As you may have guessed, I grew up a skinny guy.
And as a skinny guy, I’ve been the subject of plenty of ridicule. Some of which caused a fairly major dent to my self-esteem.
And as some of you may appreciate, low self-esteem can have a pretty severe impact on the overall quality of your life. Feelings of depression, anxiety, and shame were common for me as I battled with a negative perception of my image.
Thankfully, there came a time when I realized I had had enough and I wanted to change.
This coincided with the popularity of YouTube and when people, especially bodybuilders began to share quality information for free.
I started binge-watching those videos and I would frantically take notes. I was excited to get started and eventually I bought my first pair of dumbbells.
The first few workouts were exhilarating. I had a lot of anticipation about all of the muscle mass I was ‘guaranteed’ to put on.
But after months of working out, I saw no results.
In fact, I had people ask me why I was getting skinnier! This was not something that I expected to hear after all that hard work.
The issue, I later realized, was that I had an improper concept of diet. I wasn’t consuming anywhere near enough protein. And I wasn’t even maintaining a caloric surplus because I didn’t bother calculating my daily caloric needs.
So, I started again. This time with even more determination.
But as if fate would have it, I started having major digestive issues because of overeating. After this and many other setbacks that happened over a period of five-plus years (including a long period of me giving up on working out altogether), I eventually started seeing results.
After years of trial and error, I felt like I had finally cracked the code.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m still a work in progress. And I’m definitely a long way from ‘hulk’ status. But the thing is, my gains are consistent and I can now confidently (and quite proudly) label myself a ‘former skinny guy’.
What is a Hardgainer? And Are You One?
This post does a good job of defining what it is to be a hardgainer. It also lays out some of the telltale signs for you to check off.
It’s possible you may simply be making some common training, dietary or lifestyle mistakes.
OK. So you’re officially a hardgainer. Welcome to the club.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the rest of the article.
Short on time? Here’s a handy infographic for you to save or pin to your Pinterest for later:
When it comes to building muscle as a hardgainer, I have learned that it’s not hard work, but smart work that counts.
As hardgainers, our bodies have a natural tendency to stay lean. And there could be a number of reasons for this.
But let’s not waste our time playing the blame game. Let’s instead look at the various ways we can overcome the flaws and make things work in our favor.
Here are 15 lifestyle, diet, and workout changes that helped me finally start building muscle as a hardgainer after years of not getting any results.
15 Tips That Will Help You Build Muscle
Never Workout on an Empty Stomach
Working out on an empty stomach is a surefire way lose muscle mass.
Why? Because in the absence of fuel, our body turns catabolic and starts to break down muscle tissue. Something that you absolutely do not want as a hardgainer.
To avoid this, never workout first thing in the morning. Have a carb and protein-rich meal and wait around 2 to 3 hours before working out.
30 minutes pre-workout, eat some simple carbs. Simple carbs are easy to digest and supply the body with instant energy. For example, 5 to 7 dates or a couple of bananas will provide you with enough energy to last for the entire workout.
A subscription service like MuscleBox is a super easy way to make sure you’re never short of protein-rich snacks around the house.
Musclebox’s monthly delivery of clothes, protein snacks, and workout plans is a killer way for bodybuilders to stay motivated---though if you’re looking for general fitness, the brand’s focus on high protein, high calorie snacks may not be the right fit for you.
Around an hour post workout, eat a light carb and protein-rich meal.
Consume Healthy Fats
Fats are a lifesaver for us hardgainers.
This is because fats are calorie dense. One gram of fat packs 9 calories! So as a hardgainer, you can easily maintain a caloric surplus by consuming a moderate about of fat everyday. For example, just one tablespoon of olive oil has a whopping 119 calories.
Plus as an added bonus, research indicates that fats also aid testosterone production.
So make sure to include food sources that are high in unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. Some foods which contain these fats include cashew nuts, walnuts, Macadamia nuts, almonds, chia seeds, olive oil, sesame oil, fish oil, peanuts, avocados, fatty fish like salmon and whole eggs.
That being said, do not rule out saturated fats altogether, but consider taking them in moderation. Some healthy sources of saturated fats include coconuts, coconut oil, butter, cheese, whole eggs and fatty meats.
The only fats that you should look to avoid are trans fats.
Consider taking 20% to 30% of your daily caloric requirement in fats.
Micronutrients are almost as important as macronutrients when it comes to gaining mass.
Vitamins and minerals are not only vital for the optimal functioning of your body, they also help you build muscle! They help in the breakdown and absorption of macronutrients from your diet, prevent oxidative stress, aid testosterone production, prevent muscle cramps and a lot more.
For example, zinc aids in testosterone production. Copper and manganese help in protein and fat metabolism, B vitamins aid breakdown of nutrients, vitamin A helps maintain the mucosal tissue lining in the GI tract ensuring proper absorption of nutrients, calcium helps strengthen teeth and bones, Vitamin D helps in muscle recovery.
Vitamin E and C are powerful antioxidants that prevent oxidative stress caused by heavy workouts.
