Gaining weight and lean muscle mass can be difficult if you’re naturally skinny. You might be hitting the gym but not seeing the results you want on the scale or in the mirror. If you’re one of the many skinny guys and hardgainers trying to go from skinny to muscular without success, this article is for you.
What Is a Hardgainer?
A hardgainer is, simply put, someone who struggles to put on muscle. You work out hard and consistently, but you’re not seeing the results you want or expect from your effort.
The three main reasons for thinking you’re a hardgainer is:
- Genetics. Some people are not blessed with the most extraordinary genetics for building muscle. If you are a hardgainer because of genetics, you will never become an easy gainer, but with dedication and smart work, you can make progress and build a muscular body. However, most self-proclaimed hardgainers have perfectly normal genetics and are hardgainers because of the following two points.
- You train incorrectly. By “incorrectly,” I don’t mean that you perform the exercises the wrong way, but that you follow a training program not designed for your needs. Or you don’t follow any training program: go to the gym, do random stuff, and get random results. The most common training mistake for a hardgainer is doing too much and focusing on details instead of basics. Many hardgainers mistakenly think that more is better and follow a program better suited for an advanced bodybuilder who has already built the mass.
- You don’t eat enough. By far the most common reason for thinking you’re a hardgainer! If you’re not gaining weight (and muscle), chances are you’re not eating enough to support your training. You might think you’re stuffing yourself, but you’re still eating too little if the scale isn’t moving. It’s better to lift weights twice per week and eat enough food than to spend two hours in the gym every day and eat too little if your goal is to pack on muscle weight.
Regardless of why you’re a hardgainer, this guide will help you get back on track and start gaining.
Bodybuilding for Skinny Guys: The Training
Anyone can gain weight by sitting on their behind and shoveling down junk food. You’re not looking to get fat, though. You want to gain quality muscle. The combination of weight training and plenty of healthy, high-calorie foods allows you to increase your body weight and build muscle without excess fat gain.
These are the seven most important things for the hardgainer bodybuilder to consider for the best results when it comes to training.
A stronger muscle is a bigger muscle. While building muscle using lighter weights is possible, getting stronger is the most reliable way to pack on the pounds. Progressive overload is the most important thing for consistent gains. If you increase the loads you’re using, muscle gain will follow. In addition, it’s the best way to track your progress. You’ll be hard-pressed to measure small increases in muscle mass week to week, but when you’re able to squat or press heavier and heavier weights, you know you’re on the right track.
You won’t be able to increase the weights you’re using every week for very long, but you should strive to do so, especially in compound exercises like deadlifts, squats, bench presses, and rows. If you can’t lift heavier, try to do a rep more than your last training session. You’ll want some kind of progress in almost every workout. Once your body weight starts to go up, you’ll automatically get stronger and get into a positive spiral where one thing boosts the other.
Track Your Progress
A workout log is the best way to track your strength gains and progress. You always want to try to beat your old lifts, and no one can keep week after week of sets and reps in their head.
That’s why you need a way to track your workouts and progress.
You can go the old-school route and use pen and paper or take advantage of a workout tracker app like StrengthLog. You’ll always have it handy on your phone, and you can set your personal goals, see stats and graphs of your progress, log your records, and track your workouts and lifts to reach your fitness goals.
StrengthLog is free to download, without ads, and you can give it a try using one of the buttons below:
Focus on Compound Exercises
Compound or multi-joint exercises are movements that work more than one muscle group at a time. A prime example is the squat. Compound exercises should be the backbone of a hardgainers workout plan. Concentrating on compound movements allows you to work more muscle fibers in less time and get more bang for your bodybuilding buck.
Isolation exercises, on the other hand, target a single muscle group and require the movement of only one joint. An example would be the biceps curl. Single-joint and multi-joint exercises are equally effective for promoting muscle growth. Still, when you focus on compound movements, you get more done without spending hours in the gym, which benefits the hardgainer struggling to put on weight. Some isolation work is helpful, but the majority of your training should be in the form of heavy compound exercises.
