Healthy Weight Gain for the Athlete

In a previous job, I had the pleasure of working with elite athletes preparing for the NFL Combine.

The first time I realized I would be coaching these guys on their sports nutrition, I thought “what EXACTLY is this Combine business?” I thought you mind be wondering too.

The NFL Scouting Combine is a week-long showcase occurring every February at Lucas Oil Stadium (and formerly at the RCA Dome until 2008) in Indianapolis, where college football players perform physical and mental tests in front of National Football League coaches, general managers, and scouts.

In other words, it could possibly be the most important day of an athlete’s life that desires to play professional football. No room for mistakes.

While their training involved 2-a-days, skill work, IQ work & studying, social media coaching and many more things you wouldn’t think football players go through, my sole job was to fix their nutrition problems… quickly. We had 8 weeks. 8 weeks?! 

My responsibilities included body fat testing, group nutrition lectures, tons of one-on-one counseling and planning every single meal and/or snack. They ate their meals and snacks in-house, with me browsing through checking on each of them daily.

One of the HARDEST changes for an athlete is to gain healthy muscle mass WHILE also losing body fat. It is much easier to do one or the other.

I thought I would share with you some of the real life lessons learned about this when I worked with these guys. They were dedicated, focused and basically did anything I said.

So… How does an athlete put on mass while losing body fat? Eating clean & often is the first step for them.

Fat has 9 calories per gram while protein & carbohydrate only have 4 calories per gram. Adding healthy fats is one of the easiest ways to increase calories while also adding quality calories.

How does an athlete on a budget {that doesn’t want to constantly be stuffing their face} eat enough to fuel their 2-a-days PLUS enough to gain muscle too?

trail mix-the-fueled-athlete

Tip: One 6 oz. dixie cup holds 3 servings of trail mix. A 6 oz. cup is also a manageable sized snack that won’t be too heavy on the stomach. 480 calories. 30 grams fat. 36 grams carb. 15 grams protein. Eating this snack twice a day easily packs on 1000 extra calories for the gainers. Easy enough! This is one snack option that worked wonders. Adding fruit or dried fruit along with it provides more carbs helping to restore glycogen following a workout or training session.

Another daily snack was a shake/smoothie immediately following a training session. This is another good and easy idea that really works wonders for the athlete that doesn’t like eating right after training.

Healthy fats contain omega-3, which can help with reducing inflammation, improving circulation in the body, absorbing fat-soluble vitamins with the newest find being improving brain function and/or helping the brain recover from concussions. According to the American Heart Association, healthy adults may take 1-3g of omega-3 per day. AHA recommends eating fish twice a week to obtain omega-3 but other foods containing omega-3 include: flaxseed, olive oil, avocado, nuts (especially walnuts), caulifower, hummus & leafy greens.

More Tips for healthy weight gain:

Top yogurt or cereal with granola

Add avocado to salads, sandwiches, tacos, etc

Use trail mix as a snack

Drink 100% fruit juice with meals

Add nuts to salads

Eat PB&J or Banana & PB sandwiches before bed

While weight gain takes increased overall calories, there are two very important times to make sure the body is getting quality calories. Dr. John Ivy, chairperson of the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin, has spent the past thirty years looking at simple, healthy options for building strength, endurance and muscle mass. What he has discovered is that timing is everything. One of the best times to fuel is post-workout, especially for athletes in two-a-days.

In the 30 minutes following a workout, a muscle’s potential to rebuild peaks, and it is extremely sensitive to insulin. To take full advantage of the muscle rebuilding benefits that can occur in this golden window of opportunity, the right combination of nutrients, such as carbohydrate and high quality protein, should be consumed within 15 to 45 minutes after exercise.


“When you exercise,” says Ivy, “the muscles become very sensitive to certain hormones and nutrients, and you can initiate many highly desirable training adaptations if you make sure the correct nutrients are present. This increased sensitivity of the muscles only lasts for a limited length of time, so the element of time becomes absolutely crucial. If you miss this window of opportunity, there’s no way you can stimulate the muscle adaptations to that extent until after the next bout of exercise.”


Another easy way to get in calories is the before bed snack. Because the body is going to sleep soon, it is preparing for the repair stage for the muscles. A high-protein and high-calorie whey snack augments muscle weight gain by ensuring you have plenty of amino acids in your muscles while you sleep, the peak time for muscle repair and growth.

The bottom line is:
the athlete must eat more to gain muscle mass
the athlete must eat quality nutrients to also lower body fat % at the same time
the athlete must stay consistent with timing
the athlete needs an easy strategy so they can stick to it (eating higher calorie dense foods so they don’t have to eat TONS to get in adequate calories)


Have you had a good or bad experience with healthy weight gain/muscle mass gain? Please share below or email me!


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