How to Combine Diet and Exercise for Weight Gain

Updated October 25, 2022
Woman on fitness ball at gym

With so much advice given to those who want to lose weight, it can be hard to find good information on diet and exercise for weight gain, especially for women. For both men and women, there can be certain health concerns associated with being underweight, so gaining weight can have medical or lifestyle benefits.

It is also important to establish a good program to help you reach and maintain your ideal body weight. Use these tips to learn how to exercise and eat well to gain weight.

How (and Why) to Start an Exercise Program

While many people exercise to lose weight, the benefits of working out extend far beyond weight loss. Regular exercise is a key component of maintaining a healthy body and mind, regardless of your weight.

Many people are surprised to learn it is much harder to build up one's weight healthfully than to lose weight. The key word is "healthfully." While it is relatively easy to put on fat quickly, this often involves eating high-fat foods, which can contribute to a number of health problems. As with losing weight, gaining weight or getting a more athletic silhouette for your slim frame is something you should do slowly.

First, Get Medical Clearance

Before you begin any kind of exercise program, including strength training and cardiovascular exercises, be sure to talk to your physician to get their approval.

The workout program you start with depends on how underweight you are, the reasons for your low weight, and your overall fitness abilities. If you are severely underweight due to illness, you should consult with a doctor regarding the best exercises to help you regain strength. In this case, your healthcare provider will take all factors into consideration and recommend types of exercise that are best for you at this stage. Your provider may also may refer you to a physical therapist or a personal trainer depending on your condition.

A qualified professional can tell you what types of exercises your body can handle based on your health and can recommend exercises that will help keep you safe and healthy.

Next, Choose a Type of Exercise for Weight Gain

Once you've gotten medical clearance, you're ready to start working out. So where do you begin?

There are many different types of exercises, and fitness programs are not a "one size fits all." It's important to understand your own exercise goals before beginning. For example, if you'd like to gain weight, you'll want to do moderate cardiovascular exercise instead of intense workouts. In addition, bulking up your muscles can help you gain healthy muscle mass to add to your body weight.

For most people, strength training is the best avenue for gaining weight. But for improved heart health, you'll also want to add some cardio activity and consume a healthy diet.

Strength Training to Gain Weight

One of the most important exercises you can do to start gaining weight is lifting heavy weights. This is known as strength training. You want the weight you gain to be muscle, rather than just fat. Increasing your caloric intake alone can help you increase body fat, but what you want is an even distribution of healthy fat and mostly muscle. Weightlifting and other strength training exercises can help you achieve this.

There are different ways to participate in strength training. The best method for you will depend on the equipment that you have access to. If you have weights at home, then lifting weights with dumbbells or a barbell might work. If you have access to a gym, you might also add strength training machines. If you don't have access to a gym or equipment, consider body weight exercises.

Lift Weights

Lifting weights is one type of strength training that can help you build muscle mass. You can start a weightlifting program for beginners if you've never done it before. If you plan to use dumbbells at home, visit a personal trainer first to learn proper form. Learning the proper forms for different weight-lifting exercises can help prevent injury and may help you see results sooner.

Weightlifting exercises that are good for building mass include:

Use Gym Equipment

At the gym, you will find strength training equipment, such as:

  • Chest press machines
  • Lat pull-down machines
  • Leg curl machines
  • Leg press machines
  • Overhead press machines
  • Smith machine

Ask a trainer at the gym to work with you on learning the proper form before you use gym equipment. The machines can be helpful, but don't skip out on free weights using dumbells and kettlebells. Though dumbbell exercises may be more difficult than using the machines, they force additional stabilization from your body's muscles to improve your overall body strength and balance. Aim for heavy lifting with lower reps, as this will prompt muscle hypertrophy and help you gain muscle weight.

Body Weight Exercises

Bodyweight exercises are exactly what they sound like -- exercises that use your own weight to provide resistance against gravity. These exercises can help increase power and strength, and even boost your speed, endurance, balance, and flexibility. Many people enjoy bodyweight exercises because they can be performed anywhere and don't require any expensive equipment.

