“I can’t build muscle. I’ve literally tried everything. My metabolism is just too fast.”
For a second, I’ll overlook the fact that the words “I can’t” cut through every cell in my body like a knife built for war. My soul can feel the oozing of mediocrity that echoes from each spoken syllable of defeat. My heart hurts because it was not built to pump boiling blood.
Hearing eyewash like that fires me up. It fires me up because if you hang around a gym or athletics long enough, you’ll encounter the guy who just CAN’T gain weight. They’ll spin anecdote after anecdote into this marvelous web of excuses that you’d start to think you were listening to an epic of bullshit worthy of Homer.
Fine. Maybe you are a product of natural selection. The ugly side of natural selection. The side where the genes of the genetic elite are nowhere to be found.
What DNA you were born with is a big genetic lottery, and I’m sorry son but you lost.
Isn’t continually evoking an attitude of self-pity the easy way out? Isn’t that the mindset that causes men to toil in the obscurity of mediocrity until they realize their folly on their deathbed?
So you are never going to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Neither are 99.99% of all human beings who ever walk this fine earth.
Maybe that’s your first problem.
The real reason you are stuck on the path of insignificance is that instead of trying to become your best self, the strongest version of yourself, you are continually comparing yourself to others.
Woe is me is bullshit. Before you consign yourself to “maybe it just wasn’t meant to be,” let’s take a closer look at the problem…
1) What’s your shopping cart at the grocery store look like?
I’m not kidding when I say that the majority of guys that tell me they can’t gain build muscle shop for groceries like pre-pubescent little boys. They load up on chips, candy, frozen pizzas, and maybe just maybe a chicken breast here and there. Basically they expect to look like Hercules, yet they shop like mere mortals.
2) How much sleep are you getting per night?
Better question… do you have a sleeping routine? Are you mindful of the fact that the light that is emitted from your late night Call of Duty sessions or midnight Sportscenter inhibits melatonin production and messes up your sleep cycle?
So even if you go to bed at midnight and get your 8 hours, your sleep quality is going to suck.
Don’t want to give either of them up? That’s fine. People’s priorities lie where they lie. Just don’t complain when you can’t make gains in the gym then.
3) Real food or supplements?
Are you that guy that stays up all night on Examine.com (an excellent website by the way) and searches for the magic ingredient to transform yourself from scrawny to brawny?
Maybe if I can just manipulate my body to up-regulate cyclic AMP by just 2% more I can induce an insane cascade of protein synthesis that’ll give me quads like Ronnie. Applaud the effort (especially chasing quads not biceps)… problem is it’s just not going to happen.
Reason is… we are built to sustain and thrive off the products of the earth. We have evolved (more on evolution later) over millions of years off the fruits of our planet. They are your ultimate supplements. Want increased testosterone levels? Put down that overpriced piece of garbage at GNC and eat more eggs. Eat cage free eggs until you’re sick of them and then consider the booster.
Master algebra before you try and solve the Hodge Conjecture (which will earn you $1 million by the way). So often the guys that try and cheat with supplements are the ones who are missing the boat when it comes with real food. Eat real food and worry about supplementing later.
4) What’s your training look like?
Fundamental first question… do you train or workout? There’s a difference (Link here!). Now that we settled that there’s a distinction how we should dissect your training…
Do you focus on getting as strong as possible on the BIG 3 (squat, deadlift, bench)? Don’t tell me you can get big without getting strong first. That’s some marketing bullshit from someone who is purely trying to sell you something.
Do you walk before you can run? Are you the guy that crushes the pec deck or flys before he can bench 225 or bang out fifty pushups in a row?
Are you the chicken leg guy? Bicep curls only in the squat rack?
Strive for balance, you’ll grow more.
What do you do when facing the transcendent rep? Do you quiver like a little boy or do you step into the unknown unafraid of what may lie ahead?
Have you ever considered what this quote means?
And then lived it.
Would you be proud of your training if you had to go lift in the strongest gym in America? Think Westside Barbell, Gold’s in Venice Beach, Cressey Performance. I don’t care if you aren’t at the same level those guys are. That’s not the point. The point is if your training is preparing you to get to that level.
If not, get rid of it.
5) Who are your training partners?
I had the fortunate opportunity to train with Chad last Friday night and I can honestly say that it was one of the best training sessions I’ve had in a long time. It took me back to my college days when you lifted with 34 of your closest friends, your brothers, in the pursuit of a singular goal, of a championship.
For anyone that experienced, or is currently experiencing training with your college team, that’s a special time in your training career. You may never train in that kind of atmosphere again. Appreciate every moment, appreciate the camaraderie, and appreciate the struggle of working towards a common goal.
So maybe you don’t have a team to train with. My training session last Friday night wasn’t the best in recent memory because I set a PR or tried some fancy new load-waving scheme.
It was awesome because each exercise Chad and I went rep for rep. If he got 8, you better believe I was going to try and get at least 9.
