Spark Notes For “Hard” Gainers

Share This:

I’d say that on any given day I receive close to 50+ emails from people around the world asking various things ranging from programming advice to book recommendations to sharing —-[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[= (<——oops, my cat just pounced on the keyboard and says hi) their shared affinity for Jason Bourne.

Probably one of the more common “themes” that gets sent my way are emails from guys looking for advice on how to add muscle to their frame or how they can go about adding on any weight in general.

Much of the process entails asking a few key questions like, “what does your current training split look like?” or “how long have you actually been training?”

If someone retorts with something like, “well, on Mondays it’s chest and back, on Tuesdays it’s bis and tris, Wednesdays I hit up some posterior delts and tibialis anterior, and then I’ll maybe toss in some legs for good measure,” I know that it would be in their best interests to point them in the direction of the squat rack or deadlift platform and tell them not to leave until they’ve put on 25 lbs.

And then there are those who’ve only been training for two months and are worried that they don’t look like Mr. Olympia yet.

In this scenario I’ll roll out a generous dose of “expectation management” and inform them that it’s going to take a lot of time, hard work, and CONSISTENCY (for years on end) in order to see the results they’re after.

Much of the time I’ll point them in the direction of sites like T-Nation and tell them to absorb as much as they can – especially stuff written by Chad Waterbury, Joe DeFranco, and Jim Wendler.

And it isn’t just about reading either.  One of my biggest pet peeves is when some internet hero brags about how many times he’s read SuperTraining and that he has like 20,000 posts on some forum, yet, can barely crack a 1.5x bodyweight deadlift.

Reading and educating yourself is cool and all, but you also need to practice what you preach. It amazes me how people can quote Zatsiorsky, yet seemingly can’t manage to weigh more than 150 lbs soaking wet. Despite having been “training” for five years

Just shut-up and lift!

And now I’m just getting fired up and angry for no reason.  Deep breaths, Tony. Deep breaths

One such email I received a couple days ago went something like this:

I  have been working with 2 different online trainers which provided me with my diet and workout plan but unfortunately I did not get visible changes compare to the GREAT amount of work and dedication. I am a really HARDGAINER and I have a small frame with really small legs (chicken legs 🙂 ) Is there something different that you can provide me in your services that could make a difference in my body composition (muscle growth)?

Do you provide any nutritional advice? What supplements would you recommend I take?

My response:  CALORIES!

My facetious tone aside, I did write back a more thorough response, I didn’t hold back in letting the guy know that it’s not rocket science. No pill or powder is going to trump lack of calories.  You can’t just magically make muscle appear out of thin air.  The body needs calories to grow.

But all of this got me thinking: What are some other tidbits of advice I could throw down to other “hardgainers” out there?

Well, here you go:

1.  Calories

Seriously, eat!  I know, I know, you eat like, all…….the……time.  Actually, no, you don’t.  My litmus test for most self-described hardgainers is this one simple question:

What did you eat for breakfast this morning?

More often than not I get s bunch of “ums” and “uhs,” with a really long pause mixed in and it just gets awkward.  The word “supplement” shouldn’t even be a part of your vocabulary if you’re not even making an effort to eat breakfast.

And I’m not just referring to an apple and a glass of OJ either.  You’re a human being not a hummingbird.  Be a man, and don’t make the lame excuse that you don’t have time. Get up earlier, and make some eggs.  And don’t you dare toss away the yolk!!!!!  I can’t back this up with science, but an angel dies every time an egg yolk is throw into the sink.

If eggs aren’t your bag, it takes all of two minutes to make a bowl of oatmeal.  I don’t care, just eat breakfast for the love of god.

One of the best weight gaining pieces of advice I give guys is one I stole from Dr. John Berardi. Buy a bag of cinnamon-raisin bagels, slather each one with a boat load of peanut butter, and eat one of those in between each meal.

