JM Blakley is a bench press specialist who wrote many insightful articles for PLUSA magazine a few years back. Here is my favorite and it’s a must-read for those who complain about not being able to gain weight. Here it is:
Cold, hard fact number one: If you gain weight, you will get stronger. Everybody already knows that. Even if most of the weight is not good weight, it will nevertheless have a positive effect on strength. Of course, there is the argument that the weight one gains should be quality weight (i.e. muscle, which is preferable) but the truth is that even adipose and water weight can contribute to heavier poundages lifted. It is beyond the scope of this article to address the exact physiological mechanisms for this but tissue leverage is commonly cited as the main reason for the phenomenon. My purpose is not to explain why this happens but rather to explain how to take advantage of the fact that it happens. Weight moves weight!
If you understand and accept this, you have probably tried to bulk up? Eat some point in your training. You also have probably experienced the frustration, first-hand, of just how difficult it can be to gain weight. Anyone can gain 15-20 pounds (and they often do on accident!) but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m speaking of adding on 35-40 pounds on purpose with a combination of extra-heavy lifting and extra-heavy eating! If anyone is confused about what I’m saying here then this article is not for you. I won’t waste your time explaining and justifying the need for some lifters to put on weight. But for those of you who have been desperately trying to get your weight up and crack through a plateau, let’s get to it. Why can’t you seem to gain weight?
DO THE MATH
Quite simply, you aren’t eating enough! I know, I know, you eat all the time, you eat more than everyone you know, you have a fast metabolism, yadda, yadda, yadda. I know all the excuses. I used them myself. I even believed them. But there are rules in the universe. We are bound by the laws of physics and no one is pardoned. Creating a positive caloric balance is completely defined by the equation: calories in vs. calories out = calories net. That’s it. No one escapes it. If you eat more calories than you use in a day, you will gain weight. Period. There is some fluxuation for metabolic shifts and the efficiency of the body’s absorption of calories, granted, but this effect is small and it is the rare person who exhibits a metabolism that could bear the blame for one unable to manipulate their weight. More about this later, but for now get it straight- your metabolism is not to be a scapegoat for your lack of discipline. You must eat more. If your metabolism speeds up then you must eat even more to cover that. There is a limit to how fast your metabolism can run. You must stay ahead of it. And you must learn to control it. Above all, you must accept the unarguable fact that you must put more food into your mouth.
My favorite question to ask those people who think they are eating tons of food but not gaining weight is, “what do you weigh?” Then when they answer (let’s say 195 lbs. for example) I respond “and how long have you weighed that?” They almost always answer that they have been at their current weight for over one year and often much longer. To this I quip “then you are eating enough to maintain 195 pounds. If you want to weigh 215, you need to eat more than a person who weighs 195. You have to eat like a person who weighs 215! You have proven that you eat only enough to keep your weight steady. You’ve been 195 for some time now! And what you’re eating is enough to hold that. But it’s not enough to drive it up. So if you think you’re eating all this extra food, think again. You’re eating a maintenance feed lot. You need a growth feed lot! If you’ve been eating like a 215 pounder all last year, you would weigh 215 now! You’re not eating any more than any other 195 pounder! Try harder! Eat more!” The only hole in this example is the energy output of the individual. But all things being equal, I hope you are getting the point here. You can’t gain weight if you don’t eat more.
( Pic above: ) - JM Blakley Bench Pressing 710 lbs back in 2001
The general principle is this: train as hard as you can to create a stimulus for growth. Then feed the body everything it needs to adapt. You must cover three needs. The recovery, the repair, and the growth. Some trainees only eat enough to recover from the last workout. They will end up overtrained because they aren’t meeting the need for repair and their tissues begin to break down under the strain of heavy lifting.
Other lifters will eat enough to recover and repair, but not enough to cover the expense of growth. These lifters end up on a constant plateau, having hard workouts, recovering from them and not overtraining, but never seeing progress. It’s a stalemate (the maintenance feed lot group). They train for years and somehow excuse the lack of results to genetics or another bogey man.
You have to cover all three aspects of nutrient need recovery, repair, and growth. First , eat enough to recover from the stress of a training session. Second, eat enough to repair any damage the workout may have caused.(If you are training very heavy, there is always micro-trauma occurring at the cellular level). Third, you must eat even more to cover the cost of your body building itself up. If you don’t eat these extra calories, where will the body get the energy to do the building? And what ,pray tell, do you suppose it will use for building material? Your body needs stuff (matter) to build with. You can’t build something out of nothing. The body needs substance to convert into body mass. That substance is food.
