Some people who use MacroFactor for the purpose of gaining weight are surprised to find that MacroFactor recommends smaller energy surpluses than they anticipated. This knowledge base article will discuss the three most prominent factors contributing to that confusion, and how to troubleshoot most of the common problems people encounter when attempting to intentionally gain weight.
Common Points of Confusion
1) Slower Recommended Rates of Weight Gain
When you set a goal of gaining or losing weight, MacroFactor will provide a recommended rate of weight change (indicated in green on the goal slider). For gaining weight, the recommended rate of weight change is often considerably slower than the recommendations that people may have encountered elsewhere.
Plenty of online sources recommend reasonably fast rates of weight gain – sometimes up to 1 pound per week – for the purpose of maximizing muscle growth without excess fat gain. However, you’ll find that there aren’t ever direct scientific citations to support those recommendations, and there’s a reason for that: the research suggests that slower rates of weight gain are sufficient for maximizing muscle growth.
There are (currently) only two directly relevant pieces of original research on this topic, that tested the impact of different rates of weight gain on the composition of the weight being gained (i.e. how much lean mass was gained, relative to fat mass?).
The first study by Garthe and colleagues was published in 2013. In this study, elite athletes (people who competed for the Norwegian national team in various sports) either gained weight with a self-directed diet, or they gained weight using the dietary advice of sports nutritionists. The self-directed group ate a bit less protein (1.7g/kg vs. 2.4g/kg) and gained weight a bit slower (0.12kg per week vs. 0.27kg per week) than the group given nutrition counseling. Gains in lean mass didn’t differ significantly between groups. Furthermore, while neither group gained a ton of fat, the group gaining weight faster put on about 5 times as much fat (1.1kg vs. 0.2kg) over the 8-12 week duration of the study. Thus, a faster rate of weight gain didn’t seem to significantly increase the rate of lean mass accretion, but it did lead to more fat gain.
The second study by Helms and colleagues was pre-printed in 2023. In this study, resistance-trained subjects were either instructed to eat at energetic maintenance, pursue a very small energy surplus (aiming to increase their body weight by about 1% per month), or pursue a larger energy surplus (aiming to increase their body weight by about 3% per month). To account for subjects’ actual rate of weight gain differing from researchers’ recommendations, regression analysis was used to see whether faster rates of weight gain were predictive of enhanced muscle growth and/or greater fat accumulation. Ultimately, faster rates of weight gain were unrelated to rates of muscle growth for the quads and triceps, and only weakly related to rates of biceps growth. However, faster rates of weight gain were much more strongly predictive of rates of fat accumulation. So, once again, faster rates of weight gain didn’t seem to significantly increase muscle growth, but they did lead to more fat gain.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a topic that has received much research attention, but the research that does exist suggests that modest rates of weight gain are sufficient to support robust muscle growth, and faster rates of weight gain tend to result in disproportionate fat gain without increasing rates of muscle growth much, if any.
There may be situations where faster rates of weight gain are advisable. For example, if you’re new to resistance training, you’ll likely be capable of gaining muscle at a faster rate (though MacroFactor already recommends faster rates of weight gain to novice trainees). If you’re returning to training after an extended layoff, you’ll likely be capable of (re)gaining muscle at a faster rate. If you use “chemical assistance,” you’ll likely be capable of gaining muscle at a faster rate. But, for most people, most of the time, the research suggests that aggressive rates of weight gain are likely to primarily increase fat gain without helping you gain muscle significantly faster. If the balance of evidence on this topic changes, we’ll update our recommendations.
2) Smaller Surpluses Implied by Your Rate of Weight Gain
Many people have been exposed to the rule of thumb stating that a pound of weight change roughly represents a cumulative energy surplus or deficit of 3500 Calories. So, if they were aiming to gain half a pound per week, they’d expect MacroFactor to recommend an energy intake target that was 250 Calories over their expenditure (thus leading to a cumulative weekly surplus of 1750 Calories). However, in this situation, MacroFactor would recommend an energy surplus of approximately 150 Calories per day, which can occasionally cause confusion.
To explain this discrepancy between user expectations and MacroFactor’s recommendations, we first need to explain where the “3500 Calorie rule” came from.
