Nutrition Training

Bodybuilding 101: Are You a Hardgainer?

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If you're someone who can “eat whatever you want and not gain weight”, this article is for you.

You eat pizza, pasta, and burgers all while lifting weights, but the scale doesn't budge. You're eating and lifting big, but haven't gained a single pound.

It's a sure sign you're a hardgainer. Right?

What is a Hardgainer?

Hardgainer – an individual who doesn't build muscle despite proper training, caloric surplus, and adequate recovery.

In common practice, however, “hardgainer” is used to describe inexperienced lifters that have trouble gaining weight.

Big difference.

The Fast Metabolism Myth

Scene: It's 3 p.m. at a local fast food restaurant and a self-proclaimed “hardgainer” is proudly scarfing down two cheeseburgers, french fries, and a shake.

Skinny Scotty: “I eat so much, but I just can't gain weight. I have a really fast metabolism.”

Me: “What did you eat for breakfast?”

Skinny Scotty: “Um, nothing.”

Me: “What's for dinner?”

Skinny Scotty (gives me a quizzical look): “This is dinner…”

See what I'm getting at? A lot of guys think they have a blazing fast metabolism and can eat big all day. In reality, sometimes they feast, sometimes they snack, and other times they eat next to nothing. But on average, they meet their basic energy requirements and nothing more.

So the issue at hand isn't an inability to gain muscle, it's figuring out how to eat enough to get the scale moving. There isn't a person alive that can't gain weight (excluding extreme medical cases), only people who don't eat as much as they think they do.

Hardgainers: Real but Rare

The cold hard truth is that, if your bodyweight remains constant, you simply aren't eating enough. It's physiologically impossible to consistently eat more calories than your body requires and not gain a single pound.

Check out my friend Damian to see how he Gained 38 Lbs in One Year.

Don't beat yourself up if this applies to you. Muscle magazines and supplement companies spend billions of dollars to convince you that you'll look like a pro-bodybuilder in three months if you follow this “insane program” or buy this “bottle of pills”.

They're trying to keep you ignorant of the important aspects of bodybuilding. They don't make money selling steak, after all.

There are, without a doubt, people out there who have extreme difficulty building muscle, despite doing everything right. Hardgainers are real, but in an extreme minority.

So before you lump yourself in with this group, you need to eliminate a few possible hang-ups first.

Hardgainer Diagnostic Process

Follow these steps (in the order given) to find out if you're an actual hardgainer or just missing a piece of the muscle puzzle.

(Hint – missing a piece of the puzzle is a much better option than being a true hardgainer).

1) Determine if you're eating enough gain weight – If the numbers on the scale aren't going up week after week, you simply aren't eating enough. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. This must be solved first and foremost.

I'm not talking about a three-pound difference from one day to the next. That happens to everyone. I'm talking about gaining an honest 15lbs over three or four months and your clothes getting noticeably tighter.

If the scale is consistently heading in the right direction, but you still aren't getting stronger or feeling more muscular, it's time for Step #2.

2) Evaluate your training – Are you following the muscle magazine advice of blasting your muscles with isolation exercises for 60 sets per workout, 7 days a week? If yes, then cut it out and get on a basic program like this. Don't worry, you can get on a fancy program after things are sorted out.

If you're gaining weight and training correctly, then you need to…

3) Assess your recovery – Are you routinely staying up until 3 a.m. playing Call of Warcraft? You'll need 7-8 hours of sleep per night to ensure lack of recovery isn't robbing you of your precious gains.

If your weight is going up, you're training properly, and sleeping enough, the next step is to…

4) Go see the doctor – If you're absolutely sure that everything else is in line and you aren't gaining muscle, you may want to consider getting a hormone screening. If you have the testosterone levels of a 12-year old cheerleader, nothing you do in the gym will make much of a difference. If your bodyweight is increasing faster than your bench press, that's a red flag.

Let me make something very clear, though.

If you don't give the first three steps a significant effort and jump straight to #4, you're a colossal pussy and don't deserve any results. End of story.

The Skinny Guy Solution

If you realize you're shortcoming is at Step #1 (the most likely scenario), you're in luck. You're not actually a hardgainer! Seriously, be grateful for that.

More good news – guys who start out skinny and pack on muscle usually have much better physiques than naturally stocky guys. So don't get discouraged, you're at an advantage here!

