Hard-Gainer Nonsense

by Mike Arnold

Like most individuals who are passionate about what they do, enthusiasm is generally not in short supply when it comes to weight training and the beginner. Frequently, the novice will invest a tremendous amount of energy in pursuit of his goals, often taking things to the extreme in the hope of developing his physique as quickly as possible. In a beginner’s mind, the more he does, the faster he will grow…or so he thinks. Unfortunately, in all but a very small percentage of cases, such as a plan of action is sure to result in not only a decline in muscle growth, but usually a complete cessation of progress altogether. In order to rectify this dilemma, the BB’r will frequently set out to train even harder by adding more exercises and/or sets to his program. Inevitably, he experiences more of the same…frustration.

For decades now we have been hearing the term hard-gainer tossed around both in gyms and in the magazines, with some individuals lamenting that as many as 90% of all would-be bodybuilders fit into this woeful category of poor-responder. In reality, a hard-gainer is more aptly described as an “average” –gainer. A relatively small percentage of individuals are truly hard-gainers, which I categorize as a people, who despite proper program set-up (which entails training, nutrition, and rest) are unable to make any meaningful progress as BB’rs. These individuals do exist, but in truth, they are relatively rare and in most cases, even they can still typically make considerable progress when they dedicate themselves to their goal. Most individuals fall into the genetically average category and when exposed to the demands of a well thought out training & nutrition program, they can make consistent and appreciable progress towards their muscle-building goals.

It is not surprising that the term “hard-gainer” took a foothold in the 80’s, as this was the era which ushered in the modern gym explosion and a time which saw high volume training rule the day. This combination was ripe for popularizing such a term, especially with such a stark division between gym folk. In the 80’s, there were primarily two types of individuals who frequented the gymnasiums. Generally speaking, there was the competitive, steroid-using BB’r…and the drug-free, non-competitor who wanted to mimic the physique of his favorite Hollywood action star, but who lacked the performance enhancing advantages and overall know-how of his bodybuilding brethren. With the scene set, the term hard-gainer was henceforth liberally applied to anyone who did not make progress at the same rate as their drug-induced peers, citing a lack of genetic ability as the problem.
In addition to the obvious advantages afforded to the drug-using BB’r, the training systems of the day further compounded the problem. While used with success by some, the majority were not able to tolerate the sheer physical demands placed on the body when adhering to such programs. The combination of a drug-free status and severe overtraining was a guaranteed recipe for failure. However, as our knowledge of the process of muscle growth began to grow and became more evenly distributed among the masses, the gap in progress between serious competitive BB’rs and those who desired a more moderate build began to wane. By the 90’s, training knowledge had increased exponentially and the widespread availability of BB’ing drugs became a reality, permeating gyms across the country. Since then we have witnessed the acceptance of performance enhancing drugs in nearly every athletic circle world-wide, with continuing advancements being made in the arenas of training & nutrition.

These advancements in training & nutrition science allowed us to more clearly recognize the true potential of the human body and helped to de-popularize the term hard-gainer. Many who in days past would’ve been labeled as hard-gainers were now able to build their physiques to a point which would be recognized by the general public as a BB’r, lifting the imposed burden of genetic inadequacy. This was a significant departure from the days when looking the same year after year was commonplace for the average gym-goer. While it is clear that steroid use has a considerable impact on both the rate of growth, as well as one’s ultimate growth potential, it is at this juncture that I am going to deviate from my usual steroid-speak and address a variable which affects everyone who desires to build muscle tissue. This is the subject of weight training. Regardless of whether one employs performance enhancing drugs or not, this vital component of the muscle growth process cannot be over-looked if maximum progress is to become a reality.

Over the next few paragraphs I am not going to attempt to re-invent the wheel, but rather, we will address a topic which is rarely given enough consideration among beginner and intermediate BB’rs. This is the topic of training. Being that we live in a day and age where so many people are spreading the false message that training intensity is of no consequence when one is using enough drugs, this topic is more relevant than ever. Intelligently applied effort in the gym has become almost a lost factor in the muscle building equation, despite the fact that it plays a critical role in building a solid foundation of muscle mass.
So, if you find yourself among the many beginner-intermediate level BB’rs whose primary focus is the acquisition of muscle tissue, then there is a good possibility that you are making serious mistakes in the gym when it comes to building size…mistakes which could be causing you to reap a mere fraction of the results you should be getting from your training sessions. While topic of training for the beginner-intermediate BB’r may seem to be a drastic departure from my normal PED laced commentary, my inspiration for this article comes from an incident I witnessed while training in the gym just the other day. Normally, I just kind of keep to myself and focus on what I am doing during my workouts, but on this day I began to pay attention to what the other guys in the gym were doing and as suspected, the gym was loaded with guys who wanted to get big as quickly as possible, but only a small few had any idea of how to go about accomplishing that goal.

