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 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 and well-balanced strength training and nutrition plan that's based on actual scientific principles of building muscle mass (not bro science like you'll see practically everywhere you look online).
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 mainstream bodybuilding/fitness magazine, site, or forum (or asking your average run of the mill trainer at a local gym who is highly likely to be just repeating the same old ineffective, incomplete mainstream advice they learned in a classroom).
To truly build that strong, ripped, lean muscular body that you want - and to not just leave it to chance and hope/pray that you'll get results - your training and eating program needs to be solid. Otherwise, you'll be wasting a ton of time in the gym for little return, which is unfortunately what happens to most guys who start hitting the gym as they eventually start spinning their wheels and getting nowhere due to a lack of knowledge and awareness of what actually works most effectively.
So the question remains, how do you ensure you're implementing an effective bulking program that will 100% get you the results you seek? You basically have three paths to take here, so choose whichever fits your situation best.
Path A: Design Your Own Effective Bulking Program (Recommended for Some Beginners & Intermediates)
If you're the patient type who also likes to know how every little detail works, and are willing to spend the time and effort necessary to study the most effective muscle building training and nutrition strategies out there right now to strategically piece together the best information that you find from credible sources to sculpt your own custom bulking program, consider the DIY path of creating your own program from scratch.
However, if you're a beginner, or intermediate lifter who hasn't been getting the results you want, you'll want to make sure that you get your advice from sources and people who understand what it's like to gain muscle starting out as a skinny hardgainer, which is a different beast compared to building muscle as a more naturally bigger guy with more favourable genetics. You also ideally want someone more experienced to look over your program just in case, because there are various things you could miss or do wrong, such as creating an imbalanced program that will lead to posture issues, muscular imbalances, or worse (injuries).
Up for the challenge? To get started planning your own muscle building program from scratch check out our full introduction to building muscle mass as a hardgainer which covers some important basic principles, strategies, and tips.
Path B: Follow A Proven Time-Tested Bulking Program (Recommended for Most Beginners)
If instead of creating your own program from scratch you'd rather follow an already-made complete program that has been proven to work for others in your shoes (ie skinny hardgainers) this is the path for you. Spending the few bucks to get your hands on a well-crafted, respected program that's specifically been designed with hardgainers in mind can really save you time and effort having to design your own program, and it ensures you don't miss out on the various important details that makes a good program.
This is what I'd recommend if you're just starting out or quite inexperienced in the gym, as you'll get off on the right foot to kick-start great results. Although this is also a smart path for intermediates, because if you've been training for a while and not getting great results, getting your hands on a fresh new program created by a natural bodybuilding expert could be the game-changer you need to spark the best results of your life. Sean Nal's Body Transformation Blueprint Program is currently the most comprehensive, polished bulking program for beginners on the market, and is the program that actually helped me the most when I first started out as a newbie so I can't recommend it highly enough if you're new and wanting to all but guarantee great results over the next few months and beyond.
There are other good premade mass gain programs out there that were created specifically (and scientifically) for hardgainers, but there's also a lot of overpriced, overly-marketed and low-quality programs that you should avoid out there so be on your toes when looking for the right program to follow to avoid wasting your money. I've personally used a ton of different programs and I compiled the best, highest-quality ones that I can comfortably recommend in my list of the best comprehensive bulking programs for hardgainers here.
Path C: Find a (Good) In-Person Trainer
This isn't going to be for everyone 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 consider if you have any type of injury or health problem, or obviously if you have the money to burn and want someone to carefully monitor what you're doing in the gym and be able to give you specific feedback.
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)