Last Updated: May 8, 2018
As a skinny hardgainer, which is very much a real phenomenon in the bodybuilding world (see what is a hardgainer), you're going to have to fine-tune a smart, science-based hardgainer workout routine and diet that's properly structured and designed for effective gains if you want to get the great results that are absolutely 100% still possible for you.
The following bodybuilding tips apply to anybody looking to build muscle, but should be especially considered as a skinny hardgainer or ectomorph (they're the same thing, really). Avoiding the below guidelines for your hardgainer workout routine and diet is just gonna make things harder on yourself:
Don't Use "Hardgainer" As An Excuse
Firstly, as mentioned you most definitely can build the dream physique you've always wanted even if you're a hardgainer with slightly worse muscle gain genetics than others. As a hardgainer you simply will need a little more patience to build significant muscle mass, but once you start getting results your body will adapt and muscle gain will become easier and easier. This is exactly what's happened to me as a (former) hardgainer, and countless of others who have turned their physique destinies around to build amazing physiques starting out as a paper-thin noob.
Be 100% Sure You're Eating a Caloric Surplus
Some guys who complain that they can't gain weight are actually in fact not eating enough food, despite thinking that they are. You can't just wing your diet without counting your total calories in as a beginner, cause you're bound to get it wrong. I know I certainly did when I first started out - it felt like I was eating ten horses a day, but in fact, I was barely getting enough calories in to support the extra muscle tissue that I wanted to pack on.
If you don't eat more calories than you require to maintain your current weight, which could be a ton of calories as your typical hardgainer not only has slightly slower ability to gain muscle but a high metabolism to boot, you don't have a chance of gaining weight no matter what you lift in the gym.
Of course, don't go overboard and down 100 Big Macs a day as then you're just gonna get fat; you can only gain a certain amount of muscle at a time, so slow it down big boy.
Don't Neglect Carbs
Protein is talked about a lot in bodybuilding, and is absolutely required in good amounts to build muscle as muscle basically is protein, but carbs are sometimes overlooked as they get a bit of a bad rep in mainstream fitness circles these days (for good reason in general as too much carbs is never good).
But as a hardgainer looking to put some meat on your bones, which basically goes against the norm of a world obsessed with losing weight, you should make doubly sure you're eating plenty of carbs to support the weight gain you're after as protein alone won't do it.
So, don't just up your protein intake, but your carbs too, ideally from complex carbohydrates and not simple carbs like sugar/white carbs etc. Whatever you do, as a skinny guy a diet like paleo or low-carb where you're hardly eating many carbs and focusing mostly on protein and fats is probably going to get in the way of your mass building goals.
A staple of mine over the years that has always helped me pack on muscle mass as a hardgainer is good old brown rice, which is very versatile and you can add so many things to it to make it super tasty.
Don't Avoid Compound Weight Training Exercises
For an ideal hardgainer workout routine you want to stick to the most taxing (ie difficult) exercises that you can, that recruit the most muscles and that stimulate the most breakdown of muscle tissue. Doing lighter workouts such as sticking solely to mostly to machines, just doing bodyweight exercises, or focusing too much on easy feel-good isolation exercises (*cough* curls *cough) isn't going to help you build significant mass, strength and muscle anytime soon.
Sure, if you're a total noob in the gym and never lifted something before, you might want to ease into training by doing some lighter stuff like machines and/or bodyweight routines, but eventually if you're committed to really transforming from skinny to superhero, you're going to have to eventually hit the big boy lifts ie compound exercises.
Nothing is gonna pack more muscle on your skinny little frame than big lifts such as squats, deadlifts, barbell rows, pull-ups, and bench presses. Sticking to the safe, easier, less-taxing exercises is gonna waste your time if you want the best results.
Hardgainers Should Probably Train LESS
Sounds a bit contradictory; as a hardgainer you may expect that you should be lifting more than others, hitting the weights harder, and putting in more time and effort in the gym. But the reality is, you likely want to consider working out a bit less often than is typically recommended by mainstream fitness advice or bodybuilding gurus. Hitting the gym 7 days a week like Arnie did back in the day isn't going to help your skinny-guy cause.
Why? Let me explain.
Sure, you need to train hard and as heavy as you can. However, in terms of training frequency, for an ideal hardgainer workout routine you don't want to overdo it so that you can give your body plenty of time and days off to rest and recover, which is how you actually grow after all. Muscle mass gains don't happen in the gym; they occur when you're at rest and eating and sleeping.
