Training for Easy-Hard Gainers
by Christian Thibaudeau
What Kind of Gainer are You?
Most strength coaches will categorize an athlete or client into one of three classes based on their responsiveness to training: easy gainer, hard gainer and average gainer. Let's take a look at each category.
The Easy Gainer: The easy gainers are supposedly the blessed few who can grow muscle very easily, without even having to train hard or intelligently most of the time. These people are characterized by a very high ratio of fast-twitch motor units which have a greater potential for hypertrophy and are better suited to respond well to strength training.
Easy gainers also have an average or above average metabolism, just fast enough to minimize fat accumulation and maximize protein synthesis and accretion, but not too fast as to have an excessively high protein turnover rate. (Too high of a turnover rate makes it hard to gain muscle, unless you consume around two grams of protein per pound of bodyweight and a large caloric surplus).
The body type of an easy gainer is either that of a pure mesomorph (powerful neck, wide shoulders, barrel chest, small waist, thickly muscled legs) or of a meso-endomorph (same as a mesomorph but with a wider hip structure and more of a tendency to gain body fat).
The Hard Gainer: Hard gainers have a very tough time putting on anything that resembles muscle mass. They're predominantly slow-twitch, meaning their muscles are composed primarily of slow-twitch fibers. These fibers, while very well suited to endurance sports, don't have the hypertrophy potential of their fast-twitch counterparts. They're also less responsive to typical strength training protocols.
The second reason why hard gainers have a difficult time gaining muscle is because of their fast metabolisms. This is probably due to a high level of thyroid hormone and a very efficient T4 to T3 conversion capacity. As a result, the typical hard gainer will have a super high daily energy expenditure and protein turnover rate. This is good if you want to be really lean, but extremely bad if you want to be huge!
The mega caloric expenditure requires a very high protein intake (at least two grams per pound of bodyweight) and a calorie intake that would give a stomach ache to a Silverback gorilla. Furthermore, because of the high protein turnover rate, protein needs to be consumed very frequently if any mass is going to be gained. Hard gainers are normally ectomorphs: long and thin limbs, narrow waists, long necks, small wrists, and narrow shoulders and hips.
The Average Gainer: This category basically includes 70-80% of the population. They're of a mixed fiber type (approximately the same proportion of fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibers) and their metabolisms are normally average, or even below average.
There isnt a typical body structure for the average gainer; they come in all shapes and sizes. Normally, average gainers should be able to slowly add muscle mass with consistent training and diet.
The Wimp Factor: Id like to make a point: a lot of people train like wimps, are afraid of hard work, and eat less than your average hummingbird. These guys (or gals) make no progress in the gym and they immediately assume that they're "hard gainers."
Most of these people are actually average gainers who just aren't willing to put forth the effort required in the gym and at the kitchen table to stimulate progress. They use the hard gainer tag as a copout.
The Easy-Hard Gainer: A New Category
It sounds paradoxical. Is it possible to be both an easy and a hard gainer at the same time? Yes, it certainly is!
Easy-hard gainers share characteristics of both groups. They're extremely fast-twitch dominant and have a very active metabolism (most are hyperthyroid). Externally these people are very lean; even when they dont have much muscle mass you can clearly see muscle definition (even striations).
These guys are also hyperactive and very energetic, even nervous or hyper-reactive sometimes (because of their hyperthyroidism). Normally they're ecto-mesomorphs: they have a high shoulder/waist ratio, long arms and long legs. Even while thin, you can see muscles (contrary to the pure ectomorph). Their nervous systems are incredibly efficient as well (they're basically wired for power and speed).
Most top sprinters and modern elite Olympic lifters (especially lighter weight classes) are of this type. These people do have an important muscle growth potential due to their fast-twitch dominance (hence the "easy" gainer part) but in reality this potential is often hard to actualize because of their active metabolisms (hence the "hard" gainer part).
I've worked with several easy-hard gainers including two Olympians. One of my interns, Nicolas Roy, is of that type and so is the boss of T-Nation and Biotest, Tim Patterson.
Was it possible for these guys to gain a lot of muscle? Yes, it was!
Nicolas gained ten pounds in two months while experimenting with some novel training techniques I taught him. He's also bench pressing 315 for four reps (up from 275 in two months) and he power cleans 275 for multiple reps almost any day of the week. Not bad for a lengthy 61", 190 pound guy. Hes also ripped year round while basically eating anything he wants (the bastard!).
One of my hockey players is also an easy-hard gainer. He came to me at 62" and 165 pounds. We were able to get him up to 182 in three months and he could easily power clean over 250. Unfortunately, when this athlete got back to his team the coach made strength training during the season off-limits. My guy lost all of the 20 pounds or so he'd gained in about a month or two.
This goes to show that with proper training techniques and nutrition, the easy-hard gainer can gain a lot of size, but this size is lost very quickly if training is stopped (because of the high rate of protein turnover and super fast metabolism).
So, how should an easy-hard gainer train to gain as much size as possible? First of all, he must avoid the following at all cost.
