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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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March 10, 2008

Dear Mark: Hardgainer

By Mark Sisson
49 Comments

Dear Mark,

I am 6 feet 2 inches tall. I have been eating and exercising in the “evolutionary” or “primal fitness” way for about 18 months, and I was in good physical condition prior to that. I have been lifting weights for years. I am fit and active with a low percentage body fat. My stomach is flat. You can tell that I have abdominal muscles. But here is my hang up: I can’t seem to pack on any extra muscle. I weigh in at 150 pounds. I am the ultimate hardgainer, as they say in the iron game. I’m not looking to become huge. I have a lanky, Jimmy Stewart kind of frame, and no amount of training will turn me into Arnold. But what the heck does a guy have to do to gain a lousy 5-10 pounds of muscle? — Ed

First off, keep doing what you are doing. You’re building the most important base, namely that of health and strength. Eating and training like you are, your body is able to find and develop its perfect, natural design. Ultimately, if you have low body fat, good strong muscles and lots of energy, the most important ratio is power-to-weight.

Your goal of adding a few more pounds of muscle seems doable with intensive effort. Most hardgainers can add 10-20 pounds of muscle with some work. Beyond that it gets increasingly difficult to gain and/or maintain.

Since I don’t know the specifics of your diet and lifting routine, I’ll offer some general pointers here. In terms of diet, extra protein is critical. I’d recommend at least 1 gram of protein per pound of lean mass per day. If you’re older than 50, check out the Mature Muscle post from last month. In it, we mentioned research suggesting that a high protein post-workout snack was especially important for the more seasoned crowd and that high protein food might be a more effective source for the snack than a protein supplement.

I would also suggest including more healthy fats in your diet. We mentioned in the same post that fish oil, which I always recommend for various reasons, can enhance the conversion process of food protein to muscle protein. That suggestion holds for anyone.

In terms of your workout, you can always see a good trainer to ensure you’ve perfected your form. Otherwise, I don’t see any way around the necessity of lifting harder to get the results you want. I’d specifically recommend CrossFit” style work for you. That means compound movements using larger muscles, which generates human growth hormone immediately post-workout. Again, a trainer who is experienced in CrossFit can offer tips and help you take things to the next level.

On that same note of human growth hormone, it’s essential to get enough sleep. HGH is secreted during sleep, and building takes place during good old shut eye as well.

Good luck, Ed, and let me know how it goes.

Telstar Logistics Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

How much protein should I be consuming?

More of My Personalized Advice

Eating Fabulous: Fish and fish oil supplements equally effective sources of omega-3s

The IF Life: Building Muscle 101

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49 Comments on "Dear Mark: Hardgainer"

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Tony
Tony
8 years 6 months ago

Great suggestions, Mark.

I would add using heavier weights and fewer reps when weightlifting. Most people know this at this point, but building bulk can really only be effectively done with heavier weights. A lot of reps (10+) per set with light weight may keep you toned, but it ain’t gonna gain you 10-20 lbs of lean muscle mass.

I suppose CrossFit has this built into it though.

Mike OD - IF Life
8 years 6 months ago
Funny timing…as I just did a post specifically on gaining muscle and then come here and see it as well. Great minds think alike! I say #1, stop using the hardgainer excuse, as that is all it will ever be. (Not trying to be mean, just saying dump that mentality first). Then work on the basics of eating protein, eating more fats (for T-levels), working out (only 2-3x a week is needed),lifting heavy with high volume/short rests (develop Type II fibers) and get plenty of recovery. Do the big things right and everything else falls around it. You can see… Read more »
Scott Hanson
Scott Hanson
8 years 6 months ago

CrossFit will build strength, but not as effectively as a pure strength routine. Check out Mark Rippetoe’s book Starting Strength (SS). Some SS type workouts are incorporated into CrossFit’s WOD’s, but generally only 1 or 2 times a week. The bulk of the CrossFit workouts are more focussed on metabolic conditioning.

Mike OD - IF Life
8 years 6 months ago

There are many different ways to workout, but I like personally a mix of strength and higher reps (upto 10) such as 5×5 or 3×10. The best is a mix of them, strength one week…volume the next…or mix by body part per workout, loads of different variations. I second getting the SS book. If you are not doing either Squat or Deadlift (my vote for #1 full body exercise) to start your workout….then you are not going to get the most bang for your buck on the workouts in far of hormonal response.

eleighj
eleighj
8 years 6 months ago

Mark:

I am 55; just completed a series of sessions with a Crossfit Trainer who is certified in Olympic lifts. We worked specfically on the squat and deadlift. I now understand how my body should feel before, during and completion of each lift. Now it is up to me to work on the lifts to improve. He and I will get together in about 2 months to review form and progress. I totally endorse your comments above. FYI; I am 6’0″ and 155 lbs with 10% body fat.