The “3500 Calorie rule” came from a 1958 paper by a doctor named Max Wishnofsky. In that paper, Wishnofsky calculated the total energetic value of a typical pound of adipose tissue. Adipose tissue stores actual fat (i.e. lipids), but it also contains lean components – proteins, organelles, water, etc. Metabolizing pure fat provides about 9441 Calories per kilogram (about 4282 Calories per pound), while metabolizing lean tissue provides about 1816 Calories per kilogram (about 824 Calories per pound). Since adipose tissue consists of about 80% stored fatty acids and about 20% lean tissue, burning a pound of adipose tissue would thus provide about 3500kcal of energy.
In short, the “3500 Calorie rule” contains a tacit assumption that’s rarely articulated: it assumes that the vast majority of the weight you gain or lose is fat mass. However, if you were gaining or losing exclusively fat, gaining or losing a pound would imply an energy surplus or deficit of nearly 4300 Calories. Conversely, if you gained or lost exclusively lean mass, gaining or losing a pound would imply an energy surplus or deficit of just 824 Calories.
Most people with an intentional weight gain goal aren’t aiming to gain five pounds of fat for every pound of lean mass they gain – they’re aiming for lean mass to account for a much larger proportion of their total weight gain. So, that assumption is baked into MacroFactor’s recommendations: if fat gain accounts for less than 80% of the weight you gain, the surplus implied by your rate of weight gain is considerably smaller than 3500kcal/lb. Our tacit assumption is that when people are intentionally gaining weight while tracking their nutrition, the composition of their weight gain is likely much closer to 50% fat mass and 50% lean mass.
Of note, this assumption doesn’t actually impact your energy intake recommendations after you’ve been aiming to gain weight for a few weeks. As MacroFactor adjusts your recommendations in response to your energy intake and rate of weight gain, it would converge on the same intake target regardless of whether it assumed you were gaining 20%, 50%, or 80% lean mass.
In other words, if you were gaining half a pound per week while consuming 3000kcal/day, different sets of assumptions related to the composition of your weight gain could lead to different conclusions about your expenditure and the magnitude of your surplus. With an assumption that you were gaining ALL lean mass, your intake and rate of weight gain would imply that your expenditure was 2941kcal/day, and you were in a surplus of just 59kcal/day. With an assumption that you were gaining ALL fat mass, your intake and rate of weight gain would imply that your expenditure was 2694kcal/day, and you were in a surplus of 306kcal/day. But, if you had a goal of gaining half a pound per week, MacroFactor would keep your recommended energy intake at 3000kcal/day, regardless of any assumptions about the composition of the weight you were gaining. If you had a goal of gaining less than half a pound per week, your recommended intake would decrease. If you had a goal of gaining more than half a pound per week, your recommended intake would increase. MacroFactor’s adjustments would be the same regardless.
So, just to recap this section, MacroFactor assumes that gaining a pound reflects an energy surplus smaller than 3500 calories, because for most fitness-oriented people (who are aiming to gain lean mass without indiscriminate fat gain) gaining a pound of weight actually requires a cumulative surplus of less than 3500 calories. However, even when this is an incorrect assumption for any individual user, this assumption won’t significantly affect your actual energy intake recommendations.
3) Smaller “Surpluses” Overall
When you’re aiming to gain weight, you’ll often encounter the recommendation to increase your energy intake by 300-500 Calories per day over your maintenance intake. The recommendation is often misinterpreted to mean that you should be in an energy surplus of 300-500 Calories per day.
However, increasing your energy intake by a particular number of calories doesn’t necessarily imply that you’ll enter an energy surplus of the same magnitude, because metabolisms are adaptive. Many people are aware that energy expenditure can decrease when you’re in an energy deficit (a process referred to as “metabolic adaptation” or “adaptive thermogenesis”), and similar adaptations can be seen when people enter an energy surplus: energy expenditure can increase for a variety of reasons. Some of the increase may be the result of reversing metabolic adaptation that may have occurred when previously trying to lose weight. Some may just be the result of moving around more because you have more energy when you’re in an energy surplus. Some of the increase (over longer periods of time) is simply a result of moving around a bit more body mass in day-to-day life. Finally, the anabolic processes involved in building new muscle also require energy to be expended.
