How to Gain Weight Without Gaining Belly Fat – 11 Tips

How to Gain Weight Without Gaining Belly Fat – 11 Tips

Are you looking to gain weight fast without looking like a sumo wrestler?

While for some, it’s a challenge to gain weight without blowing up, some of us are constantly fighting to keep the pounds on. 

If you’re learning how to gain weight without adverse health effects, we’ve outlined 10 strategies to gain weight. 

And no, we don’t just mean piling down plates of doughnuts and slices of pizza. When we say weight gain, we mean the highest proportion of muscle to fat tissue. After all, you want to look fit, not flabby.

So without further ado, let’s get started!

  1. How much should you eat to gain weight?
  2. What types of foods to include in your diet to gain weight?
  3. Which macronutrients to prioritise in your diet
  4. Exercises to incorporate into your training program
  5. What progressive overload is and why it’s so important
  6. How many days a week should I train?
  7. Should you add or remove cardio when gaining weight?
  8. How many hours of sleep do you need?
  9. The best supplements for weight gain
  10. Should I expect to gain body fat on a weight gain diet?
  11. How fast should I be gaining weight?
  12. Putting it all together – main takeaways




How Much Food Should I Eat to Gain Weight? TDEE Explained

Your body is like a furnace, constantly converting chemical energy from foods into the energy that powers your body. The harder you train, the more fuel you need to replenish.

Below are the bodily functions that require energy/food:

  • Breathing
  • Circulating blood and maintaining body temperature
  • Building muscle
  • Digestion
  • Movement, i.e. walking or brushing your teeth

Based on these functions, your activity level and weight, your body burns anywhere from 1200-2500 calories a day just to stay alive!

To gain weight, you must consume more calories than your body needs. We recommend a maximum of 500 extra calories per day for the average person, provided you’re incorporating some form of strength training into your workout routine.


How to Find Out How Many Calories You Need

You’ll need to calculate your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) for a more personalised approach to your weight gain. Your TDEE is an estimation of how many calories your body needs to maintain its current size and weight.

To find your TDEE, use this calculator and input your age, gender, height, weight, and activity level. Once you have this number, add 15-25% more than your TDEE to determine your caloric intake.

Let’s go over a few examples:

Example 1:

Jane has an office job and regularly goes to the gym and lifts weights three times a week. Based on her weight and activity level, her TDEE is 2080 calories:

2080 + 15-25% = 2392 to 2600 calories

Example 2:

John is more active and participates in weightlifting five times a week. His TDEE is 3125 calories based on his activity level and weight:

3125 + 15-25% = 3593 to 3906 calories

Remember that online TDEE calculators are more of a guideline than an exact science, so adjust your caloric intake accordingly. Just try not to overestimate your TDEE, as it will lead to overconsumption and more body fat than muscle gain.

If you’re looking to gain weight more rapidly, you can add more calories to your diet. Just be sure to monitor the amount of body fat you gain with each caloric intake increase. The 15-25% extra-calorie suggestion should be a good starting point for those looking to build muscle while minimising fat gain.


How Many Meals a Day Should You Eat?

Back in the day when your grandad was lifting weights, the standard approach was to eat three big meals a day. Many years later, fitness experts bumped it up to 5 to 6 meals daily.

The 5-6 meal approach is a smart one due to the amount of protein your body can absorb in one sitting. According to research, your body’s maximum capacity to process protein at one time is around 20-30 grams. So if, for example, you need to consume 150 grams of protein daily, eating 5-6 meals consisting of 25-30 grams of protein is the best way to do it.

However, if eating that many meals a day just isn’t practical, try to hit 3-4 meals instead. Ensure your meals are nutritious, contain the appropriate amount of protein and carbs, and are spaced out evenly throughout the day.

Depending on your schedule, your meal plan can look something like this:

  • Three large meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner
  • Six smaller meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and three snacks
  • Four large meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and one snack

Remember, total calorie intake always trumps meal timing

Timing and structuring your meals helps keep your blood sugar steady and provides energy throughout the day. But when it comes to weight gain (or even weight loss), total calorie intake matters most. Even if you ate one big meal a day, you would gain weight as long as your total calorie intake was higher than what your body needs. 