John Kim
John Kim
8 years 6 months ago

CrossFit doesn’t get you big. It may get you ripped if you eat well but it won’t get you big. Heavy lifts get you big; don’t go above 5 reps. Squats, deadlifts, presses, pull and chin ups, bench, rows, etc. should by the core of your routine.

Petr R.
Petr R.
8 years 6 months ago
To Ed: buy a Starting Strength book by Couch Rippetoe (already mentioned). Learn those movements, exercises and principles well. Do them in 5×5 fashion, just bench, press, squat, clean, deadlift with some spice between (pullups, pushups, rowing etc.) if you could tolerate that. Slowly, slowly increase weight, every training pound or two. Drink gallon of full-fat milk daily. Report in two months or three months. I did exactly that 6 months ago (just gallon of milk was too much I was able to drink only 2 l daily ). I increased my lifts a lot – from 15 kg in… Read more »
Andrew
Andrew
5 years 2 months ago

It’s by Coach Mark Rippetoe

I was looking for a book by a guy named “Couch.” 😛

lifter
lifter
3 years 8 months ago

Petr,

Hate to break it to you, but with your starting weights, you are a beginner..

Mark Sisson
8 years 6 months ago
Great comments everyone. I want to emphasize that my biggest focus is on “usable strength” or strength that applies to life. That means a strong core, good flexibility along with the strength, explosive power, quick reaction time, balance, endurance, strong immune system, good bone density, etc. etc. The suggestion of CrossFit as a paradigm (although a lot of other programs will fit) is because it embodies a great deal of these. On the other hand, getting as big as you can for the sake of getting big is more in the realm of body-building. Nothing wrong with that either –… Read more »
LabRat
8 years 6 months ago

CF won’t get you big? My husband wasn’t small when he started and has since outgrown half the shirts and jackets he owns due to stresses on the shoulders and arms, and it hasn’t been a year yet. He’s not bodybuilder-huge, but it’s certainly put on that extra 10-20 pounds of muscle if not moreso. (Hard to tell since the fat’s also come off.)

Maybe he’s just a genetic freak…

Petr R.
Petr R.
8 years 6 months ago

Mark, couldn’t agree more, but hey Ed asked for it :o)
I also like CrossFit for it’s diversity, playfulness, intensity and results etc. But once in a year I only lift weights ala Rip’s Starting Strength training.

Caloi Rider
8 years 6 months ago
I’m a “hardgainer” too. Being a hardgainer means you probably have more type I muscle fiber (slow-twitch) than type II (fast-twitch). This changes the weightlifting dynamic a little bit. Having more type I muscle fiber means your body will respond more quickly to slightly higher rep strength exercises. Also, you’ll find you have faster progress if you focus on one group at a time. Work your whole body out, but hit your focus muscle group first (when you’re still fresh and able to really dish it out). Work out one day, rest the next—don’t get into a habit of lifting… Read more »
Ed
Ed
8 years 6 months ago

Thanks so much, Mark, for your thoughtful post answering my question, and thanks to the many others who joined the thread with valuable comments and suggestions. You’ve given me several insights on how to alter my approach and improve my results. I really appreciate the advice and encouragement.

Dave C.
8 years 6 months ago

<i<make sure you hit TOTAL MUSCLE EXHAUSTION

I just want to make sure I’m getting this right. This is advice geared towards who want to add weight in the form of muscle, correct? I ask because I’ve read of lifting regimens in more than one case where they advise against training to failure (assuming that means the same as exhaustion–if not, please explain the difference). I’m training for functional strength that will hopefully last a lifetime. I’ll be quite happy with the “wiry but strong” look.

