4 Practical Tips for “Hardgainers”

Posted on by Ben Bruno

The majority of the people I work with at the gym fall into one of two categories: adults trying to lose weight and high school boys trying to gain weight: more specifically, adults trying to lose fat and high school boys trying to gain muscle. Both goals are hard to achieve, and it seems to be one of those “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” types of things. People trying to lose fat look at the people trying to gain weight with envy, and vice versa.

You’ll often hear that weight loss and weight gain is simple matter of calories in versus calories. Take in more than you burn and you’ll gain weight, take in less than you burn and you’ll lose weight. Simple, right?

For adults trying to lose fat, I really don’t think it’s that simple. Telling them simply to “eat a little bit less” is a gross oversimplification unless they only have a very small amount of fat to lose. Some people will try to make it out to be that simple, but these are usually in-shape people that have never been overweight themselves. I’ve never been overweight myself either so I won’t to pretend to know what it’s like, but I still don’t think it’s that simple because I see that just telling people to eat less hardly ever works. There are usually a myriad of psychological factors involved, and most cases are very different, which in turn requires different strategies and solutions.

For younger guys trying to gain weight though, it really is almost as simple as “eat more”. There usually aren’t a whole lot of psychological factors involved, and it’s almost always just a matter of the person not eating enough, or thinking they’re eating more than they really are. I’ve come to this conclusion based on the boys I work with, but also from my own experience of taking myself from 122 pounds to 185 pounds.

Almost every conversation I have with a kid about gaining weight goes something like this:

Kid: I just don’t get it. I eat SO MUCH all the time and I just CAN”T gain weight.

Me: You need to eat more then.

Kid: Dude, you should see it, I eat SO MUCH!

Me: What’d you eat today?

Kid: I had a huge bowl of cereal for breakfast, a ham and cheese sandwich, a bag of Baked Lays and some Oreos for lunch, some fruit snacks and a banana after school, and a huge plate of spaghetti and meatballs for dinner.

And actually, that’s me being pretty generous. A lot of the kids don’t even eat that much. The specifics of the food aren’t that important. The common thread is that they aren’t eating that much even though they think they are. Combine that with the fact they’re playing sports all the time and then “relaxing” by playing more sports with their buddies at home (which I actually love, by the way) and it’s not surprising that they often struggle to gain weight. I had the exact same problem.

When it comes to gaining weight, you really have to stop comparing yourself to other people and how much they eat and just focus on the numbers.

If the scale isn’t moving, you have to eat more. Period.

Here are a few practical steps that can really help with packing on some muscle.

Notice that I said practical. These steps may not be perfect, but practical trumps perfect every day of the week.

Step 1. Weigh in weekly

Most of the time it’s the people who are trying to lose weight that are obsessed with weighing themselves. I actually don’t like frequent weigh-ins when weight loss is the goal for a number of reasons I won’t go into here, but I do like them when the goal is gaining weight. There is no mention of food choices or anything else at this stage; just weigh in once a week; preferably the same time each week.

If the number isn’t going up, the message is clear: eat more.

It’s important to realize that if you don’t have a big appetite naturally, you have to build it up over time. Eat a little more and a little more and pretty soon it won’t be so hard to eat as much. But that initial push takes some willpower.

Step 2. Protein at every meal

My first tip I give is to include protein at every meal. This does two things: it obviously gets them to eat more protein, but it also tends to improve food choices in general.

Rather than a donut, a bagel, or a bowl of cereal for breakfast, maybe it’s a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich.

Or instead of mac and cheese, it’s a burger.

Or instead of getting fried dough or candy at a game, it’s chicken fingers.

Remember, practicality over perfection.

Some fitness folks consider it a “cheat meal” if there’s any gluten whatsoever, the meat isn’t free-range, or the vegetables aren’t organic. That’s fine and commendable, but that’s not going to happen for most people—especially younger guys.

It’s also important to clarify that “protein” means at least 20 grams of protein. So string cheese or mixed nuts don’t count as protein. Those foods are fine to eat, but only with another protein source included as well.

Step 3. Protein shakes

I also recommend getting a high-quality protein powder and having 1-3 shakes throughout the day, either as a snack or as an adjunct to a meal. I always recommend a shake after the workout, and if they’re the type that struggles to eat enough protein or just doesn’t have a big appetite in general, I’ll suggest drinking 1-2 more throughout the day too.

This obviously increase protein intake, but I also think that for a lot of guys, drinking protein shakes makes them feel like they are being healthy, which motivates them to eat better at their other meals. I know this way the case with me, and I see it all the time with kids too.

Make sure to pick a protein powder that tastes good or else you’ll be a lot less likely to drink it. There are some “hardcore” folks that would drink liquid chalk if it meant more muscle, but most won’t—myself included. I personally like Metabolic Drive because it’s a little thicker than most straight whey powders, which I like.

With most protein powders, two scoops mixed with water or milk will do the trick to start. I usually have one shake after my workout, one in the afternoon between lunch and dinner, and I’ll sometimes (actually usually) have one before I go to bed.

Step 4. Be careful about complaining

If you’re someone that struggles to gain weight, don’t complain about it to people that are struggling to lose weight. They will have no sympathy, and it’s an easy way to get them to dislike you. Saving the complaining for your fellow “hardgainer” friends.

Better yet, quit the complaining altogether and just take care of business.


  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.bergeron2 Steve Bergeron

    Nuts and nut butters on off days can make a HUGE difference for some. A lot of times people who want to ‘stay lean’ and gain size are afraid of dietary fat. They are easy to carry or keep in your office or car. 🙂

    • Ben Bruno

      Yep, nut butters can be great, and lots of people like them. I don’t personally, though I do eat almonds. I’m also allergic to peanuts 🙁

  • Cole123

    Ben, what would you say to some one who is overweight and trying to lose weight. Where would you tell them to start or how would you approach the situation. I have to admit I am a prime example of the calories in vs calories out. However, I know there are psychological factors that come into play. I work in a corporate setting and deal mainly with obese clients. Any advice on what to say or how to get them started?

    • Ben Bruno

      Cole, this could really be another blog, or a book even. Could you specifiy your questions and I’ll do my best to take a stab.

    • http://www.facebook.com/paul.white.3532507 Paul White

      I was going to ask that. I’ve been stuck at 42″ pants for months 🙁 My strength is still going up but my body doesn’t seem to be changing much; still have too much gut and love handles. I’ve started tracking my macros and I’m doing a protein shake 1-2x/day (instead of other snacks) so I’ll see if that helps…

  • Cole123

    What would you say to a client who, takes your recommendation on food choices and starts working out consistently prior to being sedentary. But after months have seen no results. I know I’m putting my trust in the fact that they have been making better choices, considering the fact that 60-70% of people underestimate there calories and food intake. So my question is what should I be telling them if the calorie in vs calorie out theory is the wrong approach.

  • Jake

    Great recommendations, Ben.

    You’re on point about the kids claiming that they eat “so much”; increasingly common is the excuse, “I have a fast metabolism”. These excuses that do nothing but distract from the goal.

    Hopefully this post motivates people to stop complaining and take action!


  • Nick

    “…quit the complaining altogether and just take care of business.”

    Words to live by.

  • Colin

    My 15 year old is an elite swimmer who, at 6’3″ was a stringbean. He trains 15+ hrs per week including gym workouts. We have been able to get him to build muscle over the last few months, all while maintaining 6-7% bodyfat using methods very similar to Bens recommendations. I believe patience and consistency are the key – like most things on life. Great post!


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