The Skinny Athlete: Healthy Ways to Gain Weight

imagesI hear this AT LEAST a few times a week: “My son/daughter needs to gain 5-10 pounds of lean muscle weight…can you help?”

It’s so important for young athletes to eat plenty of calories; not only are they playing sports, they’re also growing and developing, all of which require a high number of calories. For some young athletes, even gaining a few pounds can be difficult and frustrating. There’s pressure from coaches, trainers, parents and peers, especially in sports like football, rugby, basketball and body building, which often motivate athletes to gain weight.

First, there are some things to consider:

  • Genetics matter Let’s face it, genetics will play a powerful role in this. Some kids are just built leaner, and for the most part these kids tend to be more active even outside playing sports. According to Dr Nancy Clark, Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, these kids tend to be “fidgety;” they don’t usually sit still, and in turn burn extra calories even when not exercising.
  • Unfortunately, it is much easier to gain fat than muscle. It is important to consider the fact that weight alone is not as important as increasing strength and power from muscle gain.
  • Puberty is Key: Keep in mind that achieving muscle gains will be much easier when athletes have hit puberty; the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends focusing on core strength exercises for pre-pubertal athletes.

Tips for Safe and Effective Weight Gain

The keys to safe and effective muscle/weight gain are 1) increased calories, 2) adequate protein intake and 3) resistance training

  • Eat Frequently and Consistently- increase calories by 300-400 calories per day. Do NOT skip meals! Young athletes should eat every 3-4 hours, 3 meals and 3-4 snacks every day. Aim to gain no more than 1-2 pounds per week; faster weight gains will often lead to increased fat.
  • Select HEALTHY High Calorie Foods- enjoy nuts, nut butters, avocados, and olive oil. Switch to 2% milk and drink fruit juice. See list below for more ideas on healthy, high calorie snacks.
  • Adequate amount of protein at the right times- I’ve written aboutprotein in sports before; right amount and right timing are key. Young athletes do need slightly more protein than regular teens, approximately 1 gram of protein for every 2 pounds of body weight. For example, a 150 pound athlete needs 75 grams of protein per day; protein should be eaten in small amounts, no more than 20-25 grams at a time. ALWAYS include a small amount of protein before and after exercise.  
  • Strength Training- lifting weights and doing push ups are important when talking about weight gain in young athletes. Exercise also stimulates appetite, which will increase calories consumed. Exercise programs should always be under the supervision of a coach, trainer or other qualified adults. Sets of 8-15 repetitions are ideal for muscle growth, and sets of 4-6 reps develop strength and power.
  • Don’t Forget to Rest!- It’s not only important to rest between intense workouts (24-48 hours), but also to sleep! Sleep is the time when muscle fibers rebuild and repair, so 8-10 hours a night is ideal.

What about supplements?  

SAVE YOUR MONEY!!! Besides convenience, weight gain supplements (like Muscle Milk) don’t offer anything that you can’t get from real food and they can be very expensive! Spend your money on better food! For example, a bowl of granola and 2% milk provides 500 calories for $1.00 per serving, while a 14-ounce bottle of muscle milk contains 230 calories and costs about $3.50 at a local pharmacy or convenience store.

Also keep in mind supplements are not regulated, can contain contaminants and can even interact with some medications on drug screen tests. My advice: BE CAREFUL, and stick to REAL, WHOLE FOODS!

Calorie-Dense Foods and Snacks:

  • Whole wheat bagels and breads
  • Oatmeal
  • Granola
  • Cereals with nuts and granola
  • Whole grain chips
  • Muffins
  • Nut-based granola bars
  • Trail mix
  • Peanut or other nut butters
  • Avocado, guacamole and whole grain chips
  • Olive oil
  • 2% chocolate milk (post-workout)
  • Full-fat yogurts
  • Full-fat cheese
  • 100% fruit juice
  • salmon, lean cuts of red meat

Good luck achieving your weight goals, but remember

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