Weekly Wellness: Teenage athletes, gaining body weight

Sun-Times Media file photo
Sun-Times Media file photo

Our weekly fitness column, “Weekly Wellness” is back again. This week, Matt Gallagher, from MFC Sports Performance in Darien, discusses how teen athletes can put on weight, the right way, for their specific sports.

I have a good mix of clients in my training business. I work with athletes from 8 years old all the way up through college aged athletes, as well as adults of all ages looking to get lean, mobile and strong.  Perhaps the most exciting type of client I train is the teenage boy looking to gain 20-50 pounds of muscular weight in order to give himself the best possible chance he can to get extremely strong, explosive and powerful for his chosen sport. At the same time, this athlete in the age range of 14-18 years of age needs to understand just what kind of sacrifice it will take to gain this amount of muscular weight. And that is the essence of this article.

Before I start getting into the details of how teenage athletes can gain muscle weight, I just want to say that I am adamantly against steroid use or any type of illegal substance use to gain muscle. If I were to find out any of my athletes use steroids and train in my facility, I will strongly advise against the use of steroids, and will refuse to train him or her or any athlete who confesses to using steroids and insists on continuing using steroids. Steroids are the easy road and don’t teach hard work and discipline. Also, negative physical symptoms can accompany steroid use, including organ failure and gynecomastia.

Gaining weight in general is pretty simple. It really does come down to simple nutritional economics – more calories in than going out will result in weight gain, assuming this is followed daily. As I have written about this in previous metabolism articles, and given the two-thirds of all Americans that are overweight or obese, I think it’s pretty clear that most people have this concept down pat. The difference between athletes wanting to gain weight and the normal person not wanting to gain weight comes down to metabolic rate. The reason overweight adults gain weight is because they take in more calories than they put out due to a lifelong, progressive dwindling of metabolic rate while still consuming an average or high calories. Teenage boys are very much the opposite of this situation – they have very fast metabolisms that require a tremendous number of calories to gain weight.

The first topic I discuss with teenage boys who would like to gain muscle weight is discipline. Most of these athletes need to understand that major adjustments need to happen both in terms of the type of food they eat and the quantity of food they eat. I teach them that demanding strength training workouts 3-4 days a week for 60 minutes of time (all that is needed to gain plenty of muscle weight) is a walk in the park compared to the effort and persistence needed to consume 3,500-5,000 calories each day. Consuming 3,500-5000 calories each day will most likely produce the surplus of calories needed in order to gain 1-2 pounds per week. 

I believe in using supplements only when really needed. I believe in focusing on whole food nutrition to get proper caloric intake. Most of these boys in the 14-18 age range have metabolisms that operate at about 2,500-3,000 calories per day for optimal function and sustenance of life. This means a normal, growing teenage boy should be consuming this range of calories just to grow normally and have plenty of energy. The demands of heavy strength training can burn 500-1,000 calories alone, and then the athlete needs to consume 500 calories beyond this amount just to gain 1 pound per week, on average. This is why a teenage athlete looking to gain muscle must consume a minimum of 3,500 calories on strength training days, and approach 5,000 calories to really see progress.

Does this sound excessive? Perhaps to the average person with a desk job and a sedentary lifestyle. But a teen’s rapid metabolism is much different than a suppressed metabolism from years of neglect.  As a teen at 17-19 years of age, at one point, I needed to consume 5,500-6,000 calories each day to continue gaining weight. I got incredibly strong and very muscular when I combined the aforementioned number of calories with hard strength training that stimulates muscle growth. I paid my dues with months and months of nutritional effort, six meals each day, and an absolute commitment to meeting my caloric needs of that day. I gained 50 pounds in eight months.

Food selection becomes very important on a caloric plan of this nature. Most young athletes need to fuel themselves on high calorie yet high nutrient foods such as whole milk, natural peanut butter, eggs, meat, avocado, pasta, rice, oatmeal and whole grain breads. Snacks include more nuts, or seeds, raisins, bananas and Greek yogurt. 

Special high calorie shakes are essential to these athletes, as they can easily ingest 1,500-2,000 calories from these shakes which are liquid and often don’t fill them up the way a meal does.=

This type of nutritional plan definitely takes planning and dedication. Five or six meals per day are necessary to spread out these calories and keep digestion optimal during this weight gaining time.  There are also Apps that athletes can use on their smartphones or tablets, with the best I have found being FatSecret. The FatSecret App tracks the calories and grams of every food or liquid that is entered into the App. Nearly all the guesswork is eliminated. I highly recommend this for athletes who want to gain weight.

Provided a teen has entered puberty, is consuming calories in the 3,500-5,000 range each day, works extremely hard in the weight room using the basic, compound movements necessary to stimulate the major muscle groups (squats, deadlifts, cleans, presses, rows, pull ups, bench presses), and is always attempting to gain strength at the fastest rate possible (progressive overload training), it is very reasonable for a teen to gain 1-2 pounds per week from this plan. Last fall and winter, a 14 year old baseball player who trains with me deadlifted 285 pounds (up from 135 pounds) and he gained 30 pounds of muscle weight on his frame. Also, a 16 year old client who trains with me gained 25 pounds of muscle weight and improved his deadlift and squat by around 150 pounds each. There is no reason teenage boys who are new to strength training and dietary planning cannot each gain 20-50 pounds in 8-12 months of time. Gaining this muscle weight will help said athletes to become as powerful and explosive as possible.

The Takeaway: If you have a teenage athlete looking to get much more explosive and powerful for his sport, this article provides much of what is needed to make this happen. More muscle on an athlete in a sport like baseball, hockey, football, wrestling, and basketball (to name a few) will do way more for speed, explosion, and power than any other type of fancy, high-tech, speed camp training system ever invented. Speed and agility camps won’t cut it. What these boys need is good old-fashioned muscle-building training – the basic kind that requires the most focus, intensity, and total poundage – and plenty of nutritious food in the 3,500-5,000 calorie range. This training and diet plan requires self-sacrifice, desire, patience, hard-work, discipline, and goal-setting – all of which transfer to every part of life. It’s hard work, but it’s well worth the effort.

Matt Gallagher is the Fitness Director at MFC Sports Performance in Darien, which specializes in functional training for both adults and younger athletes. You can reach Matt by emailing him at Matt@MFCSportsPerformance.com

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