Do you look around at your group of friends and think, “Damn… am I the Skinny Guy?”
Now, before we dive in, I gotta point out there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a “skinny” dude. A lot of chicks (or men) really dig the Skinny Guy look. So if you’re rocking it and it’s working for you, sign off now with my blessing.
Or, if your goal with reading this article is to blindly follow what society has taught you a Manly Man™️ needs to look like so you can get “ripped” or “shredded” and walk in slow motion down the beach with everyone’s heads turning, I also encourage you to sign off now and do some digging into yourself to figure out:
1) If that’s what YOU even actually want.
2) WHY you want it.
Okay, brief social-construct-dismantling intro out of the way: you’re here because you want to learn how to pack on some muscle. You’ve deconstructed your “why,” and maybe it’s to live healthier for longer or to pick your girlfriend up like you’re both in Dirty Dancing.
Whatever your “why,” welcome to the Skinny Dude’s Guide to Gaining Weight and Building Muscle. Let’s go.
Are You Really Underweight?
How do you know if you’re actually underweight? And is it even a problem?
You can start with your Body Mass Index (BMI), although a word of caution: it’s bullshit. It was developed by a man who was not a doctor, had never studied medicine, and never intended his scale to be used on individuals.
If you absolutely must know your BMI, use it only as a single factor, not the defining one. Even Harvard agrees with me:“BMI, as a single measure, would not be expected to identify cardiovascular health or illness; the same is true for cholesterol, blood sugar, or blood pressure as a single measure.”
“But, but, but,” I can hear you thinking, “If I don’t use my BMI, how do I know if I’m underweight?”
Relax, I’ve got you.
There are a few ways you can determine if your weight is too low or if your body fat percentage is too high (yes both can be true at the same time). We do a deep dive here, but in brief, check it out:
- Waist-to-hip ratio
- Skin calipers
- Smart scales
- Bioelectrical impedance
- Hydrostatic weighing
- Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry
- Air displacement plethysmography
- 3D body scans
Now, unfortunately, a lot of those methods might not be super convenient for you. Start with your waist-to-hips ratio, skin calipers, or a smart scale for semi-accurate data to get a baseline. Pair it with your BMI, and you’ll have a decent picture of whether or not you’re underweight.
TL;DR: Start with your BMI, then add other measurements to determine your weight and body fat percentage.
This Is Why You’re Not Gaining Weight And Muscle
If you’re already hitting the gym a few times a week and chugging protein shakes, you may be stepping on your smart scale and wondering why your muscle mass isn’t changing.
The reason is fairly simple: you aren’t eating enough.
I know, I know, you have 3 square meals plus your after-workout protein shake. But do you know how many calories you burn per day simply by existing? Like, if you did literally nothing but wake up, open your eyes, lay in bed, and not move for an entire day?
It’s called your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR), and it’s part of your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). It’s how many calories your body burns to keep your heart beating, lungs breathing, brain working, cells regenerating… you get the idea. Use a calculator to figure out your RMR, and you’ll see how many calories your body’s using just to keep you alive.
Add to that the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF, the energy required to chew, swallow, digest, and absorb food) and the Thermic Effect of Physical Activity (TEPA, the energy required for physical activity), and you have a lot of energy being used throughout your day.
Okay, that was a lot of abbreviations. So what does it all mean?
Basically, use a different calculator to figure out your total TDEE. Then, you need to be in a slight caloric surplus to gain muscle.
How do you figure out if you’re in a caloric surplus? Track your food.
For at least 1 week, use an app like MyFitnessPal to track what you’re eating. Ballpark caloric estimates are fine; labels aren’t 100% accurate anyway. I bet you’ll be surprised exactly how little you’re actually consuming.
TL;DR: If you’re not gaining weight or muscle, you’re not eating enough. Period.
This Is How You Gain Weight
Eat More Calories
We touched on this above, but it bears an explanation: you need to be in a caloric surplus to gain weight and muscle.
How big of a surplus? Start with about 300–500 calories above your daily TDEE for 2 weeks. Take a before photo, then see how your weight changes and take a progress photo after those 2 weeks.
