Psychological Strategies For Gaining Weight

“You can’t lift big weights if you don’t eat big plates”

Article written by Michael Chernin Introduction

If you’re reading this article, it’s safe to assume that you have more than a passing interest in gaining a significant amount of mass (otherwise known as “getting huge” or “getting jacked”). You probably wouldn’t be perusing a website called Lift Big Eat Big if you didn’t have this interest, so this article will be written from a viewpoint that considers this assumption true. You may have also found that gaining and retaining a significant amount of mass has plenty of obstacles that stand in your way. However, personal experience has shown me that most of these obstacles are mental, and so I wrote this in hopes that you may take away some information that will help you surmise the challenges that come with the territory of your endeavor. I gained approximately 100 pounds from lifting weights and aggressive eating over the course of four years, and I aim to present some psychological strategies that I discovered useful for gaining weight as well as the science to back up at least some of them.

This is not a nutrition article but rather a collection of psychological strategies that you can add to your personal toolbox in your quest for gains. While I will present them one by one, they all tie into each other. Finally, before we begin, this article also assumes that you are on a solid training program, that your recovery (sleep, off days, mobility work) is at least satisfactory for the purposes of long-term progress, and that you know the basics of human metabolism and bioenergetics. If your knowledge is lacking in these areas, I suggest you spend some time learning about them because they will be crucial to your success.

Psychological Conditioning: What do Pavlov’s dogs have to do with getting jacked?

In the early 20th century a Russian scientist by the name of Ivan Pavlov discovered that he could make dogs salivate with the sound of a bell. He did this by pairing the sound of said bell with the scent of food (a stimulus that normally produces salivation) so that after enough exposures to the smell/bell pairing the dogs learned to associate the sound of the bell with the arrival of food and would salivate upon hearing the bell. This is known as Pavlovian or classical conditioning and it plays a large role in human behavior. We receive countless cues from the environment that increase our hunger, and in fact the study of the effects of psychological conditioning on obesity and dieting success is at the forefront of medical research. [1] Fortunately for you, dear lifter, Pavlovian conditioning can be used to your advantage if you can develop your own hunger cues and utilize them consistently. As you read the specific strategies, keep the concept of psychological conditioning in mind.

Expanding the stomach’s capacity: Divert your attention

If you have been a light eater your entire life and have recently decided that you are going to start getting huge, you have probably found that both your body and mind resist your attempts to eat more. We all know the feeling of having eaten too much very well, and having to deal with that every single day with every single meal can be overwhelming. It takes time for your stomach and digestive system to adapt to the new quantities of food that you are shoveling into your face.

The solution to the problem of physical discomfort is a very gradual increase of portion sizes and, eventually, the addition of extra snacks and meals. While many sources will tell you to take what you eat and double it, it’s a lot more sustainable to start with a 10% increase. There is both a physical and psychological reason for this. A slow increase will lessen the sensations of bloating, nausea, and other GI distress. Psychologically, you will not develop an aversion to eating. If you have too many aversive experiences with eating large amounts of food (such as eating until you are sick), you may develop a negative association with eating in general and every meal will be torture. This is an example of Pavlovian conditioning at work and is a mistake I made early on in my training, which made gaining and retaining weight very difficult until I re-trained myself. Start small. Eat a little more at every meal, introduce a snack or two throughout the day, and repeat until the scale starts moving up. You will minimize your discomfort and will come to view eating as a neutral or enjoyable activity.


Here I will introduce the strategy that I found to be most important in my journey. If I could break it down, I would say this one is responsible for 75% of my weight gain. It is painfully simple and can be summarized in five words:

Eat while doing something else

Research on obesity in the past decade has shown that people tend to eat more while watching TV. [2] The explanation for this is likely manifold, but if we were to replace watching TV with any other engaging activity, we would find that eating while doing something else distracts the mind from the body’s satiety signals. For one who is trying to actively gain weight, this is huge. Not only does this strategy allow you to eat more without even thinking about it, it reduces the amount of discomfort you feel from overfeeding because your attention is focused elsewhere. Find a mentally engaging activity and eat while you focus on something else. If you are a college student, eat while doing your homework. Eat while reading a book, while writing, while playing video games and you will find that you have finished eating that insurmountable-looking meal before you knew it. As a bonus, you will come to associate eating with these activities so that your appetite will increase just from doing them and you will feel the need to eat while engaged in them.

A side note is in order here. While I found this strategy extremely effective at packing mass onto my frame, it took a lot of enjoyment out of eating. To counteract this, I recommend that you eat a few of your meals each week normally. Take time to be mindful of the experience of eating during these meals. Enjoy the smells, the flavors, and the textures. Focus your attention on the meal and try to not rush through it. It will help you maintain a good “relationship with food,” for lack of a better term.

Developing a rotation of foods: Why chicken and broccoli will fail you

My grandmother is a fantastic cook. Being a Russian woman, she has always felt it her duty to feed the entire family all the time. She has a recipe for this dish that I describe to my non-Russian friends as “chicken bars.” They were highly palatable and easy to eat in large quantities. Every week, she made close to a hundred of them and gave them out to her descendants. I would receive about 30 each week. For two years I ate chicken bars almost every day. She would ask me if I had gotten sick of them and I would say that such a thing was impossible.

