How To Build Muscle For Hard Gainers

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I’m not going to talk too much about the lifestyle tips that I often cover.

You probably already know that if you sleep better then your muscles are going to recover faster and you’re going to feel better. If you’re under a lot of stress and you don’t manage that well, you probably won’t grow as much muscle.

Training And Nutrition For Muscle Growth

I want to be really specific about what you can do with your training and nutrition to make sure that you can build as much muscle as possible.

I’m almost certain that you’re missing at least one of these things. And it’s probably the last one.

My Muscle Building Experience

And before you say to yourself “What’s this skinny woman going to teach me about building muscle?”

I’m a certified strength and conditioning specialist and I’ve been coaching people to build muscle for over 20 years.

I’ve also been able to achieve a fairly good amount of muscle especially considering my natural body type.

More importantly I’m going to talk to you about the issues that I’ve had over the last couple years that have prevented me from building muscle and they’re probably some things that are affecting you too.

At the end I’m going to include an important reminder without which you’ll never be happy with your muscle gains.

The Challenge of Hard Gainers

I’ve worked with a lot of people who consider themselves hard gainers and when I look at their recording of the food that they’re eating I’m constantly amazed at how little they actually eat.

Food For Hard Gainers

It’s one of the reasons I normally ask them to include liquid sources of calories like protein shakes.

High calorie density foods like nuts, peanut butter, higher fat sources of dairy, fattier cuts of meat, sushi and even highly processed refined foods like muffins, cereals and ice cream can be useful for hard gainers.

If you’re very slim and you’re struggling to eat enough it’s fine to include more of those hyper palatable foods to make sure that you eat enough.

Don’t believe the hype that you have to keep it all “clean” because sometimes the only solution for some people is to include more highly processed foods.

My Challenges For Muscle Gain

I suffer from IBS and GERD so that basically means that my digestion is a bit screwed up. This affects my appetite sometimes all I can eat is potatoes and cottage cheese.

I struggle with the consistency of getting in my protein because sometimes I can’t tolerate certain things.

Protein For Hard Gainers

I generally recommend the range of 0.7 to 1 gram per pound of body weight.

Your muscles need that protein to recover and build, so make sure you’re getting in enough protein on a regular basis.

Calorie Requirements For Hard Gainers

Let’s figure out how many calories you need.

I generally start by working out your maintenance calories and there’s a simple multiplier that I often use: 13 times your body weight in pounds. That would be considered your estimated maintenance calories. You might need 14 or 15 times your body weight in pounds in order to put on muscle.

You’re trying to achieve a calorie surplus, giving your body a little bit more than it currently needs so that it can use that to build muscle.

If you’re not tracking your calories then it’s easy enough just to monitor what’s happening to your body as you increase your food intake. So if you start to put on extra fat particularly around the middle then that’s a sign that you’re probably giving your body a bit too many calories. And it doesn’t really need that to build muscle.

Remember though, when you’re trying to put on muscle you often will put on some fat it’s almost impossible to put on muscle without putting on a little bit of fat if you’re putting on more than about five pounds a month the excess is excess fat and you’re not putting on more than five pounds of muscle. If that’s the case then you’ll probably want to cut back on your calories.

Training Issues

Now we’re going to get to the serious stuff this is all about the specific training issues preventing you from getting the result that you want.

The first is not training progressively.

Many people train for years without having a structured weight training program. This works when you’re a beginner because pretty much anything you do is going to create some overload effect. Because your body is only comparing it to what it was able to do before. And if you’ve been on the couch and then you start working out it almost doesn’t matter what you do you’re going to get some result. But once you’ve been training for at least a year it’s much harder to see changes if you don’t have a specific program.

What We Did With My Online Coaching Client John

This is exactly what happened to my online coaching client John. He’s actually a personal trainer and he’s been working out for over eight years now. But he’s never made muscle building a priority before so his workouts consisted of weight training including dumbbells and barbells and kettlebells but also some gymnastics type work on the rings and wakeboarding. Now he’s obviously very fit but those other activities were taking away from the energy that he had to do his primary muscle building activity. John doesn’t want to give all those things up he’s just managed to reduce them a little bit.

We make sure that he does three to five solid weight training sessions per week. Which has never really done consistently because he’s always enjoyed cross-training and mixing things up. That approach leads to great overall fitness and strength but it’s never going to maximize your muscle building.

