Hardgainers can train for several years and hardly watch their physiques improve, leading many to either despair or abandoning the gym altogether.
While you may not like the hand you’ve been dealt, there are ways to make chicken salad out of chicken sh**.
If you’re a hardgainer, you should pay close attention to this as we will dispense advice that will get your guns growing — provided you put in the effort.
Of course, putting in the effort and struggling on can be tough when results are few and far between.
What is a Hardgainer?
A hardgainer is a person with a “fast metabolism” who struggles to gain weight in any capacity, be it muscle or fat.
A hardgainer is somebody who can train for several years and see fleeting results, indicating a poor response to training stimulus.
Hardgainers often undercount their calories and eat less than they imagine.
Hardgainers also tend to drink a lot of coffee, smoke cigarettes, and lead an unhealthy lifestyle with fewer average hours of sleep.
However, this is not the case for all hardgainers; some religiously track their calories, macros, and attempt to keep up with a strict training regimen to no avail.
Whatever the situation is, life is sometimes tough for hardgainers.
And a distinction must be made between the hardgainer and a skinny fat person.
Somebody who is skinny fat may have a less-than-ideal body composition — usually high fat, low muscle definition, but not obese — but he isn’t necessarily a hardgainer.
Being skinny fat stems from a poor diet, lifestyle, and exposure to possible endocrine disruptors.
Despite being small, a skinny fat individual will be somewhat insulin resistant, low-testosterone/high estrogen, and might suffer from thyroid issues.
A skinny fat person may respond well to lifestyle, diet, and training changes; whereas a hardgainer — typically leaner than a skinny fat — may struggle despite optimizing those details.
A hardgainer may have a smaller frame, low testosterone, insulin resistance, high stress, “poor” genetics, low androgen receptor density, as well as a slew of other undesirable factors.
Imagine going to the gym, putting in the effort, and not being recompensed with the corresponding gains you think you deserve. This is the struggle a hardgainer can endure for years, decades.
One of the common problems is the style of training several hardgainers seem to adopt — bro splits.
Bro splits are suboptimal for hardgainers, as muscle groups are stimulated 1-2 times per week, often in isolation.
Instead, a hardgainer should opt for compound movements targeting the muscle group 2-3 times per week to elicit more of a growth response.
Let’s jump right into what can be done.
Eat More, Eat Calorie Dense Foods
And I cannot state this enough — eat more and eat calorie dense foods.
Ideally, you — and not just hardgainers — should be consuming 1g of protein per lb of bodyweight and between 16-17 calories per lb of bodyweight to actively build muscle in a mild caloric surplus.
Now, this rule is merely a guideline and not Gospel — it can vary from person to person depending on a variety of factors from Basal Metabolic Rate, activity levels, age, hormonal balances, etc,.
But if you stick with this general rule of thumb, you will be nearer rather than farther away from your goals — to build muscle.
Once you pick a more suitable workout program, we advise you to track your weight and calculate weekly averages to ensure that you are gaining. If you fail to gain after 1-2 months, then add an extra 100 calories per day onto your diet. Again, if you fail to gain after another 1-2 months, repeat the process until the scales budge.
Eating 16-17 calories per lb of bodyweight isn’t a license to pig out — you don’t want to get fat!
The goal is to build lean muscle with minimal fat gain.
And while this goal can be achieved, more often than not, lifters gain fat as they build muscle as they misjudge their caloric intake and overcompensate in the kitchen for their efforts in the weight room.
Say if your weight is 150lb, you should attempt to consume around 2,400-2,550 calories per day and at least 150g of protein.
As your weight increases, you need to adjust your caloric intake correspondingly to continue building muscle, assuming you continue to apply the principle of progressive overload in the weight room.
Some lifters may struggle to hit their daily caloric needs.
The trick here is, after hitting your daily protein requirements, to fulfill your daily calorie targets with calorie dense foods.
- Animal Fats
- Red Meat
- Olive Oil
You Gotta Eat Big to Get Big!
We’ve all heard the truism, “you’ve got to eat big to be big.”
However, you don’t want to be big in the wrong sense of the word — you don’t want to be fat, puffy, watery, and bloated.
Get big, but without the strings attached.
In order to grow without gaining fat — or to mitigate much extraneous fat gain — you need to consume a little more than your base metabolic rate.
