As we wrap up this bout of muscle building content on the blog, we’re going to touch on some new stuff.
I strive to make this site a resource for all types of fitness information. To that end, I believe that nearly every topic should be covered in an in depth way, with expertise.
Of course, I am not an expert on every facet of fitness—which means that there are things I might not be able to cover; however, I am an expert networker, and so if there is something that I can’t write about myself, I know someone who can.
It’s for that reason that I occasionally feature guest posts on my site—like today’s post.
You see, while I can’t talk about gaining muscle, I can’t talk about it in one specific way: from the perspective of a “skinny guy” or hard gainer. I’ve never been skinny. In fact, I’ve never even been of “average” weight for my height. And most importantly, I’ve never had any trouble putting on mass.
Which means that although I can teach you how to build muscle, I can’t necessarily speak to the specific concerns of the hardgainer from a personal perspective. So today, we’ve got someone who can.
I’d like to introduce you to Chris Smith—former hardgainer turned record-holding powerlifter and great trainer.
Chris is one of my business coaching clients who has recently been killing it: in the time since we’ve been working together, he’s started training at PEAK Performance (best gym in NYC bar none) and had his first article published on T-Nation.
All of which is to say, simply, that Chris knows his shit—and he will provide and “insiders” look into how hardgainers can put on some mass.
So, without further adieu, enter Chris.
For some, building muscle and gaining weight is easy. We all know that guy who can just look at a weight, drink some milk and somehow build muscle **cough cough ROMAN cough cough**
Most people are not so lucky—the rest of us who have to bust our asses day in and day out just so we don’t lose weight. I should know – I was that guy.
Hell, I still am.
In fact, I have such a hard time gaining muscle that there is a specific term for me and people like me: hardgainer. (Clever, right?)
Now, despite the prominence of this word and the millions of people claiming to be one, there is still a lot of debate over whether or not there is such a thing as a hardgainer.
For people who gain muscle easily, it can be hard to believe that someone just “can’t” gain muscle. It’s easy to swear that this is a creature befitting classification next to big foot if you are one of those guys who develop huge quads by just standing up.
Those of us who struggle to build muscle, however, feel differently; when you’ve been dealing with the unenviable situation of eating and training but never getting anywhere, it’s hard not to feel like you’re in a Sisyphean prison with your own body as acting the Warden.
I fall somewhere in the middle of this argument.
Truthfully, I used to swear that I was a hardgainer. If you asked me, I would tell you that I ate a ton of food, but I never could gain weight because my metabolism was so ridiculously high. These days, I know better: it’s not that I wasn’t trying; it’s simply that I wasn’t focusing.
You see, I’m not claiming that there are no hardgainers like some people do. I just have a different definition: in my eyes, hardgainers are skinny guys who aren’t committed to building muscle.
They are the guys who swear they are eating exorbitant amounts of food and doing all the right things in the weight room…but really aren’t. And maybe that’s not all their fault.
There are plenty of knowledgeable guys out there giving advice on how to build muscle and gain weight – and most of them really know their stuff. But how many of them have ever truly spent most of their lives as the smallest guy in the room? I have, and now I want to share with you the benefit of my experience.
The following are tips that I figured out the hard way.
I can hear it already: “But I eat so much already, I can’t eat anymore!” My response is simple: no, you don’t.
Every hardgainer I’ve ever spoken to—myself included—swears he’s eating in abundance; the truth, however, is that you are usually eating frequently, but not with enough volume. The simplest example is leaving food on your plate. If you suffer from “eyes bigger than your stomach” syndrome and always have some food left over this is probably one of your problems.
Even if you aren’t leaving food on your plate chances are you weren’t putting enough there to begin with.
So your first step is simply to start eating a little more than you are already. That doesn’t mean you have to go and gorge every time you eat – just start increasing the amount you eat at every meal a little at a time.
For those of you who are still convinced that you are eating plenty and it’s just that evil rapid metabolism sabotaging your muscle gains this is for you. Start writing down everything you eat. With smart everything and the apps that come along these days this is the easiest thing in the world to do. I use a simple calorie counting app on my phone. It’s a good way to get an idea of the amount of calories and macronutrients you are taking in daily.
But beware! Chances are you are going to be in for a rude awakening if you do this. This simple task was what made me realize that I was chronically under-eating for weight gain. I was routinely falling hundreds of calories short of my daily goal but thought I was eating enough. If you have trouble adding pounds this is a vital step, as it will help you realize just how much you need to start eating.
There are two ways you can apply this. The first is simply to set a calorie goal and shoot for it every day. There are different formulas out there and a quick Google search will yield many. The one that I used to set a goal range was:
Bodyweight (Pounds) x 19 = Goal Calories
Simple and straightforward. Unfortunately this doesn’t take into account things like body composition and individual differences. The other method you can use requires a little more work.
