17 Muscle Gaining Tips for Hardgainers

Humans have been categorized into three different somatotypes. Your somatotype is your genetically predisposed anatomical structure, along with your ability (or lack thereof) to burn calories and lose or add tissue (fat or muscle). Most people are a combination of 2 different somatotypes, and it’s quite rare that you’ll fall into only one category. The three somatotypes are endomorph, mesomorph and ectomorph. Endomorphs are generally larger individuals who can gain body weight (fat and/or muscle) quite seamlessly. Ectomorphs are the opposite. They’re the people endomorphs are jealous of because they can seemingly eat whatever they want and in large quantities and avoid any sort of weight gain. The mesomorph is a combination of the two. This blog post is for the ectomorphs, or “hardgainers” who put in the effort day in and day out but frustratingly cannot seem to move the needle in the direction they wish. This topic is near and dear to my heart because I personally fall into the hardgainer category and struggled for years to gain any sort of muscle mass.

You Must Outsmart (not Outwork) Your Genetics

We all have that one friend who seemingly can eat whatever they want and stay lean. People are often envious of this ability, but from personal experience, it’s not the easiest situation to be in especially if you’re interested in building muscle. The problem with having a rip-roaring metabolic rate is that while it’s very difficult to gain fat, it’s equally (or more) difficult to gain muscle mass. The tips in this post are aimed at the guy or gal who works tirelessly day in and day out to build muscle or gain any sort of weight, but struggles to see much progress. I’m absolutely not questioning your effort. My goal is to provide you with a plethora of tried and tested muscle gain secrets so that you can steer this effort in the right direction. If you’re a skinny ectomorph who’s desperately trying to build some muscle mass but you’re stuck in a rut, look no further. I too was once in your situation, and I know how frustrating it can be! For years and years I was stuck in the 165-170 lbs range (at 6 '1"!) and it seemed that no matter how hard I tried, I could never consistently gain any weight. Finally, after years and years of grit and determination (but doing the wrong things), I was able to make some changes to my training, nutrition and mindset that finally enabled me to make progress and gain size. I’m now 195 lbs and I have the tools necessary to gain muscle and body weight whenever I want. I’ve been up as high as 210 lbs while maintaining a low body fat percentage, and to get there, I used all of the techniques I’m about to share with you. The most important aspect to finally changing your skinny, weak frame is consistency. You can’t just follow these tips for a few months and expect to gain (and maintain) 25 lbs. You must be consistent and patient! Mindful nutrition and effective training are essential for everyone. If you’re a skinny guy looking to add muscle mass, they’re even more important! If you’re still unsure whether you’re truly an ectomorph or not, there are some tell-tale signs to look for. If you’re taller than the average person, you have long, skinny limbs, small joints, and a seemingly very fast metabolism (you eat what you think is a lot, but you never gain fat or muscle), you’re an ectomorph. If you put on muscle (or body fat) really easily, this article can still be informative for you, but you’ve probably already figured out how to put muscle on your frame because it’s less labor intensive than it is for us skinny folk. Unfortunately, your somatotype is something passed on to you by your parents, so if you’re naturally stick-thin you have them to thank. Fortunately, by following the tips in this blog post you can be well on your way to making the gains you’ve been dreaming about.

Nutrition Tips for Skinny Guys

Feeding the body what it needs to perform and recover is essential for everyone, but as an ectomorph, it can be like a part time job. Follow these 7 tips to get your nutrition dialed in for your muscles to grow!

#1 Basic nutrition 101. 

You must be in a calorie surplus to gain weight. A calorie surplus means you consistently eat more calories than you burn. For some people, this is quite easy (the reason that most of our population is overweight or obese). For skinny guys and gals, this is a chore. The most difficult part of eating in a surplus is consistency. You must eat more calories than you burn not just a few days per week, not just weekdays, but DAILY. Unless you’ve tracked your calorie intake consistently in the past, you will experience great difficulty getting it right without actually tracking your intake. 

#2 You think you’re eating a lot, but you’re not.

