Most people in the United States would like to lose a few pounds. Then there are skinny guys like me.
I’m not complaining, but a few years ago I was 138lbs at 6’5″. That’s really skinny, unhealthily skinny even. I ate and exercised my way back up to about 155lbs using bodyweight exercises and healing my gut (thanks to my herbalist).
At the end of 2012 I switched to lifting weights and wanted to continue the upward trend which had stalled for many months. Historically when I don’t focus on gaining weight, I tend to lose weight, so gaining lean muscle is like health insurance for me.
So on January 1st I set a goal to gain 5lbs, ideally of lean muscle mass but I’m wasn’t measuring too closely (still can see my flexed abs in good light which is good enough for me). To be precise, my goal was to weigh 167lbs, as weighed first thing in the morning — without clothes, before eating, and after using the bathroom.
I set this goal using the well-tested psychological method of mental contrasting with implementation intentions (see Oettingen, 2012). In other words, I first chose a desirable, highly feasible goal. Then I thought first about an aspect of the desired future, then contrasted that with an aspect of the present reality or obstacle that stood in the way. I repeated this process a few times. Then I made if-then plans to overcome each obstacle, like “if it is breakfast, I will cook and eat 5 eggs and 3/4 cup of oatmeal!”
On February 6th, I reached my goal. And I’ve maintained it or close to it since, despite going on vacation for my wedding/honeymoon for 11 days (normally I’d lose several pounds on vacation — yea, I know, skinny guy problems). I’m now solidly in the “normal” BMI for my height (not that BMI is a good measure of health, but it’s still something).
I’d actually like to gain more than 5lbs, but when I thought about a goal to get to 175lbs, it didn’t seem feasible. The most I’ve ever weighed was 165lbs…and that’s when I was taking creatine (which adds 5-7 lbs almost instantly in water weight) and stuffing myself with protein shakes on a “Body for Life” challenge. Back then I hurt for 5 days after every balls-to-the-wall workout, and felt constantly bloated and terrible due to overeating (6 meals a day) to try to gain weight. It was a totally unhealthy method based on self-hate, and I don’t recommend it.
Now I’m almost never sore after a workout, and my main strategy was to just eat slightly bigger meals 3 times a day, and eat until somewhat full each meal. I switched to StrongLifts 5×5 as my training program to make sure I was progressing in the major barbell strength exercises. I already eat relatively healthy and focus on getting enough protein in each meal in order to gain mass (about 0.7g protein per lb of bodyweight each day — I’ve found the standard “1g per lb of bodyweight” to be excessive for me).
Let me tell you this though — it wasn’t all linear progress. The first few days after I started making bigger breakfasts I had some linear progress, but then I stalled out and even backslid a bit when I approached 165lbs. I changed to StrongLifts and it took a week or for the heavy weights to kick in because the volume was less than the previous program I was on, and I also bumped up my lunches and tried eating bigger at dinner. I also threw in some cottage cheese and fruit before bed. All these things combined seemed to do the trick.
I suggest instead of a radical weight loss (or gain) plan based on self-hatred, try setting a 5lb goal (or other highly feasible, yet desirable and challenging goal) and reaching and maintaining that first through healthy habits. When you succeed, you will know what it takes, and be ready to set another 5lb goal if you so desire. And it can be tough to change one’s diet and exercise habits — another reason to set smaller goals so you can take the challenges in bite-sized chunks (pun intended).