The Hardgainer’s Nutrition Plan

Jay Cutler, bodybuilding Pro

Not everyone is lucky enough to have the genetics of someone like IFBB pro Jay Cutler, who piled on an astounding 40 pounds of muscle in his first two years of training. Truth is, many of the rest of us are hardgainers — gym regulars who, although fairly grounded in our approach to training and nutrition, fail to achieve meaningful changes in our physiques.

Perhaps you’re like the very lean individual who carries less than 10% bodyfat and endlessly cries, “I just can’t get big!” Or maybe you resemble the heavyset individual who carries more than 15% bodyfat and out of frustration complains, “I always get fat when I try to build mass!” Either way, the solution lies in creating the ideal eating plan to allow you to pack on mass or skillfully add muscle while preventing the accumulation of bodyfat.

Eat Big to Get Big
The hardgainer’s core tools for adding mass begin with establishing proper caloric intake. According to Jackie Berning, PhD, RD, of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, very lean individuals who struggle to pack on mass must concentrate on increasing calories. “Obviously, to put on lean body mass, you have to stimulate the body to do so through high-intensity weight training. But training is a waste of time unless you support the addition of lean body mass with lots of fuel. A high calorie intake is the fertilizer that supports muscle growth. With this in mind, she recommends that men add 500-1,000 calories a day to their daily intake; women can suffice with 250-500 extra calories a day.

Carbs & When to Eat Them
One bit of conflicting advice floating around the locker room is the best time of day to curtail your carbohydrate intake. Some suggest that eating carbs late at night may lead to increases in bodyfat, while others believe that timing your carb intake isn’t necessary. What’s best for you may depend on your goals. Hardgainers with low body-fat should eat within a couple of hours of going to bed, since their fast-moving metabolism may put them at risk of slipping into a negative calorie balance while sleeping. Those hoping to sidestep increases in bodyfat may want to phase their caloric intake by eating more carbs earlier in the day and around their workouts, when energy demands are greatest.

Types of carbohydrates may also be a consideration. Fast-acting carbs called high-glycemic or simple carbs, such as honey, sugar, white bread, fat-free cakes and snacks, digest into blood sugar at a faster rate than slow-acting carbohydrates called low-glycemic carbs. Berning explains that the latter – – like yams, peaches, oatmeal, chick-peas and yogurt — work well for those trying to control calories. “You tend to stay fuller longer and may have less of a tendency to eat.”

A preworkout meal comprised of low-glycemic carbs may be best for the heavier hardgainer who wants to build muscle while losing bodyfat. Oatmeal mixed with protein powder such as Muscle Milk , for example, digests slowly, providing a steady source of immediate fuel and sparing muscle glycogen reserves. Saturated glycogen reserves are associated with muscle growth, and depleting them may stimulate a metabolic shift in which body protein becomes a fuel source. Choose whey protein as your preworkout protein source because it’s abundant in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) — the three amino acids used directly for fuel by working muscles when glycogen levels fall, thereby sparing body protein (muscle). Plus, BCAAs can positively affect growth hormone and testosterone levels, two important hormones that influence bodyfat deposition.’

The opposite holds true for super-lean hardgainers. Besides requiring more calories and a heck of a lot more total carbs, they can get by on almost any carbohydrate choice. Why? Really lean individuals tend to react somewhat differently than their heavyset counterparts in regard to carbohydrate metabolism; they may produce less of the sugar-clearing storage hormone called insulin or their muscles may have a superior ability to “uptake” glucose out of the blood. In effect, simple carbs reach the blood quickly, but insulin is likely released in a steady, controlled fashion, leaving them with plenty of blood sugar to train. Furthermore, hardgainers who pack away another 1,000 calories a day are more likely to have greater reserves of muscle glycogen, allowing them to train hard and long.


Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules, and the type of carbs you consume after training should always include simple carbs, because they’re superior at restoring muscle glycogen.- This may be the time when hardgainers struggling to control their bodyfat can splurge on fat-free cakes or cookies or simply eat other high-glycemic carbs like mashed potatoes, rice cakes or cold breakfast cereal. Generally, the carbs consumed in the post-training meal must be stored as glycogen before influencing the accumulation of bodyfat.

Protein by the Pound
Protein is another important component in muscle growth — dietary amino acids from complete sources of protein such as meat, fowl, fish and dairy products become part of new muscle tissue to support growth and repair. But don’t focus on protein to the exclusion of calories, Berning warns. “Sure, the body needs protein to grow, but much of that protein is often wasted if total caloric intake falls too low.” Indeed, one of the repeated blunders lean hardgainers commit is to gulp down 3-4 protein shakes daily without eating an additional 500-1,000 calories a day; in this case, some of the protein may be simply burned as fuel rather than used to support muscle growth. And if you not only fail to eat a large surplus of calories each day but eat too few total calories altogether, muscle can be broken down to be used as energy — just the opposite of what you want.

