How To Pack On Muscle - Diet Tips For The Hardgainer

Forget those gross weight-gainer shakes that taste like concrete. Fuel your muscle-building workouts by eating lots of whole foods and developing dietary habits that are sustainable for YOU. Here are 5 tips to help you create good eating habits to pack on size. 

1. first, Create A relationship with food, not numbers.

You can count calories and protein all you want. As a matter of fact, I'll teach you how to do so later in this article. But first, you need to create a good relationship with food or your journey to being jacked will not be a sustainable one. What do I mean by "creating a relationship with food?" I simply mean:

  • Enjoy the foods you're eating - One of the easiest ways to eat more is to eat delicious foods. Even if you're a "picky eater", there's no excuse. Find the foods you love eating, eat them often.
  • Learn how to cook - There's nothing like a home-cooked meal made by mom but when you're trying to become self-sufficient and take control of what nutrients go into your body, learning basic cooking skills and recipes is a must (plus it saves you money!!). Youtube and find easy recipes to make at home. Use ingredients you're familiar with but don't be afraid to try new things.

Create a good relationship with food before worrying about calories. Gradually eat more, your exercise and activity should fuel your hunger. If you already have a good relationship with food and have done all of the above, then its time dive into the details like maintenance calories, and optimal protein intake levels.

2. Rethink The Term "Hardgainer"

A hardgainer is an arbitrary label that describes a person who practices bodybuilding but finds it challenging to develop musculature regardless of the amount of effort put in.
— Wikipedia

There are most likely no genetic factors preventing you from putting on size, nor are there anyone stealing your muscles overnight. The term hardgainer really just means your appetite and the amount of calories you consume day to day is not up to par with your metabolism. In other words: YOU'RE EATING LESS THAN YOU BURN. Simple as that.

Aside from height and weight, our metabolism is dependent on the amount of physical activity we perform and our NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). Any energy we expend outside of exercise is considered NEAT: How much are you walking a day? Do you have an active or sedentary job? Are you doing chores around the house?

All of these factors contribute to the amount of calories you burn in a day. These are factors we can control

3. Learn how to count

The amount of calories it takes to maintain your current bodyweight is often referred to as maintenance calories. We can find out what this number using 2 methods:

Estimation: The Calorie Maintenance Level Calculator

Enter your weight, height, and activity level to instantly receive an estimate of your maintenance calories. While this method may be quick, it may be  inaccurate for some. Which leads to the second method:

Tracking: Using MyFitnessPal (or similar app)

Weigh yourself in the morning everyday for one or two weeks. At the same time, eat your regular diet and input all your food into the MFP app. Granted you've maintained the same body-weight, find your average calorie intake by adding up all your days and dividing by 7 or 14 (days). Congrats, you've found your maintenance calorie level. 

I recommend using the tracking method right off the bat, and comparing that number to the calculator's estimation. Unless you have abnormal levels of physical activity or have tracked your food inaccurately/inconsistently, there shouldn't be a huge discrepancy.

Now that you've found your maintenance calories, increase your calorie intake in order to see bodyweight changes and muscle gain. I recommend increasing your intake by ~300-500 calories (start off at 300 and keep it consistent for several weeks and go from there). There are 2 ways to increase calorie intake:

1) Increase Meal Frequency: Add a meal to your current dietary habits. Whether its a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a protein shake, or eating an extra lunch, the point here is to eat more often.

2) Increase Portion Sizes: Maintain your current number of meals, increase the portion size for 1 meal or all your meals/snacks.

Increasing calorie intake does not mean stuffing your face with whatever you see in front of you. Where will those ~300-500 calories come from then? For most of you, a combination of high quality carbohydrates and protein.

4. Increase protein intake to 0.8g+ per pound of bodyweight a day

Proteins are the building blocks of our muscles, and the nutrient responsible for repairing our muscle tissues after exercise. The current protein recommendations set out by health organizations and our government target sedentary populations so if you're looking to build muscle, increasing protein intake is a must! I wrote a detailed article on optimal protein intake for people looking to pack on muscle, read it here.

For the beginner trainee and the hardgainer, increasing daily protein intake to 0.8g/lb of bodyweight while eating ~300-500 calories above your maintenance calories is a fail-safe method of gaining weight and packing on muscle. For a 145lb person, aim to consume ~115g of protein a day.

While carbohydrates ultimately fuel our work outs, there should be no shortage of carbs in your diet. Like I alluded to earlier, the extra calorie surplus should come from high-quality carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, rice, bread, pasta  and high-quality protein like egg, whey (milk), chicken, fish and red meats.

5. Acknowledge personal preferences


While meal distribution, protein intake frequency and other minutia may be important, its not a detail a hardgainer should be worrying about.

Whatever schedule allows you to more easily and more enjoyably consume the food required for you to reach your health or aesthetic goals, is the schedule you should stick to. For me personally, I like to backload my calories: eat most of my big meals in the evening and night. I'm simply just not as hungry in the day, and you know what? That's okay, it's not the end of the world if you skip breakfast. It may become a problem if you struggle with maintaining proper energy levels and it impedes your ability to stay productive in your work, school or social life. Address those issues if you run into them.

For now, stick to the basics:

  1. Create a good relationship with food
  2. Learn how to cook and become self-sufficient
  3. Increase calorie intake and protein intake
  4. Prioritize whole foods and high-quality nutrients before you satisfy your sweet tooth or dive into that box of cookies.

Happy gaining!