All you have to do now is follow the guidance below and you'll be on your way to the body of your dreams.

1) Know how much you eat and add to that – Keep track of everything you eat for two weeks to establish a baseline, and be honest. An app like myfitnesspal will make this a breeze. Take the average calories over two weeks as your maintenance calorie level. To gain weight, simply add 200-300 calories to your established average.

For example, if you've determined you average 2,100 calories a day to maintain weight, take in 2,400 calories per day for two weeks and see where that puts you. If the scale still isn't moving, go up to 2,600 for another two weeks.

2) Be consistent! – This is the most important thing. Weight gain is about the long game. If you're really dedicated and eat an extra 2,000 calories one week, then lose motivation and come up short the next, you'll just break even like you were before.

3) Don't be perfect – If you're a guy with a small appetite, you'll never eat enough chicken and rice to gain weight. This isn't a green light to eat like complete shit, but some sweets are ok. Have dessert with dinner, milk or a protein shake with meals, and snack in between meals, if necessary. Read my Nutrition Cheat Sheet for a proper foundation.

4) Don't forget to lift some weights – Muscle doesn't magically materialize in the presence of extra calories. It's your body's response to external demands (pumping that iron). Of course, your body won't bother to build new tissue unless you consume sufficient calories. That's why food or weights alone won't be enough – you need the pair.

If this sounds too involved, don't fret. You won't have to count calories forever.

The reason most guys are underweight is that they overestimate how much they eat in the first place. Once you develop good eating habits, you can go back to ball parking calories.

The True Hardgainer Solution

If you establish that you are a true hardgainer, all is not lost. Everyone has the power to make positive changes to their physique, some just more slowly than others.

Experimentation is your new mission. You're going to have to experiment with different training programs including high volume, powerlifting, and high intensity training to find out what works best for your stubborn physique.

Be sure to give each program its fair shake – don't abandon the campaign just because it doesn't feel like something is working after a week.

Regarding diet, I would recommend finding out how you do on low-carb, paleo, or lower fat diets, to name a few.

Overall, a persistent, confident attitude and approach will be key for the hardgainer.  Just because you weren't dealt the best hand, doesn't mean you have to fold on your body dreams.

So let me know. Are you a true hardgainer or do you need to up your food intake, modify your training, or increase recovery?

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  • Reply
    February 15, 2015 at 7:38 pm

    The best solution for hardgainers; work out harder. Squatting mind numbing poundages will increase your appetite by ten fold.

    • Reply
      February 15, 2015 at 10:55 pm

      Working out hard will indeed increase your appetite. You need both the stimulus (lifting) and raw materials (food) to gain muscle.

  • Reply
    Damian @ Dareandconquer
    February 27, 2015 at 10:35 am

    That’s a quality article nate.Very informative,couldn’t agree more with everything stated here.

  • Reply
    March 3, 2015 at 3:00 am

    I come from a family of hardgainers, and I’m a hardgainer myself. Freshman year of college, I was a 6’5″ 170 pound beanpole. I ate a lot to maintain that weight, but I wasn’t lifting much and I was eating a lot of empty calories.

    I modified my diet and started eating 4-6 meals a day. I hit the gym hard, and still do to this day. At my peak (age 21), I was 240 lbs of muscle. Today (age 25), I have been pretty consistently around 200 lbs of muscle, which seems to be the most sustainable weight for me. I look pretty big, but I don’t have to eat so much I feel nauseous.

    As your article points out, I feel a lot of “hardgainers” out there simply don’t have the discipline in their diets. A few simple tweaks is all it takes for most people, and even if you’re a true hardgainer, it isn’t rocket science to put on mass if you’re committed to it. Good read – definitely resonated with this former beanpole.

    • Reply
      March 3, 2015 at 4:43 pm

      Going from 170 to 240 lbs is some serious progress! You must’ve been one scary looking dude. Although, a muscular 200 lbs isn’t too shabby either.

      I hear it all the time. Guys are in their first 6 months in the gym and still the same weight as when they started. They’ll swear up and down that they eat everything in sight but can’t give any specific examples of a typical day.

      Until they realize that eating “more” isn’t the same thing as “I already eat a lot” they won’t make any progress.

      Also, keep up the good work on your site!

