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Building muscle is something that is easily promised, but can be surprisingly difficult to accomplish. Particularly if you are what’s known as a hard gainer.
This term relates to someone who struggles to build muscle mass, usually the person is a guy, and they are often ectomorophic (tall and skinny).
If you are a different body shape such as endomorph (shorter and naturally bigger) you will have different problems, but muscle building probably won’t be it.
Your biggest issue is usually keeping body fat down, which involves full body workouts, compound lifts (deadlifts, squats, bench presses), and a calorie deficit. Simple, but not easy.
The purpose of this article is to identify common issues and mistakes that affect hard gainers, and help rectify the situation.
This is only going to work if you are honest with yourself and your current situation. Getting defensive is not going to lead to change, and if you are a hard gainer reading this article, then you need things to change!
- 1 Common Mistake #1: Not Eating Enough
- 2 Common Mistake #2: Not Training Enough
- 3 Common Mistake #3: Not Recovering Properly
- 4 Common Mistake #4: Being Stubborn
- 5 Common Mistake #5: Being A Gym Butterfly
- 6 Common Mistake #6: You Aren’t Tracking Progress
- 7 Common Mistake #7: You Are Being Impatient
- 8 Common Mistake #8: Bad Exercise Selection
- 9 Common Mistake #9: Poor Technique
- 10 Common Mistake #10: You Aren’t Consistent
Common Mistake #1: Not Eating Enough
Most hard gainers will tell you that they eat plenty, they’ll boast (or complain) that they can eat anything that they want without gaining weight.
Well, sadly this is rubbish. Science is pretty inflexible when it comes to energy balance.
If you are eating more than you are burning you WILL gain weight. If you are eating less calories than you are burning you will lose weight. If your calories in and your calories out are equal you will stay the same.
So if you are not able to gain weight then you are almost certainly not eating enough calories.
If you are eating loads and still not gaining weight then your energy expenditure is probably very high.
Do you walk a lot? Fidget? Exercise regularly? All of these things will burn calories, which means that if you want to gain weight then you’ll have to boost your calorie intake further.
How to fix it:
Use a calculator such as this one from Precision Nutrition  to find out what your daily calorie intake needs to be so that you can gain weight. Then start tracking your calorie intake using a website or app such as myfitnesspal.
Not only will this help you to find out what your average calorie intake is, it will help you find foods that bring you closer to your goals.
Common Mistake #2: Not Training Enough
You want to build as much muscle as possible but you don’t want to spend more than three hours per week in the gym? Good luck with that!
We’re not saying that you need to be there 24 hours a day, 7 days per week (in fact overtraining is one issue that we’re going to cover later in this article), but three sessions per week is not going to lead to noticeable changes.
Training 4-5 times per week is probably the perfect ratio of rest to work, giving you enough time to hit all muscle groups while also allowing you enough time to recover.
If you are just starting out then three times per week is probably enough, but if you’ve been training for a while and are not seeing results then maybe your workload is too light?
How to fix it:
Find time to train four times per week, for 45-60 minutes per session.
Get into a routine, and create a program that will reflect the extra gym time you have available now. Training more will require better recovery, so check out our next point below.
Common Mistake #3: Not Recovering Properly
Proper recovery is often a completely overlooked and underrated factor in muscle gains, but the truth is that without optimal recovery you will never gain muscle.
Nutrition is a big factor which we have covered slightly in mistake #1.
Increasing your protein intake to 2.3g of protein per kg of lean body mass (how much you weigh minus body fat) will help you get sufficient protein for recovery and muscle gain.
But it’s not just nutrition, adequate sleep is also massively important. Getting 8-9 hours a night is necessary for anyone looking to gain size.
Less sleep can lower testosterone and increase cortisol, which will lead to muscle loss (worst case scenario) or a lack of growth.
Scheduled rest days are also important, which is why we didn’t recommend training 7 days per week.
How to fix:
Rest your muscles, sleep more, hit your protein targets, and consider recovery supplements (whey or casein protein is usually good enough).
Common Mistake #4: Being Stubborn
We’re at point #4 and already some of you will have yelled angrily at the screen that “NONE OF THIS APPLIES TO ME”.