Dave
DaveGetsFit

tatsujin
8 years 6 months ago
It’s been said by others, but I want to stress again that a lot of people are confused with what results they really want. I can pretty much guarantee that if you want people to notice you have been hitting the weights; the formula is simple. Work chest and tri’s Monday till exhaustion, Legs and stomach to exhaustion on Tuesday, Back and bi’s till exhaustion on Wednesday. Rest Thursday and Friday hit everythng till exhaustion. Do this for 4-6 months religiously and you will have what you wanted. You will also have a very tired existence, full of colds, free-radicals… Read more »
Caloi Rider
8 years 6 months ago
Dave, I don’t have tons of research to back up what I’ve written. All I have is my personal experience and observations—admittedly anecdotal evidence. Take it or leave it. Maybe you can get away with not going to muscle exhaustion, but going to exhaustion (often at much higher reps) seems to work for me. When I was younger I used to do as many push-ups as possible right before I went to bed. I got rapidly stronger and noticeably more muscular over a period of only six months (that winter I wrestled in the 110-pound weight class, so you can… Read more »
Mark Sisson
8 years 6 months ago
Dave, Training to failure simply means you can’t do another repetition with that weight while maintaining good form. Failure could be the 75th push-up or the third squat at 275. Whichever regimen you choose, your goal is to convince your muscles that they are not yet strong enough to complete the task. Given rest and nutrition, your genes will express themselves by increasing strength, and/or size and/or endurance depending on the different weight/rep/set variables. If you want more sinewy tone, I’d say go with the lower weights, higher reps for now…plus you won’t get injured. But you still fight to… Read more »
Moiz Rauf
Moiz Rauf
8 years 6 months ago
Forget training to fatigue or failure or whatever else. The reason you can’t gain any reasonable muscle mass lies in your diet. In order to BUILD MUSCLE, you HAVE TO (and I mean this is an absolute must!) consume more calories than you expell. Yes, this means you have to go on a weight gain diet! Simply enough, muscles CANNOT GROW without a calorie surplus! Muscular hypertrophy occurs only when a calorie surplus is presented to the bodybuilder. You see, when you weight train, small micro-tears are produced throughout the muscle, and alongside an adequate diet, these tears are somewhat… Read more »
Moiz Rauf
Moiz Rauf
8 years 6 months ago

I apologize for the unorganized structure and messy typing. You still get the point, right?

A few other pointers before you start…

-Take a good look at your diet, and fix it.
-Workout within the 8-12 rep range without going overboard on the sets.
-Gradually increase the amount of weight lifted or resistance week after week.
-Allow two days for recovery before working the same muscle grouping again.
-Do not workout more than five days a week, three being preferred.

I know all this seems like alot, but I didn’t come here to give you the easy way out…

Jason
8 years 3 months ago

Wow! Great read. Thanks for the info. I actually recently started my own Bodybuilding blog specifically for HardGainers. Hopefully you can check it out at http://www.hardgainersguide.com!

Hard Gainer
7 years 8 months ago

Interesting answer. I had never heard of CrossFit unitl now.

Fixed Gear
7 years 4 months ago
It has NOTHING to do with your form, or “lifting harder” in the gym. Ahhhhhh I CRINGED when I read that. No offense Mark, I agree with MOST of your advice, but telling a hard-gainer to “lift harder” is just piss-poor. What do you think he’s doing??? Going in the gym and consciously deciding to only give it 85%?? I bet good money he’s giving it 100% week after week after week and is simply unable to gain despite his best effort. I suspect that because that was me. 5’11” 155 pounds my entire adult life despite 10+ YEARS of… Read more »
Mark Sisson
7 years 4 months ago
Fixed. Thank you for your passionate response. I appreciate the time you took to elaborate on how you did all this. And for me, it once again opens up the discussion as to exactly WHY we undertake gargantuan efforts to pack on a bit more muscle. I’m not disagreeing one bit that you can add mass by eating tons of food (and lifting weights AND cutting back on cardio). But I have said here many times (and will have to start adding more to this philosophy) that for a PBer, it’s going to be largely about functional strength and long… Read more »
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[…] The Secret to Great Abs How Long Do I Have to Exercise to See Results? Dear Mark: Hardgainer […]

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[…] training is often an easy task. Then there are those who can’t seem to gain a pound: the hardgainers. They might be increasing strength, but it doesn’t seem to translate into visible muscle mass. […]

trackback

[…] on top of your regular daily dietary intake might be the catalyst for hypertrophy, especially for hardgainers. For women who perhaps aren’t so interested in adding a lot of muscle, skip the extra eggs. Keep […]

trackback

[…] on top of your regular daily dietary intake might be the catalyst for hypertrophy, especially for hardgainers. For women who perhaps aren’t so interested in adding a lot of muscle, skip the extra eggs. Keep […]

trackback

[…] Tips for “Hardgainers” […]

Jason Price
6 years 7 months ago

Thanks for the great post. Some very good ideas are presented. I have friends who would love to know these pointers to help them kick start their goals.

weight training routines
6 years 6 months ago

Alot of the time genetics can work against you. Having an ectomorph bodytype can be frustrating and even moderate exercise can cause weight loss.

