by Eric Bach T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
- Most naturally skinny dudes need to train more frequently using proven bang-for-your buck exercises.
- The key to training with a higher frequency is to limit your daily volume with shorter, intense sessions.
- Your biceps can wait until after your weighted pull-ups, squats, and deadlifts.
- Add jumps, throws and sprints into your plan to recruit the fast-twitch fibers most responsible for strength improvements and muscular gains.
- Hardgainers must stress their systems above what they’re currently doing, whether it’s via more weight, more dense training, or a higher total volume.
- Genetics Be Damned
- These five training laws coupled with a firm nutrition plan will help any hardgainer build muscle.
1. Train With High Frequency
Would you be stronger performing squats in 52 workouts per year or 104 workouts per year? Logic says to go with 104, but why?
Consistent exposure to stimuli is vital for learning new movement patterns. If you’re a scrawny guy struggling to put on muscle, you’re probably not much stronger than you were when you first started lifting.
Even worse, your training sessions are long and inefficient with exercises that won’t yield much benefit until you’re substantially stronger. What most skinny guys need is a focus on greater training frequency of the big bang-for-your buck exercises. Here’s why:
It improves strength and muscular hypertrophy.
Back in 2000, a study compared 1 day and 3-days per week of equal-volume resistance training (McLester, et al 2000). Twenty-five experienced subjects were randomly separated into training groups.
Group one performed one day per week of strength training with three sets to failure, using rep ranges moving from three to ten reps per set. Group two performed workouts three days per week with one set to failure per day, while working in the same rep ranges.
Volume between the two groups was exactly the same, yet group two had greater increases in both lean body mass and improved one-rep max strength. With total volume held constant, spreading the training frequency to three doses per week produced superior results in both strength and muscular hypertrophy.
It leads to greater net-protein balance.
A 2010 study on anabolic processes in human skeletal muscle found that repeated phases of net protein balance, which can be a generated response to repeated bouts of resistance exercise and protein ingestion, underpins muscle hypertrophy (Phillips, S., & West, D., 2010).
This shows that frequent exposure to training increases protein synthesis at the cellular level, leading to greater amounts of muscle growth. Obviously, nutrition is key for muscle-seeking munchkins, so getting significant calories and the right macronutrients are a must.
Frequent training stimulus yields quicker skill development.
Like anything else, moving heavier and heavier weight requires increased technical skill and practice. Hardgainers are usually weak in the exercises that matter.
Placing an emphasis on improving the big lifts with more frequent sessions is a surefire way to increase strength and build muscle.
It’s a frequent reminder of the goal at hand.
As Dan John says, “The goal is to keep the goal the goal.” Skinny guys are notorious for program hopping, freaking out at the thought of any fat gain, and abandoning training when results don’t come fast.
Besides needing a swift kick in the head and a lesson on perseverance, skinny guys need constant reassurance of what the goal is. Frequent training engrains the message to stick to the goal of building mass. Each day is a positive step towards the big picture.
Potential Strategies: Each individual faces his own obstacles when it comes to optimal training frequency. They have to consider time available to train, gym convenience, and recoverability.
Regardless, there are ways around difficult situations. Grab a pull-up bar, a kettlebell, and some dumbbells if you need extra work at home. Here are some brief workouts to increase training frequency if you can’t make it to the gym:
(This requires a pull-up bar fixed to a doorframe.)
Exercise Sets Reps
A Pull-Up 3 8-10
B Push-Up 3 20-25
Perform with minimal rest.
Total Body Kettlebell Circuit
This 20-minute drill can be performed with one kettlebell and limited space and can replace a conditioning session.
Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Kettlebell One-Arm Press 3 6-8
A2 Split Kettlebell Row 3 6-8
B1 Kettlebell Goblet Squat 3 10
B2 Plank 3 45-60 sec.
C1 Kettlebell Swing 3 15
C2 Kettlebell One-Arm Carry 3 50 steps
Bottom Line: Train with higher frequency – 4-6 workouts per week with major multi-joint exercises.
2. Stop Majoring in the Minor, Train with a Lower Daily Volume
Unfortunately, hardgainers have a propensity for majoring in the minors and spending countless hours in the gym pumping their pencil-thin biceps.
Of course, the key to training with a higher frequency is to limit your daily volume with shorter, intense sessions that get you in and out of the gym. Not only will the lower volume keep your recovery up to par, you’ll limit time in the gym and leave more time for what you need to be doing, which is eating.
Bottom Line: To successfully train with a greater training frequency, you have to drop the volume in individual workouts. This leads to greater performance in training sessions and high-quality, frequent training. Yeah, crippling soreness may get you a hardcore badge, but that doesn’t mean anything for the skinny guy.