Get Enough Rest and Recovery
You don’t build muscle in the gym, but in the hours and days following the training session. To maximize muscle growth, you need to give your muscles the chance to recover.
- Avoid overlong training sessions: for someone who has difficulty gaining weight, it makes sense not to burn valuable calories by spending hours in the gym every day. Train hard, train heavy, then go home to rest, eat, and grow.
- Make sure you get plenty of sleep. Not sleeping enough makes your testosterone levels drop by up to 15% in no time, increases inflammation in your body, and reduces muscle protein synthesis (the rate your body builds muscle).
Plan for rest and recovery in addition to your gym sessions, and you’ll avoid overtraining and make it easier to pack on the muscle.
Limit Your Cardio
Cardiovascular exercise, be it brisk walking, biking, running, or any other aerobic training is fantastic for your general health and well-being. However, it also burns plenty of calories, potentially making it even harder to gain weight.
I don’t suggest you ignore cardio completely, but don’t go overboard. Limit your cardio sessions to around 20 minutes, 2–3 times per week. That’s enough to see the health benefits and insulin sensitivity improvements regular cardio offers, but not too much to the point where it impacts your gains.
Don’t Train to Failure Too Often
Muscular failure is when you can’t do another rep with proper form and without “cheating” or assistance.
Many bodybuilders consider training to failure necessary for optimal muscle growth. While there is some truth to that statement for advanced bodybuilders, you’ll want to avoid training to failure too often, as it can lead to overtraining and psychological burnout.1 In general, you don’t need to train to failure to grow.2 3
Research shows that training to failure is beneficial for muscle growth when using light weights, but not heavy.4
Because most of your training should be geared toward compound exercises using a heavy weight, I recommend you terminate most of your sets a rep or two before muscular failure. You’ll stimulate strength gains and muscle hypertrophy without risking burnout.
Get Enough Rest Between Sets
Many lifters and bodybuilders rush between sets with minimal rest, thinking it’s a more effective way to train because it’s more fatiguing. No pain, no gain, right?
If you’re not in a hurry at the gym, I suggest you rest at least 2–3 minutes between sets. For heavy compound exercises like the squat and the deadlift, it’s helpful to rest even longer. You’ll be able to lift heavier and perform more reps, which means better results over time.
Bodybuilding for Hardgainers: A Sample Training Program
As long as you engage in strength training regularly, continuously increase your weights, and give your body the calories and nutrients it needs, you’ll add new muscle and get bigger and stronger.
That being said, a pro bodybuilder training program isn’t the best way to train for naturally skinny guys who don’t gain weight easily. You want a workout routine that provides enough stimulus to promote muscle growth without making you feel burnt out or risking overtraining. It should primarily consist of compound exercises using heavy weights, but with isolation work where needed.
Bodybuilding for Hardgainers is that workout routine. If you’re a hardgainer having a hard time building muscle, give this training program a go. Combine it with the eating strategies presented later in this guide; chances are you can say goodbye to your hardgainer status.
This is not a program for the absolute beginner. You should have at least a few months of training experience first. Besides, if you’re brand new to strength training and bodybuilding, you can’t know if you’re a hardgainer or not. Give it some time. If you’re skinny or not before you start bodybuilding says almost nothing about how fast you build muscle once you pick up the weights.
For beginners, our aptly named Bodybuilding for Beginners workout routine will give you the best possible start to your bodybuilding journey.
The Bodybuilding for Hardgainers workout routine consists of four training sessions per week, like this:
- Day 1: Back
- Day 2: Chest, Abs
- Day 3: Legs
- Day 4: Shoulders, Biceps, Triceps
You can choose training and resting days any way you want to fit your schedule. The optimal way to structure your training week would probably be to train on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, but if you can’t, it won’t make or break your results.
Bodybuilding for Hardgainers primarily consists of compound exercises to hit each body part as many muscle fibers as possible in a time-efficient manner. You’ll perform between five and ten reps in most exercises, and 10-12 sets per muscle group. That’s the optimal training volume for muscle hypertrophy, according to up-to-date scientific research.7 8
You’ll find the exact set and rep range configuration in your StrengthLog app.
