Tips for hardgainers Everyone can grow

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Your motivation, discipline and commitment are optimal. And yet your results are minimal. A typical case of a hardgainer.



Hardgainer is a term often misused by bodybuilders and coaches. That ‘hard’ strongly depends on the context.


In fact, every advanced bodybuilder is a hardgainer compared to a beginner. After all, building muscle can get pretty tricky once you ‘ve used your first roughly 75% of your genetic potential – even if you were an easy gainer initially .


In addition, there are different types of bodybuilding, which – sometimes literally – are intertwined. Compared to bodybuilders on gear, all natural bodybuilders are hardgainers. If your dream body is that of a steroids-using competition bodybuilder, you will quickly come to the conclusion as a ‘natty’ that you are a hardgainer or even a non-responder.

We still see on web forums and in YouTube comments that many people have a completely unrealistic picture of what you can achieve as a natural bodybuilder.


In addition, many forget that the muscle growth potential must be added to the ‘bare’, mature body. Someone who is naturally thin and not very muscular (an ectomorph) will still look relatively skinny ten kilos of muscle mass later. Someone who is already quite muscular (a mesomorph) will already look jacked as hell with ten kilos of muscle mass. The ‘ecto’ will therefore think that he is a hardgainer, while he may have built up muscle mass just as quickly as the ‘meso’.

For example, did you know that women can build as much muscle mass as men (if they want to) iv ] ? Because they naturally have much less muscle mass, they will never end up looking as muscular as most men. But that doesn’t make them hardgainers.


Finally, there are also a lot of self-proclaimed hardgainers who don’t grow because they simply don’t train hard and/or often enough…


In this article we focus on the real hardgainers. By this we mean natural bodybuilders with training status early-intermediate or intermediate, usually ectomorph but not necessarily, who train frequently (say at least three times a week), who exert sufficient effort during their training (i.e. train close to muscle failure), sleep well and get enough proteins (~1.6 g/kg/d), and which nevertheless put on little or no muscle mass.


By ‘intermediate’ we mean bodybuilders who have one to two years of continuous training experience and have therefore already had their newbie gains. As a (absolute) beginner, due to your high sensitivity to training stimuli, you should normally not be a hardgainer (provided you meet the conditions in our definition).


The main indicators of muscle growth are the progress you make during your training (gradual increase in the number of repetitions and/or weight in a set) and increase in body weight.

The latter is not always the case: ​​as an early-intermediate bodybuilder you may be able to build up some muscle mass and lose fat at the same time (body recomposition). But in general you should see increases on both fronts during a bulk.


The problem of hardgainers plays out on two fronts: nutrition and training.

The nutritional aspect is quite clear: usually they simply do not consume enough calories to grow. And they find it difficult to eat (even) more. More on that in a moment.


The aspect of training in relation to genetics is more complex and subject to debate. Do hardgainers just have to accept that they can’t build muscle so quickly? Or can they do that, but does it require a different way of training?

Coach Menno Henselmans in a podcast about this:

Yes, there are people who have a harder time achieving muscle growth than others. However, the question is whether they are genetically doomed to build muscle more slowly, or whether they are simply not following the right training program for their genetics. Different people have different optimal training volumes and frequencies.

According to coach Scott Abel, author of the book ‘The Hardgainer Solution’, hardgainers should not train in the same way as easy gainers. He states:

Experts have only looked at the elements of what drives and stimulates adaptations for physique development, but not enough experts have ever been focused on what LIMITS these elements of physique-enhancement. If we start to look at the hardgainer as a separate demographic of trainees then a lot of things come to light i ] .

The scientific literature suggests that novice strength athletes cannot use all available motor units in a muscle: perhaps 70% at most. This is because their bodies are not yet fully adapted to strength training. By training for a longer period of time, this still happens: recruiting motor units is trainable. However, according to Abel, some strength athletes are more or less resistant to this trainable ability. Therefore hardgainers should focus not only on heavy weights and getting stronger, but also on volume (reps and sets) i ] .


