For many years, I was quite undersized compared to my peers. At age 12 I stood on my tippy-toes at 4’8” and weighed in at 70 pounds, with a full set of hockey pads. My teenage years were noteworthy in that I scored some great deals in the “boys” section of Kohl’s. It wasn’t until my second year of college that I finally reached my full height of about 5’11”, but there was little substance to my slight, 137-pound (on a good day) frame.
It was short of a year prior to this time, when my vertical growth slowed, that I decided to take an interest in fitness with the intention of putting on muscle mass so that I wouldn’t look as ridiculous in any clothes I wore. When one is 20 years old, a shade or two below 6 feet, wearing small sized band t-shirts and 28” skinny jeans, they’re often genetically or environmentally hard-pressed to put on weight and must make a conscious and concerted effort to do so.
I began with no plan other than to work out as regularly as possible, with little notion of energy expenditure and musculoskeletal repair, but did make small strides despite much wasted effort and self-sabotage. It hasn’t been until the past couple years in my mid-twenties that I’ve put pieces together and gone up two shirt sizes, which, being a static marker of feedback, I feel is a better indicator of gain than an arbitrary number on a scale.
This article is intended for those who have trouble putting on muscle (the so-called “hardgainers”) and do not want to make an outlandish investment of time and emotion into gaining said weight. At this point, I feel fairly dialed in to controlling my mass and I think the techniques I’ve honed may be universally applicable. These are a few simple strategies that have worked for me after remaining at a compositional standstill for years.
1. Work Out Less
By less, I mean both with lower frequency and for shorter duration. In terms of the former, it is my hunch that many fitness enthusiasts do not give their bodies sufficient time to recover and subsequently overcompensate (i.e. enter a muscle building phase) from their previous workout.
I believe soreness is a good indicator of recuperation. My recommendation is to avoid working out until the entire body feels fresh (meaning there is no soreness felt anywhere), and then don’t target the same area that was previously sore; vary routines.
Personally, I split my upper and lower body, with a few different movement patterns for each, to give myself proper rest. This approach has also come for me with the added benefit of reducing the likelihood of injury.
To address the latter, through experience and observation it seems a certain level of intensity is required to stimulate muscle growth. This could mean lifting heavy weights, exerting force with controlled intent until failure, or engaging in bursts of predominantly fast-twitch movements like sprinting. In all cases though, the duration of exertion is relatively short. These are not endurance exercises.
Moreover, the less one works out, the easier it is to reach a caloric surplus, which leads into my second suggestion.
2. Eat More Food
I’m not going to preach the efficacy of any particular nutrient or diet, but instead give general guidelines on how consume more calories, since an energy deficit prevents weight (and muscle) gain.
- Foods that require little preparation are more likely to be eaten.
- Fats contain about twice the calories of proteins and carbohydrates.
- Liquids are easier to ingest than solids.
- Variety increases indulgence.
Andrew Kim recently wrote an interesting article on metabolism, which may be helpful in picking specific sources of calories to achieve the body composition one desires.
3. Get More Sleep
Firstly, sleeping burns less calories than, well, not being asleep (unless one is eating).
Secondly, I feel the non-waking hours are when the body makes the most strides in regard to recovery and growth. Simple as that.
My intention here was to put forth a few practical concepts that can be individually interpreted and applied. I acknowledge they might not be effective for everyone, but these ideologies have yielded for me the most significant results with the least effort and preoccupation.
If a person is aiming to lose weight, I imagine performing the opposite of one or more of the recommended actions above would help foster a net loss of energy.