Truth be told, we had a hip thrust challenge at the end… max reps with 225. Chad went first and got somewhere in the mid-forties (I may have blacked out after my set so my memory is a bit hazy).
There wasn’t a fucking shot in hell that I was walking away from that bar without getting at least 40. And I didn’t. I could barely feel my ass by 20 but I willed myself to 40.
Why? Not because I’m some sort of hero or badass. Because I had a training partner that pushed me to the limits of my physical capabilities. Because I had a training partner who is better and stronger than me. Because I had a training partner who is an absolute savage and if I don’t bring it that day, he’s going to embarrass me.
If your training partner does not fit any of the above criteria, dump him, he’s eyewash. If you have no friends that are serious about training, literally walk up to the strongest guy in the gym and ask for guidance. Ask to be taken under his wing.
If the guy is worth his salt, he’ll gladly adopt you into the Iron Brotherhood.
It takes guts to admit you need help. It’s humbling. Don’t be afraid to ask.
6) What do your weekend habits look like?
Look I’m no sadistic, be in your bed by 9 p.m. cupping your spinach leaves on a Saturday Night type of guy.
I enjoy a good time and I will go out. I’m not an aspiring bodybuilder nor do I want to maintain the rigid lifestyle those individuals maintain. I admire the discipline, but I don’t want it.
With that being said, there’s a big difference between going out and having a good time and being smashed from Thursday Night to being still hung-over on a Monday morning.
If that’s your typical weekend, I don’t care if you wrestled a bear and won, your testosterone levels are still going to suck (booze inhibits production).
Low testosterone means that you won’t recover very well, muscle growth will be all but impossible, and instead of having the balls to get out and build a manly body you’ll be more likely to have the urge to go cry to your mommy because you’re depressed.
If you want to go out and have a good time four nights a week, so be it. Just don’t complain when you can’t build muscle or get it up when you finally get lucky one of those nights.
7) How big do you eat?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at dinner with the guy “who can’t gain any weight” and he eats half his meal. Well no shit you can’t gain weight you eat like a bird.
How often have you heard the waitress remark in awe how much you eat? Never? Then you have plenty of work to do. Now I don’t mean go ball out on two filet mignon’s at your cities finest steakhouse but damn can you get good food and a lot of it at your local Waffle House. A fine establishment if you ask me.
When people start noticing how much you eat, whether out or at home, then you know you’re making progress. People like to comment or point out stuff that makes them feel uncomfortable and start to question themselves. Get to this point and you’re on your way.
You Need To Go All In
Because human evolution says so. Human evolution….what does that have anything to do with anything? In actuality, when you think about it, it has everything to do with everything.
I don’t know your answers to the questions above. All I know is that you can’t gain muscle and you’ve “tried everything.” Whatever you’ve tried obviously hasn’t worked which simply means that you’re not part of the genetically elite.
Few are. Few can look at a barbell and grow. Few can treat their body like shit with terrible dietary habits and poor training routines and still have a physique that they can be proud of.
That’s ok. Join the club. It just so happens that you have an even more difficult time than the average person, which means you have to go ALL IN.
Your body is a survival machine shaped by millions of years of human evolution. Its job is to react to stimuli and maintain homeostasis as efficiently as possible. Gaining or losing weight is a disruption to your body’s homeostatic regulation. It doesn’t want to adapt. It’s easier to maintain the status quo.
Think about this… in an environment where energy was limited, why would your body want to carry around an extra ten to fifteen pounds? It is significantly more energetically expensive to support a frame that is fifteen pounds heavier than it is at your current weight.
Your body will resist. Be thankful it’s that proficient at survival. It doesn’t care how well you fill out your shirt for school; it cares about keeping you alive.
So you must fight. You must push your body past a state of comfort. You must make human evolution your bitch and force your body to adapt because if given the right stimuli it will. It’s programmed to do so after all.
It just so happens that your body likes to resist adaptation more than others. You need to do more than everyone else to get the same results. You need to GO ALL IN.
How do you do this? How do you make the “impossible” possible? How do you change “I can’t” to I will fucking put on 15 pounds of muscle if it’s the last thing I do.
You must force adaptation. Here’s how:
1) Be comfortable being uncomfortable
Have you ever eaten to the point of being uncomfortable, of feeling sick? And I don’t mean for just one day… I mean every day you train for five months?
Remember where I said you need to force adaptation? This is where it becomes absolutely essential.
Your body, if you’re truly a hard gainer, will up-regulate NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). Basically, you’ll start burning more calories during your daily living. You’ll move around more, fidget more frequently, and change your posture more regularly. The more of a hard gainer you are, the more NEAT will be up regulated.
NEAT is exactly why you need to continually eat yourself past the point of comfort. I hate to advocate you acting like a glutton but if it’s muscle mass and a new frame you seek, then it is absolutely essential you start eating yourself sick and doing it regularly.
You will come to hate food. Trust me. Push through.
