What athletes should eat to gain weight

Nutrition can vary based on each individual, but not everyone has access to the cutting-edge tests that will tell you your exact bio-makeup.  It doesn’t matter if you are a superstar athlete, a mother, a 12-year-old, an 80-year-old, an office employee, etc., eating healthy transcends all phases of life because we all came from the same species and need proper fuel to grow tall and strong. 

The NBA strength coaches and I got together years ago and did a book on strength and conditioning. My chapter was focused on nutrition and I wanted to share some of the takeaways from that to set the tone for the rest of the conversation.

10 Guidelines for Nutrition

  • Eat a hefty protein diet: eat more of it than you drink

  • Do not be afraid of fat

  • Sugar is not your friend 

  • Do not be afraid of carbohydrates. The carbohydrate debate (a heated one) is often misguided. Sugar is a carbohydrate and still not your friend. Green beans are a carbohydrate, but they are your friend. It is the simple, refined, fiberless, nutritionally empty sugar carbohydrates that get you in trouble... Nice try– but Oreos have no fiber! 

  • Eat nutritionally dense (not necessarily calorie-dense foods) 

  • Ask yourself, “Am I fueling my body or feeding my face?” Likewise, “It is your all-the-time habits that will make or break you, not the once-in-awhile thing.”

  • More water! We usually are low on water.

  • Other stuff like caffeine, alcohol (if you are of age), dark chocolate in moderation. 

  • Learn to grocery shop wisely by buying foods that will fuel your body not feed your face. 

  • If you are lost about fruits and vegetables: eat a rainbow of colors

Now let’s talk about weight gain. Many high school athletes (particularly football players) ask,  “How can I put on more weight?”  The most common source of that question comes from a coach telling the player that the coach wants him to put on X number of pounds by next season or to weigh X pounds by next fall or some form of those two. That can be ok if it is a realistic and smart number.

The worst thing an athlete can do is put on bad weight or bulk too much to be fast or effective. Most recently, New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard bulked up after having success in the majors and he has been injured the majority of the past 4-5 seasons. 

"A strong, fast athlete plays bigger"

Even if you are a single sport athlete, let’s say football, in this case, a player who only wants to play football should become as athletic as possible so your coaches have to put you on the field. Maybe you become great at playing multiple positions and playing both ways (offense & defense). A strong, fast athlete plays bigger. It also means that you can make the athletic play. Athletic play means that you can do things other players can’t, and you can make plays that have to be made. It also means you do things you didn’t practice.

About that weight again. Eat, of course, but eat right. No junk. A good mix of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Probably what you have heard before, but make sure you are eating RIGHT.

The most simple thing to keep in mind is that if you eat more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. The less quality of calories, the more fat your body will store. You certainly don’t want to burn more than you are eating if you are trying to gain weight, but we want to load as many nutrients into those calories as possible.

Why do we want to focus on good calories?

The body will use different types of calories in order based on how readily available they are.  If you are putting a lot of chemicals into your body or bad sugars, they will likely be your source of energy instead of good nutrients that can take a little longer to process. By eating junk food, you essentially are interrupting benefits from all that work you just did in the gym.

Now, we understand that food is expensive and you have to eat something. So if you are limited on your options, just use these principles to guide your decision-making. Don't starve yourself just because you don’t have perfect options available.

What about weight training?

From a training standpoint, workout hard, but smart. If you lift weights 4 days a week, bumping that up to 7 days per week isn’t the answer. Lifting 2-3 times per day isn’t the answer either.  Part of working out smart means paying attention to how you train. Putting on weight will naturally involve large muscles starting with the legs. Building size in the legs can mean good weight gains.

"As always, size and weight cannot compromise speed."

One thing that is incredibly overlooked is the back. Your lats are the largest muscles in the upper body. Guys seem to always want a jacked chest (pecs), but think in this order when training the upper body;  back, chest, shoulders, arms. Don’t worry, the arms aren’t really last. Every upper body lift goes through the arms. Work them, but not first.

Nutrition is a field we keep learning about, and there is a constant debate amongst professionals. This should serve as a good baseline to form your thoughts on nutrition and what questions to ask next. 


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