Maybe this is true, but most likely you’re just being stubborn or defensive. You’re set in your ways, can’t teach an old dog new tricks etc … Well stop it.
You opened this article because it identified a problem that is affecting you. If you are claiming to be a hard gainer, then something that you are doing is wrong.
How to fix:
Change your mindset, your current program, recovery plan, nutrition, or overall strategy is not working, why is that?
Introspection is one of the most useful things that you can do, and that can help with business, family, and financial issues, so why not apply it to muscle gain?
Common Mistake #5: Being A Gym Butterfly
Last week you were following a 5×5 program, but this week its German Volume Training, which you will follow until you get bored, or don’t feel that your results are coming quick enough, and then you will ditch in favour if circuit training, or your friend’s bodybuilding program that he printed off the internet.
Swapping your program every few weeks is a great way to never grow muscle. You’re not giving your body enough time to adapt to the program, and therefore it can’t progress.
Constantly looking for that magic program that will give you amazing results, is preventing you from actually getting the results that you crave.
How to fix:
Pick a program that is aimed at people similar to yourself. Follow that program for 4 months, evaluate your progress.
You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the results you have got by sticking to a program.
Common Mistake #6: You Aren’t Tracking Progress
This mistake is so frustrating to witness as an outsider.
It’s the person who doesn’t bother taking before pictures or measurements at the beginning of a program, doesn’t track progress throughout the program and then complains that they aren’t seeing progress.
How do you know?
Gaining 2kg of muscle in 3 months is actually decent progress, but you won’t see the difference. You need to take progress photos and measurements so that you can see how you’re progressing.
How to fix:
Before starting a program weigh yourself on a set of scales, take a topless photo of yourself (not flexing), and use a tailor’s measuring tape to take measurements of your waist, legs, arms, chest, calves etc … Each week take the same measurements and photo and record your results.
Common Mistake #7: You Are Being Impatient
It can take 12 weeks before any real changes are noticeable to the naked eye, it can take years for a complete body transformation.
So why are you getting frustrated and quitting after 3 weeks? Because you are being impatient.
It’s not your fault, years of immoral advertising from elements of the fitness industry have made people expect instant changes to their body, but this is unrealistic.
How to fix:
Be patient, be proud of small changes, and look at the bigger picture.
Common Mistake #8: Bad Exercise Selection
You’re looking to build serious muscle mass, but you don’t like squatting? Or deadlifting?
You’ll spend 30 minutes on abs because you like your six pack, and then complain that you can’t build a big chest!
If you want to build serious muscle, then you’ll have to leave that comfort zone, and work hard. It may not be as fun, but neither is being a hard gainer!
How to fix:
Write a list of the exercises you hate most, it’s likely that deep down a lot of the exercises you are avoiding are excellent for building muscle.
Put them in to your program, and start each session with them.
Common Mistake #9: Poor Technique
Bench pressing with a tiny range of motion, bicep curling with huge swings of the arms, bent over rows that aren’t bent over.
There is so much bad form going on in the gym that it is no surprise that many employ dedicated physios! Bad form will lead to injury, but it can also prevent proper muscle growth.
Did you know that you can gain more muscle fibres while lowering a weight than curling it?
Imagine how much you’re missing out on if you aren’t using proper form or tempo.
How to fix:
Lose the ego and work on proper form rather than trying to lift the heaviest weight possible
Common Mistake #10: You Aren’t Consistent
This was sort of covered in mistake #5 (being a gym butterfly) and in mistake #1 (not eating enough), in fact it can actually apply to every single point on this list.
Consistency makes all the difference, there is not a strategy that will succeed without you consistently following it through to its conclusion.
If you follow a calorie target, then you’ll only see a result if you consistently hit that target over time.
If you are following a program 4-5 times per week, then you have to stick with that program and consistently turn up to the gym to do it.
If you are looking to improve your recovery then you need to consistently sleep enough hours, eat enough, and foam roll enough to recover.
Doing things once and then forgetting about them will not lead to change.
How to fix:
Try not to change too many things at once, make one small change and concentrate on successfully managing to act on that change until it becomes a habit.
Then add another change, and another, each time giving yourself enough time to adapt and accept the change in your routine.