You’re reading this because you feel skinny, unathletic, weaker than you should be, or as if you’re working your ass off in the gym without any return on investment. I GET IT. You feel like a “hardgainer”.
I’ve been there and I’ve worked with COUNTLESS people who tell me they’re a hardgainer who simply cannot gain muscle, but it’s just simply not true. They just lacked the detail and specificity required in order to break the plateau they’re in and start seeing new muscle being built.
Which is why I wrote this article. Within the words of this blog, you’ll learn exactly what you need to do in order to end your frustration and start seeing consistent gains in the gym.
Putting on serious muscle, without the fat, can be a difficult journey to embark down and most guys reading this will know that it is not a smooth sailing ship. Many people underestimate how difficult it really can be – “Eat more and lift?! What the hell are you complaining about?!” – but it really just isn’t that simple, unfortunately.
Every person out there who wants to lose body fat says they’d die to be in the skinny guys shoes and many times the skinny guy begs to differ. Well lucky for you, the reader, I’ve been in both shoes.
I grew up the chubby kid in the group, and then sports helped me lean out. But when my soccer injuries came along and after having surgery, it’s safe to say I got lazy and went a little further than just ‘chubby’. So I did what any 19 year old filled with testosterone would do, I turned to muscle mag’s so I could get ripped and impress some chicks.
The result? I got skinny, which was not what the muscle monsters in the magazines looked like at all. Why? Because they had slabs of muscle and I… I definitely did not have that going on for me. So I set myself on a mission to pack on muscle.
That mission turned into a change in my college degree, a mentorship, being coached, a career, and most importantly my passion. It helped me get on stage, it helped me put others on stage, and it helped me transform client after client – no matter what their goal was.
But today I’m going to show you what the process is (or what it should be) inside the mission for maximum muscle mass, step-by-step, so you can learn exactly how to get big – without sacrificing performance, compromising joint integrity, taking illegal supplements, and of course without getting fat in the process.
Step #1 – Training (The Hardergainers Training Blueprint)
There are specific components we need to consider when we want to get jacked and unfortunately many of them have been forgotten, overlooked, or are just underrated/valued by most.
Things like the big 3, for an easy example.
Many times we see guys in the big box gyms doing cable flyes, reverse curls, leg extensions, smith machine shrugs, and every other exercise out of the bro manual 2.0 – but they’re completely forgetting to progressively overload their numbers on the bench, squat and deadlift.
Not one guy who has serious muscle on his body skips those 3 lifts, nor do they skip the “boring” exercises like pull-ups, overhead presses, and bent rows. So many people are flooding instagram with crazy variations of isolation exercises that people truly believe THOSE are the keys to getting jacked – well that’s just wrong, guys.
So now that I’ve hopefully gotten my point across, let me explain a bit more on how to design a training program when your goal is getting big. First things first, you got to lift often enough – I suggest 4 days per week and for the elite guys who have been training 3+ years, adding a 5th specialization day for your weak body parts can be smart (if you’re truly a hardgainer and have the time in your lifestyle). If you’re an advanced lifter, you may even want to jump into a 6 day program such as a push/pull/legs split (more on that HERE).
Here’s how it’ll look:
Day 1 → Upper (Nobody likes starting Monday with squats, so we’ll stick to it being international bench day.)
Day 2→ Lower (Ok we got in our favorite, time to hit your legs – because jacked dudes NEVER skip leg day and you’re not going to either)
Day 3→ 2nd Upper (Since we already hit the bench on Monday, today we’ll be starting with an overhead press for the compound lift)
Day 4→2nd Lower (We gotta hit the legs again if we want them to actually grow)
As you can see, we’re doing an upper lower split. This is going to be ideal for a 4 main reasons.
First being that it gives you enough frequency throughout the week to optimize your full growth potential. Multiple studies have shown us that frequency is a big piece of the puzzle when it comes to stimulating muscle growth and strength gains. The optimal range for this, seems to be 2x per week. Not that 3 doesn’t build muscle too, but they’ve found that more isn’t always better and 2 allows us to still prioritize recovery.
Second being that if we’re performing full body training it may not allow us to actually hit enough volume each day and if we did, we’d be at the gym for a long ass time! With an upper/lower split, we can keep training sessions to around an hour and still get enough volume in.
Thirdly, because when training full body that many times per week – the central nervous system can get overly fatigued if you’re not careful. This allows us to, once again, prioritize recovery – which is a major key to seeing results.
Fourth, lastly, it allows us to focus better. When doing an upper body day, you have more time to spend on finding that mind muscle connection. When doing a full body day, by the time you finally feel your quads working on the squat – you move on to a bench press and have to repeat that process. This helps a lot of people learn how to create tension properly in their training.
