While most talk about losing weight, there’s you hard at work trying to gain it! You’re a categorical “hardgainer” — the envy of everyone who wish they could “get away with” eating as much as you. Yet, if only they understood your own struggles and frustrations.
One week your weight goes up a little, your workouts are feeling great, and you’re looking pumped-up and swole. Then next your weight plummets, the workout intensity drops, and you feel like you’re back at square one. Here are four big reasons and solutions to help you break through those barriers.
Quit the long and grueling workouts
We hear all the time about training smarter versus harder, but what exactly does that mean? Besides selecting exercises based on your unique body structure and history, it also means training to ‘stimulate’ rather than ‘annihilate’ your body. The best program for you will depend on a lot of things, but some rules when it comes to building muscle are universal.
Every time you exercise you’re sending a signal that your body should adapt (e.g., get stronger or I’ll get crushed by this barbell!!). You need to be sending the right signals (via resistance exercise) to build bigger and stronger muscles. That only happens when you’ve provided your body with the right stimuli to adapt, and with consistent effort over time. Unfortunately, feeling tired or spending hours in the gym has nothing to do with the message you’re trying to send your body, and more often than not sends the wrong message.
You should instead understand that there’s a training volume “sweet spot” that varies person-to-person, where oftentimes less training volume can give you better results — while your workout partner might build maximum muscle doing 20 sets per muscle per week (e.g., 20 sets of chest spread throughout the week), you might respond best to as little as 6 sets per muscle per week. If you were both doing the same workout with 20 sets of volume it’d be your training partner that’d grow more from it.
Monitor improvements in your lifts and any changes in your body composition in order to identify trends and figure out what’s working best. Additionally, try to never spend more than 50-60 minutes lifting at a time. Excessive training can affect the stress hormone cortisol as well as other key hormones. The results of a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that athletes who trained excessively had a reduced testosterone level by around 30% below the normal range.
Guy’s over the age of 25 should be looking to optimize their testosterone as much as they can! Train to stimulate NOT annihilate. If you’ve been training a lot and feel your testosterone levels are suffering then here are a few things you might want to start implementing:
- Daily “T-boosting” supplements: Zinc, vitamin D3, boron, magnesium
- Sleep optimization: Cutting blue light after sunset (blue light blocking glasses, minimize screen time); try a supplement cocktail of magnesium threonate (1500mg), l-theanine (200mg) and epigenin (50mg) around 30 mins before bed; make your bedroom as cave-like as possible (cool temperature, darkness, lack of technology).
- Increase parasympathetic drive as frequently as possible outside of training (breathing drills, meditation, reading books, listening to chilled music, foam rolling and other soft tissue work, even chewing gum helps enhance this “rest and digest/recovery” state.).
Cut the conventional cardio
Heart health and work capacity are important, and cardio and conditioning workouts undoubtedly help. But, when your goal is to gain weight and build maximum muscle then you need all the calories you can spare. Additionally, there are certain biochemical pathways that are activated during cardio-type exercise that can literally “shut off” your ability to build muscle.
We’ll spare the heavy science lesson here, but according to research it’s well established the Mammalian Target of Rapamycin (mTOR) is a key signaling pathway regulating exercise and nutrient‐induced alterations in muscle protein synthesis.
It’s very hard to gain muscle without mTOR being activated, or if it’s being shut off all the time. Whilst lifting weights activates mTOR, cardiovascular training shuts it off by activating something else called AMPK. Once you flip that AMPK switch then it’s hard to turn mTOR back on, thus affecting your ability to gain size and strength.
For the average guy this isn’t a problem and a little cardio won’t “kill your gains”. But, if you’re a hardgainer then you need all the help you can get. Or, at least, try to mitigate those things that when added up are holding you back.
There’s a reason why most successful physique athletes limit cardio in their off-season to the bare minimum, or stick to things like weighted carries, sled drags and heavy ropes as a form of cardio. If you’re a hardgainer then do the minimal amount of cardio you can get away with, and largely for cardiovascular health over another reason.