Naturally lean people have very high BMR (basal metabolic rate, aka a fast metabolism) and also tend to spend a lot of their day (intentionally or unintentionally) doing activities that increase non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Examples of NEAT are walking, daily chores, fidgeting or unconscious movements, or any other activity besides sitting perfectly still. NEAT is responsible for 15-30% of daily calorie burn for the average person. This must be taken into account when calculating how much food you need in order to gain weight. Adding in resistance training and cardio (even skinny folks should do cardio to stay healthy) causes your caloric requirements to be even higher. There are many calorie requirement calculators out there you can find by doing a quick google search, but for hardgainers, these are usually inaccurate. To truly find out how much food you need to eat, I recommend tracking your intake for 2 weeks (preferably longer for hardgainers) and weighing yourself daily to see how you’re trending. If your weight stays about the same over this time, you need to eat more. If you’re gaining weight, you’re on the right track. I do not recommend tracking food for everyone as it can become stressful over time, but having an idea of what and how much you’re consuming is especially important for hardgainers. Keep in mind that as you gain mass, your metabolism will continue to increase. So even if what you’re currently eating is sufficient, it’s likely that you’ll continue to require more and more calories over time.

#3 Meal Frequency

Just like adding training frequency can help you gain strength and muscle, increasing meal frequency can help you eat more. It can be quite difficult to consume enough calories if you’re only eating 2-3 times per day. Adding in more meals (or snacks, or shakes) can help you distribute your calories over a longer period of time throughout the day and not feel uncomfortably full after large, calorie dense meals. Everyone is different, so it may take some time to find the right meal frequency for you. Try experimenting with different meal frequencies for about a week at a time, and not making drastic changes to what you’re doing now. Obviously, you’ll have to adjust the size of your current meals if you’re adding in another one (or more) so you’re hungry enough to eat it when the time comes. To start out, add one meal per day to your current frequency for at least a week to see how you respond and if it works for your lifestyle. So if you’re eating 3 meals a day now, increase to 4. I recommend eating similar foods at similar times throughout the day so that you can get accustomed to the schedule. Studies also show that having structure throughout the day leads to better habit forming and long-term consistency. Using the example of 4 meals a day, maybe you’ll eat a meal at 7AM, 11AM, 3PM, and 7PM. 4 hours between meals is usually plenty of time to build up an appetite for the next meal. Although increasing meal frequency can help, there’s a limit to how many meals you should aim to eat per day before it seemingly takes over your life. Usually anything over 6 meals daily is when eating may become too much of a chore and will often lead to burn out or food-relationship issues. It can also lead to poor digestion, especially when protein intake is high (which if you read tip 4, it shouldn't be). Another variable to experiment with is to either evenly distribute your calories in each meal, or make some meals larger and some smaller. Personally, I eat most of my daily calories in the evening, because I find that eating a lot of food throughout the day makes me feel sluggish physically and mentally. Again, find what works for you.

#4 More Protein is Not the Answer

Once you’ve hit your protein goals for the day (1 gram per pound of bodyweight is more than enough), focus on healthy fats and carbohydrates. The body needs a certain amount of fat per day to function properly, so ensure you’re not skipping out on it. But instead of trying to eat tons and tons of protein in hopes that it’ll help you build more muscle (past a certain point, it wont), focus on consuming more carbohydrates like rice, potatoes, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, fruits, bread, cereal, bagels and whatever else you prefer for carb sources (go easy on the sugar, though!). Just be sure to focus on carbohydrate sources that are not inflammatory to your digestive system. Carb sources that most people digest well are white rice, rice cakes, sweet potatoes,regular potatoes and sourdough bread. I personally add white rice to almost every meal. I also digest oatmeal well (not everyone does), so I make sure to include plenty of it. Protein is very satiating, meaning it makes you feel full. Once you’ve hit your minimum protein requirements for the day (it’s less than 1 gram per lbs bodyweight!) eating more protein will have zero additional muscle building benefits. Carbohydrates, on the other hand, are less satiating and easy to consume more of. So if you’re struggling to eat enough calories, going easy on the protein and hard on the carbs can help. An added bonus for eating more carbs is it’ll improve your training performance and you’ll get better pumps in the gym. Who doesn’t want that?