The more carbs you eat, the less likely your body will rely on protein as fuel, so the lean hardgainer who eats an assortment of energy-yielding carbs will certainly need more muscle-building protein than the sedentary person, yet less than the hardgainer with a more lethargic metabolism. Berning suggests about 0.7 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, but when calories aren’t excessive (for hardgainers fighting bodyfat), protein requirements go up to 0.9 gram per pound of bodyweight. Therefore, a 165-pound super-lean trainer can get by on as few as 115 grams of protein a day as long as he or she is eating another 1,000 calories; the 165-pounder who’s eating closer to maintenance will surely need 149 grams of protein daily.

Packets & Powders
Increasing your calorie intake is the foundation upon which mass-building diet plans are based. That’s why many hardgainers opt for the convenience of MRPs — high-protein, low-carbohydrate meal-replacement products. MRPs may be good for the larger dieting competitive bodybuilder who needs a 50-gram wallop of protein when severely restricting caloric intake; very strict diets cause an added demand for protein as fuel, and a great-tasting MRP may be a preferred choice over dry chicken breasts or baked fish.

Weight-gain powders that pack at least 50 grams of carbohydrates along with 20 grams of protein per serving are more suited for the person requiring extra calories to build. As you can see by the sample meal plans above, whether you’re lean or carry more bodyfat, you must always eat more carbs than protein to support muscle growth. Thus, shakes that yield twice as many carbs as protein are ideal for mass-seeking individuals.

If your metabolism is so fast that you need 500 or so grams of carbs a day, stick with weight-gain powders or create your own using a low-carb protein powder like whey protein and blending it with high-carbohydrate mixers such as fruit juice or fruit, or try blending low-fat milk, whey protein and low-fat ice cream for a high-carb, calorically dense shake

Heavyset hardgainers can also use whey protein, and will benefit by mixing it with low-glycemic mixers like skim milk, orange juice, yogurt, apples and strawberries.

The Cardio Component
The heavier hardgainer who’s constantly keeping an eye on his or her waist, hips or thighs and carries a bodyfat of 15% or higher must keep a tighter check on total caloric intake. Berning suggests: “More work, less calories. Match your daily caloric intake to your expenditure and include some aerobic work along with your weight training to get your body to use fat as fuel.” Two to three 30-40-minute sessions a week should do the trick.

Be careful, however, of overdoing cardio in your zeal to burn fat. Too much aerobic work could backfire, and undercut muscle growth by expending too many calories. If you continue to see strength increases in the gym, your cardio isn’t interfering with your muscle-building. Yet if you begin losing strength, you may be doing too much aerobic activity. Finally, if you’re neither losing nor gaining strength, you’re probably shedding fat while gaining lean body mass — and Berning advises ditching the bathroom scale in exchange for bodyfat testing via a simple set of skin calipers. “It’s possible to rearrange and be losing fat while adding lean body mass, which would result in no net change on the scale,” she notes. “Bodyfat measurements can pinpoint what’s going on.” This will help you determine how much fat you’re losing and how much lean mass you’re adding.

About the Author

My name is Israel Lagares. I used to be the kind of guy that was always in shape, but over the last few years I've fallen off tremendously. This site is my final attempt to get back into shape. So far I've lost 70.4 lbs. Check out my weight loss chart, weight loss videos and progress pics. Follow my journey, those of others, and read our thoughts on various health topics. Share your thoughts, experience, and journey here on FMU.

Community Thoughts (25)

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  1. DennisNo Gravatar says:

    Yes, yes! Great article, great topic.

  2. MuataNo Gravatar says:

    Excellent post Israel, especially about doing too much cardio because I think the more weight one has to lose the more he favors doing more cardio and, unfortunately, over-training and losing strength.

    • Israel LagaresNo Gravatar says:

      The is a common misconception that you need to over do the cardio to lose weight. It’s time to change that.

  3. Good, common sense approach. If you are eating an extra 1000 calories a day and burning an extra 500 this should put on around 1lb a week

  4. TomNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write this out. I fall under the category of less tan 10% body fat and cannot add much muscle weight. I’m going to have to use this advice to help me increase my size.

    • geedaNo Gravatar says:

      how can you not gain muscle?????? biggest bullshit ive ever heard ” Oh I cant gain weight ” get the fuck outta here it isnt thgat hard at all simply eat more and train hard 95 percent of people can gain weight if you cant youre simply not eating enough. If you put on body fat bad luck if that’s whats required to gain then do it then shed the fat later. What a joke.

