Low Responding Lifters
The term "hardgainer" was popularized in the early 90s by Stuart McRobert. It describes someone who's actively trying to build muscle but has a hard time adding even a small amount, despite working hard and eating enough.
It plagues a lot of lifters, up to 10-15%. I call them "low responders." Their body simply doesn't respond much to training. Adding muscle is an extremely slow process.
Note: A lot of people deem themselves hardgainers, but many simply don't train hard enough. But if you're a true hardgainer it can be extremely frustrating to see people training half as hard as you, yet progressing exponentially faster.
So let's get into it. Here are the recent findings in the realm of genetics that could help explain why some people are hardgainers. And if you think you're one of them, you'll see what can be done with training and supplementation to help you see progress at an acceptable rate.
We often laugh at those who claim to be in bad shape because of their genetics. And on the flipside, we'll sneer at those who look at a jacked dude and claim that he's like that "because of genetics." While genetics aren't the sole reason people get jacked, they do play a significant role – more so than many believe.
Most of the people who downplay the role of genetics are those who DO have great muscle-building genetics. They'd rather think it's their hard work that got them there, and that likely is part of the reason. But the fact is, if you're born with the right genes it'll make the process much easier. And if you aren't, you might have a rocky road ahead.
The ACTN3 gene is in large part responsible for the type of muscle tissue that you have. Not only the muscle fiber dominance, but also the various qualities of the tissue itself – how well it handles muscle damage, how much mTOR is activated, its capacity to use oxygen for fuel, etc.
You have two main types of ACTN3. The X variant is better suited for endurance activities while the R variant is better suited for speed and power. Some people are all of one type (RR or XX) and some people have one of each (Rx, RX or rX).
Let's look at the characteristics of both variants:
- Greater mTOR activation from resistance training, which means more protein synthesis, more muscle growth
- Higher fast-twitch fiber ratio
- Lesser muscle damage from hard training, which means it's easier to recover from strength training
- Reduced risk of injury
- Possibly less extensibility, which can come with a greater, more powerful stretch reflex
Someone with an ACTN3 RR type would be the hyper responders to training. They have a monster mTOR activation from training. They would also have more fast twitch fibers which not only make them stronger, faster, and more explosive, but also give them more potential for growth. They can also grow easily from heavy weights because they repair damage easily.
- Lower mTOR activation from resistance training, which means lower protein synthesis, less muscle growth
- Lower fast-twitch fiber ratio
- Higher capacity to use oxygen to produce energy
- More muscle damage from hard training, which means recovery takes longer and is harder
- Increased risk of injuries
- Possibly more extensibility, but less powerful stretch reflex
(This is from: Pickering C, Kiely J. ACTN3: More than Just a Gene for Speed. Frontiers in Physiology. 2017;8:1080. doi:10.3389/fphys.2017.01080.)
Someone who is ACTN3 XX would be your typical hardgainer. Very low response to training for muscle size due to both a low mTOR activation and slow muscle damage repair. They would also have fewer fast twitch fibers, which means their strength, power, and muscle growth potential is lower.
Remember, mTOR is what regulates protein synthesis. The more you turn it on, the higher protein synthesis is and the more muscle you can build.
If you're a mixed type (Rx, RX or rX), which is around 50-70% of the population, you'd have a response that's somewhere in between these two extremes.
Another element that can come into play is myostatin. Myostatin is a protein in your body that limits how much muscle you can build. The more myostatin you have, the less muscle your body will allow you to build.
There's a very good chance that hardgainers also have more myostatin. And there are actually a few steps you can take that I'll cover in the training and nutrition section. But for now understand two things:
- Myostatin is inactivated by a binding protein called follistatin. When follistatin binds to myostatin, it blocks it.
- Cortisol, especially when chronically elevated, increases myostatin. Most hardgainers are people who tend to be anxious over-thinkers that produce more cortisol, which exacerbates their myostatin issue.
Cortisol has other negative impacts on muscle growth. By increasing protein breakdown, it directly influences muscle building. Muscle building is the difference between protein synthesis and protein breakdown. The higher protein breakdown is, the harder it is to grow muscle.
Chronically elevated cortisol levels can also indirectly inhibit muscle growth by leading to a decrease in testosterone.
To recap, your typical hardgainer is likely characterized by...
- An ACTN3 XX genotype
- A higher level of myostatin
- A greater production of cortisol
Specifically this means that a hardgainer will have a lower ratio of fast twitch fibers and have a much harder time recovering from muscle damage created by mechanical stress.
These two factors mean that the hardgainer will not grow well (or at all) using methodologies that create a lot of muscle damage (fairly heavy weights). It'll also mean they'll have a low level of mTOR activation in response to training, and can't tolerate a large amount of volume due to their tendency to overproduce cortisol.