#5 Tired of Chewing? Liquid Calories are Your Friend!

If you’re struggling to eat enough, try drinking some of your calories. This does not mean crushing soda’s, juice, beer and other sugary beverages. The liquid calories that can benefit hardgainers are high calorie smoothies and shakes that enable you to catch a break from all the chewing required throughout the day of eating. When you drink your calories, you may find that you can consume quite a few more before you begin to feel full. Great options for high calorie smoothies are whole milk, protein powder, peanut butter, oatmeal, bananas, yogurt, berries, coconut oil etc. You can also play around with the ingredients as you see fit to make these shakes taste great. There are countless options of smoothie ingredients out there, find what works for you. Perhaps substitute a whole food meal with a shake, or if you’re really struggling, add in a shake to what you’re already eating. I do not recommend standard mass gainer shakes as they have a tendency to cause gut issues. If you’re able to avoid them, your significant other will thank you. However, if you really enjoy drinking them and they don’t make you feel terrible, there's no denying that they can be effective at driving up your calorie intake. I just know from personal experience and working with other skinny guys, that once we consume a mass gainer shake, our appetite is next to nothing for hours and hours afterward and we also feel quite sluggish and unwell. Another effective strategy is to invest in some liquid carbohydrates to consume around and during your training sessions. I recommend highly branched cyclic dextrin as it is quickly digested and used for energy. The main reason athletes and serious trainees use cyclic dextrin is to have consistent, easily usable energy throughout longer or more intense training sessions. For the hardgainer, the additional benefit is that you’re able to consume an easy 60-80 grams of carbohydrates throughout your workout, with little effect on your overall appetite. Finding little strategies to increase calories and carbs throughout the day is something you as a hardgainer should become quite familiar with.

#6 Find Ways to Increase Your Appetite

You may find that it’s counterintuitive to tell a skinny guy or gal to do cardio to help them GAIN weight. However, when implemented strategically, it can actually be of great benefit. Cardio, especially longer, moderate intensity cardio, can have a significant effect on appetite. Something many of us overlook is the fact that consuming, say, 1,000 calories takes significantly less time and effort than burning the same amount. Additionally, cardio tends to drive appetite quite significantly, often causing you to overcompensate with food afterwards. For someone trying to lose weight, this is obviously a bad thing. But if you’re trying to eat more to gain weight, doing cardio can help you eat significantly more. You may burn 500 calories doing 45 minutes of cardio, but you’ll often find that you’re able to eat 2-3x that when you’re done (in a fraction of the time). If you’re currently minimizing (or just not doing) cardio, try implementing some a few times a week, especially on days you’re struggling to eat enough. Although I’m not recommending drug use, we all know that one plant that can increase your appetite as well. Just remember to use it responsibly and obviously refrain from it if it’s a banned substance in your career path. Also keep in mind that marijuana, although literature shows mixed results in studies, may have other negative effects on your fitness like the lowering of testosterone and the interruption of certain important stages of sleep.

#7 Eat Mostly Whole Foods, a Bit of Junk, and Avoid the “Dreamer Bulk” 

