Articles


How Much Should I Weigh?

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | October 30, 2019

training session traps covered in chalk

How much should I weigh? I know, I know. Touchy subject. It’s a question that weighs heavily on many people’s minds (hilarious pun intended), and because it’s so intimately connected to how they view their self-worth and confidence, I’m going to do my best to be as honest and objective as possible.

Let me say straight off the bat: I can relate. My own bodyweight has varied greatly over the years. How do I judge it? I use my appearance, in and out of clothes. More importantly I use my performance on the platform. It’s more reliable than the number on the scale. In years past I’ve dropped from 115 kg to 90 kg inside six months, and looked much better to most people’s eyes. But I wasn’t happy, because although I looked strong I had actually knocked a ton of hard-earned kilos off my total.

Marty Gallagher once came up with a way of calculating the ratio between bodyweight and height among strength athletes. Marty coached the American powerlifting team while Ed Coan and Kirk Karwoski were members (if you don’t know who these dudes are, stop reading this right now and get yourself to YouTube ASAP). His calculation was this: the strongest people in the world weigh 3.25-4.57 lbs (roughly 1.5-2 kg) for every inch of height. I’m 65 inches tall, so I should be on the spectrum between 97.5-130 kg. I know that sounds a lot, but we’re talking about the strongest possible version of myself – and I’ve noticed that training does go better whenever I’m above 100 kg, right around this range.

I was inspired to write this article by two specific conversations with clients, but they’re only the most recent examples of issues that crop up in my line of work time and time again. One familiar type of client is the person who has just lost a lot of weight and is paranoid about gaining it back. I get where they’re coming from. They’ve worked hard to shed the pounds and they genuinely want to be healthier, but in their minds “health” is now inextricably connected to weight loss. It takes time to educate them, reframe the issue, and reassure them that gaining bodyweight is not necessarily unhealthy. If you’re very overweight, then doing more and eating less will work – but eventually you’ll hit a point of diminishing returns. Once this point is reached, your mindset needs to change. It can feel like taking one step forward and two steps back, but you need to trust the process.

Another familiar type is the person who wants “a balance between cardio fitness and strength.” I hear that one a lot. One recent client, a runner, told me he’d just started lifting but was afraid it would make him look like the Terminator … because he’d gained six kilos. He planned to keep running several times a week while gaining in strength, but not in body mass. I had to explain that on a program like this, looking like the Terminator was definitely not something he needed to worry about. Introducing a completely new stimulus through barbell training had made him gain some bodyweight, sure, but he would rapidly plateau. The thing is, bulking up isn’t as easy as people imagine. In fact, it’s much, much harder, especially if you're running “several” times a week.

The fundamental issue? Both of these clients were wildly misinformed about the basic science of the human body. They had no idea how muscle mass is lost or gained, and how that relates to training. It’s not their fault: myths about health, weight loss and strength training are everywhere. My first few sessions with a client are often more about education than about lifting per se. And often the hardest part of their mindset to change – The Final Frontier – is about how much food they put in their mouths. Weight is such a personal thing and such a massive part of our self-confidence that it outweighs (again, not sorry) almost every other concern.

Whenever a client is concerned about bodyweight, we usually end up discussing a range of factors that go far beyond the number on the scale. Weight, one might say, is a nuanced issue. Goals, current performance, commitment, current body weight, mentality and even a client’s profession all play a role. Let’s take a more detailed look at these variables.

What is your goal?

It sounds obvious, but if you don’t want to be bigger and stronger, then maybe strength training is not for you. There’s a probably a spin class you could be joining somewhere. I’m joking, of course, but also not. Training for strength involves effort and pain. You may not be cut out for the struggle. You can get stronger without gaining weight, but the results will be far slower and you will probably fall short of your potential, so if your goal is strength then weight gain is inevitable. If it’s not, that's fine, but be honest with yourself. Take the money you would have spent on a coach and go to the spa. Maybe buy a salad. It’s all cool. Diff’rent strokes.

Current performance

Are you making progress doing what you’re doing now? If you are, then keep doing it. If not, then ask yourself the Three Questions. If you’ve followed all the steps in that article and you still want to progress, then clearly something has got to change. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. We need to push progressive overload and force the body to adapt, and to adapt it needs food. After the Starting Strength LP you’ll move on to a program involving more volume or more intensity; those are pretty much your only options. Both will require adequate nutrition.

Commitment

Were your food, hydration and sleep adequate for recovery? Be honest. Could you have improved on these? If so, great! It means you have the potential to put more weight on the barbell – and more weight on your frame, in the form of muscle. Don’t be ashamed of not doing everything like a saint. Nobody’s going to throw you out of the gym if you didn’t hit your daily protein target or get a full eight hours’ sleep. But before you throw away your program and decide your lack of Gainz is all your coach’s fault, consider your recovery. Consider tinkering with your bodyweight before you tinker with your program. Personally, I’ve only ever done Starting Strength, Texas Method and heavy-light-medium templates. I didn’t need anything else; I was prepared to eat enough to get stronger. Are you?