What Foods Should I Eat To Gain Weight?

When it comes to the types of food, we recommend sticking to whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, nuts and seeds. These foods are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals your body needs to fire on all cylinders.

But what about hard gainers who struggle to gain weight? Then some leeway in the types of food you consume is ok. You may indulge yourself with a few treats, such as ice cream or chocolate if it helps you reach your desired calorie and protein goals.

But does this mean I can eat whatever I want to gain weight?

Hold your horses there, buddy! We said some leeway!

While it’s ok to indulge in a few calorie dense foods, ensure that most of your diet consists of ‘whole foods’ or ‘real foods’. Processed food, such as chips and cookies, may help you reach your calorie goals, but they won’t provide the essential vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients to train and recover optimally.

You’re not going to hit your protein target by consistently eating bags of chips nor properly fuel your workouts with candy bars. Like nearly everything in life, moderation is key, so consume healthy sources of carbs, protein, and fats more often than not.


Which Macronutrients to Prioritise in Your Diet

We’ve mentioned the recommended amount of protein, but what about carbs and fats? Which macronutrient should you prioritise in your diet? When gaining weight, focus on the following:

  • Protein

Think of it like this: protein is responsible for building muscle, while carbs and fats provide the energy reserves to power through workouts and keep your body going.

We want to gain the right kind of weight – muscle, not fat. Thus, you need to consume enough protein to support the growth and repair of new muscle tissue. Although scientists recommend a minimum of 0.7 grams per pound to build muscle, play it safe and shoot for 1 gram of protein per pound of your body weight daily.

Protein needs for the hard gainer vs big eater

I’ve never had an issue with gaining weight. In fact, in my first attempt to bulk up, I gained 30 pounds within a few months. Unfortunately, my “transformation” had me resembling the Michelin man more than anything else.

The point of my story is that you don’t necessarily need to eat like a tank to gain weight.

If you have trouble pulling the brakes on how much you eat, aim to hit 1.2-1.5 grams per pound of body weight. The extra protein will help you stay fuller for longer, and prevent you from going overboard with calories. 

On the other hand, if you are a hard gainer and struggle to reach your calorie goals. Carbs and fats provide more calories than protein per gram, are more calorie-dense, and will help you reach your caloric intake goals.

Protein sources we recommend:

  • Meat (steak, chicken, pork)
  • Fish (salmon, tuna, sardines)
  • Eggs Dairy products (milk, cheese, yoghurt)
  • Beans and lentils Soy products (tofu, tempeh)
  • Whey protein powder


2. Carbs

In second place are carbs. Carbohydrates provide energy for intense workouts and replenish glycogen stores so you can hit the gym with full strength. They are also stored overnight, so you don’t feel drained and weak for your morning workout. 

Your diet should consist of around 55-60% carbs. 

Carb sources we recommend:

  • Whole-grain bread, pasta, and rice
  • Fruits
  • Starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes)
  • Oats and quinoa

You can always opt for white bread if you can’t stand whole-grain bread. However, whole-grain will give your body more fibre and micronutrients, so it’s the better choice.


3. Fats

Finally, we have fats.

While this macronutrient provides energy, it’s also essential for many bodily functions like hormone production and vitamin absorption. To keep your body in good health, focus on eating healthy fats and try to avoid trans fats as much as possible.

Your diet should consist of around 20-25% fat.

Fat sources we recommend:

  • Olive oil, flaxseed oil and other plant oils
  • Nuts and nut butter
  • Fish and fish oil supplements
  • Avocados and avocado oil
  • Full-fat dairy products (milk, cheese)

Last and least important are Vegetables

When I say least important, it’s strictly within the context of weight gain. Remember that vegetables are a fantastic source of micronutrients, fibre and other essential nutrients. They’re very low in calories, which is the most important factor for weight gain.

Add some leafy greens, carrots and other vegetables to your diet. Aim for around 3 servings daily, depending on your calorie and carb intake.


The Best Exercises to Gain Weight

Until this point, you’ve learned what to eat, how much to eat, and the correct macronutrient ratios to gain weight. And while your calorie intake dictates how much weight you gain, you ideally want to build slabs of muscle, not fat.

