The Hardgainer’s Guide To Building Muscle And Strength (With 20 Training Rules)

You've heard the story before...

"I've tried everything. I can't put on any weight to save my own life!".

And you've probably heard the same speech...

"I started out at 120lbs and have gained 50lbs of pure hard mass".

You're frustrated, trust me, I get it.

And I really was less than 120lbs when I first started.

I'll tell you I was at it for 2 years with barely any progress to show off for it.

​So I know what works and what doesn't. 

Since you are here, it's safe to assume you need some direction.

Good job for being here.

The first step to any incredible transformation story is taking action.

The guide today is for you. ​

Before I chat your head off, we'll dive right into it with defining what an ectomorph / hardgainer is...

What Is An Ectomorph / Hardgainer?

These two terms are usually used interchangeably, yet they have quite different meanings.

The word ectomorph is a scientific classification of a body type, whereas the term hardgainer is a gym invented description of a person who struggles to pack muscle onto their frame.​

The fact that you are an ectomorph doesn’t automatically define you as a hardgainer.

In fact, one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time, Frank Zane, was a self confessed ectomorph.

While he never developed the amount of muscle of a Ronnie Coleman, he was able to build what many consider to be one of the greatest physiques of all time.

Zane was an ectomorph, but he was no hard gainer.​

Meet Frank Zane...

Common Characteristics

Yet, most people still consider the terms to be one and the same.

Which isn’t that surprising, because there are a lot of similarities between the two.

The following characteristics are common between ectomorphs and hardgainers . . .​

  • They are naturally skinny
  • They don’t have much of an appetite
  • They have a fast metabolism
  • They have a narrow bone structure

These characteristics make it more challenging to build muscle than if you were a mesomorph or an endomorph (the other two body types).

However, ectomorphs make up approximately one third of the population, and they’re not all hardgainers.

Skinny and Fat Hardgainers

A real hardgainer is a person who just cannot put on muscle, regardless of what they try.

In addition, although they are skinny, hardcore hardgainers are not lean.

When they look in the mirror, they don’t see any definition between their (admittedly puny) muscles.

A great example would be of me here...

There is still a layer of fat there that obscures any type of muscle definition.

They probably even have an extra layer of fat around their gut.​

This type of guy is the ultimate hardgainer, but for contrast’s sake we’ll call him the fat hardgainer.​

Compare that to an ectomorph who may have the same lack of muscle size, but his body reveals definition, or what we know as leanness.

Now this guy may also be a hardgainer.

But when he finally figures out how to add some size, he’ll have an easier time getting shredded.

We can consider this guy to be a skinny hardgainer.​

Are You Truly a Hardgainer?

Now that we’ve figured out what a hardgainer is, it’s time to face some harsh reality.

Most guys who think they are one, aren’t.

They’ve simply latched onto a cool sounding gym label as an excuse as to why they suck at this muscle building thing.​

Building muscle is damn hard work...

Yet, most guys get way unrealistic ideas of what they can achieve by looking at videos and pictures of the sport’s muscle monsters.

What they don’t comprehend is that these are not ordinary guys.

They are the cream of the crop who have decades of training behind them, great genetics and, in all probability, more than a little chemical enhancement.​

The vast majority of men, on the other hand, will have a hard time putting on muscle. In fact, they’ll fight for every ounce of muscle growth.

And they have to have BOTH their training and their nutrition on point to make gains.​

Don’t be sucked in by all of those ridiculous claims made by online muscle programs and bodybuilding magazine covers.

You cannot pack on 30 pounds of solid muscle in 6 months. Half of that amount in a year would be a real accomplishment.​

The bottom line is that most guys who consider themselves to be hardgainers are simple normal gainers who haven’t been able to make gains for one of the following reasons:​

  • They don’t how how to train properly
  • They don’t know to eat properly
  • They don’t know how to rest properly
  • They lack intensity and consistency

​So does that mean that everyone who claims to be a hardgainer is simply a clueless bozo looking for an excuse as to why they can’t build muscle?

