Some guys believe that their bodies are genetically programmed to stay scrawny and weak, regardless of how hard they train or how much they eat.
Sometimes they turn to steroids and sometimes they just quit.
While it’s true that some people naturally have an easier time gaining muscle than others due to hormone levels and genetic predispositions, nobody is doomed to have a forever-frail physique.
The thing is, every person I’ve known that has made the hardgainer claim was training and eating incorrectly—every single one.
They were all making several (or in some cases, all) of the following mistakes:
- Working out too little or too much.
If you’re an ectomorph type who has had trouble putting on size, I actually envy you.
Your natural leanness is a blessing because when you start lifting hard and eating properly, you’ll build muscle like the rest of us, but you’ll put on less body fat, making you look better.
And when you want to cut down to super-lean body fat levels, you’ll find it much easier than most.
Yet another benefit of being an ecto is that you don’t need as much muscle mass to look big when you’re lean.
15 pounds put on a lean frame can be quite a dramatic change, and if you know what you’re doing, that’s 3-5 months of work, tops.
But you need to know what you’re doing in those 3-5 months. And it primarily boils down to doing two, simple things: eating enough food, and lifting heavy weights.
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You Have to Eat Big to Get Big, But…
The word “bulking” has negative connotations with many guys.
They think it means spending their days planning meals and eating everything in sight, and that it results in a gradual transformation into some kind of amorphous blob that can throw around 150 lbs dumbbells.
Well, excessive weight gain is not only unnecessary in a proper bulk, it’s should be avoided for several reason. Being overweight comes with all kinds of health risks, as most people know, but it also accelerates fat storage and gets in the way of building muscle.
Because as body fat levels rise, insulin sensitivity drops, which in turn impairs your body’s ability to burn fat and increases the likelihood that it will store carbohydrates as fat, and suppresses intracellular signaling responsible for protein synthesis.
So, a much smarter way to “bulk” is to provide a low-to-moderate caloric surplus that allows for steady muscle growth while minimizing fat storage. A proper bulk should give you about .5-1.5 lbs of weight gain per week, and here’s a simple way to work this out for your body:
- Eat 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day.
- Eat 2 grams of carbs per pound of body weight per day.
- Eat .4 grams of healthy fat per pounds of body weight per day.
That’s where you start. For a 150-pound male, it would look like this:
- 150 grams of protein per day
- 300 grams of carbs per day
- 60 grams of fat per day
This would be about 2,340 calories per day (protein has about 4 calories per gram, as do carbs, and fats have about 9 calories per gram), which should be enough to maintain steady muscle growth.
If you eat like this for 10–14 days and haven’t gained weight yet, you should up your calories by about 200 per day and see if that fixes it. If, after another 10–14 days, your weight is still stuck, simply bump your calories up again. While most people don’t have to adjust much, metabolisms do vary, so part of the process is finding your body’s “sweet spot.”
While dietary needs for building muscle efficiently and without excessive weight gain aren’t disputed (eat enough protein every day and keep your body in a moderate caloric surplus), the subject of how to train to maximize strength and muscle growth is controversial.
Let’s tackle that next.
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“Everybody Wants to Be a Bodybuilder…But Nobody Wants to Lift This Heavy Ass Weight!”
The above quote is an astute observation made by one of the leading minds in exercise science, Professor Ronnie Coleman.
Here’s a simple little fact most guys, and even many “experts,” want to avoid: if you want to get big and strong in the least amount of time possible, you have to lift heavy weights, and you have to get off the machines.
The reason why is simple: Muscle grows in response to increased tension within the muscle. In order to keep stimulating growth, you have to keep increasing the tension caused by lifting that is, you have to keep adding weight to the bar. And while machines are good for rehabilitating injuries, research has shown that they just don’t build muscle and strength as effectively as free weights do.
One of the main, never-ending arguments in the world of weightlifting is on the concept of the ideal rep range for growth. That is, how much weight you should use, and how many reps should you do in each set. Opinions on what’s best are all over the place, ranging from recommendations of only a few heavy sets to 20–30 high-rep sets per workout.
At this point I can say with absolute certainty that there’s something “special” about lifting heavy weights while keeping your total workout sets (known as your workout volume) in the medium-to-high range. You’ll find evidences of its effectiveness in various places in literature.
One example is a study conducted by Arizona State University wherein they reviewed 140 other weightlifting studies and concluded that training with weights that are 80% of your one-rep max produces maximal strength gains.