Let’s take a closer look at each training session of Bodybuilding for Hardgainers.
Workout 1: Back
Workout 2: Chest and Abs
Workout 3: Legs
Workout 4: Shoulders, Biceps, and Triceps
- Overhead Press
- Upright Row
- Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- Barbell Curl
- Hammer Curl
- Barbell Lying Triceps Extension
- Tricep Pushdown
Once you can complete the target number of reps in every set of an exercise with good form, increase the load you’re using a little. When you can perform the target reps with that weight, increase your training weights a little, and rinse and repeat.
Bodybuilding for Hardgainers is one of many training programs available in the StrengthLog app. It is 100 % free, and you can download it and give it a go by using the buttons below:
Bodybuilding for Skinny Guys: The Diet
Everyone likes to eat. For hardgainers struggling to put on weight, the eating part is at least as important, if not more, than the training.
The most important thing for gaining body weight is eating enough food. Not necessarily eating specific foods that are supposed to promote muscle gain but eating enough food overall.
How much food is enough? You have to be in a caloric surplus to gain weight. In other words, you need to take in more calories than you burn. That’s the only way: the one thing you can’t get around by manipulating macros or following a specific training program. While it is possible to gain muscle without gaining weight, you’ll be severely limited in your efforts unless you add body weight through a caloric surplus.
If you’re not gaining weight even though you want to, you’re not eating enough. You might think you’re eating a lot, but it’s still not enough. To get the scale moving, you need to up your calorie intake. Many hardgainers think they are eating plenty, but when you add the calories up, the result is often far from enough.
How Many Calories Should You Eat?
The number of calories you need to gain weight and build muscle varies from person to person. Some people might need 2,500 calories daily, while others require double that number for the scale to move. How tall you are, how much you fidget and move around without thinking about it, and what you do for a living affect the number of calories you need to bulk up. For example, if you’re in school or sit in front of a computer during the day, you’ll burn fewer calories than a construction worker.
You can use our calorie calculator to estimate how many calories you need for weight maintenance. It’s based on one of the most accurate equations available.9
I don’t advocate strictly counting calories for most people, but if you’re struggling to gain weight, I suggest you track your intake for a few days, maybe a week. You’ll know how many calories you’re really getting and probably be surprised when you see the number.
Once you have the numbers in front of you, it’s time to do something about it. That something is to eat more food.
Take the number of calories from the calculator, then add 350–500 calories to your daily intake.10 That should put you into enough of a surplus to start gaining. Track your body weight for a couple of weeks.
If the scale starts to move, you’re good to go. You’ve found the caloric intake you need to grow, at least for now. As your body weight increases, so does the number of calories your body burns. Sooner or later, you’ll have to add additional calories to keep gaining.
If the scale still won’t move, repeat the process and add up to 500 more calories per day. Even the most accurate equations for calculating your calorie needs are estimates, so you might have to do some trial-and-error.
Tips for Increasing Your Calorie Intake
It might sound easy to increase your calorie intake, but as a hardgainer, it can be a struggle. If it came easy, you wouldn’t be struggling to pack on the pounds, right? You could do it by eating a lot of processed junk, but it’s better for your health and long-term gains if you eat mostly whole, nutritious foods. Healthy foods are often more filling, however, making it difficult to eat enough of them if you want to increase your calorie intake. Here are some tips for easier quality weight gain.
- Drink your calories. Drinking your calories is often the wrong thing to do for someone going for weight loss. However, liquid calories can be a game-changer if you’re struggling to add pounds to the scale. It’s much easier and less filling to drink 500 calories than to eat them from whole foods. Stay away from sugar-sweetened soda that only provides empty calories without nutrients. Instead, opt for milk or milk alternatives like soy and almond milk, natural fruit juice, protein shakes and weight gainers, and calorie-dense smoothies, and you’ll find it less challenging to reach your calorie target.
