While there are a few men out there who just look at a weight and put on muscle, for most men, gaining muscle mass means working hard. Whether genetics have been working against you since birth or you simply don't have the anabolic environment in your body naturally, if you have trouble putting on muscle, you could be one of those who have to work hard. This means there are some key things you need to do differently in your program.
A hardgainer can be defined as a man who has difficulty putting on muscle mass despite consistent workouts in the gym and consumption of vast amounts of food. It is not uncommon to see some of these individuals eating upwards of 5,000 calories per day to simply maintain the mass they have, let alone add new muscle tissue. For the average guy, consuming 5,000 calories per day would be a short track to a rather robust stomach.
The major issue here is likely a very fast metabolism; one that, when fed more, just speeds right up. Along with the increased intake, burning off the extra calories as heat or through additional movements also means that large amounts of food will have little or no effect on this individual's weight and size. If you ever notice a guy who just can't seem to sit still, he is likely the type who would be a hardgainer at the gym.
Luckily, as long as these individuals take a few things into consideration with their training and diet, they can overcome this problem to some extent.
The first, and probably the most important, thing for a hardgainer to realize is that his body simply cannot handle the volume that others can. They should be limiting the total number of sets during their workout and should never be working out in a rep range that exceeds 10 reps per set.
Hardgainers need to focus on doing compound lifts only and ditching all the isolation exercises that are only going to force their body to burn calories and use up its reserved energy—energy that could have been used to build muscle tissue.
This means their program should consist of bench presses, squats, deadlifts, lunges, military presses, and bent-over rows.
What it should not consist of are lateral raises, reverse flyes, sets of leg extensions, and every variation of bicep curl you can think of. All of those exercises are really only targeting one muscle group, and the hardgainer needs to be getting the biggest bang for his buck in terms of total number of muscles worked. So, aim for exercises that target multiple muscle groups.
The next important workout step for the hardgainer is rest. These individuals need more rest and recovery time than others, so they should spend less time in the gym and more time relaxing.
If there is a lot of additional stress in the hardgainer's life as well, that is going to further impact recovery ability, so it is a good idea to minimize stress as much as possible.
Sleep is also of critical importance here, and a hardgainer should be aiming for a minimum of seven to eight hours of sleep; some find they even need more. This is really the prime time when your body will be recovering and repairing muscle tissue, so it is very important not to short-circuit your rest.
Lastly: nutrition. Half of what makes a hardgainer a hardgainer is not being able to eat enough to put on muscle mass. They constantly complain of feeling full and having a hard time fitting in more calories, hence they see no growth.
The best way to approach this is to really focus in on calorie-dense foods while limiting high-volume foods like vegetables, popcorn, lots of diet soda (the volume in the drink will make you feel full) and other foods that have relatively few calories but tend to fill you up quickly.
Instead, hardgainers should concentrate on foods such as nuts, dried fruit, bagels, peanut and other nut butters, olive oil, avocados, lean red meat, chicken breasts, and cottage cheese. These are going to give them good nutrition while also making it more tolerable to stomach the volume they need.
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Hardgainers may also want to look into using shakes as a way to help pack on the mass. However, care should be taken in choosing which shake to consume. It is probably best to make your own out of protein powder, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, peanut butter, and fruit, rather than purchasing a ready-made shake, as these are often full of sugar and/or saturated fats.
The most basic thing to remember with nutrition is just to pay attention to how much you eat and if you aren't seeing an increase in weight, add an extra 250-500 calories per day above what you currently eat. 250 calories is equivalent to about 3 tbsp of peanut butter, so in all reality, as long as you are eating smart foods, adding calories doesn't need to be that hard.
Also, trying to focus a large amount of calories around the workout period will further help with nutrient partitioning so more of the carbohydrates and protein get into the muscle cells where they're needed, while less goes to body-fat accumulation.
If you think you might be a hardgainer, take these points into consideration. You will definitely have to make some changes to your workout, and you may need to accept that you will never become a massively large individual. But with the right training and nutritional approach, you should still be able to gain a decent amount of muscle tissue and get that lean, ripped body you've been dreaming about.