If you’re not getting any bigger or gaining muscle, add another 300–500 calories for another 2 weeks and try again.
TL;DR: Add 300–500 calories above your TDEE until you see some weight/muscle gain.
Eat More Healthy Foods
If you’re seriously underweight and just need to pack on some pounds ASAP, you can get away with eating fast food cheeseburgers and tacos for a while. However, for 99% of us, we need to stick with healthy foods to make sure we’re packing on muscle and not just adding fat.
What kinds of foods should you be eating more of? You might think “protein!!!” and while you’re not wrong, don’t neglect carbs, healthy fats, and vegetables.
Carbs, also known as carbohydrates, are essential for building muscle. Carbs get partially broken down into glycogen, which your body stores in your muscles and uses as energy for your workouts. You need about half of your daily calories to come from carbs.
Keep in mind that not all carbs are created equal. You can’t go to town on white rice and Wheaties and assume you’re fueling your body’s muscle growth.
Stick to complex carbs that are high in fiber. This means ditch the white stuff and opt for brown rice, whole wheat bread/wraps, quinoa, etc.
How much of your plate should be taken up by carbs? I’m a huge fan of the hand-size portions model. Most people have hands, and they’re usually proportionate to your body, so they make great built-in measuring tools. Aim for about 2 cupped hand’s worth of cooked carbs at each meal.
Fruits and veggies count in your carb totals, too. We’ll get to vegetables in a minute, but for both, make sure you’re eating the actual, real food. Juices don’t count because they lack the fiber you get from eating the fruit or veggie whole.
TL;DR: Prioritize brown/whole grain carbs in your diet, aiming for 2 cupped hand’s worth at each meal.
Just like carbs, not all fats are created equal. Fat helps fuel your body as well as assists with vitamin absorption. So you need fat in your diet, but the key is to choose the healthful ones.
A simple way to remember which fats are healthful and which aren’t is whether or not it’s solid at room temperature. Check it out:
- Saturated fats. Solid at room temperature. Commonly found in butter, lard, full-fat milk/cheese/yogurt, fatty meats. Limit these.
- Unsaturated fats. Liquid at room temperature. Commonly found in vegetable oils, nuts, and fish. Eat more of these.
Saturated fats should make up only 5–6% of your daily caloric intake if that. These fats raise your cholesterol levels, increasing your risk of heart attack and stroke. So we hate to break it to you, but that means avoiding fried or baked goods, fatty cuts of red meat (sorry, bacon’s gone), and full-fat dairy.
Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, improve your cholesterol levels and blood pressure. So aim for a serving of these fats that’s about the size of the tip of your thumb at each meal.
What does that look like in practice? I’ve got you:
- Saute with ~1 tablespoon of olive oil instead of butter
- Swap two red meat meals per week for salmon
- Choose lean meats and cut fat from any meat you eat
- Snack on a handful of walnuts and pumpkin seeds
- Add 2 tablespoons flaxseed meal to your post-workout smoothie
TL;DR: Consume about 1 thumb-tip’s worth of unsaturated (healthy) fats at each meal or snack.
When trying to add weight or build muscle, you basically have a free pass to eat as many vegetables as you want. The only caveat is how you prepare them.
For example, if you’re constantly sauteing your veggies in tons of oil (even the good kinds) and then covering them with cheddar cheese, that’s not what I’m talking about.
Instead, try to eat your veggies as close to raw as you can. Munch on fresh baby carrots or strips of bell pepper with hummus, toss a handful of fresh spinach or kale in your smoothies, steam broccoli to eat alongside your salmon or air fry sweet potatoes instead of regular potatoes to make french fries.
Vegetables are incredibly high in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and count in your carb totals. So fill your plate with a fist-sized portion of veggies at as many meals as you can. Then, when you’re feeling snackish, opt for fresh veggies or fruits as much as possible.
TL;DR: Prepare your veggies carefully and go to town with an approximately fist-sized serving per meal and endless snacks.
Pack on the Protein
Now we get to the meat of it (pun very much intended, I’m not sorry). Proteins are a part of every single cell and tissue in your body, including muscles. In fact, when you eat protein, your body breaks it down into amino acids.
