11 Rules for Hardgainers to Live By

Your genetics were done and dusted well before you were old enough to read this. So why worry about them? Focus on what you can do.

Most skinny guys think building large amounts of muscle is an impossibility. They spend their time blaming genetics. They believe that their fate is already sealed, and they resign themselves to a scrawny, not brawny, existence. Other dudes, often more muscular ones, simply think that genetics are irrelevant and that it is all down to hard work. So, who is right? Both.

Most skinny guys think building large amounts of muscle is an impossibility. They spend their time blaming genetics. They believe that their fate is already sealed, and they resign themselves to a scrawny, not brawny, existence. Other dudes, often more muscular ones, simply think that genetics are irrelevant and that it is all down to hard work. So, who is right? Both.

Want to win the Mr. Olympia title, play international rugby, be the NFL MVP, or win the 100m at the Olympics? You’ll need some phenomenal genetics (and a lifetime of hard work).

Want to stand out as a muscular guy when compared to the average Joe or simply be stronger than 90% of the population? Hard work and smart training can do that for almost anyone.

If you were not blessed with Usain Bolt, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Phil Heath-esque genetics don’t worry. There is still hope—and much that you can do to transform your physique. Follow these 11 rules and you will become a bigger, stronger version of yourself.

1. Get Your Mindset Right to Grow Muscle

Control what is controllable. Your parents are your parents. Your genetics were done and dusted well before you were old enough to read this. So why worry about them? Focus on what you can do. You are 100% in control of your lifestyle, training, sleep, nutrition, supplementation, consistency, dedication, work ethic and motivation. If you make positive changes in these areas, then you will develop bigger, stronger muscles.

Once your mindset is on point, then you can take control of your situation. You can optimize your training, nutrition, and lifestyle to build your best version of you.

2. Keep the Goal the Goal

The goal is to build muscle. Everything you do should be geared towards this. Don’t get distracted by some new training fad or suddenly start crash dieting because your beloved abs are beginning to become a little soft.

All too often skinny guys trying to pack on muscle lose focus. Rather than sticking to their training plan, eating a heathy surplus of calories, and recovering well, they start to worry about their six pack. They worry about their conditioning, and whether they should use intermittent fasting, or not, and about half a dozen other things. This is a big mistake.

Prioritize your goals and make sure your actions match those goals. The long term reward will be well worth it.

3. Patience and Consistency Build Muscle

You have now picked your goal and have a laser like focus on achieving it. You want results and you want them fast. The problem is that building muscle is like watching paint dry. You will need to be patient and consistent.

Then you get people like me telling you more volume is better. You want to see rapid results so, naturally, you want to get in the gym and smash crazy workout after crazy workout. I admire that mindset but, you need to play the long game. Rome wasn’t built in a day and a great physique isn’t built overnight. If you suddenly double your training volume when simply adding one set of squats would have been the minimum effective dose (MED) then you have far less room for increased volume in the future. Don’t sabotage long-term gain for short-term gratification.

Time is the only thing we can never get back, so if you are training four hours a week now and rapidly jump that to six, then you might need eight hours a week to see progress in a couple of years. Chances are you won’t have eight hours a week free. So, tread cautiously and get the most from the least while trying to always gradually do more.

4. Your Network Is Your Net Worth

Surround yourself with like-minded individuals. Hang out with people who want to achieve the same goals as you. Even better, spend time with people who have already achieved what you want to.

You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Spend time with people you aspire to be like, people who lift you up rather than drag you down. Find some big, strong, muscular people to hang out with. Better yet, train with them. Being around people who have achieved what you want to will fast-track your progress.

This network of mass seeking buddies will help to keep you motivated and on track. Chances are they have been through whatever you are going through and can offer guidance and advice to help you navigate any bumps in the road. They will have high expectations of themselves and you. They know what it takes to get results and will hold you accountable along with pushing you to work harder than you would on your own.

As hard as it might be to accept, if most of your mates don’t train, prefer to watch football, get drunk, and eat pizza all day, every day, then you need to find some new friends.