Coaches Mike Israetel and Scott Stevenson also think that the ‘solution’ to the hardgainers problem mainly lies in training volume. Many hard gainers may have a very high Minimum Effective Volume (MEV), but fortunately also a high Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV), provided that nutrition and rest are in order ii ] . A high MEV means that you simply have to do many more sets on a weekly basis to stimulate muscle growth than the average bodybuilder. More on that in a moment.

Here are our six tips for ‘real’ hardgainers. Let The Gains Begin!


Perhaps you are doing everything right in terms of training: the right exercises, the right execution, sufficient effort, an adequate training volume and a favorable distribution of that volume over the week (training frequency). Your sleep is also in order, so that you recover sufficiently from those training sessions.

In that case, the problem probably lies in your diet: you eat too little. And no, this is not about what you eat (except that you have to eat enough protein), but purely about how much. After all, for muscle growth, as an average bodybuilder, you have to use a calorie surplus. That means that you should eat between 200 and 500 kcal more each day than you strictly need (your maintenance level).

You may feel like you’re eating more than enough (more than you’d like), but you’re actually below your maintenance level. And then you can forget about muscle growth, unlike absolute beginners, who can build muscle mass even with a calorie deficit.

Sufficient food is often a difficult task, especially for ectomorphs. This is partly due to the high metabolism associated with this body type. So you burn at lightning speed – something others might envy, but which is a curse if you want to gain weight. On the other hand, as an ectomorph you may need (even) more anabolic ‘support’ from food than others; while meso- and endomorphs may already be satisfied with a surplus of 200 kcal, as an ectomorph you may have to go more towards a surplus of 500 kcal.


The first step to improvement is using a calorie app. This gives you a good idea of ​​how many calories you actually consume in a day. In addition, try to make an accurate estimate of your maintenance level. If, according to your calorie app, you eat at or above that maintenance level and you still do not gain weight (including fat mass), then you have underestimated your maintenance. And that is quite possible because of that high metabolism we were just talking about.

Unfortunately, you cannot measure your metabolism. The only way to find out what your actual maintenance level is is to increase your calorie intake further to the point where you gain weight.


Now another problem probably arises, which is that you have to eat (even) more than you would like – ectos are usually not the biggest eaters. But unfortunately there is nothing else to do. Still, there are plenty of pretty comfortable ways to get more calories. A few tips:

  • Take liquid calories, for example shakes with oatmeal flour and/or proteins, or possibly weight gainers. Also regular drinks, but avoid sugary drinks and alcohol.
  • Eat foods with a high calorie density, such as rice, nuts, peanut butter, avocados, multigrain bread, and full-fat dairy products.
  • Snack, but in moderation.
  • Do not do prolonged and/or intense cardio. Physical activity is fine, but stick to walking.


Does your training mainly consist of isolation exercises and equipment? Then it’s high time to throw in the ‘big lifts’! In particular, the bench press, overhead press, squat, deadlift and row. And if desired, the pullover, dip, hip thrust and power snatch/clean. And as far as we’re concerned, loaded carries are also part of this. These exercises have turned even the most skinny ectos into big boys.

Compound exercises with free weights are generally more effective for muscle growth than isolation exercises, especially if you perform them heavily (ie in the range of 5-10 repetitions). The exact reasons for this remain unclear, but it is probably mainly because compound exercises disrupt homeostasis much more than isolation exercises do. As a result, they cause more overload and therefore more muscle growth.

The basic strategy for every strength athlete – also for hard gainers – is to get stronger in those big exercises. This means that you gradually try to lift more and more weight. You won’t be able to add weight in every workout without sacrificing too much on reps. In that case, try doing more reps with the same weight – just as long as you make progress.

You probably won’t get there with only heavy compounds. Volume (sets and reps) is at least as important for hard gainers, as we have already seen, more than it is for other strength athletes. The following tips are about this.


