The general population can likely overlook this article. But if you came here because you typed in “how to gain weight” into Google, you’ve come to the right place. You see, some of us have just as hard of a time gaining weight as a lot of people have with losing weight. Our bodies are genetically predispositioned to maintain a certain composition. We can fight it sure, but it takes work. More specifically, for those of us considered “hard-gainers”, we might have to dial in our pre and post-workout nutrition to see any real mass-building happen. For over a year now, I’ve struggled with strength plateaus, a constant fluctuation in weight by about 5 lbs, and not seeing any significant growth or progress. I’ve managed to find things that work though and from there it’s just a matter of remaining consistent with them.
What exactly is a hard-gainer?
There are three categories of body types. A hard gainer is called an Ectomorph. We are naturally lean, thin-boned, and don’t maintain muscle mass very well. Unless we eat…a lot. And lift weights to prevent it from being body fat. We are designed to be marathon runners or triathletes, but not all of us love cardio. Personally, I’m trying to make my endurance athlete-type body be a competitive weightlifter. I don’t think it’s impossible but it certainly won’t be easy.
In other workds, you’re a hard gainer if you can relate to this routine: Eat eat eat, lift, lift, lift, repeat, repeat, repeat. After a month you’ve grown 1% in size, if any.
So here’s where I come in to teach you some tricks I’ve learned along the way. Recently, in just 4 weeks, I’ve gained roughly 5lbs and my body measurements increased from 1-3% in size. So this strategy has been successful, but it is not one-size-fits all. Even if we’re all classified as the same body type, you still need to fit your nutrient timing strategies into your schedule and find meals and snacks you love and are convenient to you.
Consuming protein before a workout can help maintain or even increase muscle size, floods our bloodstream with amino acids right when our body needs them most, and can aid in the recovery process after a lot of weight training. Carbs before training provide your body with the fuel it needs and helps maintain liver and muscle glycogen stores (thus aiding in muscle growth). Even eating good fats before a workout isn’t bad for you. It slows digestion which can help control blood sugar, and healthy fats have necessary vitamins and minerals that our body needs, especially if we train a lot.
If you eat 1-2 hours before a workout: this meal should be protein and complex-carb focused. Pretty much a regular meal. Throw in a serving of healthy fat too – it won’t hurt.
If you eat within 1 hour of a workout: typically this is where you’d want a small protein/carb snack or a fast-digesting protein shake so nothing sits too heavy in your stomach. Still focus on complex carb sources as they won’t spike your blood sugar and lead to a crash mid-workout. And protein consumed anytime around your workout will be beneficial during the protein synthesis period.
If you eat within 30 minutes: If you’re the type that needs food RIGHT before I would highly suggest something very small – no fats or really dense food. A protein shake with just water or milk is perfect here.
And here are some suggestions to inspire you/get you started with a pre-workout meal plan!
Pre-workout Breakfast Recipes (1-2 hours before):
- Protein Oatmeal or Quinoa with plenty of toppings: nuts, cocoa nibs, coconut, berries, bananas, chopped dates…etc. Plenty of pre-workout fuel!
- Protein Shake/Smoothie Bowl with fruit spinach, almond milk and possibly some nut butter or UCAN
- Sausage/Egg/Veggie scrambles were popular for me in the past – usually with half a baked sweet potato on the side. I no longer eat eggs because they cause inflammation.
- Protein Waffles (weekends) – made without eggs, dairy, or grains. Higher in protein than carbs, but I do put some date syrup and nut butter combo on top of them. And usually include some berries and chocolate chips as well. This meal works great!
Pre-workout Lunch Recipes:
- Turkey burger on whole wheat buns. Optional sweet potato fries for more carbs!
- Chicken, veggies and sweet potatoes – simple to make on a Sunday evening.
- Bowls – these are easy to meal prep and pack up into single servings! They also usually freeze really well!
- Fruit and Nut butter: My go-to combos are…
- Sweet potato with peanut butter and cinnamon (sounds strange but don’t knock it till you try it)
- 1/2 serving protein shake and a baked sweet potato or piece of fruit
- 1/2 serving of overnight protein oats with berries and nuts/nut butter: 1/2 scoop of protein powder + 1/4c oats and ~1/2 cup almond milk.
- Homemade protein bars or Protein Balls
Lighter Pre-workout Snacks (within half-hour):
- Drink pre-workout + 5mg creatine (optional 1 serving of UCAN for long or tough workouts)
- protein shake with just milk or water
- small piece of fruit
- REAL weight gain tip: Eat anything with dextrose or sucrose in it. This means candy. OR drink Gatorade during your workout. (assuming you’re strength training. This strategy would NOT work for cardio.)
After a workout, protein prevents breakdown of lean body mass and aids in synthesis so it helps us maintain or grow our muscles. Carbs replenish our liver and glycogen stores that we’ve just depleted and help to increase muscle size. And fat does no harm. It might even do some good but research isn’t conclusive on this.
Immediately after, or even during, it’s a good idea to drink BCAA’s with creatine. Creatine isn’t necessary unless you’re a true hard-gainer or you really want to see a performance boost. But the BCAA’s will save you from dreaded DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) or at least lessen their affect.
If you ate something within 2 hours before your workout – it’s not necessary to chug down a protein shake right away unless you want to. You can wait a few hours to consume a well-balanced meal with protein and complex carbs without missing the protein synthesis window.
However, if you trained in a fasted state, eating a meal right after will help with protein synthesis.
- Protein Waffles topped with fruit and date syrup (or maple syrup)
- Breakfast sandwich – egg, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and avocado on whole wheat bread
- Protein Oatmeal with fruit and nuts
- Protein smoothie bowls
Post-workout Lunch or Dinners:
These can mirror pre-workout lunch or dinner – but typically if you eat a pre-workout lunch you’ll want to eat a smaller post-workout snack soon after your workout.
Post-workout snack (within 1 hour, if needed):
- Protein shake with almond milk and a sweet potato or piece of fruit
- Protein shake blended with fruit (and sometimes nut butter)
- Protein Bars or Balls and a piece of fruit
Pre and Post workout nutrition can pretty much mirror each other. But these are the things to keep in mind:
- Focus on protein and complex carbs before and after your workouts
- Supplement with BCAA’s during or right after a workout to aid in recovery. Using creatine in these drinks as well helps to provide more power in your workouts and can lead to increased strength (aka muscle mass!).
- If you like consuming something right before – do something fast-digesting like a protein shake so it doesn’t sit too heavy on your stomach and slow down your workout.
- Eating simple carbs is best right before or after a workout but doesn’t provide much benefit otherwise. Still, eating many fruits, vegetables and whole grains throughout your day is best for hard-gainers who need a lot of carbs to gain weight. (you’re a hard-gainer if you found this article by googling “how to gain weight”)
- What you eat after a workout depends on how long before your workout you ate.
- Another great article to look at:
But Most Importantly…
Every individual is different. It may be a trial and error process to find what works best for you but these are some tips to get you started. Nutrient timing is not necessary for general health and is typically something done by competitive athletes, fitness models…etc. That being said, you don’t have to be in that category to benefit from it, just don’t let it cause you any stress. Change one thing at a time – like just focus on your pre-workout strategy first for a couple weeks. When you start building habits of some of these things, you can try adding in some new strategies. Just take it one day at a time and watch how your body responds. Build habits that will fit your lifestyle to ensure you’re consistent with the right behaviors. Doing that will almost guarantee success.