As long as you’re getting enough protein — which shouldn’t be hard if you’re eating a regular balanced diet — you should get big at a comfortable, sustainable pace at a 100-200 calorie-a-day surplus above your base metabolic rate.
If you’re not planning on becoming an IFBB pro bodybuilder, strongman competitor, or elite powerlifter, you really shouldn’t be force-feeding well above your base metabolic rate.
There’s “get big” or get superhuman.
Of course, to get superhuman, you’d need a superhuman level of discipline vis-a-vis the conventional “get big” approach.
To find your base metabolic rate, a rough estimate would be to multiply your bodyweight in pounds by 15 calories. If you’re 200lb, your base metabolic rate is around 3000 calories a day. Then simply add another 100-200 calories on top of that.
Then you’d need a gram of protein per pound of lean tissue.
For most, this would be too difficult to calculate without the proper tools to ascertain your lean bodyweight, but you won’t be too far off by eating a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.
Therefore, for the 200-pounder, he would have to consume 200 grams a day of protein — which is 800 calories.
The remaining 2200 calories to hit maintenance (3000 calories) can come from any carbohydrate or fat sources you’d like.
Reminder: You CAN gain muscle in a caloric deficit
I, personally, have a moderate carbohydrate intake as it makes me feel sluggish to have either too few or too many carbohydrates in my diet.
Less than 150 grams of carbs makes my mind foggy; more than 250 grams of carbs makes me feel low energy.
However, the more “healthy” dietary fat I consume compared to carbohydrates, the more energetic and vivified I feel.
Now, Listen Up
Let’s say you’re a smaller lifter weighing 140lb (with a base metabolic rate of 2100 calories a day) and you struggle to put on any lean contractile muscle tissue (you struggle to get big).
Let’s say you struggle to eat more than 2000 calories a day, despite being able to get in 140 grams of protein — you’d be surprised at how few calories some people consume.
Remember: the base metabolic rate is what you’d need to consume to maintain your current body weight at rest!
Ideally, this individual would need somewhere between 2500-2700 calories a day for optimal growth — to get big — as extra calories would be burned through lifting, exercise, and movement.
You need to consume more CALORIE DENSE food.
This means food high in fat and low in volume.
This does NOT mean fast food, chocolate, pizza, chips, sodas or other foodstuffs that will wreck your quality of life. It doesn’t mean throwing away $100s on sickly “weight gainers.”
You will need to download a calorie-tracker such as My Fitness Pal on your phone to ensure that you’re eating enough — and not too much, either!
And it can include small changes to your diet such as switching chicken or turkey breast for dark meat. It can even include throwing in a couple of extra portions of rib-eye steak a week instead of chicken.
Cook with butter or olive oil to stealthily increase your calories — it can take on the form of reversing easy dieting principles for weight loss by adding instead of removing calorie-dense foods.
Snacking on nuts and seeds — which are both calorie-dense — between meals can help you reach your calorie goals. Peanut butter is a good unobtrusive addition to your diet if you have a sweet tooth. A lot of female lifters include peanut butter as a staple to their diet model.
It really is as simple as that if you don’t have much of an appetite — despite wanting to get big!
STILL NOT GROWING?
There are three major reasons why you’re not growing:
Not enough food
Not enough training stimulus — training like a pussy
Poor genetics (I can’t help you with that)
On number 2, the number one mistake in the gym I see on a regular basis is UNDERTRAINING. If you’re eating enough calories and failing to grow, maybe seek to alter your training program. Herculean Strength can help with that.
MY (DIET) BULKING SHAKE:
When I used to powerlift, this shake was my breakfast of choice and its remarkably easy to make.
-1 cup of oats
-1 large banana
-1 or 2 scoops of protein powder
-handful of berries
-tablespoon of flax seeds
-1/2 liter of cold water (you can have cow’s milk or plant-based milk instead if you need more calories)
The way I made it, using Carnivor protein (30g protein, 120 calories per scoop), would roughly total 500-600 calories.
-tablespoon of peanut butter
-tablespoon of coconut oil
Of course, adding whole milk, peanut butter, coconut oil, and other ingredients could fluff the shake up by another 500-600 calories.
The point of this shake is to illustrate how easy it is to transition from a “lean bulk” to dieting to lose fat. By simply removing the shake from my diet would put me in a 500 calorie deficit, but adding it would have me at maintenance or slightly over if I was focusing on getting stronger.