The most commonly witnessed error was watching guys do set after set of several different exercises. If selecting any one of these misguided weight trainers at random, the typical chest workout routine would likely look something like this:

1.) Bench presses: 3-4 sets X 6-12 reps.
2.) Incline presses: 3-4 sets X 6-12 reps.
3.) Flat dumbbell flyes: 3-4 sets X 6-12 reps.
4.) Dips: 3-4 sets x bodyweight to failure.
5.) Cable crossovers: 3-4 sets X 6-12 reps.

In addition to the large number of sets involved (15-20), my 2nd observation was the lack of intensity generated over the course of such workouts. No one adhering to a similar training scheme was able to sustain an effective level of training intensity throughout the entire workout, but paced themselves, in order to get through all of their sets. After viewing these guys training, it became apparent how many of them were severely holding back their progress. For those beginner to intermediate level BB’rs who want to leave the land of the hard-gainer behind and start adding mass & strength at an appreciable rate, one needs to get away from the “more is better” mentality and begin applying the key principles for muscle growth:

1.) Each bodypart should be trained only once every 5-7 days
2.) Exercise selection should include only the most basic mass-builders for each bodypart.
3.) Select 2-3 exercises for larger body parts, per workout, and 2 exercises for smaller body parts.
4.) Perform 2-3 work-sets per exercise (not including warm-ups).
5.) Utilize a rep range of 6-10 for upper-body and 8-15 for lower-body.
6.) Allow 3 minutes rest between sets for single-joint exercises and 3-5 minutes rest for multi-joint exercises.
7.) Train to positive failure on every work-set.
8.) Implement the progressive resistance training principle.

The following outline provides an example of how to effectively implement all of these principles into one’s training program and is vastly superior to most of the traditional BB’ing programs we see littering gyms across the country:

Monday (Chest, Biceps, Triceps)
Exercise #1: Flat or Decline barbell bench presses. 3 sets. 6-10 reps. 3-4 minutes rest between sets.
Exercise #2: Incline barbell bench presses. 3 sets. 6-10 reps. 3-4 minutes rest between sets.
Exercise #3: Standing barbell curls. 3 sets. 6-10 reps. 3 minutes rest between sets.
Exercise #4: E-Z preacher curls. 3 sets. 6-10 reps. 3 minutes rest between sets.
Exercise #5: Dips. 3 sets. 6-10 reps. 3 minutes rest between sets.
Exercise #6: Overhead two-hand dumbbell extension or/ Overhead E-Z bar extension. 3 sets. 6-10 reps. 3 minutes rest between sets.

Wednesday (Quads, Hams, Calves)
Exercise #1: Barbell full squats. 3 sets. 8-12 reps. 4-5 minutes rest between sets.
Exercise #2: 45 degree plate-loaded leg press. 3 sets. 8-12 reps. 4-5 minutes rest between sets.
Exercise #3: Stiff-leg deadlifts. 3 sets. 8-12 reps. 3-4 minutes rest between sets.
Exercise #4: Reverse leg curls. 3 sets. 8-12 reps. 3 minutes rest between sets.
Exercise #5: Standing calf raise or/ Calf raise on 45 degree leg press. 3 sets. 8-12 reps. 3 minutes rest between sets.
Exercise #6: Seated calf raise. 3 sets. 8-12 reps. 3 minutes rest between sets.

Friday (Back, Delts)
Exercise #1: Wide grip chins. 3 sets. 6-10 reps. 3 minutes rest between sets.
Exercise #2: Barbell rows. 3 sets. 6-10 reps. 3-4 minutes rest between sets.
Exercise #3: Machine pullovers. 3 sets. 6-10 reps. 3 minutes rest between sets.
Exercise #4: Seated barbell overhead press. 3 sets. 6-10 reps. 3-4 minutes rest between sets.
Exercise #5: Dumbbell side laterals. 3 sets. 6-10 reps. 3 minutes rest between sets.
Exercise #6: Machine real laterals (on chest flye machine). 3 sets. 6-10 reps. 3 minutes rest between sets.
Exercise #7: Barbell shrugs. 3 sets. 6-10 reps. 3 minutes rest between sets.