The only way to be absolutely certain that you are getting the most out of your workout is to eat more than you need for recovery, repair, and growth. You will begin to see a bit of bodyfat start to accumulate. Please don’t misunderstand me and think I’m telling everyone to get obesely fat. I’m only suggesting a light layer of “winter weight” or a “softening” You should never let your bodyfat percentage rise above unhealthy levels, and never put on what you can’t get off.
This is what I call bathing the cells in nutrients. You give them all they need and then a little bit extra which you can see usually around your middle. Remember; it’s OK to put it on to gain strength if you also plan to take it off later and maintain your new strength level when you diet. Just make sure you get around to dieting sooner or later! This way every workout has the nutrients it needs to give it the chance to be fully effective.
Step one is the realization that you are ,in fact, not eating enough. Some trainees will admit this but then have trouble with the work of eating. To this I say only: DISCIPLINE! You must eat on schedule. You must eat what you are supposed to. You must not excuse yourself from eating what you are supposed to when you are supposed to. This is the self same discipline that everyone recognizes the need for in losing weight. It is no different for you who would choose to gain weight. No one feels sorry for a person who says they are trying to lose a few pounds and then proceeds to attend meetings with Ronald McDonald, Ben and Jerry, and Bud Weiser. And I don’t feel sorry for those who lack the discipline to eat more.
I know how difficult it can be. But I am reminded of the time I was complaining to a friend about how hard I was trying to get my weight up to 300 pounds and how tough it was for me to eat so much, and boo-hoo-hoo. The friend looked at me, clearly fed up with my whining, and remarked “I see several people over 300 lbs at work (he was a physical therapist) and they really don’t seem to be trying all that hard! They weigh 300 and they don’t try!”
This put it in better perspective for me. I even had the advantage of working out with weights to help boost my weight and these guys were out eating me and my best effort without so much as a second thought. If people can do it on accident, I could certainly do it on purpose! And I did. So can you.
Admit that you are undereating. Then admit that you are not trying your best. I don’t believe you if you tell me you can’t eat any more than you are eating now. If you tell me you can’t eat any more, I’ll tell you that you just can’t have what you want then. (I never argue with someone who tells me they can’t). That’s the universe’s law, not mine. If you can’t do the work, you can’t have the reward. Sorry. Now, do you really mean can’t or is it more like won’t? If you want it, you can. Ask anybody who has.
Those are the two biggest roadblocks to gaining weight. Admitting that you are not doing the job and that your effort has been less than stellar, and realizing that if others can do it so can you. Once you accept those responsibilities, instead of complaining and passing the buck, you can get to the business of getting down to it. And that, my friends, is the same in all endeavors, if you are willing to pay the price, you can have the reward. I will readily admit that it seems to be easier for some than others. But the price is relative. You are not anyone else. You must not compare the ease or difficulty which you are presented to anyone else’s situation. So what if it is easier for your pal to gain weight than you? What does that have to do with you? Nothing. Your task is your task. If you must eat 400 calories more than him to get the same results, then that’s the price for you . You decide for yourself whether to pay up or not. Oh yeah, I should mention – life’s not fair. He got a discount and you got taxed. So what? You can still both have it. Are you willing to pay or not? If you’re not, you’re not. But your reason shouldn’t be because it cost you more than someone else. When someone wants something bad enough they’ll pay double! They don’t care- they are just happy to get it.
What I’m telling you is that you can gain weight if you accept the fact that it is possible and that it is going to be hard. I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it. Get rid of any excuse or explanation for not gaining other than I’m not trying hard enough. I must try harder. Then you’re on your way. Blame only yourself for past shortcomings and resolve to bring whatever it takes to the table from now on.
Tricks of the Trade: Big Boy’s Menu Plan
One secret is caloric density. Learn to eat foods that provide more calories per unit volume. That is, they give you lots of calories for how much space they take up in the gut. 250 calories of salad fills you up even with the dressing but a chocolate bar would only feel like a snack.
Also, add lots of condiments to your food. Carry mayo with you and add lots of it to everything. Same goes for Thousand Island dressing and chocolate sauce. Be creative and never eat anything that you don’t add calories to in some way. Melt provolone cheese over your pasta. Put ranch dressing on your pizza. Dip potato chips in honey. I don’t care what sick and twisted combinations you come up with, as long as you find it palatable. You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve eaten. ( Try a bowl full of peanut butter smothered in maple syrup and a stick of butter in the microwave for 30 seconds. Lay two Hershey bars over it to melt and you’ll just start to understand.)