No – real hardgainers do exist.

They’re just not as common as people think.

The Hardgainer Workout

Now that you've realized whether or not you're truly a hardgainer or just an ectomorph who needs direction, it's time to get to the meat of this guide...

First learn what the common mistakes are then we'll take it further with workouts and exercises...​

Common Hardgainer Mistakes

Before we jump into the ultimate hardgainer workout program, we need to clear away the confusion about how to – and how not to – train.

Then you’ll finally be able to start adding some muscle to your frame.

Here are five of the most frequent pieces of training advice given to hardgainers – and why they are DEAD WRONG!

Train Each Muscle Once Per Week

Usually this involves a split routine where you hit a couple of body parts each workout, then wait a full seven days before training them again.

The problem is that within that week, your muscle building potential will go backwards and your results will disappear.

Fully Body Workouts

As a hardgainer, your central nervous system is not as efficient as most people.

If you’re training with the right amount of intensity on basic compound exercises, you are going to be wiped out by the time you get to working your lower body.

That means that you won’t be able to work as hard as you need to to make gains.

Training to Failure

Repping out to failure is especially taxing for hard gainers.

It will severely tax the central nervous system, impacting on the rest of your workout.

Use the training to failure technique sparingly on no more than one or two sets per workout.

Pyramid Sets

Pyramiding involves increasing the weight and decreasing the reps with each set.

Once you reach your heaviest weight, you may also reverse the pyramid as you start taking weight off the bar each set.

Hardgainers, however, fatigue more readily than others.

Each succeeding set will see them able to lift less weight.

So, starting with a lighter weight and adding more weight each set is a problem.

A better option is to do a reverse pyramid, where you start with your heaviest weight and then drop the weight each set while increasing the reps.

20 Training Commandments For Hardgainers

Without structure to your training, you will spend the rest of your life spinning your wheels.

Here are 20 basic commandments of training that will allow you to avoid the rookie mistakes that are holding back the majority of guys who are struggling to pack on muscle.

1. Specificity

Specificity is all about matching your actual training to your workout goals.

If your goal is put on muscle size, you don’t want to train for endurance.

It may seem obvious, yet you still see a lot of self proclaimed hard-gainers who put themselves through marathon workouts – and get nowhere.

2. Overload

Muscles are stubborn.

In order to get them to grow, you have got to give them a damn good reason.

That means overloading the muscle with more challenging loads each workout.

You will never grow by pushing the same amount of weight workout after workout.

If the next workout isn’t more challenging, you will stagnate.

3. Progressive Resistance

In order to achieve muscular overload, you have to increase the resistance you are lifting from workout to workout.

By adding a little bit of weight to the bar, while simultaneously decreasing the reps, you’ll be able to constantly grow your strength and keep maximum stress on the working muscle.

4. Intensity

Intensity is all about the amount of effort that goes into your training.

You’ll get absolutely nowhere by cruising through your workout on auto pilot.

You need to bring 100% focus to each session. Your resistance level should make the last couple of reps on each set extremely difficult.

If you feel that you could pump out another 2 or three reps, you should add more resistance.

5. Time Under Tension

Time under tension (TUT) refers to the amount of time that the working muscle is put under direct stress during a training set.

The ideal length of a set to stimulate growth is 40 seconds.

This is longer than most sets typically last. Increase your TUT by slowing down, especially on the lowering part of the rep.

You should also avoid locking out at the top, as this relieves the tension.

6. Rep Range

This is longer than most sets typically last.

Increase your TUT by slowing down, especially on the lowering part of the rep.

You should also avoid locking out at the top, as this relieves the tension.

There’s been a lot of debate about the ideal rep range to build muscle.

The traditional line has been that you need to perform between 8-12 reps per set to stimulate hypertrophy.

Anything higher than that and you’ll be ‘defining’ the muscle. Go lower than six and you’ll be primarily building power.