Plus let’s be real here, we all love having days dedicated to training just upper or just legs and getting a solid pump – this is going to build adherence and adherence is the first major key to achieving any result.
[Here’s a video I did breaking down the best training splits, which includes the one described in this article.]
So how do these days actually look?
Day 1 → Max Effort (This means you’re focusing on pushing some serious weight, we need to build some strength if we want to get jacked. Rep ranges should stay in the 3-8 rep range for the most part.)
Day 2 → Repetition Effort (The max effort days will be the most fatiguing on our central nervous system, therefore we’ll need to hit a repetition day to give the CNS a bit of a break. Reps should stay within the 8-20 rep range, rarely the 8 unless it’s the first compound lift.)
Rest Day → You need to recover and if you don’t feel like you do, well shit… You’re probably just not training hard enough or with enough volume to really grow.
Day 3 → Repetition Effort (Since we already hit the max upper body day, today will be dedicated to getting some reps in and it’s the ideal day to do it because it’s overhead press day. I say that because from experience personally and from many other great coaches, shoulders tend to grow best from more time under tension and higher rep training. Again, reps should stay within 8-20 range.)
Day 4 → Max Effort (We’ll save the best for last… Well actually, it’s the worse because it’s max effort leg day. This is ideal here because you’ll get 1-2 days of rest, for sure, and longer sleep, given it’ll be the weekend, after this day. It’ll be needed, too, because it will probably be your most taxing day.)
Now we know exactly what each day should be focused on and where it falls within the week, but what about the actually workout itself?
To be honest, it’s truly is impossible to break down in a single article. When it comes to program design there are so many variables that change depending on the individual, time-frame of workout, training experience, movement patterns, injuries, etc. That’s why having a coach to work with is truly a vital key for success here.
[ If you want access to a Training App that delivers periodized programs for less than $1 a day, check out The Tailored Trainer HERE]
But for the sake of this article and my attempt to give you as much content as possible for you to do it yourself, I’ll give you the main template.
|Warm Up||Don’t skip this; it’s absolutely necessary. If it’s upper body, focus on thoracic and shoulder mobility. If it’s lower body, focus on ankle and hip mobility along with dynamic stretching.|
|CNS Stimulator||This would be something explosive – could be a short burst sprint, a throw, a slam, a jump, etc. The point here is to fire the central nervous system up, because when we do this – we perform better and can recruit better for strength.|
|Metric Based Lift
(i.e. compound lift)
|This is where we hit our squat, deadlift, bench or overhead press. It’s the big component of training that should not be left out and we’ll likely need the most energy for, therefore it’s at the beginning. But I use the phrase Metric instead of Compound, because for you it could also be a bent or or weighted chin. The point is, it’s your MAIN lift you’re tracking and progressing week to week and month to month.|
|Accessory Exercise(s)||This could be 1-3 different movements, but usually are things like rows, lunges, splits squats, chin-ups, presses, unilateral work, etc. Anything that supplements the metric based lift, we can still go decently heavy with, and has high priority.|
|Specialization Work||This is where the isolation movements come in! (The fun stuff) Things like lateral raises, flies, curls, leg extensions, hip thrusts, etc.
This is the stuff we need less energy to perform, yet is still vital to build muscle in the lagging areas and places we want to grow more in.
This could be anywhere from 1-5 exercises, super-sets, single sets, EDT’s or AMRAP’s, strength circuits, sled pulls/pushes, energy systems work, etc…. Could be many different things all depending on the individual!
[Below is a video I did breaking down this exact concept, in case you’d rather watch me describe this training system!]
I’ve been using this exact system for YEARS inside my programming and although many things have changed over time, the framework has not. It actually doesn’t matter what the person’s goals are or how far along they are in their training journey, this template is the key to programming properly. It’s exactly why The Tailored Trainer has been such a big success.
Now we’re going to cover a topic that needs way less consideration, way less specifics, and in the position you’re in right now – way less focus overall.
Step #2 – Cardio (Should You Do Cardio When Bulking?)
I see WAY too many guys at the gym who are trying to get big, yet they are finishing there workouts with a 30 minute walks on the treadmill. So first rule of thumb when on a mission to get big – Never step on a treadmill.
Cardio creates a deficit and the main caloric principle when trying to get big is that we need to be in a surplus. Now that doesn’t mean you should never do cardio, in fact I suggest it to anyone who wants to get big without getting fat – well, almost anyone.
If you’re literally brand new to lifting, 1 year or less, and are extremely skinny, you should solely focus on building muscle. Which means training, eating, and chilling to recovery.