So, if you just increase your energy intake by 300-500 calories over your maintenance intake, you will likely end up in an energy surplus, but the actual magnitude of the energy surplus will typically be smaller than 300-500 calories per day, due to these adaptive processes.
Furthermore, these metabolic adaptations differ considerably between individuals. For example, a classic overfeeding study by Bouchard and colleagues had subjects consume 1000 extra calories per day, six days per week, for 100 days. So, over the period of the study, subjects consumed 84,000 more Calories than they would have needed to maintain their weight. Without a resistance training stimulus, a cumulative surplus of 84,000 Calories would be predicted to result in about 11kg of weight gain. However, individual weight changes ranged from 4.3kg to 13.3kg, with an average of 8.1kg. In other words, consuming an additional 84,000 Calories didn’t result in an energy surplus of 84,000 Calories. It resulted in an average surplus of about 62,000 Calories. But, the individual who experienced the largest metabolic adaptations only experienced a cumulative surplus of about 33,000 Calories. Conversely, the individual who gained the most weight seemed to experience a small decrease in energy expenditure, resulting in a cumulative surplus of about 102,000 Calories.
So, on average, if someone were to increase their energy intake by 500 calories over maintenance, you’d expect that to result in an energy surplus of about 370 calories per day. But, if they experienced more metabolic adaptation than normal, they might wind up in an energy surplus of about 200 Calories per day (analogous to the individual who only gained 4.3kg in the aforementioned study). Conversely, if they experienced a small decrease in energy expenditure (analogous to the individual who gained 13.3kg in the aforementioned study), they might wind up in an energy surplus of 600 Calories per day.
In short, a recommendation to increase energy intake by 300-500 Calories per day isn’t the same as a recommendation to be in an energy surplus of 300-500 kcal/day.
Instead of making assumptions about how much your energy expenditure will adapt to an increase in energy intake, MacroFactor’s recommendations respond to the unique changes in energy expenditure that you experience as an individual. If you follow MacroFactor’s recommendations and gain weight slower than desired, your intake recommendations will gradually increase to account for unique metabolic adaptations you experience. If you experience more metabolic adaptation than normal, your recommendations will increase more over time. If you experience less metabolic adaptation than normal, your recommendations will increase less over time. So, instead of just increasing your energy intake by 500 Calories per day from the jump (which could result in an actual energy surplus of anywhere between 200 Calories and 600 Calories), MacroFactor’s algorithms will ensure that your energy intake recommendations arrive at the actual energy surplus required for your target rate of weight gain.
What to do if You’re Not Gaining Weight as Fast as You’d Like
If you’re not gaining weight as quickly as you’d like while using MacroFactor and following its coaching suggestions (on a coached or collaborative program), there are a few things we’d recommend doing. Of note, these recommendations are non-exclusive – two or more may be applicable to you.
1) Audit Your Intake
Make sure you’re actually eating as much as MacroFactor is recommending. This may sound almost insultingly basic, but it’s often the source of the issue. Many people who’ve primarily tracked their nutrition for the purpose of losing weight begin to tacitly treat their energy intake recommendation as a limit – in other words, they aim to be at or below their recommended intake for the day. When you apply that approach to a weight gain goal, however, an (intended) small surplus can easily result in energetic maintenance. It may be more helpful to think of your recommended energy intake as a target (simply aim to be close to your recommendations, with roughly even upward and downward deviations), or a minimum (aim to meet or slightly exceed your recommended intake) when aiming to gain weight.
Tap on the bar at the top of your food log showing your Calorie and macronutrient intake for the day to pull up your “Nutrition Overview.” From there, tap on “1 Week” and “1 Month.” If your Calorie intake is below 100% of your target intake over those time spans, you probably just need to eat more, in accordance with the app’s recommendations.
2) Zoom Out
Most people understand that weight gain and weight loss aren’t perfectly linear processes. Sometimes you’ll randomly gain or lose weight a bit faster than your goal, and sometimes you’ll randomly gain or lose weight a bit slower than your goal, even if you’re perfectly sticking to your energy intake recommendations. Sometimes these deviations are due to the inherent noise in weight data, sometimes they’re due to lifestyle changes, and sometimes they’re due to metabolic adaptations with no obvious cause.