You’re going to keep track of your calorie intake for 2 weeks while monitoring your weight every morning (this is where calorie counting apps come in very handy). This will give you an idea of the amount you’re eating and how it’s affecting your weight. If you are trying to gain weight but failing, you know you need to increase your calories.
If that happens you can start by adding about 250 calories a day and see how it affects your weight.
This is so important it merits being mentioned twice. You could be doing the greatest mass building workouts in the world, but if you aren’t putting the nutrients into your body to recover you’ll never gain weight. You body needs calories to build muscle and if it’s not getting them all you’re doing is breaking yourself down without rebuilding. Nutrition is easily as important as training for building muscle. You can’t build a house without materials – and you can’t build muscle without food.
Now the other side of the coin: if your diet is in order and your training program sucks, you’re still not going to build muscle. Focus on the right exercises and you’re going to see a tremendous difference in your results.
As a general rule the following movements should make up the heart of your program: squats, deadlifts, standing and bench presses, pull-ups and rows.
Learn to do those correctly; they will give you the most bang for your buck and are practically guaranteed to add some mass to your frame. I will even go so far as to say that the majority of your training should be done with the barbell.
This allows you to use the most weight in the safest manner, which is essential to stimulating muscle growth. Get strong on these before you start trying to throw in lots of isolation movements and fancy exercises. I have a rule: if you can’t do 10 strict chin-ups, you shouldn’t be training “arms”.
If this is news to you then you are in for a pleasant surprise if you start to implement this. The brutal simplicity of these movements is also what makes them so effective. They train huge amount of muscle mass simultaneously and create a growth stimulus throughout the entire body.
And for the love of all that is holy: please at least break parallel when squatting.
This obviously ties in to the above points about eating more. If you increase your calories but aren’t getting the right macros you’re not going to get anywhere. In other words if you have been falling 500 calories short of your goal, but add those calories in as Cherry Coke, you’re doing it wrong.
You must know that you should be prioritizing protein in your diet and should have a significant protein source at every feeding and that’s a good start.
General protein intake recommendations vary, but it’s a good idea to shoot for 1.5g per pound of bodyweight at a minimum if trying to gain weight or even go as high as 2g per pound. Remember that your body builds muscle from protein. If the protein isn’t there the Arnold fairy isn’t going to magically make them appear.
In my experience, with both clients and myself, this tip alone can help you build muscle. Why? First of all you need protein to build muscle (as mentioned above). Secondly, this is basically a meal that you wouldn’t otherwise be getting and thus is a source of a few hundred calories that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. An average protein shake has around 300 calories depending on what’s in it.
Boom! That’s 300 calories that didn’t exist in your diet before if you never did this. It’s also another 30-50g of protein. The other great thing that you might notice from drinking shakes before bed is increased recovery.
Since your body is getting loaded with nutrients right before sleeping it has plenty of stuff to repair all that damage that you do in the weight room during a crucial recovery period (sleep). So not only are you building more muscle this way, you are also better recovered for when you hit the weights again.
This may be last, but it’s actually the most important.
If you’ve always been the skinny guy with no body fat and you start trying to gain weight this is what will most likely happen: you’ll start off dedicated and probably put on a few pounds. Then the first time you step on a scale and see a weight you’ve never weighed before you will promptly shit yourself, turn into a 16 year old girl and think you’re going to get fat. You will then lose that dedication and focus on a diet that is going to get you “cut.” Do you see the problem there?
This seems to be something that people who weren’t always the smallest guy in the room don’t understand. I’m here telling you to stay the course. If you do it right, yes, you might gain a little bit of body fat but you shouldn’t end up looking like Jabba the Hut. But deep down, psychologically, when you see that scale climbing it’s going to bother you a little bit. That comes with the territory. Just remember the goal and stick with the plan. If you do notice that you’re gaining significant amounts of body fat, look back at your food log and make some changes – but keep focusing on protein for muscle. Like any goal, this requires serious mental commitment if you want to achieve it.
If you count yourself as a hardgainer, these tips should resound with you. They are things that I have used with great success over the years and learned the hard way. If you put in the work and commit yourself to a realistic goal then there is no reason you shouldn’t reach it. Good luck, now go squat. Just eat something first. And then again after.
Chris makes some great points in the above article; while it’s just scratches the surface, I think the fact that he gives very basic information makes a point in itself: gaining muscle isn’t as complicated as you think it is.
Of course, my heart goes out to you skinny guys…which is why I am going to cover gaining muscle in my new book, being published by HarperCollins next year!