The Top 10 Mistakes Made By Easy-Hard Gainers
Mistake #1: Training more than 45 minutes per session
Because of the easy-hard gainer's high metabolism and high protein turnover rate, training for more than 45 minutes will break down more muscle than he can rebuild.
Mistake #2: Going higher than 8 reps
Well, those that fit into this category can go higher than eight reps, but only on explosive movements. Most of the time, because of their fast-twitch dominance, they'll get much better gains from sets lasting a total of 10 to 30 seconds performed at a high level of intensity.
Mistake #3: Only eating 3-4 times per day
Because their metabolisms are so high, easy-hard gainers should provide a constant supply of nutrients to their bodies. At least six meals per day should be consumed while up to eight or nine (that includes protein shakes and meal replacement drinks) is best for increased muscle mass. Protein (at least 50 grams) should be consumed at all of these meals to take advantage of the high rate of protein turnover( instead of being a victim of it).
Mistake #4: Not eating enough carbs
While Im all for reduced carb diets and carb rotation diets (which I've used with much success in the past), they aren't a good option for the easy-hard gainer who wants to put on some serious muscle. Since he's fast-twitch dominant, glycogen is the preferred energy source of an easy-hard gainers muscles. Simply put, fast-twitch fibers are built to work in the glycolytic pathway and aren't well suited to use fat for fuel (low level of mitochondria). Not eating enough carbs is probably the fastest way to stagnation for an easy-hard gainer!
Most of these people tolerate glucose very well and don't store fat easily from eating a lot of carbs. Obviously, this isn't a free pass to eat all the sugar and junk your heart desires! Those carbs should come from good "bodybuilding friendly" sources, but should be consumed in high amounts.
Mistake #5: Eating too much fat
As I mentioned, an easy-hard gainers muscles aren't built to make efficient use of fat for energy. Ingesting too much fat won't yield as much benefit as for other individuals, even if its in the form of good fats such as fish oil, flax oil or CLA.
Furthermore, fat slows down digestion and absorption of nutrients. This is a good thing for individuals with slow metabolisms, but a very bad thing for people with super active ones. The nutrients won't be absorbed fast enough to satisfy the demands of their raging metabolisms!
That doesnt mean that fat should be avoided, just that it should be limited to 10-20% of the dietary intake, most of it coming from good fats.
Mistake #6: Not consuming enough protein
Because of their high level of thyroid hormone, easy-hard gainers have a very high rate of protein turnover (breakdown and accretion of amino acids). A limited protein intake won't take advantage of the high rate of protein accretion (adding amino acids to the muscle structure) and won't stop the damage of the high rate of protein breakdown (taking away amino acids from the muscle structure).
An easy-hard gainer should consume between 1.8 and 2.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight every day. I recommend ingesting that amount in seven to eight feedings: five solid meals and two or three protein shakes. All the meals (except the post-workout meal which should have more protein and carbs than the other meals) should provide roughly the same amount of protein: 50-75 grams.
Mistake #7: Performing more than 9 total sets for a muscle group (6 being better in most cases)
Easy-hard gainers have a high adaptation potential to strength training but a low tolerance for it. This means they need to do less work to stimulate more gains. In their case, doing too much work will only lead to stagnation (or even regression) because they'll break down more muscle than they can build up afterwards.
On a side note, people often look at the training of elite sprinters and seek to emulate it to get a "sprinter's body." This is often a mistake. Sprinters train the whole body during each workout with 3-4 exercises for 3-6 sets. For example, all Ben Johnson did was bench, squat and the reverse leg press (sometimes a little auxiliary work was performed, but not that often). Reps and sets were in the 3-6 range; not much total work, yet he had a very muscular physique, much better than 99% of what you see in most gyms around the world.
Now, when the average Joe tries to train this way he undoubtedly becomes stronger but rarely does he becomes bigger. Why? Because sprinters are easy-hard gainers and respond better to strength training than all other people, but do so only if the quantity of work performed is low. One of my interns gained ten pounds in two months (while already being a very advanced trainee) while never going above six reps.
Mistake #8: Performing slow concentric reps
Easy-hard gainers are wired for speed and power (and thus also have a great strength potential). They have the CNS and the muscle composition best suited to that type of work. Performing a slow concentric (lifting) action on purpose (when using maximal weights, the concentric portion will obviously be slow), or slower than one is capable of, goes against what they're built to do and as a result they'll get nowhere fast!
Performing the concentric portion of a lift slowly will greatly increase time under tension, which is great to stimulate hypertrophy in the average and hard gainer, but not very effective for the easy-hard gainer. Long story short: easy-hard gainers shouldn't lift slowly!
Mistake #9: Performing fast eccentric reps
During the eccentric or lowering portion of a lift, the bulk of the muscle work is performed by the fast twitch fibers. So for our easy-hard gainer this is the "money" part of the lift.
If an easy-hard gainer performs the eccentric portion of the lift too fast, he'll actually be robbed of the portion of the exercise that would be responsible for 75%+ of his muscle gains! I find that easy-hard and easy gainers are the athletes who respond the best to accentuated eccentric training methods.