But for everyone else, which is actually the majority, I do believe adding cardio will help you out. Cardio is going to help promote better recovery and more fat mobilization, meaning you’ll actually stay leaner in your journey to getting jacked.
So, there are some rules to abide by if you want to seriously pack on serious muscle and keep an aesthetic physique:
1.) Leave your cardio to separate days or times.
Try to avoid doing cardio pre or post training. Pre training will leave you fatigued before the lifting even begins and remember, lifting is what gets you jacked. Cardio post training can possibly lower the muscle protein synthesis signal if taken too far, which is the anabolic signal in our bodies that we WANT to be going on as long as possible, and it can also drag on the recovery from starting which we do not want when training hard.
2.) Incorporate HIIT.
HIIT cardio will not sacrifice muscle, doesn’t keep you in a catabolic state for a long period of time like really long LISS sessions do, and most importantly it can actually boost that anabolic signal I spoke of in #1 – in fact, this is the only cardio that should be done post training when your goal is purely muscle gain, because of this anabolic effect it has.
3.) Periodize Your Cardio.
Cardio is something our body adapts to, pretty quickly. So it’s important to incorporate a couple days of it and vary the intensities and intervals as you go. When doing this, you will constantly improve your energy systems – which has a direct effect on your recoverability. If you can improve energy systems, you will recover better in your training sessions between sets and between sessions.
4.) Leisurely Walks.
If you can just increase your NEAT (Non-exercise activity thermogenesis) then you can keep fat at bay without sacrificing muscle. But this literally means walking the dog, taking the stairs, standing instead of sitting… You get the point.
5.) Do Fasted Cardio.
I know, I know… I said it. Do fasted cardio. This is the super bro myth to many coaches, but the reality is that it’s been shown more and more in studies to be beneficial for teaching your body to utilize fat as fuel, keep you lean, and believe it or not… stay healthy! Something like a fasted morning walk for 20-30 minutes – far from intense – is all you need. In fact, any more intense can be detrimental in the fasted state! So take it easy and keep it easy.
Training For Hardgainers, Summary and Conclusion:
Training to break through your “hardgainer ways” can be much easier than you think it is. You just need to check off these boxes:
- You need to get stronger! A strong muscle has the potential to become a big muscle and vice versa, for lack of scientific terms. So use the compound lifts and specific exercises YOU personally know you can progressive overload overtime. Once you have those, repeat them month after month!
- Stop playing around with isolation work! Yes, if you want big arms you need to curl. But don’t spend your entire session working on machines. Grab some heavy bells and get to work. Once you put the work in with the free weight functional movements, hit the machines to finish off.
- You need to do enough work! Volume is the key drive of hypertrophy (study) and that simply means you NEED to do enough work in the gym to stimulate your muscles to grow – PERIOD. This happens in 2 ways: doing enough total sets per week, first, and secondly by pushing yourself close enough to failure that you increase volume via sets x reps x load (i.e. tonnage).
- Stay aerobically healthy! If you are unhealthy aerobically or have poor energy systems, you will not continue to grow because your ability to train hard and actually recover will be poor, too. Because of this, you need to do SOME cardio – but usually that means athletic conditioning or simply walking, both in lower dosages per week.
Step #3 – Supplementation For Hardgainers
Before we get into anything regarding taking supplements, let’s clear the air.
“Sup-ple-ment” – something that completes or enhances something else when added to it (Defined by Google University).
A supplement is something that contributes to your already well-put together plan. Meaning, before you have the right to purchase or take any supplement you’ll need to have your diet in check and your training as well.
By the end of this article you will have the roadmap needed to create your specific training and nutrition plan, so this shouldn’t be an issue. But knowing how today’s society is and how the fitness industry has become over the last decade or two, I needed to ensure you understand the truth.
There are 4 supplements that are worth taking in my opinion and 3 extra’s I’ll throw in there as optional choices that can be added in if you have the disposable income or have special requirements.
Creatine Monohydrate – This is one of the only supplements that have been tested over and over again, without any negative side effects shown in any study. In fact, beyond hydrating and fueling the muscle for more recovery – which can lead to more strength and size – they’re finding results to say it helps with brain function as well. Brand qualities can be iffy at times, I suggest finding something with a patented label using only the ingredient of ‘Creapure’ ™ – and for an entire article JUST on this supplement, read our creatine manual.
Fish Oil – Majority of the population does not get enough fatty fish and therefore their Omega 3 to 6 ratio is out of whack. Take a qualified supplement and shoot for 1.5-3g of combined EPA/DHA daily – or start eating fatty fish 2-3 times per week. I recommend Legion’s Fish Oil because it ensures you’re getting enough EPA/DHA.