Current bodyweight

If you’re wondering what weight you should be in the future, then clearly you need to consider your starting point. If you’re 300 lbs and five foot tall with no muscle mass, you may need to prioritize your health above all else. Losing weight should be your main goal, although training for strength still matters, because it will help with accountability and the formation of new habits. If you’re at the other end of the scale – underweight – then you should gain weight, of course, but slowly. Not that you have much choice about that anyway. It’s not going to happen after one set, despite what Cosmopolitan may tell you. Lifting a dumbbell heavier than 5 lbs or eating one cupcake after 6pm won’t turn you into the Hulk. Trust me, I’ve tried. The Cupcake Prescription may be fun, but it doesn’t actually work.

Mentality

A lot of training goals and nutritional habits are related to mental strength. This won’t develop overnight. You have to want to gain (or lose) weight for the right reasons, and they need to be solid enough for you to kick your own ass every single time you step into the gym. Gaining or losing, you’ll be tempted every day to veer off your path. You will encounter choppy seas, and persevering through them requires a tough mindset. If you don’t have this solid base, then you need to fix that before you start worrying about your weight. 

Profession 

You may have a job that requires you to be a certain weight. Are you selling nutritional advice? Then you probably need to be lean. Most of us won’t take nutritional advice seriously from someone who doesn’t have washboard abs. Are you a bikini model? Then maybe you need to maintain 3% body fat year-round. You get the picture.

Fundamentally, all these factors boil down to a single underlying choice: you need to be clear about what you want out of training. Sounds easy? It’s not. Many people, like the clients I mentioned above, have conflicting goals and don’t even realize it. The most common conflict I hear? Strength versus aesthetics. People often say they want to be strong, but when I dig deeper it becomes clear that they also have a particular physique in mind, one that is sometimes at odds with strength. You might be struggling with this too, especially if you’re single. It’s a harsh truth, but generally speaking you’re more likely to succeed on Tinder if you have a leaner physique: the media has brainwashed everybody into thinking that abs and abs alone are sexy.

Only you can decide how important this is to you. Do you want to be with someone who’s more interested in how you look than who you are? If this is you, then fair enough. Step back from the Gainz train and go for the slimline Tinder look instead. The only thing I’d add from personal experience is this: being big and strong has made me more confident, and the opposite sex can feel that energy. Being different makes you stand out in the crowd of scrawny desk jockeys. I began my Starting Strength journey at 70 kg (with abs), but these days I’m much better off in all aspects of my life. Of course, if you’re genuinely unhappy with the way you look, none of that matters. You have to live inside your own body. Just be honest with yourself (and with your coach) about your goals.

Sure you definitely want to be strong, not Tinder-skinny? Great! Here are a couple of things you should know. Something many people don’t realize – although it’s common knowledge in the weight room – is that you can’t gain muscle without gaining fat. Nor can you lose fat without losing muscle. If, like many novice lifters, you have minimal muscle and a flabby little “tire” around your waist, then the best option for you is to gain muscle then lose fat. It sounds counter-intuitive, but that’s the right way to play the game. Think of it like a sculpture. At first the artist sledge-hammers huge chunks out of the rock, but as it gets smaller he picks up a chisel for the fine detail. You’re not going to reach this point four weeks into your SSLP. Step away from the chisel. Get strong first. 

Nutrition, of course, plays a huge part in healthy weight gain. My usual blanket recommendation is simple: eat more protein and get enough fiber from green veggies (protein, by the way, means anything with eyeballs, not plant protein – don’t get me started). You may need to count your basic macros (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) or keep a food diary for 7–12 days to get a sense of what you’re really eating. If you don’t know your numbers, you’re operating without a map. We need to have some frame of reference to get you where you want to go. Guys, you probably need to gain a little weight. Girls, you probably need to eat a few more dead animals. That’s usually it. That said, not all calories are created equal, and many other life factors play a role. This is the standard equation: 

  • Desk job + cookies + stress = weight stored as fat
  • 3 barbell sessions per week + 2g of protein per 1 lb of bodyweight per day + 8–9hrs sleep (including naps) = weight stored as lean muscle mass.

As a coach, talking to clients about nutrition can get complicated. Getting them to write an honest food journal is a surprisingly difficult task. You remember that speech in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels? This one right here: “If you hold back anything. I’ll kill ya. If you bend the truth or I think you’re bending the truth, I’ll kill ya. If you forget anything, I’ll kill ya. In fact, you’re gonna have to work very hard to stay alive. Did you just understand everything I said? Because if you didn’t, I’ll kill ya!”

Yeah, I should get that printed on a card and just start handing it out to save time. For some annoying, self-conscious reason, people love to lie in food diaries. If you tell me this is what you ate every day, I know there’s a solid chance you’re lying – to me, but more importantly to yourself.

  • Morning: oatmeal and berries and coffee
  • Snack: apple and rice cakes
  • Lunch: chicken salad
  • Snack: yogurt and banana
  • Dinner: fish and steamed veggies
  • Snack: piece of dark chocolate and small glass of red wine

I can’t help you if you don’t tell me the truth, so if your coach or trainer asks you to keep a food journal, please be honest. Please!

I hope this has fired a bullet of insights into your brain, Lock Stock-style. Our goal as Starting Strength Coaches is to make you strong, not to lose weight – Strong! It is not a weight-loss program. Strength requires muscle mass, and muscle weighs more than fat. Muscle is the tissue that contracts against your bones and produces force; fat does not contract. Muscle gives you sexy curves and makes you more useful in general. So let’s eat for strength, and to become awesome Homo sapiens.


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