  • Reply
    March 12, 2015 at 9:15 pm

    Problem is whenever I try step one I put on a bunch of fat on my gut. And I am an ectomorph. I can wrap my hand around my wrist with considerable overlap.

    • Reply
      March 13, 2015 at 12:41 am

      Sorry to hear that Owsky, I’ve been there. I can wrap my fingers around my wrist and they overlap by about 1″. I’ve been up to 200 lbs of chewed bubblegum but now I’m 193 with abs. There is hope.

      Just to make things clear. If you’ve established a maintenance calorie level, added 200 calories to that number for daily intake, and are putting a solid effort into a weightlifting program you should not be gaining a bunch of fat.

      With that being said, I suggest that you make sure your diet and training are in line first. If you still have problems, you should talk to your doctor and request blood work with a hormone screening.

      Gaining a bunch of body fat as a result of adding a little bit of food is not the reaction of a healthy human body. There may be an underlying issue.

  • Reply
    May 29, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    When I first started out lifting I thought I was a hard gainer. Then I started training with a bodybuilder and he made me write down what I eat everyday. I quickly realized I wasn’t really a hard gainer I just didn’t eat enough. Yes I still have a fast metabolism but I also was not eating enough. Once I started putting down 5-6 meals a day and hit the iron hard. I gained weight easily. Eventually I got 5-6 lbs of body fat on me. When I realized how diet and training could manipulate my body, the sky’s became the limit. Then I started to dial in my diet and training based on the feedback I was getting.

    Now I only eat 3-4 times a day because I don’t really like to eat. But when I do eat I make sure its food I like. I also eat as much as I can as fast as I can when I first start eating. To trick my brain into thinking I’ve eaten less then I really have.

    • Reply
      May 29, 2015 at 9:20 pm

      Thank you, Nick!

      Not many people understand this, but you’re a perfect example and understand my point perfectly. It’s all about having an accurate idea of how much you’re eating. I have an article in the works on how to eat more without feeling gross that you may be interested in. Keep checking back or subscribe to make sure you get a chance to read it.

      Congrats on the progress!

  • Reply
    July 30, 2015 at 11:15 pm

    I think I really am a hardgainer. It’s hard, but not impossible. From December to May, roughly 6 months time, I went from 142 lbs to 169. I gained around 30 lbs with the help of my gf’s cooking. I think I even grew taller. According to dr., I went from 5-10 to 6 ft. We meal prepped every weekend so that I could eat 3-5 huge meals every day and we lifted weights 3-5 ones per week. She also lost 15 lbs of fat in this time frame.

    However, I hit a wall in progress and injured my shoulder from lifting too heavy, so I switched to boxing and stopped lifting as much. Within a month, all my muscles faded as did all of my strength almost immediately. I am still 170lbs. It was also extremely hard to make any significant strength gains that whole period of lifting. I also started out very emaciated.
    I had two different hormone tests done and reviewered by two different doctors. Both times results were the same. T on the low 200-300 range. Free T also so low it borderline warrants HRT.

    I DO NOT want to risk halting my own T production permanently at 25 years old and I’m not really fond of having to jab needles into my ass regularly or wear smelly creams.

    Any advice to increase T naturally, or even how to unnaturally increase it by a little bit without replacing my own hormone production completely?

    My father tried HRT way back in the day (turned out his doctor was a moron and dad’s T levels were fine anyway) but he suffered all the worst symptoms you could possibly imagine.

    I purchased, read, and applied TestShock, which basically said “eat right, squat, more importantly learn to do a muscle up, and quit doing bad things to your body.” Doing a muscle up is the only thing I can’t do yet, but I applied everything else to naturally raise T, and 300 is my highest.

    What to do?

    • Reply
      July 31, 2015 at 1:44 am

      First of all, my hat’s off to you for taking your situation by the balls. You’re hitting the gym and doing what’s necessary in the kitchen. It’s not an easy feat to gain 30 lbs in that space of time, especially with the hormonal cards stacked against you.

      Testosterone and TRT is subject that’s near and dear to my heart. Within the next month, I’m going to be posting a series of articles aimed specifically at guys in your situation. It’s something I’ve been working on for a while now. I’m glad that you’re sharing your story with me because I’m more eager than ever to get these articles out and in your hands.

      I know it isn’t easy or fair for a 25 year old to have the hormone levels of an octogenarian. In the meantime, Brandan, stay tuned and stay strong.

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