Amino acids are the building blocks of cells, again, including your muscles. These acids come in two kinds: essential and non-essential. Non-essential amino acids are the ones our bodies can make on their own. Essential amino acids are ones our bodies can’t make and must come from the foods we eat.
A “complete” protein is one that contains all 9 essential amino acids in one convenient serving. Edamame, fish, meat, and eggs are all great sources of essential amino acids.
In general, anywhere from 10–35% of your daily calories should come from protein. If you’re trying to build muscle, err on the higher side of that percentage. In terms of plate portions, that’s about a palm-sized serving per meal.
Need help figuring out exactly how much protein you should be consuming? We have an entire article just for you.
Wondering about supplements like protein powder? We get to that later. Hang tight.
TL;DR: Prioritize lean protein in about a palm-sized serving per meal.
Add More Meals to Your Day
Remember in the beginning how we talked about the fact that you’re likely not eating enough? One of the easiest ways to boost your caloric intake is to add meals to your day.
For example, if right now you wake up and have breakfast before you start your day, eat lunch at work, then come home and eat dinner, you’re at 3 meals. Maybe there’s even a snack or two in there.
Instead, try splitting your calories up into 5 meals per day. It could look something like this, assuming a standard 8-hour workday:
- Eat before you leave for work around 7am
- Have your next small(ish) meal around 10am
- Eat lunch around 1pm
- Have another small(ish) meal around 3pm
- Eat dinner around 6pm
- If necessary, have a snack around 8 or 9pm
If you really want to add weight and muscle, remember, you need to be in a caloric surplus.
TL;DR: Try 5 meals per day instead of 3 to add healthy calories to your day.
Check Your Macros
“Macros” are macronutrients, the three main categories of nutrients: protein, carbs, and fats. We already talked a bit about these and how to track them with hand sizes at each meal.
Macro counting isn’t for everyone, so if you’re fine with the hand-size method, you do you. However, if you want a slightly more precise way to ensure you’re getting balanced nutrients, here’s how.
Say your goal is to consume 2000 calories per day. 1 gram of protein has about 4 calories. If you eat 125 grams of protein, that’s about 500 calories worth, leaving you with 1500 to split between your carbs and fats.
Counting macros helps you focus on the nutrients in your food rather than getting hung up on calorie counts. It also helps some folks because there are no “cheat” foods/days when you’re following a specific macro plan.
Now, does that mean you can adjust your macros, so you eat nothing but doughnuts? Technically yes, but that’s not the point nor the correct way to do so. But can you have a doughnut every so often and not totally throw off your nutrition? Yes, absolutely.
So, how many macros should you eat? Guess what — there’s a calculator for that, too.
TL;DR: Counting macros can help you track your nutrition without getting too hung up on calories.
Track Your Daily Calories and Overall Progress
If tracking calories is no biggie for you, then that’s another excellent way to ensure you’re going to gain weight and muscle and make overall progress.
What is “overall progress”? Here are a few markers:
- Measurements. Keep track of the diameter of your waist, hips, biceps, and thighs to see if you’re getting any bigger.
- Weight. Only measure once per week, at the same time of day, with the same variables (i.e., amount of water/food you’ve consumed, bowel movements, etc.).
- Progress pictures. Take pictures before you embark on this journey and then every 2 weeks (or longer) as you go.
- How much you can lift. Definitely keep track of your weight, sets, and reps each week. As you build muscle, you should be able to lift heavier and/or for longer.
- Cardiovascular health. If you have a smartwatch or heart rate monitor, use it. If not, pay attention to other factors, like can you go upstairs without feeling out of breath? Can you add a minute to your mile time? Can you complete your HIIT workout not feeling like you want to die?
- Other random indicators. Can you carry all the groceries up in one trip? Did you help someone lift something heavy into a cupboard or closet? Do your clothes fit more tightly where you want them to? Has that cute coffee shop girl started giving you more lingering glances?
TL;DR: Track your calories + other forms of progress to make sure you’re on the right track.