5. Hardgainers: Get Over Your Irrational Fears

When I was starting out with my weight training journey I read a book by Stuart McRobert called Beyond Brawn. He emphasized that overtraining was the enemy of hardgainers. In many respects, he was right. Overtraining should be avoided. The problem was that his programs were so low in volume and frequency that progress would be slow, and perhaps even non-existent for most.

This kind of writing has created an irrational fear of overtraining for many trainees and has held back large numbers of self-proclaimed hardgainers. Perhaps it was just the wimpy training programs and not genetics to blame after all.

Is overtraining real? Yes. Is it as common as some writers suggest? Hell no.

The body is an adaptive mechanism and will, within reason, adjust to the demands placed upon it. If you try and follow the plans of your favorite pro bodybuilder will you overtrain? Possibly. If you work your ass off following a well-structured progressive training plan will you overtrain? Almost certainly not.

Get over your fear of overtraining and get in the gym and work hard four days a week. Four days of training is enough for most beginner/intermediates to see good progress and still allows for three full days of recovery. If you do this you won’t overtrain and instead you will see great results.

6. Lifting Heavy is Very Important

This rule emphasizes the previous point. I was concerned about doing too much work in the gym for far too long. Too many sets and reps were eating into my recovery. I thought that I just needed to focus on lifting heavy with the proper rest involved and then a physique like Arnie’s would be mine.

I was wrong.

Lifting heavy is very important to gaining muscle, but a certain amount of volume is essential to create maximal muscle gain. In fact, volume of work done is highly correlated with increases in strength and muscle mass. Doing sets in the 6-12 range (sometimes even higher) is the most efficient way to increase training volume. Sets in this rep range create the metabolic stress and damage required to stimulate growth.

Can you do too much? Yes, of course, but for rapid progress you will want to do the maximum without exceeding your ability to recover. This is known as your maximal recoverable volume (MRV).

An individual’s MRV is, wait for it, individual. As such, finding yours will take some trial and error. I would suggest gradually adding volume over time and keeping good records of your progress in the gym and how you feel. This will help you assess what is too little or too much and identify your sweet spot.

By the way, your MRV will increase over time. Doing what you did when you first started training won’t result in progress today. Likewise, simply repeating today’s training to get improvements in five years doesn’t make logical sense. Remember, there needs to be progressive overload in the long run to see big improvements.

With all that said, this doesn’t mean you suddenly should go in the gym and churn out marathon sessions of 19 exercises with 11 sets of each with drop sets and forced reps thrown in. You should apply the MED to create progress.

For example, if you start out close to your MRV lifting three days a week, doing 3×5 for two big lifts, and 3×10 for two smaller ones, then you can very gradually build volume into these sessions over weeks or months before then progressing to four days a week.

A practical example of how to incrementally increase volume throughout a training block would probably be helpful:

  • Pick a rep range to perform an exercise in. For this example, let’s go with 10-12.
  • Begin using a weight you can do 3x the lower end of the rep range (i.e.,3×10).
  • Aim to increase this to 3x the top end of the range (i.e., 3×12).
  • When you hit the upper end of the range for 3 sets, then add a set.
  • Work to increase the reps on the final set so that all sets are at 12.
  • Add weight, and start the process over at stage 1.

For the more visual amongst you, here it is in table form:

Session Weight Sets Reps
1 50kg 3 10, 10, 10
2 50kg 3 12, 11, 10
3 50kg 3 12, 12, 11
4 50kg 3 12, 12, 12
5 50kg 4 12, 12, 12, 10
6 50kg 4 12, 12, 12, 12
7 55kg 3 10, 10, 10

7. Train Hard and Recover Harder

This ties in with the above two points on overtraining and increasing volume. As I said, the more you can do without exceeding your ability to recover, the better. There are two sides to this equation—your training and your recovery.

Too often we fall into the trap of focusing on the sexy stuff (training is sexy, right?!), and we forget the boring stuff (recovery). Most hardgainers they don’t overtrain, they under-recover. Hardgainers often have hummingbird-like metabolisms and turn over muscle tissue at a rapid rate. As a result, if they don’t have adequate recovery strategies in place then they can easily lose their gains (easy-losers).