The “dreamer bulk” is another term for trying to gain as much weight as possible with no regard to whether it’s fat or muscle. This is a very unhealthy and inefficient way to bulk. Using this method will lead to you having to do a more drastic cut in the future to shed the excessive fat you’ve put on, and this usually results in significant muscle loss along with it. You should not be gaining anymore than 1-2 lbs per week. I hate to break it to you, but any more than 2lbs per week gained is almost always an indication that you’re adding too much fat. Let’s do the math here, if you gain 1 lb of muscle per week over a year, that’s 52 lbs of muscle! Gaining this much muscle in a year is physically impossible unless you’re running dangerous amounts of PED’s (it’s still pretty much impossible). So shooting for .5-2 lbs of total weight per week maximum is the most realistic goal if you’re looking to minimize fat gain. Obviously, some weeks will result in less, while others perhaps a bit more. In an effort to add mostly lean mass, the majority of your diet should be whole foods throughout the day. It is acceptable and even recommended to supplement with occasional junk food that is less filling if you’re really struggling to eat enough. Once you’ve consumed all of your required micronutrients for the day, adding some foods that are highly palatable (think ice cream, cereal, cookies, crackers, chips, french toast, pizza etc.) can help you ensure you end the day in a calorie surplus. I highly recommend not making these food choices staples in your diet. You’ll likely feel like garbage most of the time and not perform the way you want to in the gym. I also do not recommend eating only clean foods for 6 days a week and then having a “cheat day” where you drastically over consume junk for the duration of the day. If you prefer “cheats”, keep it to 1-3 MEALS total per week. I personally prefer to just have a bit of “junk” here and there throughout the week, but some people have the tendency to make it an “all or nothing” event and go way overboard. You know yourself better than anyone, so If you struggle with moderation when it comes to your favorite cheat foods, make sure you limit the consumption frequency of them. To put a number to it, I like to aim for 75-85% healthy and nutritious whole foods, and 15-25% “junk” foods. If you prefer to eat only healthy food, and are able to consume the required amount of calories without any junk, even better. You’ll be healthier and feel better because of it. 

Training Tips

Training properly is essential when it comes to building muscle. Now that you have the nutrition knowledge you need to gain size, the following tips will focus on how to train for size gains.

#1 Follow the right program

Your body grows outside the gym, not while you’re training. Most skinny guys (not all) train too often, and with too much volume. Successfully gaining muscle is unlike achieving success in other areas of life, in that harder work and more hours dedicated to the outcome does not necessarily equal better results. When it comes to resistance training, to get the results you’re looking for, you must find the right dose for you as an individual. If you’re training 5-7 days per week for over an hour per day and you’re not gaining strength and muscle, you’re either training too much or too hard, or your program is not right for you. FInding the right dose can take some time because we all respond and recover differently to different frequencies and training volumes. That said, more often than not for skinny guys, 4-5 hours per week of strength training is the upper limit you’ll want to shoot for. Oftentimes, especially if you’re new to lifting, you’ll get better results with 3 hours per week. The two splits I recommend for hard-gainers are 3-4x/week full body (my Kickstart program is perfect for this), or 4-5x/ week upper lower or push pull legs (my 19-Week Hypertrophy program in a nutshell). That way you can stimulate the muscles enough to send a muscle building signal, and then give them ample time to recover and grow. Training 6-7 days per week, spending 2+ hours in the gym, or following “bro splits” is a huge mistake if you’re a hardgainer, especially if you’re new to training. For training intensity, the more of a novice you are, the less intense you’ll need to train. As you become more experienced, proximity to failure becomes more important. I generally recommend training in the 7-9 RPE (rate of perceived exertion on a 1-10 scale, 10 being failure) range for most lifters. You want to be close enough to failure to cause enough stimulus, but not so close that you increase your fatigue levels and risk of injury. Along with this, aiming for 10-20 sets per muscle group per week is sufficient for most natural lifters (the harder you train, the closer you’ll want to be to the low end of this range, and vice versa). Once you have your ideal frequency, volume and intensity dialed in (this can take a few months or longer), the next thing you’ll need to focus on is doing the right exercises.

#2 Compound Movements are King (but not solely with a barbell)

Focusing more on compound movements and less on isolation movements is very important for  hardgainers, especially those who are inexperienced. Just because your favorite bodybuilder or influencer posts videos on instagram doing a random bicep curl variation that “gave him a sick pump”, doesn't mean it’s right for you, or almost anyone for that matter. Professional bodybuilders have been training for decades, have elite genetics for building muscle, and are often taking hefty doses of performance enhancing drugs. Most of them also built their physique by focusing on compound lifts for the first several years of their training career. Additionally, although they do some unconventional isolation movements here and there, most of the elite bodybuilders still focus on compound lifts. You, the hardgainer, also need to focus on the basics. I’m not saying to only do barbell movements like the squat, bench, overhead press, bench and barbell rows (although many people would recommend only those). You can use dumbbells, and even machines to execute compound lifts and achieve great results. I would recommend you focus on mostly barbell and dumbbell training for the first 3-5 years of training. Dial in perfect technique and get stronger at the big barbell movements. Hardgainers need to spend less time in the gym than you would think, and cycling through 10 different pec isolation movements every time you train your chest will not get you very far. Focus on getting stronger in the 5-15 rep range using the compound lifts, occasionally add some isolation movements, and watch your strength and muscle mass start to increase faster than ever before.