It’s hard to get all important micronutrients from your daily diet and hence it’s a good idea to invest in a multivitamin supplement.
Consume Complete Protein Foods
Here’s something I had no idea about before I started my bodybuilding journey:
Not all protein is created equal.
To build muscle, you need to consume complete protein foods. A protein source can be considered complete only when it contains all 9 essential amino acids. Some complete protein sources include, fish, whole eggs, meats, poultry, and dairy.
ButcherBox delivers great cuts of top-quality meat straight to your door, and while you’ll pay a convenience fee, just knowing you have a freezer full of healthy options is invaluable for when the workweek gets hectic.
Plant sources of protein are generally incomplete, but you can make them complete by combining different foods together.
For example, nuts and seeds contain three essential amino acids whereas legumes contain the other six. So including nuts and legumes in your daily diet can help you get all 9 essential amino acids.
Make it a point to consume your protein from a range of sources as opposed to a few.
You can calculate your daily protein requirement to build muscle using this calculator.
Strengthen Your Digestion
Bad digestion leads to bad gains.
If consuming a lot of protein is causing you digestive issues like bloating, flatulence, loose stools or constipation, it means that your body is not digesting protein properly. To avoid this, try supplementing your food with digestive enzymes.
Natural digestive enzymes are found in foods like papaya and pineapples. Experiment with eating a few pieces of papaya/pineapple after a protein rich meal and see if improves your digestion.
If papaya is not your thing, you can consider taking store bought digestive enzymes that contain Protease (protein digestion), Amylase (carb digestion) and Lipase (fat digestion).
This one from Dr. Matthew ticks those boxes and has some great reviews:
Last update on 2023-11-27 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Improved digestion also equals an improved appetite so you can consume more to maintain a caloric surplus.
A healthy gut leads to healthy gains.
Processed foods, alcohol, smoking, prescription drugs, a stressful lifestyle, etc. can reduce beneficial bacteria in your gut which in turn prevents proper absorption of nutrients from the food you eat. Frequent loose stools is a good sign that your gut lacks beneficial bacteria. This means you are not maintaining a caloric surplus even when you are eating a lot.
You can avert this situation by consuming lots of fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, tempeh, miso, red wine and fermented vegetables. Fermented foods are rich in beneficial bacteria that will help maintain healthy gut flora.
Another option is to consume probiotics as a dietary supplement. The Advanced Strength from BIO Schwartz is very well rated:
Last update on 2023-11-27 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Soak in the Sun
This may come as a surprise but Vitamin D plays a major role in muscle recovery.
Vitamin D also helps in proper mineral absorption (mainly calcium and phosphorus), enhances mood, regulates insulin, strengthens bones, strengthens immunity and improves muscle function.
Even though you can take Vitamin D as a supplement, the best free source of Vitamin D is the Sun. Ten to 15 minutes of skin exposure to UVB rays is enough to get you your share of Vitamin D for the day. UVB rays are at their highest levels between 10 am and 1 pm.
Other moderate sources of Vitamin D include egg yolks, fatty fish, beef liver, fortified milk, sunflower seeds and orange juice.
Get Quality Sleep
But it’s even more important for hardgainers, or really anyone looking to gain muscle.
Because you build muscle while you sleep!
Most of the growth hormones and testosterone your body produces are during deep slow wave sleep which is part of the Non-REM sleep stage. Therefore, in order to build muscle, it is imperative that you get a lot of high-quality sleep.
To gauge your sleep quality, see how you are feeling when you wake up in the morning? Do you feel rested and energetic or do you feel drained and groggy? If it’s the latter, you need to look into making some changes to improve your sleep quality.
Here are some things you can do:
- Make sure that you are getting at-least 8 hours of sleep.
- Get into the habit of going to bed at the same time every night.
- Invest in a quality mattress.
- Make your room as dark as possible or consider using a sleep mask.
- Avoid staring into a screen or engaging in strenuous activities before sleep.
- Do some deep breathing exercises to relax your mind and body before sleep.
A sleep mask made a huge difference for me. I like this one because it’s 3D contoured which also makes it great for travelling:
Last update on 2023-11-27 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Another major game changer that drastically improved the quality of my sleep is meditation.
Meditation helps clear your mind of unnecessary thoughts promoting relaxation. Remember, a relaxed mind is bound to sleep better as opposed to a mind that is agitated.
Try a simple breath meditation practice for a few minutes before going to bed and see if it helps improve your sleep quality.
Keep Stress Under Control
Stress and muscle gains don’t go well together.
When you are stressed, there are higher levels of cortisol in your bloodstream. Cortisol hampers the body’s restorative processes and hence can be detrimental to muscle growth. Cortisol also keeps testosterone levels lower bringing your body to a catabolic state.
So make it a point to keep stress at bay by engaging in activities that help you relax and unwind.
Meditate, be mindful, let go of negative thoughts, drop resentment, spend time in nature, listen to music, do some light stretches, do deep breathing exercises, get a massage, cut down on junk food, and spend time with good friends.
