by Andrew Heming T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
- Real over-training is rare, but under-recovery is real. Hardgainers often don’t eat enough, rest enough, or manage stress enough.
- Hardgainers overestimate their daily caloric intake and would do well tracking their food.
- If a hardgainer has never been afraid going into a leg session, he’s not working hard enough.
- Hardgainers need to select periods throughout the year for making size the sole focus, rather than trying to bulk year round.
Rule #1: Don’t Blame Genetics
Few topics stir up heated debates more than the topic of genetics.
Some lifters wallow in despair over their hopeless genetic misfortune in gaining muscle. Others don’t even believe in genetics. They think that with some hard work and some top-secret Soviet program, anyone can be a champ.
In reality, things like your height, skeletal structure (length and width), muscle fiber type ratios, muscle vs. tendon length, and nervous system efficiency impact how your body looks and how it responds to training.
If you come up short in some or all of these areas, all is not lost because there are many things within your control, and any one of them can have a big impact on your physique.
Lifestyle and training habits, nutrition and supplementation, work ethic, time management, and attitude – make positive changes in these areas and you’ll add muscle to your body.
Rule #2: Don’t Worry About Overtraining
Hardgainers often fear overtraining. Some are scared of doing more than a set for three exercises per workout, twice a month, because that might constitute overtraining.
The truth is that overtraining does exist… in elite athletes. But the average gym goer doesn’t have the time to create a textbook overtraining situation.
Instead, what happens is a vicious cycle of under-recovery. They don’t sleep enough, eat enough, train smart enough, or rest enough to recover from a decent amount of work. They start to experience over-training-like symptoms, and assume it’s because they’re doing too much in the gym.
The result? They use a training solution to fix a recovery problem.
While some lifters make the mistake of doing a stupid amount of work in the gym or trying to copy the program of an elite, drug-using bodybuilder, many more make the mistake of doing too little outside the gym to recover from a decent program.
As a young, skinny, new lifter, I made a very smart decision. I hired a bigger, stronger, more experienced trainer to write me a program. I was so disappointed when I got the program. It included way too much volume and frequency for a hardgainer like me.
I decided to do his stupid program anyway and prove that it didn’t work. I upped my food intake, got more sleep, trained really hard, and progressively added weight to all my lifts.
Two months later, his “stupid program” led to a weight gain of 13 pounds of muscle.
Try to out-recover the gifted elite. If they sleep 7 hours a night, you might need 8. If they need 4,000 calories a day, you might need 5,000.
While they may be able to get away with throwing food together, you might need a structured meal plan. If they can get away without naps, massages, and various stress management techniques, you might need to double down on them.
Train hard. Recover harder.
Rule #3: Find Your Volume Sweet Spot
Training advice for hardgainers seems to always include the recommendation to use low volume. The argument is this:
If you try using the high-volume routines that all the drug-assisted bodybuilders use, you’ll over-train. Short, infrequent, heavy, low-volume training is what you need to stimulate muscle growth, and then give your muscles the chance to recover and grow!
I loved this philosophy. It’s so simple and logical – except that it doesn’t work well for a lot of us.
While heavy weights are very important, a certain amount of volume is vital to create the metabolic stress needed to stimulate hypertrophy. More volume tells the muscle, “You can’t just get stronger, you need to get bigger to survive this stress.”
As a university strength coach, I get to work with some freaky athletes. Some are extreme mesomorphs who can get too big for optimal sport performance if we’re not careful.
To get them stronger without getting bigger, guess what I give them. Short, infrequent, heavy, low-volume training.
If this style of training doesn’t put muscle on someone genetically prone to adding it, how do you expect it to work for someone who struggles to gain muscle?
The problem with the volume issue is that it’s often pushed to the extreme. Yes, there are outliers who seem to thrive on really low or high volumes. But most fall somewhere in the middle.
There’s a happy middle ground where you have enough volume to stimulate muscle growth without exceeding your recovery capabilities. The trick is to find your middle ground.
Keep track of your volume (weight x reps x sets). Start with a lower volume that allows you to get stronger. If you’re eating a caloric surplus but not seeing gains, bring the volume up a little.
Monitor performance in your training log and take body weight and girth measurements. Adjust until you find your sweet spot. (Be aware that this can change over time and you’ll be able to tolerate less volume when you’re busier and not able to recover as well.)
Volume is trainable. Many hardgainers find that they don’t naturally have a great work capacity compared to others. But you can gradually increase work capacity over time by gradually increasing your training volume.
Rule #4: Prioritize Basics
When you’re consistently doing the basics and making great gains, then you can make tweaks and see if they help a bit.
As a teen, I’d devour muscle magazines trying to find all the secrets of a perfect training program: training split, best angle for incline pressing, best number of sets, perfect amount of reps, the position my pinky should be in to get a biceps peak, etc.
All I ended up doing was adding extra stress, confusion, paralysis by over-analysis, and cortisol when I should’ve been eating and sleeping. Until you’re consistently doing the basics, the little stuff doesn’t matter.
