It’s extremely common for some lifters to truly struggle to eat more food while bulking.
While these lifters typically have the benefit of losing weight pretty rapidly, increasing their number on the scale and filling out their shirt sleeves is another story.
Bulking with a low appetite is arguably one of the most challenging aspects of muscle gain for hardgainers.
That said, there are ways to increase your appetite over time and behavior modifications you can use to give yourself more opportunities to eat that can make a huge impact on your rate of weight gain.
My 13 tips for people who struggle to eat when bulking are:
- Eating more frequently
- Do less cardio
- Increase liquid calories
- Consume high-calorie shakes
- Progressively increase calories every week
- Don’t eat too much fiber or fat
- Eat simpler carb sources
- Incorporate “dirtier” foods
- Wake up earlier and start eating
- Eat two breakfasts
- Force yourself to eat
- Stay consistent (every meal)
- Lift weights more frequently
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13 Tips To Bulk And Build Muscle If You Have A Low Appetite
Below are 13 tips to help hardgainers or anyone out there looking to gain muscle during a bulk, despite having a low appetite. It is important to note that low appetite and eating when not hungry, and/or eating past the point of being full is all part of the process, and can be a very challenging aspect of a bulk.
Nonetheless, it is critical that hardgainers battle through that period (and eating enough may never truly get easier) in order to allow their bodies to gain quality muscle tissue and mass over time.
1. EAT MORE FREQUENTLY
In individuals who have low appetites, it may seem insensitive to tell them to eat more frequently, but that is exactly what is necessary to train the body, hormones, and GI tract to be able to produce hunger cues, increase metabolism, and be more productive with digestion
When struggling to eat more due to low appetites, it is key to eat more frequent meals that may consist of less calories per meal than a normal meal. For example, let’s say you struggle to eat 4 meals a day. You are currently eating three meals; breakfast is 600 calories, lunch is 500 calories, and dinner is 800 calories.Your net calorie intake for that day is 1900 calories, that’s a severely low amount of calories for someone looking to gain weight. If you told that person to eat an additional 600 calorie meal, they may look at you and call you crazy (and call it impossible).
If this person added two, 300 calories snacks during the day, boosting their meal count to five meals per day, they may in fact be able to hit those numbers and do so without adding gut stress. Good options for this would be shakes, liquid calories, or “dirtier” foods (keep reading below for more information).
Related Article: Bulking After A Long Cut: 8 Tips For A Successful Bulk
2. DO LESS CARDIO
When looking to add weight, it comes down to calories in vs calories out. While cardio isn’t necessary a bad thing to do during a bulking phase, cardio can be counterproductive during a bulk for individuals who cannot seem to create a caloric surplus in their diet due to (1) lack of the ability to eat more food, and (2) expending too many calories during the day.
By cutting out excessive calorie expenditures, you burn less calories, which means you don’t need to eat as much to place your body in a calorie surplus. Conversely, the more exercise you do and the more calories you burn, the more calories you need to consume. Therefore, hardgainers will find it best to train hard to promote muscle gain, but that’s it. Anything over that effective volume can be counter productive to bulking goals.
Related Article: Female Bulking Workout Plan (Complete Guide)
3. DRINK LIQUID CALORIES
Liquid calories are one of the silent calorie bombs in the diets of individuals who struggle to lose weight. Removing liquid calories like soda and fruit juices is often an easy win for a trainer working with a weight loss client.
Conversely, it is an easy win for a trainer working with someone who struggles to gain weight. By incorporating liquid calories from shakes and juices can increase calorie intake, increase carbohydrate consumption (key for muscle growth and bulking), and all while minimizing additional stress on the gastrointestinal tract (liquids can be easily absorbed by the GI tract and spends less time sitting in the intestines).
Some of my favorite options for adding calories via liquids is drinking more juice, adding juice or milk to protein shakes (in place of water), and having a high-calorie meal shake on a daily basis.
4. HIGH-CALORIE SHAKES FOR MEALS AND SNACKS
High-calorie shakes are a great way to increase overall calorie intake, add in an array of macro and micronutrients, and place less strain on the GI tract. To make them high in calories, you can add supplemental carbohydrate powders, peanut butter, ice cream, and milk; all of which boost carb and fat content, and often add flavor to your palate which can help boost appetite.
What I love about doing these high-calorie shake options is that when it comes time to diet, I can reverse engineer the shake to remove peanut butter, ice cream, juice, milk, etc and swap in less calorically dense foods like frozen fruits, greek yogurt, powdered peanut butter, and water.
5. PROGRESSIVELY EAT MORE FOOD
When most beginner bulkers start out, they try to drastically increase calorie intake via any means necessary. While this is one way to do it, it either results in excessive accumulation of body fat and/or inability to sustain that surplus diet for more than a few weeks since the body cannot adapt that rapidly.