An awesome stress reduction exercise you can do anytime is progressive muscle relaxation. This is where you tense up various parts of your body and then consciously relax them. Practicing this exercise will also help you get in touch with your body which will only help you in your quest to gain muscle.
The following video demonstrates this exercise:
Focus on Compound Exercises
As the saying goes, compound exercises give you compounded results. This is especially true when you’re a hardgainer.
Compound exercises engage multiple muscle groups as opposed to isolation exercises that engage only a specific muscle group and hence trigger larger production of testosterone and growth hormones. Therefore, as a hardgainer, compound moves definitely give you more bang for your buck.
As an example, when training shoulders, instead of doing isolation exercises like lateral raises (for the side delts), front raises (for the front delts) and and reverse fly (for rear delts), you can do a compound exercise like the shoulder press. In addition to training all three shoulder heads, the shoulder press also trains your upper back, triceps and core.
Some more examples of compound exercises are push ups, pull ups, chin ups, squats, deadlifts, shoulder press, dips, bench press, tricep extensions and rows.
You need not completely avoid all isolation exercises but make it a point to spend more time on compound exercises as opposed to isolation exercises.
Do Full Body Workouts
Full body workouts win hands down in comparison to a split routine when it comes to gaining muscle as a hardgainer.
For one, full body workouts help you perform a lot of compound moves that we discussed earlier.
Secondly, it ensures that you don’t overtrain a particular muscle group which could actually result in muscle decline.
Thirdly, you are doing less volume per workout and training more frequently. For example, instead of training chest on Mondays and waiting an entire week to do chest again, in a full body routine, you hit chest three times a week. This helps maintain muscle protein synthesis and higher testosterone levels throughout the week leading to greater muscle growth.
An example of a full body workout that trains, chest, shoulders, biceps, triceps, forearms, legs, upper back, lower back and abs is as follows – regular push ups, tricep extensions, shoulder press, bend over rows, deadlifts and curls.
When it comes to training as a hardgainer, less is more.
Workout no more than three times a week on alternate days (eg: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) and keep your workout duration within 45 minutes. Beyond 45 minutes, there is a high probability of your body starting to break down muscles for energy which we certainly do not want.
The MVP Massager is a worthy alternative to the Theragun Prime. With more percussions per minute and a longer battery life, the MVP is an excellent choice for athletes looking to gain an edge.
Keep your rep ranges between eight to ten reps and sets between two to three. As with the weights, start lighter and progressively increase as you go.
Always remember that overtrained muscles might sustain major tears and actually may get weaker and smaller.
Never Skip a Muscle Group
The common muscle groups that hardgainers tend to skip are legs and back.
This is a big mistake.
The lower body is the foundation on which the upper body is built and similarly, the back is the foundation for the front. Weeker back and leg muscles reduce strength, weaken core, make your body look asymmetrical and leave you injury prone.
Plus, training large muscles like your legs and back will cause the body to release higher levels of GH and testosterone which is great for your overall muscle gain.
Cut Down on Cardio
Cardio is good for you, but not so much when you’re trying to bulk up as a hardgainer.
Any activity that considerably increases your heart rate constitutes as cardio. For example, walking, jogging, running, skipping, jumping jacks etc.
As a hardgainer, if you engage in a lot of cardio, then you will burn a lot of calories and might end up in a caloric deficit. Remember, that in order to build muscle, you need to maintain a caloric surplus at all times. So consider cutting down on cardio and other calorie burning activities.
If you must, restrict cardio to one day a week or considerably reduce the duration. And if you’re prone to plantar fasciitis or other foot related pain, wear insoles. Momentum is key. You don’t want to be restricted from working out for a few weeks and lose your training rhythm.
Be Mindful of Self-sabotaging Behaviour
Building muscle is as much a psychological process as it is a physiological process.
If you’ve been a skinny guy for the majority of your life, you’ve probably become pretty comfortable with it. After all, it becomes part of your subconscious identity. Our minds love familiarity and tend to resist change.
Building muscle is akin to leaving your old identity behind and embracing a new one. Your mind might resist this progression by engaging in self-sabotaging behavior like procrastination, craving junk food, or feeling bored. And this often begins just when you start to see muscle gains.
A simple way to tackle this kind of behavior is to stay mindful of your thoughts and behavioral patterns as you start seeing gains. Once you recognize and catch self-sabotaging behavior you will be able to overcome it.
So there you go folks.
I genuinely hope that these tips have helped to give you some inspiration for your hardgainer transformation. It took me a lot of time to figure out this info so at the very least it will save you some time.
If you follow these pointers, along with maintaining a caloric surplus by consuming the right foods, I can guarantee that you will build muscle and bulk up much quicker than you think.
Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me in the comments. I’d love to answer any questions you might have or hear about your own hardgainer journey.
And finally, I’d like to end this with what I think is quite an apt quote from Thomas Jefferson:
If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.
– Thomas Jefferson
Heads up: This is a guest post by Mukesh. The views expressed in this article are his own & The Adult Man takes no legal responsibility for any consequence regarding the information in this post.