How to add muscle if you’re a “hard gainer”, by a former hard gainer

Hard gainers, you see them populate your gym in their dozens, slim, wiry, but month after month they never seem to grow and often don’t get any stronger.

As a one time bean pole, I understand the struggle well. Imagine 6’4″ and around 80kg (176lbs), I played basketball a couple of times a week, trained 3 times a week and ate everything I could get my hands on. A couple of years later, I was still 6’4″ and around 80kg.

Like this, but taller. And no hat…

Fast forward a couple of years and training got way better since I figured out a few key points and my diet started to improve. I got up to around 88kg about 4 years ago, mostly due to the fact that I stopped playing basketball and was studying for my personal training qualification.

Shock horror, I wasn’t running around hard for 3+ hours  each week and I put on some muscle…

As I continued to figure some things out about training and nutrition, I continued to make some progress, never really aiming for more mass, just interested in getting stronger. But the funny thing is, is that getting stronger coupled with good eating gets you more muscle mass. And in the last 12 months I’ve gone from 96kg to 104kg and reasonably lean with it (around 11% body fat if you believe the bf% equations).

stick man

So from one (former) hard gainer to another, here are a few tips to help you put on some hard won muscle and leave your skinny guy with abs title behind once and for all!

  1. If you “can’t” gain weight or specifically muscle mass, then no matter what you say, you aren’t eating enough.
  2. You have to have enough surplus calories to support growth whilst limiting fat gain. If you aren’t tracking, I suggest you start. You have to know how much you are eating in order to change it.
  3. Protein, protein, protein. Research suggests that anywhere between 2 and 4 times bodyweight in Kgs is your grams per day target. If you are looking to go from 80kg to 85, then you need a minimum of 170g of protein per day. I’m currently at around 2.5g per kg and it’s working well.
  4. Carbs are your friend. Fuel for both training and recovery processes from good quality carbs are essential, but don’t worry if a little junk gets in there too. Mmmm doughnuts…


  1. Training should be focussed mainly on getting stronger. Compound movements such as the deadlift, bench press and either a front or back squat are good here. Great technique and gradually increasing volume will lead you here you need to go and will highlight weaknesses which can be targeted with your accessory exercise choices. speaking of which…
  2. You don’t need excessively high amounts of accessory work, 6 to 8 accessory exercises per session in the 8-12 and 12 to 15 rep ranges will complement your strength work. Allowing you to put more effort into each set and spend less time farting about with meaningless exercises.
  3. Measure total volume each session, sets x reps x loads. This should be going up most weeks barring injury or illness. If you increase your weekly volume by 300kg (which over 3 or 4 sessions is a very small amount) each month you could be increasing by 1200kg over your sessions and you will pack on some extra muscle to deal with it better next time.
  4. More volume is great, to a point. You need to learn to rest too. Cut the extra stuff out. If you play sports, train and run or swim a couple of times a week, then you are going to struggle to maintain, never mind gain weight. Spend 2 or 3 months focussed on training and see what happens without the extra calorie demands from the other stuff.
  5. Training 4-5 days per week is going to be pretty good, this gives you 2-3 days to rest, recover and grow. Use it to rest, recover and grow. And no, a quick games of 5s doesn’t count as rest…
  6. Sprints and complexes are good to boost fitness and strength whilst helping keep you lean. Short and high intensity is the key.
  7. You still don’t eat enough. For the next 8-12 weeks, eat like its your job.

Stay strong,


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