While I believe that the term ‘hard-gainer’ is thrown around a little too liberally these days, there is absolutely no denying that there are certain people who have a tendency to have a lot (and I mean A LOT) of difficulty putting on muscle mass.
Furthermore, these people are often tall (and somewhat ectomorphic) in stature, and although quite skinny, easily put on fat mass around their abdominal area.
Now, while this is quite a large generalization, this is often what I would see in someone I would call a real hard-gainer (and NOT someone who doesn’t put on mass because they don’t put in the effort).
But, if this does happen to sound like you, there is no reason to fear.
Putting on mass is not out of reach; it just requires some smart adjustments to your training schedule and dietary habits.
I have found that real hard gainers (take note of that word again: real) require somewhat specific recommendations to put on mass, particularly when compared to the recommendations I would make to those with more naturally muscular physiques.
Use a high training frequency
A lot of people opt for body-building style training splits (where they train one muscle group one time per week) when trying to put on mass.
I am here to tell you that, although this is arguably the most popular method of training appearing within your favorite fitness magazine, it is by no means the best way to put on mass. I believe this applies even more to those that categorize as hard-gainers.
Instead of training a single muscle group in one session, one time per week, you should be trying to train a muscle group 2-3 times per week. This means training your entire upper body on some days and your entire lower body on others, rather than splitting your training days into muscle groups or body parts.
As a result, an example week may look something like this:
- Monday – Upper Body
- Tuesday – Lower Body
- Wednesday – Upper Body
- Thursday – Lower Body
- Friday – Upper Body
This provides an opportunity to hit each muscle more frequently each week – and considering that muscle tissue takes approximately 24-48 hours to recover from a session – makes it the perfect way to increase training volume without increasing any risk of overtraining.
Furthermore, we get to increase the amount of time we are training a given muscle group while it is fresh, which can significantly increase the quality of our training in its entirety.
But, when training in this manner, we obviously can’t use the same amount of exercises per session that we would using a body-part split (otherwise our session would literally take days).
As a result, exercise selection becomes incredibly important.
Which leads us to our next point.
Opt for compound movements
I don’t care what anyone says, large, multi-joint, barbell based movements are king when it comes to training for muscle mass.
They allow us to use a heap of muscle mass each individual exercise, while also hitting more than one muscle group at a time. Additionally, these types of exercises are the ones that allow us to use the most amount of load.
This is important, as mechanical tension is one of the key drivers for muscle growth. By keeping mechanical tension as a high as possible throughout a session is a fantastic way to maximize muscle hypertrophy without causing excessive muscle damage.
An example of a couple of sessions using this method of training may look something like this:
- Bench Press
- Weighted Pull Ups
- Standing Overhead Press
- Bent Over Barbell Row
- Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
- Lat Pull Down
- Back Squat
- Romanian Deadlift
- Bulgarian Split Squat
- Leg Press
These sessions compliment a training program with a higher frequency perfectly, and by focusing on large, compound movements we can keep load high throughout the session’s duration (which maximizes mechanical tension) while also allowing us to hit multiple muscle groups multiple times per week (which keeps weekly training volume high).
As an added bonus, these types of movements are extremely demanding on the body, and a session built around them will be extremely taxing. This increases the metabolic stress placed on the body, which is another driver key driver for muscle growth.
Eat a diet Higher in both Carbohydrates and Protein
As a hard-gainer, calories are your friend. To put on mass, eating in a energy surplus is absolutely essential. This becomes even more important when undertaking a training program with an extremely high training intensity (as suggested above).
As a result, we need to consume enough carbohydrates to fuel the (somewhat brutal) sessions we are doing. Furthermore, due to the large amount of stress we are placing on the various tissues of the body, we need to keep protein intake high to ensure we can recover from these sessions effectively.
It is extremely important to note that the quality of these macronutrients also has its place.
We should try and get the bulk of both our daily carbohydrate and protein intake from whole food sources and NOT highly processed fast foods. This means our carbohydrates should come from vegetables and whole grains, and our proteins from lean sources of meat, fish, and poultry.
Implements Supplements only Where Necessary
When trying to put in mass we often look to supplements as the answer.
Hint: They aren’t the answer.
While they can play a part in our bid to put on muscle mass, they are merely an addition (or supplement even…) to a good diet and a solid exercise regime. Without those two factors in place already, supplements will do absolutely nothing.
In saying that, once those two factors are in place, some supplements can be beneficial (we should consider them the proverbial icing on the cake– they make the cake better, but we need to have the cake first).
I recommend only two key supplements: Creatine, and a good whey protein powder.
Creatine is arguably the most well researched supplement on the planet, and for good reason.
It has shown to improve the expression of strength, power, and work capacity during a single session, which has shown to contribute to increased gains in both strength and muscle mass over the duration of a training program.
A good whey protein supplement is a really convenient way to increase our daily protein intake (without having to gorge ourselves on absurd amounts of food), which is obviously essential to building muscle mass.
So, to summarize, although being a hard-gainer does make it more difficult to put on muscle mass, it does not make it impossible – by focusing on certain aspects of both diet and exercise (with a good portion of hard work) we can create some serious growth.
By increasing training frequency AND focusing on large compound movements we can increase both the weekly training volume a muscle group receives AND the mechanical tension it receives, we can promote some serious muscle growth.
By eating good quality carbohydrates we can fuel our intense training sessions, increasing the quality of those sessions. By eating adequate protein we can ensure we can recover appropriately and build new muscle tissue. Both of these factors are integral to putting on lean muscle mass.
Finally, creatine and whey protein should be the icing on the cake. They can help increase muscle growth once a good diet and exercise regime is in place.
Luke Cafferty is a fitness junkie, personal trainer and blogger. He’s passionate about living a healthy lifestyle and maintaining a strong and well-rounded physique, while inspiring others to do the same.
Luke found a passion for human performance and the ability to optimize his nutritional intake for muscle growth, better immunity and different cardiovascular benefits at a young age. This passion has since grown and he continues to deepen his knowledge on all aspects of fitness and health.