Hardgainers and Freaks
There are seven different kinds of muscle gainers. The term "hardgainer" describes someone who has a poor genetic response to building muscle. It's the opposite of the genetic freak who can build muscle seemingly with little effort.
Hardgainers are definitely real, but the term is overused. Humans do vary in their genetic predisposition to build muscle. It's a bell curve. But true hardgainers, non-responders or very low-responders, are rare. The reality? Most people who aren't building muscle at a satisfactory rate aren't really hardgainers. Other factors likely account for their slower-than-expected gains.
Let's examine these factors and what can be done to solve the issue. But first, let's answer two questions: What IS a true hardgainer, and how many of them actually exist?
If you look at the normal distribution model (the bell curve), it allows us to create seven different levels of "gainers."
- Non-Responders. Those who will build an insignificant amount of muscle, even if they're doing everything right (naturally). These folks are extremely rare, accounting for roughly 0.1% of the population.
- Very Low Responders. Those who will only be able to add a small amount of overall muscle throughout their careers... and at a painstakingly slow rate. They aren't common either, accounting for around 2.1% of the population. They can likely gain only 5-10 pounds of muscle during their lifting career (3 to 6 pounds for women).
- Low Responders. Together with the non-responders and very low responders, they round out the true hardgainer category. These guys build muscle very slowly and usually need to accept adding a good amount of fat to build muscle. These are your most common hardgainers – around 13.6% of the population. They can gain 10-20 pounds of muscle throughout their lifting career (6-12 pounds for women).
- Normal Responders. This is most likely where YOU are. This group represents close to 70% of the population. And while there will still be differences in muscle-growth potential within that group, they can all gain a decent amount of muscle if they train, eat, and rest properly. Men in this category can hope to build between 20 and 35 pounds of muscle above what their non-training adult weight would've been. Women will be closer to 12-18 pounds.
- Easy Gainers. Over their lifting career, this group can build 15-20% more muscle – 5-8 pounds more than a normal responder. They can build it faster too. Their muscle gain potential might be 30-43 pounds (16-22 pounds for women). They represent roughly 13.6% of the population.
- Very Easy Gainers. These guys often look muscular even before they start training. And when they do start training, they respond quickly and can gain another 10% more muscle – a total muscle growth potential of around 33-48 pounds (18-24 pounds for women).
- Freaks. These guys are always muscular and/or strong (and often explosive) before even setting foot in the gym. These are the "true" naturals who end up looking like steroid users. But they represent 0.1% of the population, which means that most "influencers" claiming good genetics, not drugs, are lying.
Note: The amount of muscle growth potential might seem low, but understand that I'm not talking about body weight. Each pound of muscle gain normally leads to a gain of 0.25 to 0.5 pounds of "something else" without adding subcutaneous body fat. A 30-pound muscle gain would actually lead to a lean body mass gain of as much as 37 to 45 pounds on the scale.
In order of importance:
1 ACTN3 Genotype
Without getting too deep, you have two "pure" ACTN3 genotypes: ACTN3 RR and ACTN3 XX. You also have mixed types. The type of ACTN3 determines several elements that play a big role in muscle growth potential.
- Fast/Slow Twitch Fiber Ratio. More fast-twitch fibers means more growth and strength potential.
- mTOR Activation Level. The more you can activate mTOR following training and meals, the more you elevate protein synthesis and the more you can grow.
- Muscle Damage Repair. The slower the repair, the less you can train and the harder it is to grow new tissue.
The ACTN3 RR type has more fast-twitch fibers, greater mTOR activation, and rapid repair of muscle damage. All of that favors faster muscle growth.
On the opposite end, ACTN3 XX means fewer fast-twitch fibers, lower mTOR activation, and slow muscle damage repair. But they have a higher natural VO2 max and are more resistant to muscle fatigue.
2 Myostatin Expression
You've seen those photos of the "super cow" that looks like a bodybuilder. It's not an experiment where they put cows on massive doses of steroids; it's simply a breed of cattle born without the capacity to produce myostatin.
Myostatin is a myokine (a protein released by the muscles). It acts as a limiting factor in how much muscle you can carry. The closer you get to your set genetic potential, the more myostatin will limit your muscle growth.
Some people have naturally higher myostatin levels, so their rate and total muscle growth will be lower.
People with less myostatin can build more muscle and build it more rapidly. They also seem to be more at risk of muscle tears.
3 Natural Anabolic Hormone Levels, Receptor Sensitivity
While several factors can affect testosterone, IGF-1, and growth hormone levels (nutrition, stress, sleep, etc.), some people are born with a higher production potential or have receptors that respond more to these hormones. Both cases lead to someone with a greater potential for muscle growth through enhanced protein synthesis.