However, there’s a tendency for these deviations to surprise and concern people a bit more when they’re trying to gain weight, and I think it’s because there’s a tendency to think in terms of relative deviations, instead of absolute deviations.
To illustrate, let’s assume you have a goal of losing a pound per week. Due to the random fluctuations people experience when losing weight, your actual rate of weight loss might average a pound per week, but it might be closer to half a pound per week at times, and closer to 1.5 pounds per week at other times (of note, I’m discussing this in terms of trend weight changes). But, all values within this range seem “close enough” to your goal of losing a pound per week, so you probably wouldn’t find those fluctuations to be particularly concerning.
With a goal of gaining 0.25 pounds per week, you’re likely to experience the same absolute fluctuations in your rate of weight gain – trend weight changes of about half a pound per week above and below your intended rate of weight change. However, the range of totally normal fluctuations you experience – losing up to 0.25 pounds per week, or gaining up to 0.75 pounds per week – now crosses the “0” line, and the top end of the range is three-times your intended rate of weight gain. So, even though you’re experiencing fluctuations that are the same absolute magnitude you experienced while trying to lose weight, the relative magnitude is larger, so it feels like you’re doing a worse job of progressing toward your goal.
In situations like this, it’s helpful to zoom out a bit, and observe your rate of weight change over a longer period of time. Go to your Weight Trend page, and zoom out so that the start of your weight gain goal aligns with the left edge of the graph. There’s a very good chance that your average rate of weight gain over the duration of your goal is much closer to your target than you expect. Zooming out also lets you see that periods where your weight is increasing faster or slower than intended are typically short-lived, and not particularly concerning in the context of your entire weight gain phase.
3) Reframe Periods with Slower-Than-Intended Weight Gain
If you have a particularly adaptive metabolism and you’re aiming to gain weight at a relatively modest pace, it might take a while for your weight to start increasing at your desired rate while following MacroFactor’s recommendations. As you eat more, your expenditure may increase at roughly the same rate your energy intake increases over a range of a few hundred Calories. As a result, it might take a while to actually achieve a significant energy surplus, and for the number on the scale to start going up.
Just to illustrate, at the end of a weight loss phase, your expenditure might be 2200 Calories per day. From there, you transition to a weight gain goal that would require an energy surplus of 150 Calories per day. So, you start eating 2350 Calories per day, but the scale doesn’t budge. The next week, your recommendations increase to 2425 Calories per day, but the scale still doesn’t budge. The next week, your recommendations increase to 2500 Calories per day, and you start gaining a little weight. Two weeks later, your recommendations are at 2650 Calories per day, and your weight is finally increasing at your desired rate. During this process, your expenditure increased from 2200 to 2500 Calories per day as you reversed some of the metabolic adaptations that occurred while losing weight, and as further adaptations occurred as a result of entering an energy surplus.
To be clear, most people don’t experience adaptations that are quite that large, and the adaptations they experience don’t occur quite that quickly (i.e. in perfect lockstep with their increases in energy intake), but this general pattern isn’t incredibly uncommon.
This sometimes causes a bit of concern, because it’s interpreted as a lack of progress toward one’s goals. And for some people, that’s very much the case. If your goal is to gain weight for the sole purpose of gaining weight, skip down to recommendation 4. Otherwise, keep reading.
Most people with a goal of gaining weight aren’t necessarily “just” trying to gain weight. Rather, they’re aiming to gain weight with a goal of building muscle. In other words, weight gain is a means to an end, because gaining weight (i.e. being in an energy surplus) increases rates of muscle growth.
If that more accurately describes your reason for trying to gain weight, I don’t think you’re missing out on much if it takes several weeks to establish an energy surplus via the process described above.
If you want to maximize muscle growth over time, you need to be able to spend a lot of time in neutral-to-positive energy balance to provide your muscles with the appropriate energetic and metabolic environment for robust muscle growth. As discussed above, you don’t need to be in a particularly large surplus to maximize rates of muscle growth. And, while you probably won’t build muscle quite as quickly at energetic maintenance, pretty robust muscle growth (and body recomposition) is still regularly observed when people engage in resistance training while in a state of approximate energy maintenance.
