- What are "hardgainers"? Are they really genetic outliers?
- Why do hardgainers struggle to build muscle?
- Learn how protein can help hardgainers put on size, improve recovery, and maximize their gym time.
The term “Hardgainer” is frequently used in the bodybuilding community and around local gyms.
It implies some terrible abnormal condition that prevents an unlucky few from being able to build muscle.
But just look around any gym and you’ll notice that most of the population fall into the “hardgainer” category. It would be more appropriate to call them “normal gainers,” because for most people, gaining a lot of noticeable lean muscle is hard. Real hard.
The minority of “genetic freaks” out there, sometimes referred to as the 1%, are the few who are blessed with extremely growth responsive muscle tissue.
For the majority of us, though, building muscle is hard. For the true “hardgainers” amongst us, it seems damn near impossible.
Of course, any effort to gain muscle, regardless of your genetic disposition, takes great physical exertion, mental focus, willpower, and consistency. Unfortunately, not everyone is rewarded equally for their efforts. There are those who seem to gain muscle by just looking at a set of dumbbells, and those who, despite hard, consistent training at the gym, can scarcely put on a few pounds of lean mass.
The real “hardgainers” fall into the latter category. While there are exceptions to the rule, a typical hardgainer has an “ectomorphic” body type (a term coined in the 1940s by William Sheldon, an American psychologist), encompassing some or all of the following traits:
- Fine bone structure
- Small joints
- Thin neck
- Narrow shoulders
- Flat chest
- Small buttocks
- Long, narrow frame
- Low testosterone
- Low body fat
- Rapid metabolism
While most ectomorphic traits don’t bode well for easy muscle gains, the latter – a rapid metabolism – can be advantageous. Unlike “endomorphs” (on the opposite end of the body type scale), ectomorphs seldom need fear gaining unwanted body fat in their pursuit of increased muscle mass.
Why Hardgainers Struggle
There are many reasons why hardgainers find it so challenging to make significant progress, including a combination of the following:
- Skeletal structure
- Hormonal balance
- Lack of motivation
- Ratio of Type I vs Type II muscle fibre
- Sleep quality and recoverability
- Neuromuscular inefficiency
The harder a gainer you are, the more closely you have to pay attention to training, nutrition, and rest.
The good news is that some of the above factors can be positively affected by one simple thing. I’m talking about protein. That marvellous, muscle-building macronutrient is the crucial key to muscle growth.
Here are five facts about protein that every hardgainer needs to know.
1. Protein Increases Muscle Protein Synthesis
To maximize muscle growth in response to weight training, hardgainers need to optimize their protein intake.
Imagine muscle growth as a set of scales. On one side you have muscle protein synthesis and on the other side you have muscle protein breakdown.
The only way to achieve muscle growth is to tip the scales in favour of muscle protein synthesis. In other words, you must be synthesising more proteins than you’re breaking down to gain lean muscle mass.
Most people with a basic understanding of training and nutrition know that protein is an essential requirement for building muscle. Quite simply, eating protein stimulates the muscle building effect of protein synthesis.
But knowing the optimal amount of daily protein to consume is another thing.
In an effort to overcome the unfortunate fate of being a hardgainer, and to increase muscle size, a lot of people will turn to consuming excessively high quantities of protein. I think we’ve all been guilty of the “more equals more” mentality.
But is a 100g protein shake really going to produce greater results than a 40g protein shake?
Not according to scientific research.
Scientific studies have been conducted to find out how different doses of protein affect muscle protein synthesis levels post workout.
Two studies, one by the Exercise Metabolism Research Group, Department of Kinesiology, of McMaster University in Canada and another by the Health and Exercise Science Research Group, at the University of Stirling both found that 40g of protein was enough to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis after resistance exercise.
In fact, their findings concluded that the difference between 20g - 40g of protein on muscle protein synthesis post exercise was minimal.
So there you have it. These studies show that excessive protein consumption is largely a waste of time and money. As a hardgainer, I recommend you shoot for at least 40g of protein with every meal.
2. Protein Affects Hormonal Balance
Your hormonal profile can dramatically impact the results you get (or don’t get) from working out. There are approximately 50 hormones in the human body, affecting – among other things – mood, energy, gender characteristics, autonomic nervous system response and musculature.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s take a look at just two of those dozens of hormones: Testosterone and cortisol.
