Do you feel like you’re working your ass off in the gym and getting nowhere? Maybe you’ve made some gains, but you still have scrawny arms and a flat chest.
If you’ve ever used the words “hardgainer” or “poor genetics” to describe yourself, you know you have to be strategic in your training, and avoid these common pitfalls.
You don’t lift heavy enough
If you want to get bigger and gain muscle mass, you have to get stronger. A lot stronger. And if you want to get stronger, you have to lift heavy shit. Period.
Sounds simple enough. But still so many guys toil away with moderate weights in the 8-12+ rep range. If you are not genetically gifted or chemically enhanced, it’s a highway to a plateau.
As an ectomorph, muscle growth requires you to focus on the big lifts with free weights: squat, deadlift, chest press, overhead press, row. Lifting heavy means 4-6 reps per set. When you can do more than six reps, it’s time to add weight.
Work in the 5-8 rep range on accessory lifts, which you can use to correct muscle imbalances and round out your program. Direct ab work can be done at higher rep ranges (10-12+). Whenever possible, choose free weights over machines.
But it’s critically important that you lift with good form, especially during heavy, low-rep sets. So if you haven’t been consistent in the gym, start lifting for a few weeks at higher and moderate rep ranges and perfect your technique. Then you’ll be prepped to tackle the heavier weights successfully.
After 2-3 months of heavy lifting, you can return to the higher rep ranges with a lot more strength. You’ll continue to make gains and you can figure out which type of lifting packs on the most mass. When you plateau, go heavy again.
You’re not eating enough
You probably feel like you’re already “eating a ton!” But track your intake consistently, and the numbers might tell a different story.
There are hundreds of apps that help you track food intake. You don’t have to do it every single day, but regular tracking will keep your nutrition on track. My favorite app is Control My Weight by Calorie King. (Marketed as a weight loss app, but also great for mass gain). It’s super fast and easy to enter your meals.
You could also be eating too little protein. If you’re training hard but protein deficient, you will not grow. There are many schools of thought on protein intake, but for strength/mass gains, eat 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. So a 150-pound dude should eat 150 grams per day. This is a tried and true recommendation that is effective and safe. Depending on your leanness, eat 1.5 to 2 grams of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight, and .5 grams of fat per pound.
If you really don’t know how much food to eat, learn how to figure your caloric needs, or check out this numbers-free guide from Precision Nutrition. And if you’re slamming coffee all day long, you won’t be hungry enough.
You never change your program
Been doing the same workout routine for the last 4 months? It’s time to move on. And if you just swap out one exercise for another, while still doing 3 sets of 10 ’til the end of time, your body will never change. A well written mass gain program will take you through distinct phases with strategically manipulated training variables (i.e. sets, reps, intensity, rest periods). After 3-4 weeks of adaptation, your body will be ready for an adjustment.
On the other hand, changing programs all the time (or ‘winging it’ every time) will get you nowhere fast. If you’ve taken the time to find and start a mass gain program, finish it! If you find a newer, better, shinier thing, too bad. Finish what you started.
You don’t sleep enough
Sleep is probably the most underrated part of any good training program. Your gains don’t happen in the gym, they happen when you’re resting, especially when you’re asleep.
Lack of sleep has been linked to muscle loss, and decreased testosterone and decreased growth hormone. It also blunts your ability to regulate appetite and slows fat loss. So if you think you can just “sleep when you’re dead,” that’s fine. But you’re going to be a skinny-fat corpse.
Get 7-9 hours a night. Your body (and life) will improve.
You do too much cardio
If you’re skinny-fat, or even just a little soft in the middle, you’ve got a special conundrum. You need to burn fat. But you have to eat a lot to feed the muscle and fuel your workouts. So you run, or spin or do bootcamps or whatever. And you don’t grow (except in the gut) because you’re training with too much volume.
To burn fat in a way that supports lean muscle mass, do high-intensity interval training instead of steady-state cardio. HIIT preserves muscle and burns more fat than traditional cardio. It releases growth hormone which protects lean mass and helps your body utilize fat for energy, long after you stop exercising.
A basic example of HIIT would be short, high-intensity sprints mixed in with jog/walk recovery intervals. If you can do this longer than 25 minutes, you’re not working hard enough.
You’re not consistent
Figure out a way to get yourself to the gym. Every time.
It seems obvious, but you have to lift pretty much every other day consistently to get the muscle mass you want. Without that stimulus 3-4 times per week, you’re not going to get very far.
If you miss a lot of workouts, or take unintended weeks off, figure out a strategy to make lifting a higher priority. Work, family, fitness and life will always be competing for your time and energy. But with 168 hours in a week, I believe that you can eek out three of them and hit the weight room.
What hurdles do you face in your quest to put on strength and size?