You may have heard the term 'hardgainer' being thrown around in the fitness world and thought to yourself whether it's a bunch of BS and just some guys whining and using it as an excuse for why they're not getting the muscle gains that they want.
Here I'll shed the light based on my extensive research into the subject as well as my own experiences in the fitness industry.
What is a Hardgainer?
The popular definition of a hardgainer is a naturally skinny guy who finds it difficult to gain weight and muscle mass.
But by that definition, practically anyone could call themselves a hardgainer because the fact is that no matter who you are, putting on muscular weight takes fairly hard work and a lot of effort in both the gym and kitchen over an extended period of time.
To get to the real, more technical definition of what a hardgainer actually is, we need to take a quick look at the three main human body types (yes...hardgainers absolutely do exist and I'll explain why).
Technically called "somatotypes", the three types of human physiques were discovered by the work and research of Dr William H Sheldon back in the 1940's.
Sheldon, besides having an appropriate name as the scientist type, stated that people are born with an inherited body type based on skeletal frame and body composition. In other words, human bodies can be generally categorised into three main types each with various attributes.
Some people fit squarely into one body type, whilst other people are more of a combination of 2 or even 3 types:
So what's a hardgainer? An ectomorph.
Most underweight and naturally very skinny guys will be ectomorphs, and therefore are the true hardgainers of the bodybuilding world who will find it a bit more challenging to pack on muscle weight compared to the other 2 body types, and especially compared to the mesamorph who will find muscle gaining a bit easier.
The reality is that hardgainers do indeed exist. The thing is though, is that some guys think that they're a hardgainer because they don't get the results they expect in the weights room, when in fact they may not be an actual hardgainer after all and are simply making mistakes such as not training properly or hard enough, not focusing on progressive overload, not eating enough, not getting their macros right, not resting enough, or any other number of issues.
But if your natural physique is on the ectomorphic side, you will have to approach your training and diet a little more strategically to get great results.
The Ectomorph's Edge
However, do not get discouraged as a hardgainer / ectomorph, and don't use it as an excuse to not pursue your desire to bulk up, gain significant muscle and become the strongest and most muscular you can be.
Being a hardgainer, whilst being great for staying lean and avoiding putting on too much excess body fat when bulking up, can also be a blessing in disguise when it comes to building muscle as well.
Well, because you will need to approach your training and nutrition plan with a little more thought than others, you'll learn and understand how the muscle building process works on a deeper level. The extra effort you put in now to properly design an effective program, cover all the scientific principles of muscle gain, and make sure you do all the right things to induce the most gains - that extra effort will pay dividents over the long run.
Most guys don't put much thought into weight training and nutrition, so be focusing your efforts more than the average guy at the gym, over the long haul you're going to not only catch everyone due to your superior strategies and knowledge, but you will eventually push past them all if you simply stick to what you've learnt.
Being naturally weak and skinny and even underweight - that's a blessing in disguise and you can use that as leverage to focus more than others, put in more time and effort, and to eventually defy your genetic underdog status and get the results over the long term that will blow people away.
Can Hardgainers/Ectomorphs Get Big and Build Lots of Muscle?
No doubt about it.
I, and countless other hardgainers before me who successfully transformed their physiques (including a few famous bodybuilders), are living proof.
If you create or follow a solid program, and do most of the right things in and out of the gym over time - being a hardgainer will absolutely NOT stop you building the amazing physique of your dreams with more muscle mass than 99% of people would ever want or need.
You can literally flip the bird on your natural body type and genetic disposition to totally transform your body over time into one that others would label as a mesamorph if asked at random (which for those who already forgot is the body type that is naturally muscular and gains the easiest).
Sometimes, especially when I was at my bulkiest (I maintain a more leaner, fitness model style physique these days as that's what I prefer), if I would have told people I'm an ectomorph or hardgainer, they would not believe me for a second.
Some people even thought I was on the juice. Personally, for the record I would never take them though.
Like I said, starting out as a hardgainer may take you a bit longer and more effort to initially transform from your super skinny frame into a fairly muscular, ripped physique, but it gets easier and easier as you go along and your body will eventually adapt and you'll be making gains consistently over and over again.
It's all about momentum, and the hardest part, like most things worth achieving in life, is always that initial take off period. You just gotta smash past that initial breakthrough period of your first few months to a year, and then you're golden if you keep on going.
Don't get me wrong - with a good program you absolute can get seriously epic results in your first few months to a year, especially cause muscle gains can come faster than average as a total beginner, but it just gets better and better and easier and easier if you stick to your hardgainer training and diet routines over the long haul.
Eventually, you will be a hardgainer no more and people will find it hard to believe where you've come from.
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)