IGF-1 levels (and receptor sensitivity) are the most important when it comes to muscle-building potential.
Many people believe they're hardgainers, but, in reality, they simply aren't doing everything optimally to build muscle, or they're under an excessive amount of stress. If you aren't progressing because of factors in this category, you can easily fix it.
This is the number one factor limiting gains. First, unless you're a beginner, forget about building any significant amount of muscle while you're in a caloric deficit. You can gain strength because of neurological improvements, but adding muscle is a lot less likely. Many people kill their gains by trying to get shredded and big at the same time.
The more on the left of the bell curve, the less likely you are to build muscle without consuming a decent caloric surplus. While freaks can build muscle while losing fat, hardgainers need a rather large surplus to grow.
Why? In large part because a caloric surplus – especially from carbs – will increase mTOR, IGF-1, insulin, and testosterone, which makes your body more anabolic. The less naturally anabolic you are, the more help you need from food to optimize your hormonal milieu. A high-carb intake also tends to lower cortisol levels. This reduces muscle breakdown and lowers myostatin (cortisol increases myostatin levels).
The more you are on the left of the curve, the more you'll have to accept some fat gain to build muscle.
2 Insufficient Protein Intake
While a monstrous amount of protein isn't going to help you build muscle, not having enough is sure to limit your growth. The "1 gram per pound of bodyweight" target is decent. It might be a bit high, but since you can't really store protein as fat, ingesting that much is fine and will ensure that you're not short on building blocks.
Most people who have a problem gaining muscle need to look at their diets and likely have one or two protein shakes daily.
3 Insufficient Sleep
If you don't sleep enough, it'll be a lot harder to reach your physique goals. Here's a quick recap of the effects of short-term lack of sleep:
- Reduction in glucose tolerance. You can more easily store carbs as fat. (1)
- Activation of the sympathetic nervous system. This leads to higher adrenaline (which can lead to burnout) and cortisol (making it harder to build muscle). (2)
- Reduced leptin levels. This will increase cravings and might slow down metabolic rate. (3)
- Increased systemic inflammation. Bad for health and overall body function, including muscle building. (4)
- Greater risk of insulin resistance. This makes it harder to build muscle and lose fat due to poor nutrient partitioning. (5)
- Increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. (5)
Those are just the physiological markers. Cognitive markers – memory, the capacity to focus and complete complex tasks, and motivation – are all affected. The likelihood of depression is also higher in short sleepers.
If you can't gain muscle or have problems getting lean, sleep is one of the first things you need to look at.
4 Not Training Hard Enough
While everyone likes to believe they train hard, the reality is that "faux hardgainers" aren't training hard enough to stimulate growth. Most of them compensate for lack of training intensity by training too much (see next point).
I'm not saying you should train past failure on every set, but you certainly need to challenge the body. You need to be driven to do a little bit better at every workout. This could mean doing more reps with the same weight, lifting more weight for the same number of reps, or doing the same sets, reps, and weight but with shorter rest periods.
Training hard means that your main purpose while in the gym is to do better than last time. Period. Not do more, do BETTER. On some days, you might not be able to do better, but you should try. And yes, sometimes it means backing off so that you can come back stronger and continue doing a bit better.
Now, while going to failure certainly means you're going as hard as you can in a set, it's not necessary for "training hard." It's a tool you can use, but if you use it too much or on the wrong exercises, it can backfire and hurt your capacity to do better next time.
When to Train to Failure
- Shoot for failure using moderate-to-high reps on isolated exercises, last set.
- On big basic lifts when using lower reps (5 or fewer), going to failure offers no advantage over stopping 1-2 reps short. Later, this will allow you to progress while avoiding burning out.
5 Training Too Much
This is the cardinal sin of those who wrongfully believe they're hardgainers. If you really want to build muscle, but it just doesn't come fast enough, the normal reflex is to do more lifting. The brain automatically assumes that lack of progress comes from lack of work.
Volume does have an impact on growth. But it's not as important as other variables, like placing a large amount of mechanical stress on the muscles, working hard on your work sets, and trying to progress in some way every time you hit the gym. Furthermore, doing more volume normally leads to less intensity put into your sets.
It also leads to a higher cortisol level and greater central nervous system fatigue. The former reduces muscle-building directly. The latter reduces the excitatory drive sent to the muscles by the nervous system and reduces muscle fiber recruitment. This leads to shoddy performance and less growth stimulation.