Carry food with you. Always have a jar of peanuts in your car. Carry Pop-Tarts, Slim Jim meat snacks, candy bars, anything handy that travels well and needs no special preparation. Never get caught away from food. Put it in your desk, your locker, your gym bag, your brief case, hell, carry some around in your pockets if you have to! Never miss a meal because you couldn’t eat. What’s that? Couldn’t eat? It takes less than 50 seconds to eat two candy bars. That’s over 500 calories. Even if you have to sneak it on the job, go to the john and wolf them down. You must never be without food. Take some with you. and never say you didn’t have time (50 seconds?!) or opportunity. Find time or make time.
Eat immediately upon arising. Start right away. You lost time sleeping – you weren’t eating! Fill up first thing in the morning. Don’t wait! You went several hours without any food. The longer you wait the less time you have to get all the food your supposed to eat down. If you wait long enough it will be impossible to make it. You’ll run out of time. Get off to a solid start. Minimum first meal calories: 1200. Eat over a grand right away and the rest of the day will be easier. Eat less, and you’ll be playing catch-up all day long.
Eat just prior to bed. You are going to go for hours without food? Euel up! This is your last chance to feed your body for a long time give it one last push. This is uncomfortable for many, but with practice you will adapt and be able to eat a good calorie load before retiring. Shoot for 500 calories minimum.
Try foods you used to dislike or have never eaten before. After several weeks of overeating, everything begins to taste the same. Even your favorite foods lose their flavor. You exhaust your repertoire of choices. Open it up. Go for the calamari or the shark fin soup. Try a quiche. Eat at an ethnic restaurant. Find new favorites that you can eat lots of. I hated cottage cheese as a youngster, but now I mix it in with spaghetti and dump it into soups! I even eat the fat free variety on a reducing diet! You will surprise yourself. Don’t be afraid to try. You may still dislike salmon, but you may get a taste for artichoke after all.
Drink regular soda pop (possibly caffeine free) and whole milk. Never drink any fluids that don’t have calories. No tea without sugar, no coffee without cream and sugar, no diet beverages whatsoever. No plain water! Canned soda pop is an excellent source of purified water. But it also has precious calories. Gatorade is fine and has electrolytes as well. 108 ounces a day is the minimum. But don’t fill your stomach without putting some calories in along with. A 12 0z. can of soda pop has about 150 calories. Quench your thirst and give your body more calories at the same time. ( I’m not knocking water, folks, I’m just illustrating that you can hydrate yourself and get calories in the bargain. )
Count your calories. You may think you are consuming an abundance of food, but you’re probably giving yourself too much credit. It is very hard to eat over 5000 calories every day for weeks on end. And if its 7 or 8,000 you think you’re getting in every day I think you’d better check that. Often a trainee will eat 6,000 calories on Monday, but then stoop to 3500 or so for the next two days. Then Thursday maybe get 5500 and follow that for two days of 3000. all the while they believe that they are eating 6000 every day. Avoid this kind of fluxuation. Keep a solid average. And keep track. At least for a series of days every now and then. A few days a month check up on yourself. If your goal is 5500 calories a day add it all up and make sure. You’ll soon get better at estimating and you won’t have to go through this so much. But take my advice, if you are not seeing the scale move the way you think it should, double check your count. You most likely are overestimating your intake. This gives you feedback so you can make adjustments. Even if you’re an old pro at calorie counting it’s a good idea to take account every so often.
Issues and Precautions
This kind of diet is admittedly not the most conducive to your overall health. But we should get one thing straight – you are not doing it for health reasons, you are doing it for better performance in your chosen sport. This is one of those “quality of life” issues. You choose to pursue powerlifting because of reasons other than improved health such as challenge, personal pride, self esteem benefits, sense of strength, or any other of a basket full of psycho/emotional reasons not to mention the sheer fun of it! There are plenty of health benefits to the sport of powerlifting and weight training in general which have all been outlined many times before. I acknowledge those, of course, I’m just saying that if you are competing and trying to bulk up, you probably have more personal motives for continuing to put so much into this sport. And those motives most likely supersede any health benefits.