Another is a paper published by the American College of Sports Medicine that recommended an “eventual emphasis on heavy loading (1-6 repetition maximum) using at least 3-minute rest periods between sets…”
Yet another sign of the effectiveness of lifting heavy weights is found in a study published by Ohio University, which had 32 untrained men lift weights for 8 weeks. They were spilt into 3 groups and one worked in the range of 3–5 reps, another in the range of 9–11 reps, and the last in the range of 20–28 reps. By the end of the 8-week period, the group working in the 3–5 rep range made significantly more gains in both strength and muscle than the other two groups.
My conviction about the superiority of this style of training goes beyond studies and theory. I used to train exclusively in the 10–12 rep range and REALLY got stuck in terms of strength and physique development. When I switched to focusing on 4–6 reps about 3 years, my strength exploded and physique dramatically changed (I’ve since increased my weights on every lift by 50–80%, and went from maintaining 187 lbs at 11% body fat to, currently, 193 lbs at 8%).
I’ve also had the opportunity to coach hundreds of people through my work, and the results are the same. Every day I email with guys that were stuck in a rut, pounding away in the 8–12 rep range, and who are now making progress again by focusing on heavy lifting with medium/high workout volume.
Unsurprisingly, many of the most respected names in this industry, such as Mark Rippetoe, Martin Berkhan, Alan Aragon, Lyle McDonald, and Pavel Tsatsouline, all advocate heavy, compound lifting. The consensus is simple: it just works.
The bottom line is if you want to get bigger, you have to get stronger, and the best way to do that is lift heavy stuff.
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The Weightlifting Protocol That Will Slay Your Inner “Hardgainer”
Here’s what I want you to do:
Adjust your weight so you can only do 4–6 reps.
That is, use enough weight to allow you to do 4 reps, but prevent you from doing more than 6. Generally speaking, this is about 80-85% of your one-rep max.
Always work to do more reps and weight.
The easiest way to get stuck in your progress is to lift the same weights every week, for the same reps. Therefore, it’s important that you’re always striving to improve the amount of reps you can do with a given weight, which then allows you to increase the amount of weight that you can lift.
And to relate this back to my advice regarding training in the 4–6 rep range, it’s very simple: once you can do 6 reps, you increase the weight by 5–10 lbs, and work with that weight until you can do 6 reps—which could take another couple of weeks of training—increase the weight again, and so on.
And in terms of exercises, if you want to really get the most out of your training, you must be doing the following exercises every week:
These are the primary mass builders and I promise you that you’ll never build a great physique without doing them regularly and heavily.
So, if you’ve had trouble building muscle despite regular weightlifting, heed my advice: eat big and lift big, and you’ll get big.
What’s your take on the hardgainer claim? Are you having trouble gaining strength and weight? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Campos GER, Luecke TJ, Wendeln HK, et al. Muscular adaptations in response to three different resistance-training regimens: Specificity of repetition maximum training zones. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2002;88(1-2):50-60. doi:10.1007/s00421-002-0681-6
- American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. - PubMed - NCBI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11828249. Accessed December 10, 2019.
- Rhea MR, Alvar BA, Burkett LN, Ball SD. A meta-analysis to determine the dose response for strength development. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003;35(3):456-464. doi:10.1249/01.MSS.0000053727.63505.D41. Rhea MR, Alvar BA, Burkett LN, Ball SD. A meta-analysis to determine the dose response for strength development. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003;35(3):456-464. doi:10.1249/01.MSS.0000053727.63505.D4
- Spennewyn KC. Strength outcomes in fixed versus free-form resistance equipment. J Strength Cond Res. 2008;22(1):75-81. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31815ef5e7
- Hostler D, Crill MT, Hagerman FC, Staron RS. The Effectiveness of 0.5-lb Increments in Progressive Resistance Exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2001;15(1):86-91. doi:10.1519/1533-4287(2001)015<0086:TEOLII>2.0.CO;2
- Goldberg AL, Etlinger JD, Coldspink DF, Jableck C. Mechanism of work-induced hypertrophy of skeletal muscle. Med Sci Sports. 1975;7(4):248-261. doi:10.1249/00005768-197500740-00003
- Wang X, Hu Z, Hu J, Du J, Mitch WE. Insulin resistance accelerates muscle protein degradation: Activation of the ubiquitin-proteasome pathway by defects in muscle cell signaling. Endocrinology. 2006;147(9):4160-4168. doi:10.1210/en.2006-0251
- Zhang J, Hupfeld CJ, Taylor SS, Olefsky JM, Tsien RY. Insulin disrupts β-adrenergic signalling to protein kinase A in adipocytes. Nature. 2005;437(7058):569-573. doi:10.1038/nature04140
- Dyck DJ, Heigenhauser GJF, Bruce CR. The role of adipokines as regulators of skeletal muscle fatty acid metabolism and insulin sensitivity. Acta Physiol. 2006;186(1):5-16. doi:10.1111/j.1748-1716.2005.01502.x