Building muscle is simple, right ⎯ overload the body in the gym, refuel and rest so the body can rebuild itself generating new body tissue. But for those who find it hard to gain weight (hard-gainers) with additional lean muscle it can often be frustrating or the results seem non-existent. Even though popular weight-gaining advice is followed, it’s extremely slow at best.
The term hard-gainer is often used to describe someone that is just that. Hard – to – gain… muscle mass. Considering hard-gainer’s fruitless results in the gym, their frustration appears to be the result of a mix of poor training, nutrition and genetics, although no direct etiology has been found to support either. For them, gaining muscle seems incredibly difficult and despite their best efforts in the gym, they just cannot seem to get the muscle growth they desire. Hard-gainers need to keep these points in mind to ensure their time in the gym and kitchen is well spent and they are getting the results they seek.
Focus On Less Volume, Not More
The most common mistake that almost all hard-gainers make is doing too much. They see that they are not growing and add more volume to their program, which makes logical sense in light of poor gains.
The big thing to keep in mind here is that the ectomorph body type and hard-gainers have a limited capacity for recovery ⎯ typically lower than that of a normal trainee. Therefore, if you aren’t gaining muscle and you add more work volume, your ability to repair and recovery are extremely challenged.
Cut Out Isolation Exercises
The next adjustment you should make to your program is to remove all body-specific isolation exercises if possible (ie. hammer curls, wrist curls, one-arm rows, etc.). As just discussed, ectomorphs have limited capacity for recovery; you want to spend all your reserves on exercises that are going to offer the greatest return on your workout. Focus on exercises that allow you to stimulate the greatest number of muscle fibers at once, while also allowing you to lift and exercise with the heaviest resistance possible ⎯ Heavy rows rather than biceps curling for example.
Strength programs like Beachbody’s Les Mills Pump and others incorporate these principles. The advice of an experienced fitness trainer will help tweak the selected full-body program to fit your specific needs.
Isolation exercises in intermediate to advanced bodybuilders can create a lot of muscle breakdown (and subsequent amino acid uptake by the muscles). In the amateur lifter and hard-gainer that lacks muscle mass, less total volume is needed to get the same relative amount of breakdown. Not to mention, isolation exercises in the beginner are done with such insignificant weight, thus muscle breakdown is insignificant as compared to heavier lifters.
Follow a full body strength program
The best strength training program for the hard-gainer is surprisingly a full body workout 3 times per week, or an upper/lower split each done 2 times per week. Why? With typical bodybuilding programs you need to use multiple exercises to induce hypertrophy in the muscle.
The 3-day full body program is rather difficult for many to digest. We’ve been conditioned to think that more is better. But more isn’t better. Better is better. For someone struggling to gain mass, a different approach must be taken. Allow me to explain the benefits of a 3-day program.
A 5-day per week body part exercise split only gives you 4 opportunities to hit each muscle group for the month (once/week). With a full body split, you have 12 growth opportunities (3/week) over the same period and an upper/lower split, 8 in a month (2/week).
With a high metabolism, more time is better spent out of the gym. Exercise causes an increase in energy expenditure and, in terms of gaining muscle, can only be countered by increased food intake. Logically and practically, 12 growth opportunities without too much of an increase in metabolism is a phenomenal way to ignite muscle growth. We know that muscle is built outside the gym, so prioritize time for rest and recovery. Additionally, Rhea and colleagues (2003) found 3-day/week training to be best for beginners and hard-gainers.
Coach Alwyn Cosgrove1 likes this method for a one reason: it works. Rhea2 and colleagues (2002) concur this to be better for strength and mass in hard-gainers. This brings us to a 3-day per week full body program with rotating reps for maximum hypertrophy over 4-13 weeks.
Change the tempo during selected sets and reps
Factor in tempo, a fitness variable some look at in a program, but never pay much attention to or understand its significance. This is critical to increasing the time under tension – which will ultimately influence the quantity of muscle growth.
A slow tempo should come out to roughly a 4-5 second rep. A controlled tempo is a 2-3 second rep and a fast rep tempo is accomplished at the normal lifting pace. Again, Les Mills Pump incorporates all of these tempos into every full body workout, which are scheduled 3-days each week. Ab/core exercises, yoga/stretch, walking and rest are also on the LMP schedule.
To get the best results from your full-body program, remember that concentric, or the exertion, portion of every lift shouldn’t be controlled other than for warming up. When you accelerate a weight fast, or attempt to, you increase the amount of force the muscle is producing. This will help increase the growth response. With tempos, only tweak the eccentric, which is the lowering/returning weight to the starting position.
Limit Your Cardio Training
Watch your volume of cardio training. Again, going back to your recovery, if you attempt to do four weight training workouts a week, and then go and add another 3-4 cardio sessions, your needed recovery will be handicapped. For the hard-gainer, 2-3 easy cardio sessions (a brisk walk, jogging, or an easy run) is more than enough to maintain cardiovascular health, enhance hunger, and increase the blood flow to the muscles to deliver all the necessary nutrients. Any more specialized cardio than this and you’ll jeopardize the muscle gain you seek.
Tweak the nutrition for hard-gainers
Ryan Patrick3 says, I prefer a higher carbohydrate diet due to some hormonal factors (higher catecholamine, thyroid, etc) and it helps keep protein from getting too high. High protein diets (50% macro) are used often when leaning out to increase metabolic rate, something we want to control in the hard-gainer.
Protein/carbohydrate blended powders work well when making drinks throughout the day. Ryan’s choice is to eat a varied combination of whole food meals and shakes depending on the busyness of a given day.
Use Liquid Shakes
Finally, the hard-gainer should seriously consider supplementing with liquid shakes. It’s going to be hard to reach high caloric intakes eating solid food itself, unless you’re really eating a high amount of nuts, red meats, and dried fruit (which are some of the most calorie dense foods available). This is largely why I prefer powders for reaching the calories needed as well as regulating macro percentages daily. You should strive to have a minimum of 500 calories per shake through additions like skim and unsweetened almond milk, heavy cream, peanut butter, or carbohydrates (fruits and berries). With 5-7 meals per day at roughly 500 calories per pop you’ll be in the ballpark of 2500-3500+ calories. This should be sufficient for muscle growth.
Consider some of the commercial products, like Shakeology®4, if that makes your life easier, or create one of your own. Simply mixing whey and/or casein protein powder, raw oats, frozen fruits, cottage cheese or yogurt, and peanut butter will provide well-balanced meal replacements and/or snacks. Of course your whole food meals should consist of 30-40g protein and 40-50g carbohydrates as slow digesting, low glycemic options. With ample amounts of good fat you should easily hit 500 calories per meal.
So, keep all of these points in mind. Hard-gainer’s do need to approach their training differently, but they certainly can have great success if they clearly understand what they need to be doing and implement these changes for the next 30, 60, 90 days and beyond.