If you’re the personality type that’s constantly on the go, fidgeting, and generally can’t sit down for long, then chances are you don’t need any at all. At least while you’re trying to prioritize building muscle, anyway.
Once you’ve built some considerable muscle then you can start introducing more cardio and conditioning workouts to help unveil what you’ve now built.
Eat more calorie and nutrient dense foods
There’s no arguing that you need to create a calorie surplus in order to gain weight — burn off fewer calories than you take in. Whilst it’s true that hardgainers may have a faster metabolism than others, and burn more calories at rest, this simply means you need a higher calorie intake. If you’re not gaining weight then you’re not in an energy surplus. Full stop. You NEED to eat more, and that’s the hard truth of it.
To ensure you’re getting the right kind of calories and in the correct amounts then estimate your calorie needs and start tracking right away. Simply ask your target body weight then use the following equation as a starting point:
- Target body weight (in lbs) x (11‐13 + average total weekly training hours)
If you’re a slow metabolizer use 11, or for a fast metabolizer multiply by 13. Any weights, cardio, vigorous activities (sports, farming, hiking etc.) count towards your weekly training hours. It’s forgetting factors like this that often cause hardgainers to underestimate their energy intake and limit weight gain.
Have you worked out your target calories yet? Great! Now hitting that calorie goal seven days a week should be your top priority. If you’re struggling then you should include some calorie dense foods for good measure. Nuts, nut butters and tahini, healthy oils for cooking and dressings, whole eggs, and higher fat cuts of meat (preferably grass-fed meat if you can afford it) are all good options. Challenging yourself to eat an entire avocado every day by adding it to meals, or even blending it in to smoothies will add an extra 300 calories to your diet. It really can be that simple if you pick the right foods. A high-quality mass gainer protein shake like Hulk is also an easy and convenient option.
What you can monitor you can manage – if you’re not tracking your protein, fats and carbs then you won’t know if you’re coming anywhere near close to your targets. Gaining weight isn’t merely a case of training harder and eating more. No matter what all the hardgainer forums and Facebook pages tell you!! You need to be eating the right things at the right times, and fueling your body with the nutrients it needs to grow. A grass-fed steak with a side of sweet potato and broccoli will do a heck of a lot more for your physique than would a 12 inch pizza with the same calories!
We’ve already established how many calories you should be aiming for to start, now let’s establish your macronutrient goals. Again, these are just a starting point:
- Protein (4 kcal/g) – Use a baseline of 1g of protein every pound of target body weight. So if your target is 160lbs then aim for 160g of protein every day.
- Fat (9 kcal/g) – Aim for 0.3-0.6g per pound of target bodyweight, depending on individual preference and tolerance. If your target is 160lbs that’s 48-96g of fats per day, from a variety of sources such as nuts, avocados, olive oil and oily fish.
- Carbohydrates (4 kcal/g) – Whatever calories are left over should come from carbohydrates. If for example you need 2500 kcal a day with a target weight of 160lbs, that’s 640 kcal of protein (4 kcal per gram of protein) and at least 432 kcal of fats (9 kcal per gram of fat). This means of the 2500 kcal, you now have 1428 kcal left to use on carbohydrates. Since carbohydrates have 4 kcal per gram that would mean 357 grams of carbohydrates a day to start.
Know your target calories and macronutrients and compare them to what you’ve been been eating. If you’ve been struggling to gain weight and your numbers are nowhere near what they should be then you know where to start.
What’s YOUR “low hanging fruit”? What areas are you falling short on, and what changes can you make right now to ensure you’re optimizing your gains?
If you’re a hardgainer and already tried these, or looking for a guesswork-free and guaranteed system to follow then read more about 1:1 Online Coaching HERE.
I build Olympians, Cover Models and those who want to look like them. Author or “Ultimate Abs” available in all good book stores.