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The Hardgainer's Guide to Building Muscle

If you’re a naturally skinny guy or gal struggling to bulk up, you know how frustrating and confusing it can be.  At the end of the day, if you’re finding it difficult to make progress building muscle despite putting in the time at the gym, there’s a chance you may be what’s known as a “hardgainer”.

The unfortunate reality is that some people naturally have more difficulty than others when it comes to building muscle, and if you fall into that category, there are certain things you’ll need to get right in order to improve your ability to pack on size and strength.  

Before we get into exactly what you’ll need to do, however, let’s first talk in a little more detail about what a hardgainer actually is and what kind of factors can make it more difficult for some people to build muscle.  

What is a Hardgainer?

In general, the term “hardgainer” is often used to describe somebody that has difficulty gaining weight.  While it’s usually used in the context of skinny guys and gals who have difficulty building muscle, not all hargainers are skinny.  

The term has also come to be closely associated with the ectomorph body type -- one of three body types identified in somatotype theory.  An ectomorph, in general, is defined as someone with a smaller bone structure and relatively little muscular development. 

While many ectomorphs may in fact have difficulty gaining weight, not everybody with an ectomorphic body type is a hardgainer.  

Another term that’s often used in the same breath is “non-responder”.  A non-responder is someone whose body doesn’t respond to resistance training to the same degree as the average person. 

Altough some hargainers may also be non-responders, many may ultimately be able to build significant amounts of size and strength under the right circumstances.  

Why is it Harder For Some People to Gain Weight?

There are ultimately a number of different physiological explanations for why hargainers have more difficulty gaining weight. 

But while many may create unwanted obstacles when it comes to building size and strength, most can be overcome with the right knowledge and strategy.  

Fast Metabolism

When it comes to gaining weight, there’s nothing more important than your calorie intake.  In order to build size and strength, you have to be taking in more calories than your body burns off in a day, which is known as a calorie surplus

The issue for hargainers is that they tend to have faster metabolisms, which ultimately means that their bodies burn off more calories over the course of the day than the average person.  For instance, the average 5’ 10” male who weighs 145 lbs, may only burn off around 1,900 calories a day. 

If it only takes you about 1,900 calories a day to maintain your current weight, tacking on some extra calories may not seem all that hard to do.  However, if you’re a hardgainer with a fast metabolism, the number of calories it takes just to maintain your current weight could look more like 2,500, which means you’d actually have to eat close to 3,000 calories per day in order to gain weight.  

After taking into account that you have to do that week after week in order to see significant progress, it’s easier to understand how having a high metabolism can make gaining weight more difficult.  

Small Stomach

Add on top of that the fact that many skinny people also have smaller stomachs, and you have an equation that can often make things more complicated, at least at first.  

We know from countless studies that the size of a person’s stomach can vary pretty widely from person to person.  While skinny people don’t always have smaller stomachs than people who are larger than them, research does show that people who fit the ectomorph body type tend to have smaller torsos and narrower rib cages -- a combination that ultimately leaves less room for organs like the stomach. 

In fact,  findings do seem to confirm that people with smaller stomachs, on average, tend to eat fewer calories per meal and weigh less overall in comparison to those with larger stomachs.  

While it may seem like nature is working against you if you suspect that you have a small stomach, research does suggest that you can expand the size of your stomach by gradually increasing the size of your meals.   

The Hardgainer's Guide to Building Muscle

While hargainers may face more obstacles than the average person when it comes to gaining weight, it’s not impossible.  

In fact, with the right strategy in place you can still build significant amounts of size and strength, no matter how fast your metabolism or how small your stomach is.  

From understanding just how many calories it’ll actually take to gain weight to focusing on the right movements in your weight training program, here’s everything you need to know in order to start maximizing your progress.  

1. Get Your Calorie Surplus Dialed In

As we’ve already discussed, one of the biggest obstacles many hardgainers face when it comes to gaining weight is eating enough calories every day.  And where many people get tripped up is in understanding just how many calories it actually takes to do that. 