7. Volume

This is another area where there is huge discrepancy.

If you follow the programs outlined in the bodybuilding mags, you’ll likely be in the gym for close to two hours.

On the other extreme are the conventional ‘hard-gainer’ programs that advocate very short, intense sessions that conserve energy and prevent over training.

Again, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

An ideal training time of 45-60 minutes will allow you to provide your muscles with enough time under tension to maximally stimulate growth without overtraining.

8. Rest Between Sets

As a hard gainer, the length of rest between sets is critical.

Most hard gainers find that their strength quickly dissipates after the first set.

Resting for the typical 60-90 seconds will not provide them with sufficient time to replenish their ATP levels for the next set.

This is especially so when performing heavy compound exercises, like the bench press.

By extending your rest period out to between two and a half and three minutes, you will be able to get much more from the next set.

9. Tempo

Tempo is the speed with which you perform your reps. We can break the rep down into two parts; the concentric, or positive part, and the eccentric, or negative part.

Science tells us that the eccentric part is the most important for building muscle.

Most trainers perform both parts too fast. Slowing down so that you’re doing a 1-2 second concentric and a 2-3 second eccentric rep will increase your time under tension and put more stress on the muscle.​

10. Variation

The human body is amazingly adaptable.

If you’re doing the same workout month after month, your body will become accustomed to your routine and you are likely to hit a plateau.

By changing it up every couple of months, you’ll keep your body guessing – and growing.

11. Recuperation

You don’t build muscle in the gym.

It’s recuperation and nutrition that does that.

Your workout is actually breaking the muscle cell down.

It’s when you rest that you are able to rebuild it.

As a hard-gainer, you need more rest than most.

That’s why you’ll be limiting your training to four days per week, allowing a minimum of 48 hours between working each body part.​

12. Isolation

To effectively stimulate a muscle group, you need it to be the prime mover during an exercise.

When training your chest, for example, retracting your shoulders, keeping your hips down and maintaining a slight arch in your back will maximize chest stimulation.

Isolation of the working muscle group is also why you should not allow momentum to get the weight from Point A to Point B.

13. Body-Part Order

When structuring your workout, you should start with your largest muscle groups (chest, back, legs) and then move to your smaller groups.

If you did it the other way around, your arms, calves and shoulders would be major weak links when hitting your chest, back and thighs because they’d already be exhausted.

Your workouts would suck because you simply couldn’t handle the resistance that your bigger muscle groups demand.

14. Train With A Stronger Person

It feels pretty good to be stronger than your training partner.

When the situation is reversed, however, you are constantly working to get up to his level.

Every set you spot him on is providing you with the motivation to push harder.

That’s just the kind of motivation you need in order to continue making gains.

15. Muscle Priority

We’ve all got weak body parts. Muscle priority involves working those muscle groups early in your session while you have maximum mental and physical energy.

For smaller body parts, you don’t want to use this principle to override the body-part order principle.

Instead, you should consider training your weak body part separately so you can give 100% effort to it.

16. Flushing

Flushing is about pumping blood into the working muscle, pumping it full and supplying it with growth inducing nutrients.

To produce a flushing effect, you need to work a single muscle group within a space of time, not going from one body part to another.

Stay focused on that muscle group until it is engorged and feels tight and terrific.

17. Consistent Tension

Consistent tension relates to the speed of your repetitions.

By maintaining a consistent speed of repetition, you keep the tension on the target muscle and eliminate momentum.

18. Reversibility

This principle reminds us that muscle and strength cannot be maintained without effort.

If you regularly skip workouts, or stop training altogether, you will start to lose muscle and strength.

19. Range Of Motion

Beginners are often taught to perform each rep through a full range of motion, pausing at the top to reset for the next rep.

When you do that, however, you provide a second or two when your muscles are given relief and the stress has been taken off the target muscle group.

That is why you should stop the rep just short of lockout to keep constant tension on the muscle.

