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 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)