"There's no such thing as a hardgainer."
This statement has been the catalyst for heated arguments in the world of strength-training for many years. The mere mention of the word "hardgainer" on internet forums will receive more caustic replies than almost any other term I can think of, with many respondents insisting that the hardgainer simply doesn't exist, and that a so-called hardgainer is nothing more than a wuss who lacks the heart or dedication to be successful in the strength training world.
After all, the number-one motivating factor for the great majority of us when picking up a weight is to become bigger and stronger, so that we can attract the eye of Sara Jo Finebottom, that voluptuous little minx who sits across from us in biology class, right?
Of course, having a common goal is about the only thing trainees have in common from that point on. Some trainees are more successful than others: they get to take Sara Jo off to the deserted biology lab after class, and everyone else has to watch with envy and frustration while the mesomorphic bastard is in there giving Sara Jo multiple orgasms. It's the way of the world. So what gives?
The first problem is that the term "hardgainer" is so grossly overused it has desensitized people into believing that some people, despite hard training, adequate nutrition, and quality sleep, still find it unbelievably challenging and even nearly impossible to gain size and strength.
The second problem with the term is its overuse by people who have no business using it in the first place. Trainees who don't gain 20 or 30 pounds of muscle in 6 months, or who can't seem to gain weight on two meals a day, often label themselves as "hardgainers," saying that they just can't gain a pound, or that they've been stuck lifting the same weights for years. These people are a huge part of the problem, and why legitimate hardgainers get a bad rap.
I can confidently say that 75% of the people who call themselves "hardgainers" are simply following absurd nutritional and training programs, meaning they aren't eating nearly enough, and are either overtraining, or not training enough!
The people in the group above are also described as being "ectomorphs," which is a nicely wrapped and easily referenced category. Ectomorphs typically have a higher metabolism, carry less muscle mass, and tend to look skinnier and weaker than the other somatypes.
A classic ectomorph.
Terms like "ectomorph," "mesomorph," and "endomorph" may be convenient for grouping people into categories for easy reference, but they tend to overlook a lot of individual differences. The following are just a few of the genetic factors that separate us. These factors are helpful in explaining why we have differing levels of success in the gym, and why we can't all be grouped neatly into one of the three basic somatypes.
Growth hormone output
Muscle fiber composition
CNS recovery rate
Amount of muscle fibers
Length of muscle bellies/tendons
Muscle insertion points
These are only a few of the factors that separate the responders from the non-responders. The upshot is that we don't all respond to the same stimuli in the same way, and that genetics matters. A lot.
In fact, the ultimate factor in determining your success in the gym is your genetic capability to do so. No supplement or training program is going to increase the number of muscle fibers you were born with, change your muscular insertion points, or change the length of your muscle bellies. This isn't a rationalization, it's the harsh truth.
Because the typical Testosterone reader is smarter than the average bear, I won't waste any more space talking about my various gripes about somatype classifications. Let's stick to the good stuff, and get right to the point.
Typical T-Nation reader.
So: time for a pop quiz. I'm going to ask you one question, and I want you to consider your answer carefully. Here it is:
Are all hardgainers created equal?
In other words, if you're a hardgainer, do you have the same set of problems as other hardgainers, and should you expect the same set of solutions to solve them?
Take your time.
The answer you should've come up with, if you read the title of this article and have been paying attention up until now, is:
"No, of course not!"
Remember the list of genetic factors: every true hardgainer is different. However, just to keep things simple, I'll divide the true hardgainers into two groups: the easy-hardgainer and the skinny-fat hardgainer. Members of each group have problems they have to tackle before they can achieve success, including poor digestive capacity and high thyroid output. The difference between the two is that the second group's problems are more serious than those of the first group.
The problems of easy-hardgainer are, as the name implies, relatively easy to fix. All these guys have to do is increase their ability or willingness to take in the correct amount of food, and perform the correct exercises in the gym to stimulate good anabolic hormonal signaling (Testosterone).
