Is Being a Hardgainer a Myth?

It’s the same little story you’ve been telling yourself over and over again.
“I want to look like a rock, with chiselled abs.” You tried it before, but whenever some muscle started to show, you quit and started to cut because you were afraid of never seeing your abs again.

Therefore, you have bulked and cut, done a little bit of everything and a lot of nothing.

That’s how you ended up without the muscles, but still the layer of fat. You told yourself you are a hardgainer, genetically ungifted, doomed to look scrawny forever because muscle isn’t made for you. OK, that’s cute, but it’s also untrue. There is no such thing as a hardgainer. Most so called hardgainers don’t know how to train, or eat, or either of the two. Here is how to get you back on track.

Calling yourself a hardgainer is mistake #1

If you picture something in your mind, you are most likely to make it true.

If you see yourself as weak and scrawny, you will be weak and scrawny. Calling yourself a hardgainer is the biggest mistake you can make. It is also the best way to avoid gains. Imagine trying to achieve something while fully believing you can’t achieve it. Crazy, right? So why do you do it?

Study the best of the best. Arnold, for example, good and genetically gifted as he was. He started out with far less muscle. Yet he was convinced he could do it. He said he pictured himself extremely big and strong. He says the one thing that made the most difference was when Reg Park told him that the mind was the limit.

Now, that doesn’t sound like the kind of mentality you hear from guys who have trouble building muscle. Let’s face it, building muscle requires discipline and dedication. Your mind definitely has to be in it, or you haven’t got a chance. The first thing to do is to stop calling yourself a hardgainer and admitting that so far, your failure to build muscle is due to lack of strategy and dedication.

hardgainer myth dedication

The first thing to do is to stop calling yourself a hardgainer and admitting that so far, your failure to build muscle is due to lack of strategy and dedication. Image courtesy of Men’s Journal

Let’s Talk Body Type

I’m sure you’ve heard it all before, right?

There are three body types (or somatotypes). The ectomorph is the ideal marathon runner, but not the ideal bodybuilder. He is naturally thin, but can end up skinny fat. The endomorph is fat from birth, doomed to carry fat for eternity, and cannot look at carbs without putting on weight. But he does have muscle (gee,  maybe the endomorphs should call themselves hardlosers). The mesomorph stands in between. He can do anything he likes. He can eat at McDonalds and drop fat, he builds muscles just by flexing them.

OK, I may have gotten carried away, but at least I showed how ridiculous it can get. Body types are not that important. In fact, William H. Sheldon’s classification, along with his methods of somatotyping, have often been disputed scientifically. Most of what we think we know about body types are just assumptions. Let’s say you are what we call an “ectomorph”. Your metabolism may be more elevated than other people, and you may have more success in endurance sports than strength sports, but that doesn’t mean you are doomed.

Your body type is only your doom if you allow it to be. Supposedly, the endomorph has a low tolerance for carbs. Yet, if he drops some fat and wants to gain some more muscle, he will have to eat his fair share of carbs like anybody else. We have our specificities, but we remain human. As humans, it is a good idea to review some common rules that apply in every single case.

These rules are that you need to be in a caloric surplus to gain weight, and that you need to lift weights to build muscle. By lifting weights, I mean following a plan that gives you a form of progression, not forgetting the main factors of hypertrophy (more on that later).

Most gym goers know this, but don’t apply it. They prefer jumping from program to program, usually three days to a week on each program, and conclude that the programs don’t really work. Most do, as long as you give them enough time to work.

What we can say is specific to the ectomorph, is the fact that their predominant system seems to be the nervous system. Because of this, it tends to fatigue more easily, which makes recovery from strength training a bit more difficult. This means the volume and the intensity of your workouts have to be closely monitored so as not to impair your recovery abilities.