#3 Keep Your Heart Healthy with Cardio 

Do not neglect cardio (but don’t do too much, either). As I mentioned above, certain cardio methods and intensities can be used strategically to help increase your appetite. Cardio is also healthy, and will help negate some of the potential negative effects of aggressively increasing your calorie intake. Just be careful not to over-do the intensity or the duration. As a general rule, the ratio of lifting to cardio should be 2:1 per week (at the most). So if you’re in the gym lifting 4 hours per week, the maximum amount of cardio you should do is 2 hours. Keep the intensity moderate and be sure to account for the additional calorie burn with your nutrition plan. 

#4 Make Sure You Find the RIght Training Partner

This may be a hard pill to swallow, but your training partner may be a big reason you’re not making much progress. As I’ve mentioned a few times throughout this post, we all respond differently to training. More often than not, doing the exact same program as your lifting buddy (if you have one) will not work for you like it does for him or her. A good, knowledgeable lifter is aware of this, but unfortunately they are few and far between. If, right now, you’re following all of the advice in this blog post, but still not seeing the results you want, it may be time to talk to your gym buddy about either parting ways, or at least personalizing some of the training variables to tailor it to you as an individual. You also do not need a training partner at all. Many great bodybuilders and strength athletes train alone. If it helps you stay accountable, however, maybe try to still go to the gym with your partner, but follow your own program. There’s a good chance that you both can do the majority of the same program, but change just a few things to tailor it to your own needs. 

#5 Change Your Focus

Instead of just focusing on getting bigger, try focusing on getting stronger. If you’ve had little success with muscle growth, changing your focus to strength improvements will almost inevitably lead to size gains along with it. Many new lifters who struggle to gain muscle have been focusing on the wrong things like getting the pump, adding too many different exercises, random advanced intensity techniques (drop sets, supersets, rest-pause sets etc.) or just doing too much volume. Unless you’ve been lifting for decades and are very advanced (which, if you’re this far into the blog post, you’re not) you’d likely benefit greatly from focusing on adding weight to the bar or doing more reps with the same weight each week. As an inexperienced lifter, when your muscles get stronger, they also get bigger (unless you’re not eating enough). Eventually, as you become more and more advanced, you won’t be able to continue adding weight to the bar and you can shift your focus to adding more volume, intensity, intensity techniques, or range of motion. But for now, focus on strength gains and eating enough food, and your muscles will inevitably grow.

Other Miscellaneous Factors that Cannot be Overlooked

Although rarely emphasized in “muscle gain” blogs or articles, gaining weight for skinny guys can absolutely be a mental challenge and it’s often the last thing holding them back from serious progress. Additionally, recovery and sleep could be that one missing piece to the puzzle in your mass gaining journey. Just lifting and eating right will only get you so far. You must have the right mindset and recovery ability so that you can continue to progress.

# 1 It’s Ok to Not be Shredded at all Times

If you’re trying to put on considerable body weight, you have to be ok with not staying as shredded as you currently are. Individuals who are able to gain solely lean muscle mass and stay shredded are either on PEDs or brand new to lifting. If you don’t fall into either of these categories, you’ll have to come to terms with the fact that you may not (and should not) stay extremely lean during your mass gaining journey. If your self-worth and identity is solely dependent on your six pack, you’ll need to change your mindset. Not only will it keep you from getting bigger, but it’s also quite dysfunctional, because no one really cares (besides you) about whether you have a 6-pack or an 8-pack.