Greens Powder – This is just to ensure you’re getting your vitamins and minerals, which many bodybuilders and athletes actually do not get. In fact, there it is very common to see micronutrient deficiencies in athletes because they’re sweating, working hard, and typically eat very simplistic meals. I simply take and suggest taking a greens drink once per day, at any time. You can go with a Multivitamin or a Green’s Powder to cover your bases.
Whey Protein – Whey is one of the most bioavailable protein sources we can get and when it comes to building muscle, as long as your body tolerates whey well, this is a great way to ensure you’re hitting your daily target. But remember, this is more of a substitute for when you cannot eat whole food protein sources, are on the go, making a smoothie-shake, or struggle to actually get enough protein in daily.
Magnesium (Optional) – Magnesium is another one of those micronutrients that A LOT of people are deficient in and if they do not supplement it, they may see performance drops in the gym. Magnesium is going to help build muscle on a neurological level as well as a muscle tissue level, as well. I go with the Doctor’s Best brand simply because again, it’s lab tested for purity (I keep mentioning that, so you know – you can check out labdoor.com and find all the supplements that are tested and how they rank).
Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin (Optional) – HBCD is a type of carbohydrate that differs other carbohydrate sources, it offers a low osmolality and high molecular weight which allows it to be rapidly digested with very low gut stress at all. This makes it perfect as an intra/post workout carb source because it’s going to be used as pure muscle glycogen. Studies have shown this to literally help build more muscles in cross sectional tissue by increasing the recovery and hormonal response from training hard. Any pure HBCD is great, such as Glyfocuse or True Nutrition’s.
EAA’s (Optional) – If you’re eating protein every 3-5 hours this may be unnecessary and that’s actually been proven. But there is one specific time this comes into play and can be beneficial, and that’s when drinking the HBCD shake mentioned previously. In the studies and in our experience, coupling EAA’s with the HBCD is the best way to get the most out of your intra-workout nutrition and to see the most gains possible. EAA’s are harder to come across than BCAA’s, but don’t let that fool you – they’re going to have more bang for their buck than BCAA’s will. True Nutrition is the best source in my opinion and you can even create your own HBCD/EAA blend if you go straight to their site.
Step #4 – Nutrition For Hardgainers
Yes, that is absolutely myself eating sushi while drinking some Rainier Beer (Seattle Native Brewery) after a serious deadlift session. Why would I put this here? Simple – flexibility is key for any result.
You do not need to eat 6 meals a day to burn fat or build muscle. You can go 5-6 hours without eating if your schedule calls for it. You can throw some beer, wine or vodka sodas in your calorie limit here and there if you can make it fit.
Remember, building muscle takes time and for it to truly happen – you need to turn this into a serious lifestyle. If you are too impatient, it just doesn’t happen. So slow down and have a beer, enjoy the ride.
Now, I will say that alcohol can negatively impact results depending on a few things. Meaning, beer has a lot of calories and if you drink too often you will get fat. Simple as that, but is it the alcohol or the calories? We don’t know for sure, but studies are showing it to be the calories.
On the contrary, they’re also saying that once you reach your “drunk limit” (the point where you’re clearly tipsy – which is actually sooner than most realize) your body will react differently. The body will do anything to get the alcohol out of its system, meaning that building muscle and burning fat gets put on hold until it’s all out. So let’s just plan to save it for occasions only.
It also can have a negative impact on building muscle if you decide to finish your workout with a beer, like I did above. After a workout your body wants protein to be the first thing it sees and although it doesn’t matter much if it’s within 15 minutes or two hours, it needs to come before alcohol if you want maximum gains.
The main driving force here is truly being flexible and understanding that there is no “magic foods” or “muscle building ingredients” that you can eat. But there are a few things to follow in order to make serious gains without the extra fat.
First things first, we need to cover calories.
If you’re not in a caloric surplus then you’re not going to gain much size at all. The only people who can work around this science-based fact are brand new lifters – meaning the people who have been training for 1 year or less. If you’re one of them, you could have stopped reading at the training section and still made crazy gains – and some individuals who need a big shift – these people can build muscle at maintenance level calories, because they’re probably not optimizing sleep, training, or macros. So when you implement methods to optimist this 3 things, gains come easily.
“Ok, so for everyone else – how many calories do I need?”
If you’re a serious “hard-gainer” then you’ll most likely need around 16-18x your bodyweight (pounds) in calories (very general calculation, for more individualization check out my FREE ebook The Tailored Nutrition Method).
