Hardgainers: Common Issues and How To Overcome Them

Josh Dyson

Josh Dyson

The hardgainer:

A frustrated individual who cites that they have exhausted all nutrition and training avenues, but as yet has not seen any gain in muscle, or is seeing slow progress.

This could be you.

It could be someone you know.

Hey, this sure was me at one point!

The individual that furiously reads fitness magazines in pursuit of the perfect training and diet plan.

Scrolling through social media to copy the most ripped fitness model they can find.

Bemoans their genetics or “fast metabolism”.

May have at one point thought they had to train like Rocky and down raw eggs.

Please note: Don’t consume raw eggs!

This article shall shed some light on why hardgainers may not be getting the returns they want and can help pave the way for future gains!

For the sake of clarity, moving forward this article shall focus upon individuals looking to increase muscle mass/body mass. I have previously discussed the topic of muscle gain and fat loss simultaneously, and refer you to this article (click here) if your goals are more aligned with this.

First, lets address a common question:

“Are some individuals more genetically gifted when it comes to muscle gain?”

In short – yes. There a genetic ceiling to your gains.

HOWEVER, this should not deter an individual and their muscle gain goals. 

Believe me, you can get in incredible shape with the correct training and nutrition. You are not doomed to be in baggy clothing for the rest of your days!

Having worked with numerous individuals over the years who are looking to gain muscle, I have identified some common errors that can put the breaks on someones ability to gain.

1) Not Consuming Enough Calorie Intake

Some individuals just simply are not eating enough – plain and simple.
It can be a shock to some individuals when shown how many calories are required to be consumed in comparison to previous dietary habits. This can often result in some people slipping back into into old habits and under consuming, or being inconsistent with reaching certain targets. 

Others simply may not be helping themselves through certain dietary choices.

A common issue amongst hardgainers is when individuals load up on protein – the most satiating (filling) of the macronutrients.

Yes, protein is important for muscle gain.

I have talked talked at length how to optimise protein intake for muscle gain previously (read here).

However, when it comes to protein and muscle gain, some think that more protein = more gains.

It doesn’t.

Once optimal daily intake has been met, any excess protein will be utilised for energy or be lost via urination. Protein will not be stored in the body, like fat and carbohydrate.

No additional bulge on the biceps!

Loading your meal with excessive amounts of protein is a quick way to become fuller quicker and a lower bank account (the cost of protein sources can be quite expensive!). As a consequence of protein overconsumption this can lead to reduced total calorie intake due to decreased consumption of the other macronutrients carbohydrate and fat.

The underconsumption of carbohydrate can lead to further issues for the resistance trainee through reduced training performance. Carbohydrate is the predominate fuel source for high intensity training, especially during high volume training periods seen within hypertrophy (muscle gain) programmes.

2) Miscalculated Calorie Intake Target

Some simply may have just inappropriately set up their initial dietary strategy.

Typically, required energy intake will be ESTIMATED based upon energy expenditure PREDICTION equations. However, the utilisation of such equations are not without their limitations.

Such equations are derived from a variety of populations and therefore may not be totally applicable for the athletic individual, especially the rugby player who is of higher body mass/muscle mass.

It is therefore important to appreciate that such equations can provide an initial prediction, but may require re-evaluation based upon progress. They may get you started, but is by no means the final destination.

Further confusion can be caused when trying to quantify daily expenditure and selecting the relevant physical activity level (PAL). For those unfamiliar with PAL, this physical corresponds to your daily activity, as well as your planned training. Some people may under or over predict their activity which can then influence the total energy expenditure prediction.

Below are examples of PAL classifications:


3) High NEAT Expender

NEAT, otherwise known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis refers to non-planned exercise activity.

Think fidgeting, walking etc.
What does this all have to do with hardgainers?

As discussed in the previous points, a calorie surplus is implemented to increase body mass. However, when overfeeding the NEAT response can be very individual.

For example, some individuals NEAT response may increase to the extent that they decrease the imposed energy surplus with a resulting decrease in gains! A higher energy intake would therefore be required.

It is important to appreciate the inter-individual variation in response to dietary strategies, which can influence the rate of progression. For example, when non-obese adults were overfed by 1000kcal above maintenance for 8 weeks, on average only 4.6kg body was was gained, with weight gained ranging 1.4-7.2kg.

You would roughly expect to gain around 1kg of body mass when overfeeding 1000kcal, which would equate to an estimated 8kg gain over 8 weeks.

Why wasn’t this so?

