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Bodybuilding for Extreme Hardgainers

The program may look like madness, but if you haven’t been making progress on a conventional bodybuilding program, what do you have to lose? The format has a proven track record among extreme hardgainers. Be bold, and try it yourself if you’re an extreme hardgainer.

If you’ve worked out for years, trained hard, never cut corners with your nutrition or sleep yet still made little or no progress, you may be an extreme hardgainer. Bodybuilding pros, on the other hand, progress at lightning pace.

During their mass-building cycles, the genetically supergifted apply a simple formula: If they train, they grow—even on routines that don’t work for most bodybuilders. For hardgainers, though, especially extreme hardgainers, that formula doesn’t work. Regular hardgainers should use abbreviated training and fully satisfy the components of recuperation. Extreme hardgainers should apply the same basic formula—but in spades. Here’s what to do:

Step 1: Ensure that your recovery machinery is in excellent order. Go to sleep early enough each night to make sure you awaken naturally each morning. For most extreme hardgainers that means a minimum of eight hours of sleep each night. If you have problems sleeping, fix them—seek professional help. If you don’t sleep well, you’ll undermine, perhaps kill, your bodybuilding progress.

Take in as many healthful calories as you can without increasing bodyfat. Include one gram of protein per pound of lean body mass, and have five or six similar-sized, easily digested meals each day.

Step 2: Make weight training your only physically demanding activity. Do no aerobic work. Conserve your energy!

Step 3: Follow a twice-a-week superabbreviated program. Train Monday and Friday or any similar division of days. Alternate two different routines with little or no overlap. Here’s an example:


Squats or parallel-grip deadlifts (with a shrug bar)

Bench presses or parallel-bar dips

Dumbbell overhead presses


Partial stiff-legged deadlifts (pull from just below knees)


Standing calf raises

Crunch situps

Do warmup sets plus two or three work sets per exercise—except on squats, where warmups plus one set of 20 reps may work best. If you don’t want to do 20-rep squats, do two work sets of eight to 10 reps instead. Do 15 reps for calves, 12 for abs and six to eight for the remaining exercises.

The program may look like madness, but if you haven’t been making progress on a conventional bodybuilding program, what do you have to lose? The format has a proven track record among extreme hardgainers. Be bold, and try it yourself if you’re an extreme hardgainer.

It’s a given that you must use correct exercise technique on every rep of every set. Choose exercises suitable for you. The squat, done correctly by people who are physically suited to it, is a great exercise. If it’s not done correctly, however, or if you do it and aren’t built for it, you could be looking at physical ruin. The same can be said for some other exercises.

Start out comfortably so that you get your sets and reps easily. Add weight each week. By the fifth week you will have to train hard, but not at your very limit. Thereafter, maintain that hard training, and add a little weight at each workout to each exercise.

You’ll be able to add weight more effectively to the squat, parallel-grip deadlift and partial deadlift than to the other exercises. Add what you can, but don’t rush the progress and kill your momentum. Little and often are miles better than large increments only every now and then.

If after eight weeks you’re unable to add a little weight to the work sets of each exercise, be more radical. Reduce your training frequency so that you alternate the two routines on a Monday, Friday, Wednesday, Monday, Friday, Wednesday to provide more recovery time.

Step 4: Once you find the training frequency that works for you, stick with it for as long as possible. Milk the program dry of every pound of weight progression on each exercise.

Step 5: With the cycle complete—it should run for four or more months—take a week off and commence a new cycle. Use the same format that worked well previously, but perhaps change some of the exercises for comparable ones. Don’t do cable crossovers instead of the bench presses, for example, or leg extensions instead of the squats.

Once you’ve built some substantial size and strength by using a sequence of superabbreviated programs for a minimum of 18 months, you can try to add three or four exercises per routine. If progress continues, good. If it dries up, go back to the superabbreviated program.

—Stuart McRobert

Editor’s note: Stuart McRobert’s first byline in IRON MAN appeared in 1981. He’s the author of the new 638-page opus on bodybuilding Build Muscle, Lose Fat, Look Great, available from Home Gym Warehouse (800) 447-0008 or

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