And if you don’t like cinnamon-raisin bagels, who the hell are you???  It’s like I don’t even know you anymore.  Who doesn’t like cinnamon-raisin bagels?!?!

The point is, you need to eat, and you need to eat a lot.


2.  Less Volume?

Yes, you read that correctly.  Less volume.  It sounds counterintuitive but I’d make an argument that most hardgainers perform way too much volume and that’s what’s preventing them from packing on any weight.

While admirable, many will spend 2-3 hours in the gym per day, and on the off chance they do take a day off, that “off day” turns into 400 m tempo runs at the local track.  Or they do a Tough Mudder just for the fun of it.

Stop it already!

How can you expect to put on any weight if you’re constantly burning off calories?

When I start working with a hardgainer I typically limit his training days to THREE, full-body workouts per week.  Depending on the individual I may add in a day (maybe two) of GPP or movement, but for the most part I’m going to significantly reduce their training volume.

It’s a mindf*** at the start, especially for those who are used to heading to the gym everyday to blast their biceps, but it’s uncanny how often they start to see the scale ooch in their favor when they cut out all the extraneous fluff in their workouts.

3.  Focus on the Big Rocks

For those who are familiar with the Pareto Principle this next point will hit the nail on the head. For those who are scratching their heads here’s a brief explanation:

It was named after an Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, who demonstrated that 80% of the wealth in Italy was owned by only 20% of the population.

Taking it a step further, many have described it as a Law of Unequal Return, whereupon certain activities tend to give more return on investment than others. Incidentally, it should come as no surprise that many (if not all) aspects of fitness, can be applied here.

I know this comes across as preaching to the choir, but it bears repeating:  focus on the bang-for-your-training-buck exercises like deadlifts, squats, bench press, chin-ups, rows, push-ups, and single leg work and you’ll see good things happen.

If all these so-called hardgainers spent 80% of their time focusing on the big rocks (and understood that progressive overload is kind of an important thing), they probably wouldn’t call themselves hardgainers anymore.

I’d go so far as to say that if more guys started their workouts with a squat or deadlift variation and just alternated between the two week in and week out for a straight year, they’d see marked improvements in their physique.

Trust me, ditch the arm day and go lift something heavy…..;o)

4. Train Like an Athlete!

I like to play a game with people.  When I start with a someone who refers to themselves as a hardgainer I like to ask them to bring in a picture of a physique they admire.  Much of the time they’ll bring in a picture of guys like former NFL wide received Terrell Owens.

Now, I can’t speak to Terrell’s training, but can almost guarantee that he didn’t build that physique by crushing tricep kickbacks and worrying about carb cycling.

A lot of guys want to look like athletes, but they don’t come remotely close to training like one.  Of course there’s a lot that comes into the picture.  We have to take into consideration one’s injury history, experience, and if someone has the movement quality of a Sasquatch I don’t feel sprinting is a wise choice.  It ALWAYS comes down to progressions.

That said, I do feel a lot of people train themselves as if they’re covered in bubble wrap and fail to elicit any form of training effect

If you want to look like an athlete, you need to train like one!

Which is why Mike Robertson’s Bulletproof Athlete is an excellent choice for hardgainers as well as those looking to take their training to the next level.

It includes four months of customized programming, and there’s even several options to choose from depending on your schedule.  What’s more it comes with an extensive exercise database, as well as weekly conditioning and nutritional challenges.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting out of your own way and allowing someone else to do the thinking for you.

The manual is currently on sale NOW for a bargain price of $97.  But that ends THIS Saturday (August, 3rd), so if you’re going to take advantage of the savings you need to act quickly.  Ya heard.

—> Bulletproof Athlete <—

And that’s that.  I know I could keep going and speak to sleep, recovery protocols, 10×3 instead of 3×10, and did I mention deadlifts?  But hopefully a few of the points I did hit up resonated with a few people out there.

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

Share This Post:


Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

I don’t share email information. Ever. Because I’m not a jerk.