If you're a hardgainer, I'll be honest with you: you'll never be an easy gainer. It will always be more of a challenge to build a lot of muscle. But there are some strategies that can help you get decent muscle gains from your hard efforts.
Train for lactic acid accumulation. A hardgainer won't progress well from heavier work. Focusing on lifting weights in the 80%-plus zone and with a progressive overload is likely not the best way for you to build size.
Heavier weights create more muscle damage, especially when using lifts where the target muscle reaches a stretched position. And a true hardgainer simply sucks at repairing muscle damage. Protein synthesis is elevated for 24-36 hours after a session (even less in advanced individuals) so if you haven't repaired the damage by then, it'll be hard to build a lot of muscle.
So how does lactic acid (the burn, bro) stimulate muscle growth?
- It increases the level of follistatin, which inhibits myostatin (sounds familiar?)
- It increases the level of stem cells. Stem cells are used to repair damaged muscle fibers.
- Lactic acid accumulation could also increase local growth factors, which are very anabolic.
How do you maximize lactic acid production?
- Do sets lasting 40-70 seconds under load.
- Keep the tension constant during those 40-70 seconds.
Ironically, one of the most popular hardgainer plans, "Brawn" by Stuart McRobert, revolved around the famous breathing squat, which consists of doing a set of 20 reps with a weight you'd normally do for 12 reps, taking 2-3 breaths between reps. I can attest that it produces a boatload of lactic acid!
A hardgainer should also stay away from high volume workouts. The Best Damn Workout Plan for Natural Lifters is a good example of low volume. Most sets only last 40-70 seconds. The one thing I'd do differently for hardgainers is getting rid of the heavy method (rest/pause and clusters).
Use a very low volume (number of sets), per session, do sets lasting 40-70 seconds, and hit every muscle with a high frequency (3 times a week).
Hardgainers should focus on two things when it comes to supplementation. They should increase mTOR as much as possible (to make up for their naturally low activation). And they should try to decrease cortisol production.
First, to amplify the mTOR response to training, you have four strategies available:
- Use Phosphatidic Acid (Micro-PA®) since it's been shown to significantly increase the mTOR response to training.
- Use carbohydrates pre and intra workout. Plazma™ is the best choice here. On top of lowering cortisol production, carbs/insulin will increase mTOR response.
- Use leucine pre-workout. You want a high level of leucine pre/intra workout. Leucine is the main mTOR amplifier among amino acids. You could use straight leucine (5g) but I personally prefer going with a complete protein source that's rich in leucine – after all, what good is starting protein synthesis via mTOR if you don't provide the body with the full spectrum of amino acids to build muscle?
- Milk proteins (whey, casein) have higher levels of leucine, and casein is superior to whey. But regular casein is slowly absorbed and won't work well during workouts. Casein hydrolysate on the other hand is the complete protein with the fastest absorption. That's why I participated to the development of MAG-10® – there was no quality casein hydrolysate supplement back then.
- Use glycine post-workout. Glycine is the second most powerful mTOR activator among amino acids. However, you can't use it pre-workout because it is a neurological inhibitor (it calms the brain down). It's perfect post-workout. First, it further activates mTOR, but it also decrease cortisol by calming the brain down after your workout. About 5g will do.
To lower cortisol go with these three strategies:
- Again, use carbohydrates pre and intra workout. This has been shown to significantly decrease cortisol levels. And it's easy to understand – when you're training, the role of cortisol is to mobilize energy. If you're consuming carbs, you don't need to mobilize as much energy, so there's less need to produce cortisol during your session.
- Take 600-800mg of phosphatidylserine pre-workout. PPS is a cortisol regulator. It decreases cortisol if it's too high but not if it's not high enough. So it won't interfere with workout performance but will prevent excessive cortisol production.
- Use 5g of glycine at the conclusion of the session.
- Avoid doing cardio or even conditioning on the same days you lift. Some people can pull it off, hardgainers can't. At least not when the goal is gaining muscle mass. Cardio/energy systems work tends to increase AMPK, which can inhibit mTOR activation. If you're a hardgainer, you already have low mTOR activation, so the last thing you want to do is to decrease it even more.
- Consume a larger caloric surplus than most people. I'm normally against "bulking" since you can't really force muscle growth. But being in a fairly large caloric surplus is connected with a higher mTOR activation. A hardgainer should start at 20-22 calories per pound of body weight. And they should not be carb-phobic since insulin is a potent mTOR activator.
- Consume 5g of leucine or, even better, a serving of MAG-10®, about 10-15 minutes prior to your main meals. This will increase the mTOR response to feeding.
Being a hardgainer is not a mindset or an excuse; it's a real thing for 10-15% of the population. While you can't (yet) change your genetics, you can still use a these strategies to greatly improve your response to training.