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hardgainerBy Scott Abel

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In terms of the glory-days of my time with a World-Class physique combined with my expertise, things were going well. At the height of my “physique” career which was also close to the end of my physique career – I had a lot of balls in the air. I had my own column in one of the industry’s top magazines – I wrote feature articles for several magazines and I was a ghost-writer as well when the subject matter was considered “sensitive.” And I was also in high-demand for speaking engagements, lectures etc. Physique-wise, I was in real high demand for guest-posing since promoters knew they could count on me to always show up in shape and they knew that I would always put on a good show. Things were busy and going well. Part of the reason for that as well back then was my training partner.

I was in my early 40’s at the time. My best training partner of all time was in his 50’s. Now, I’ve always been the kind of person that if you or I have an appointment together at an agreed upon time – well to my mind if you’re not 5 minutes early for that appointment, then you’re late. My training partner then was always at the gym when I got there and always had the equipment set up to go for us for that day. He knew once we started barely a word was spoken between us. It was all business. And he could keep pace with me when guys half his age couldn’t. He could hang with me in training when other “pros” would fly into town to train with me and learn from me – and they’d be off in a corner puking their guts out inside of 20 minutes into a training session. In so many exercises my best training partner of all time could even use the same loads as me even though I out-weighed him by at least 30-40 lbs.

So why am I telling you this about my best training partner of all time, during the height of my physique days (which are well behind me)? Well here’s the thing, and it’s an important thing. This training partner of mine didn’t have a very good physique – not even an average one. He loved competing but he had the kind of physique where if there were 3 guys in his weight-class – he would get third. He would always be the most ripped guy in his class – another testament to his dedication and hard work – and because I trained and Coached him of course. But the truth is his physique was just not very good – not very well-developed at all.

My mistake

My mistake with him is one that continues in the industry to this day. You see my logic back then was a common – to wit: well if I design a program to suit my world-class physique and if he follows it – and he doesn’t get the same world-class progress out of it as I did – then his “genetics” suck. And that would be the end of the logic applied; no thinking deeper than that on the matter. But yet – here was a guy who worked as hard and as seriously as I did – on the same programs as I did – and his physique had little to show for it. And how many times “ad nauseum” does this lazy logic continue to this day? So many of you out there are following (or trying to) some program “construct” of some top pro or some top physique guy whose program works for him. And if it doesn’t work for you then you are either a) not doing the program correctly, or b) your genetics suck – because the program is sound.

Indeed, one of the top selling online programs from a year or so ago, was a top pro advocating traditional “bodypart day” training – just as I did with my reliable training partner back then – a guy who deserved better than just being “slotted into what worked well for me.” And yet so many of you trainees continue this line of logic to this day. And I’ve come to learn it’s faulty logic and it’s logic that represents “paradigm blindness’ of this industry. This whole mindset that “what works for the top guys” “should” work for everyone else seems logical on the surface but it really represents a profound bias in logic as well as lazy thinking in general.

So much is at play here: Like the fact that top physique stars have the genetics to be top physique stars – we can’t just assume everyone else lines up at the same “genetics lottery” starting line. Then there are pharmaceutical enhancements to consider, which speed up recovery time and produce tissue effects that cannot be achieved naturally (the still prevalent “it just takes longer, and you have to work harder”, classic industry-myth)

The Dyslexia Comparison

You see, my loyal training partner from back then – he deserved better than what he got from these programs. It didn’t dawn on me at the time that these were the wrong programs for him; and that his genetics were just starkly “different” than my own. Studying guys like him all these years since then I’ve now come up with the term “hardgainer.” It was a term initially meant to describe trainees who were seemingly doing everything right (like my former training partner) but not having much to show for it, in terms of real-world progress and results for the time put in. But now my research over all these years has me seeing the “hardgainer” in a deeper and more complete light as well. I now consider the “hardgainer” to be a completely separate trainee demographic – a group to whom “traditional logic of training application” simply doesn’t apply or is at best incomplete.

As an analogy – I think back to the days of education before “dyslexia” was identified as a real and actual ‘obstruction’ for reading and writing. Until that discovery – thousands and thousands of students who shared this learning “dilemma” and all its common denominators were assumed to be not as smart as the other students. At the time they were simply not considered as “a separate learning demographic group” until dyslexia was identified. And then at that time it became clear that many of these students with dyslexia were not only “as” intelligent of students doing well on the common grading curve, but many were even more intelligent and creative. For example it has been speculated that Einstein was dyslexic which is why he didn’t do well in formal education in his early years.

But to me the comparison is a relevant one to the modern trainee. As experts, we spend so much time looking for and identifying what “stimulates muscle growth and development” and yet we spend little if any time looking for the things that “limit or obstruct” muscle growth and development on an individual trainee level. And it may be a fact that the “hardgainer” is not simply just genetically limited and doesn’t try as hard as the other trainees. The hardgainer may be a whole demographic group of trainees to whom ‘normal’ training application and prescription is part of what “obstructs’ and “limits” their potential progress in physique development.

As I said, my former training partner – he worked as hard as I did. (If he didn’t my hardcore attitude back then would have ditched him.) He worked at the same pace as me. He could even often handle the same training loads as me. Yet – at the same time – I was getting paid to perform in front of audiences everywhere – while he was still being asked “Do you workout?”