Training volume is usually defined as the number of sets per muscle group (excluding warm-up sets). The reason you need to do multiple sets for muscle growth is that you create more effective reps that way.


In a set, not all reps are equally stimulating. Usually, it’s about the last five reps before the point of muscle failure that deliver the most growth stimulus – the so-called effective (or stimulating) reps.

To grow a muscle you need significantly more than those roughly five effective repetitions on a weekly basis. That’s why you should do multiple sets: 10 sets roughly create 50 effective reps. Provided, of course, that you make enough effort per set to get to those effective repetitions at all.

You create a growth stimulus by doing enough sets and by making sufficient effort per set, so by training until (near) muscle failure.


The optimal number of effective reps evolves over a training career. Beginners still need relatively few sets to achieve maximum muscle growth: on average around 10 sets per muscle group per week.

Over time, your body has adapted to this training load (adaptation) and needs more stimuli to be challenged and to “deem necessary” muscle growth. Intermediate bodybuilders need between 10 and 20 sets per week per muscle group to achieve maximum growth.


We already saw that hardgainers may need (much) more volume than the average bodybuilder. Most average bodybuilders get good results with 10-15 sets per muscle group per week. Hardgainers, on the other hand, may need 15-20 sets, or even more. If you’re not growing, while you’re training hard, eating enough and resting well, you probably need to turn the volume knob.


It may now sound tempting to just ‘just’ train as much as possible, especially if your schedule allows. Some coaches even preach that hard gainers shouldn’t worry about overtraining. But that’s not true. Hardgainer or not, as a natural you only have a limited recovery capacity. If you do 30 sets per week for each muscle group, you will probably not recover optimally and end up in a state of overreaching (a very early stage of overtraining).

Therefore, never add too many sets at once; first make sure you are recovering enough from your current volume. Do you have to do more sets than you can recover from to grow? Then you will have to specialize (see tip 6).


Finally, train with reps in reserve. In other words, don’t train your most sets to complete muscle failure, but keep one or a few repetitions ‘in the tank’.

If you train every set to the limit, you will experience a disproportionate amount of fatigue, which severely limits your recovery capacity. As a result, you can handle less volume, so fewer sets, so that on balance you can create less effective repetitions and therefore build up less muscle mass.

Training to muscle failure therefore provides the most effective reps per set, but limits the number of effective reps across the entire workout.


Optimizing training volume is not only about the number of sets (quantity), but also about the effectiveness of those sets (quality). We already saw that you have to train a set close to muscle failure (but not completely) to get the optimal return from it. But the effectiveness is also determined by the way you structure volume in your training program.

Maybe you’re doing a bro split and so you put all sets for a certain muscle group in one weekly workout. For example, 15 sets of chest on Monday. Sounds nice, ‘chest day’, but at least a third of your sets will not be effective. During a training session, after about 5 sets, the training stimulus for a certain muscle group starts to stagnate. After 10 sets there is no or hardly any growth stimulus and you therefore do unnecessary sets (junk volume) that only unnecessarily affect your recovery capacity. As coach Christian Thibaudeau sums it up well:

The whole purpose of training to build muscle is to trigger protein synthesis. Once it’s been triggered, there is no added benefit in continuing to punish a muscle – it will not grow more. In fact, it might even lose size! iii ]

Or more succinctly, in the words of multiple Mr. Olympia Lee Haney:

Stimulate, don’t annihilate.

Therefore do a maximum of 5-10 sets per muscle group per workout. In the example of 15 sets of chest, it is best to train your chest at least twice a week (for example 2 x 7 sets) or even more often (for example 3 x 5 sets). Basically, you increase the training frequency while decreasing the session volume. In total you train 5-7 days a week.

More productive sets thanks to lower session volumes and higher training frequency. (Source: YouTube/Radu Antoniu )

Low session volumes per muscle group not only ensure optimal productivity, but also the most quality. After all, doing many sets in one training is at the expense of your performance in the ‘later’ sets. At high training frequencies, you only do the ‘early’ sets.


