The Hardgainer's Guide to Building Muscle

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Can't gain muscle? While "hardgainer" isn't an official medical term, for some people, it is harder to bulk up.
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If your strength program has you feeling like the little engine that can't, you might be a hardgainer.

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What's a hardgainer? Essentially the opposite of a muscle nugget or meathead, "hardgainer" is a nickname for someone who can't build muscle mass like they want to (yet).

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Historically, the term has most commonly been applied to teenage boys, says exercise physiologist Pete McCall, CSCS, CPT, host of the All About Fitness Podcast.

The reason is two-part. First, boys under 22 (or so) have naturally lower testosterone levels and faster metabolisms, which building muscle mass difficult for them, he says.

Second, due to a combination of social conditioning and beauty standards, in the past, there have simply more men than women looking to build muscle, explains certified personal trainer and powerlifting instructor Daniel Ricter, CPT.

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But the term 'hardgainer' is not inherently gendered, which means someone of any gender identity, height or body type who has a difficult time building muscle can dub themselves a hardgainer.

That said, "hardgainer" is not a term health care providers or fitness professionals use or "diagnose" someone with. Nor is being a hardgainer a life sentence. While genetics do play a big role in body composition, according to McCall, approaching training and nutrition with intent can add mass and muscle to any frame.

Below, here are all of the must-follow guidelines for hardgainers to turn themselves into hard-bodied lifters. If you've ever asked "why can't I gain muscle no matter what?" or "how often do I need to workout if I'm a hardgainer?," these tips are for you.

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6 Essential Exercise Tips for Hardgainers

1. Prioritize Compound Exercises

Exactly which exercises are in your hardgainer workout plan will depend on your personal fitness goals. After all, both bodybuilders and NFL football players can be hardgainers.

But for the average gym-goer having a hard time gaining muscle, certified trainer and Kicko CEO John Gardner, CPT, recommends focusing on compound movements.

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Some of the best compound exercises for a mass gainer program include the back squat, front squat, deadlift and overhead press. And, should you be able and comfortable to do them (with good form), the snatch and clean.

"After your compound movements, you can finish up your workout with one or two isolation exercises," he says. "But you don't want to do more than that."

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2. Use Compound Sets

When you hit the gym, Ricter suggests doing compound sets. Like supersets, these involve alternating back and forth between two moves. Do a set of one, then the other, rest and do it again. But with compound sets, the two exercises work the same muscle groups.

With compound sets, you might, for example, pair an overhead press with a bench press, a deadlift with a hip thrust or a squat variation with a lunge.

Ricter recommends that you tackle three to four pairs of compound mass gainer exercises during your lifting sessions.

3. Lift More Load

Sure, you might be strength training. But are you training with intent? Muscle hypertrophy — that's the scientific term for muscle growth — requires progressive overload.

The progressive overload principle says that to continuously get stronger and bigger, you need to continuously lift challenge yourself, like by moving more weight.

"The heavier you lift, the more muscle fibers you activate," McCall says. "And the more muscle fibers you activate, the greater the mass payout will be."

A common mistake people make is ​under​loading the barbell. "You should be lifting enough weight that you feel fatigued after each set," he says.

Lifting to fatigue, however, is not the same as lifting to failure. Working to failure involves cranking out reps until you literally could not complete one more rep, he explains. (Like, a spotter would have to catch a crashing barbell.)

Lifting to fatigue involves working until you feel like you've done all of the reps you can with great form. You could maybe do 1 or 2 more reps, but they'd be pretty sloppy. In other words, you want to be tired but not totally tapped out.

How do you figure out what weight and rep-set scheme is ideal? One December 2019 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggests doing 3 to 6 sets of 6 to 12 reps with 60 seconds between sets. In terms of weight, the researchers concluded that 60 to 80 percent of your 1 rep max is sufficient. That works out to roughly your 6 to 12 rep max.

4. Time Your Intraset Rest

According to McCall, the value of resting less within a workout (aka intraset rest) can't be understated. In addition to increasing muscle fiber damage (and therefore size, following repair), "decreased rest has been connected to increased testosterone," McCall says.

Indeed, one June 2015 study in the Journal Strength and Conditioning Research found that resting just 60 to 90 seconds between higher-intensity strength sets may raise testosterone over time.

As a general rule, if the heart of your workout is taking you longer than 50 minutes total, it's a good sign you're resting too much between sets, he says.

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5. Take Rest and Recovery Days

Don't get it confused, working hard is a must, but so is resting. After all, it's between your workouts that your muscles repair and grow. Plus, excessive training can lead to injury.

How often should you train to keep from overtaxing your muscles? McCall says an exercise plan that involves lifting 4 to 5 days a week is one that will help you safely bulk up.

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6. Cut Down on Cardio

Hate to break it to you, but it's hard to have fast and big muscles at the same time. If bulking up is your goal, you're going to want to cut down on the monostructural cardio — running, rowing, biking, ellipticaling — that you're doing.

For most hardgainers, McCall says one or two 20- to 30-minute cardio sessions a week is fine. But more than that can "eat away at your glycogen stores, and therefore make putting on mass and staying energized during your lifting sessions tricky."

Don't worry: Your cardiovascular health won't suffer. "There is a cardiovascular benefit to lifting weights," he says. "It may not make you more aerobically fit, but it will help support a healthy heart."

4 Essential Nutrition Tips for Hardgainers

1. Create a Caloric Surplus

Have you ever heard the saying, "eat big to get big?" Well, there's truth behind the hardgainer diet tip.