Exercises like Pilates and yoga require very little equipment and can be done at home often with the help of online videos. You can also join classes at a local gym or yoga studio for the added benefit of a knowledgeable instructor who can give personal feedback. While yoga and Pilates may not directly help increase body weight, they will increase your body's strength and stability and will serve as an important stress reliever as you challenge your body. Some other helpful bodyweight exercises include:

Other Types of Resistance Training

Resistance training helps you build muscle by using resistance, either your own body weight or from exercise equipment, like medicine balls, resistance bands, tubes, or loops. With resistance training, you're pushing or pulling against something with additional resistance to build muscle. Examples of good resistance exercises using a resistance band include:

  • Hamstring curl
  • Side bend
  • Seated row
  • Standing bicep curl
  • Russian twists

Cardiovascular Exercise for Weight Gain

Strength training is important, but cardiovascular exercise (cardio) helps keep your heart beating efficiently and can help boost heart health. Most people do aerobic exercise in order to lose weight. However, for those not interested in losing weight, it is still important to exercise the cardiovascular system by doing moderate-intensity aerobic exercise.

While more demanding types of cardiovascular exercise may be more fun to you, remember that the more intense the workout, the more calories you burn and the more your metabolism rate increases, which is why intense cardiovascular exercise is so effective for weight loss.

For those trying to gain weight, or at least not lose additional weight, try some of the following moderate types of cardiovascular exercise:

  • Playing golf
  • Playing team sports that don't require a lot of running (such as volleyball or baseball on a large team)
  • Recreational swimming
  • Walking or biking at a moderate-to-brisk pace
  • Water aerobics

The gym will have cardiovascular equipment if team sports or walking and swimming aren't your idea of fun. Cardio exercise equipment at the gym includes:

  • Elliptical trainer
  • Exercise bike
  • Rowing machine
  • Stair climber
  • Treadmill

Diet Considerations for Healthy Weight Gain

Your body composition and activity level help dictate your ideal caloric intake daily, as do your goals. The general advice, however, is you need a substantially higher number of calories than normal in order to gain weight. A nutrition professional can help you determine your daily caloric needs to gain weight.

It may be helpful to eat 5-6 small meals throughout the day rather than 2-3 larger ones, to ensure you get enough calories in to support weight gain. If you want to gain weight, you'll need to eat a high-calorie diet without turning to unhealthy fats and sugars. There are certain nutrients you'll want to be sure to get plenty of healthy fats and proteins. These can help you gain weight and help build muscle to ensure all of your hard work at the gym pays off. Aim for a variety of nutrient-rich foods.

Examples of healthy fats include:

  • Avocados
  • Eggs
  • Fatty fish (e.g., salmon, mackerel)
  • Full-fat dairy products (e.g., yogurt, cheese)
  • Nuts
  • Plant-based oils

Remember, a healthy diet includes everything in moderation. In addition to healthy fats, you'll want to make sure you're eating plenty of protein to help your body build muscle. Proteins to consider adding to your diet to gain weight and build muscle include:

  • Beans
  • Lean red meats
  • Lean chicken
  • Lentils
  • Peas
  • Tofu

When you're trying to gain weight, you want to make sure you make every bite count. If you feel like eating a snack, don't fill up on empty calories from processed or high-sugar foods. Instead, be sure to snack on plenty of nuts, dried fruits, peanut butter, avocados, and smoothies for snacks.

Speak to a registered dietician or nutritionist about your macronutrient needs to ensure you intake the proper amount of carbs, proteins, and fats to help you gain weight in a healthy way.

Combine Nutrition and Exercise to Gain Weight

Gaining weight can be done in a healthy way through a combination of exercise and good nutrition. Develop a reasonable exercise routine that includes both strength training and cardiovascular activities, and pair these workouts with a healthy, varied diet. Determine what your ideal weight is, and then develop a plan using diet and exercise to reach that weight and develop a healthy physique.

While it may be tempting for underweight people to forego exercise altogether, all healthy lifestyles include exercise. Your body needs regular strength training and cardiovascular exercise for the benefit of your overall physical and mental health. If you need help getting started, consult with your doctor, a personal trainer, and/or a dietician or nutritionist for expert advice and a plan tailored to you and your specific needs.

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How to Combine Diet and Exercise for Weight Gain