20. Warming Up

Every workout needs to begin with a dynamic stretching warmup.

Arm circles, windmills and bodyweight squats are all examples of dynamic stretches.

Dynamic stretching does an effective job of reducing muscle tightness, increasing the body’s core temperature and improving the range of motion around the joints.

It also prepares your body for the specific demands of the activity that you will be performing during your training or competition.

You should also perform a warmup set of every exercise with an unloaded barbell or very light dumbbells.

The Best Ectomorophic Hardgainer Diet

How Many Calories Do I Need?

There’s a whole lot of confusion about how to eat to build muscle.

A lot of it stems from the desire to get big AND cut at the same time.

As an ectomorphic hardgainer, though, that is not on the cards for you.

So, forget about getting a washboard stomach and set your focus solely on packing on slabs of lean mass.

This is good news because it dramatically simplifies the equation.

When you concentrate on getting big, it all boils down to one thing – caloric balance.

Your goal each day must be to take in more calories than you consume.

So long as those calories are the right type, you’ll keep yourself in an anabolic muscle building state.​

In order to figure out how many calories you need to take in to put yourself in a surplus state, here’s a simple formula to follow . . .​

Current bodyweight in kilos X 24​

OR​

Current bodyweight in pounds X 0.45, then that X 24

This calculation will give you the number of calories you should take in each day in order to meet your metabolic needs.

In other words, it will allow you to sustain what you’ve got right now.​

Of course, the last thing you want to do is to day the same.

That’s why you need to take in more calories than you need to maintain yourself.​

How Many More Calories?

We suggest taking 300 extra calories per day.

That will work out to about an extra 10% of what you’re eating now.

That doesn’t sound like much, but, over the course of a year it will deliver an extra 109,500 calories per year.

That is a whole lot of muscle building nutrition!

Taking in just 300 extra calories per day means that you won’t be force feeding yourself.

Stuffing yourself – even with ‘healthy food’ – is metabolically inefficient for digestion, absorption and transport of nutrients.​

So, to figure out how many calories to consume each day, simply add 300 calories to the total that you calculated earlier.​

But I’m Already Eating Tons of Food

More than likely you’ve been down the eat big to get big road before – with disappointing results.

If you’re like most guys, you’ve followed the traditional ‘bulking’ protocol, where you simply overfed yourself.

The problem is that you have not yet trained your metabolism to support the extra calories.

Simply stuffing more food in will result in many of those calories leaving the body undigested or being stored as body fat.​

Unless you give your metabolism time to adjust to a gradual increase in calories, you will not achieve an anabolic state.

You’ll simply be getting fat – and feeling stuffed.​

Junk Food VS Healthy

We’ve already established that weight gain essentially comes down to your daily consumption of calories.

Take in a few more hundred than you burn each day and you will gain weight.

Whether that weight gain is fat or muscle, though, depends on what the food you eat looks like.

If your eating regimen sees you regularly heading down to Burger King, you won’t be doing your body any favors.

It’s the processed carbs that are the major issue.

They’ll lead you on an insulin spiral that will make you fatter, more lethargic and less likely to work out with the intensity you need.​

Junk food will fill you up with empty calories that do not supply the nutrients that your trained muscles need to grow. Only real food will do that.​

By real food, we’re talking about lean proteins, healthy fats and fibrous and starchy non-processed carbs.​

How You’ve Been Told To Eat

There are a ton of hardgainer plans out there that will tell you that you’ve got to go crazy on your food intake to overcome your fast metabolism.

Recommendations of 1000 or more extra calories per day are common.

Then there are those protein junkie programs, such as ‘Gallon of Milk a Day’ (GOMAD) that promise a ridiculous gain of 25 pounds of muscle in 25 days.

