If you’re a hardgainer who wants to build muscle, but you’re frustrated because you don’t seem to be getting anywhere, and the stock advice to “follow an abbreviated training program where your workouts are brief and infrequent” hasn’t worked, this page will show you what to do.
Here’s the story:
Once, I got an email from a hardgainer.
He’d been trying to put on muscle. But no matter how much he trained or what he ate, the gains seemed so slow.
He felt like he was doomed to stay to stay looking the same way forever, and was seriously questioning whether it was ever going to be worth his effort.
Some say there’s no such thing as a hardgainer, just people that don’t know how to eat enough food.
Others swear that they stay skinny and underweight no matter what they do in the gym or how much food they eat.
Is there really such a thing as a hardgainer? How do they differ from others that have an easier time gaining muscle? And is there a single “best way” for a hardgainer to train?
Is There Such a Thing as a Hardgainer?
Yes, there is such a thing as a hardgainer. Some lucky folks add muscle mass relatively quickly when they start lifting weights. They’re called “fast” or “extreme” responders. For others, the results come much more slowly, even if they lift and eat the same. They’re known as “non” or “slow” responders.
In one study, for example, lifters spent 16 weeks training their quads . Although everyone followed the exact same training program, there were large differences in muscle growth from person to person.
Most subjects increased the size of their quads by around 30 percent. One in four saw outstanding results, increasing their quad size by an average of almost 60 percent. But 26% of the subjects were non-responders, posting an average increase in muscle mass of precisely zero percent.
Labeling someone a “non-responder” isn’t entirely accurate, as there is usually a response of some kind . It’s rare that months of training leads to no adaptation at all. Rather, what happens is that non-responders don’t respond in the way that an average person would.
In other words, when you start lifting weights, something is going to happen. But the something that happens isn’t necessarily going to be the something you want to happen. And even if the something that happens is the something you want to happen, it’s something that isn’t necessarily going to happen as quickly as you’d like it to.
Are You a Hardgainer… Really?
The fact that hardgainers exist doesn’t necessarily mean that you are one.
Are you really a hardgainer? Or just an “average” gainer with skewed expectations about how fast it’s possible to gain muscle?
Gaining muscle is hard work no matter who you are. Some people do build muscle more slowly than others. But I haven’t met many people who say that gaining muscle is easy.
What’s more, the fact that someone starts out skinny and scrawny doesn’t automatically make them a hardgainer. You can’t always tell just by looking at someone how well their muscles will respond to training.
There are people with a low baseline level of muscle mass, but with the potential for rapid growth . Likewise, there are also people with a high baseline level of muscle mass who won’t see the same level of growth when they start lifting weights.
In other words, the fact that you’re naturally skinny doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll struggle to gain muscle when you start lifting weights.
What Makes a Hardgainer a Hardgainer?
One theory is that hardgainers exhibit a magnified inflammatory response to training.
That is, an identical training program will lead to more inflammation and muscle damage in a slow versus a fast responder. And it’s this excessive muscle damage and pro-inflammatory signaling that’s putting the brakes on muscle growth.
Some people do appear to recover more slowly after a bout of resistance training. Studies show that these “slow recoverers” lose more strength after a workout, take longer to recover, and experience a greater degree of muscle soreness .
Slow responders also show a greater degree of localized inflammation, which may interfere with the ability of muscles to respond to training .
Inflammation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But too much of it definitely isn’t, with a sweet spot found somewhere between “too much” and “not enough” inflammation.
How do you go about reducing muscle damage and inflammation?
One way is to cut back on the amount of training you do. Doing fewer sets per muscle group, and training those muscles less often, will usually mean less muscle damage and inflammation.
This fits nicely with the “stock advice” usually dished out to hardgainers, which is to follow an abbreviated training program, where your workouts are brief and infrequent.
Hardgainers overtrain very easily, the argument goes. They should stick to big compound lifts and avoid isolation exercises. The best way for a hardgainer to build muscle is to keep their training sessions short and intense, which is the only way their muscles can recover and grow.
However, I don’t think it’s as simple as that.
For one, I’ve not seen any research that separates the slow and the fast responders, then puts the slow responders on different training programs to see which one works best. Much of the advice geared towards hardgainers is based on tradition and opinion rather than any solid evidence.
In fact, the authors of a study  linking slow muscle growth with excessive inflammation think that slow responders “may require a greater stimulus or longer duration of the same stimulus to remodel/hypertrophy their muscle fibers.”
In other words, they’re saying that hardgainers potentially require a greater stimulus rather than a smaller one.
What’s more, when a team of scientists looked at the research linking slow responders and inflammatory signaling, they came to the conclusion that the jury is still out .
Here’s what they had to say on the subject:
“While preliminary evidence suggests that select mRNAs related to inflammatory signaling may be differentially expressed in low versus high responders, there is not enough experimental evidence to suggest low responders exist in a heightened inflammatory state during training periods.”
Here’s something else to think about.
Take a look at the figure below, which comes from a 2018 study on the subject of training volume and muscle growth .
The study looked at the effect of three different training volumes – low, medium and high. The low volume group did one set per exercise, the medium volume group did three sets, while the high volume group did five sets.
