To everyone who struggles with unwanted pounds around their middle, cursed with devious bathroom scales that rise on the mere thought of a slice of pizza or pint of ice cream, the common refrain of the perpetually skinny can be … well, obnoxious.
“No matter what I do, I can’t put on weight.”
Oh, hardgainers, the world weeps for you! Okay, not really. That said, we here at MuscleMag understand where you’re coming from. Some of us have even been in your size 29 jeans, painfully stuffing our faces but never seeing an inch of progress from all our efforts in the gym.
If your metabolism is churning calories faster than you can shovel them in, there’s hope — through a few dietary and lifestyle changes, you can start adding appreciable muscle mass without resorting to extremes. Here are three proven hardgainer strategies you can put into motion today:
1. Ramp up your calories, and write down every morsel.
It’s an unavoidable fact: Hardgainers need more calories than they’re currently taking in — and they can’t be afraid of adding at least a little fat along with new muscle mass. “If you want to get bigger, you have to be willing to pack on some pounds by consuming more calories for the body to use to build muscle,” says Gerren Liles, an AcaciaTV trainer, New York–based Equinox instructor and Reebok ONE ambassador.
“That doesn't mean you down a pint of chocolate ice cream and a sleeve of cookies though,” he adds. “You want to ramp up your protein intake, along with healthy carbs and fats. Once you reach the size you want, then you can begin to restrict your caloric intake and change your workout regimen to begin developing definition.”
In response to such advice, it’s common to hear a hardgainer claim that he eats a ton of food every day. The follow-up question you should immediately ask: “Did you write it down?”
The human mind is an incredible creation, but it can also be very fallible, and not so great with estimates. “A ton of food,” once documented, is more than likely going to come up smaller than anticipated. Sometimes, it’s the fact that someone is eating only a few times a day, and even if those meals tend to be bigger than average, it’s still not enough. And if you’re not gaining weight, whatever you’re eating is inadequate — the scale doesn’t lie, so if weight is unchanged or decreasing, your body is burning more fuel than you’re taking in. It’s simple math.
To counteract the problem, you need to get serious about noting what you eat. Strongly consider a food scale and either a calorie book or online program to track your diet. FitBit and Jawbone are wearables that offer calorie-counting options, or you can use an app like those offered by SparkPeople and My Fitness Pal.
Your rule-of-thumb goals daily:
Divide those up over 7–8 of meals per day — eat every two hours, going two-and-a-half hours max between feedings, with a quality protein anchoring every meal.
Before bed, drink a protein shake (25 grams of casein), and consider setting the alarm for the middle of the night for yet another shake. That’s because sleeping through the night means 6–8 hours without nutrition … when in doubt, a restful night sleep is more important for recovery purposes, but the midnight “snack” could be a difference maker for someone who’s really struggling to add size.
2. Get motivated in the gym, and lazy outside of it.
Hardgainers tend to be hyperactive. Always on the go, it’s no wonder that they’re calorie-burning machines. If that sounds all-too-familiar, it’s time to dial back your schedule.
To grow, you need to shuttle all your nutrition and recovery efforts toward your main goal. You need to weight-train intensely for 45 minutes to an hour maximum four days per week, doing 3–4 sets per exercise using heavy-weight sets of 6–12 reps, then back off and let nature take its course in repairing that stimulated muscle tissue.
“Your body will change according to the style of training you put it through,” Liles says. “To gain muscle, you must train specifically for hypertrophy. You cannot focus on both building muscles and burning fat to get leaner — the training protocols for both are different. Limit your cardio and high intensity interval training.”
As fitness freaks, it pains us to even type this next part, but here goes: Don’t run when you can walk. Don’t take the stairs when there’s an elevator nearby. Don’t play that game of pick-up basketball when you can veg on the couch. Take more naps. Seriously.
Why? In this particular pursuit, every calorie matters. And when a 140-pound dude can burn 445 calories in an hour of hoops or up to 692 calories in an hour-long treadmill run (those numbers according to CalorieLab.com), your busy day can soon morph into a metabolic conflagration. After all, 692 calories would represent nearly 25 percent of your total daily intake!
Of course, this activity-averse state is not a prescription we’d recommend you embrace forever, but in a short-term situation of a few months, where you’re attempting to move the needle on your weight-gain efforts, you need to direct the bulk of your nutrition toward muscle growth. So in all other aspects of your life, you want to conserve calories.
As you track your food intake and your weight day to day, you’ll start to learn how your body responds to macros, and gauge exactly how much is enough to prompt gains. At that point, you can start adding activities back in, making sure you adjust your calories accordingly.
In addition, you’ll want to ratchet your eating totals up as you begin making gains, leveling off when you reach your goal weight and condition. (In other words, if you go from 140 to 160 pounds, and you want to keep growing, you’ll want to take in at least 3,200 calories daily.)
3. Train, eat, recover, repeat.
Dedicated hardgainers usually understand what they need to do — eating and training is par for the course, after all. The problems arise when real life gets in the way, and regular patterns get dislodged.
Hardgainers must be relentless in their efforts. It can’t be two days of a great diet and then slipping back to old habits, where you expend too much energy with too little fuel. Every part of the process matters, including recovery.
“Keep your training routine focused and consistent, make sure you're getting enough sleep, and eat enough calories,” Liles says. “Most of all, be patient, and the muscles will come.”