The typical muscle building advice of lifting with super high intensity, doing long body building style workouts and of letting muscles rest and recover for a full week usually does NOT work for skinny “hard to build muscle” hardgainers. Don’t get me wrong, for genetically gifted mesomorph body types that advice is perfectly fine. They will build muscle on almost any weight training routine. In fact, they are the reason why that kind of information is so dominant in the muscle building fitness space.
Think about it. Who are the people who we tend to ask advice from when it comes to building muscle? It’s usually the biggest and most jacked bodybuilders and athletes. Although it’s perfectly reasonable (at first glance) to ask the biggest and strongest people what the best routines and exercises are for packing on mass, you must consider who these people are. They are genetic anomalies. Ever see a picture of Jay Cutler (4-time Mr. Olympia) when he was just 18 years old? He was a damn monster! Ronnie Coleman, who is arguably the best bodybuilder of all time, became an IFBB professional bodybuilder when he was ALL NATURAL. Then he finally took steroids and won the title 8 times.
That brings me to another point. Not only are the biggest guys genetic freaks of nature, but they also are usually on gear (anabolic steroids). Although steroids won’t make just anyone a champion (I can take all the gear in the world and I would never look as good as Ronnie Coleman did when he was all natural) they do help a lot. They dramatically improve recovery and they artificially send a muscle building signal to the body. In fact, studies show that men and women who take steroids and DON’T workout still build some muscle.
In other words, if you are a hardgainer, the LAST people you should take advice from are the biggest and most muscular people. They are very different from you. Your body won’t respond the same, and may actually NOT RESPOND AT ALL to the typical bodybuilding advice. If you are training your ass off in the gym and you are following the typical “one body part a day/go to failure on every set/do tons of volume” workouts and you are seeing little or no results, keep reading. I am going to share with you some workout advice that I have personally seen add slabs of muscle on even the skinniest of hard gainers. To be fair, I didn’t come up with what I am about to share with you on my own. It’s based on old school muscle building knowledge that came from lifters who trained BEFORE steroids or even before protein powders and creatine.
You need to train your body parts MORE than just once a week. Your muscles do need to recover, but it’s important to understand the following: recovery and adaptation are not the same. Recovery is the process of healing, while adaptation is the process by which your body aims to CHANGE so that it becomes BETTER at dealing with its environment. For example, when you handle rough objects with your hands and damage your skin your body aims to heal AND adapt. Healing brings the skin back to where it was before it got damaged. Adaptation adds a new layer of skin (a callous over time) so that the skin of your hands doesn’t get damaged with the same insult. This is not that different from how your muscles react to weight training.
People who are genetically gifted have the luxury of having a stronger and longer lasting adaptation process. They workout hard once and their “adaptation signal” stays loud longer than that of the genetically normal and especially than that of the hardgainer. Studies can actually measure the adaptation muscle building process by testing what is known as “muscle protein synthesis. If it is elevated above normal, then it’s safe to say your body is building muscle. If it’s at baseline, then you aren’t building muscle. Studies have shown that this signal spikes quickly following a workout and stays elevated for 24-72 hours after which case it drops FAST.
If you are hitting a particular muscle once a week you are only building muscle for a few days at most. Then the signal drops down to baseline, and if left there for too long, it likely goes UNDER BASELINE. This is because the body does not want extra muscle unless it absolutely needs it. Muscle is expensive tissue (burns a lot of energy/calories) and, unless the body thinks it needs that muscle tissue in order to survive, it gets rid of it. Ever have a broken bone and had to wear a cast for a few weeks? I bet you were shocked at how quickly you lost a ton of muscle on the casted area. The muscle tissue wasn’t needed, therefore the body got rid of it. This is one of the main reasons your routine isn’t putting muscle on your body. You aren’t sending an adaptation signal frequently enough.
When I first I learned about how old-time body builders built their muscular physiques I was at first shocked that NONE of them did a body part split. They all trained the entire body at least three times per week. To be clear their total volume was still high with some of them doing a total of 30 or more sets per body part each week, however this volume was divided between 3 workouts. When I applied the approach of taking my total volume and dividing it over three workouts my body exploded with new muscle. It works great for most people to do this, but it works especially well for hardgainers. I surmise this is because a hardgainers adaptation signal (muscle protein synthesis) falls faster than that of the average person. This may be the main reason they are hardgainers. Train each muscle group 3 times a week instead of 1 time a week and watch what happens.
Another factor that will move amplify your progress is to STOP lifting to failure. Sounds crazy when you consider EVERY damn Instagram post that has a jacked athlete says things like “beastmode” or “train hard or go home” but remember my point about genetic freaks. They recover faster and easier than you do. MUCH easier.
I want to specify something, intensity is important. You do need to train hard, but lifting until you can’t lift anymore is TOO MUCH INTENSITY for hardgainers. Average people and especially hardgainers don’t have the same capacity for punishment. Studies actually back this up and many of them show that failure is not only not necessary, but it reduces muscle building in many people. The was one piece of advice I got from some powerlifter friends of mine. They told me to “practice my lifts” rather than kill myself with them. Once I stopped going to failure my deadlift, squat and bench press numbers jumped considerably. My advice is to stop all sets about 1-2 reps BEFORE you fail for best results.
Lastly, let’s talk about total training volume. If you are like I was you are likely doing too many sets per body part per week. I understand why too. Your body won’t build muscle, and you are a hard worker, so you just do more work thinking more work will equal results. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Doing too many sets will do the same thing that too much intensity will do. It overcomes your ability to adapt. As a result, your body just tries to heal. This is why you get sore, heal and then go back to the gym without any progress. Maybe you even LOSE strength from the added volume. In my experience most hardgainers do best with 9-15 TOTAL sets per body part per week. This comes out to 3-5 working sets per body part three times a week.
There you go. If you take my advice a sample workout should look something like this one or a variation of it:
Quads: Barbell Squats 3-5 sets
Hamstrings: Leg Curls 3-5 sets
Chest: Bench Press 3-5 sets
Back: Barbell Row 3-5 sets
Shoulders: Overhead Barbell Press 3-5 sets
Triceps: Pressdowns 3-5 sets
Barbell Curls 3-5 sets
Abs: Leg Raises 3-5 sets
Calves: 3-5 sets
Give it a try. Most of you will see strength gains in the first few weeks. If your diet is on point you will see muscle gains shortly after. If you need more detailed information and instruction, just download our Hardgainer Guide below.