- Keep a healthy, high-calorie snack at hand. Nuts, seeds, dried fruit, or a protein bar are easy-to-eat snacks that provide plenty of calories and nutrients in a convenient package. Bringing something to snack on when you’re out and about makes it easier not to skip meals and get enough calories.
- Choose high-fat dairy products and meat over non-fat variants. Not only do you get more calories per serving, but the high-fat options often taste better. As for milk products, recent research suggests that full-fat dairy is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, meaning you might be doing your heart a favor, too.
Macros: What to Eat for Building Muscle
Your calories come from three primary sources: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Including all three in your diet in appropriate amounts ensures your body has access to the nutrients it needs to build muscle and the energy to perform in the gym.
- Protein is the building material for your muscles and other tissues. You won’t build muscle to your full potential if you don’t get enough protein.
- Carbohydrates fuel your workouts and provide your muscles with an easy-to-use energy source.
- Fat provides energy for your body but also helps with hormone production and keeping your cells healthy.
The fourth source of calories is alcohol. Alcohol won’t help you build quality muscle, and although you don’t have to avoid alcohol altogether, it shouldn’t be a significant energy source for your bodybuilding efforts.
The protein you eat gives you the building blocks you need to gain muscle: essential amino acids. Protein is the number one nutrient for any bodybuilder, and building muscle becomes a struggle if you don’t get enough of it.
While the average person doesn’t need more than 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (0.36 grams per pound) of body weight per day, you’ll want to eat a lot more to gain muscle effectively.
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 1.4–2.0 g protein/kg (0.65– 0.91 grams per pound) body weight/day is sufficient for building muscle mass for most.11 Another recent review found that 1.6–2.2 grams per kg (0.7–1 gram per pound) per day maximizes muscle growth.12
I suggest you aim for at least 1.6 grams of protein per kg (0.7 grams per pound) per day to ensure you feed your muscles with the building materials they need. You can use our nifty protein calculator to find out how much protein you need depending on your body weight and goals.
Instead of loading up on one or two hefty meals, distribute your protein intake relatively evenly over the day. Eating 30–40 grams of protein every 3–4 hours is a good rule of thumb.13 14 That way, you’ll continuously provide your muscles with what they need to grow without feeling stuffed from any single meal.
If you struggle to get enough protein from regular foods, consider using a quality protein powder to boost your intake. Whey protein, casein protein, beef protein, soy protein, or pea protein are some examples of protein supplement powders that give you high-quality protein in the form of an easy-to-drink shake. You don’t gain any more or less muscle from protein shakes than from the same amount of protein from solid foods, but they are very convenient.
Don’t Overeat Protein
That advice might sound counterintuitive, protein being essential for building muscle. It makes sense, though. Once you cover your protein needs, adding even more does not accelerate your muscle gains. It simply becomes an expensive energy source and makes you feel full, making it more challenging to eat enough food.
On a weight-loss diet, a very high-protein diet, up to 2.7 grams per kg of body weight (1.2 grams per pound of body weight) per day, is ideal to avoid muscle loss and minimize hunger. However, muscle loss is not an issue when you’re eating more calories than you burn. In addition, a caloric surplus reduces the amount of protein you need to build muscle, meaning you don’t have to go overboard with your protein intake.
Get enough protein, but then focus on carbs and fats, and you’ll find it easier to reach your calorie target.
Examples of Protein Sources for Muscle Gain
- Milk and dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, quark, casein- and whey protein powder)
- Red meat (beef, pork, lamb, game, ostrich)
- White meat (chicken, turkey)
- Fish and seafood
- Soy-based foods (tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy protein powder)
- Beans, lentils
- Nuts, almonds, seeds
You may opt for fattier cuts of meat, for example, rather than always going for the lean protein choices. The protein quality is the same, but the caloric content is higher.
Each gram of protein provides you with four calories. In other words, if your planned protein intake calls for 150 grams per day, you’ll get 600 calories from protein. Let’s say you’re aiming for 3,000 calories per day. Those 600 protein calories would leave you 2,400 calories to spend on fat and carbs.