When they finally knuckle down with the fork and knife they often find their "genetics" improving by the plateful, so to speak. Many athletes such as sprinters, track and field stars, and even a famous professional bodybuilder who shall remain anonymous (hint: his last name rhymes with "farts a beggar") fall within this group.
Easy-hardgainers like this guy can solve most of their problems by training harder and eating more.
The skinny-fat hardgainer is much worse off than the group above. This is the group I will focus on for the remainder of this article. The problems of the skinny-fat hardgainer are twofold, and they should be self-evident by looking at the name.
Skinny = catabolic
Fat = insulin resistant
This group is constantly in a catabolic state, which in itself causes one to be insulin resistant. If a skinny-fat hardgainer tries to apply the same approach that works for the easy-hardgainer (eat more food), he just ends up as a Richard Simmons lookalike: slim, but with very little muscle and too much fat.
Skinny-fat hardgainers have serious issues.
Although the skinny-fat hardgainers have some of the same problems as their easy-hardgaining friends, three other, more serious problems set this group apart: poor hormonal signaling, poor digestive capacity, and a low work capacity.
Poor Hormonal Signaling
The skinny-fats have hormonal signaling problems, meaning they're deficient in the anabolic hormones, the ones you need to build muscle. Compared to strength trainees with Testosterone levels of 700 or over, someone whose T-levels are at only 300 or so isn't going to carry nearly as much muscle mass naturally, or respond to training the same.
A skinny-fat hardgainer has to contend with a one-two punch: a shortage of Testosterone and other androgens, coupled with an overabundance of cortisol and other catabolic hormones. Cortisol is often referred to as the "stress hormone," and it's essential for life in many ways, but for hardgainers, it's is a huge pain in the ass. Cortisol inhibits protein synthesis and breaks down proteins, literally eating up the muscle tissue that they work so hard for in the gym and at the dinner table.
Cortisol also negatively influences insulin sensitivity, because its job is to break down (mobilize) energy stores such as skeletal muscle to keep a constant supply of glucose in the bloodstream for energy use by peripheral tissues and the brain. Remember, insulin sensitivity is very important in our nutrient uptake, and what our muscle cells or fat cells take in. The more insulin sensitive you are, the more muscular and leaner you'll be.
The take-home point here is that you need to switch your body from being in a constant catabolic state, and allow it to run on your anabolic hormones like it naturally wants to. This will increase insulin sensitivity and Testosterone production so you'll be bigger, stronger, and leaner!
Poor Digestive Capacity
All of us at one point or another in our lifting careers have been subject to having digestive issues such as bloating, gas, and stomach cramps. For most people this is a once in a while occurrence, and is taken in stride as a price of playing the iron game.
However, imagine for a second that this is a daily occurrence for you, and you'll begin to relate to a true hardgainer and their digestive problems. It seems like a cruel joke that a hardgainer's elevated metabolic rate requires him to eat more calories than the usual trainee in order to put on quality muscle, but he has to deal with the fact that he can only stomach two or at most three meals a day!
I know all about digestive problems, having suffered more than my share. I know what it's like to have that hearty bodybuilding breakfast sitting in your stomach all day like a ball of lead. This leads hardgainers down the road of liquid nutrition with whey proteins, which in turn opens up a whole new set of problems in digestion, nutrient absorption, and insulin sensitivity.
A major factor in how well you digest and ultimately absorb what you eat is hydrochloric acid (HCl). If you're deficient in this area, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats won't be properly absorbed.
The take-home point here is that hardgainers are practically starved for quality nutrients due to poor digestive capacity, and as a result, poor absorption of vital nutrients that repair and rebuild tissue after strenuous exercise.
Low Work Capacity
The third major obstacle that our skinny-fat hardgainers must overcome deals with their poor ability to recover between strength training sessions. If you're a hardgainer and are reading this, you've no doubt tried the routines that are marketed as the only suitable routines for hardgainers.
These routines are typically super-abbreviated, very low volume, and low frequency routines in which adding weight in small amounts at every session as the only form of progression. These routines usually call for one or at most two sets at maximum intensity with many days of recovery in-between.