Mistake #10: Training more than 5 times per week
Easy-hard gainers have a low tolerance for strength work, so limiting the training frequency to 3-4 times per week is best for them. Occasionally, going up to five weekly workouts is acceptable, but only if caloric intake is adequate.
Ive had great success with my athletes using an upper/lower body split (four workouts per week) and whole body strategy (three times per week). Remember to stick to the "less than 45 minutes" rule though.
Strategies for Easy-Hard Gainers
So now that we know what not to do, lets focus on the strategies that'll bring the easy-hard gainers the greatest amount of success. Obviously, some of this has already been covered in the preceding section, so we'll focus on the practical training strategies to use.
1) Use mostly "money" exercises.
Easy-hard gainers can't tolerate a lot of work. They can only do so much in the gym before their progress stops dead in its track. In fact, regression may even occur. Since these individuals can't do much in the way of volume, they should focus on exercises working a lot of muscle mass at the same time. These are what I call money exercises. To recap:
A money exercise has the following characteristics:
1) It's a multi-joint exercise. The more articulations involved in the movement, the better it is.
2) It's a multi-muscle exercise. The more muscle mass involved in an exercise, the better it is.
3) It's an accelerative exercise. The greater the possibility to accelerate during an exercise, the better it is.
4) It's a "target" exercise. The more an exercise uses muscles needed in sports, the better it is. (For easy-hard gainers interested mostly in bodybuilding, this point isn't that important.)
What are good exercises to use? All forms of squats, deadlifts, rows, presses, chin-ups/pull-ups and the Olympic lift variations. These should be the bulk of an easy-hard gainers training program.
If bodybuilding is the objective, some auxiliary work for the upper arms can be included, but if thats the case the easy-hard gainer should factor in the volume of the money exercises when choosing to add sets for these small muscles. As I mentioned, easy-hard gainers should perform 6-9 sets per muscle group. He should take into account sets where the biceps and triceps are hit indirectly before adding more isolation work for these muscles.
For example, if a workout consisted of bent-over barbell rowing, bench press, weighted chin-ups and military presses, the easy-hard gainer should count that work as arm work. In our example, he already performed six sets for the triceps (bench press and military press) and six sets for the biceps (rowing and chin-ups). So if he wants to, and if there's time left (i.e. his workout has been going on for less than 45 minutes), he could add 1-3 sets of direct biceps and/or triceps work, but no more.
2) Use techniques that will focus on the fast-twitch fibers.
For obvious reasons, easy-hard gainers should focus on training methods that provide the most important stimulus for the fast-twitch fibers. At the very least, an easy-hard gainer should strive to explode during the concentric phase of a lift and perform a slow eccentric (negative) phase while contracting the muscle as hard as possible.
They should also focus on high force training methods. F = mass x acceleration. So they should either lift to maximize the "mass" portion (heavy lifting in the 85-95% range) or the "acceleration" portion of the equation (explosive lifting). Olympic lifts are very effective because they combine both portions at the same time.
Then, more advanced training techniques could be added such as accentuated eccentrics and max intensity isometrics. Electromyostimulation (EMS) is also particularly effective at stimulating fast-twitch fibers due to their preferential recruitment.
In the case of sprinters (who are fast-twitch dominant), EMS provides a very effective training stimulus. That would also explain why EMS isn't that effective to develop the abs (the inefficacy of the EMS devices sold for abdominal sculpting is well known) since abs are predominantly slow-twitch dominant. Finally, it also means that EMS might not be as effective for average gainers and even less so for hard gainers.
3) Perform a low amount of sets, but make every set count.
To progress maximally, easy-hard gainers can't afford to "take it easy" in the gym. Their low tolerance to training volume means that they can't waste a set. Each and every work set should be performed with maximum focus and drive.
If training for bodybuilding/hypertrophy purposes, easy-hard gainers should reach a point of near failure for their first two work sets on an exercise and go to failure (and, occasionally, beyond failure) on the last set of an exercise. By the way, this is basically how Dorian Yates trained.
4) Perform a little work more frequently rather than a lot of work infrequently.
If proper nutritional support is provided and given a low volume of work at each training session, easy-hard gainers will fare better by training each muscle group (with money exercises) two to three times per week. Because of their super high protein turnover rate, they adapt very quickly to a training stimulus (if they follow a proper nutrition program and provided that they didn't perform too much work in the gym), but they also lose these adaptations just as fast.
An easy-hard gainer might fail to progress simply because he loses all the gains he stimulated before the next workout arrives. For that reason, upper/lower body split or whole body workouts are best for these individuals.
Conclusion: Master of Your Domain
Being an easy-hard gainer is both a blessing and a curse. Provided that you do everything right, you can actually progress more and faster than almost anybody else when it comes to strength, speed, power and muscle mass. However, you have the burden to do everything right all the time. If you fail to do so, you'll also regress faster than everybody else!
Your ultimate progress is limited only by how structured and disciplined you are. If you truly wish to become a great athlete or have a fantastic body, its really yours to take. And you can get it quite easily. But deviate from the road one bit and you might get lost in the woods and end up nowhere fast!
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