These types of bulking protocols will certainly allow you to put on weight – but none of it will be muscle. Instead, you’ll end up bloated and fat!​

Bulking Mistakes

  • Concentrating on adding scale weight (bulk), rather than lean mass
  • Not monitoring caloric intake beyond the requirement to ‘eat like there’s no tomorrow’.
  • Not worrying about macronutrient breakdowns (carbs, fats, proteins)
  • Eating too much junk
  • Not doing cardio

Gaining Fat VS Muscle

Gaining fat is easy – just ask the millions of obese people that share the planet with you.

The only problem is that, no matter how you dress it up, fat is ugly. You have no right purposefully putting it on your body.

Gaining muscle, however, is excruciatingly difficult – and especially so for a hardgainer like you.

That can cause you to want to take shortcuts so as to get that scale weight up, like diving into a no-holds barred bulk up program.

Don’t do it – you’ll only end up with a skinny-fat body, making you even less likely to want to take your shirt off at the beach.​

Your Metabolism

As a hardgainer, your inability to put on weight can be a source of envy to others. People who merely have to look at carbs to pile on the fat may actually wish that they had your metabolism . . .

Then they wouldn’t have to worry about that spare tire around their middle.​

​But you’re not worried about putting on extra fat. You are desperate to pack on some muscle!

That makes your fat metabolism a challenge. In fact, it makes it downright infuriating.​

So, why is your metabolism such a challenge?​

The following 5 key factors go into determining the speed of your metabolism . . .​

Hormones – the levels of and interactions between thyroid, insulin, grehlin, cortisol and leptin.​

Digestion – our unique digestive system determines how much of certain nutrients actually make it through the digestive process

Appetite – hunger regulating hormones often make it difficult for hardgainers to work up a decent appetite​

Activity Level – skinny kids tend to be more active, which means they’re burning more calories throughout the day​

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis – this relates to the calorie burn from all the incidental activities that make up our day.

The weird thing is that, when you up your caloric intake, your body will increase its non-exercise activity thermogenesis.

This rate differs among individuals.

And guess what? It’s at its highest rate amongst hardgainers.​

The Ideal Way To Eat

So, enough of the theory – let’s zero in on the ideal way for a hard-gainer to eat to pack on mass.

You’ve already got your caloric total for the day – your maintenance level plus 300.​

Here’s how those calories need to be broken down:​

Break your meals down to a macronutrient ratio of 40/40/30, meaning that you should eat 40% protein, 40% carbs and 30% healthy fats.​

20-40% of those carbs should be fibrous carbs, with the rest being starchy carbs.Your protein sources should focus on animal meats, followed by fish, nuts and seeds​

Below we’ve provided charts that list the best foods to eat in each macronutrient group, along with the suggested serving sizes.​

PROTEIN

UNCOOKED QUANTITY (grams)

Skinless chicken

250 g

Turkey

250 g

Beef

250 g

Pork

250 g

Lamb

250 g

Eggs

3

Salmon

200 g

Haddock

200 g

CARBOHYDRATE (VEGETABLES)

UNCOOKED QUANTITY (grams)

Green Beans

100 g

Broccoli

150 g

Asparagus

100 g

Carrots

100 g

Tomatoes

100 g

Capsicum

100 g

Leeks

100 g

Spinach

100 g

CARBOHYDRATE (FRUITS)

QUANTITY (grams)

Pomegranate

One whole

Blueberries

One whole

Strawberries

One whole

Lemons

One whole

Apples

One whole

Orange

One whole

Peach

One whole

Melon

One whole

CARBOHYDRATE (STARCHY)

UNCOOKED QUANTITY (grams)

Steel Cut Oats

One Cup

Brown Rice

Half Cup

Sweet Potato

200 g

Potato

200 g

Oat Cakes

2

FAT

QUANTITY (grams)

Walnuts

25 g

Almonds

25 g

Brazil Nuts

25 g

Avocado

25 g

Coconut Oil

25 g

Olive Oil

25 g

Fish Oil

25 g

Flax Oil

25 g

Supplementation

There are certain supplements that, when combined with the eating and training you’ll be doing, will maximize your growth.