Having said that, let me turn the table back on your health. This style of diet can have very serious effects on your body. One effect is a dramatic improvement in your strength. But another effect is an increase in your blood cholesterol level! It would be irresponsible of me to ignore the down side? So I’ll give a few suggestions of what I feel is prudent and responsible behavior that would accompany such an eating program. (It’s all common sense, anyway!)
Have your cholesterol checked before you begin. Get a baseline. If you have high levels, you may want to reconsider and see your doctor about options to lower it.
Check your cholesterol every 15-20 pounds that you gain. Or every 10 weeks on the diet. Set a limit with your doctor as to how high you will permit it to rise and remain on the diet. If it goes above such-and-such a number, abort.
Do some form of cardiovascular exercise. Minimum 3 days per week. I know you don’t want to spend the precious calories on cardio, but the cv exercise will help keep the cholesterol down as well as abating some of the inevitable sluggishness that comes with weight gain. I’ve done it both with and without cv and I feel much, much better with a daily walk. And you can eat just one more snickers bar to cover it. All the while your heart gets some exercise and your metabolism doesn’t get so loggy.
Check your blood pressure at the start and then every four days while on the diet. Get your own monitor or find one of the countless free places that you can have it taken for you. Use the same equipment every time. Expect some increase in bp. Consult your doctor and make a decision as to what you both will tolerate. If your bp goes past the limit you have set, abort.
Issues of sleep apnea can develop. This is a tough disorder in which you interrupt your breathing for a few seconds all through the night and wake up in the morning exhausted from gasping for 8 hours! This affects a huge number of people in the US but commonly is made worse by gaining weight. If it affects you, you may not know it?You’re asleep while it’s going on. But sooner or later someone will tell you, your wife, your girlfriend, your next-door neighbor. It’s often confused for a bad case of snoring. But after a couple of weeks of full nights rest and an accompanying deep fatigue, you will begin to suspect something is wrong. I wish I had some sort of fix-it for this but the only advice I can give is to try propping yourself up at a slight incline when you sleep and put up with it as much as your significant other will allow. If it is too much of a problem, seek medical attention and decide what else to try. If you must, abort. You won’t see the progress you want in your training if you’re not getting the rest you need.
Have a full blood work up done (this will most likely accompany your cholesterol but ask for it any way. These days health care professionals are cutting costs and if you ask for cholesterol values that may be all that gets run!). Of special interest are : triglycerides, liver enzymes, thyroid levels especially T-4 and TSH, and any values having to do with pancreatic function. These can become upset with drastic changes in dietary habits and need an eye kept on them.
Measure your bodyfat percentage. Set a limit to how high you will let it go. Remeasure it every 10 pounds you gain. See how many pounds are muscle and how many are fat. A good bargain is 1 pound of muscle for every 2-3 lbs of fat.
If you are a master lifter, consider your medications and consult your doctor about the effect weight gain may have on any of them especially heart meds. Your dosage may need to be adjusted.
Remember that the weight gain is to be temporary. You should plan a reducing diet to follow at a specified time in your training. This is where you attempt to maintain most of the new strength you amassed during the bulking phase while lowering your body fat to the same level you started at. You are not training to get stronger, only to hold the strength you have while dropping the excess. Commit yourself to the goal of returning to your starting level of bodyfat and see how much of the new strength you’re kept. If you diet right, it should be above 80%. So that is your true gain. The gain you keep after gaining and losing the excess bodyfat is what counts. If you gain 20 lbs on your bench and lose 15 when you diet, you missed the point. If you gain 20 lbs on the bench and keep 15 (16) you’ve achieved something and done it correctly. Now repeat this process as necessary!! I suggest that you only hold your weight heavy for no longer than 5-6 months before you diet back down. Each time you repeat this process, you will hold more strength and have more muscle mass than before. Avoid staying heavy too long. It is only temporary!
These things will help you minimize the risks associated with the rigors of body weight manipulation. Competitive sports all have risks. Every highschooler who puts on a football helmet on Friday night and knocks heads with the cross-town rivals takes the risk of spinal injury. Risks are unavoidable and usually increase with the level of play. Just be responsible. Take care of yourself within the risks. Do what you can to minimize them. Pay attention. If you don’t watch your blood pressure, how do you know if you might not be begging for a stroke? For Christmas sake, at least know what you’re levels are. You can always decide to do what is right for you. Continue or stop. Or continue on a different course. But at least do the best you can to stay as healthy as you can.
Remember: If you want to beat the man, you’ve got to out-eat the man!