Sleeping and eating are the two key opportunities for recovery. Do you sleep enough, eat enough, train smart enough, or rest enough to recover from a decent amount of work?

If you’re not sure, then follow these guidelines:

  • Be in bed by 10 pm and aim and for 6.5 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
  • Eat a minimum 16 times your bodyweight in pounds. (e.g., A 200 pound man would eat a minimum of 3200 calories, 16×200=3200, to gain muscle.)
  • Have complete rest days, not days playing 5-a-side with your mates or doing some intervals to keep your abs in check.

Many hardgainers (easy-losers) neglect the above guidelines and start to experience overtraining-like symptoms. The assumption is they’re doing too much in the gym. This is correct, but if they addressed their recovery, then they would find they could do this level of work and see awesome progress.

Don’t get caught up in the vicious cycle of under-recovery. It is a fast track to failure and disillusionment. Instead, give yourself a chance to improve by taking care of both sides of the equation.

8. Use the Scale to Your Advantage

Many hardgainers think they are doing everything they can to gain muscle, yet they overlook the simplest feedback tool they have. The scales.

If you want to gain muscle, then your weight needs to be going up. During a mass gain phase, if your body weight hasn’t changed noticeably, then little to no muscle has been built.

How much should you gain and how quickly? Here are some general guidelines for you:

  • A mass gain phase should generally last 3-4 months.
  • Aim to gain 0.25-0.5% of body weight per week.
  • Any more than the above means you are likely gaining excess body fat.
  • Any less is tough to track accurately.
  • When progress stalls, raise calories by 250-500 per day. Use the lower end of that range if you are a smaller or shorter individual and the higher end if you’re bigger in size.
  • Adjust based on scale weight rather than some arbitrary weekly adjustment.

9. Don’t Major On the Minors

Want to pack on slabs of muscle? Doing triceps kickbacks, leg extensions, and cable flys isn’t going to get it done.

You need to build a solid foundation on the big lifts. Over time, add weight to the bar and aim to drive the numbers on these lifts up. Have you added 30kg to your squats, doubled the number of chins you can do, and taken your deadlift from 3 to 4 wheels? Yep, you got stronger and added muscle.

10. Isolation Exercises Are Your Friend

Contrary to what the above point might lead you to believe, you do need isolation work, especially for your limbs. This is even more important if you are a typical long-limbed hardgainer.

Take it from me, just focusing on the big compound lifts can be hugely frustrating for the long-limbed lifter. This is especially true for the upper body. You can add significant weight to the bar and decent size to your torso, but still have arms resembling linguini.

Now don’t get carried away and ditch the big lifts. Remember, they are your foundation. They also work well as indicators of progress. They do, however, need some assistance. This is where isolation exercises come in. You can really target a lagging muscle and bring it up. For many tall, skinny hardgainers, that lagging muscle group is the arms. So, I am here to tell you it is a good idea to chase the pump and throw in a few sets of curls at the end of a session. Just don’t do them in the squat rack.

11. Carbs Are Not Evil

The body’s glycogen levels are linked to muscle growth, signaling through a feedback loop. If levels are chronically low, then muscle growth won’t be priority for the body.

Essentially, this means gaining appreciable muscle growth on a low carb diet is making life unnecessarily difficult for yourself. I should know, I’ve tried. And guess what? I hit a long ass plateau with no real size gains.

Glycogen is the dominant fuel source for high intensity activities like weight training. Do yourself a favor by fueling training sessions and muscle growth by eating sufficient carbs.

As a rule of thumb, if you train hard with weights 4-5 days a week, then you should consume a minimum carbohydrate count of 1.5g per pound of body weight per day. See how you progress. If you are not gaining, then bump it up to 2g. If you train multiple times a day you may even need to go as high as 3g. Research has shown that the requirements for strength athletes are often in the 1.8-3.2g per pound of body weight range.

Put These Guidelines to Practice

There you have it. Eleven rules to help you become the biggest, strongest version of yourself. Simple and effective. Now, get to work implementing all 11, and you’ll soon have forgotten you used to blame your genetics for being skinny. In fact, you’ll probably have others telling you how they could look like you if they had your genetics. Just smile and pass on these guidelines to help them out.

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