It's an open secret that every athlete who has taken up muscle building strives to get the most out of their own body in order to excel both performance-wise and visually. As a result, many recreational athletes invest a lot of blood, sweat and tears in their dream of the perfect body.
The problem that comes to light in this context, however, is that nature does not exactly place great emphasis on fairness, which means that not everyone has the optimal starting conditions for building a muscular body. This circumstance leads to frustration among a large number of recreational athletes, which sometimes quickly turns into resignation, which has a negative effect on training and nutritional discipline.
According to the prevailing consensus in the fitness industry, the so-called hardgainers, who have a particularly hard time building significant amounts of muscle mass due to genetic predispositions, are hit particularly hard. Since this is an extremely complex issue, this article looks at the subject from the ground up and spins a guide that will help even classic hardgainers achieve their goal.
- What is a hardgainer?
- Nutrition for hardgainers
- Mass gain through nutrition optimization
- Nutrition in everyday life
- Nutritional supplements
- Nutrition plan
- Training philosophy
- Training plan
What is a hardgainer?
In the fitness community, the term "hardgainer" is used in many different ways and is sometimes referred to when an athlete does not seem to be visually successful despite hard strength training. Admittedly, this context makes sense at first. In the course of a closer look, however, it can be determined that the lack of visible mass gains in reality is due to a significantly larger number of possible explanations and causes.
The term "hard grower", which seems to have become something of a catchphrase, should therefore not be applied in such a one-dimensional and general way. In order to get to the bottom of the concept as well as the physiological correlations and prerequisites behind it, a closer look is needed. The starting point for this consideration is, as so often, human genetics, which is responsible for both the optical appearance and the interlocking of metabolic processes.
This causality between genetics and the ability to shape one's own appearance to varying degrees was already established in the 1930s by the sports scientist William Sheldon , who, among other things, established the three primary body types endomorph, ectomorph and mesomorph. By definition, hardgainers are people who fit the model of the ectomorph body type, i.e. who appear rather wiry on the outside and have long limbs and a generally low body fat percentage. Based on this fundamental, albeit rather rudimentary, definition, it is possible to explain why hardgainers have a comparatively difficult time building muscle. One of the most obvious reasons stems from the anatomical constraint that muscle mass tends to be more elongated and thus less voluminous than, for example, in people who tend to have an endomorphic or mesomorphic body type. Ergo, mass gains are initially less noticeable in visual terms, which often leads to the fallacy that progress is generally lacking.
However, a much more important aspect of the definition of the true hardgainer is based on the metabolic rate, which in this case is comparatively fast. In plain language, this means that the body of athletes who have problems gaining weight despite optimal training usually processes nutrients very inefficiently, and the bottom line is that there are hardly any reserves left for mass gain. In science, it is assumed that this phenomenon is due, among other things, to an overactive thyroid gland.
This overfunction, which is also called hyperthyroidism, results, for example, in imbalances between the active and passive thyroid hormone, which can sometimes cause an extreme increase in the metabolic rate. Other metabolic causes that may be considered relate to a reduction in the nutrient absorption capacity of the gastrointestinal tract and to a disturbance in the leptin regulatory circuit. If an excessive amount of the hormone leptin is produced, this leads to a persistent loss of appetite, which understandably makes it much more difficult to absorb the nutrients needed to build muscle.
Nutrition tips the scales
Based on the scientific findings that define the actual metabolic conditions of a hardgainer, it crystallizes what exorbitant importance nutrition has for a hardgainer who wants to build muscle mass. However, before it can be concretely assumed at this point that one has such a wasteful metabolism, it is important to factually exclude simple omissions in the area of nutrition, which can also be considered the seed of the missing mass gains.
The easiest way to do this is with the help of a simple food diary, in which every single calorie consumed and every training session completed should be recorded over a period of 14 days. Even if this approach is considered petty, it is the simplest and most cost-effective method of obtaining clear indications of the metabolic starting situation of one's own body.
As a rule, most athletes who consider themselves hardgainers are, by definition, not hardgainers at all, but either consume too much energy through activities or simply supply too few nutrients, so that the organism is hardly able to build up mass. This phenomenon often occurs in recreational athletes who, in addition to weight training, are active in endurance or team sports such as soccer, handball or cycling. If it corresponds to the reality that the actual energy requirement of an athlete is not covered by the energy intake, it is already sufficient to successively increase the total energy intake so that the organism can convert the additional nutrients into muscle tissue.
