Choosing a workout routine when you’re a hardgainer

A gym routine that is optimized for your body type can boost your results as a hardgainer. If you design your workout plan properly, you will see that genetics only provide challenges that can be overcome on the road to bodybuilding excellence.

Here is a guide to choosing a workout routine that really delivers the gains you seek.

Focus on Compound Lifts

Using Compound Lifts for lean muscleCompound lifts should be the cornerstone of a successful bodybuilding plan for hardgainers. In the professional bodybuilding routines described by magazines, you might see long lists of exercises aimed at individual muscles. In reality, those workouts are barely ideal for anyone, much less hardgainers.

Bicep curls and quad extensions are examples of isolation exercises and are best used to refine a physique rather than to create one. Importantly, isolation exercises often target small peripheral muscles instead of the larger muscle groups.

You can build virtually every muscle in your body using compound lifts, and this technique is especially beneficial for hardgainers for a number of reasons.

Because compound lifts target some of the biggest muscles in the body, such as the lats, quads and pecs, they increase testosterone levels more than isolation exercises. Compound exercises also help you limit the time you spend working out, decreasing the release of cortisol, which breaks down muscle. By minimizing workout time, compound lifts also increase the time you can spend resting, which is when muscle growth actually happens.

Compound lifts include:

  • deadlift
  • bench press
  • squat
  • dip
  • pullup
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Avoid Working Out to Failure

Some bodybuilding gurus recommend working out to failure as a matter of habit, but this is probably not ideal for hardgainers. First, the higher levels of cortisol common to thinner body types is increased by training to failure and will limit gains. Furthermore, going to failure on every set will burn out your glycogen stores and reduce the total number of sets you can perform as a result. Finally, you will also require more rest to recuperate after training to failure.

If you notice signs of overtraining, such as fatigue, rapid heartbeat and low appetite, you may be pushing things too hard in the gym. Although training your muscles to failure is fine once in awhile as a tool to push strength gains, you will maximize your progress by at least avoiding it on sets prior to your last ones in a session. In the long term, stopping before muscle failure can help you maintain your intensity for more consistent progress.

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Keep Workouts Short

Short WorkoutsOne of the keys to building muscle as a hardgainer is maximizing anabolic hormones, such as testosterone, and minimizing catabolic hormones, such as cortisol. Bulky lifters are not as likely to run into hormonal problems from spending hours in the gym, but doing so as a hardgainer may actually limit your gains.

Notably, research has shown that testosterone starts to drop after about 45 minutes of continuous strength training.

If this applies to the average bodybuilder, even 45 minutes may be too long for hardgainers. At the very least, monitor the time you spend in the gym and note how your strength and stamina changes over different time periods. Be sure to rest between sets, but plan your workout for efficiency so you can get in and out before your session becomes counterproductive.

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Do Not Work Out Every Day

At first glance, one might think that increased training frequency would equal faster gains. This may be true when you are first beginning to lift and are starting from scratch, but training every day is likely to hamper your progress in the long term. This is particularly true if you are working with heavy weights or lifting near your max at every session.

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Let Muscle Groups Rest for a Week Between Sessions

People vary in terms of their recovery speed, which depends on diet, training routine and other factors, but a good rule of thumb to follow is to wait about a week before training the same muscles again. If you are keeping training sessions short, you will probably split your program into three days per week with a workout every other day. For example, you might train your legs and back one day, you chest and triceps two days later and your upper back and biceps two days after that. This would give each muscle group eight days to recover between sessions but would also let you work out frequently enough to keep testosterone levels high.

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Minimize or Avoid Vigorous Aerobic Exercise

Vigorous aerobic exercise, such as running, may be popular for overall health support, but it can also elevate stress hormones, consume precious calories and ultimately prevent you from gaining as much mass as you would otherwise. However, being sedentary whenever you are not at the gym is also not ideal for health or recovery. Instead, consider milder cardiovascular exercise, such as walking. Walking can promote your bodybuilding progress in several ways. First, it boosts insulin sensitivity, making muscle growth easier. Second, because walking increases oxygenation and blood flow through the muscles, it can actually help speed recovery. Finally, light exercise like walking can even help with digestion and appetite, which can be especially beneficial for hardgainers.

