Weight gain for young athletes

Nutrition is one of the most important factors in athletic development. Learn more about principles of nutrition, with an emphasis on adding to lean muscle mass through a sound nutrition plan.

Weight gain for young athletes
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP / Unsplash

We have many athletes who seek to gain weight, i.e., lean muscle mass. We have a few that want to lose weight, i.e., excess fat. This post is primarily for those who seek to gain weight, but its principles can be employed, in reverse, for those who have the opposite goal. We focus here on nutritional rather than exercise principles.

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Sound practice is to consult with your physician before starting a new diet plan.

General

Athletes must be as deliberate and diligent about nutrition as they are about sleep, mental preparation, physical training, skills development, and recovery.

Elite athletes generally know this already. Unfortunately, many younger athletes squander opportunities by not understanding the benefits of adopting a nutritional meal plan or how to do so.

Lack of study and attention to sound nutrition can hamper performance. Worse, it can stunt growth. While at no time from birth does it make sense to eat poorly, when boys and girls begin puberty it is especially important to begin eating as well as possible.

We encourage all of our athletes to begin taking nutrition seriously and to establish eating habits that will serve them for their entire lives.

We thus offer this guide to effective, healthy weight gain for young athletes. Its most important attributes are (i) having well-framed goals, (ii) daily weigh-ins at the same time, (iii) counting calories, and (iv) keeping a journal.

Well-framed goals

Set a reasonable, measurable, time-based goal that can be subdivided into defined periods. An example of such a goal is: “I want to gain twelve pounds of lean muscle mass in four months.” This goal can be subdivided into “I will gain three pounds per month for the next four months” and further into “I will gain twelve ounces per week for the next four months.”

Daily weigh-ins

At minimum, weigh yourself at the same time every day, without fail. The ideal time to do so is after you awaken from a good night’s sleep and have urinated. To help you learn more about your body, metabolism, and the effects of exercise and hydration, weigh yourself multiple times a day, and see how your weight changes throughout the day. Weigh yourself before and after workouts and meals. Weigh yourself before you go to bed. Note in writing how different meals and exercise regimes affect your weight.

Counting calories

You need to establish a baseline “metabolic burn rate” or, to use the more scientific term, your “basal metabolic rate” (“BMR”). This answers the question: based upon my normal, daily activities and diet, how many calories do I consume per day?

We will give you two ways to do this:

Method 1 (using averages and index values)

The general formula for calculating BMR in female and male is: 

  • Female: BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years)
  • Male: BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years)

Source: "Basal Metabolic Rate (bmr) Medical Calculator," pediatriconcall.com, last retrieved 2024-03-26. We recommend reading the supplemental information beneath the calculator.

Method 2 (using your own experience and body to calculate)

A more accurate way to determine your BMR is to count your normal caloric intake under your current diet each day for five to seven days, assuming a roughly steady weight over that period. In other words, just eat the way you normally do, live as you normally do, and check your weight daily (at the same time) to ensure you are staying at more or less the same weight. Then compute the daily average calorie intake. That will be your baseline metabolic burn rate.

How do you count calories? Use an app or website. CalorieKing is a good one. It will give you the number of calories, and other useful nutritional information, for a given serving size. Just adjust the number of calories to your actual serving size. For example, a large, hard-boiled, whole egg has 77 calories. If you have three such eggs with breakfast, you will have consumed 3 * 77 = 231 calories.

Other examples from CalorieKing:

  • 298 calories: four ounces of beef top loin steak (New York Strip), lean & 1/8” fat, broiled
  • 142 calories: 4.2 ounces of roasted chick breast, without skin
  • 123 calories: small, 2” dia.” (4.9 oz.) red potatoes, baked, flesh and skin
  • 227 calories: California avocado, 4.8 oz.

Use a tool such as CalorieKing’s “How Many Calories Should You Eat?” to help you target a daily calorie-intake goal. From experience, we can predict that most of you who are of high school age and want to gain lean muscle mass will need to be consuming in excess of 4,000 calories per day, while also engaging in resistance training. Some of you may need to consume in excess of 5,000 calories per day. Please note that increasing your calorie intake by a substantial fraction using whole (good) foods is not easy to do. It may feel like a chore—even a daunting task—at the outset. But you will get the hang of it and the difficulty will ease over time. Do stick with your plan and achieve your goals. Make it happen every day. Do not go to sleep until you have reached your goal. But start on your goal early in the day, so that you do not miss out on sleep.

Journal

Keep a written journal. For each day, record what your weight should be if you are to reach your goal. Then record your actual weight, and the “gap”—the difference between what you weigh and your goal. Every time you weigh yourself, make an entry in your journal.

Record what you eat and how many calories were in each meal. As noted above, many of you will need to eat somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 calories per day, while also doing resistance training, to gain lean muscle mass. You will learn how to consume the right foods at the right times to get you to your goal. You will most likely be eating at least six times per day: not snacking…eating good foods. Be disciplined. Take pride in your journal and its accuracy.

Be responsible to your parents

Learn to cook and clean up after yourself. You cannot burden your mom or dad with making that many meals for you, and it would be grossly unfair for you to leave a mess in the kitchen for someone else to clean up.

Ask your parents for help

Tell mom or dad what you are trying to accomplish and ask them to help you hold yourself accountable and with choices at the grocery store. Share your progress with them at least daily. Let them be part of your journey.

Prefer whole foods

Learn to read food labels, but as a rule, eat food that does not have a food label, i.e., the “whole foods” that generally line the outer bounds of grocery stores: meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, eggs, butter, and dairy (assuming you like those foods and tolerate them).

When you do buy foods with labels, prefer foods with the smallest number of ingredients; prefer ingredients you recognize as opposed to terms that only food chemists understand. Avoid foods with “added sugars” on the label. Food manufacturers use tricks to fool consumers about sugar content. As a rule, chemical-name ingredients ending in “ose” will be sugars. Watch this podcast to learn about nutrition and the God-given miracle that is the human body: “Dr. Robert Lustig: How Sugar & Processed Foods Impact Your Health."

Minimize sugar intake

Sugar is addictive. It’s okay to have desert. Have desert with only one meal a day, though. Do not eat desert as a meal. Sugary cereals are deserts, not meals. Choose breads without added sugars. A bowl of Fruit Loops is not breakfast. It is desert.

Make this process fun, and a life-changer

Hippocrates said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” By following this guide (gaining lean muscle mass through great nutrition and resistance training), you will see positive results in yourself within thirty days. You will feel better, look better, and learn a lot about your body, health, and diet. These positive changes will be enjoyable and set a foundation for good, lifetime habits and a long health span.

Please consult with Coach Goodie regularly and keep him posted on your progress.