#2 Accept that Progress is Not Always Linear

During your journey, you must understand that progress will not be linear, meaning some days and some weeks you may not gain any weight. This is normal. Almost everything in life that involves fitness is fluctuating and not linear. The scale will not go up by the same amount every single day or week. You must be ok with this. If, however, you go a full week without gaining a fraction of a pound, you should definitely consider the fact that even though you’re eating the same amount, you may be now at maintenance because your metabolism increases as your bodyweight increases. Adding more calories will begin to move the needle again.

#3 Compare Yourself to You, and Only You

Finally, you must not compare yourself to others. You were born with a genetic predisposition to being skinny and lean. Many many people would kill to be in your position, because so many struggle with the exact opposite of what you struggle with. Most of the strongest, most shredded bodybuilders in history started out as a skinny hardgainer. It’s quite rare that a great bodybuilder was a former fat kid. You must trust the process, treat it as a part time job, and be patient. 

#4 Resist PED use 

It’s no secret that using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) will make it easier to gain muscle. The mistake so many lifters make is deciding to use them before they need them. I would discourage you from using PEDs altogether, but if you’re dead set on it, wait until you’ve at LEAST added as much muscle mass as you possibly can to your frame naturally. While responsible PED use is not as unsafe as many will lead you to believe, if you start them before you’ve reached your genetic potential naturally you’ll likely never gain as much muscle mass as you could have had you waited till you had everything dialed in and have lifted for years (or decades) naturally. If you use PED’s instead of following the advice I've given in this post, you’re taking the easy way out. I recommend everyone who’s serious about their health and is over the age of 20 to get blood work AT LEAST yearly, and more often than that as you get older (I get mine done every 3-4 months). Your hormones play a large role in your health, recovery, and ability to perform and gain muscle. I also highly recommend that if you take the PED route, you do your research and know what you’re getting yourself into. Once you experience the effects they have on your training and physique (not to mention potentially permanent hormonal effects), It’s highly likely that you’ll never be able to go fully off of them. In short, do your homework, maximize your natural potential, and tread very carefully.

#5 Recovery and Sleep

Along with nutrition, sleep and stress management are the most important aspects of your life outside the gym that can make or break you when it comes to achieving your goals. I’ve written an entire blog post on sleep (because it’s that important), so I won’t get into the benefits of it here. Make sure you read it after completing this one. Stress management is another overlooked aspect of performance, recovery, and long term success when it comes to achieving your fitness goals. Stress is stress, and it all has an effect on the body, nervous system, and your hormones. Whether you’re studying for finals, in an argument with a significant other, having issues at work or just dealing with daily life stressors, managing this stress is essential to your ability to gain muscle. Training is also stressful. When you recover from and adapt to training stress, your muscles grow. But we can only deal with so much stress. You may have heard of the “stress bucket” analogy. Essentially, you have a certain amount of stress you can handle, and each stressor fills the bucket a bit more. Once the bucket is full or overflowing, any additional stress you add will be detrimental to your progress. Having the tools to deal with or minimize outside life stressors will enable you to train consistently without overflowing the bucket. There are many different techniques you can use, including journaling, meditation, light reading, cold showers, walking in nature, or just shutting off and relaxing. Adequate sleep, however, is the most effective stress management tool. Find what works for you and you’ll rarely or never overflow your stress bucket. As for other recovery techniques like foam rolling, massage guns, cryotherapy, sauna, etc. While they can certainly help and shouldn't be disregarded, they pale in comparison to the big three: nutrition, sleep and stress management.

Wrapping it up

Gaining muscle can be quite challenging for us ectomorphs. If you stay consistent, keep a positive mental attitude, and implement the advice in this blog post, you will be on your way to finally achieving your goals. Being an ectomorph has many advantages, it just requires a more meticulous approach than it would for other body types. You have the potential, now it’s time to get to work! I’d love to hear your feedback! Let me know if you’ve struggled with making gains. Have you tried any of these techniques? Which ones worked well for you? Which ones would you be interested in adding to your current regimen?

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