I suggest hardgainers initially increase their calorie intake by 200-300 calories per day, from baseline, and do that for the first week. After the first week, increase your daily intake by another 200-300 calories per day, per week, until you begin to see positive increases on the scale that fall within the acceptable rate of weight gains (see below).
While this may seem like a very slow process (it is), it will allow your body to adapt to the increased calories over time while also minimizing excessive body fat accumulation.
For example, let’s say a hardgainer eats 2000 calories per day and remains the same weight.
For the first week of the bulk, they eat 2300 calories per day (300 calories more per day x 7 days = 2100 calories in excess per week). Based on that they should expect to gain 0.5 – 0.75 lbs per week. If they hit that mark, they can repeat eating that amount in the following week as long as they continue to trend upwards. If they see their results slow below that .5lb per week rate, or never get there in their first place, they then increase their calories to 2600 per day for the following week. They can then repeat this process week to week, over time finding they will quickly be consuming 2900-3200-3500 calorie per day, or more.
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6. BE CAREFUL OF EATING HIGH FIBER AND HIGH FAT FOODS
High fat and high fiber foods are great for decreasing hunger, increasing fullness, and standing in the way of your ability to eat more.
I recommend that if you are struggling to eat more foods, try to follow a higher carb, moderate fat, and moderate to low fiber diet (make sure you are still getting in fiber, but be careful that you do not eat too much, as this can result in bloating, gassiness, gastrointestinal issues, and general discomfort).
Swapping in cereals, pancakes, and other “less healthy” food options is a great way to increase calories and carbohydrates without ingesting too much fiber (eating fruit loops for breakfast and getting 400 calories that way has less fiber than eating 400 calories from steel cut oats).
Related Article: Can You Eat Anything When Bulking?
7. EAT SIMPLE CARBS
As discussed above, opting to eat less fiber (simple carb sources) via more refined carbohydrate sources can be helpful ways to increase carbohydrate and calorie intake than if you were to always eat complex carbohydrates.
While I am not saying never eat complex carbs, I am saying that if all you are trying to eat during your bulk is oatmeal, sweet potatoes, quinoa, and whole grains, you will quickly find out that you cannot eat more food due to fullness or excessive time spent in the bathroom.
8. INCORPORATE “DIRTIER” FOODS
Clean bulking is definitely the best option to start with if you want to maximize health and minimize excessive fat gain over the course of the bulk, however there will come a time when clean bulking will not work anymore. If and when this does happen, you will have to resort to eating “dirtier foods”, often ones higher in sugar and fats, as these can be great ways to boost appetite and calorie intake.
Personally, I started having ice cream once a day, sometimes mixed in a protein shake, and other times eating after dinner. You can have fun with it as long as you understand how it fits within your macros and you use more calorically dense and “dirtier foods” as a tool in your bulking diet, rather than a hall pass to eat like an idiot.
To learn more about “Clean Bulking”, be sure to watch my video below as it goes through macros breakdowns and how to maximize weight gain and muscle growth WHILE MINIMIZING FAT GAIN!
9. WAKE UP EARLIER AND START EATING
If you are not eating breakfast and are struggling to gain weight, this is a huge missed opportunity to do so.
The longer you are awake, the more time you have to eat.
For example, if you get up at 7am and don’t eat until 10am, you missed out on three waking hours of your day that you could have eaten food and started your bulking process. By waiting to eat later in the day, you also minimize your window of eating (let’s say you go to bed at 11pm). Now you have to consume 2500-3000-4000-5000+ calories in (I am currently eating 5000 calories a day) a 13-hour window instead of a 16-hour window.
Start making things easier for yourself and eat when you get up. Better yet, eat two breakfasts (see below). And if you are thinking to yourself, I am so full in the morning, I can’t eat! Read #11.
10. EAT BREAKFAST (TWICE)
When having issues eating more food, it’s beneficial to eat more frequently. In addition to eating MORE frequently, I find it smart to also start eating earlier in the day to give you the longest window of feeding possible.
By eating two meals before your normal lunch period, you frontload your caloric intake for the day, which can help fuel evening training sessions better and allow you to eat as your day goes on, especially for individuals who forget to eat as the daily schedule gets more hectic.
If you train in the morning, I suggest you eat something prior to lifting (1-2 hours before), which may mean waking up earlier to eat and let your food settle. Afterwards, or even during, you can drink carbohydrates or juice to continue to consume calories. My favorite is drinking orange juice with added carbohydrate powder to my intra-workout drinks.
While this one may sound excessive or not doable for most people, this is something that may make a huge difference if you struggle with gaining weight, have a low appetite and have exhausted all other options.