We wanted to make sure that he focuses on compound exercises like squats deadlifts bench press and pull-ups. So because he’s finally weight training consistently and focusing on those major exercises he’s increased his strength and he started to build more muscle…even though he was in good shape before.

Weight Training Strategy For Hard Gainers

You’re not going to see significant changes in your muscle mass unless you use progressive overload. This just means that when you get stronger you move up and keep pushing your muscles to grow. The simplest way of thinking about this is just increasing the weight that you’re using. So if you’re using 10 pounds you move up to 12 pounds and then 15 pounds .

There’s also ways of doing this with body weight exercises as well but it’s a little bit trickier and you have to know which body weight exercises to use at the right time.

Too Much Cardio?

Another reason why you might not be building muscle is if you’re doing too much cardio. Now to be fair the average person is more at risk of under training than over training.

Very few people are doing the amount of cardio that actually going to interfere with your muscle building process. So even if you’re running 30 to 40 minutes a few times a week that’s probably not going to have a huge impact on your muscle building capabilities. But if you’re not that fit at the moment then even that amount of exercise might make you tired when you actually go to the gym to lift. And that means that you’re going to be lifting less and I’m going to talk a little bit about why that’s important in a second.

Why I Struggle With Muscle Building In The Summer

In the summer I really enjoy mountain biking. It’s a three or four hour ride through various terrain. Sometimes I take my son to the bike park. By the time we get home we take a shower and we collapse on the couch for the evening. It also wears out my legs so the day after or two days after I’m probably not getting a hundred percent out of them. That definitely affects my ability to put on muscle during the summer.

If you are one of these people who has an activity that is very strenuous and long in duration then you might want to consider how much that’s affecting your ability to build muscle and whether you want to cut that down. Or if you don’t and you’re just going to accept that that’s going to be a limitation to your muscle for the long term. That’s fine too!

Training Frequency & Volume For Muscle Gain

And while it’s okay for someone who’s a beginner to start off with just a couple of weight training sessions a week, if you’re intermediate or advanced and have been training for several years, then you probably need three to five sessions. That allows you to get the right amount of volume to stimulate muscle growth.

We think of volume in terms of for the session. So how many exercises how many sets and reps you’re doing but also volume over the course of the week. So one workout a week just isn’t going to add up to enough volume. Now recently I’ve been focusing on very short 30 to 40 minute weight training sessions at most and I’m not doing it very frequently. And that is not enough for me to get any additional muscle growth. I’m barely maintaining what I have.

If you’re very experienced and you’re still not building muscle you may need to increase your training volume to get results. Or in the extreme cases, if you’re doing way too much you may want to cut back.

Mechanical Tension And Muscle Growth

Because what happens is that if you’ve got more energy you can actually build more muscle the main result that you’re going to get comes through mechanical tension. That is the mechanism of muscle hypertrophy that is actually held up over time. Reps don’t seem to matter as much as we thought they did. So that range of 6 to 12 that you will use to talk about is your maximum muscle growth range. It’s possible that you can get good growth slightly below that and good growth higher than that as well.

As long as you’re pushing your muscles.

The Hard Truth About Muscle Building

This is the part that nobody wants to hear.

It’s possible that you’re just not working out hard enough. Based on what I’ve seen in gyms most people don’t know what it takes to train hard or really push themselves.

I’ll be completely honest I have not pushed myself very hard in a weight training session for a couple of years no. And that is partially because of my stomach issues and partially because I have a shoulder issue that’s been playing up for several months. So I can’t do a lot of exercises and I can’t push hard.

Putting In The Effort For Muscle Growth

At the end of your session you should be pretty tired and feel like you’re spent.

Not always of course. You need to have some balance. Some heavy days some lighter days but a lot of people just stay on the light days.

Building muscle is hard and it takes a lot of time. Once you get past that first year of newbie gains expect to see only small changes from year to year. And if you want to keep seeing those changes after more than a decade of working out then you need to be specifically for focus on that goal of building muscle.

If you’re not sure how to put this all together, check out my online coaching program HERE.

Ivana Chapman

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Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman BSc BA CSCS is a Canadian fitness and nutrition coach, happy wife, and mom to an energetic 9-year-old boy. She is a YouTuber, writer, published fitness model, speaker, 3rd Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, former World Cup Karate Champion, one-time marathoner, and CBBF National level Natural Bikini competitor. She loves weight training, chocolate, mountain biking, and ice cream...not always in that order of preference.
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