This was true until about a year and a half ago. I was working on an essay and mindlessly eating chicken bars when all of a sudden their smell struck me like a sledgehammer. I had smelled them hundreds of times before, but had only had either a positive or neutral reaction. I looked down at my plate at a half-eaten chicken bar and gagged. I could not finish the meal and I have not been able to eat a chicken bar since.

In hindsight, I see that I wore the dish out. If you eat something in large quantities frequently for long enough, you’re going to come to hate it. To avoid having your own chicken bar moment, I recommend that you develop a rotation of dishes. As a rough estimate, 8-10 dishes should do. Vary what you eat and try to avoid eating the same things every day. Experiment with different spices, seasonings, and sauces in your cooking to find out what suits your palate. After all, it’s a lot easier to eat 5,000 calories a day when you actually enjoy what you’re eating.

When food makes you hungry: Eating food to eat more food

At some point in your journey to getting jacked you will come across certain foods and beverages that make you hungrier than you were before you ate them. For me, these foods are vegetable beef stew, gum (Trident Layers specifically), and tea. When I tried to understand why certain foods increase hunger, I mostly found broscience about high-GI foods and sugar crashes. This would not explain the beef stew-that’s about as low-carb as it gets. I am led to believe that a similar Pavlovian conditioning effect can be seen with select meals. In the case of chewing gum, I found studies that discussed its role in increasing gastric secretions, which could logically lead to an increase in perceived hunger.[3] [4] Certainly the motion of chewing and the salivation that follows could be a conditioning mechanism as well. I did some research on caffeine only to find that in most people it either lowers food intake in following meals or makes no difference.[5] [6] I recommend experimenting with different dishes and beverages to see which ones make you hungrier and adding them to your diet. Though the mechanism for why this works may be almost entirely psychological, it’s a nice bonus for the hardgainers.

Dreaming of gains: Eating at night

        Every night you sleep, and when you’re sleeping you’re not eating. When I started eating at night, gaining weight became quite a bit easier. This is not a difficult strategy to implement and can be used to complement your regular routine. If you wake up at night to go to the bathroom, that is your time to grab a snack. If you do not, set an alarm. An extra 300-400 calories can go a very long way. While some recommend drinking a protein shake, I suggest eating Greek yogurt or cottage cheese. The reasoning behind this is simple-the large volume of water in the protein shake is more likely to make you wake up again to urinate and it will probably not give you the same satiety as solid food. Psychological conditioning is very prevalent with this strategy. After a few weeks of eating at night, I began waking up hungry and could not get back to sleep until after I had eaten regardless of how big the last meal of the day had been. After a while you will no longer need an alarm and waking up to eat will be second nature.


The non-linearity of getting jacked: set points, weigh-ins, and health maintenance

        The human body loves homeostasis. It will actively resist any changes you try to impose upon it, and weight gain is no exception. The body has many ways to increase energy expenditure in response to increased caloric intake such as dietary thermogenesis, non-exercise induced thermogenesis, and hormonal regulation that try to maintain body weight near a set point.[7] This means that the body has to acclimate to a higher weight and higher food intake, and there really is no way to rush that process (especially if you want to remain healthy). Your weight gain should be very gradual. Personally, I found that my weight would frequently plateau for a period of several weeks and then I would quickly gain a few more pounds over the course of just a few days.

        To best understand your body’s tendencies to gain and lose weight, I recommend weighing yourself very frequently. My minimum while gaining was three weigh-ins a day on the same scale. This showed me how weight tends to fluctuate during the day in relation to food/fluid intake. If your diet is consistent, it makes it very easy to see when you need to increase your calories. Figure out how much weight you lose in your sleep. Set goals for how much you would like to weigh at the end of every day. You will likely find that your weight will plateau and fluctuate within a very predictable range. Use these times to assess your overall health and solidify the habits you have developed. I found that with every jump on the scale my body would feel a little different than it used to, and it became important for me to make sure that my health was not being adversely affected by weight gain. Maintain your conditioning work and take care of yourself. It’s hard to lift big weights when you lose your breath just walking down the stairs into the dungeon.

Wrap-up: It’s all about the habits

        Eating vast quantities of food against the will of your mind and body is not easy, and I hope that these strategies will help you along the way. Ultimately, whether or not you will succeed depends on your ability to develop the necessary habits. Stick with it. Once these habits become second nature, you’ll be huge before you know it.

Lift strong,

-Michael Chernin

[1] Control of food consumption by learned cues: A forebrain–hypothalamic network

[2]  On the road to obesity: Television viewing increases intake of high-density foods

[3] Chewing gum is as effective as food in stimulating cephalic phase gastric secretion.

[4] The effects of chewing gum on gastric content prior to induction of general anesthesia.

[5] Coffee for morning hunger pangs. An examination of coffee and caffeine on appetite, gastric emptying, and energy intake.

[6] Caffeinated coffee does not acutely affect energy intake, appetite, or inflammation but prevents serum cortisol concentrations from falling in healthy men.

[7] Set points, settling points and some alternative models: theoretical options to understand how genes and environments combine to regulate body adiposity

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