Track What you eat + Eat Carbs Around Training
There’s a need to reiterate that you should track what you eat — and it’s not just people dieting to lose fat.
A lot of hardgainers don’t track what they eat; and when they do, there’s surprised by the fact that their almost in a perpetual caloric deficit.
While you can gain muscle in a deficit, it is not the optimal diet model to pursue if your goal is to pack on mass.
You need to consistently ensure that you are consuming enough protein and calories to fuel your post-exercise recovery and workouts themselves.
Another thing you should do — and this is something often suggested to those dieting to lose fat — is to consume generous portions of carbohydrates before and after your workouts.
Carbohydrates will fill your muscles with glycogen to power your training as well as spike insulin levels to shuttle nutrients to repair damaged muscles more efficiently post-workout.
Insulin is the most anabolic hormone naturally produced by the body, but it is indiscriminate — a caloric surplus and high levels of insulin can lead to the accumulation of body fat.
Whereas those dieting to lose fat are often advised to consume carbs around workouts to spare as much lean muscle mass as possible while in a catabolic state.
Rest, Consume Less Caffeine and Nicotine
It has been my experience that hardgainers tend to exhibit lifestyle choices that can suppress their appetite and/or wreak havoc on their recovery time.
Consuming stimulants and staying up late is a great way to not only reduce your life expectancy, but yield minimal return from your time in the gym.
Caffeine and Nicotine are appetite suppressants consumed by runway models, dancers, etc, to remain skinny.
Many hardgainers struggle to put on any size because they simply don’t eat enough and consume substances that kill their appetite, making it harder to reach their goals.
Getting a good physique is 20% training and 80% nutrition, but an overlooked factor — especially if you’re natural — is lifestyle.
Be sure to get plenty of sleep, sunshine, and spend time outside.
Stress — cortisol — is highly catabolic. In pre-industrial times, the hormone Cortisol wasn’t a bad thing — in actual fact, it served to prolong lifespans during times of hardship, famine, and war.
Today, in an environment pampered with luxury, stress coupled with fast food is a recipe for disaster
Rest is when muscles are repaired after strenuous training. A lack of sleep could also have further reaching consequences beyond subpar recovery rates.
Stimulate Muscle Groups 2-3 Times a Week, Progressive Overload
Another common error committed by hardgainers is in choosing an inefficient training split.
Natural lifters will have a 48-72 hour window for growth post workout, and the weekly, monthly, or even yearly volume one can fit into training a body part once a week is suboptimal for most lifters.
Therefore a different approach to training splits in order.
From our article on natural training splits:
By hitting a body part once a week, the body is given 52 opportunities for growth a year when 104 or even 156 opportunities for growth can be had as a natural lifter.
Enhanced lifters can afford to break down tissue in epic weekly training split workouts for body part due to quicker recovery rates, higher nitrogen retention adding to lengthier sessions, and longer recovery windows.
Natural lifters, on the other hand, don’t have the [supraphysiological] luxury of all of the above – and have to make do with more modest recovery times and volume toleration.
Hardgainers should attempt more stimulating splits such as a push/pull (4-6x week), upper/lower (4-6x week), or full body (3x week) to get the most out of their training.
By training only once a week, the hardgainer’s muscles only have 52 opportunities for growth from stimulus, but with a different split, that figure doubles to 104 and up.
In our program “Resolution” we include 3 full body splits ideal for a hardgainer.
The old-fashioned “bro splits” are suboptimal for somebody who needs extra stimulus to grow more effectively.
Progressive overload is the cornerstone to training for strength and muscular development.
You have to continually “force” the muscle to grow by continually breaking it down through training stimulus by adding more reps or weight each time you train.
Muscle is metabolically expensive — and your body needs a reason to hold onto muscle.
This is why you should strive to train harder than last time, every time.
Doing the same routine over and over again or undertraining won’t yield results. Likewise, your muscle hasn’t got a conscience and therefore cannot be “confused.”
The only thing that works is good, old-fashioned progressive overload on the basic lifts — squats, deadlifts, lunges, rows, pullups, bench press, dips, overhead press, etc,.
Compound lifts — movements that require more than two muscles and joints to complete — should form the foundation of your training.