That’s where good old-fashioned strength training comes in.

And we don’t mean lifting random objects in your backyard. We mean hitting the gym and doing the best exercises that will give you the most bang for your buck.

These exercises include:

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Bench press
  • Bent-over rows
  • Overhead press
  • Dips
  • Pull-ups
  • Leg press
  • Calf raise
  • Shoulder press

Optionally, you can include bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups, inverted rows and cardio exercises like running or jump rope to improve your overall fitness. Bodyweight exercises are great introductory exercises, and they can be used as finishers after your main workout.


Weight Gain Workout Example


  • Bench Press
  • Squats
  • Bent-over Rows
  • Calf Raise


  • Shoulder Press
  • Pull-ups
  • Deadlifts
  • Leg Press


  • Push-ups
  • Inverted Rows
  • Dips


What about isolation exercises?

Isolation exercises should always come after your compound (multi-joint) exercises first. Although accessory movements work smaller muscle groups and rectify muscle imbalances, they will contribute less than compound lifts to your overall weight gain goals.

The best isolation exercises to do are:

  • Bicep curls
  • Tricep extensions
  • Flys and cable crossovers for chest
  • Lateral raises, front raises, and bent-over laterals for shoulders

If you’re just getting your feet wet with weight training, stick to the compound exercises first. Once your body has learned the movement patterns and built enough strength, you can start including isolation exercises in your program.


Progressively Get Stronger in the Gym

Now you’ve got your workout in hand; it’s time to start hammering the weights.

Like any endeavour you undertake, you want to improve and perform better than last time.

When training, you want to be able to lift heavier weights progressively over time. In reality this means:

Increasing the weight i.e adding 2.5 – 10 lbs on your exercises per session

Increasing the reps i.e. instead of 4 x 8, you might aim for 4 x 10

Increasing the sets i.e. from 3 x 8 to 4 x 10

Alternatively, you can combine the approaches. For example, you might increase the weight by 5 lbs and add an extra set of 8 reps.

The main point is that, the heavier you lift, the bigger and stronger you will become. 

But this doesn’t mean you should jump straight into heavy-weight training. Start by mastering the correct form on the basic exercises first, even if it means lifting a lot less weight than you can. Once you’ve done that, you can add weight to the bar.



How Many Days Per Week Should I Train to Gain Weight?

Remember the saying “Abs are made in the kitchen”? Well, this is also true for weight gain – your diet matters most.

When we lift weights, we’re essentially breaking down our muscles. The following 48 hours is when protein synthesis increases and helps repair that muscle, making it bigger and stronger for the next workout.

To gain weight and maximise your workouts, ensure the muscle you’ve trained has at least 48 hours of rest in between workouts. If you’re training every day, it’s more likely that your workouts will be inhibited by fatigue and will be less effective.

So, aim to train 2-5 times a week and don’t be afraid to take an extra day off if your body needs it.



Should I Incorporate Cardio When Trying to Gain Weight?

Cardio can be counterproductive in your bulking efforts.


Because if you’re trying to gain weight and your goal is purely to build muscle, then you don’t want to burn too many calories. Furthermore, it can interfere with your targeted muscle’s recovery, which is essential for muscle growth.

If, for example, you’ve completed a rigorous lower-body workout and proceed to do interval sprints right after, then this can cause interference with your legs’ ability to repair and recover.

However, that’s not to say all cardio is bad. Low-intensity, steady-state cardio for less than 30 minutes can have no ill effects on muscle growth, especially if done several hours before or after lifting. Not only that, it’s beneficial for your heart health, too. 

If you must do high-intensity cardio, i.e playing sports, then follow these four rules:

  1. Try to avoid doing your cardio post-workout.
  2. Try to do your workout on a separate day to your weight-training session.
  3. Add extra calories to your diet to compensate for the calories burned.
  4. Cut back on your cardio until you’ve gained the desired weight. Afterwards, you can gradually start to add it back in.



How Many Hours of Sleep Do I Need?