Going at it 7, 6 or even 5 days a week is too much and there's a good chance you're not allowing enough time to rest and recover to come back fully rested, stronger than before, and ready to lift slightly more/heavier than your last session.
Plus, you don't want to spend hours in the gym when you go as you're just expending too much energy (explained below) and it's not going to further encourage more muscle gain by training longer. Muscle gain isn't related to how long you workout, but how intense you go at it. So keep your workouts short and sweet (max of 1 hour per session is all you need).
Don't Be Too Cardio Crazy
If you're a true hardgainer aka a skinny guy with an ectomorph body type, you also have a high metabolism. Therefore, if you're struggling to gain weight and build muscle then doing too much aerobic exercise such as going for long rides, runs, jogs, or whatever you're into, isn't really helping your cause.
It can be tough enough to get in the required calories to be in a caloric surplus to ensure your hardgainer workout routines aren't in vain, especially if you're never had to eat so much before in your life as it can be a little out of your comfort zone to down so much (hopefully health) food each and every day, so adding in too much extra exercise activity in your day is going to make it even harder as you'll need to take this into account with your diet and eat even more.
Cardio is always good for general health, so keep up your daily walks and light jogs/rides (not saying you should become a couch potato) - but don't overdo the cardio sessions if you're serious about gaining maximum muscle weight. Plus, even if you can eat the required calories to take into account your weight training sessions AND more extended cardio, another reason this could slow you down is because your cardio is likely to be taking energy, focus and effort away from your weight routines which isn't really a good idea as you should be dedicating most of your physical energy to your mass gain sessions.
Hopefully this article has helped, but always remember to never get stuck in research land. Information is great, but what's infinitely more important and the only thing that actually matters to get results and change your life is to be hitting the gym week in week out, with a properly-structured, intelligently-crafted (based on science-backed principles) and overall well-balanced strength training and nutrition plan to effetcively build muscle as a skinny guy (AKA a lifting hardgainer). When you have a great program used by other successful hardgainers that have gone before you, you can't go wrong if you simply stick with it.
But here's the thing:
You don't just randomly stumble upon a highly-effective program that's designed specifically for hardgainers by simply browsing a popular fitness magazine, site, or forum (or asking your average run of the mill personal trainer at a local gym who is highly likely to be just repeating the same old ineffective, incomplete mainstream advice they learned in the classroom). No, instead, to create the best weight training and nutrition program for maximum results, you must be a little more selective in the program you choose to follow.
So, here are the 3 different paths you can take to guarantee you follow a finely-tuned, effective program that will leave nothing to chance and give you the best muscle building and strength gains of your life (again, if you simply execute and don't quit after a mere week 'cause you don't notice a change...).
See our flagship 7-step introductory guide to building muscle for beginners which covers all the basics you need to know, and guides you through designing and creating an effective program for muscle gain without getting fat. If you don't want to spend any money buying a pre-made program or finding a (good) personal trainer, and/or you're the DIY type who enjoys researching every little detail and knowing about how everything works and fits together, this is probably the path for you if you have the patience.
If you don't want to take the time to plan your own natural bodybuilding plan from scratch, following an already made, high-quality, credible program from a true expert in this field can save you a ton of time.
It can give you a great head start on your transformation journey and makes things a whole lot simpler as it's simply a matter of understanding what the program involves, how to do perform all the exercises, how to execute on the included meal plans (taking into account your own perferences as you'll want to tweak any pre-made diet plan for your own needs), and then simply executing week in and week out.
Sean Nal's popular hardgainer program is the one I currently recommend most, as it's the most complete, easy to follow program for beginners that I've seen (and I've experimented with many over the years). It's also the exact program that initially changed everything for me and I owe a fair part of my overall hardgainer success (going from 132lbs/60kg to 220lbs/100kg - mostly muscle) to being fortunate enough to having stumbled upon this program when I was struggling with gaining weight and building muscle. See my full review of Sean Nal's program here.
Path C: Find a (Good) In-Person Trainer
This isn't for everyone though as a quality trainer who knows what they're doing, and most importantly has got great results themselves (ideally starting out in similar shoes to you) can be quite costly. This is the path you should probably really consider if you have any type of serious injury though.
Whichever path you choose, never forget the single most important thing: never give up, and your success in transforming your body, strength, health, posture, and self-confidence will simply be a matter of when, not if. I'd say good luck, but if you really understand that last sentence, you're not gonna need it, friend. I wish you nothing but success.
Mad-Scientist of Hardgainer-to-Hero Transformations for 12+ Years
Last and Definitely Least: Certified Fitness Instructor (real-world experience > school)