Mass gain through nutritional optimization
Assuming that everything seems to be in the green zone with regard to the ratio of energy intake to energy consumption, it can be assumed that the lack of mass gains is most likely due to one or more metabolic peculiarities. It is obvious that in such a case a doctor should be consulted, because some problems can be solved or at least alleviated by medical therapies. On the other hand, this does not mean that athletes with such a distinctive metabolism have to surrender to their fate, because by means of a targeted optimization of the diet and the establishment of an appropriate nutrition plan, the muscle building can still be fired.
The basis of this plan is unsurprisingly the daily energy requirement, which is the basis for the calculation of target calories and macronutrient distribution, as with any other athlete, because especially in the course of a very high consumption, it is of horrendous importance to keep track. Unfortunately, with regard to achieving target calories, it is not enough to consume vast quantities of calorie-rich foods such as meat loaf, pizza, fried sausages, nuts or sweets, because larger quantities of industrial sugar in particular can sometimes lead to more serious diseases such as diabetes mellitus in the long term. The foundation of the metabolism-specific diet should in any case be proteins and fats. As a rule of thumb, at least two to two and a half grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and at least one gram of fat per kilogram of body weight per day can be assumed. The remaining deficit in the energy balance must be filled with carbohydrates, which should primarily come from high-quality sources, such as oatmeal, brown rice, whole-grain pasta, and fruits and vegetables. When it comes to fat, it is also imperative to pay attention to the quality of the fatty acids supplied. Cold-pressed oils from nuts, grains and seeds (omega 6 fatty acids) are just as suitable as fatty sea fish (omega 3 fatty acids) for covering the fat requirement.
How is the diet implemented in everyday life?
In practice, however, it is often difficult to implement this plan, because depending on the existing inefficiency of the metabolism, an additional amount of energy to be supplied daily is necessary, which cannot be quantified at once. In order to identify the corresponding energy requirement, the first step is to increase the total calorie intake by about 200 kilocalories per day and to observe the weight development over a period of one to two weeks. This process should be repeated until there is a significant change in body weight.
However, the lot of a hardgainer usually entails, to the chagrin of the person concerned, that the sum of the target calories turns out to be quite high, so that it is not easy in everyday life to consume such a quantity constantly over several weeks and months. The solution to this problem is a diet plan that, among other things, focuses on a large number of daily meals. In addition, it is very helpful to cover part of the daily energy requirement by means of liquid calories, since, for example, high-energy protein shakes can still be consumed when hardly any solid food can be taken in due to the onset of the feeling of satiety. Especially on training days, shakes consisting of half a gram of protein as well as one gram of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight prove to be extremely useful, as they can be used both before training as a pre-workout energy boost and after training as a conventional post-workout shake and already provide a considerable amount of energy overall.
What role do supplements play?
Due to the fact that a metabolism that is wasteful with nutrients is responsible for the lack of significant mass gain, the conclusion is obvious to resort to the help of dietary supplements. The means of choice are usually classic weight gainers, which serve to supply concentrated calories in liquid form. Although it may sound logical at first to cover the obvious energy deficit entirely with such products, this measure turns out to be counterproductive at the latest in the context of a closer look.
The reason for this is that many athletes, who from a metabolic-scientific point of view can actually be described as hardgainers, have a particularly poor ability to utilize short-chain carbohydrates, such as those contained in most weight gainers. Accordingly, weight gainers are only suitable to a limited extent for getting to grips with this problem. Apart from a healthy diet, which should consist mainly of fresh products, there are nevertheless some supplements that can help hardgainers to achieve their goals. First and foremost, this of course concerns protein supplements, whereby in this context, products with a comparatively high absorption time should be used, as is the case with casein protein, for example. In addition, instant oats, for example, are suitable as a basis for producing a customized weight gainer that contains only carbohydrates with a low glycemic index (GI) instead of high-glycemic carbohydrates.
Why a nutrition plan can be helpful
As mentioned at the beginning, it is essential for people who are justifiably extremely hard to gain weight to get an overview of their eating patterns and daily target calories. Subsequently, hardgainers can hardly avoid following at least a rudimentary diet plan.