Hardgainers have found short-lived success with these routines, because the reduced volume and frequency allowed their nervous system and muscles to recover fully from the previous training. When the smoke clears, however, every aspect of fitness such as muscular endurance, strength, power, and muscle mass are severely diminished or totally gone. The low volume and low frequency also lowers the trainee's metabolic rate, this only leads to more fat gain.
The take-home point here is that you'll make the fastest gains in muscle and strength with the most frequent training sessions you can recover from. The only way you can increase your rate of recovery is by challenging your body to recover faster than it's used to. If you stay with these low volume routines, you'll be in a prison with no way out, and will never realize your ultimate potential. Hardgainers must build up their capacity to handle more frequent training sessions with more volume, which is the exact opposite of what most are doing right now.
The Key Piece of the Puzzle: the Nervous System
The human body is a magnificent organism that is highly adaptable to any situation. If it weren't, we obviously wouldn't be here. Our body has an optimal set of parameters that it likes to keep all our physiologic processes constant, such as temperature regulation, blood pressure, oxygen content, acidity, etc. This is referred to as homeostasis, the body's ability to maintain a relatively constant internal environment. Anything from the outside world that knocks your body out of homeostatic balance is referred to as a stressor. When confronted by a stressor, your body responds with a stress response in order to re-establish the balance.
This intricate and highly adaptive response is known as the "fight or flight" response, and is mediated by one branch of your autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system. This is the physiological system that kicked in when we had to escape predators back in the Paleolithic Age, and now takes over whenever we have to deal with the assault of oncoming traffic, belligerent drunks, and angry girlfriends.
At least as stress-inducing as a Paleolithic predator.
The system kicks in during emergencies, or more precisely, what we perceive to be emergencies. When this response is activated, your heart rate increases, blood pressure and breathing increase, and the muscles are flooded with blood and nutrients in preparation for swift activation to get your keister out of harm's way.
The stress response is characterized by rapid mobilization of energy; this comes from your liver, your fat cells, and (unfortunately) your muscles. This system is the result of our body releasing certain hormones that mediate these responses, namely the catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine) and the glucocorticoids (cortisol being the most important).
The catecholamines are activated by way of sympathetic projections that exit the spine and branch out to organs and blood vessels in the body, acting within seconds. The glucocorticoids are released by the adrenal gland, and back up the activity of the catecholamines over the course of hours.
The adrenal gland is under direct control of hormones in the brain, namely corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). When the ACTH is released into the bloodstream it then reaches the adrenal gland and triggers the release of glucocorticoids. Try saying all thatten times fast.
Your adrenal glands trigger not only the fight-or-flight response, but also the fat-and-flat response.
If you're still with me after those last two paragraphs, you should realize that these are all catabolic processes, and the stress response puts a halt to all long term projects (like building muscle and strength) by decreasing Testosterone production, inhibiting digestion and food storage, and constantly breaking down tissue for energy use.
The other branch of the autonomic nervous system is called the parasympathetic nervous system, and it opposes the sympathetic nervous system. This system is the exact opposite and promotes growth and energy storage by way of our friendly anabolic hormones.
These two systems can't run simultaneously, thus if your sympathetic nervous system is running full bore, the parasympathetic tone is turned way down. This is where our hardgainers get into trouble. With the exception of places like the Okavango Delta, human beings are no longer a link in the middle of somebody else's food chain, and don't have to worry too much about becoming lunch meat.
Most of us don't have to worry about being on the menu anymore.
Instead, we have invented a whole new set of stressors to worry about. Jobs, relationships, finances, and jostling for a seat on the morning commuter train all take their toll on our health by way of added stress. The problem is that the human body perceives these relatively minor events as life-threatening stressors, and responds to them just as it did when our ancestors were running from sabertooth lions, tigers, and bears. Oh, my!
The biggest irony is that our bodies will react to stress without the stressor even being real. We have the dubious honor of being the only species able to mobilize a full-blown fight-or-flight stress response simply by worrying about whether that zit on our foreheads just might be the beginning of terminal cancer!
