I wanted to weigh 220 pounds when I was playing hockey in high school. That's what some of the best NHL power forwards weighed, so I figured it was the ideal target. I achieved my goal by drinking a ridiculous number of chocolate milk shakes, crushing entire buffalo-chicken pizzas and taking far too much low-quality creatine. No doubt, it was an enjoyable time of eating.
Looking back, this decision had positive and negative consequences. Gaining 30 pounds gave me extra physicality on the ice. But I highly doubt all that weight was muscle, and I question how much it really helped my performance.
I tell this story because many young athletes follow a similar path. You think you need to gain weight to be like your favorite pro, or a coach tells you to pack on some pounds, and you stuff your face with everything in sight to reach your goal.
But is gaining weight always an intelligent course of action? It depends. If the answer is "Yes," you need to gain weight the right way.
You should gain weight if . . .
You are still a developing athlete
If you are a high school athlete, your body is still developing, particularly in your younger years. Your metabolism is probably ridiculously fast—which is why you can eat stupid amounts of food without having it affect you. If you are still a scrawny kid with little muscle, you should absolutely look to add mass to your frame.
Your coach or a scout tells you to gain weight
Your position in your sport has a body type associated with it. Wide receivers are typically tall and lean, while running backs are shorter but more muscular. A coach or scout will want you within a certain weight range, which he or she believes is best for your position and skills. For your sake, it's best to listen.
With that said, when a coach tells you to gain weight, it might be a hint to hit the weights more often.
"In most cases when a coach tells an athlete they need to gain weight, the hidden message is they need to work harder in the weight room," states Rick Scarpulla, owner of Ultimate Advantage Training (Bloomingburg, New York). "Most athletes who aren't gaining weight aren't lifting consistently."
You want to get stronger
Put simply, larger muscles generate more force. If your strength is lacking compared to your teammates or the folks you work out with, it might be time to add some mass to your frame.
"If you have flat hamstrings and no [butt], then you have no game," says Scarpulla.
You want to be a physical presence in your sport
Time for a short physics lesson. Force is equal to mass times acceleration. So if you gain more mass, you will be able to inflict more force on an opponent, assuming acceleration remains about the same or ideally increases (more on this below). Also, opponents will need to produce more force to move your body, making you harder to tackle, body check or knock out of position.
You might not want to gain weight if . . .
On the flipside, here are a few reasons you might not want to gain weight, or to do so only moderately.
- Your primary skill is speed
- You're an endurance athlete
- Your diet stinks
- You're not strength training
- You're on the upper end of the weight range for your position
- You have fat to lose, which requires body recomposition.
How to gain weight properly
OK, you decided that you need to gain weight. But now comes the tricky part. You need to do it correctly, and it's more involved than just eating buckets of food.
"It's not just about about the gaining of weight itself. It's the type of weight that somebody puts on," explains Leslie Bonci, sports dietitian for several pro sports teams. "The goal is an increase in muscle mass. Gaining weight for the sake of gaining weight makes you a little slower at what you do, not better at what you do."
There are three primary keys to successfully gaining weight.
Set realistic goals
Find successful athletes at your position at the next level and set your sights on matching their weight. For example, if you are a freshman trying to make varsity, look at varsity players at your position and choose a weight goal based on their numbers. Once you make varsity, look at collegiate athletes and so on.
Remember, gaining weight is relatively easy. Gaining quality weight takes time. Pro athletes have many years on you in developing their bodies with training and nutrition, not to mention their extensive resources. So it's best to set realistic goals rather than focus on a pipedream that could result in poor decisions as you attempt to gain weight.
Strength train consistently
Put simply, you need to strength train. Strength training builds the lean muscle you need to add quality weight to your frame. And no, eating more protein without working out does not magically build muscle—although it would be awesome if it did.
There are many schools of thought on how athletes should best add muscle. Scarpulla likes to keep it simple. Focus one workout per week on heavy Squats or Deadlifts, one workout on heavy Bench Press variations and a third workout on either Squats or Deadlifts (but not the one you did earlier in the week) using lighter weight and performing your reps explosively. Add another three to four exercises to each workout and finish with core work.
Simultaneously getting stronger as you gain weight will maintain or improve your strength-to-weight ratio. "How much force your body creates compared to your body mass determines how fast you are," explains Ryan Flaherty, CEO of Prolific Athletes (Carlsbad, California) and trainer to elite athletes such as Marcus Mariota and Russell Wilson. "Whether you jump, run or throw, everyone has a specific strength-to-weight ratio they need to be at."
To improve his athletes' speed for the NFL Combine, Flaherty has them perform Trap Bar Deadlifts. At minimum, you should be able to Trap Bar Deadlift twice your body weight. Athletes with elite speed can lift three times their body weight.
Eat more quality foods
Now comes the tricky part—your diet. To gain weight, you need to eat more food. This certainly isn't rocket science.
However, you don't want to eat food for the sake of eating food. Ideally, eat a well balanced diet that closely follows the food guidelines for athletes. The key is to increase your caloric intake by about 500 calories (30 grams from protein) compared to a diet that allows you to maintain weight. This will add about one pound per week.
Scarpulla has had great success helping his athletes gain muscle rapidly. Here are a few simple tips he's found to be highly effective:
- Do not skip meals. Young athletes often do not take in nearly enough calories to support their fast metabolisms and high levels of physical activity.
- Keep your macros in check. You don't need to count calories, but it's important to get sufficient amounts of protein, carbs and fat. About 1 gram of protein per pound is more than sufficient. Get about 30 percent of your calories from fat and the rest from quality carbohydrates.
- Eat high calorie foods. Nuts, seeds and avocados are great options to increase your caloric intake. Scarpulla's go-to recommendation for his athletes is trail mix.
- Eliminate sugar. Cut added sugars out of your diet unless you consume them immediately after a workout. Added sugars are wasted calories that do nothing for you.
- Eat consistently throughout the day. Make a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the morning, cut them into four squares and have two of them between classes.
Again remember, this is a slow process. You'll likely add some fat during this process simply because you are eating more food; but with a comprehensive strategy, it's possible to add healthy weight that can contribute to your performance.
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