Ah, good ol’ “hardgainers”; the classic case of the scrawny guy in the weight room who complains that he can’t gain an ounce of weight no matter how much food he shoves down his gullet. If you don’t fall in this category yourself you’re still likely familiar with these “metabolically gifted” (or “cursed”, depending on how you perceive things) individuals. I have no clue when the term “hardgainer” was coined, but it’s a spinoff of the more technical term “ectomorph”.
Image courtesy of Govt. of Western Aust. Dept. of Health
An ectomorph is one of the three basic somatotypes, the others being endomorphs and mesomorphs. Ectomorphs are generally skinny, fairly lean, and have a hard time gaining muscle (or any weight at all). Endomorphs generally have a pear-shaped body structure and tend to put on fat easier than the other somatotypes. And lastly, mesomorphs are a sort of sweet-spot between ectomorphs and endomorphs; they are naturally broad-shouldered and muscular, and tend to put on a good amount of weight (mostly muscle) with diligent training and proper dieting.
These terms are all descriptors of general body morphology, but they do serve a purpose in deciphering the physiological tendencies of different individuals. That being said, the main flaw of the somatotype system is that few individuals are purely one of the three basic templates; most people are to some degree a hybrid of two somatotypes. Moreover, we can’t discount the fact that numerous extrinsic factors can affect one’s morphology (e.g. diet, exercise, lifestyle, etc.). So again, exercise caution before you blanket certain individuals into a somatotype category.
Strategies for the “hardgainer”/ectomorph
Now don’t fret just yet, string bean, because there are still plenty of useful strategies you can employ to circumvent your body’s natural tendency to keep you skinny. Some of these tips may seem obvious, but don’t discredit them for that reason. In life (and especially the gym), more often the not the principle of Occam’s razor applies—that is, the simplest solution is often the correct one.
Tip #1 - Emphasize calorically-dense foods
At the end of the day, you will not gain weight if you aren’t taking in sufficient nutrients and calories. Intuitively then, to ease the burden of having to eat massive volumes of food just to meet your daily nutrient/calorie quotas, it’s imperative to include foods that are calorically dense.
These can include things like: nuts, spreads (butter, peanut butter, cream cheese, etc.), oils/dressings, beef, pork, cheeses, dairy cream, whole eggs, granola, coconut, chocolate and a variety of other foods. An extra 200-300 calories can be added to your current intake by simply throwing an ounce or two of these foods into your diet.
Tip #2 - Can’t eat enough? Then drink your calories
There’s a reason weight gainers are generally mixed in liquid, and it’s because liquid calories tend to be much less satiating than an equivocal amount calories from solid foods. Just look at how rapidly people in the U.S. have been gaining weight since the advent of Trenta size Frappuccinos at Starbucks.
I’m not suggesting you rush to the nearest 7-Eleven and guzzle down a Big Gulp of Mountain Dew just for the sake of trying to gain weight, but if you are struggling to ingest sufficient calories from solid food sources, than consider adding in some liquid calories like milk, fruit juices, weight-gainer smoothies, etc.
Tip #3 - Don’t overdo cardio
It’s perplexing to think someone who has ectomorphic tendencies would ever be emphasizing cardio when trying to gain weight (and specifically muscle). Nevertheless, it should be iterated that cardio (especially at low or medium intensities) serves mainly to expend calories, which is the exact opposite of what a hardgainer’s goal should be.
This is not to say that hardgainers absolutely can’t do any cardio and still gain weight/muscle, because I would actually recommend keeping some cardio in most anybody’s routine, regardless their somatotype and goals. Hardgainers just need to be sure to keep the cardio reasonable and relatively infrequent; definitely don’t prioritize it over resistance training.
NOTE: Athletes are often forced to maintain a certain amount of cardiovascular exercise in their training/practice, so if you’re faced with the conundrum of being an ectomorphic athlete and trying to gain weight/muscle, you will have to do your best to offset the caloric burn from your cardio with sufficient nutrient/calorie intake.
Tip #4 - Focus on compound/multi-joint exercises
This is not a stipulation constrained solely to hardgainers since most every trainee should base their training around multi-joint exercises. Multi-joint exercises activate a greater amount of muscle groups (and thus fibers) than single-joint exercises, and thus you get more “bang for your buck” by doing them.
Moreover, by using multiple joints and muscles you are usually able to lift a greater load of weight, allowing you to put more tension on the muscle which is conducive to muscle hypertrophy. When was the last time you saw Johnny “Skin-and-Bones” Doe squatting 500lbs ass to the grass? I assure you it’d be a rare sighting.
Tip #5 - Get stronger
Not surprisingly, one of the main culprits of stagnation in the gym is simply not improving your strength/performance. When you go into the gym one of your main priorities should be trying to progress from your previous workout. You’d be amazed how many trainees nonchalantly lift the same weight for months (or even years) on end and guess what? They look the exact same now as they did all those days ago.
Getting stronger doesn’t always have to be adding weight to the bar (even though that’s still a priority), but progress can come in the form of adding more volume, longer time under tension, increasing frequency, adding various intensity techniques, etc. Just focus on progressing/improving in some capacity each week.
Tip #6 - Don’t neglect rest
Time in the gym is certainly important in order to provide stimulation for muscle growth, but you should not be living in the gym either. You grow during the hours spent out of the gym (especially during sleep), and skipping out on rest and recovery is sure to hinder your rate of progress.
Keep a sound sleeping regimen, and try to get between 6-8 hours per night. If you can, also consider taking a power nap or two throughout the day when time permits. Again, when you’re in the gym, work hard, but when it’s time to go home, go home. More isn’t always better, especially when it comes to time spent in the gym. Lift, eat, sleep, and repeat (what a tough lifestyle, eh?)
So there you have it, 5 not-so-shocking, yet effective, tips for all the hardgainers out there. At the end of the day, you will gain weight/muscle if you focus on improving your performance in the gym and provide your body with sufficient nourishment.
Don’t get too caught up in magic formulas, ratios/percentages and all the other hoopla that litters the health/fitness world. Be consistent, keep eating, add more weight to the bar, get adequate rest, and you will reap plenty of muscular gains!