Rule #5: Know Your Food Intake
In gyms all over the world, you hear the following conversation:
- Skinny guy: “I can’t gain weight.”
- Coach: “You need to eat more.”
- Skinny guy: “But I eat a ton!”
At this point, the skinny guy usually blows off the coach and walks off in search of someone else who will tell him what he wants to hear: “You just need to find a special, really complicated, super-scientific program.”
Too bad the coach didn’t just demand to see the hardgainer’s food log.
In the same way that the obese typically underestimate how much they eat, many hardgainers overestimate it. They may feel like they’re eating a ton, but if they actually crunched the numbers, they’d see that their intake is pitiful.
Use a website, app, or an old-school notebook and track your food intake. Keep increasing this intake until your weight starts to climb. Unless you have a tape worm, you’ll gain weight.
Eating more calories isn’t the whole picture. While a calorie is a calorie in a food incinerator that measures calories, it’s not that simple when it comes to food and the human body.
What you eat is just as important. Many hardgainers resort to cheap weight gainer supplements or go all Michael Phelps and start pounding back junk food to get their calories in.
Most will be able to gain weight with a lot fewer calories than that per day. If you only need 4,000 calories per day to be in a caloric surplus, then you can get the majority of these with high-quality foods.
Make whole foods your dietary base. This base can also include natural calorie-dense foods (nuts, nut butter, dried fruit). Then, live a little and enjoy some treats.
As a result of having the majority of your diet consist of high-quality foods, you’ll gain less unwanted fat, have more energy for training, recover faster, reduce inflammation, and enjoy better health.
Rule #6: Shun Fad Diets
As a hardgainer, it’s a challenge getting enough calories and nutrients to gain muscle. Add to this any of today’s diet fads and muscle gain goes from hard to impossible.
Besides limiting foods that are complete junk, there’s only one rule you need to follow: Eat what works for you.
The diet industry has seen a lot of interesting trends – none of which are helpful for building muscle.
If you tried to follow all of today’s mainstream food-fearing advice, you’d end up as a gluten-free, raw-food eating, paleo vegan who’s afraid of fruits and nuts because they make you fat.
Hardgainers often have less-than-stellar digestive systems. If a certain food leaves you feeling gross, then by all means exclude it. Other than that, just eat what makes you feel the best and delivers the results you want.
Rule #7: Find Your Best Exercises
If you want to get big, then squat, bench, and deadlift, right?
That’s what many successful and often short coaches and lifters recommend. And while these lifts have helped pack mass on to thousands of lifters, they’re not always a perfect fit for hardgainers, especially not tall ones.
Even the shorter hardgainers may have relatively long limbs and a short torso. Think about the body type that typifies a great lifter and you’ll quickly realize it doesn’t match up with the structure of most hardgainers.
While they may have volleyball and rowing coaches recruiting them, they generally won’t be getting an invitation from Louie Simmons to come lift at Westside.
You need to select big exercises that are right for you. T Nation is full of articles from innovative coaches with countless variations on the big 3. Keep experimenting until you find a handful of variations for each major movement pattern or body part that meet the following criteria:
- They don’t beat up your joints
- They effectively hit the target muscles
- You can progressively add weight and reps to them for a long time (think deadlifts vs. lateral raises)
Exercise selection is one of the most important training variables. Even the best combination of all other training variables can fail to deliver results if you select inferior exercises.
By picking the best options, you’ll maximize your growth stimulus with fewer total exercises. This allows you to spend wisely as you dip into your limited recovery reserves.
Rule #8: Squat Hard, Curl Hard
If you’ve never been afraid going into a leg session, you’re not working hard enough.
Regardless of whether you do a squat with a barbell on your back or racked in front of your chest, you need to have some big, scary leg sessions. Intense leg training will not only give you bigger wheels, it’s also a great catalyst for whole body growth.
And while hardgainers are always told to “just squat and everything will grow” they should also be doing a modest amount of direct work for their limbs.
Hardgainers tend to feel more stimulation in the torso muscles than they do in the limbs when doing compound movements. As a result, doing nothing but compound movements will make the limbs (which are proportionately smaller to begin with) start to fall further behind.
Rule #9: Shun Gurus
If you have no idea what to do, hire a successful coach, buy an informative book, or read articles. As you make progress and try different things, take note of what works well for you. The more advanced you get, the more you’ll know about your body.
One huge mistake I made was to stop doing what was working because it didn’t align with what some guru said I had to do.
There are many brilliant coaches out there with info to share. However, if that information contradicts what you know works for you, ignore it and move on.
Rule #10: Focus
If you want to be successful, devote specific phases of your training and lifestyle to maximizing muscle growth.
Forget about your vertical jump, winning a triathlon, and all the cool “new” core stability exercises you saw on the internet. Forget about late-night movies and video game marathons. Spend that time training, eating, and sleeping.
Many hardgainers also make the mistake of trying to be in a mass-building phase year round. Instead, select periods throughout the year for making size your sole focus. Then choose other times to focus on complimentary goals (like maximal strength) while you maintain the new muscle you gained.
Then, when you’re ready, tackle another muscle gaining phase.