Positivity, confidence, and persistence are key in life, so never give up on yourself.
A hardgainer is someone who struggles to gain muscle, no matter how hard they exercise or what they eat. We usually associate the word with a skinny guy who forgets to eat or burns through everything he does eat thanks to his furnace-like metabolism. In fact, there are many more reasons why you might think you belong to this category. For example, if you’re a trans guy and you aren’t taking testosterone, you may feel like a hardgainer compared to cis men.
I’m a bit of a hardgainer myself, but I’ve been able to make some good changes to my physique regardless. The biggest lesson I have learnt so far is that making gains is definitely possible, but it might not happen the way I think it “must”, based on what other people have accomplished. It only happens the way that’s right for my own body.
In this article, I’m going to outline my experience, issues, and solutions, hoping to help other small guys and girls out there with their own fitness journey.
Am I a Hardgainer?
Hardgainers tend to be ectomorphs, tall, slim individuals that have difficulty gaining both fat and muscle. However, I would add that having ectomorphic tendencies can be enough to force you to work harder than others to develop lean mass.
For instance, my primary type is the mesomorph, but I may also have ectomorphic tendencies because I have observed that my individual rate of muscle gain appears to be slower than for the average mesomorph. You could also have some ectomorphic traits if you’re an endomorph, meaning you would be prone to storing fat easily, but not muscle*.
On the other hand, you may think you’re a hardgainer, when you only need to make a few small changes to your nutrition and training. Consider one or more of the following options as starting points.
*If you are in a male body and identify as male, this might also be one of several potential symptoms of testosterone deficiency, which is a debilitating health condition. In this case, consult a qualified health professional for advice.
Problem: You May Not Be Eating Enough
Solution: Track your food for a week and work out your average caloric intake over at least three days (including one weekend day). You can use one of the many equations available online to estimate your maintenance calories. A caloric deficit is more likely to hinder muscle gain than maintenance calories or a slight surplus, unless you have less than six months’ lifting experience. So, if you’re eating less than maintenance, work up to that amount. If your goal is to gain weight, up your intake by 10-15%.
Increase calories gradually if you’re not used to eating so much! Drinking shakes and having more frequent meals will help you ease into it without feeling overwhelmed.
Problem: You’re Going Too Hard
Solution: You may be doing a lot of activities, including both cardio and resistance training. If your primary goal is to gain muscle, you have to take into account that excessive amounts of cardio will slow down your progress, so cutting down on it could get you out of the rut.
Moreover, if your current lifestyle is busy and you’re under a lot of non-exercise-related stress, dialling down the intensity of your training will help prevent burnout.
Problem: You’re Not Training Hard Enough
Solution: Again, analyse your training or – better yet – ask a personal trainer or other fitness professional to do it for you. Maybe you’re not actually stimulating your muscles to grow. Try adding one or two kilos (2.2 to 4.4 lbs) to the load for one exercise per muscle group per week. Alternatively, add one or two sets, or one or two reps to one exercise per muscle group per week. Doing so on a regular basis is called progressive overload, the principle that drives strength gains and hypertrophy.
Problem: You May Have the Wrong Perspective
Solution: Consider why you think you’re a hardgainer. Are you comparing yourself to a professional bodybuilder or powerlifter? They train and eat to reach extreme levels of fitness in preparation for competitions and meets, not for long-term health like you, so their methods and results won’t always be applicable to you. Moreover, they have years, when not decades, of experience and they can often rely on coaches to help them. If you hold them as the standard, it’s inevitable to feel like you barely make any progress at all.
Do you have unrealistic expectations about how fast you should be gaining? Your individual gains will be specific to your genetics, body type, lifestyle, and many other factors that may change over time. Track your progress and think bigger picture when you’re evaluating your results.
For example, as a beginner, I used to think I must be able to add at least 1 kg to my load on each exercise every week. When I couldn’t do that, I was disappointed with myself. However, I soon realised that, although the weight was the same, my reps were much better and felt easier one workout or one week later. I was still getting results!
So you’ve tried the solutions outlined above, but you’re still not improving. Now what?
Problem: What About Macros?
Solution: At least in this corner of the online fitness world, “Eat your protein” is all the rage. Consuming protein promotes muscle growth and reduces muscle loss when dieting in resistance trained individuals. However, protein is also a very filling macronutrient. The current research recommends a range from 1.6 gr/kg/day to 2.2 gr/kg/day (0.8 gr/lbs to 1.1 gr/lbs) to optimise the gains in lean mass caused by resistance training (click). Shoot for the lower end instead of the upper end to avoid feeling too full too soon.