Use Supplements (If You Must)
I’ve mentioned a protein shake a few times throughout this article, but the truth is, if you’re eating a well-balanced and nutritious diet, you don’t need protein powder. (Most supplements are absolute garbage.)
Now, there are a few exceptions. If you’re legitimately insanely busy and don’t have even 3 hours per week to meal prep, for example. Or, if you, in general, have limited access to fresh and nutritious food, then supplements can be a lifesaver.
However, folks in such categories are definitely the exceptions and not the norm.
If you struggle to get enough protein in your day, invest in a high-quality powder with no fillers, preservatives, added sugars, or ingredients you can’t pronounce.
“Okay,” I hear you thinking, “I might not need protein powder. But surely I need creatine! I can’t build muscle without it!”
You’re partly right. You can build muscle without creatine. But it helps a lot.
Creatine is an amino acid (remember those?) located in your muscles. Most studies show that athletes taking creatine can expect to see greater gains in muscle mass, strength, and performance. Studies also say you may gain weight, but hey, that’s why you’re here, right?
TL;DR: For protein, always prioritize a nutrient-dense diet before turning to powders. For creatine, go for it.
Putting Everything Together
This has been a rather lengthy section, so let’s summarize what it all looks like in practice:
- Eat more calories, prioritizing healthy foods like carbs, fats, and vegetables at every meal.
- Consume 2 cupped handfuls of complex carbs, 1 palm-sized serving of protein, and 1 fist-sized serving of vegetables at every meal. Eat as much fruit as you want (but watch your daily sugar grams).
- Focus on lean proteins like skinless chicken/turkey, salmon/tuna, tofu, edamame, nuts, seeds, eggs, and low/no-fat dairy.
- Eat (slightly) smaller meals more often, focusing on the above nutrient balance.
- Track your calories, macros, and/or overall progress to ensure you’re gaining weight and muscle.
- Only use protein powder if you really struggle to meet your daily goals. Add creatine if you want.
Notice anything about this section? Not one single mention of your training regimen. That’s because 1) we’re about to talk about it but more importantly 2) 90% of your success will depend on your nutrition, not your time in the gym.
TL;DR: Dial in your nutrition before you think about what you do in the gym.
This Is How You Pack On The Muscles
The most effective ways to build muscle will vary from person to person. However, the basics of building muscle are that when you work out, your muscles get slightly broken down with microscopic tears. With proper nutrition and recovery, those tears repair, and your muscles can do the work again more easily.
Let’s dig in.
Start Strength Training
If you’re not already lifting weights, you need to be. There’s simply no better way to build muscle than by picking up heavy things and putting them down again. If you need detailed help on how to get started, find it here.
In the meantime, if you want to get bigger, you need to get stronger. So how do you do that? With a concept called progressive overload.
Use Progressive Overload
The concept of progressive overload basically means you need to be progressively:
- Adding weight to your lifts
- Adding sets or reps to your lifts
- Adding difficulty to your lifts
For example, let’s take a “simple” squat. (Squats are actually a rather intricate compound exercise, more on that and proper form below.) Once you master your body weight with excellent form, add weight. Then, once that weight (for your prescribed sets/reps) is easy, add more weight. Or, add another rep. Or, add another set.
What if you’ve “maxed out” in terms of the weight you can hold? That’s where adding difficulty comes in. You can add a few seconds pause at the bottom of your squat. Or, add a half rep to each full rep (go all the way down, come up halfway, go all the way down again, then stand fully back up).
TL;DR: Keep adding to or changing up your lifts once each level becomes easy.
Learn the Proper Form
If you’re brand new to strength training, you need to start with just your body weight to learn the proper form for every single exercise you’re going to do.
Why? Because if you don’t use proper form, you aren’t activating the right muscles. Let’s look at an example.
Say you’re doing an overhead press. Seems fairly simple, right? You hold a dumbbell in each hand, starting at shoulder height, you lift it overhead, and you lower it back down.
Not so fast.
Is your pelvis slightly tucked (or “stacked”) underneath your rib cage? Is your spine neutral (no hyperextension of the lower back)? Are your ribs tucked down into your core, so they don’t “flare” upward?
