I’ve been around my share of weak, skinny dudes over the course of my career. In fact, I’ve been there myself and am a hard-gainer genetically. It took me years to actually learn what I was doing wrong and what I should be doing instead. Genetics play a huge role in building muscle, but if you do things right you can still make significant progress. You’re never genetically cursed for life. You just have to stop wasting time on the shit that doesn’t work and instead focus on training efficiently. I’ve made a career out of helping genetically average dudes pack on lean muscle and strength, and combat the dreaded “skinny fat” look. After working with so many guys who face similar frustrations for the last 12 years, I was able to narrow down the five most common mistakes that all these guys make. These common mistakes can easily be corrected, and making the necessary changes to your training will absolutely improve your progress — if you’re willing to put in the work, that is. However, if you’re a frustrated hard-gainer, I doubt you’ll have a problem putting in the work.

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With that said, I’ll shut up and give you the five biggest mistakes I’ve seen hard-gainers make in their quest to get yoked, and what to do instead.

Mistake 1: Going Heavy Every Workout

Most skinny dudes make the mistake of testing their strength and trying to take every single workout to the max. Aside from the complete disregard to any kind of warm-up sets, these guys will throw a weight on the bar that’s about 110% of their one-rep max and claim to be attempting a set of 10. When the bar comes crashing down onto their chest their “spotter” then begins to curl the bar off of his partner’s chest while saying, "All you, bro.” Just when you think it can’t get any worse, the lifter actually attempts another rep! The second rep, more devastatingly painful to watch than the first, is even more dangerous than the rep prior. The cycle repeats until the lifter finally doesn’t think he can do anymore. This entire process does nothing but break you down. It doesn’t get you strong. It doesn’t build muscle. It’s just a waste of time and will set you up for a catastrophic injury at some point.

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Rather than trying to test yourself at every single workout, use a weight you can handle and build strength over a particular period of time. Building strength doesn’t mean having your buddy do most of the work for you. It means using a weight that you can handle on your own for the prescribed rep range of the movement. Typically I recommend leaving one rep “in the tank.” So if you’re going for a set of eight, use a weight that you can get at least nine reps with. This gives you the ability to adapt and progress over a period of time without destroying your central nervous system in the process. In turn you’ll be able to train harder and recover better, which will lead to more gains, bro.

Mistake 2: Chasing the Pump

We all know the pump is one of the best parts of training. However, only training for the pump isn’t the best way for hard-gainers like you and me to build more muscle. In fact, it can be counterproductive. Here’s what I mean: If you’re a natural hard-gainer and want to pack on some real muscle then you need to get strong. Max effort upper body days aren’t necessarily the best pump days, but they will be more beneficial to your overall development of muscle than just hitting high rep pump days all the time. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t incorporate higher rep days from time to time, or even once per week. It just means that you shouldn’t only look for catching a pump every time you walk into the gym. If you do, it could set you further back from building a strong enough foundation to move a heavier weight for higher volume. In my opinion, having the strength to move a heavy weight in a hypertrophy rep range is the best way to pack on size.

Spend your time building a foundation of strength and get strong first so you can then start moving a heavy weight for higher reps.

Mistake 3: Focusing Mainly on Machines and Isolation Exercises

I have to say, there are far more people training their legs these days than there were 10 years ago. Maybe this is due to CrossFit making some bigger lifts more mainstream, or maybe those “friends don’t let friends skip leg day” memes got to some people. Whatever the reason, the end result is a good thing. However, there are still far too many hard-gainers spending their time on leg extensions and leg curls rather than putting in quality work in the squat rack. The same can especially be said for upper body, where guys are wasting time on the pec deck rather than hitting heavy military presses.

Like I mentioned earlier, if you want more muscle and strength then you need to be efficient with your training. You need to spend your time utilizing the lifts that will elicit more of a production of anabolic hormones and pack on muscle form head to toe. The squat and deadlift are two great examples. Also keep in mind that if you’re an older person or have some injuries, you don’t have to only obsess on heavy barbell exercises — nor should you. You can still get a great training effect in a safer manner by doing variations of these movements and/or using specialty bars. For example, a Swiss bar is a much better option to press with for guys with beat-up shoulders. A goblet squat with kettlebells or a dumbbell could be a much better variation of the squat for someone with disc issues than a barbell squat. A trap bar deadlift is an awesome exercise for those who are too tight to maintain a neutral spine with a straight bar deadlift.

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The important thing is that you focus on the bigger compound movements instead of isolation work.

Mistake 4: Trying to Make Your Workout as Hard as Possible

Just because something is hard doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily effective. For example, there is no doubt that CrossFit workouts are difficult, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to train if you want to get jacked. They can actually do the opposite. And please don’t get me wrong — I’m all about hard work and pushing yourself, but there is a fine line between working hard for a purpose and just doing hard shit to get tired. It’s hard to do 50 deadlifts, 50 cleans, a two-mile run, and 100 burpees, but that doesn’t do shit for building muscle. Rather than simply making your workouts hard, design them with the intention of packing on size. Spend your time building your strength, finding your weaknesses, and working them out on accessory lifts.

Mistake 5: Only Focusing on the “Mirror Muscles”

Most guys want a bigger chest, jacked shoulders, and huge arms, so they press, curl, side raise, and do some triceps work. While that’s all well and good, these same guys pay very little attention to the posterior of their bodies. They spend very little time on quality upper back work and hardly ever put in the right effort to develop the hamstrings, hips, and glutes. If you want to build real muscle then you have to have the mindset of building a well-rounded, balanced physique — not simply a bigger chest. Deadlift, hinge, row, carry, and start spending more time on the muscle you don’t typically see when you look in the mirror. Not only will you get bigger and stronger, but you will also help keep yourself healthy and avoid unnecessary injuries.

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Not being able to gain muscle is frustrating — believe me, I get it. But spend some time correcting what I talked about in this article and I guarantee you will start to see some changes. Just be sure to spend enough time putting in quality work and actually give your new program a shot, instead of just testing it out for two weeks and going right back to your old ways. That’s another big mistake many people make, but I wanted to keep this list to five, so we can call that one a bonus. To see real progress you’re going to have to stick to a particular program for about 12 weeks. Jumping from one program to the next is just as counterproductive as everything else I talked about in this post.

  • Don’t train to failure.
  • Focus on building strength.
  • Spend your time working on compound, multi-joint movements.
  • Train smart, not just hard.
  • Put more effort into training the muscles you don’t see in the mirror.
  • Be sure to stick to the same program for at least 12 weeks to see its benefits.

Clean up your training and start making some real progress. Now get out there and get them gains, bro!