“You can do anything you put your mind to.” Such is the refrain of motivational speakers — and mothers — worldwide. We don’t mean to undermine such powerful advice, but unfortunately, we feel compelled to say that it’s just not true. For some sad souls, packing on perfectly molded mass is a pipe dream; no matter how hard they work out or how much they eat, their physiques just don’t respond.
The irony is that some people would be happy with a metabolism that strong — it makes fat burning a cinch. But when your body is actively working against your dreams, it’s nothing short of frustrating. Fortunately, there are steps hardgainers can take, techniques that should spur growth. The tips listed here represent your best bet for putting on muscle. However, we won’t say it’s going to be easy. The pursuit of mass always requires ultimate commitment, which, we suppose, is just another way of saying you need to put your mind to it.
1. Eat. A lot.
Overriding that rabbit-fast metabolism requires a lot of food. As soon as a hardgainer’s body blazes through a meal, it turns catabolic, tearing down muscle to feed itself. Therefore, keeping the body constantly nourished can go a long way toward maintaining an anabolic (i.e., muscle-growing) state.
A basic mass-gaining nutrition regimen generally requires consuming 20 calories per pound of bodyweight. That’s the minimum a hardgainer needs. A 150-pound man, then, would eat at least 3,000 calories a day (150 pounds x 20 calories per pound), and as much as 3,300, or 22 calories per pound.
Those calories should be divided into around eight meals per day on workout days and seven or so on rest days:
The macronutrient breakdown of those meals is also important. Protein is arguably the most critical nutrient because muscles aren’t much more than storage bins for protein. Therefore, hardgainers should eat 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight (which would come to 225 grams of protein for our 150-pound guy). That said, carbohydrates are also important, both for energy to promote muscle gains and because carbs pull water into muscles, keeping the tissue fuller. That creates a stretch on cells, and that stretch can induce growth in the long run.
Hardgainers should eat 3 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight per day (or 450 grams for the 150-pound man). We normally recommend getting the majority of carb calories from whole grains — whole-wheat bread, oatmeal and brown rice — because they digest slowly and therefore don’t elicit an insulin rush. However, hardgainers actually benefit from higher insulin levels. Insulin is an anabolic hormone that also helps transport protein into muscle cells. Therefore, faster-digesting carbs (white potato, white bread, white rice, angel food cake) play a bigger role in the hardgainer diet.
The last nutrient, fat, is required in smaller amounts. Hardgainers should eat a minimum of 0.5 grams of fat per pound of bodyweight (or 75 grams for the 150-pound dude). As with all diets, the focus should be on healthy fats, the mono- and poly-unsaturated fats found in seeds, nuts, peanut butter, olive oil, avocados, fatty fish (like salmon, tuna or sardines), though some fat from meat is definitely acceptable.
2. Use mass-gaining supplements.
Gaining mass isn’t just a fight against your metabolism, it’s also a fight against your gag reflex. Getting eight meals a day just isn’t likely … unless you’re opting to get some of those meals as supplements. Whey protein powder should figure heavily in your wake-up and preworkout and postworkout meals, but casein is really a hardgainer’s best friend. It digests slowly, keeping your muscles well-stocked with amino acids, but despite that, it’s also been shown to have little effect on appetite, making it easier to get in all the meals you need to.
Also making it easier are mass-gain supplements. These are products that are extremely rich in protein and carbs and therefore calories. Consuming a mass-gain powder as a between-meal snack is an excellent way to make sure you hit your nutrition goals without compromising your appetite by eating whole foods. It’s also well worth it to stock your backpack and glove compartment with mass-gain bars for on-the-go nutrition. It’s hard to make a shake when standing at your locker, so bars will work in a pinch.
3. Limit cardio.
At least you hardgainers have one thing to be thankful for — just think of the number of people who would kill to get rid of some (or all) of their cardio workouts. It comes down to this: Since hardgainers are constantly fighting an already too-high metabolism, why do anything to bump it any higher?
Cardio, though beneficial to health, can be fatal to muscle mass. It can blaze through the nutrients you’ve eaten before they get to your muscles, preventing them from growing and, worse, if you don’t have enough of those nutrients in your bloodstream, it can actually cause the body to start breaking down existing muscle for fuel. Ideally, hardgainers should eliminate not just any treadmill time at the gym but also any excess movement in general. Take the elevator, park as close to the store as possible, and get the dog to fetch your slippers and newspaper.
4. Limit weight training to one-hour sessions.
Weight training is a double-edged sword for hardgainers. Obviously, it can’t be eliminated entirely because it catalyzes muscle growth, but, ironically, it can also compromise growth. The key is to keep calorie expenditure under control, and keeping workouts within an hour in length is a start.
There’s another benefit to shorter sessions: The longer the workout, the higher the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol competes with testosterone for access to muscle cells, and that spells doom for muscle growth. It’s also a catabolic hormone that can direct the body to break down muscle tissue to be used as fuel. Limiting it is always a good idea no matter how easily you pack on mass (it also appears to be linked to some of the illnesses suffered by those in high-stress jobs), but for a hardgainer, it’s critical.
5. Lift heavy and low.
Choosing the right way to train can also go far to help limit calorie expenditure during weight workouts. Out is anything that requires you to move fast between exercises, so no fancy techniques like supersets or drop sets. Instead, just do straight sets with heavy weights, about what you can lift for eight to 12 reps. That rep range has repeatedly been shown to be golden for muscle growth.
6. Increase rest.
The final element of a successful muscle-gain program for someone who struggles to gain mass is manipulating the rest periods between sets. As we already explained, the goal is to reduce calorie expenditure, and one way to do that is to allow your heart rate to slow between sets.
But the other reason to lengthen rest periods is a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2009. It showed that subjects who rested two and a half minutes between sets gained more than twice the muscle as those who rested only one minute. We recommend rounding that rest time up and chilling for three minutes between sets to get the best of both worlds — lowered calorie burn and maximal mass gain.