Comments for This Entry

  • Barath

    I am going to nitpick #2 and #3. It's not that most people do a lot of volume, they do a lot of volume of shit exercises (like you mention later). Doing 5 sets of 20 rep squats is a lot of volume, but if you do that, you *will* grow. Now, stepping into dangerous territory. Deep breaths, deep breaths. Let me first say that the DL is my favorite exercise. I am not great at it, but I don't suck either. My PR of 415 lbs is nothing compared to yours and many who read this, but here's my thought: the DL does a piss-poor job of adding muscle mass. Everybody who likes the DL works in low rep range, and it essentially becomes a purely strength movement. I don't know enough physiology, but I am sure it does a great job of strengthening your spinal erectors and what not, but the "slabs of muscle" everyone expects usually don't come. Is my upper back bigger than when I started lifting? Sure. Is it commensurate with my predominant DL training? Absolutely not. And it doesn't give you great traps either. Neither does farmer's walks. Heavy shrugs and BTN push presses do. I've long suspected the DL's (relative) inefficiency in adding muscle mass, but have kept it to myself, thinking it was just me. But I was relieved to see Paul Carter (Lift-Run-Bang fame) and Christian Thibaudeau express similar opinions. All that said, if you go to the gym and never deadlift, you should stab yourself with a blunt knife. Repeatedly.

    August 2, 2013 at 10:41 am | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      I can't say that I disagree with you Barath. My only nitpick of your nitpick would be that deadlifts and the like recruit the entire "system," and they'll always trump things like leg extensions, lateral raises, and whatever we want to stick in. Plus, I think it's a fair point that you bring up the fact that with deadlifts, we're typically going to use low(er) rep ranges. But as I noted, it also comes down to progressive overload and consistency. But I think we're just clutching at straws here. We're both on the same page.

      August 2, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Reply to this comment

      • Barath

        Oh absolutely. The day I say the deadlift should be swapped for leg extensions is the day someone should take a .44 Magnum to my head. I was only expressing my views on the DL as a purely mass-building movement. Of course, there are people who might have gotten a lot bigger by deadlifting. Sadly, I am not one of those. For those that are interested, here are CT's views on the topic. It's a pretty interesting thread:;jsessionid=02A4531A180CA2CA454331B1A56B569F-mcd02.hydra?id=5674300&pageNo=0

        August 2, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Reply to this comment

      • PR

        Tony, Given the potential health benefits of IF and paleo-type eating, how does one balance mass gain with the potential health effects of stuffing your face all the time with carbs? Great blog post!

        August 5, 2013 at 9:22 am | Reply to this comment

        • TonyGentilcore

          Well, I'd argue that IF isn't for everyone. I've tried it, felt it was okay, but I have to say if someone's main goal was to pack on mass, IF wouldn't be the way I'd go about it. And, it's not like you HAVE to stuff your face with carbs in order to gain mass. Sure, it's a helluva lot easier (and tastier), but with some planning and some advanced prep work, you can make do with protein and fat. Or, just plan the "bulk" of your carb intake around training time. I think slow and steady ALWAYS wins the race. Back when I did a significant bulking phase a few years back and waved my caloric intake to match my training. On lower body days, I crushed calories (and carbs). On upper body days, a little less. On "off" days, I pretty much went with a low calorie/low carb approach. I was able to pack on 25-30 lbs while still staying pretty lean. I wrote about it in a T-Nation article:

          August 6, 2013 at 8:02 am | Reply to this comment

          • PR

            Thanks tony! Does one have to perpetually eat big to then maintain the mass or can one dial it back on the food end after awhile without shrinking back to their original size?