Fat is essential for your body and health. It provides a lot of energy, helps you absorb vitamins, and allows your body to produce several important hormones, including testosterone.
As a hardgainer struggling to gain weight and muscle, there are several reasons why you should include plenty of fat in your diet plan.
Fat provides plenty of calories. Compared to protein and carbs, which contain four calories per gram, a gram of fat has a whopping nine calories. Including generous amounts of fat in your diet makes it much easier to eat enough calories. If your calorie requirements are high, it’ll likely be almost impossible to reach them regularly if you focus on protein and carbs.
A low-fat diet may compromise your anabolic hormones. As a bodybuilder, you should get at least 20% of your calories from fat to keep your testosterone production at optimal levels.15 16 The American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine all agree that getting between 20–35% of your daily calories from fat is good for performance and health.17
Last but not least, fat makes food tasty. You’re more likely to eat enough food to gain weight if it tastes good. Try eating 3,000 calories from boiled potatoes, broccoli, and cod. It’s not fun.
I suggest you aim for the higher end of that 20 – 35% when you plan your fat intake. If your goal is 3,000 calories, that would mean around 1,000 calories from fat. Because each gram of fat provides nine calories, you’d be eating at least 100 grams of fat. That might sound like a lot, but it’s a great way to make eating enough food much easier (and tastier).
- Foods like olive oil, fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and avocados provide plenty of unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats are often referred to as healthy fats.
- Saturated fats are found in, for example, meat, eggs, butter, and full-fat dairy products. Bodybuilders have consistently used these foods to gain weight and build muscle.
Dietary guidelines recommend limiting your intake of saturated fats to less than 10% of your daily calories. Eating a lot of saturated fats could raise harmful cholesterol levels, increasing the risk of heart disease. However, some research suggests the fear of saturated fats is overblown and should be reconsidered.18 As long as your diet is reasonably varied and balanced, you probably don’t have to worry about it.
Carbohydrates provide your body and muscles with energy for bodily functions and physical activity, including strength training. Your body doesn’t use carbohydrates to build muscle. Instead, they fuel your muscle-building efforts. You store the carbs you eat as glycogen in your muscles and liver and use them as a source of energy in the gym.
While carbohydrates are the best fuel for high-intensity work like lifting weights, your body can adapt to a diet low in carbs and perform just as well after a while. In general, low-carb and high-carb diets seem equally effective for bodybuilding purposes.19 However, I suggest you include a relatively high amount of carbohydrates in your diet plan. Low-carb diets are excellent for losing body weight and getting lean, but for most people, cutting carbs makes it challenging to eat many calories, especially as a hardgainer.
Examples of the Best Foods for Quality Carbs
- Rice, both white and brown rice
- Potatoes, both regular and sweet potatoes
Make complex carbs like grains and rice the foundation of your carbohydrate intake, but don’t be afraid to include simple sugars from fruits. A bowl of ice cream or some other source of refined sugar now and then won’t hurt either.
How many carbs should you eat per day? Easy! The calories you have left after calculating your protein and fat intake should come from carbohydrates. Looking at the earlier examples, 600 calories from protein and around 1,000 calories from fat equals 1,600 calories. Assuming you’re aiming for 3,000 calories, you have 1,400 left to spend on carbs. Each gram of carbohydrates provides four calories, meaning your diet plan calls for 350 grams of carbs.
Supplements for Hardgainers
What you eat makes or breaks your plan to pack on the muscle, and supplements can’t replace nutritious, healthy food.
That being said, your supplement strategy may benefit your efforts in several ways and be a part of a balanced diet. Using mass gainers and protein supplements is probably the easiest way to boost your calorie and protein intake. Other supplements can boost your performance in the gym and ensure you get enough nutrients to build muscle.
These are the best supplements for hardgainers. None are essential, but they can help you pack on quality body weight or perform better in the gym.
Backed by hundreds of studies, creatine is the number one supplement for anyone looking to add muscle size and strength.20 21 You can expect to gain a pound or more of fat-free mass in just a couple of weeks after you start taking creatine.