Testosterone is an anabolic hormone found in both genders, but at considerably higher levels in men. It plays many roles in the human body, but of special significance to hardgainers are testosterone’s effects on mood, self-esteem, energy, concentration, motivation – and of course, muscle growth.
Cortisol is a catabolic hormone. Though it plays a number of important roles, an excess of cortisol can increase abdominal fat while reducing protein synthesis, facilitate the conversion of protein to glucose, and slow the growth of new tissue – like the muscles you work so hard for.
A properly balanced ratio of macronutrients is necessary to promote protein synthesis and prevent catabolism. Protein plays a key role in sustaining an anabolic state.
Without sufficient protein, your muscles won’t grow, period. In addition, high quality protein sources like meat, eggs, and whey are rich in BCAAs (branched chain amino acids) which hasten recovery times after an intense workout.
The larger, stronger muscles and shorter, more effective recovery times facilitated by adequate protein consumption can indirectly increase testosterone by making you more able to perform intense, compound movements – in turn, boosting your testosterone levels.
There's a caveat though. As with many things in life, moderation matters.
Too much protein in relation to dietary carbohydrates and fat may actually decrease testosterone while increasing cortisol – exactly the opposite of what you want. Balance is the key. Protein is a critical part of your diet, but only one part of the whole picture.
3. Protein Improves Mood and Increases Motivation
I’m not trying to insinuate that hardgainers suffer from poor moods and a lack of motivation – though failing to see gains despite consistent efforts can certainly be discouraging. Discussions about bodybuilding often focus on the physical aspects – how many reps, how much weight, technique, equipment, etc.
The mental and emotional aspect is equally important. If you’re in a bad mood or feeling apathetic, the last thing you want to do is pick up a weight and lift. The good news is that high quality protein, rich in amino acids, may give you the “oomph” necessary to persevere.
Among the amino acids found in protein are glycine, which reduces stress, tyrosine, which increases dopamine and norepinephrine (increasing energy, drive and desire), and tryptophan, which improves your mood by boosting serotonin levels.
4. Protein May Improve Sleep Quality
Sleeping does more than rest the mind. It allows the body to recover from weight training, letting damaged muscles heal and grow larger.
According to a recent study in the journal Sports Medicine, “Compromised sleep may also influence learning, memory, cognition, pain perception, immunity and inflammation. Furthermore, changes in glucose metabolism and neuroendocrine function as a result of chronic, partial sleep deprivation may result in alterations in carbohydrate metabolism, appetite, food intake and protein synthesis.”
Hardgainers, who have difficulty putting on muscle mass at the best of times, need consistently good sleep to attain and sustain growth. Luckily, a regular intake of dietary protein rich in the amino acid tryptophan may assist in improving sleep quality, due to tryptophan’s effect on serotonin synthesis.
Furthermore, a study by Department of Human Movement Sciences, NUTRIM School for Nutrition, Toxicology and Metabolism, Maastricht University Medical Centre, looked at protein digestion before sleep in order to see its effect on overnight muscle recovery.
They concluded that “protein ingested immediately before sleep is effectively digested and absorbed, thereby stimulating muscle protein synthesis and improving whole-body protein balance during post exercise overnight recovery.”
Protein and sleep makes for a potent anabolic combination and an important component to the any hardgainers success.
5. Protein Makes Any Exercise More Effective
The conventional approach to creating a “hardgainer exercise routine” is to focus on the big compound exercises – deadlifts, squats, presses, etc. This approach works very well for many people. Compound movements use numerous muscle groups simultaneously, can result in quicker gains, and may increase testosterone levels.
Hardgainers, however, may not be ready to delve into a grueling routine right away. Their lack of muscle mass and smaller, potentially weaker joints may require a period of conditioning before big, heavy lifts can be performed safely.
In either case, protein is the hardgainer’s best friend. Any exercise – whether the much vaunted squat or deadlift, or the much disparaged bicep curl – will be more effective if you provide your muscles with the building blocks they’ll use to recover and grow.
From hormones to sleep and mood to muscle growth, protein is an invaluable part of any hardgainer’s routine. Neglect to get enough and your gains will suffer. Consume a sufficient quantity, balanced by carbohydrates and fat, follow a good weight training routine, and gains will come.