If you’ve been fat, just got done with a serious diet, or you just easily put on body fat, then I would suggest starting at your maintenance caloric intake for a few weeks at first and then slowly creeping your daily intake up. If you jump up right away, you will put fat on and when you do this many negative hormonal responses can happen and negatively affect your rate of gain for lean muscle mass (Start with ~14x your bodyweight in lb.’s or find your average daily intake after tracking for 1-2 weeks).
Secondly, we need to cover protein.
Get 0.8-1.2g per pound of body weight. With protein, it can be a range like this because a little extra won’t hurt at all and if you fall short it won’t hurt your gains either.
It’s very hard to store protein as body fat and the leftovers will likely be used or burned, but since you’ll be in a caloric surplus we don’t need to worry about falling a little short on occasion either – extra carbs can make up for lack of protein.
Carbs are a protein sparing nutrient, meaning when we have plenty of them they can actually make up for the job protein should be doing. But this doesn’t mean you can rely on them, as you can imagine protein is best at the role of recovery and carbs are best at the role of fuel – so manage them both and you’ll be much better off.
[For more info on protein, we have a full guide on protein – everything you can possibly want to know about it, and then some. READ IT HERE]
After protein, we figure out fats.
Two reasons fats come next: 1.) Because like protein, they’re an essential nutrient which means that we literally cannot survive without them and 2.) Because we’ll need a smaller percentage of our calories to come from them compared to carbs, which means whatever calories we have left go straight to carbohydrates.
For this, we’re going to use an example skinny guy that is 170lbs and wants to make the most progress on lean gains as he possibly can. Because of that, we’re going to be conservative and start with what we’d guess to be a maintenance level calories and then project caloric increases to come in the future. Let’s do the math for his calories, his protein, his fat, and then plug in his carbs at the end:
170lbs x 15 = 2,550
His protein range will be somewhere between 135 – 205g, but again for easy math, flexibility, and what I’ve seen work best, we’re going to use BW x 1.1g – which equals 187g (round to 185).
185g or protein x 4 (calories per gram) = 740 calories from protein.
For fat’s, we’re going to make it 25% of his diet. This is going to keep him in a healthy range for both hormonal and neurological purposes, keep them high enough for some flexibility, and it will ensure he doesn’t over consume fats and get a bit chubby in this whole process.
25% of 2,550 calories = 637.5 calories ÷ 9 (calories per gram) = 70.8333333… Lets call it 70.
So if we add the above all together, he’s consuming:
70g of Fat and 185g of Protein.
This adds up to 1,370 calories and leaves us with 1,180 calories for…
[And just like protein, we created a full guide on fats for you as well. You can read that one, right here.]
Carbs, the performance driver.
1,180 ÷ 4 (calories per gram) = 295…let’s round that to 300g.
So now the skinny man’s macros look like:
Calories – 2,550
Protein – 185g
Fat – 70g
Carbs – 300g
[ Remember that there are many physiological things differing in each and every person, on top of lifestyle factors and dietary history, which can alter exactly how we prescribe macronutrients – if you want to learn about a individualized nutritional approach click here now. ]
Now how do you fill those macros?
My suggestion will always be to have flexibility in the foods you eat, while still keeping 90% of what you consume to whole food sources that digest very easily with you personally – if your gut health is a wreck, your body won’t assimilate and absorb the calories you’re giving it well and that only leads to less muscle and more body fat.
→ Shoot for 4-6 meals per day and make sure you equally spread protein out between those meals when you can.
→ Make sure you get 1 serving of fruit per day and switch the types of fruit up when you can.
→ Aim to consume 3+ cups of green veggies per day, colorful ones are great too.
→ Fats can come from pretty much any whole source, but my favorite way to get fats in will be from fatty fish and grass fed beef, egg yolks, grass fed butter, coconut and olive oils, and avocados.
→ For carbs, besides the HBCD, I’m a big fan of making 75% or more of the starchy carbs you consume come from sweet potatoes and white rice – sweet potatoes have lots of great nutrients our body’s need and white rice is extremely easy to digest and store as muscle glycogen.
Other than all that, consume your water and the supplements above and you’re golden! I typically throw in nutrient timing recommendations, refeeds, and other strategies for clients as well, but that is all part of the individualized process inside our nutrition coaching program (apply for a free strategy call here).
The final step…. #5 Consistency
Real gains don’t happen overnight guys, so be patient. Anyone who is jacked will tell you the same thing – “It takes hard work, consistency, and deliberate practice to truly grow.”
That statement can be applied to success in anything in life as well. So that’s what I’ll leave you with today… Follow this guide, be consistent, put in the right effort, and you will see gains.