This is one instance where the stress response actually does more damage to our body than the stressor itself. Recognizing this fact is paramount in understanding the issues a skinny-fat hardgainer has to overcome.
The Primary Culprit Revealed
Poor hormonal signaling, poor digestive capacity, and a low work capacity are the major problems facing our skinny-fat hardgaining friends, and these problems are the root cause of the one limiting factor that all people in this category share: the one they must come to grips with if they ever want to break free, and achieve the results they desire:
Skinny-fat hardgainers suffer from an overactive sympathetic nervous system, and an extreme hypersensitivity to stress of any kind.
You should see the connections. The poor hormonal signaling is the result of the body constantly dealing with and overacting to random stressors that normal people handle without notice; the catabolic hormones are running rampant as these people can't cope efficiently with daily stressors of any kind.
The low work capacity is a direct result of the body being under so much stress at a constant level, the central nervous system is overloaded very easily, and overtraining occurs very rapidly. Forget about recovering from heavy resistance training: these guys can barely recover from life.
Digestive issues and insulin sensitivity problems are directly linked to the fact they are constantly mobilizing energy for use, their body never gets a chance to properly store its nutrients because the SNS is so overactive in these guys it puts all the long term projects like digestion and storing glucose properly for tissue repair on the back burner for immediate survival. Stress is also the culprit in producing lower levels of HCl, which is essential for digestion and absorption of nutrients.
If you've ever worked with guys like these, all of this should be making perfect sense. You know the type: the trainees with the "worry-wart" mentality, who constantly nitpick, overanalyze, and stress about not gaining muscle. They even stress out about stress!
People who stress out all the time usually end up looking like this.
There is hope yet for our hardgainer friends. The first thing they must do is learn to effectively cope with daily stressors. This will eliminate many of the digestive issues, solve the CNS issues, and revert their body back to more favorable hormonal signaling.
This is best done by finding some sort of coping mechanism or outlet for our daily stressors. My preferred method is a daily walking meditation: just walk for an extended period of time, all the while being extremely mindful of your surroundings, young Padawan.
A good supplemental exercise is belly breathing. Try to pull as much air into your stomach as you can then let it out, making sure your stomach is what is expanding, and not your chest!
Any kind of relaxation or stress reduction technique is fine, so find what works best for you. The important thing is to identify the events and people in your life that are causing you stress, and eliminatethem (within the limits of the law, anyway). If you can't totally remove the stressors in your life, then at least find an effective way to cope with them. You need to deal with this before anything else, otherwise your goals will always elude you.
You must take in enough antioxidants to help offset all the damage you are putting your body through. A diet full of veggies and fruits is paramount. You must also eliminate all whey-only protein shakes from your diet. Whey is absorbed very rapidly (and therefore poorly), and contains amino acids that are quickly converted to glucose upon ingestion. This spikes your blood sugar, which is not what you want if you're trying to get over insulin sensitivity.
If you're a regular reader of T-Nation, then you know that Biotest has lots of awesome supplements, but I recommend three in particular, to assist you in your quest to break free from the hardgainer slump.
Superfood is an essential source of antioxidants. Take one serving twice a day.
Flameout is great for improving insulin sensitivity and body composition.
Metabolic Drive is the only protein powder you should be putting into your stomach: the blend of whey isolate and micellar casein won't wreak havoc on blood glucose levels the way pure whey can, and it'll be absorbed in a slow and controlled fashion.
It's a Lifestyle
I understand what all of you true hardgainers are going through, because I've been there. Every issue mentioned in this article is one I've dealt with and overcome, and I know you can do it as well. I'm not just another author writing about a topic I observed from a distance. I'm part of the hardgainer population, and I learn more and more everyday how we can overcome our seemingly insurmountable set of obstacles. I've made great strides toward my goals, and I know you can too.
Now get to it!
Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co.
Waterbury, C. (2006). Muscle Revolution. Tucson, AZ: City Press.
Silverthorn, D. U. (2007). Human Physiology. San Francisco, CA: Benjamin Cummings.
Poliquin, C. (2007). Question of Strength. Testosterone nation. Retrieved Feb. 22, 2008