If you train hard enough and try to progress at every workout, it's very hard to under-train.
Another form of excessive? Training too often. Yes, I've written programs where you train as often as six days a week, but these programs have minimal daily volume, 3-5 work sets per workout.
For a more traditional training approach, the magic number is 4 workouts per week.
More rest days not only give you more time to recover and grow, it also means you'll be able to turn in good performances at every one of your workouts.
6 High Level of Stress
Any form of stress leads to an increase in cortisol and adrenaline. Too much cortisol, especially if it becomes chronically elevated, can diminish your capacity to build muscle by:
- Increasing muscle breakdown.
- Potentially reducing testosterone. Cortisol and testosterone are both made from pregnenolone. If you use too much pregnenolone to build cortisol, you have less left to make testosterone.
- Increasing myostatin expression. This limits how much muscle your body will allow you to build.
- Reduces muscle glycogen replenishment.
And if adrenaline is constantly elevated, it could lead to burnout through desensitization of the beta-adrenergic receptors, depletion of noradrenaline or dopamine.
Are you really a hardgainer, or are you expecting too much? If you expect to build 20 pounds of muscle in three months and you gain "only" 5 pounds (which is very good), instead of seeing the 5 pounds of progress you made, you only see the 15 pounds you didn't make.
How much can the average person gain?
- For beginners, the possible rate of muscle growth per month is (% of body weight): 1.0 to 1.5% for men and 0.5 to 0.75% for women.
- For intermediates, it's 0.5 to 1.0% for men and 0.25 to 0.5% for women.
- For advanced lifters, it's 0.25 to 0.5% for men and 0.12 to 0.25% for women
- Very advanced lifters will gain muscle excruciatingly slowly unless regaining lost muscle.
The exact percentage and what constitutes a certain experience level can vary a bit, but the important point is that the maximal rate of muscle growth is much lower than most believe.
I'm not telling you this to kill your dream of hugeness, but to set realistic expectations. Your program and nutrition might be working very well, but if you expected to gain three times faster, you'll judge your plan harshly and either get discouraged or make bad decisions.
The good news? You're probably not a true hardgainer. You most likely aren't gaining as fast as you want either because of unrealistic expectations or you're doing a few things hurting your gains.
Make sure that you...
- Consume a caloric surplus. The less genetically gifted you are for building muscle, the greater the surplus you need, especially in the form of carbs (as long as protein is sufficient).
- Shoot for 0.9 to 1.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight. This will ensure you have the required amount of protein to build muscle at your own optimal rate. Over-consuming protein by surpassing these guidelines won't speed up muscle growth. When you reach 1.0g/pound, adding carbs is more beneficial.
- Aim to get a quality eight hours of sleep per night. You might get seven once in a while, that's fine, but an average of eight is optimal. Placing more carbs at the end of the day can help you sleep better by reducing cortisol and adrenaline.
- Most of the time, your main goal in training should be to do better than last time. This could mean using more weight on at least some exercises. But it can also mean doing more reps with the same weight, doing the same load and reps with less rest between sets, or performing the exercises better.
- Don't overdo volume. When in doubt, do less but harder. Don't do more.
- Don't do more than four hard workouts per week. This will control excess cortisol and adrenaline production. You'll also be fresh and train harder on workout days.
It's possible but unlikely. Most hardgainers can still hope to build some muscle (less than 1% are true non-responders). But I'm not gonna lie: unless you use steroids, you will not become a fitness model in this lifetime. However, there are still things you can do to maximize your chances of building muscle.
First, you need more recovery time than most people (as you are likely ACTN3 XX). This means you should stick to 2-3 workouts per week:
Monday: Lower body
Wednesday: Upper body
Friday: Whole body
Hardgainers should use a low training volume, 3-4 exercises per workout. Do 1-3 work sets, depending on recovery.
Two training styles will be effective for true hardgainers. Ironically, the two options are polar opposites!
- Heavy Training: Hardgainers can gain strength faster than they can build muscle. As such, heavy work keeps their motivation up but also improves their muscle tone, which is highly dependent on nervous system efficiency and activation.
- Lactate Training: This is training until you have a lot of lactic acid accumulation. This typically requires sets lasting 40-70 seconds. It also makes a technique like blood flow restriction interesting.
Train in the lactate zone Monday and Friday. Go heavy (2-5 reps per set) on Friday using no more than 3-4 exercises per workout.
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- Vgontzas AN et al. Chronic systemic inflammation in overweight and obese adults. JAMA. 2000 May 3;283(17):2235; author reply 2236. PubMed.