

See also: How Do You Develop Muscle Mass? | How Exercise Affects Your Body (And How To Pick The Right Workout) | The Lifehacker Muscle-Building Workout | Learn The Right Way To Hold Weights For A Better Workout


Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our [contact text=”contact form”].


  • Until about 5 years ago, I was really underweight (58kg at 180cm). So I just started drinking protein shakes every morning and eating lots of yoghurt, and put on over 15kg in about 10 months. Only thing is, I didn’t exercise so it mainly concentrated around my gut 🙁 Still, I looked a lot better than I did before. And my weight’s stayed pretty stable since.

  • Yea, pretty much agree with what has been said above, If you want to gain mass, but not lots of fat, take up a weights routine, and carbs will help you bulk more than protein will, but take it easy, you won’t want to slam a lot of weight on suddenly, as your body will freak out and you will end up feeling fatigued at the thought of walking.

    There are loads of blogs/articles/books on the subject matter, but basically, it all depends on your body and how you want to do it.

  • I would advise yes, do it with strength training. Most people I know who have managed to stay skinny into their 30s and beyond are of that body type where they just can’t gain weight any other way. (Heck, I’m in that boat – unless I make a serious effort to eat well and go to the gym, my weight drops rapidly until it reaches about 40kg, well below an okay weight for someone my height.) Strength training is definitely the way to go about it.

    One other big thing is that you have to make yourself eat proper meals. I keep finding that a lot of the terminally-skinny people I know – myself included – have an awful habit of skipping meals, or just generally not eating enough. One easy way to work with not being a big eater is to break up 3 large meals a day into 6 smaller meals; if you’re not a fan of eating first thing in the morning, smoothies are a good work-around. Once you start any serious strength training you will tend to eat more though.
    There’s a lot of websites to help with finding ideas for meals, and cooking classes can be a big help if you don’t feel like you can cook well. Best to consult a doctor or nutritionist on what you need to be eating though – especially if you’ve got food allergies or you’re vegan/vegetarian.

    Definitely have a few sessions with a personal trainer before you start. Having a gym-going friend or making friends with someone who regularly goes to that gym is also a good way to keep your motivation up (if it’s something you struggle with). 24-hour gyms are really good if you work through the day or are otherwise unable to get to a gym during normal daytime hours; they can be more expensive than other gyms, but they’re worth it for the 24-hour access.

  • Yep lifting weights and eating a calorie surplus. Very simple but not always easy.

    As someone who struggles not to be overweight I have difficulty eating a calorie deficit despite all the lifting and exercise I do, and for people who are ‘naturally skinny’ it can be just as hard if not harder to get into that calorie surplus. They really have to work at it and build up the kind of eating required.

    Calorically dense foods are going to be helpful and you don’t have to eat just junk all the time to do it.

    Google ‘hard gainer’ and you’ll find plenty of advice on specific calorically dense foods that will make the journey easier.

  • What personally worked for me is the Starting Strength Programme and drinking 4L of full cream milk and eating 3 big meals for a total of around 4,000 calories.

  • Or just wait until you hit 30. Metabolism went out the window. I went from a Kate Moss Skinny to a John Goodman size in less than 18 months*.

    * May have also included copious amounts of Pizza & Pepsi during this time.

    Edit: I see Tim bet me to the 30 punch, whilst typing. lol

  • Be careful, lots of bro-science floating around.

    Go check out a book by Dr John Berardi called Scrawny to Brawny. He essentially says most of what Lifehacker has detailed in the response, but he gives you a detailed 4 month plan on how to do it properly.
    I’m up to week 5; too early to tell yet, but I’m committed to seeing it through.

  • I’ve been using Mark Lauren’s You Are Your Own Gym and doing bodyweight at home, made a huge difference to my muscle mass all over. Some fairly good dietary thoughts in the book as well for gaining muscle – as above it’s about the right food input at the right time.

  • I say get into distance running, embrace your skinny self. You wont feel so down when you can outrun your mates and every other average-joe. =p

  • I find that with a lot of regular exercise I can build up definition and muscle, but if I stop for even a few weeks I just drop kilos – it was a lot easier at uni, but since I’ve had to get a job and lost most of my free time it’s hard enough to fit in my own life, let alone a rigorous exercise routine (I know, excuses…)

    I can put away a large amount of food (most of it carbs and lean meat) but I seem to be able to burn it off without doing anything

    Does anyone have any good muscle building regimes they follow? I would recommend the 100 pushups in 7 weeks – the only problem I found is what do you do when you get to 100?

  • Simple (but not cheap) – get married and have kids. I’ve gone from a racing whippet frame to comfortably upholstered armchair (or so my 6 year old daughter called me the other week).

  • Your diet is going to need to consist of the best part of 3000 calories from foods like brown rice, pasta, sweet potatoes (carbohydrates), chicken, fish, lentils or red meat (protein) and some healthy fats like avocado, and almonds, even full cream milk won’t hurt. Ideally break up your meals into five or six servings eating every 3 or so hours. Preparation can be a nightmare so I suggest cooking all your meals on one or two days and freezing what you need to. As for the protein shakes i’d limit it to mainly post-workouts and as a meal supplement on the unfortunate occasion you don’t have access to a proper meal. Look for a mass gainer product which will have a higher quantity of carbohydrates. The problem you face is that if you’re not taking in enough carbohydrates the body will revert to using protein as its energy source instead of using the protein for muscle repair and development.
    As for working out you’re going to need to lift weights 3-4 times per week (you’ll learn to love it). For the first couple of weeks just get familiar with the different exercises and the muscles they work. Once you have that understanding progress onto a training program focusing on heavy compound lifts like bench press, squats and deadlifts which is where the majority of your strength and size will come from. You should however limit yourself to two to three compound lifts on any single day and support those with a couple of isolated movements toward the end of the workout (i.e bicep curls, abdominal work, etc). The key here is to lift heavy on those first few compound exercises. As for a workout split i’d look at an upper/lower body split – in my personal experience the article below is a good template to start from.
    Good luck!

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