Don’t obsess with tricep kickbacks and curls ad nauseum. Ultimately, it’s the basic lifts mentioned above that will help you build 90% of your mass.
Guys with big arms will be able to bench and row more weight than guys with smaller arms.
And this is no accident.
Isolation exercises are simply the icing on the cake.
Compound lifts elicit more of an anabolic response — potential to build more muscle — than plain ol’ isolation movements; plus their potential for progressive overload is far greater than an isolation movement.
Hardgainers should not waste their time with ineffective splits. One of the reasons why hargainers give up on the gym is because they don’t see results — stemming from the fact that their programs are ineffective and they typically under eat.
Even though your training split will be more demanding, we also recommend that you don’t overtrain, either.
Overtraining is both physically and psychologically damaging and may lead to a cessation of training altogether.
By stimulating muscle groups 2-3 times a week, we recommend that you lower the volume during your training session, but have a higher aggregate volume throughout the week.
Now, for the hardgainer, the bulk of their bulk should be made in the kitchen after much effort in the gym.
Of course, the efficacy of supplements is commonly overstated, but there are two supplements, in particular, that can help.
Creatine is a tried and tested supplement that is proven to yield supraphysiological results while being safe to consume.
This means that creatine can actually help you develop more strength and power that you could ever do so without it.
You don’t need to preload or cycle creatine.
From our article on what supplements every man should take:
This one is one of the most tried and tested sports supplements out there.
Creatine is an amino acid essential for the production of phosphocreatine — the body’s key energy source for explosive movements; for example: lifting weights. It plays a part in the formation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) — which is a vital molecule that fuels cells in exercise and day-to-day life activities.
The body naturally produces creatine in the liver, kidneys, and pancreas.
While you can acquire creatine through diet alone, the average person would be getting around a fifth of what they need from food sources such as meat, poultry, and fish.
A lot of Pre-workout supplements boast to contain creatine as one of their active ingredients. Sadly, it is repeatedly underdosed, often sitting at 2000-3000mg per serving when the active dose remains around 5000mg+.
Creatine also draws water to the muscles to increase total density.
Creatine can also increase your potential for total muscle growth by increasing the number of myonuclei around satellite cells — meaning that you can build more muscle with creatine than you could have ever done without it.
Various studies have shown Creatine’s safe, yet performance-enhancing effects in athletes.
High intensity workouts, muscle growth, and recovery are all supported by Creatine supplements.
Novice lifters can gain more lean contractile tissue over their peers when supplementing Creatine.
Apart from Creatine’s immediately desirable effects in the weight room, it can also:
- Help fight neurological diseases
- Lower blood sugar
- Stave off fatigue
- Sharpen the mind (something I have noticed, in my experience)
- Fight Parkinson’s Disease
Various personalities have talked about cycling Creatine — although this is unnecessary.
You can supplement Creatine all year round. And no, the Creatine in your Pre-workout IS NOT ENOUGH!
If you wish to buy Creatine and enjoy its myriad benefits, click here to buy now.
Another surprising legal supplement is L-Carnitine. L-Carnitine has been found to upregulate the Androgen Receptor in addition to its hypothetical enhanced lipolysis.
The only problem with supplementing L-Carnitine orally is its poor bioavailability. And if you were to consume sufficient L-Carnitine in pill form, the body produces the highly inflammatory TMAO which might require corollary protocols to offset.
Some lifters opt for injectable L-Carnitine — although it would be an undesirable course of action for most!
Finally, some hardgainers may lack motivation to hit the gym. Several pre-workouts on the market may suppress the appetites of hardgainers at a crucial opportunity for muscle protein synthesis.
As we have previously stated, it is of paramount importance that a hardgainer consumes carbohydrates before and after training to fuel the training session itself as well as recovery.
Many pre-workout supplements are brimming with stimulants such as caffeine that may suppress the hardgainer’s appetite.
And as for a lack of motivation, the hardgainer should opt for a training split that yields results as this will give them a kick stronger than any stimulant.
Don’t hesitate to email us at [email protected] for personalized coaching and a client questionnaire if you’d like DEDICATED tailor-made personal training on strength training, building muscle, losing fat, developing athleticism, and more — all to your liking, lifestyle, habits, and taste!
Alternatively, you can pick up a FREE eBook on fundamental strength principles offering an introductory workout program.