Scrawny To Brawny: 5 Steps To Big Gains

Hardgainer hell is no place for any serious lifter. Pack some quality mass on your skinny frame with these 5 get-big steps!

Hardgainers around the world! Unite and listen up: Putting on muscle and getting stronger isn't as elusive or impossible as you might think. It's not something you have to overanalyze. With a little diligence and consistency, anyone can pack on excellent size. Trust me, I've been there. The key is to have a well-laid foundation before you jump into the gym.

It's easy to want to lift first and learn later, but if you want to avoid common mistakes and train to gain, you need to understand certain lifting logistics before flinging dumbbells around like your life depends on it. Follow these five simple steps and you'll be on the path to big gains!

Step 1 Establish a Focus

No matter how great your genetics, gaining new muscle mass requires a lot of hard work and discipline. If you're a hardgainer, it's an even more formidable task. Putting on weight may start to feel like an uphill battle that you just can't win, but that's because you're probably trying to sprint the hill when you should be jogging. If you want to get big, you need to have the patience and tenacity to tackle your goals.

Sticking to the right nutrition, training, and supplement regimen for an extended period of time requires intense focus. It's easy to fall off the plan when one of life's many distractions hits—and they always hit. Your level of motivation is the only thing that can keep you on track. A meaningful goal and clear focus is the drive used to fuel that motivation.

Find a goal that gets you excited. Maybe you're looking to put on three pounds of lean mass over the next few months, maybe you're eager to grow your quads to fill out your newest pair of jeans, or maybe you're looking to gain the majority of your new muscle in your upper body. Whatever your personal vision is, you've got to set a goal and stick to it.

Step 2 Know Your Measurements

Looking at the numbers might seem scary, but it's a necessary step in the right direction. In order to see how far you've come, you need to know where you started. Break your goal into smaller mini-goals that are measurable and achievable.

Here are three easy ways to measure and track your progress:

Strength Goals

Strength goals are measurable and simple to track. Write down or track online the weights you use for each workout and each exercise. Do this for weeks, months, and even years. On days when you aren't seeing progress in the mirror, seeing your back squat, power cleans, or Arnold press numbers climb will remind you that you're making headway and will keep you motivated.

Tape Measurements

Do circumference measurements for your chest, arms, shoulders, quads, and calves. Set a realistic goal for growth. Don't listen to the ridiculous cover lines on some of the magazines. You aren't always going to gain three inches on your arms. If that were the case, everyone would have 21-inch arms. Just set small, doable goals.

Body Fat Analysis

Lean muscle mass is a great indicator of growth. It's an easy number to track and a number that, if you train and eat right, will go up. Have your weight and body fat measured so you can track every pound of lean mass gained.

Step 3 Eat Big

Before I even talk about training, we need to address nutrition. This is the biggest stumbling block for most people and it's going to separate you from other guys struggling to gain size. Believe me when I say that food is the most anabolic substance you can ever take. There's nothing else you can put in your body that's going to help you put on more muscle than proper food intake.

Let's eliminate all the fancy nutrition jargon and dissect it into the basic nuts and bolts. It's crucial to ingest adequate calories to grow, but counting calories can become tiresome. I prefer the backward approach: I track my protein and carbohydrates each day and let the calories fall into place from there.

My good friend—and four-time Mr. Olympia—Jay Cutler follows the same method. Jay may be huge but, if you ask him, he still describes himself as a hardgainer. His fast metabolism is great for staying lean, but it also requires him to consume a lot of food to maintain muscle. Each day Jay consumes about 1.25 grams of protein and 2 grams of carbohydrates for every pound of total bodyweight. This split leaves him with roughly 55 percent of his calories from carbohydrates, 35 percent of his calories from protein, and the remaining 10 percent from fats.

Jay Knows Best

If you want to gain size, you have to make sure you get enough carbs at the right times. The three most calorie-dense, carbohydrate-rich meals should be your breakfast, pre-workout, and post-workout meals. Here's an example of what Jay Cutler eats at these times.

3 cups of oatmeal
2 slices of Ezekiel bread
20 egg whites + 2 whole eggs
1 scoop of protein mixed with ice and water
1 avocado sliced
120+ grams of carbohydrates
68 grams of protein

2 heaping cups of White Basmati Rice
2 large Chicken Breasts (about 10 oz total)
Handful of walnuts
1 scoop of protein mixed with ice and water
80+ grams of carbs
85 grams of protein

50 grams of whey protein immediately after workout
70+ grams of simple carbs from Gatorade (roughly 40 oz) 15 minutes later

Now, I know what you're thinking. Isn't protein the most important building block for muscle growth? Yes, protein is necessary but, at 35 percent of your total daily calories, you're getting more than enough. My macronutrient breakdown is slightly higher in carbs than your average "gaining program," but, as Jay will tell you, correctly timed carbs are the key to growth for a hardgainer.