            August 6, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    • Dylan Jones Australia

      Here's a question for you Barath, how can you have serious strength gains with out slapping on some muscle with the Deadlifts? Bigger the engine greater the power, even Ronnie Colman deadlifts 800 pounds for reps and look and him!? Of course this isn't relevant  if you're a complete nube and you'll have more neurological development in the first few months of strength training but yet have an incredible increse in strength. In turn of a postual chain exercise you won't find a more beneficial exercise out there that requites as much muscle fibers and exhorts the nervous system quite like the Deadlift. Traditional shrugs are for wieners, want big traps? You can't beat push presses, farmers walks, over head BB shrugs, overhead squats and one again Deadlifts!  If you want to get big, Deadlift. Priod!! And if you're not serious gains from dead lifting then look and what variation suits your body type and if still no progress, have a shot of concrete, harden up and stop blaming your lack of results on the Deadlift, it's THE perfect exercise.

      August 2, 2013 at 9:17 pm | Reply to this comment

  • George of the jungle

    You people talk too much, just lift something

    August 3, 2013 at 8:33 am | Reply to this comment

  • Silvia

    Thank you for trying to save Angels by reminding people not to throw out egg yolks.

    August 3, 2013 at 11:54 am | Reply to this comment

  • ronellsmith

    Tony, I love when you address this topic. It's one (of many) I can relate to. What I've found is the 3-day model does work best for adding size, especially if I add in one "carry day" on the weekend. But 3 days doesn't work so well for me, however, because I sit all day for work, and that extra day of training makes a big difference in the way that I feel, mentally and physically. So I use a 4-day model from Show & Go, do sprints at least one day in between, then, when I get all itchy about not gaining any size, I quote John Brooks: "You're not strong enough to worry about how you look." Then I shut up and just keep working. I know I'm in the minority here, but for as much as I'd love to get rid of my 14-inch arms, being strong is FAR sexier to me than having "guns" but not being able to do a pullup. But that's just me. RS

    August 4, 2013 at 9:09 am | Reply to this comment

    • Barath

      "You're not strong enough to worry about how you look." -- Love that! But sometimes, Ronnell, wanting size is not just a vain aim -- more muscles at some level does equate to more strength. Paul Carter mentions that sometimes the best way to bust a plateau in a lift is to add more muscle mass - might not work for advanced guys, but for me that sounds like good advice. Just my two cents :)

      August 4, 2013 at 9:59 am | Reply to this comment

      • ronellsmith

        We're totally in agreement. But--and I have talked to numerous trainers and gym-goers about this--far too often we see big guys who are not strong for their size. For example, if you're 300 lbs., bragging about a 315 bench is not sane. What attracted me to Eric (and Tony) and CP was their belief in the importance of relative strength. I'm a believer and staunch observer. Just about every guy in my gym is bigger than me (6-5, 210-ish), but the day one of them can hold their own on lower-body day with me had better be tomorrow because it sure as hell wasn't yesterday or today. So, I'll take my bird arms and stick to strength, especially when I know that having a great base of strength makes getting HYOOGE all the more palatable. I'm not saying it's ideal--and I'd love big arms and a big chest--but it's not THAT important to me, in comparison to strength. RS

        August 4, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Scott | MassNERDerer

    I feel like there needs to be a note with #1 that you don't need to gain fat to gain muscle. I used to work with a lot of college age recreational lifters who read a lot of bodybuilding magazines. I don't know why, but many still think adding 25#'s of fat is like a required step to gain muscle. If truly a "hardgainer" I guess this wouldn't come up, but for many who call themselves that while focusing on biceps 3x/week I think they start stuffing their face and putting on more fat! So I feel like "EAT, unless you start putting on more fat, then cut back kcals just a bit" may be a nice closing piece, wouldn't you agree?

    August 7, 2013 at 8:28 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Pat

    Your blog not only teaches me new things (as a PE teacher its awesome to use some of the great info) about strength, but also nutrition. Tried to explain cholesterol to Grandma today. It was like going to North End in Boston and not getting Italian food. Crazy.

    August 15, 2013 at 6:21 pm | Reply to this comment

Leave a Comment