3. Don’t Plan Isolation Work
I love a skin-splitting pump too, but after being a scrawny dude, the picture was clear: isolation work is a waste of time and another example of majoring in the minors.
You won’t get much out of isolation work until you build significant strength. Put down the 20-pound biceps curls and instead strive to hang 50 pounds around your waist for chin-ups. That will have far greater effects on growth.
Seriously, scrawny guys don’t need isolation work. Focusing on isolation exercises increases your total training volume and potentially disrupts your ability to train for high performance gains.
That said, if you find yourself craving a pump and needing to give your biceps, delts, or calves some love, allot 10 minutes one or two times per week at the end of your workout to add some training volume. This will help you enjoy training more and improve adherence.
Bottom Line: Minimize isolation work, but if you’ve been diligent with your workouts and nutrition, reward yourself with a couple of sessions of 10-minute isolation training for your beloved biceps.
4. Performance Over All
Building a body is about being capable of handling what life throws at you. That’s where performance comes in – you must increase the capabilities of your muscles, joints, ligaments, and nervous system together.
At least once a week you need to add jumps or throws in after your dynamic warm-up to increase the neuromuscular capabilities of your body. This will recruit the fast-twitch fibers most responsible for performance, strength improvements, and muscular gains.
Box jumps are a great option to reinforce solid landing technique and lessen impact if you’re not used to jumping. Overhead medicine ball slams or explosive push-up variations are a great option for the upper body and building a resilient trunk.
Medicine Ball Slam
Modified Plyo Push-Up from Knees
Bench Plyo Push-Up:
Sprints are another great option for improving performance because they stimulate a huge influx of anabolic hormones.
Like weightlifting, sprinting requires high-impact muscular contractions that cause the release of growth hormone and testosterone as well as potentiating the nervous system for strength gains.
Sprints will also improve anaerobic conditioning and work capacity. Perform sprints with low-volume to not negatively affect recovery from weight training, but don’t neglect conditioning altogether.
Your lifts might suffer a bit in the beginning, but in the long-term the benefits of increased work capacity and athleticism keep you from getting crossed over by a 15-year-old at your local YMCA. What fun will that muscle be if you’re a walking ball of fail when you try to be athletic?
Bottom Line: Don’t abandon sound principles because you want to gain mass. Throw and jump at least once per week for 3 sets of 5 to ramp up your nervous system and keep a level of athleticism.
Program sprints conservatively before sessions for 4-5 sets of 10-20 yards, or after sessions on a hill for 10-15 minutes of 4-8 second sprints with full recovery once or twice per week.
5. Progressive Overload
It’s sad how many guys train for years yet remain the same size, still benching 135 for three sets of ten, year after year.
To make progress you must stress the system above what you’ re currently doing, whether it’s via more weight, more dense training, or a higher total volume.
Pick your program, stick with the same lifts, and add weight to the bar. Whether it’s 5 x 5, Starting Strength or 5/3/1, the principle is the same – stress the organism beyond its current capacity to create a higher level of stress. As a result, the body creates stronger muscles, stores more fuel, and grows.
Sample Hardgainer Training
2 warm-up sets
Work sets: 3 x 8, ramping to heavy 8’s with major exercises
1 warm-up set
Work sets: 4 x 7, ramping to heavy 7’s with major exercises
1 warm-up set
Work sets: 5 x 5, ramping to heavy 5’s with major exercises
Work sets: 8 x 3 (early work sets count as warm up), ramp to heavy 3’s with major exercises
Sample Training Week
Exercise Sets Reps
A Sprint 5 10-15 yd. *
B Squat 3 8
C Floor Press 3 8
D Dumbbell Lunge 3 8
* 60 seconds rest
Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Box Jump 3 5
A2 Plank 3 45 sec.
B Trap Bar Deadlift 3 8
C Chin-Up 3 8
D Dumbbell Row 3 8
D Farmer’s Walk 3 50 steps
A. Sprint conditioning followed by foam rolling, active recovery
B. Treadmill Incline Perform 5-6 sprints, 3% incline, 10 seconds on, 40 seconds off with the fastest speed you can run with good form.
Exercise Sets Reps
A Overhead Medicine Ball Slam 3 5
B Front Squat 3 8
C Incline Close-Grip Press 3 8
D Bulgarian Split Squat 3 8
Exercise Sets Reps
A Romanian Deadlift 3 8
B1 Supinated Grip Bent-Over Row 3 8
B2 Pallof Press 3 12
C Neutral-Grip Lat Pull 3 8
D Optional *
* 10 minutes free time for biceps, delts, calves
Kettlebell-at-home workout or sprint
Foam roll, stretch, and get rest.
Bottom Line: Whatever program you follow, see the damn thing through and add weight to the bar. Progression guarantees progress.