All three groups trained three days a week on non-consecutive days (i.e. Monday, Wednesday and Friday), doing the same exercises, for 8-12 reps per set. It was only training volume that differed between the groups.
The circles represent individual changes in muscle thickness in the biceps after two months of training, while the horizontal bars represent the group average.
As you can see, there were large individual differences in results, even with an identical training program.
There were fast and slow responders in all three groups. But what’s interesting to me is that the “slow responders” in the five-set group made faster gains than those in the one-set group.
To be clear, this isn’t based on a statistical analysis of the data. I’m just going by what I can see. Statistically speaking, there may well have been no difference in results between slow responders in the one-set group and slow responders in the five-set group.
However, it does raise questions about the advice given to hardgainers that they should simply do less.
Australian researchers report similar results in a study that looks at the effect of training volume on strength gains . They found high and low responders in subjects doing two, eight and sixteen sets of squats per week.
However, the number of low responders was highest in the low volume group. In contrast, a greater number of high responders were found in the 8-set and 16-set groups.
In some cases, the slow response to resistance training may be because someone is doing too much. In others, it might be because they’re not doing enough.
Put differently, there may well some hardgainers who respond better to higher training volumes, and some that respond to lower training volumes. Muscles can be made to grow with both approaches. People who don’t respond well to one may respond well to the other.
What to Do If You’re a Hardgainer
The first step is to take a closer look at what you’re doing outside the gym. There are often one or more factors unrelated to training that are responsible for putting the brakes on muscle growth.
Chronic mental stress combined with a low stress resilience, a poor diet or lack of sleep can all conspire to make building muscle more difficult than it otherwise would be. You need to make sure you’re eating enough, sleeping enough and minimizing external sources of stress.
“Try to out-recover the gifted elite,” says strength coach Andrew Heming. “If they sleep 7 hours a night, you might need 8. If they need 4,000 calories a day, you might need 5,000.
“While they may be able to get away with throwing food together, you might need a structured meal plan. If they can get away without naps, massages, and various stress management techniques, you might need to double down on them.
“Train hard. Recover harder.”
Don’t overlook this stuff.
It’s simple, basic and you’ve heard it all before. But if you’re serious about building muscle, it’s the consistent and relentless execution of the fundamentals that will get you there.
People are different, not just in terms of how fast their muscles grow, but also in terms of the type of training they respond best to .
That is, some people might be slow responders to a particular training program, but tinkering with some of the variables gives them better results.
If your muscles haven’t grown from heavy weights and lower reps, they might respond better to lighter weights and higher reps, or to an increase in training frequency.
Two people can respond very differently to the same training program. The “best way” for one person to train may be very different to someone else’s “best way.” Just because a particular style of training works well for some people doesn’t necessarily mean that your body will respond in the same way.
One variable with the potential to have a big impact on your results is training volume, which I’m defining here as the number of weekly sets for a given muscle group. While you need some volume for muscle growth, too much is going to hinder your progress, and too little will have the same effect.
I’ve not seen any research that attempts to identify how training volume affects muscle growth in hardgainers. However, it has been done in the field of endurance exercise.
In one study, subjects who saw little or no gains in cardiovascular fitness following a six-week low-volume training protocol made much better improvements when they upped the dose of training . In fact, none of the participants were classified as “non responders” after the higher volume of exercise.
In another, increasing the amount of exercise reduced the rate of nonresponse by 50%. At a fixed amount of exercise, increasing exercise intensity eliminated the rate of nonresponse completely .
I can’t tell you exactly how many sets to do, and nor can anyone else. Research can point the way, but it only tells you the average response in a group of people.
That’s why it’s important to experiment. And the logical way to go about doing so is to start out with a lower training volume and gradually work your way up.
The first step is to hit the reset button on your training. Whatever it is that you’re currently doing in the gym, stop doing it, and take a week or two off.
As soon as you’re back in action, start out a relatively low training volume. By low, I’m talking about 3-6 hard sets per week for the main muscle groups. Divide this across 2-3 training sessions.
As I mentioned earlier, hardgainers may have a greater than normal inflammatory response to training, which could be partly responsible for their slow rate of muscle growth. A reduction in training volume means less muscle damage and less inflammation, which may be just what you need to make your muscles grow.
However, this is just a starting point. If, after a couple of months of solid work, you’ve made no progress, then it’s time to start ramping up the volume.
Keep a training diary to monitor your progress, and adjust volume until you find the right balance between recovery and growth.
Use your performance in the gym to guide you. If you’re able to lift more weight for the same number of reps, or do more reps with the same amount of weight, that’s a good sign that what you’re doing is working.
The precise location of this sweet spot will shift over time in response to changes in diet, sleep, and stress levels. Your tolerance for volume won’t be as high when you’re busy, short on sleep and not recovering as well.
Finally, make sure to increase your training volume gradually. Some people may need a higher volume of training to make their muscles grow, but will have to work up to it slowly. Take your time, be patient and give your body the chance to adapt.
SEE ALSO: THE MUSCLE BUILDING CHEAT SHEET
If you're fed up spending hours in the gym with nothing to show for it, then check out The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet.
It's a "cut the waffle and just tell me what to do” PDF that tells you exactly how to go about building muscle. To get a copy of the cheat sheet sent to you, please click or tap here to enter your email address.