If you miss any of those cues, your form is suffering, and you’re not using the shoulder muscles you want to target in your overhead press. Instead, you’re actually using your chest, traps, and even your legs to compensate. That means you can press and press and press and not get any stronger in your shoulders.
The same holds even more true for compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, etc.
If you can, work with a trainer to nail your form before adding load. If that’s not possible, ask a friend to watch and provide feedback. If you don’t want to do that, at least film yourself and compare it to reputable online videos.
TL;DR: You won’t build muscle where you want to without proper form, so nail that before adding any weight.
Focus on Compound Exercises
A compound exercise is one that uses multiple joints and muscle groups plus allows you to lift heavier. Doing compound exercises gets you way more bang for your lifting buck, saving you time and effort in the gym.
Examples of compound exercises include:
- Bench presses
- Loaded carries
Let’s return to a squat. Done with proper form, a squat works your posterior chain (traps, lats, delts, and spinal erectors), core, glutes, AND quads. That’s a lot of muscles with one “simple” move!
Now, isolation moves have their place in a well-rounded exercise routine — at the end of your workout as a finisher. Most of your work should be done in compound exercises, so you get bigger where you want. Then, if you want to focus on bicep curls, tricep extensions, or calf raises, tack it on at the end.
TL;DR: Compound exercises work multiple muscles at once, so you get stronger more quickly.
Lift Heavy (But Not Over Your Limit)
Once you’ve mastered your form with bodyweight and introduced the concept of progressive overload to your workouts, you can start lifting heavier.
Keep in mind: “heavy” is different for everyone. If you’re a complete newb, don’t try to lift super heavy to impress that cute girl across the gym. You’re going to injure yourself, look like an idiot, and have to delay your stunning transformation from Skinny Dude to Muscle Man while your injury heals.
Instead, check out our very thorough guide to figure out exactly how much you should be lifting and when to increase the weight.
In general, it’s a safe bet, to begin with, dumbbells. A standard barbell weighs 45 pounds without any plates, so if you can’t lift that much yet, dumbbells are your friend. Don’t be embarrassed, to begin with, 5-pound weights, either. Even Chris Hemsworth started somewhere.
Eventually, your goal is to be crushing heavy lifts safely, with good form. That’s how you build muscle, and it all starts with body weight.
TL;DR: Once you have a solid lifting form foundation, go heavy to build muscle.
Learn How Many Sets & Reps You Should Be Doing
I’ve talked a bit about sets and reps but haven’t really defined them yet. Here ya go:
- Sets: a consecutive number of repetitions of exercises that you do without stopping
- Rep: “repetition,” one complete motion of an exercise
There are at least half a dozen different types of set and rep combinations you can do, depending on your goal and current fitness level. Straight sets, drop sets, pyramid sets, tubular sets… just kidding on that last one. (The first three are legit, though.) We have an entire article about sets and reps to get you started.
To address it briefly here, to gain muscle, aim for:
- 3–5 sets of 6–8 reps with 1–2 minutes of rest between exercises
You’ll need some trial and error, but that should get you started.
- Check our ultimate guide to sets and reps to learn more.
TL;DR: Aim for 3–5 sets of 6–8 reps of each exercise.
Switch to Free Weights
If you have access to a full gym with a bunch of fancy machines, you may be tempted to use those. After all, workout machines went through, like, approval processes, and that one guy on Instagram who’s buff as hell uses them, so they must be the most effective, right?
Not completely. Gym machines have their place, like if you’re intimidated by free weights (no judgment) or need to get your workout done a bit more quickly.
However, machines don’t mimic the natural movement of your body, don’t work your stabilizer muscles (all those tiny muscles in your ankles, feet, hands, wrists, etc.), and you need multiple machines to get a full workout.
So, if machines are your gateway drug into the world of lifting, by all means, indulge. Just don’t be afraid to switch to free weights as soon as you can.
TL;DR: Free weights provide a better workout overall.
Rest and Recover
Alrighty, we’ve covered eating enough nutritious food, strength training to build muscle, and now it’s time for the third and final piece — recovery.
