On the skinny side? Have a hard time building muscle? Here are three things to help you finally pack on some muscle mass.
Genetics plays a dominant role in muscle-building. If you have dreams of competing in the next Olympia, make sure you pick the right parents. But while your genetic potential undoubtedly has a ceiling, most lifters haven’t reached it.
In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle explains that while genetics are the most important thing for being the strongest, fastest, and biggest, environment is a multiplier. The equation is genetics x environment. Optimize your environment (training, nutrition, and recovery), put in the work, and people will accuse you of “getting lucky” in the genetics department.
I work with many self-professed “hardgainers.” Here are their common problems and the fixes.
You need to create a calorie surplus to gain weight – burn off fewer calories than you take in. Yes, true hardgainers burn more calories through non-exercise physical activity, but that simply means they need a higher calorie intake. If you’re not gaining weight, you’re not in an energy surplus. Full stop.
Estimate your calorie needs and start tracking. Identify your target body weight (how much you want to commit to gaining), then use this equation as a starting point:
Target Body Weight (in pounds) x (11‐13 + Total Weekly Training Hours)
If you’re a slow metabolizer, use 11. For a fast metabolizer, multiply by 13. Weights, cardio, and vigorous activities (sports, hiking, etc.) count toward your weekly training hours. Forgetting factors like this often causes hardgainers to underestimate their energy intake.
Another method is to take a few weeks to find your maintenance food and calorie intake. Then, once you’ve found how much you need to eat to maintain your current body weight, add another 300-500 calories on top.
Once you’ve worked out your target calories and food amounts, hitting that calorie goal daily should be your top priority. If you’re struggling, include some calorie-dense foods. Nuts, nut butters and tahini, healthy oils for cooking and dressings, whole eggs, and full-fat dairy are good options. Challenge yourself to eat a large avocado every day (or even blend it into your protein shakes) for an easy 300 bonus calories.
What you can monitor, you can manage. If you’re not tracking your protein, fats, and carbs, you won’t know if you’re coming anywhere near close to your targets. Gaining weight isn’t just training harder and eating more. You need to eat the right things at the right times. Fuel your body with the nutrients it needs to grow. A grass-fed steak with sweet potato and broccoli does a lot more for your physique than a pizza with the same calories!
So, once you have your target calories figured out, focus on macronutrient goals. Again, these are just starting points, and specifically for hardgainers:
- Protein (4 kcal/g) – Use a baseline of 1 gram of protein for every pound of TARGET body weight. So, if your target is 200 pounds, aim for 200 grams of protein every day.
- Fat (9 kcal/g) – Aim for 0.3 to 0.6 grams per pound of target body weight, depending on individual preference and tolerance. If your target is 200 pounds, that’s 60-120 grams of fat per day from a variety of sources such as nuts, avocados, olive oil, and oily fish.
- Carbohydrates (4 kcal/g) – Whatever calories are left over go to carbs. If you need 3500 calories a day with a target weight of 200 pounds, that’s 800 calories of protein (4 kcal per gram). If you opt for 0.5g/lb/day of fat, that’s 900 calories (9 kcal per gram). You now have 1800 calories left to use on carbs. Since carbs have 4 calories per gram, that means 450 grams of carbs a day to start.
Know your target calories and macronutrients and compare them to what you’ve been eating. If you’ve been struggling to gain weight and your numbers are nowhere near what they should be, you know where to start. If you can’t commit to eating that amount, stop questioning your lack of progress until you can.
2. Drop the Long Workouts
We hear it all the time: Train smarter, not harder. But what exactly does that mean? Besides selecting exercises based on your unique body structure and history, it also means training to stimulate rather than annihilate your body. The best program for you depends on a lot of things, but some muscle-building rules are universal.
Every time you exercise, you send an adapt-to-survive signal to your body, like “get stronger or get crushed by this barbell.” You need to send the right signals to build bigger and stronger muscles. That only happens when you consistently provide your body with the right stimuli.
Unfortunately, feeling tired or spending hours in the gym has nothing to do with the message you’re trying to send your body. More often than not, it sends the wrong message.
Instead, there’s a training volume “sweet spot” that varies from person to person. Joe might build maximum muscle by doing 20 sets per muscle per week. Bill might respond best to as little as 6 sets per muscle per week. If Joe did Bill’s training plan, he wouldn’t grow as much, and vice versa.
Note: Natural lifters tolerate less volume than steroid users. But even some enhanced bodybuilders don’t respond well to high-volume workouts.
The solution? Monitor improvements in your lifts and any changes in your body composition to identify trends and figure out what works best for you.
Also, don’t spend more than 50-60 minutes lifting. Excessive training affects the stress hormone cortisol as well as other key hormones. A British Journal of Sports Medicine study showed that athletes who trained excessively had a testosterone level around 30% below the normal range.
Guys over the age of 35 should optimize testosterone as much as they can. If you’re finding it hard to build muscle and you haven’t been tested in a while, do so. If your testosterone is in the tank, reduce your training volume and chat with someone who’s qualified to give you advice.
3. Cut Conventional Cardio
Heart health and work capacity are important. Cardio and conditioning workouts undoubtedly help. But when your goal is to gain weight and build maximum muscle, you need all the calories and nutrients you can spare. Additionally, there are certain biochemical pathways activated during cardio-type exercise that can “shut off” your ability to build muscle.
I’ll spare you the heavy science lesson, but according to research, the Mammalian Target of Rapamycin (mTOR) is a key signaling pathway regulating exercise and nutrient‐induced alterations in muscle protein synthesis. It’s hard to gain muscle without mTOR being activated. While lifting weights activates mTOR, cardio shuts it off by activating AMPK. Once you flip that AMPK switch, turning mTOR back on is hard, affecting your ability to gain size and strength.
For the average guy, this isn’t a problem. A little cardio won’t kill your gains. But if you’re a hardgainer, you need all the help you can get. At least try to mitigate those things that, when added up, are holding you back.
There’s a reason why most successful physique athletes limit cardio in their off-season or stick to things like weighted carries and sled drags. If you’re a hardgainer, try committing at least a few months to doing the minimal amount of cardio you can get away with. Do just enough to promote cardiovascular health and maintain work capacity.
If you’re a fidgety personality type that’s constantly on the go and generally can’t sit down for long, chances are you don’t need any cardio at all, at least while you’re trying to prioritize building muscle. I’ve gotten countless people into single-digit body fat without conventional cardio. Instead, I just set step targets for them to hit outside the gym.
Reintroduce cardio only after you’ve spent a considerable amount of time building muscle.
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