Hardgainers have a difficult time gaining weight and making progress in the gym.
The prescription for their problem is almost always to train less frequently and to eat more food.
OK. I kinda get that. It kinda makes sense.
But the big question?
Are skinny-fat ectomorphs “hard gainers?”
IS SKINNY-FAT A HARDGAINING PROBLEM?
From the beginning of my days, I've been telling skinny-fat ectomorphs that they should probably do some isolation exercises and include some higher repetition work into their training program. (And by that I mean 8ish reps.) See my evidence: Solutions for the Skinny-Fat Ectomorph Part III.
My rationale for such is that skinny-fat ectomorphs are “hardgainers” of muscle. But they aren't “hardgainers” of fat.
The hardgainer prototype is a skinny guy that has trouble gaining weight. Period.
Hardgainers certainly exist. One of my readers flummoxed me when he asked if I had any suggestions for gaining weight. I told him to eat more (naturally), but he was already downing 7000 calories daily. Now that is a true hardgainer — someone that can't gain anything, be it muscle or fat.
So skinny-fat guys and gals aren't really hardgainers in that sense because they “gain” something rather easily. It just too bad that “something” happens to be fat. It's not so much that the body can't utilize and store extra calories (as a true hardgainer), it's just that the body doesn't store and utilize the extra calories in the name of muscle and looking “teh sexiness” naked.
This is a problem of partitioning, a concept that is touched on in Solutions for the Skinny-Fat Ectomorph Part IV. Needless to say, there's a bunch of factors that effect partitioning, all of which are explained in the upcoming skinny-fat resource I'm busting my tail to finish.
In the mean time, I wanted to talk about a “hunch” I have. This isn't something to be found in any research paper, so keep that in mind. It's a meandering thought backed up by my personal experience. But it must just cure your skinny-fatness.
IS THERE A SECRET TO TRAINING?
The thing about skinny-fatness is that it never really goes away. Sure, I look a hell of a lot better than I used to. But the genetic factors that effect partitioning aren't really malleable. “Fixing” it is done through training and diet. This means anytime your training or diet slips, the skinny-fat shell gets exposed. (Increased fat accumulation in the lower chest, love handles, etc…).
The generalized advice to fix partitioning is to get stronger and eat more wholesome foods. But think it goes much deeper than that (probably why the resource I'm creating is already over 100 pages), specifically with training.
Typically, skinny-fat peeps' terrible genetics default their recovery capacity to, well, shady at best. This means they're often handed the typical hardgainer recommendation of training more intensely with less frequency.
The first problem with this, as we now know, is that skinny-fat ectomorphs aren't typical hardgainers. The second problem is that a generalization like this neglects the subtleties of stress and recovery.
SHOULD YOU TRAIN MORE FREQUENTLY?
I get a lot of question about my eleventh tip in the very first article I wrote on skinny-fatness.
11. Every. Damn. Day
I'm going to end on a crapshoot. Some skinny fats are soft because they're babied. From a biological standpoint, having muscle is an artifact of living a lifestyle that demands its creation. So it may be worthwhile to try training every day to provide a signal to the body that being a skinny fat just isn't going to cut it.
What? Is this blasphemy!? Train more ? How can that be? Isn't recovery an issue? How can training more be better?
Calm down. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Patrick Henry once said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” For whatever reason, I like the tone of this quote and I usually translate it into an athletic fitness ultimatum that goes something like, “Give me intensity or give me frequency.”
It's gotta' be one or the other. Can't be both unless you're a hand selected survivor of intense systems like the Soviet and Bulgarian athletes of the 70's. In other words: can't be both unless you're an Olympic caliber athlete.
Out of fear of underrecovery, this usually means skinny-fat people are told to train less frequently. But to understand why this might be a mistake, you have to go back to the premise of stress and recovery. Although this was touched on in Solutions for the Skinny Fat-Ectomorph Part I, I expanded on this concept in the resource I'm working on to make it clearer as it's the overriding tenant of training.
Basically, the body is nothing more than an adaptation from the signals it's receives from the environment. Keep in mind you're responsible for these “signals.” You choose what your body gets exposed to. Those 12 beers on Saturday? Yeah, your fault. (Forgiven if they were Guinness. Or Dragon's Milk.)
I'll repeat what I said before:
From a biological standpoint, having muscle is an artifact of living a lifestyle that demands its creation.
The more frequently you signal for the necessity of having muscle, being strong, and living lean, the better your chances are of having muscle, being strong, and living lean. You just have to make sure you don't exceed your capacity to recover from the signals. So more is better unless more means a failure to adapt.
Think of it like a suntan. The more time you're in the sun, the more potential you have for tanning. You won't necessarily burn (overtrain) from high frequency unless you combine it with high intensity. If you're pale as sin, you have less leeway between the two (frequency and intensity).
Skinny-fats are the “pale” people of the training world, so teetering between the two has to be done diligently.
Now, let's compare training philosophies.
- More frequent training sends signals more frequently, albeit at a lesser intensity. (It has to be of a lesser intensity. Remember Patrick Henry?)
- Low frequency training send signals less frequently, albeit it at a higher intensity.
But should people with pale skin crisp in the sun for three hours straight a few days per week? Or should they use shorter, more frequent, less intense exposures?
HIGH FREQUENCY SOUNDS GOOD, BUT…
High frequency sounds great, right? Skinny-fat ectomorphs, however, simply aren't strong enough to warrant frequent training. PLP and The 40 Day Program are for people that are kind of already “strong enough.” Personally, I don't think anyone should think about running The 40 Day Program until 60% of their 1RM for their big posterior chain movement (deadlift, for instance) is 225 lbs.