Your body rebuilds itself when? During recovery. So no, hitting the gym 7 days a week won’t get your muscles more quickly. Instead, what it will get you is injuries, overtraining, exhaustion, burnout, and a postponement of your fitness journey.
Generally, your muscles need 48 hours to recover fully from an intense workout session. That means you need to avoid strength training the same muscle groups on back-to-back days.
You also need to ensure you’re getting at least 7 hours of quality sleep each night. Sleep is when your body does the serious work of repair, so if you want to get stronger, make sure your shuteye is on point.
If you absolutely cannot stomach the thought of doing nothing on your rest days, you can engage in gentle movement. The keyword there is GENTLE. Think: go for a walk, do yoga, clean out your attic, whatever. Just don’t overexert yourself.
TL;DR: If you don’t rest, you don’t get stronger. Period. Build recovery days into your routine.
Okay, but what does a healthy meal for building muscle actually look like?
Fair enough. Here’s an example for carnivores (vegetarians/vegans, scroll down a bit):
- 2 eggs scrambled with mushrooms, spinach, and tomatoes; 3 strips turkey bacon; small side of air-fried potatoes; 1 piece whole-wheat toast with avocado and chia seeds
- White meat chicken breast wrapped in a large whole wheat tortilla with kale, bell pepper, and avocado; side of carrot sticks and hummus; a handful of strawberries
- Steamed/grilled salmon (or fish of choice); brown rice; broccoli sauteed in olive oil
That wasn’t so hard, was it?
Do I really need to eat every three hours?
Short answer: no. As long as you’re eating semi-regularly and getting enough calories throughout your day (remember that surplus), you don’t need to eat every 3 hours.
What if I have a fast metabolism?
That’s both a blessing and a curse, my friend. A fast metabolism is great for keeping you slim, but if you want to bulk up, you likely see where we’re going: you’ll need to eat even more than someone whose body is a little more sluggish.
I’m vegetarian/vegan. Can I do this?
YES, 1000 times yes. Again, the key is getting enough calories and protein. Let’s look at a sample day for you:
- Vegetarians: 2 eggs scrambled with mushrooms, spinach, and tomatoes; small size air-fried potatoes; ¼ cup nonfat Greek yogurt with peanut butter mixed in; 1 piece whole-wheat toast with avocado and chia seeds
- Vegans: same, but swap the eggs for a tofu scramble and the yogurt for 4 strips homemade tempeh bacon
- Vegetarians: burrito filled with black beans, quinoa, cheddar cheese, and at least 2 veggies of your choice; carrot sticks and hummus; a handful of strawberries
- Vegans: same but swap the cheddar cheese for cashew cheese, falafel, chickpeas, or all of the above
- Vegetarians: whole wheat or edamame pasta tossed with olive oil, parmesan cheese, and spices; side of steamed broccoli
- Vegans: same except swap the parmesan cheese for vegan cheese, or meat-free marinara
You may have to add some snacks, but that’s great! Try fresh fruit with almond butter or a handful of mixed nuts with some dried cranberries.
What if I just want to tone up and not get “too bulky”?
You don’t have to worry about getting Arnold Schwarzenegger levels of ripped. It just won’t happen without some seriously specialized training plus neurotic levels of controlled nutrition and likely a steroid or two. So chill, especially if you struggle with weight gain, getting “too” bulky is actually a great problem to have to solve.
Can I gain weight without gaining fat too?
Yes, but you have to be a bit more careful. Prioritize strength training with heavy lifts for lower reps, definitely put a premium on protein, and stick to maintenance calories until you’re at a body fat percentage you’re comfortable with. Then increase your caloric intake in small doses to build more muscle without putting on too much fat.
Wrapping It Up
Alright, Skinny Dudes, you’ve made it to the end! Here’s your TL;DR for the entire article:
- Start with your nutrition, prioritizing protein, complex carbs, healthy fats, and vegetables. Treat fruit as your snacks or desserts.
- Again, protein, protein, protein.
- Lift heavy and continuously challenge your muscles.
- Rest, recover, and sleep adequately, giving your muscles days off to rebuild.
What are you waiting for? Go after it!