In other words, during this period when your energy intake is increasing but the scale hasn’t started moving yet, you’re likely still making solid progress toward your goal of building muscle, and you’re not getting any closer to the point when you’d feel the need or desire to shift back into a weight loss phase. Thus, even though you’re probably not building muscle at the fastest rate possible during this period when your energy intake is increasing but your body weight isn’t, you are prolonging the time you’ll be able to spend in neutral-to-positive energy balance, and thus increasing the total amount of muscle you’ll be able to build muscle in your current weight gain phase.
Since your goal is to gain muscle, rather than to simply gain weight for the sake of gaining weight, we’d recommend paying attention to other indicators of progress if it takes a while for the number on the scale to start going up. Is your training performance increasing? Are you recovering better from your workouts? Do body measurements and progress photos indicate that you’re building muscle?
If so, you’re in good shape. In fact, you’re making out like a bandit. You’re getting in a few extra weeks of building muscle, without getting any closer to the point of needing to shift back into a weight-loss phase. What’s not to love?
If not, the fourth recommendation is for you.
4) Just Eat a Bit More, and Monitor the Results
Because MacroFactor’s coaching functionality is adherence neutral, there’s nothing wrong with eating more than MacroFactor recommends, if you think its recommendations are momentarily too low for you to achieve your desired rate of weight gain.
For instance, if your recommended intake is 2500 Calories per day, but you think you need to eat 3000 Calories per day to gain weight at your desired rate, you can just start eating 3000 Calories per day. From there, you can monitor your expenditure, weight trend, and MacroFactor’s recommendations to assess your hypothesis.
If you do actually need to consume 3000 Calories per day to gain weight at your desired rate, your change rate (on the weight trend page) should converge on your target rate of weight gain, and your expenditure should increase to the point that your expenditure plus your desired energy surplus would equal 3000 Calories. If you keep checking in consistently, your recommended intake will also increase to 3000 Calories per day. From there, you can just start following MacroFactor’s recommendations again as you continue to adapt to your energy surplus.
If you don’t actually need to consume 3000 Calories per day to gain weight at your desired rate, your change rate will increase past your desired rate of weight gain, your expenditure increases will stall before the point where your expenditure plus your desired energy surplus would equal 3000 Calories (for example, if you were aiming for a surplus of 150 Calories per day, and your expenditure increased to a point, but stalled at 2600 Calories). Consequently, MacroFactor’s intake recommendations wouldn’t increase all the way up to 3000 Calories per day. Once your data has convinced you that you don’t quite need 3000 Calories per day to gain weight at your desired rate, you can just start following MacroFactor’s recommendations again, as its recommendations will have increased to an appropriate level for your desired rate of weight gain.
In short, you can either use MacroFactor’s analytics and recommendations to directly guide your dietary targets, or you can use those analytics and recommendations to test your own assumptions. If your assumptions are correct, the data will validate them. If your assumptions are incorrect, the data will refute them. There’s no harm in alternately using MacroFactor as a coaching system, and as a system to test your own hypotheses and intuitions. You can switch back and forth between those two uses whenever you want.
Alternatively, you could change your expenditure start date to the most recent available date, and enter a manual initial expenditure estimate that’s consistent with the energy intake you believe to be appropriate for your weight gain goal. This will reset the expenditure and coaching algorithm, using your assumed energy needs as the initial basis for ongoing calculations and recommendations. If your data support this higher energy expenditure figure, your expenditure and energy intake recommendations will stay higher. Conversely, if your data don’t support this higher energy expenditure figure (i.e. if you start gaining weight faster than your target rate of weight change), your expenditure and energy intake recommendations will come back down.
Wrapping it up
If you’re struggling with a weight gain goal, we certainly feel your pain. Struggles with weight loss are commonly discussed, but intentionally gaining weight can also be a challenge for many people. MacroFactor is a tool that should help alleviate those frustrations. From monitoring community feedback, we think this guide addresses most of the challenges and points of confusion people encounter when using MacroFactor to help them gain weight.