What exercises should I perform if I’m trying to gain weight?

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What exercises should I perform if I’m trying to gain weight?

What exercises should I perform if I'm trying to gain weight?While many people begin an exercise program to lose weight, there are individuals who start exercising with the intent of gaining weight, specifically lean muscle mass. If you are one of those folks interested in strength training for the purpose of muscle or weight gain than it is important to understand a few things about physiology in order to make your exercise program as effective as possible.

Understanding Body Types

The first thing is to understand that you cannot change your body type. The fact is, individuals with certain body types will easily add muscle mass while other individuals with different body types will have a more difficult time doing so. There are three primary body types - endomorph, ectomorph, and mesomorph. An endomorph is characterized as having a large bone structure, wide waist and high levels of body fat. A mesomorph is characterized as having a medium-sized bone structure, low body fat levels, wide shoulders and a narrow waist. An ectomorph is characterized as having long, thin bones, narrow shoulders and waist and low levels of body fat.

For the first two types, endomorphs and mesomorphs, gaining lean muscle can be relatively easy, although it is somewhat easier for the mesomorph than the endomorph, as the endomorph needs to monitor caloric intake in order to reduce the risk of gaining too much body-fat. Ectomorphs are known in the weightlifting community as “hard-gainers,” and can have a difficult time adding lean muscle mass.

The Basics on Designing an Effective Exercise Program

There are two primary considerations for increasing lean muscle mass. First, we must consider what to do during the training session to stimulate growth with exercise, Secondly, we must consider what to do after the training session to promote optimal muscle growth.

The first consideration of what to do during exercise pertains to designing an effective exercise program with the appropriate application of the variables of program design.  The variables of exercise program design are:


·         Exercise selection – the type of exercise performed

·         Intensity – the amount of load (weight) used, referred to as the % of a 1 repetition maximum (% 1RM)

·         Repetitions – the number of times the exercise is performed in a row (determined by intensity)

·         Sets – the number of repetitions performed at one time

·         Rest interval – the amount of time to rest between sets

·         Tempo – the speed or velocity of the exercise movement


The scientific term for muscle growth is hypertrophy, which refers to increasing the cross-width of muscle fibers (in most cases muscle growth comes from increasing muscle fiber cross-width and intercellular volume and not from adding additional muscle fibers).  The ideal application of the variables to stimulate muscle growth is as follows-


Exercise Selection





Rest Interval

Compound, multi-joint exercises:

·         Deadlift

·         Barbell lunge

·         Pull-up

·         Bent-over row

·         Standing shoulder press

·         Chest press

75-85% 1RM



1-2 sec concentric

1-2 sec eccentric




There is plenty of research which demonstrates that using a weight that fatigues (not allowing any more repetitions) in the 8-12 rep-range combined with a relatively short rest interval (approximately 45 seconds) can stimulate the optimal hormonal response for muscle growth.  As far as exercise selection goes, use compound exercises which involve more than one joint and one muscle group at a time; for example doing barbell deadlifts instead of seated leg extensions to properly train the lower body.  Also consider training movements (squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling and rotation) as opposed to training individual muscle groups since the brain and nervous system select numerous muscles at a time to perform a movement and the only time a muscle works in isolation is in a machine designed for muscle isolation. 

Strength programs that feature compound movements with shorter recovery times between sets and three-to-five sets per movement or muscle group have been found to be effective for promoting muscle growth and strength gains.  For optimal muscle growth, allow at least forty-eight hours of rest between training sessions for the same movements (or body-parts).  A weekly training schedule might look like (keep in mind that the emphasis is on multi-joint movements, not muscle isolation exercises):








Rest Interval

Monday and




Bent-over rows

Romanian Deadlifts

75-85% 1RM



1-2 sec each direction

45 sec

Tuesday and Friday


Shoulder press

Front squats

Chest press

75-85% 1RM



1-2 sec each direction

45 sec

Wednesday and Saturday


(or a yoga class)

Aerobic intervals for 30-45min

(intervals should be 5-7 on a 1-10 scale of perceived effort, with 10 being the hardest)













The Importance of Proper Fueling and Rest


The second consideration is what to do AFTER the training session. When training for weight or muscle gain keep in mind that muscles grow during the recovery phase in response to the training session, so it is important to allow for adequate rest and recovery while properly fueling to promote muscle growth.  The study of nutrient timing is a new area of research for nutrition which has found that when to eat is as important (if not more so) than what to eat when it comes to properly fueling for strength training. Research indicates that drinking a shake containing carbohydrates and protein before and after exercise is an effective way to increase muscle fiber cross-width (gaining lean muscle size).


The generally accepted ratio for pre/post training nutrition is a 3-4:1 of carbohydrate to protein ratio.  The carbohydrates will stimulate an insulin response which helps muscle cells absorb the protein.  It is recommended to refuel within 30-45 minutes of completing an intense training session in order to stimulate the greatest response.  The recommended amounts are 0.2 – 0.4 g/kg of bodyweight for protein with 1.2 g/kg of bodyweight for carbohydrates.  Taking carbs/proteins in the recommended ratio within the recommended time frame can promote an anabolic response leading to more production of testosterone, which is the hormone most responsible for developing lean muscle.


Another post-training consideration for creating the optimal environment for muscle growth is getting adequate sleep. Somatropin, commonly referred to as human growth hormone (HGH), is produced during sleep and is another hormone which promotes muscle growth.  Inadequate sleep (less than six hours per night) does not allow the body to fully rest and recover from the stresses of the training session.  Getting up to eight hours of sleep a night is the recommendation for creating the optimal environment for muscle growth.

If you are one of those individuals who is exercising to gain weight or increase lean muscle mass, then this should help you get a good start in the right direction.

Pete McCallPete McCall Contributor

Pete McCall, MS, CSCS, is an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and long-time player in the fitness industry. He has been featured as an expert in the Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Runner's World and Self. He holds a master's degree in exercise science and health promotion, and several advanced certifications and specializations with NSCA and NASM.

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