Moreover, I perform and feel really well on a high-carb diet, which makes logical sense. Whether you have a faster metabolism than average or you are very active, you need to compensate for the amount of energy you burn. Carbs are the body’s preferred supply of energy and your performance’s best friend. In fact, research shows that an adequate carbohydrate intake aids and enhances training (click). For this reason, you want to pay special attention to this nutrient and in particular around your training: before and after a session, if you lift in the late morning or afternoon, or definitely after if you train first thing on an empty stomach.
I also find it beneficial to choose less satiating carbohydrate-rich foods along with more filling options. The latter tend to be lower in calories, which means I’d have to eat huge portions of them: think quinoa, sweet potato, or oatmeal, for example. That would make me feel stuffed, bloated, and uncomfortable all day long. These foods are full of healthy macro- and micronutrients, so I still consume them, but I also regularly include more calorie-dense choices like bread, pasta, and rice. When I have fruit and vegetables, I often pick higher-calorie options like bananas, mangos, carrots, parsnips, and all root vegetables.
Lastly, your fat intake would be best balanced with your carbohydrate intake. So, if you up your carbs, lower your fat to keep your protein to at least 1.6 gr/kg/day and to avoid unpleasant feelings of excessive fullness, as fat is another filling macronutrient.
However, don’t worry too much about it. If you’re eating a high-carb, sufficiently high-protein diet, even without tracking your food, you will naturally eat less fat. So take care of your carbs and protein first, then fill your remaining calories with fat.
Problem: You Still Don’t See Any Difference
Solution: Resistance training implies delayed gratification. In other words, patience. I weigh myself and measure my waist every day, take pictures and other body measurements on a monthly basis, and wait at least one or two months of eating certain amounts or following a new macro split to see if there are any changes to my appearance or gym performance.
Keep in mind that the number the calculator gave you is an estimation, so don’t be afraid to eat a little more still. However, before you try to wolf down 10,000 kcal per day, make sure you are training with adequate volume to drive progressive overload. A combination of a low workload and excessive calories will make you gain more fat than muscle, resulting in the “skinny fat” look.
On the other hand, if you feel you’re eating too much and gaining weight and fat at an uncomfortable rate for you, feel free to eat a little less than the estimated amount. In the end, your own individual results trump the validity of any equation.
Problem: You’re Still Doing Too Much… But Maybe Not At the Gym
Solution: You may not realise how active you truly are. Try to keep a log for a week and write down every one of your daily activities (including sleeping, sitting, doing chores, etc.) and how long you spent on each.
Remember that the minimum amount of cardio recommended for general health is 150 minutes per week of moderate activity, like walking, or 75 minutes of intense activity, like running. Comparing your log to these guidelines should give you a valuable estimation of your current activity levels.
In the past, I didn’t account for my daily walking, which ranges from one and a half to two hours every day. On top of that, I was also doing two to three HIIT or kickboxing sessions a week. As a result, I lost weight despite myself.
Instead of upping my intake to ridiculous amounts for my small size, I decided to drop my cardio to one session of kickboxing a week on one of my rest days. If you’re very active outside of the gym, one or two cardio sessions – preferably performed on rest days or after lifting – is plenty.
Problem: Too Many Exercises, Too Much Volume
Solution: My first couple of weeks of strength training were a disaster. I was trying to do six or seven supersets per session, which amounted to about 12 to 14 exercises per workout. I didn’t recover well between sessions and couldn’t go up in weight or reps.
Then I devised this simple routine that works all major muscle groups, including quads (squat), hamstrings and back (deadlift), shoulders (shoulder press), and chest (floor press). Finally, I started to see some progress. I used a load with which I could do 4 sets of 10 reps and added more weight every workout or every week, depending on the exercise. With moderately heavy dumbbells, 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps is a good range to shoot for if the movement feels hard, but not painful.
I also used to add a superset at the end, but my starting point was a relatively high body fat percentage, so at the time I was trying to cut. If you’re already normal weight or underweight, the superset may be overkill.
At the time I had to exercise at home with adjustable dumbbells and I was too weak for a barbell, so that routine really helped. On the other hand, if you already go to the gym and you’re strong enough to lift a barbell, practise compound movements for low reps (4 to 6) with a heavy load. Programmes like Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe are the staples for lifters because they work in their simplicity. They’re particularly great for hardgainers, who can wear themselves out doing too many exercises per session.
You and the standard won’t always overlap. Understanding that has helped me appreciate the gains I have made instead of mourning those I was “supposed” to make. This positive mindset also allows me to enjoy my training more, which in turn has increased my motivation and enhanced my performance.
In Future Episodes:
Tune in next week for more nutrition-related content. My next article will cover ways to optimise eating habits with a very busy lifestyle.
Do you see yourself as a “hardgainer”? What have you done to overcome that?
A personal trainer who likes superheroes, bread, lifting weights, and studying “fitness stuff”.
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