For weight-classified athletes who need to gain weight for sports such as bodybuilding and boxing or for those wanting to ‘bulk up’, any successful increase in bodyweight will need to be achieved through the effective management of carbohydrates, protein and fats (macronutrients).
Your weight-gain plan should be based around complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain foods (pasta/rice) and green vegetables. Protein from meat and fish should be sourced organically.
Vegetarians should source protein from dairy products such as eggs, nuts, seeds and beans. Essential fats (omega 3 and 6) can additionally be derived from protein sources such as white fish (meat eaters) and cooking oils taken from olives, walnuts, vegetables and flaxseeds.
For weight gain, it is recommended that the highest proportion of macronutrients is consumed at breakfast, then every two to three hours throughout the day. Athletes in training would usually ingest 30-60 grams of carbohydrates for every 60 minutes of intense exercise and consume protein with carbohydrates straight after training (within 20 minutes) to speed up muscle recovery and avoid muscle breakdown.
A recent study from MacLaren (2008) has shown that for weight gain, it is safe for those undertaking a high volume of training (five to seven days per week) to consume up to 2.4 grams (18.5 kcal) of protein per kg of bodyweight each day.
Daily general health recommendations tell us that, at each meal, we should consume a 2:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein, with vitamins, minerals and essential fats making up the remaining 25%. In order to gain lean muscle mass and avoid increases in fat tissue, macronutrients must be carefully managed to keep the body’s metabolic state anabolic, whereby the body stimulates muscle growth. If the body’s metabolic state becomes catabolic, the body will use muscle as opposed to fat tissue as its fuel source, which leads to muscular wastage (atrophy).
Individuals will typically become catabolic when the body is malnourished (starved or deprived of essential nutrients). Catabolism is also linked to the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Interestingly, cortisol levels will be at their highest first thing in the morning, following intense exercise (one hour or more) or from not eating for more than three hours.
Calculating weight gain
For anyone wanting to evaluate their daily weight gain through macronutrient intake, they must first define the optimum calorific value of their diet. In order to achieve this, basal metabolic rate (BMR), the minimum level of energy required for the body to function daily, can be calculated using the Harris-Benedict formula shown below:
Women: BMR = 655 + ( 9.6 x weight in kilos ) + ( 1.8 x height in cm ) - ( 4.7 x age in years )
Men: BMR = 66 + ( 13.7 x weight in kilos ) + ( 5 x height in cm ) - ( 6.8 x age in years )
From this calculation, BMR needs to be multiplied by the appropriate activity level, to give the total daily calorie intake required for weight maintenance, as shown below:
- Sedentary (little or no exercise) : calorie-calculation = BMR x 1.2
- Lightly active (light exercise/sports one to three days/week) : Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.375
- Moderately active (moderate exercise/sports three to five days/week) : calorie-calculation = BMR x 1.55
- Very active (hard exercise/sports six to seven days a week) : calorie-calculation = BMR x 1.725
- Extra active (very hard exercise/sports & physical job or 2x training) : calorie-calculation = BMR x 1.9
From determining BMR, weight gain can now be planned effectively - a calorie (kcal) increase of 500-1,000 per day is recommended to build one to two pounds of lean muscle mass each week.
Bray, AB, Smith, SR, Jonge, DE, et al. (2012) Effect of dietary protein content on weight gain, energy expenditure, and body composition during overeating, JAMA, 307:1028.
MacLaren D (2008) Protein, carbohydrates and muscle recovery, UKSCA, London.
Sean Burgess is a personal trainer currently running his own training company in Poole, Dorset and operates as a strength and conditioning coach in elite and amateur rugby.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Fitness Professionals Ltd or Virtual Magazine. Consult a qualified health or fitness professional before making changes to your diet or exercise.