Differences

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity now to work with hundreds and hundreds of trainees who I would consider fall into the category of “the hardgainer.”  And certain illuminations have become obvious. For the hardgainer – yes, bodypart training still makes the most sense for an overall methodological approach – but bodypart “days” of training, does not! Doing more than one exercise per bodypart for the hardgainer puts them into a ‘no-recovery’ zone in quick time. For the hardgainer – inter-workout recovery and intra-workout recovery become paramount concerns – more so than the mere training stimulus provided. For the hardgainer demographic remember – the emphasis must be – NOT – on what stimulates muscle growth and development, but on what factors limit and obstruct muscle growth and development for this particular demographic group – just like how the approach to learning/reading/and writing needed to be different for those students with eventually diagnosed with “dyslexia” in the comparison above.

I’ve discovered the hardgainer demographic benefits most from training the whole body per workout – but still with an isolated bodypart training emphasis. They do well to create systemic effects through this type of training and Peripheral Heart Action by doing these whole body approaches as combinations of supersets and trisets. I’ve also discovered that the hardgainer trainee demographic is caught in-between a precarious stimulus and recovery complication that doesn’t apply to other trainees who adapt more readily.

In other words – if the hardgainer trainee trains too much they can’t recover adequately – but if they don’t workout often enough, the stimulus for muscles to respond and adapt isn’t enough either.

This dilemma is solved in two ways for the hardgainer – 1) is UNDERTRAINING -> the hardgainer can monitor things like oxygen debt within supersets and trisets and make sure they never get too far into oxygen debt within a workout, and that they NEVER train to muscular failure either – because this particular trainee demographic cannot adequately recover from training to failure. And by undertraining in this way (by keeping a moderate but non-exhausting pace) they can now train more often – and get the stimulus they need in doing so, while still being able to adequately recover – within workouts, and between workouts – two very important considerations for the hardgainer. And also, part of this “undertraining” approach is shorter workouts as well. By training the whole body (6 exercises in total) in supersets and trisets, the hardgainer workout should be completed in 45-55 minutes, warm ups included.

And the 2) second consideration for the hardgainer trainee demographic is a “reps variance” based program and getting away from industry mythology of “get strong to get big.” As with my former training partner – he often used the same “loads” as I did, but it didn’t do much of anything for his development – in fact it did nothing. The hardgainer trainee demographic more than other trainees needs to embrace as an operating mantra that it’s not “the weights that works the muscles, it’s the muscles that works the weights.” To this end – what we call in the business – “surfing the curve” and especially surfing the high-reps end of the curve makes way more sense for the hardgainer trainee, than does the traditional but mythological industry notion to “train for strength and development will come” – another colossal industry myth that is especially not true for this particular trainee demographic.

It’s often been argued that how well a muscle “pumps” is equated to how well it grows and develops. I’ve come to agree with this assertion. How well a muscle pumps up has a lot to do with muscle “innervation” (nerve supply to working muscles). This is something discussed in my book The Abel Approach in great detail as well.  Well for the hardgainer trainee it takes high reps to get a muscle to experience an efficient “pump.” And the hardgainer workout’s philosophy is built around this premise as well. In the HardGainer Solution – high reps are emphasized more than lower reps, with 15-20 reps – the most common reps approach within the workouts.

The solution for the HardGainer demographic has always been in evaluating neuro-muscular elements of muscle adaptations to training – rather than the more common expert focus of musculo-skeletal concerns of muscle adaptations to training. The former allows us to consider these limitations and obstructions to muscle’s adaptive response to resistance work. The latter considers mostly just the more common elements of what “stimulates” muscle growth – not what limits it. These are very important distinctions and considerations when discussing ‘The hardgainer trainee’ as a specific demographic group for whom “normal” training stimulus and response needs to be “reconsidered.”

Bonus: Workout Sample

As a bonus segment follow-up the explications above – here is an example of what one particular workout would look like for the Hard Gainer. This is Workout #34 of the 80 workouts provided in The Hard Gainer Solution Project. And its just an example of the simple but effective “reps-based” training approach for this unique demographic group of trainees.

Workout 34

1a) BB or DB Squats                                                                         5                                              5

1b) One Arm DB Triceps Extensions                                         5                                              5

 

2a) Pulldowns Behind the Head                                                 4                                              12-15

2b) 2 Arm DB front Raises                                                             4                                              20

 

3a) High Incline DB Press                                                               4                                              15-20

3b) Alternate Hammer Curls                                                       4                                              8-12 EA

3c) any sit up, leg raise, or crunch variation                           4                                              15-20

 

Now – the above article only begins to address the training dilemma for the HardGainer. There is also a unique diet-strategy to consider for this particular demographic group as well. And I will address that in a future article – although it is addressed in detail in The Hard Gainer Solution Project as well, of course.

About the Author

Scott AbelScott Abel is a former professional bodybuilder and coach to over 400 fitness and bodybuilding champions at the National level and beyond. Learn more from his broad spectrum of work at www.scottabelfitness.com. You can also hear Scott on the 180D podcast. Enjoy his first Amazon-published book on how to build muscle HERE.