If you want to keep up the fitness without compromising lean muscle a good way to exercise is by using interval training. The only other real way to put on muscle mass is to lift big and eat big.

trackback

[…] on top of your regular daily dietary intake might be the catalyst for hypertrophy, especially for hardgainers. For women who perhaps aren’t so interested in adding a lot of muscle, skip the extra eggs. Keep […]

Roy
Roy
6 years 5 months ago
Putting aside the good question of WHY and dealing only with HOW… I agree about the caloric surplus. But I’d eat exactly the same composition of foods described in the book, and on this site, but just eat a bit more, mostly in the calorie-dense meats, eggs, etc. I would never advise stuffing for either health or appearance reasons. Unless one has been imprisoned in a penal colony, and is chronically undernourished, bulking like this is bad. I agree that when eating healthfully, as recommended here (as doing this burns fat wonderfully), but it is a tad harder than the… Read more »
trackback

[…] training is often an easy task. Then there are those who can’t seem to gain a pound: the hardgainers. They might be increasing strength, but it doesn’t seem to translate into visible muscle mass. […]

Wade McMaster
6 years 1 month ago
I would pay attention to too much training – training too long or too frequently. Testosterone peaks 30-45minutes into a workout, so you want to get your workout done in that time 3-4 days a week. Cardio fitness is important but too much will interfere with weight gain also. Get plenty of sleep 8-10 hoursa a night for full recovery. Id also pay attention to how the food you eat affects your hormones. Drinking Alochol & consuiming soy are bad for hormone levels. You can also rais ehormone levels by upping your Zinc intake and/or by taking some tribulus.
hardgainer
5 years 10 months ago

Great post!..You need to be looking after your body as you build muscle lose fat at the same time. There is important things you have to catch up on, so you know exactly what your body can take.

Jeff
5 years 10 months ago

To build bigger muscles, do your heavy compound movements and also add in high repetition movements with a lower weight. To increase muscle size, accumulative fatigue is important. Short rests between sets and high reps.

Sam Timmins
5 years 9 months ago

Hey Mark,
I just stumbled across your site and think it’s awesome. I’m going to go back and start reading from post 1 but thought I’d mention how valuable I found it.

I like the recommendation to use compound exercises and would also recommend having the personal trainer discuss proper supersetting. I find it’s an awesome technique to build muscle fast and really shock the body. I usually recommend it to most clients of mine who are ready for a serious workout.

Keep up the good work,
Sam

larry blair
5 years 7 months ago

Hello! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new iphone 3gs! Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to all your posts! Carry on the great work!

erica
erica
5 years 6 months ago

one woman’s perspective…(and easiest of all) – change your notion of ideal body type.

Strong and lean is way more attractive to me than big and bulky. Most women I know feel this way, while most men I know think they need to bulk up to be more attractive to women.

Hardgainer
5 years 3 months ago

Yea Mark I agree with a lot of what you say… You have to increase calories enough to pack on the muscle. Like you said protein and fish oils are important. I have also been starting to realize that if you are a hardgainer it is important to consistently take a good joint complex, especially if you are lifting heavy weights. You want to keep those joints and ligaments in good shape.

Mike
Mike
4 years 9 months ago
I’m 42 and have been a life long “hardgainer” too. There have only been two times in my life when I was able to gain weight, once was about 12 years ago when I was taking an SSRI called Paxil. I went from 155 to my all time highest weight of 173. (I’m 6’2″) I was on Paxil for about a year but went off of it my weight dropped back to the 150s. Eight weeks ago I started taking high quality fish oil (800mg EPA & 400mg DHA every day) along with a multivitamin & magnesium glycinate and I’m… Read more »
trackback

[…] forza, ma non sembra tradursi in visibile massa muscolare. Adesso il mio consiglio iniziale agli hardgainers é questo. Non vi preoccupate! Se diventate più forti, comunque state facendo […]

Chris
4 years 28 days ago

Appreciate the tips Mark, thanks

lifter
lifter
3 years 8 months ago

Dear Mark,

You say you are a hard gainer, if so I guess you are on 5-6000 calories a day? If not….then stop making excuses, eat big, lift big.

trackback

[…] forza, ma non sembra tradursi in visibile massa muscolare. Adesso il mio consiglio iniziale agli hardgainers é questo. Non vi preoccupate! Se diventate più forti, comunque state facendo […]

Regev
3 years 3 months ago

I gained **62lbs** using Rippetoe’s and Bill Starr’s 5×5 programs, and I am the ultimate hardgainer. If I could do it, you certainly can too, Ed.

Good luck – here’s my full guide on gaining weight and muscle using 5×5 programs:

http://freshbeetle.com/home-exercise-equipment-full-body-workout/

trackback

[…] training is often an easy task. Then there are those who can’t seem to gain a pound: the hardgainers. They might be increasing strength, but it doesn’t seem to translate into visible muscle mass. […]

Hardgainers
1 year 10 months ago

I think the part on sleep should be made bold, underlined, and changed to a red color. Recovery is so important, yet frequently overlooked.

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