For those of you who are not aware, let’s take a minute to discuss the progressive resistance training principle. In a nutshell, this principle states that a stronger muscle is a larger muscle and therefore, each time we go into the gym, our primary goal should be to beat our numbers from the previous workout on every exercise. We do this by doing either more weight for the same reps, more reps with the same weight, or both. For many, in order to keep track of our weights and reps at every workout, we will need to keep a training log. This training log serves as both a record keeper and a clear-cut reminder of exactly what we need to do in order accomplish our goal of beating the previous workout’s numbers.

Don’t worry if you cannot beat your previous numbers at every workout. The goal is to try to “try” and beat these numbers, but regardless of effort, this is not always going to happen. For those of you who have just begun using such a program, your numbers may increase from workout to work out for quite some time, especially on the bigger exercises, but after a while it will become a struggle. This is OK. After all, if we continually got stronger at every workout for years on end, men would be lifting 1000’s of pounds in exercises like curls and extensions, but obviously, this is not going to happen. Each time you exceed your previous best, you should relish the experience of having moved one step closer to your goals.

Why is progressive resistance so important? While we all have limits to our strength potential as humans, muscular strength, when developed within the hypertrophy rep range, is the single most important factor in building muscle tissue. There are other mechanisms by which muscle tissue can grow, but none come close to the growth potential of adding strength within the hypertrophy rep range. Allow me to prove my point. When was the last time you ever saw someone who could bench press only 200 lbs have a massive chest? Such a person might perform 20 different exercises use every muscle-building technique in the book, but his chest will not even begin to approach the sheer mass of someone who does only bench presses, yet can lift 500 lbs. It is the same with any bodypart. An 800 pound squatter will always trump a 400 pound squatter in terms of leg size…and someone who can curl 200 pounds will always have bigger biceps than someone can only curl 120 lbs. It does not matter what else a person does in their training; the much stronger person will always be significantly larger. In fact, even if you focused on nothing, but the progressive resistance principle on the basic mass-builders for your entire training life, your growth potential would far exceed the man who neglects progressive resistance (assuming genetic potential is equal).

In the column below, I have listed several basic exercises, along with accompanying levels of strength development. Should anyone begin to approach these strength markers, he will have achieved a degree of muscular size comparable to any pro BB’r.

Bench presses: 405 x 10.
Incline bench presses: 385 X 10.
Overhead presses: 330 X 10.
Dips: 400 x 10.
Full squats: 525 X 10.
Deadlifts: 550 X 10.
Barbell rows: 385 x 10.
Chins: 350 x 10.

Keep in mind that everyone is unique, with strength development progressing at various rates among the different exercises from individual to individual. The numbers above have only been listed as rough guidelines…nothing more.

Regarding rest between sets, it has been determined both in research circles, as well as the real world, that strength gains will improve at a faster rate when resting at least 3 minutes in-between sets, compared to those who rest only 1-2 minutes. When resting for such brief periods of time, the BB’r may experience a more pronounced pump, but his muscles will fatigue due to a build-up of metabolic waste products and/or oxygen deficit. This is not the type of stimulus we are looking for when attempting to build muscle tissue at a maximum rate. In contrast, when resting for longer periods of time, the BB’r is able to maintain near-maximal strength from exercise to exercise, resulting in faster strength gains and therefore, a more rapid increase in muscle size. Remember, weight training tailored towards the goal of muscle growth is not an aerobic activity, but an anaerobic one. We are primarily trying to stress the muscular system during our workouts, not build up our cardiovascular endurance. If increasing cardiovascular capacity is your chief goal, then take up long distance running.

So, how long has it been since you’ve added a visible amount of muscle to your physique? If your answer is anything longer than 1-2 months, then you’re doing something wrong. A BB’r should not be training for months on end without gaining any muscle tissue…and if he does, then something is wrong. The BB’r who properly applies the principles necessary for muscle growth should be able to continue adding muscle tissue on a monthly basis until he reaches the advanced levels of muscular development…and even then, steps can be taken to ensure he continues making further improvements. If you are one of the many BB’rs who has been relying on high-volume training in pursuit of the pump, yet your gains have all but stopped, perhaps you should toss your current program aside and begin to look at BB’ing training from a new perspective. Most of the various techniques and training systems out there do have value when utilized at the appropriate time or under the right circumstances, but for the beginner-intermediate level BB’r, nothing beats focusing on the basic exercises, while using the progressive resistance training principle as your guiding force.