Technically, if we’re strictly talking about weight gain, any amount of sleep will do. In fact, not getting enough sleep will increase appetite hormones and make your body crave high-calorie junk food, leading to more fat gain than muscle.

However, it’s not just about gaining unnecessary weight – you need to rest enough to recover and train hard the next day.

Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night for optimal recovery. This will give you the energy to have a good workout and still have enough energy to help you throughout the day.



What Supplements Should I Take for Weight Gain?

If you’ve ever picked up a fitness magazine or browsed a supplement store online, you’d know that there’s a plethora of weight gain supplements on the market. And with so many choices, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and buy the wrong products.

Let’s clear this up quickly; you don’t need fancy supplements to gain weight. 

All you need is the right amount of calories in the form of high-quality, nutrient-dense food and consistent strength training. However, if you struggle to hit your protein needs and want a strength edge in the gym, take the following:

Whey powder: This is the most popular form of protein and a convenient way to get your protein intake up. 

Creatine: A highly proven supplement that has been shown to increase muscle strength and size. The recommended dose is 5mg per day.


What about BCAAs?

While Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) contain the essential amino acids to build muscle, these are already provided in protein powders. The main advantage is that they contain fewer calories than a protein shake. So if you’re cutting, they can be helpful in that case.

BCAAs are also expensive, so unless you have the budget for them, it’s probably better to just stick to a high-quality protein powder.



Should I Gain Body Fat while Gaining Muscle?

Yes, it’s normal – and even expected – to gain some body fat while you’re in a bulking phase. Give yourself some leeway with your diet – which means aiming for a more significant calorie surplus as this will better facilitate muscle growth.

On the other hand, if you attempt to gain muscle without gaining an ounce of body fat, you may find yourself in a perpetual state of being in a calorie deficit or just maintaining your weight. This is why it’s essential to accept that some body fat gain is inevitable.

That said, don’t go overboard and try to eat as much as possible! Aim for a modest calorie surplus of around 15-25% of your TDEE and monitor your body composition. If you’re getting too fat, reduce the surplus accordingly.



How Quickly Can I Gain Weight?

How fast you can gain weight will depend on the following:

  • Your current weight and body composition
  • How much training experience do you have – are you a beginner, intermediate or advanced lifter?
  • Your current training regime
  • Your goals – are you severely underweight or want to minimise fat gain?
  • How quickly can you gain muscle and strength

As you can see, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. However, let’s go through a few general guidelines:

For a beginner, it is realistic to gain around 2-4 lbs of bodyweight per month. This is because new lifters can rapidly make significant muscle size and strength gains when they first start lifting. In this scenario, a daily calorie 250-500 calorie surplus will ensure steady weight gain.

For intermediate lifters, the rate of muscle gain will be slower than for beginners. But with a consistent focus on proper nutrition and training, they can still expect to gain 1-2 pounds of muscle per month. We recommend a 10-20% calorie surplus for these individuals.

For underweight individuals looking to gain weight, you can accelerate weight gain by increasing your calorie surplus by 500-1000. Expect to gain 2-4 pounds of body weight per month.

Remember, every person is different. Track your progress and increase or decrease your calorie surplus according to your desired results. Remember to hit your protein targets and check your other macronutrient ratios.



Main Takeaways

  1. Find out your TDEE and aim for a modest calorie surplus of 15-25%. 
  2. Aim to eat 3-6 meals to facilitate proper protein absorption.
  3. Total calorie intake is more important than meal timing.
  4. Prioritise protein intake as this is essential for muscle growth.
  5. Hit 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.
  6. Stick to whole foods. If you are a hard gainer,  consider adding more calorie-dense foods in moderation.
  7. Focus on compound movements with isolation exercises done right after.
  8. Get stronger by either increasing the amount of weight lifted or reps and sets done.
  9. Avoid high-intensity cardio, especially right after your weight-lifting workout.
  10. Train 2-5 times a week
  11. Aim to sleep 7-9 hours per night to facilitate muscle growth
  12. Creatine and a protein powder are enough for most people looking to gain weight
  13. Accept that gaining some body fat is good. This prevents you from spinning your wheels in an endless cycle of maintaining your current weight.
  14. Gaining 2-4 pounds a month is a healthy and achievable goal




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