First things first, if you want to create a calorie surplus in your diet -- remember weight gain only happens when you take in more calories than your body burns off -- you have to know how many calories you’re actually burning off in a day.  

While it might sound tricky, it’s relatively easy to figure out with a total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) calculator, which can help you to estimate how many calories you burn off in a day given your height, weight, age, gender, and activity level.  

Once you have a rough estimate of your TDEE, you’ll want to tack on an additional 500 calories to create the surplus you need for weight gain to occur.  

Because you’ll be working off an estimate, you may need to experiment with your calorie intake a bit until you’re able to see gradual but steady weight gain.  For many hardgainers, that may ultimately mean slightly increasing your calorie intake a couple of times -- we’re talking about an increase of around 100 cal each time -- until you find your sweet spot. 

2. Eat Plenty of Protein 

After you get your calorie intake dialed in, the next step to seeing healthy and desirable weight gain is increasing your protein intake.  Protein is one of the three macronutrients and it plays a vital role in your body's production of new tissues -- especially muscle tissues.  

When it comes to actually improving your appearance through healthy weight gain, the focus should be on adding new lean muscle mass to your frame and minimizing unhealthy gains in body fat.   

In order to do that, it’s essential that you take in plenty of protein at every meal.  In fact, in order to truly maximize your ability to build muscle, you should be taking in somewhere around 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight every day.  So for example, if you weigh 145 pounds, you should be consuming at least 145g of protein per day in order to adequately support the muscle-building process.  

3. Focus on Compound Movements in Your Training

On top of getting your nutritional strategy dialed in, it’s also especially important that you’re focusing in on the right exercises in your training if you want to see steady gains in size and strength.  And when it comes to your weight lifting routine, in particular, compound movements should take center stage.  

Compound movements like the squat, bench press, and deadlift, are exercises that recruit multiple muscle groups simultaneously.  Compared to isolation movements (think bicep curls), you can lift heavier weights and recruit more muscle fibers with compound movements, which helps to create move favorable conditions in which muscle growth can occur.  

Now that doesn’t mean that you should completely ditch isolation movements like the bicep curl if you’re a hardgainer, but instead, that you should do them later on in your workout after you’ve already knocked out your compound movements.  Again, you want to spend more of your time and energy in the gym focusing on the lifts that are going to challenge your muscles to grow the most. 

4. Keep Cardio in Check

If you are going to do cardio while you’re trying to gain weight, there are a few things to keep in mind.  First off, cardio is going to increase your daily calorie expenditure, so you don’t want to go too far overboard where you're burning off too many calories to create a surplus in your diet.  

Secondly, if you do choose to do cardio, you want to make sure that you're doing it in different training sessions than your weight lifting.  That’s because research shows that cardio can interfere with your ability to build muscle when it's done together with resistance training.  Instead, it’s a better bet to do your cardio and weight lifting on different days or at least in different training sessions if you’re trying to gain weight. 

5. Take The Right Supplements

In addition to diet and exercise, another way to improve your ability to build muscle -- and gain weight -- is through supplementation.  Supplements like HMB, HICA, and phosphatidic acid, for example, can all help to improve your ability to build muscle through modulating an important biochemical process known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS).  

In essence, MPS is the main pathway through which your body builds new muscle.  The higher your levels of MPS, the greater your ability to build muscle is.  And in combination with a solid diet and exercise plan, taking supplements that increase your levels of MPS can help to put you in an even better position to see significant weight gain.  

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Wrap Up

The term hardgainer is often used to describe guys and gals who have trouble gaining weight.  While things like a faster than average metabolism and small stomach size can make gaining weight more difficult for some, getting bigger and stronger is by no means impossible.

From properly managing your diet and calorie intake to focusing in on the right movements in your training, there are a number of different things hardgainers can do to start seeing more progress. On top of optimizing your diet and training, there are also a number of natural supplements that can help to improve your muscle-building potential as well.

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