The Real Reason Why You Can’t Gain Weight

Skinny kid trying to get buffImage provided by Jo Christian Oterhals

You hear it all the time:

“I want to bulk up and gain some more muscle mass but I just can’t seem to gain any weight. I eat all the time but I never gain a pound. I think I’m just one of those people who will always be skinny and will never be able to gain any weight.”

They go lift for a year, eat what seems to be a TON of food, lift intensely… but by the next year they hardly look any different.

Why does this happen to so many people?  Why can some people eat whatever they want and they don’t gain a pound while others can’t even have a few bites of cake without blowing up?

One reason is that they might not actually be eating as much as they think they are.  It may seem like the person is eating a ton of food because they might be out with friends and have a very large meal, but that doesn’t really tell the whole story.  You don’t know how much they eat when they are alone or if they eat big meals like that everyday. If it seems like they always eat a ton but are not gaining weight, most likely they are not eating much at the other times of the day.

If this might be you, one way to find out for sure is just to track your calories for a few days.  Maybe for one week, track everything that you eat and eat like you normally would. Then at the end of the week, add up all the calories and divide them by 7. This will show you the average calories that you eat everyday, and it will probably be a lot lower than you thought. (Hint: You can do this same thing if you are trying to lose weight to show you that you are actually eating more than you thought.)

Besides underestimating the amount of calories that you take in, there could be another factor to consider: nonexercise activity thermogenesis (or NEAT for short).

NEAT is basically energy that you expend throughout the day by fidgeting, moving in your seat, muscle contractions, etc. It turns out that some people increase their NEAT in response to increased caloric intake a lot more than other people.1,2

Lyle McDonald created an awesome research review on one of the studies dealing with NEAT.  It explains that some people may have a 10 fold higher caloric burn just from NEAT alone when calories are raised!  This basically comes means that if you increase calories by 1000cals/day, some people might gain a lot of weight while others will simply burn more of it off by fidgeting?

Is there a solution?

Of course there is, and I bet you can already guess what it is… You have to eat even MORE.  If you are unlucky enough (or lucky, depending how you look at it) to be one of those people who increase their NEAT a lot when they eat a lot, then you have to make up for it with even more calories. Your fidgeting cannot account for truly MASSIVE amounts of food, so if you aren’t gaining weight even after recording calories and making sure that you aren’t underestimating your intake, then it might be time to increase them further.

I would recommend that you increase your calories roughly 500 cals/day for at least 2 weeks, and then see if you are gaining weight. If not, then increase them another 250-500 cals/day and repeat this cycle until you are gaining a good amount of weight.

Keep in mind that if you are a beginner, you will probably be able to gain a lot of weight and have a lot of it be muscle. However, if you are more advanced, don’t set your calories too high unless you don’t mind some chub along with that muscle. Muscle takes a lot longer to gain than fat does.

Don't increase calories TOO muchImage provided by Edward Russell

The main point of all of this is that you just need to eat more. No more excuses, no more complaining about eating.. Just eat more! Everyone trying to lose weight is jealous of you anyway 😉



1. Levine JA et. al. Role of nonexercise activity thermogenesis in resistance to fat gain in humans.  Science. (1999) Jan 8;283(5399):212-4.

2. Kotz CM et. al. Neuroregulation of nonexercise activity thermogenesis and obesity resistance. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2008 Mar;294(3):R699-710. Epub 2007 Dec 26.