When you aren't “strong enough,” the signal simply isn't intense enough to produce a worthwhile adaptation. Going with the suntan analogy, strength is the sun's brightness.
- Being strong is like having a high and bright sun in the sky. Under these circumstances, shorter, smaller, and frequent exposures can work.
- Being weak is like having a bunch of cloud coverage. Shorter, smaller, and frequent exposures are all for naught. In this case, a longer duration would work better.
Therefore, skinny-fat people need to gain a baseline level of strength. Using a high frequency program to gain that level usually doesn't work because most high frequency programs aren't systematic in their progression. They're often used by advanced lifters because they know how to go by “feel.” Because of this, I don't like high frequency barbell training for anyone that is better off served on a more deliberate beginner progression.
I guess it's a good thing I advocate training methods that extend beyond the barbell.
BE SURE TO BANK ON BODY WEIGHT
I put a huge stock on bodyweight exercises. Huge. Back in February, when my little cousin started training under me, I told him he was going to hate to love chin-ups. (When he saw his arms growing, true love happened.) In a few months he went from doing three reps to eight reps per set, and he went from doing one tough-as-nails dip to ten dips per set. Progress was slow, but deliberate.
In my opinion, the chin-up is the master skinny-fat lift. You must get good at it. Must. Being good at chins represents all things anti-skinny-fat — precisely why we start out so bad at them.
Getting good at them means having a “decent” body composition and pretty good relative strength. The exercise itself sends all of the right signals. And remember: we want those signals sent as often as possible.
The chin-up, being a body weight exercise, is much easier to recover from than most barbell exercises. Since it's the skinny-fat antitheses, it's the prime candidate for high frequency training.
But, as usual, there's a problem. Skinny-fat ectormophs can usually only pull off one or two chin-ups (if not zero). Remember the whole brightness spiel above? Yeah, this is a problem.
Jumping into a high frequency program — even though that's the ultimate goal — at a sub-par strength level is suicide. Not only will your progression be derailed, but you will likely end up with elbow problems because the tissues simply aren't yet adapted enough.
HERE'S THE PLAN OF ATTACK
While I can't back this up with any study, I'm willing to bet a lot of my progress to this point has come from doing chin-ups at a terribly high frequency. I do them every day I train during my warm-up.
The warm up is the workout. I never touch a barbell before doing a basic dynamic warm up, thirty chins, push-ups, squats, and copious jumping jacks. Yes, even on lower body days.
Hell, I even do some on my off days. In my mind, they are that important for someone that's skinny-fat, especially when done at a high frequency. You want those delicious signals being sent as often as possible. You want to them to demand the creation of muscle and the necessity of less excess body-fat. So here's the plan:
1) Follow a program that yields slow and steady progress until you can do five or six chin-ups. This is not a high frequency program. (Yes, one will be included in the resource.)
2) You might as well throw push-ups into this mix too, so try to hit ten or twenty of those in one set. Honestly, dips would be a better choice as they are sister to chin-ups (with the entire body weight supported by the hands and all). But this could be a conflict of interest for a skinny-fat with a sub-par upper chest. For those kind of woes, check out The Best Damn Guide to Upper Chest Size and Strength.
Until you have the strength for the above two things, you simply don't have the strength to warrant high frequency training. Diving into it will likely derail your progress, and zap your recovery for a more deliberate progression.
After you can bang out a few reps though, consider the following options:
1) Do a few “grooved” sets as a warm-up. As I mentioned, I always do at least ten chin-ups for a warm-up. Sometimes it's twenty. Others, thirty. But never less than ten. No set is overly exhaustive either. You shouldn't kill yourself. So if you can do five, do one or two sets of two. Pretty soon, those two reps are going to feel pretty easy. When that happens, go for three. You get the idea.
2) Try greasing the groove. Set up an Iron/Door Gym and simply do one or two repetitions every time you walk in and out of the room or something silly like that.
3) Do a high frequency program that actually gets you stronger. This is the preferred technique. There are many out there, like Pavel's Fighter Pull-Up Routine for example.
All in all, just do something that equates to practice. For instance, after toying around on gymnastics rings, I found out just how bad my dipping strength was. So almost every day I'm just going in and doing something — not really to overly tax myself, but just enough to simply “get better” at them. That's what this high frequency is about — getting better through frequent “practice.”
WHY HIGH FREQUENCY TRAINING WORKS FOR HARDGAINERS
There's often talk about progressive overload being the most important aspect of training. Most of us equate progressive overload, however, with either more weight on the bar or with more reps.
But simply doing “more” also is progressive overload. Consider adding one “easy” set of three chin-ups to your warm-up that's done four days per week. That's an extra 12 chin-ups per week, 48 chin-ups per month, and 576 chin-ups per year.
Now, consider not doing that warm-up. That's 0 reps.
That's progressive overload too.
So why is this ideal for a hardgainer of muscle?
Because more frequent, less intense training is easier to recover from, which is ideal for the limited recovery capacity of a typical hardgainer. You're also sending more signals more frequently to the body that demand the creation of muscle — you're essentially beating the fatness out of the skinny-fat because it's a constant hint for awesome relative strength.
Just know that there's a fine line to be walked. Upping the frequency without proper care can lead to tendonitis and other nasty problems. As with the suntan, unguided exposure will probably leave you burned.
So save the barbell stuff for those strong enough to worry about it. Chances are, that's not quite you yet. But once you hit the tipping point for some body weight exercises, consider a program that hinges progress on a high frequency. The results will surprise you.
Have any experience with high frequency training? I'd love to hear your thoughts below.
P.S. Anfernee Hardaway was my favorite basketball player growing up. I love that jersey. I've probably had it since I was ten.