The energy expended from Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, otherwise known as NEAT (energy expended through fidgeting, maintaining posture and spontaneous/non-planned activity) varied from -98 to +692kcal. This therefore unknowingly reduced the size of the imposed surplus, which would explain why less weight was gained than expected.

 This is why it is important to monitor progress via the appropriate methods and to make informed decisions about your current dietary strategies. If unsure of how to implement monitoring strategies I have created an in-depth guide on some of the options available (read here).

4) ‘Clean’ Eating

A fitness and nutrition buzzword that refuses to go away.

The attachment of the words ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ to food does not help with an individuals relationship with food and can therefore have psychological health consequences.

Furthermore, the elimination of certain foods from the diet unnecessarily restricts options, as well as food enjoyment and may lead to diet boredom.

Food should be enjoyed.

No guilt.

No shame.

Of course a diet should be based primarily around whole foods, minimally processed, and nutrient dense foods. But a fixation upon only eating clean, can potentially stall the progress of the hardgainer.

For example, the belief that you should have only protein and vegetables, with a little bit of rice is not going to help impose a calorie surplus.

Piling your plate high with high fibre foods, low energy dense options, such as vegetables, shall lead to appetite being suppressed, and ultimately not achieving target daily calorie intakes. 

Similarly with excessive amounts of protein. Such foods are important for muscle gain, but overconsumption can be counterproductive in that it will not further enhance muscle gain, but could lead to underconsumption of total calories, and also impact training performance due to under-consuming carbohydrate.

As I say , it is important to eat nutrient dense foods, but be mindful of their overconsumption and their impact upon appetite.

5) Diet Consistency

For some this can be the hardest part.

If you are not use to consuming such higher calorie intakes, this can take some adjustment, both mentally and practically.

For most hardgainers they fear that the increased consumption of calories will cause an increase in body fat.

It is important to learn that building muscle can also be an energy costly process.

Consume too little calories over the week, then progress shall not be where you want it.

Practical issues may arise too.

For example, some people may hold full-time jobs or other time demanding commitments. Consideration should therefore be give to the sourcing (shopping), preparation (cooking) and consumption (meal/snack time) to ensure that you are enable to take on board sufficient calories day to day.

When it comes to any nutrition strategy, consistency is key.

Let’s talk through an example:

Batman and Superman have both been on the bulk. 

Batman has seen some nice steady progress and has gained on average 0.5kg per week – good returns!

Superman though is not seeing the same progress as Batman. The scale and measuring tape have not moved an inch!

When you take a deeper look at the dietary intake across the week of both Batman and Superman, it becomes clear to see why one individual is progressing and the other is not – consistency

Both individuals are the same age, height, weight and activity/training.

The target calorie intake each day for both men was 3500 calories.

Both opted for a linear approach with a 500kcal daily surplus, as their maintenance calorie intake is 3000 calories per day.

Consistency hasn’t been an issue for Batman who progressed throughout the week as planned. 

However, Superman has struggled to reach such targets consistently.

On Tuesday and Wednesday Superman was busy with work and forgot to pack his snacks and then got home late and was too tired to cook, so just grabbed what was left in the fridge. 

Saturday and Sunday Superman slept in both mornings and skipped a meal and a snack and could therefore not reach his daily target with the rest of his weekend dietary intake.

The above highlights the importance of opting for an approach that you can adhere to and consistently implementing the strategy.  


6) Supplement Focus

With the wealth of supplement marketing out there, it can often be confusing, and sometimes misleading for the trainee.

“Buy this supplement to increase your muscle gains by X%”

Just one stereotypical line that springs to mind.

With any nutrition strategy, it is important that you first address your dietary intake. This is what will provide the biggest bang for your buck.

Too many individuals end up with lighter bank accounts after looking for a quick fix via supplements.

There are certain supplements backed by science that can help training performance or assist dietary intake (fewer than you probably think!), but you a looking at a small percentage improvement. That’s even if you are responder!

The diet lays the foundations.

It fuels you for your training.

Assists with your recovery.

Feeds your growth and development.

Aids your immunity.

Only then when you have solid dietary intake foundations should you consider supplements.

I have saved you the time and financial expense by previously talking through evidence-based supplement considerations when it comes to muscle gain (click here).

7) Training Programme Design

A non-nutrition consideration..

But some individuals do not have a training programme that would be considered optimal for hypertrophy.

You could have the best nutrition strategy in the world, but if you are not providing the appropriate stimulus through training then unfortunately you will not be building the muscle and gains you desire.

Thanks for reading. Got a question? 
Post this in the comments section below.

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