You can’t get enough creatine for bodybuilding purposes through your diet. You need a supplement if you’re looking for the performance benefits, strength gains, and potential muscle mass creatine offers.
There are many novel forms of creatine on the market, but don’t fall for the hype. The original type, creatine monohydrate, is not only the most inexpensive but also still the best.
Protein supplements are a convenient way to boost your protein intake. A protein shake does not build more muscle than regular food, but sometimes it’s more practical to drink your protein. For example, as a post-workout meal to aid recovery or when you’re on the go.
Whey protein, made from regular milk, is the most common protein supplement and a versatile all-around option for most people. Casein is another milk protein popular as a pre-bed protein source due to its slow absorption. If you can’t use dairy products or prefer a plant-based alternative, soy and pea protein isolate are two high-quality vegan-friendly alternatives.
Weight Gainer Shakes
A weight gainer is a protein shake with added carbs. Adding a weight gainer shake or two per day makes it easy to gain weight even if you’re not a big eater or a hardgainer.
You can use a weight gainer mixed with water or milk before a training session for energy, after your workout to aid recovery, or between meals to boost calories and help you bulk up. Weight gainer shakes should never replace regular meals but help you add calories if you struggle to eat enough.
Instead of buying pre-made weight gainers, you can also make your own as you like it. For example, add a scoop of whey protein, some peanut butter, a banana, some rolled oats, your favorite berries, a tablespoon of cocoa powder, and maybe a scoop of ice cream to whole milk (regular, soy, or almond). Mix it all to get a delicious shake filled with calories and nutrients.
Caffeine doesn’t help you gain weight, but it boosts your gym performance. Three to six mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight an hour before working out is a safe and effective dose.
The source if caffeine doesn’t matter as long as you get enough. Regular coffee, caffeine pills, energy drinks, or even caffeinated chewing gum will do the job.
Your body might get used to the caffeine if you take it before every workout, though. Maybe save it for when you’re feeling sluggish and need an energy boost.
Want to learn more about dietary supplements? Which ones are worth your money, and which are questionable or useless? Check our StrengthLog’s Supplement Guide, our free guide where I review 26 of the most popular supplements.
Being skinny and not being able to put on weight can be tough. However, for most skinny guys, being a hardgainer simply results from not eating enough to support your training. Following the tips and guidelines in this article will kickstart your gains and leave your hardgainer status behind.
You might be in for a challenge to build an impressive, muscular physique if you’re naturally skinny. However, challenges are meant to be overcome. Armed with the knowledge of how to train and eat for bulking up the right way, with dedication and hard work, you’ll be on your road to reaching your bodybuilding goals in no time.
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- Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2019 – Volume 41 – Issue 5 – p 108-113. Does Training to Failure Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy?
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- International Journal of Strength and Conditioning, 1(1), 2021-08-16. Resistance Training Recommendations to Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy in an Athletic Population: Position Stand of the IUSCA.
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- Front Nutr. 2019; 6: 131. Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training?
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, Volume 14, Article number: 20 (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise.
- Br J Sports Med. 2018 Mar;52(6):376-384. A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults.
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, Volume 15, Article number: 10 (2018). How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution.
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, Volume 14, Article number: 33 (2017), International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing.
- Strength and Conditioning Journal: August 2010 – Volume 32 – Issue 4 – p 80-86. Strength Nutrition: Maximizing Your Anabolic Potential.
- Sports 2019, 7(7), 154. Nutrition Recommendations for Bodybuilders in the Off-Season: A Narrative Review.
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- Nutrition Reviews, Volume 78, Issue 6, June 2020, Pages 474–485. Dietary saturated fat and heart disease: a narrative review.
- Br J Nutr. 2016 Dec;116(12):2053-2065. Carbohydrate intake and resistance-based exercise: are current recommendations reflective of actual need?
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, Volume 14, Article number: 18 (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine.
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, Volume 18, Article number: 13 (2021). Common questions and misconceptions about creatine supplementation: what does the scientific evidence really show?