We know how expensive supplements can be, so we have boiled it down to the absolute essentials that will maximize your growth potential while minimizing fat gain.​

Here is what you need:

How To Take Your Supplements

Breakfast

Mix a scoop of whey powder with rolled oats, milk and water. Top with almonds.

Pre Workout

BCAAs / Glutamine half an hour before you hit the gym

Post Workout

BCAAs / Glutamine

Protein shake with skim milk

Creatine Monohydrate (5 grams added to protein shake)​

Bedtime

Casein protein mixed with water.

Supplementation Reminders

  • The human body was meant to eat real food, so do not go overboard on protein powder
  • Make sure to get your post workout shake into your system within 20 minutes of working out
  • Consistency is the key to effective supplementation

Organizing Your Diet

The key thing each day is meet your caloric and macronutrient goals.

In terms of how it is absorbed in to your system, the timing of those calories doesn’t really matter.

However, as a hard-gainer you probably don’t have the greatest of appetites.

That will make it pretty tough to get in your calories from three meals.

That’s the reason that you should spread those calories out over the day – it will be easier for you to digest smaller, more frequent meals.

We suggest 4-6 meals, spaced about three hours apart.

Here’s a template to give you an idea of what your daily eating might look like . . .​

Your Daily Nutritional Template

Now you can eat 2-3 big, infrequent meals each day or you can eat 3-6 smaller frequent meals, it does not matter. 

But for you guys, it's probably better to stick to frequent, smaller meals as it's hard to get giant meals down and yet meet our calorie requirements.

The key here is to find what works for you. 

Eating 7-8 times a day is nearly impossible for most of us but personally I have found 4-5 times to be ideal for me. 

Here's an example diet you could follow. And also you can always switch out some foods for something else.

Like instead of steak, you could have chicken or eggs (both very valuable sources of protein).

Meal

Food

Meal 1 

Protein / Fiber 

Rolled oats with 1 scoop whey protein

Meal 2

Protein / Fruit / Nuts

​Tuna / Apple / Walnuts

Meal 3

Protein / Starchy Carb / Vegetables 

Steak / Sweet Potato / Green Beans​

Meal 4

Protein / Fats

2 hard boiled eggs / Avocado​

Pre Workout

5-15g BCAA's, 5g Glutamine

Post Workout

Protein Shake with skim milk and 5g creatine monohydrate

Meal 5

Protein / Strachy Carb / Vegetables

Chicken / Brown Rice / Carrots / Broccoli​

Meal 6

Casein Protein Shake

How Much Weight Can You Gain?

The reason that so many guys throw in the towel on this whole muscle gain thing is that they’ve been fed unrealistic expectations.

You know by now that 25 pounds of muscle in 25 days is out there in la la land.

But, as a hard-gainer, so is 5 pounds in 25 days.

More realistic for you is between one and two pounds of lean muscle gain per month. That’s between 12-24 pounds of mass in a year of real, fat free, visible mass.

If you’re 170 pounds now, imagine what a transformation being at 194 with the same body fat level would make.

That is what you need to set your sights on.

Final Words

I don't expect you to understand and get everything right from the beginning. 

Everyone starts from step one.

No one is born an expert at bodybuilding nor do they step foot into the gym as the hulk from day one. ​

Everyone has a story. And yours starts here.

You will continuously get advice and they may sound better and they might as well be, or they might be pure bro-science, it doesn't matter because if you stick to the basics and what works, you will make progress. 

Never stop asking questions, always keep striving to the next level.

I'd love to hear your success stories, your achievements and what you're struggling with.

This is what we strive for, and what pushes us to continously create content like this.

So where will you go from here?

Nader Qudimat
Forged by the iron and cold steel, Nader takes his knowledge and hulk smashes it into this puny site.

Being an ex-hardgainer, he has no choice but to keep training until he has surpassed in every way imaginable.

You can follow Nader on Twitter (@DieselFitt).

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