2) Get Better Sleep
As I referenced earlier, it’s not only important that you get more sleep; you also need better sleep. Here’s how:
a) Put away all your electronics a half hour before bed. Don’t worry whatever you can’t say to your girlfriend in that time period isn’t going to make or break your relationship. She may even start being more attracted to you when your testosterone skyrockets.
b) Don’t drink much before bed. A function of quality sleep is uninterrupted sleep. Waking up because you gotta piss disrupts this quality sleep. Hydrate earlier in the night
c) Make your room a complete cave. No one should complain with this one.
d) Make your room cooler. Your body is adapted to sleep in cooler conditions at night.
e) Eliminate caffeine consumption after 2 or 3 in the afternoon. Caffeine can remain active in your system for up to six or seven hours. A coffee at 5 in the afternoon can really disrupt your natural sleep cycle.
(Thank you Miguel for the quote.)
If you want to build muscle… do all the above.
Ok… so maybe you can’t fight a bear. Seek out your own inner bear, something you are terrifyingly afraid of and conquer it. Maybe it’s talking to the prettiest girl in the bar. Maybe it’s lifting in a commercial setting because you’ve been terribly self-conscious up until that point.
Whatever it may be, start acting more like a real man. Compete. Struggle. Fail with pride.
All these things will not directly build muscle, no. But what they will do is to build a foundation of a man who in time can do whatever he sets his mind to, the least of which is build muscle.
4) Men Eat like Men
Eliminate the processed shit. It has no value for you. As a hard gainer, you need to maximize testosterone production to place your body in its most potent anabolic state possible for your body.
That means you live and die by the mantra, “If man made it, don’t eat it.”
You want cheat days? Earn them.
Fill 90% of your days with animal proteins, with saturated fats from cage free eggs and grass fed beef, with fruits and vegetables, with potatoes and sweet potatoes.
Yeah I get that you’re trying to build muscle so eat those foods in surplus amounts. Will it be easy? No, probably not but the easy alternative is staying the low self esteem skinny shell of a man you currently are.
Can’t physically eat any more foods? Good, now we’re onto something. Start adding healthy fats to your shakes… extra virgin coconut oil, grass fed butter, olive oil, nuts… these are calorically dense foods that will take up minimal extra room in your maxed out stomach.
If all else fails, try the Mark Rippletoe special… drink a galloon of milk per day. If that doesn’t work, drink two.
5) Get Stronger
The stronger person always wins. The stronger athlete has the ability to lift heavier weights maximally. Thus, he has the ability to lift heavier sub-maximal weights with increased frequency.
If your sole purpose in the gym is to chase the pump, fine, there’s some legitimate physiological research behind why this stimulates muscle growth. Problem is, chasing the pump with the bar or super light weights doesn’t do a damn thing for you.
Just like you need to force adaptation in the kitchen, you must you force adaptation in the weight room. You must continually seek to get stronger because being stronger allows you to lift heavier and heavier sub-maximal weights for greater volume. Continually lifting heavier maximal and sub-maximal weights continues to push your body to adapt, to grow.
6) Workout Less
You’ve already told me that you have a fast metabolism and the concept of NEAT supports you in your premise. So what do I recommend?
You need to maximize every variable in order to win the calorie game. Working out seven times a week sets you up for absolute failure. Even five times is more than necessary. Do you really need to be doing a body part split as a skinny guy? No, let’s be objectively honest here.
Get in the gym three to four times per week, two upper and two lower. Keep the volume moderate, the intensity high, the sessions shorter than most, and get home and get growing. After all you grow based on how well you recover from the damage you created in the gym, not from physically training.
7) Understand the Process
You know the cliché… Rome wasn’t built in a day. Your body won’t be built in a day either. You’ve struggled for a long time…understand that it’s going to be a process.
You can’t just flip an anabolic switch and turn your body into a protein synthesis machine. I don’t care if you have the best training program or partner in the world; you’re not going to become herculean strong over night.
Plus, it takes continually forcing adaptation to create adaptation. Eating big and lifting heavy for a month isn’t going to cut it. It may take your body longer to adapt.
Show up everyday and put in the work and I promise you you’ll start seeing results. You may not look like Arnold but that wasn’t the goal anyways. Keep showing up and you’ll start to see the best version of yourself shine through and frankly that’s all we can ask of ourselves.
What It Really Comes Down Too
What my advice really boils down too is how bad do you really want it? Are you willing to push yourself mentally and physically further than you ever thought possible? Are you willing to be relentless in your pursuit?
If so, I applaud you.
My advice or not, you will be successful. You will succeed because you will find a way to overcome whatever genetic limits have been set for you. You will make evolution your bitch and force adaptation. You will wrestle your own bears and come out alive. You may lose, you may fail, you may get knocked down, but goddamn you will make sure you get up.
If you’re not there yet, search the inner depths of your soul for motivation. Don’t start out in blind pursuit because you want to impress your friends or get noticed by some girl. Do it for yourself. Chase your best self and stop at nothing until you get there. That, not any muscle or worldly body, is the key to lifelong satisfaction with you.
It’s something we all, regardless of the genetic cards we’ve been dealt, should chase.