Your three most carbohydrate-rich meals should be your breakfast, pre-training meal, and post-workout meal. Post workout, your glycogen levels are depleted, making it the perfect time to reload. This is also the point at which I take my creatine and load up on simple sugars. I typically drink Gatorade, not the reduced-calorie G2. I actually want the sugars.

As for fats, go for essential, healthy sources like fish, avocados, and almonds. Proper good fats are essential for testosterone production, which is critical to getting bigger and stronger. Remember that you have to be just as structured and diligent with your eating as you are your training. I can't emphasize this enough. Eat to grow.

Step 4 Vary Your Rep Ranges

People aren't exactly the same, and we don't all respond to resistance training the same way. What makes one guy big might leave another with a torn tendon or ligament. Some guys can practically walk into the weight room, smell the weights, and gain size. There's no one-size-fits-all plan, but the approach I follow is broad enough that it will work for all types of hardgainers. It all boils down to a variety of rep ranges.

Generally speaking, the ideal rep range for hypertrophy is 6-12 reps. For strength, the perfect range is roughly 1-6 reps, and more than 12 reps per set typically trains muscular endurance. Most people looking to build muscle train only in the 6-12 rep range, hoping for maximum muscle hypertrophy, but they miss out on the benefit other rep ranges offer.

If you can move heavier weights with proper form, it makes it easier to get bigger. For this reason, I like to focus on building strength with 4-6 reps per set one week out every the month. The following week, I switch to 8-12 reps. Then, on the third week, I lift in the 12-18 rep range using strict form and going for maximum muscle pump.

"Generally speaking, the ideal rep range for hypertrophy is 6-12 reps."

When I train with slightly lighter weights and high reps, I get the best pumps—the kind that make your muscles and skin feel like they're going to rip. This "muscle pump" or swelling of the muscle cells, can result in greater protein synthesis and overall greater muscle size. I also believe a big pump helps you grow because it can stretch your muscle fascia. The fascia is a thin layer of tissue that holds your muscle together. The more you stretch that layer, the more room there is for your muscle to expand and grow.

Think of a balloon. If you blow it up and let the air out, it's easier to blow up the second time because you've already stretched it. Just like a lot of air in a balloon, a big muscle pump stretches the fascia and makes room for future growth.

I think stretching is grossly underestimated because, in addition to helping prevent injury, it can also help you grow! I used to train with an old hardcore bodybuilder who would use a rubber mallet and a wood rolling pin to massage his muscles between sets. Try this yourself with a rolling pin or foam roll. You can't even imagine the insane pumps you'll get training this way!

Sample 3-Week Rep Rotation For Biceps

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3
Go heavy enough to make your sets really burn. This isn't an easy week.
"Think of your supplement regimen as the icing on your gains cake."

Step 5 Don't Skip The Supps

Think of your supplement regimen as the icing on your gains cake. It will help you increase and accelerate your results. Notice that I listed supplements last. While they're an extremely important part of the equation, they don't belong at the forefront of your weight-gain strategy. Supplements exist to support your diet and help you take things to the next level. There's no magic bullet for getting big.

3 Basic Mass-Building Blocks:

Protein Powder

I drink at least two protein shakes every day, each with 30 grams of whey protein. This helps me get 60 grams out of the 218 grams that I need on a daily basis. There's always a debate as to what type of protein builds muscle better—whey isolate, whey blends, casein, egg, etc. I prefer a high-quality whey blend which tastes great. Since you'll be drinking it every day, taste is an important factor—you want something that you enjoy drinking, otherwise you won't do it consistently.


Creatine is the most studied and scientifically sound muscle builder in the world of sports supplementation. In simple terms, it helps improve volume, strength, and recovery. I've tried various types of creatine through the years, but the one I prefer is a capsule of creatine monohydrate and creatine hydrochloride. I get the benefits of creatine mono, the king of all creatines, plus the absorption benefits of the HCL. The capsules make for a convenient and easily dosed delivery system.

Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

BCAAs support muscle protein synthesis and decreased protein catabolism. In short, they are great for recovery after a hard workout and help build lean tissue. The version I take utilizes peptide-linked aminos, or oligopeptides, as well as agmatine.


When it comes to getting big, one of the most important things to remember is that you have to make every workout count. Each and every time you step foot in the gym, you have to get your head in the game. You need the proper mindset to push past your comfort zone and do battle. I like to take a pre-workout before my workouts for that very reason. A pre-workout product delivers the extra energy and intensity I need to get the absolute best results from my training.

Remember that, when it comes to getting bigger, it's the sum of the parts. Nutrition, training, and supplementation all play a role, but a successful plan requires the discipline and fortitude to execute it. Rome wasn't built in a day. Neither are the best physiques in the world.

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