If you still feel drawn to vigorous cardio exercise but want to minimize its likelihood of hindering mass gains, avoid doing it on a completely empty stomach. For an alternative to jogging or distance running, you can also switch to sprinting, an anaerobic exercise that comes naturally to many long-legged hardgainers and can actually boost testosterone.

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Refeed Right After Working Out

Stress hormones run high and glycogen stores run low after your work out, making fast refeeding essential to minimize muscle loss and maximize gains. A mixed meal that includes protein and carbohydrates would give you the nutrients you need, but the speed of nutrient absorption is of major importance here. Whey has long been a popular post-workout shake for bodybuilders because of its fast absorption, dependable insulin release and balanced profile of amino acids, including the much-touted BCAAs, or branch-chained amino acids. Hardgainers may also benefit from weight-gainer formulas that include carbohydrates, such as maltodextrin or dextrose, to further amplify release of insulin, which inhibits cortisol release and is often lower in skinny hardgainers.

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Get Plenty of Rest

It has often been said that the bulk of muscle building happens in the bedroom rather than the gym. If you fail to get enough rest between workouts, your gains will definitely suffer. Rest refers not only to sleep but also to downtime during the day. If you are tired, try to sleep rather than forcing yourself to blast through the day on muscle-wasting adrenaline. Deep, restful sleep is when the body produces most of its human growth hormone, a chief hormone controlling growth of muscle and loss of fat. Furthermore, even mild sleep deprivation will lower testosterone, raise cortisol and impair athletic performance. One study actually found that for each hour of sleep lost, testosterone levels dropped by 15 percent in men.

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Relax and Watch Your Muscles Grow

Excessive amounts of physical or mental stress can raise levels of cortisol and lower testosterone, reducing your gains. Moreover, the body is less likely to devote precious resources to building new tissue if it is sensing chronic threats, whether those threats are real or perceived. Be sure to regularly engage in recreational activities if you want to maximize your progress in the gym. Walks, soothing music and meditation are a few relaxing tools you can use to promote an anabolic hormone profile.

If you regularly consume caffeine or alcohol, you may want to try limiting these habits and see if your mass gains increase. Caffeine is a great performance enhancer for working out, but you may benefit from limiting it outside of the gym because it increases stress and boosts metabolism, which can break down muscle and burn through calories instead of using them for building, respectively. Although alcohol may seem relaxing, it raises cortisol in amounts beyond a single drink and causes a rebound effect on adrenaline and stress. Of course, alcohol also raises estrogen and lowers testosterone.

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Aim for Consistency

Consistency is a cornerstone of building muscle. To keep making progress, you need to constantly challenge yourself in the gym. At the same time, you have to monitor how your body is responding to the weights so that you will avoid injury and know when to increase the weight, sets or reps.

It has been said that the most successful bodybuilders also have some of the strongest connective tissues. No matter how powerful your muscles are, you will be forced to take a break or even quit training permanently if you injure your joints badly enough. You can reduce the likelihood of this happening by using proper lifting form, resting enough between sessions and taking in enough calories to support routine repair of your muscles and joints. Certain exercises, such as those that strengthen the rotator cuffs in the shoulders, can also help you avoid any interruptions in your program. If you plan to build and maintain your physique for the long term, never let yourself work out while injured.

As with other pursuits, success in bodybuilding is supported by a workable plan with clearly defined goals and a willingness to re-analyze your approach regularly. Tracking your goals and the progress you make towards them with a journal or phone app can help you maintain the confidence and drive you need to gain the mass you want. In the end, your willingness to do what it takes to succeed will be the biggest factor in how far you go regardless of whether your gains come easy or hard.

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