There are two mistakes that ectomorphs can make: doing too much, and doing too little. It’s not because you can overtrain more easily than others that three sets of squats is too much. Conversely, doing 6 one hour sessions per week will probably fry you in a couple of weeks. You need to challenge your body without hurting your recovery.

hardgainer myth ectomorph

There are two mistakes that ectomorphs can make: doing too much, and doing too little.

Training And Recovering

A beginner, or someone with little muscle mass, doesn’t have impressive recovery abilities.

These develop overtime. At first, three full body sessions can be as much as you need to put on some serious mass. Make sure to increase the weight as your strength increases.  Do that for three to four months with dedicated nutrition, which I shall touch on later, and I guarantee you will see progress.

When you start stalling, it’s time to switch things around. That’s when you can contemplate the idea of four workouts a week, and an upper-lower split. A great way to go about this is to have an upper-body strength day, and a hypertrophy day. Do the same with your lower body. Here is an example of how to set it up.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Lower-body strength Upper-body hypertrophy Rest. Game of Thrones, or anything you like. Lower-body hypertrophy Upper-body strength.

You can spend three to six months with this kind of setup and see results. I would take one deload week per month to make sure recovery is optimized. To deload, either divide your number of sets or reps by two without increasing or decreasing the weight. It doesn’t get simpler than that. Paradoxically you may feel tired during the deload week and only feel better towards the end. That’s when you know it was necessary.With this set up you don’t have two back to back strength workouts, so it’s easier on the nervous system. And you don’t have two back to back hypertrophy workouts, which allows you to make the most of your calories.

If you stop making progress with that setup, the time may have come for specialization. I am not a fan of split routines for various reasons. It’s true, however, that after some time, muscles will need more volume per session if you want to see them grow. As your recovery abilities are limited, the only way to ensure growth is to focus on one body part for a full month, then switch.

As your recovery abilities are limited, the only way to ensure growth is to focus on one body part for a full month, then switch. Image courtesy of USC Fitness.

As your recovery abilities are limited, the only way to ensure growth is to focus on one body part for a full month, then switch. Image courtesy of USC Fitness.

The Art of Specialization

When you specialize, you focus on one body part for a full month and train it thoroughly three days per week while keeping the other body parts on maintenance mode.

In other words, you bring that body part close to overtraining so that there can be overcompensation. The last week of the month should be a deload week. Keep your calories just as high during the deload week, and that’s when you will notice the most growth.

If you train four times a week, specialization is very easy. You couple a body part of your choice with your specialized body part for three workouts, and do a full body workout during the week while trying not to involve the specialized body part. Here is an example with a glutes and hams specialization.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Glutes and hams (strength, low reps)/ arms Full body (staying away from direct glute or hamstring work) Rest. Watch Breaking Bad, or anything else you like. Glutes and hams (hypertrophy moderate reps 8-12)/ chest Glutes and hams (hypertrophy higher reps 15/20)/ back

If you set up your year properly, you specialize on weaker body parts first and finish with your stronger body parts. Here is an example of how to program it, if chest is your strongest body part as tends to be with most gym goers.

January February March April May June
Glutes and hams Arms Quads Shoulders Back Chest

As you have seen, I divided the work on the specialized body part into four different days. A strength day, a hypertrophy, a moderate rep day, and a high rep day. This is because the four main factors of hypertrophy are strength, mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress.

Strength is better achieved with low reps, although a lighter high-rep back off set also does wonders for strength and hypertrophy. Mechanical tension is best achieved with weights ranging from 60 to 80 percent of your max, contracting your muscles maximally the whole set, generally in the 8 to 12 rep range. It also happens to be what causes the greatest amount of muscular damage, especially if you insist on the stretched portion of the rep. Finally, metabolic stress is best achieved with higher rep ranges.

By having special days to focus on one or two factors of hypertrophy, you maximize growth on that body part. By the time progress would stall, you deload and switch to another body part, and basically make sure not to hit a plateau for six months. If you feed your body properly, you will notice stunning growth.

hardgainer myth chest specialization

By having special days to focus on one or two factors of hypertrophy, you maximize growth on that body part. Image courtesy of Passion 4 Profession.