  5. JennaNo Gravatar says:

    Goodness — the guy in that picture is HUGE!

  6. It’s hard to believe that guy didn’t use any chemical help to get that big.
    However, I have to agree that if you don’t put a lot of effort in your training you never going to get the results that you wanted, because muscles are not going to grow without any training even if you take any “extra” help.

    • Israel LagaresNo Gravatar says:

      Jay Cutler has probably tried everything there is under the sun, it’s a part of bodybuilding to try to be the best.

  7. Great intro article for hardgainers, Is!

    I’d also recommend the book, “Scrawny to Brawny,” for even more information and a full 4 phase workout program.

    I personally gained over 40 pounds in 3 months with the help of that book.

    Of course, there was some fat in there with the gain being so fast, but a lot of new muscle as well.

    • Israel LagaresNo Gravatar says:

      Brandon, do you have a review of the book on your site? I’d love to link to it for readers that may benefit from it.

  8. Eat big to get big is exactly right. 500 + extra calorie diet is the way to go for sure. Great tips!

  9. It’s great to see someone discuss the importance of cardio for hardgainer workouts. Too many authors warn hardgainers against performing any cardio at all. As long as you supplement with enough calories you should be fine.

    Great post!

  10. Steve ShawNo Gravatar says:

    No better advice then eat big to get big.

  11. BundersleagueNo Gravatar says:

    I had been 10 +/- 0.25 stone my whole adult life (say 17yrs to 27yrs) untill my GF lost 5 stone on a diet and I promised to put on whatever she lost as a solidarity thing. I was eating at least 6000 calories / day (some of the local produce I was eating didn’t have info on so I didn’t even count that, just ate it and it was clearly dripping with fat). I had to learn to eat as soon as I stopped feeling sick from having eaten too much, stuff something else into my face. I was eating one square healthy meal / day and the rest was garbage, fried chicken, milkshakes, McDonalds, pre-packed sausages @ about 30% fat some days I was eating two multi packs of Mars bars just to keep my calories up, Milkshakes @ about 450kcals / 500ml, drinking three a day e.t.c. e.t.c. I wasn’t even doing any exercise for the first two months, for the third and fourth I took up cycling. After about 6 months of this I was up to 14.5 stone, up top it was all fat but I had legs like a Rugby player / American Football player. My legs chaffed under my tackle from rubbing together all day and it was all muscle. I changed to a more physical, less well paid job (couldn’t afford all those calories) and lost it all again as quickly as I’d put it on, well almost, back down to 10.5 stone and I can’t pinch a centimetre let alone an inch.

    I keep reading people saying “up your calories by about 1000” well I’m just here to say that ain’t going to work for everyone. If you’re hyperactive by nature, unable to sit still, on the edge of your seat all the time, much prefer to be moving than sitting, find it too hot all the time, walk around in the snow in a T-shirt and shorts without feeling cold then I recommend eating as much as you can force down in a day without it coming back up, don’t worry about fat if you’re anything like me you’ll have no problem losing it again I don’t recommend eating junk but I do recommend upping your calories to about 6000 / 7000 if possible, if it’s too much tone it down again.

    Whatever works for you I guess.

  12. eat big to get big.. so true, when i’m bulking i generally eat really unhealthy foods so i can just get enough calories. and also lets not forget about milk:) thats the best bulking food.

    • johnNo Gravatar says:

      Your fucking retarded unhealthy food puts on fat. You want healthy food as calories so your body reacts good to it. Calories is only an important thing if your going to workout and eat healthy so you don’t bulk up but look fat at the same time cause then its going to take even longer to cut down and it wont all be muscle.milk has 5g grams of protein per serving and the calories aren’t even that good. Use the calories to eat good food

  13. geedaNo Gravatar says:

    I agree i believe milk is a great fuel it helped me bulk up wickedly when i was 19.

  14. I deff agree on eating big to get big. I guess i should start eating more haha.. Like Wellness i keep it healthy with milk as well.

  15. johnNo Gravatar says:

    you get big when your in your teen age and you don’t even need a lot of calories just protein to recover your muscles because that’s when your testosterone is the highest so that when you can get your biggest.

  16. Nice commentary. I like your whole take on carbs. Although they are the worst food for me at least, you need to know when and how much to eat them.

  17. VinceNo Gravatar says:

    Great post-really useful stuff for hardgainers. Although it’s been said a hundred times, most people just dont realise that nutrition is the most fundamental part of any training regime.

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