The word “hardgainer” has been thrown around by fitness “experts” all over the internet for as long as I can remember.
Heck…I was one of those “experts”.
The idea has always been that if you’re a naturally skinny guy who doesn’t seem to gain weight very quickly, you’re a hardgainer.
This has led to countless excuses from naturally skinny guys about why they can’t put on muscle mass.
On the other end of the spectrum you have the, what I call, “internet fitness know-it-alls”. These are the guys who think that if you ate as much as them and trained as hard as they did, you could achieve the same results.
The internet fitness know-it-alls can typically be found on bodybuilding forums saying things like “Hardgainers don’t exist. It’s just an excuse for not putting in work!”
Truth is…they’re both wrong…and right…at the same time.
Here’s the deal.
Hardgainers do in fact exist.
However, just because you’re a naturally skinny guy does not automatically make you a hardgainer. But being a true hardgainer doesn’t give you an excuse for not getting results.
So I actually want to answer two questions in this article.
- What makes someone a true hardgainer?
- Can hardgainers gain muscle just as fast as anyone else?
So let’s jump right in!
What is a true hardgainer?
There are 3 things that make someone a hardgainer.
1. Bone Density
A pound of bone can support up to 5 pounds of muscle. Guys with bigger bones can expect to put on much more muscle mass than someone with a very low bone density (You can add bone mass with a good strength program.)
The big-boned boys can also (because they can carry more muscle) expect to get stronger, faster. The ability to gain strength quicker also aids in adding muscle mass. Being big-boned is basically a recipe for gains.
Now although guys with lower bone density tend to be those “skinny guys” we mentioned before, being skinny doesn’t automatically mean you have smaller bones. So here’s one reason we should never assume we’re hardgainers just because we have been skinny our whole lives. In fact, most skinny guys have average bone-density and have been skinny their entire lives because of their energy expenditure: energy consumption ratio.
Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis – Calories burned through conscious or unconscious movement (i.e. moving in our sleep, brushing our teeth, etc.)
So if you’re truly eating thousands of calories per day and are resilient toward weight gain, you are what Lou Schuler calls a “NEAT freak” in his book “The Lean Muscle Diet”.
Simply put, a true hardgainer will burn much more calories throughout the day from non-exercise activity than the average person.
However, before you jump to conclusions and assume you are a “NEAT freak”, you first must track your intake diligently and ensure you truly are getting in as many calories as you think. In most cases, guys think they’re eating a ton of calories until they actually track their macros. Then they realize they’re not eating nearly enough to stay in a consistent surplus and viola! Gains are being made.
If you want to find out how much you should be eating to gain muscle mass, read this article I wrote: How to Calculate Macros for Mass Building
Partitioning Ratio: “Essentially, it represents the amount of protein that is either gained (or lost) during over (or under) feeding. So a low P-ratio when dieting would mean you used very little protein and a lot of fat. A high P-ratio would mean that you used a lot of protein and very little fat. “–Lyle McDonald
When we talk about overfeeding (bulking up), some individuals will put more nutrients toward muscle than fat. These individuals may also pull more calories out of fat cells and less out of muscle when underfeeding (cutting). A person with these characteristics would be able to build muscle fairly easily while staying lean. But this is a rare case and only happens in those with great genetics.
Although there are a few different things that determine whether you have a high or low partitioning ratio, genetics seems to play the biggest role.
Now before you go feeling sorry for yourself, understand that most people do not have great genetics. Otherwise great genetics wouldn’t be great, they would be average.
Now, just like there are people with better p-ratios than others (they are very rare), there are also those with worse p-ratios (which are also very rare).
Either way, this isn’t something to lose sleep over.
Are hardgainers doomed?
I know what you’re thinking.
“Damn, if I have low bone density, am a “NEAT freak”, and a high p-ratio then I will never build muscle mass!”
Sorry (kind of), but this is actually a bad excuse for not putting in work and/or getting results.
You see, although a true hardgainer may seem doomed, they actually can still put on muscle mass as fast as the average person.
They may just have to go about it slightly different than most.
I’ll cover each “hurdle” one-by-one.
1. Increasing bone density: First, low bone density does not mean you can’t build muscle at a normal rate. It simply means your frame can’t hold as much muscle as someone with a higher bone density. This is why some guys get stuck at a certain size and others can continue to get bigger. Lucky for you, bone density is something that can be increased by following a proper strength program. One that focuses on heavy compounds and strength progression.
2. Increasing your calories: Burning more calories via non-exercises activity thermogenesis only means one thing. Your caloric maintenance is higher than you though and thus you’ll have to eat more than most people to be in a surplus. It’s a gift and a curse. For me, is a huge advantage when dieting down because it allows me to get absolutely shredded without ever starving myself.
3. Prime your body for gains: As I stated in my Should I Bulk or Cut article “At a bodyfat percentage of 10-12ish, we are likely to be more primed for lean mass gains. This is due to, again, the p-ratio. When we are leaner, our body becomes more efficient at adding lean mass and less efficient at storing fat. So if you are at a low body-fat, then entering a phase of overeating (bulking) would be ideal for building lean body mass.”
With this in mind, yes, a hardgainer can expect to gain muscle at the same rate as anyone else. They may be slightly more limited to the total amount of muscle they can build, but the stronger they get, the denser the bones become, the more muscle they can continue to put on.
Look at your ability to eat a ton of calories without becoming obese as a blessing. Fitting delicious carbohydrates into our diet without getting fat should only be looked at as a good thing.
Are you a hardgainer?
Fact is, other than measuring caloric intake, it’s not easy to find out whether or not you are a true hardgainer. But whether you are or aren’t, the difference in your training and nutrition approach is virtually none. Everyone (hardgainer or genetic freak) can benefit from a solid strength training program and priming your body to be most efficient at building lean mass is something everyone should do, skinny or not.
Only difference is you get to eat a good deal more than the average!
So the question “am I a hardgainer?” becomes “does it even matter?”