Related Article: Should You Cut or Bulk First If You’re Skinny Fat
11. FORCE YOURSELF TO EAT MORE
I wish there was an easier way to do things, but the cold hard truth is that you need to force-feed your body. This often means struggling to finish the last 20% of your meals.
Ask anyone who is a hardgainer who has gained weight, and they will tell you it was not easy, not enjoyable at various times as the body simply is not hungry, as your body wants to stay at its current weight.
In order to gain weight and mass, you need to eat more.
And that may mean overriding the body’s signals to stop eating. It is the exact same issues dieters have when they need to not eat even though they have hunger pains. Understanding that your body will adjust (or maybe not) to those cues and get on board is part of the journey.
Related Article: 7 Bulking Breakfast Ideas (With Calorie Breakdown)
12. STAY CONSISTENT
Bulking takes time, and you can’t rush your rate of gain, especially as a hardgainer. While you are touted as having a high metabolism (most people’s dream) and someone who can stay lean and lose weight easily (most people struggle with those issues their entire life), you also need to understand it takes time. Your results will be slower than the next person most likely, just like their fat loss and weight loss will be slower than your abilities.
Therefore, understand it takes time, and stay consistent.
13. LIFTING WEIGHT MORE FREQUENTLY
Whenever you are bulking, and the goal is to gain muscle, you need to lift weights. I cannot tell you how many people come to me asking how to gain muscle during a bulk, only to tell me they eat a lot of food (which clearly they don’t if they aren’t gaining weight) and workout two times a week (some weights and cardio).
Cardio rarely builds muscle for hardgainers and more experienced lifters, outside of very intensive cardio when done by beginners. Cardio also does a wonderful job of burning calories and placing physiological stress on the muscles that are often not the stressors responsible for muscle growth and hypertrophy.
Therefore, if you are not training 3+ days a week with weights, you need to 100% step that up if you are having issues gaining muscle. An additional benefit of lifting more often (aside from increasing muscle mass more frequently) is that your appetite will increase as well!
Related Article: Bulking With A Fast Metabolism: How-To For Hard Gainers
How Fast Should A Hardgainer Gain Weight
Hardgainers have a tough time at gaining weight, let alone lean muscle mass. With that said, I typically suggest a slower and more realistic rate of weight gain for hardgainers, as eating a ton of food and gaining weight is not something that comes easy.
For most hardgainers, I suggest aiming to gain 0.5% of the bodyweight per week, maybe slightly less. Faster rates of gains may be doable for non-hardgainers, however this rate ensures long-term sustainability, while also minimizing the accumulation of excess body fat during the bulking process.
For example, if a hardgainer weighs 140lbs, and is looking to gain 10lbs of weight (which realistically, 2-4lbs of that will be muscle and the remainder body fat), they can aim to embark upon a 16-20 week bulking journey. Those numbers are more than realistic for most hardgainer and beginners, with faster rates of muscle gain or higher % of muscle gain to fat loss gain just not a realistic benchmark (for hardgainers and non hardgainers alike).
Assume this hardgainer gained 10lbs of weight in 4 months, then cut 6lbs of that weight in 2 months, they would be left with roughly 3-4 pounds of muscle tissue after the 6 month journey. If they did this twice per year, they could gain 6-8lbs of lean muscle, not just scale weight in the first year, which is very respectable gains for any lifter of any level.
Related Article: 16 Healthy Bulking Foods For Hard Gainers (With Meal Plan)
Will You Gain Body Fat During A Bulk?
Yes, you will gain some body fat during a bulk, and it is 100% normal and necessary for a successful bulk and long term muscle growth.
If you are a true hardgainer (someone who actually struggles to eat more and gain mass despite putting the work in and training hard), there is a strong chance you also struggle with the idea of losing your coveted lean physique and abs.
I come across this dilemma a lot, and while it is understandable to fear this, I am here to tell you that the fat gain that happens in the 3-4 months of bulking can easily be lost much quicker than it came on for most hardgainers. Without eating more, and staying in a caloric surplus, the body will not be able to create new muscle mass, recover, and train harder week after week (all necessary aspects of muscle gaining). Adding on some size around the midsection is normal, and necessary, and is present for only a small amount of time in the grand scheme of things. Consider it a necessary evil, or collateral damage.
Bulking with a low appetite can be one of the most challenging aspects of muscle growth for hardgainers. Hopefully with the 13 bulking tips above, you can begin to amp yourself up for the challenge ahead, and have a better plan of doing things that can make your journey a little easier.
With all these tips however, I want to again reiterate that bulking for hardgainers is not easy, and in fact it is very, very challenging, especially if you are not consistent day in and day out for prolonged periods of time.
Therefore, use these 13 tips to help guide you, but also remember they only work if you are consistent (every meal) over the long-term (months).
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.