Nutrition For The Skinny

Naturally skinny guys generally burn more calories than naturally unskinny dudes.

To cap it all, they tend to eat less than the unskinny. Therefore, you need new numbers. You also need to follow one simple rule: If you’re not gaining muscle, your training is not adapted, or your nutrition lacks calories. Generally, the lack of calories is the culprit for people who call themselves hardgainers (but shouldn’t).

It’s not about how many meals you eat per day, the timing of such and such nutrients, or the lack of a supplement. It’s about total protein intake, and total caloric intake. You may lack fat as well if you are trying to avoid it (why should you?), but if not, fat pretty much takes care of itself. Stop wondering about complex carb cycling schemes and protein timing, because at best, it will influence very little of your results.

Make it simple, keep a caloric target of approximately 1 gram per pound of bodyweight. The recommendations can vary and you will probably be OK with 0.6, but 1 gram works extremely well and it forces you to eat more.

Your total caloric intake should be around 21 calories per pound of bodyweight. If you don’t gain weight on that, you’re not counting right, or you need to eat even more. If you end up gaining 2 pounds per week, take it down a little. You obviously don’t want to get fat. Include veggies, vary your fat sources, but don’t try to follow macros too closely apart from protein. If your protein intake is constant, your carb and fat distribution will influence very little of the weight you gain.

Use MyFitnessPal if you are confused about how to get your calories. While you should try to eat nutritious whole foods for nutrients, you should also feel free to include anything you like to reach your caloric target. Eating only chicken and broccoli is a crappy way to live your life. Keeping it as simple as possible allows you to follow the plan because the biggest problem with the skinny guy is more the mind than the body.

hardgainer myth eating ice cream

While you should try to eat nutritious whole foods for nutrients, you should also feel free to include anything you like to reach your caloric target. Image courtesy of Real Dose.

The Mindset of The Skinny Guy

Your biggest enemy is your own head.

Naturally skinny “ectomorphic” guys tend to think too much. That’s in their nature. It’s probably because their nervous system is predominant. Anyway, while it can be a very good thing in life to put a fair amount of thoughts in what you do, it can backfire in the gym.

There is too much conflicting information out there. Skinny guys end up with too many chefs in the kitchen, not really knowing where they’re going, nor what they have to do to get there. The key is to keep the plan simple, stop calling yourself a hardgainer, and just do the work.

Make a list of things you have to do every day to reach your goals. This will get the confusion about it out of your head and ensure they get done. Keep a caloric diary, on MyFtinessPal or anywhere else you like. Make sure that the list is not too long. Here is my minimalist checklist for building muscle and sticking to the freaking plan.

  •  Reach my protein target of X grams of protein
  •  Eat my veggies
  •  Reach my caloric target of X calories
  •  Train
  •  Go to bed at X pm

That’s it. If you are really dedicated, you can probably add creatine in the mix but that’s it. Don’t make it more complicated than that. Focus on doing, not on changing the plan all the time.


There is nothing magical about gaining muscle, and you don’t need extraordinary genetics to do so.

You need a plan that suits you, and you need to think less and do more. If you read about a new way to train, wait till you have finished your current training phase and reached the goal it was designed to reach in the first place before you give it a try. If you keep going round in circles you will always end up at the same place.

About the Author

top 40 fitness prosAnthony Dexmier is a strength coach in the South of France. He enjoys deadlifting, kettlebells and Olympic lifting, despite a genetic predisposition for endurance sports. He helps people eat and train better both online and at the gym and his special areas of interests are prehab, rehab, strength and nutrition. He loves writing and can be found on


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Vertinsky P. “Physique as destiny: William H. Sheldon, Barbara Honeyman Heath and the struggle for hegemony in the science of somatotyping,” Can Bull Med Hist. 2007;24(2):291-316. PubMed PMID: 18447308.