You can lift weights all you want, but you won't pack on any pounds if you are using up more calories than you take in, explains board-certified specialist in sports dietetics Amy Goodson, RD, CSSD. "The number-one hardgainer nutrition tip is to start eating more and more calories."

Exactly how many calories you need depends on a number of factors like your current weight, height, fitness program, age and more. To get a general idea of calorie needs, she recommends downloading a meal-tracking app and plugging in the requested stats (weight, activity level, height, personal goals).

To gain about a pound a week — which is a reasonable goal for someone training four to fives time a week — you will need to consume at least 500 calories more a day than your body burns, she explains. "The app will spit out an estimate that keeps that in mind," she says. "Likely, the caloric recommendation will end up being too low for for hardgainers, but it's still a good place to start."

Her suggestion: Track your calories and activity level using an app for a few weeks. If you notice that your intake is falling short, try sneaking calories into your meals by adding nutrient and calorie-dense foods like cheese, chopped nuts and dried fruit to items you already eat.

If, however, you're hitting your recommended calorie intake and still failing to gain mass, she recommends increasing your calorie intake by another 300 to 500 calories a day for a few weeks.

Wondering how to calculate your calories for muscle gain? Download the MyPlate app to do the job and help you track your intake.

2. Know Your Macros

Eating enough calories only part of the weight-gain equation. How you get those calories a vital role as well.

"When you're trying to gain weight, you need a variety of macronutrients," says Goodson. Think: protein, carbohydrates and fat.

Generally, Goodson recommends getting at least 1 gram of protein per pound of your bodyweight in pounds per day. If you weigh 150 pounds, that means you should aim for ​at least​ 150 grams of protein each day.

This will have most people getting about 30 to 35 percent of their calories from protein. "Some people will need more protein than this," she says. Doing some trial and error or working with a registered dietitian can help you pinpoint that number.

Next, Goodson suggests thinking about how much cardiovascular exercise is baked into your workout plan, she says. "The more cardio you do, the higher your carb intake will need to be." Hardgainers should aim to get 30 to 50 percent of calorie carbohydrate intake from carbohydrates, she says.

Whatever is left over should come from fat. So if you get 30 percent of your calories from protein and 40 from carbohydrates, you'd have 30 percent available for fat.

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3. Play With Nutrient Timing

When you're investing in muscle bulking, Goodson suggests being more intentional about ​when​ you eat.

"Many people are eating enough calories, but are eating them primarily at lunch and dinner," she says. For hardgainers, she says prioritizing eating more at breakfast, after a workout and right before bed can pay off.

"The morning is when the body is most metabolically active, which makes it a good time to introduce more calories," she explains. This helps ensure the body is burning its energy stores, not muscle for fuel.

As for after your workouts, McCall doesn't just recommend eating, but eating carbohydrates. "If you eat carbohydrates right after your workout, you're more efficient at building muscles and replenishing your energy stores, he says. Of course, pair those carbs with a solid dose of 20 to 40 grams of protein.

Finally, hitting your system with a protein-rich snack like a protein shake before bed will give you one last protein-and-calorie-hit before you go 8-ish hours without fuel, says Goodson.

4. Supplement With Mass Gainers

Speaking of shakes, supplemental nutrition powders — often called mass gainers — are a user-friendly way to hit your increased caloric and macro goals.

After all, some people having logistical difficulty getting all of the nutrition they need to build muscle mass. Maybe they're often eating on the go, for instance. Meanwhile, others can literally have a hard time comfortably fitting all of the food they need each day into their stomach.

Mass gainer supplements, however, are extremely high in calories, protein, vitamins and minerals. And, mixed into water, they can be a digestive-friendly way to fine-tune your hardgainer meal plan. Before starting any new supplement, including a mass gainer, talk to your doctor to make sure it's right for you.

The 3 Best Mass Gainer Supplements

  • Optimum Nutrition Serious Mass (Amazon.com, $49.99 for 12 lbs)
  • Naked Nutrition Chocolate Weight Gainer Protein Supplement (NakedNutrition.com, $64.99 for 8 lbs)
  • GNC Earth Genius PurEdge Plant-Based Gainer (GNC.com, $64.99 for 4.48 lbs)

A Final Note on Medical Considerations

"One reason that someone might have a hard time putting on muscle mass is that their body is not producing enough testosterone," according to McCall. Testosterone, he explains, is the hormone that supports protein synthesis, which is what helps our muscles recover and repair following exercise.

If you're having a particularly tough go putting on muscle meat, he says it's worth talking with your health care provider.

Depending now what other symptoms you're experiencing, if any, your provider may decide to test the amount of T in your blood. If the results come back on a lower-than-average side, they may suggest a testosterone replacement therapy, he says, which research suggests supports lean muscle mass.

For example, one June 2018 study in the ​Journal of Cachexia Sarcopenia Muscles​ found that testosterone replacement therapy is linked with increased total body strength, most significantly when injected into the muscle.

Now (and this is important!) while testosterone supplementation ​can​ be beneficial for people who truly have low levels, it's important that the T you use is prescribed, not ordered online.

While it's always wise to talk to your physician before beginning a new medication, it's important to understand that regulators do not evaluate online testosterone products before they become available. That means, when purchasing hardgainer supplements and creams, you only have the manufacturer's word on what's inside — and if those ingredients are effective or safe.

One 2020 study published in ​The World Journal of Men's Health​ found that less than one quarter of supplements claiming to naturally raise testosterone levels actually do so. And one tenth of the supplements lowered testosterone levels.

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