Condition is that you can rest a muscle group sufficiently until the next workout. As an average bodybuilder you use 48 hours as a rest time between two workouts. At relatively low session volumes, that should be more than enough, even if you use high volumes on a weekly basis.


This approach is more or less also a plea for full body workouts. After all, they allow a high training frequency: in theory you can train a muscle group up to 7 times a week. But full body training offers even more benefits. Thus, you may benefit from a greater hormonal response than with split workouts. More on that in this article.

In our opinion, full body is the best ‘split’ for hardgainers, but in principle any split will do, except the bro split.


Finishing high volumes almost automatically means training in different rep ranges. After all, you will have to supplement compound exercises (5-10 reps) with isolation exercises and you train these, primarily for safety reasons, usually in somewhat higher rep ranges (usually 10-15 reps).

But as a hard gainer, you might benefit from adding a little more variation in rep ranges, namely by also doing some work in the spectrum of 15-30 reps on the one hand, and in that of 3-6 reps on the other. Using different rep ranges within a training program could give you extra muscle growth in several ways:

  • You address different signaling pathways for muscle growth;
  • You stimulate different types of muscle growth (myofibrillar hypertrophy at low rep ranges, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy at high rep ranges);
  • You train different types of muscle fibers (slow-twich and fast-twitch).

Sounds like gibberish? Read our extensive article about this. We would like to add that all three arguments are rather speculative: there is scientific research that points in that direction, but not yet enough to prove it conclusively.

There are also two more arguments that apply specifically to hard gainers:

  • Variation in load types makes it easier to maintain a high training frequency (for example, you can alternate high load/low rep days with low load/high rep days);
  • According to coach Scott Abel, hardgainers need high rep training to create neural adaptations for the acquisition of motor units in the muscles (see “Hardgainers and training” earlier in this article).


“Doing more sets” (tip 3) is often easier said than done. Not only your agenda should allow that, but also your recovery capacity. And since you probably also have a life outside the gym, unfortunately also with stress and hectic, you may not be able to handle such a voluminous training program at all. Not to mention the motivation and discipline that such a program requires.

So just settle for (very) slow but steady gains? Not necessarily. You can also do so-called specialization blocks. That means that you focus on one muscle group, or possibly two, during a mesocycle (5-10 weeks). For that muscle group you do the maximum productive volume, if desired up to 30-35 sets per week. You train the other muscle groups at their maintenance level (Maintenance Volume, MV). In the next mesocycle you specialize in another muscle group.


You can highlight each muscle group, depending on which muscle groups lag the most or which you think are the most important.

In general, we advise to initially focus on the back and legs. No, those are not the real ‘show muscles’, but a broad, thick back and a good undercarriage are the basis of a massive physique. They are the framework of your musculature, which you can then fill in with other specialization blocks. By the way, with the back you also train your biceps well, so there is definitely something to show.


As mentioned, you train the other muscle groups on maintenance during a specialization block. For muscle maintenance you need to do significantly fewer sets than for muscle growth, according to some coaches only a third of the regular number of sets. That would mean that you arrive with less 10 sets per muscle group.

But yeah, hardgainer eh. We advise you to start a little higher, like 10-15 sets per muscle group per week. If you notice that your muscle mass remains intact, you can possibly go a little lower in volume.


Anyone can build muscle, although as a hard gainer you will have to do more for it. Fortunately, with sufficient motivation, discipline and a well-structured training program you can come a long way.

Keep in mind that the end result of your fitness journey depends on the starting position. If you are not or hardly muscled yourself, then as a natural you will never be able to become as big and wide as some other people in your gym. Not even if you trained more muscle mass in that gym than they did. Also keep in mind that not everyone is a natty.

Maybe a cliché, but it is better not to compare yourself with other people, but with the person you were.


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