The basis of this plan is the number of meals, which is correlated to the amount of calories to be consumed. The more calories to be consumed, the higher the number of meals should be, as this makes it easier to reach the calorie target. On an average training day, including pre- and post-workout nutrition, there are seven meals, for example, which could be as follows depending on the individual daily routine:
07:00 - Breakfast
10:00 - Snack
12:00 - Lunch
15:00 - Pre-workout shake
17:00 - Post-workout shake
19:00 - Dinner
22:00 - Snack
Overall, hardgainers should therefore make sure to feed every 2-3 hours, and breakfast in particular may well be very rich. Despite the fast metabolism, the calorie intake should nevertheless show a decreasing tendency towards the evening, because if the caloric daily target is reached or exceeded, even hardgainers are not immune to the build-up of unnecessary depot fat.
Training under difficult circumstances
The fact that the hardgainer has not exactly been favored by evolution in terms of basic metabolic requirements for muscle building has already been established in the course of the previous chapters. However, much to the chagrin of those affected, this aspect runs like a red thread through the overall construct of the organism. The ectomorphic physique of the hardgainer results, among other things, in the skeletal musculature tending to be in the form of thin muscle tubes whose thickness growth only gets going very slowly.
In addition to the anatomical distance between the origins and attachments of the muscles, this is primarily due to the composition of the muscle fibers. This is characterized in classic hardgainers by a clear dominance of type 1 muscle fibers. These muscle fibers, also known as red or ST fibers, are supplied with an above-average amount of oxygen and thus enable an athlete to achieve great endurance performances. In contrast, type 2 muscle fibers, which are primarily made to grow in the course of classic hypertrophy training, are less abundant, which has a direct impact on the training plan and the design of each individual training session.
If, despite the seemingly predetermined path of the endurance athlete, you still want to follow the path of the strength athlete, you should not succumb to the fallacy at this point that the thickness growth of the ST fibers could be boosted by extensive strength endurance training. On the contrary, in such a case it is even more important to train harder and, above all, heavier in order to attack the existing type 2 muscle fibers (FT fibers) as hard as possible and stimulate them to grow. In addition, it should not go unmentioned that the muscle fiber composition can be partially adapted by external loading stimuli, regardless of the genetic framework.
Training in practice
So how should the training of a hardgainer be designed in order to get into the right waters and build up a respectable muscle mass despite the genetic handicap? The answer is as obvious as it is simple: Hard! The training should be hard and intense, without wasting energy that would have to be replenished through increased food intake.
As a result, a whole-body plan is recommended, especially for beginners, which is mainly composed of basic exercises so that optimal suprathreshold growth stimuli can be set within a maximum training time of 45 minutes. In order to broaden the variety of stimuli acting on the muscles, it is recommended to create two training plans (A/B) with different exercises, which are performed alternately. During the practical implementation of the training, which should be completed three times a week, the conventional rules of hypertrophy training apply, which include a number of repetitions of 8-12 as well as set breaks of a maximum of 90 seconds.
Apart from the hardness of the training, regeneration plays a central role for hardgainers, as their organism tends to have a below-average regeneration capacity, not least due to the inefficient use of nutrients. Ergo, if possible, there should be 48 hours between two training sessions, so that the phase of supercompensation, in which the performance gains take place, can be reached at all. In addition, regeneration can be additionally promoted by supplementary measures such as sufficient sleep of at least six to eight hours as well as sauna sessions and hot relaxation baths.
In this context, however, the priority must first be on sleep, since lack of sleep sometimes leads to an increase in cortisol levels. The stress hormone is one of the biggest enemies of the hardgainer, as it promotes catabolic metabolic processes, which are understandably counterproductive for the already not so easy muscle building. The following training plan illustrates how a training program tailored to the requirements of the hardgainer looks like:
Training Plan A
|Pull-ups in overhand grip||3||8-12|
Training plan B
|Pull-ups in underhand grip||3||8-12|
|Barbell rowing in overhand grip||3||8-12|
|Dumbbell bench press||3||8-12|
|Tight bench press||3||8-12|
|Calf raise with barbell||3||8-12|
It is obvious that the road to a muscular body is rocky for hardgainers, but with the help of the described training and nutrition advice, a good part of the genetic handicap can be compensated in any case.
Nevertheless, it is still the mind of an athlete that determines success and failure. The exposed position of the mental aspects understandably affects recreational athletes in particular, who have problems with gaining mass, because the expected, actually visible progress will not occur overnight, but may take weeks or even months.
Accordingly, in addition to a nutrition plan, short but hard workouts as well as sufficient regeneration phases, patience is required above all and also the self-knowledge that the physique of a Jay Cutler cannot be achieved under the given circumstances. However, once the mindset is properly adjusted, the door to success is wide open even for hardgainers.