Since the beginning of time man has pondered the important question of how to look cool with no shirt on. For those with the right parents, it’s easy: lift heavy things and eat lots. However, that plan won’t work for the hardgainer with a slow metabolism. We’ll get slightly bigger and stronger, but mostly just fat. All is not lost, though. Our muscle mass might be meagre, but by focussing on being lean, we can still have a head-turning physique.
Big Ideas Meet Hard Reality
I admit it, the urge to look good naked is one of the biggest reasons I work out and manipulate my diet. Sure, health is a driver, too, but if I was to honestly rate the reasons, equal first would be appearance and strength, with health trailing.
Since my last teenage year, I’ve trained and eaten to build up my body. There’s one problem, though, I have a bird skeleton and very limited ability to put on muscle. Worse, I get fat extremely easily.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably in the same boat. Thankfully you can still achieve above-average results with below-average genetics.
Extreme, Desperate Measures
To overcome a limited genetic hand, some elect to indulge in surgery, getting silicone muscle implants and vacuuming out their fat tissue by surgical means. Others resort to taking steroids and other drugs to grow muscle and get lean.
While I admit to the narcissistic urge to look good, these options are a step way too far. The idea of fake muscle and other surgery is deeply unsatisfying, and I don’t think the health risks of drugs are worth it.
The Street Performers
The question of how to maximize a physique with poor muscle growth potential was answered unexpectedly. I was walking down a London street when two guys performing acrobatics caught my eye. Their physical appearance was a major attention-grabbing part of their act; neither wore a shirt and they were impressively muscular.
I kept watching their performance, and it dawned on me. Neither of them were big. In fact, they were downright wiry and small. So why were they so eye-catching and impressive, then?
Simply, they were very lean. You could clearly see their muscles moving beneath their skin, and it just looked cool.
Half the Holy Grail is Leanness
Muscle mass is a big part of what makes an impressive physique, but it’s only half the equation. Regardless of how much muscle you have, it doesn’t look good if it’s obscured by body fat. Therefore the other major factor is leanness.
If you’re one of my genetically subpar sisters or brothers, leanness becomes even more important. Very large muscles can take a fair layer of fat and remain visible, but the less muscle you have, the leaner you have to be to show it.
The above photos are before and after I succumbed to the urge to go on a slight “bulk” a while back (then had to do a mini diet to get back in shape). I don’t hold myself up as any type of amazing specimen, but it’s safe to say I look better on the right. The thing is, I was actually fairly lean in the left photo—the weight difference between the pictures isn’t that big. It just shows that if you’re a hardgainer who wants to have a halfway decent physique, you have to be quite lean.
The Art of Banging Your Head Against the Wall
You could do what I did and spend years with your head in the clouds using a plan better suited to a gifted professional bodybuilder, eating way too much, getting fatter and fatter, and waiting for a miracle. But this approach leads to constant mental and physical discomfort. Being overweight feels rough, and is horrible for self-esteem. It also defeats the purpose—you end up putting a lot of effort into physical self-improvement with nothing to show.
On the other hand, you could work with your body instead of against it to achieve your physique goals by focussing on leanness. The difference is stark, and feels like finally upgrading your Mini to a Ferrari.
Control What You Can
So, maximum muscle mass is genetically determined and out of our control. Leanness, however, we can control.
You’re probably thinking there’s still a genetic component, and for most people stripping off body fat is extremely difficult. That’s absolutely true (certainly for me), and precisely why it’s such a rewarding achievement. It’s a badge of honor for all but the genetically elite. It requires special knowledge and some suffering to acquire.
Stay Lean, Grow Gradually
If you’re a hardgainer who wants to maintain the most impressive physique you’re capable of, you must prioritize being lean. This doesn’t mean completely disregarding muscle growth, just readjusting your goals. By definition, muscle growth for the hardgainer takes a long time, but here’s the real kicker: it will take a long time regardless of whether you’re fat.
Arguably you might grow faster if you allow some fat gain, but in my experience the difference is small, and the trade off isn’t worth it. If you’re a serious bodybuilder the few percentage points difference might well be worth it, but for the average gym-rat it just undermines all the effort we put into training and diet.
If you’re paranoid about not being able to grow while being lean, don’t be. Not only can you grow while being lean, it’s even possible to grow while dieting as Menno Henselmans explains in this great article.
To Sum Up
This article is intended for a specific person: the hardgainer who wants to look good all the time with a view towards growing as much muscle as they can.
If like me you fall into that category, instead of over-prioritizing muscle growth by eating too much and living overweight, the better course of action is to get lean, stay lean, and aim to increase your muscle mass slowly over time.