The Hardgainer Plateau
by Casey Butt, Ph.D.
What is a Hardgainer?
Perry Rader first popularized the term "hard gainer" in the original incarnation of Iron Man magazine. Somewhere along the line Stuart McRobert banged the two words into one ("hardgainer") with his 1980's articles in Ironman magazine (what Rader's magazine eventually became) and later by his magazine bearing the name. In it's most basic definition a "hardgainer" is simply someone who gains muscle more slowly and with more difficulty than the average trainee. Then, because some general trends were observed, the term "hardgainer" began to encompass small, thinly built individuals - ectomorphs. Reg Park recognized this distinction in the 1950s and gave specific advice for the "small-boned type". Why? Because ectomorphs typically find it very difficult to gain muscle.
But fat hardgainers exist also (I should know, I was one). The one common thread being that the smaller your bone structure is for your height, the more difficult a time you're likely going to have with bodybuilding/weight training. You'll generally be weaker than your larger-boned counterparts and you'll gain muscle more slowly and have less overall potential for muscle size. In the scientific arena, this was verified by researchers from the Institute of Movement Sciences at the University of Limburg in The Netherlands (Van Etten L.M., Verstappen F.T., Westerterp K.R., “Effect of Body Build on Weighttraining-induced Adaptations in Body Composition and Muscular Strength”, Med Sci Sports Exerc, vol. 26, no. 4, pp. 515-21, 1994.)
But there are exceptions to every rule - as rare as they might be (take a look at natural bodybuilding phenomenon Rob Hope for a good example of such an exception). But to establish a general definition we can work with let's define a hardainer as someone with a smaller than average bone structure who has increased dificulty in gaining muscle mass. To take that a step further, a smaller than average bone structure can be defined as having wrist circuferences less than 0.1045 x height, and ankle circumferences less than 0.1296 x height. And the degree of "hardgainerness" will be more or less proportional to how much smaller than average the bone structure is. Of course, there is more to a person's genetic potential for building muscle than just bone structure, but it does give us at least a reasonably accurate basis upon which to make estimations.
wrist <= 0.1045 x height
ankle <= 0.1296 x height
Why is the degree of "hardgainerness" so closely linked to bone structure? There has been no "scientific" answer put forth to explain this but many, many years of in-the-gym experience has proven the link to be real. My personal feeling is that joint structure integrity and inhibitive feedback of the nervous system (both of which will be covered in detail in my upcoming training book) are to blame. Regardless, these are the cards some of us have been dealt and the only prudent course of action is to learn more about our situations and how to make the most of them.
But now that you've put your tape measure down and are possibly emotionally devastated that your wrists and ankles are smaller than our lifters' averages, consider this... some of the most aesthetic and impressive physiques of all time were very close to, or even slightly smaller than, the average values given by the above equations. Two that immediately come to mind are Dave Goodin and Steve Reeves. Now, bear in mind that small bones and great power don't exactly go hand-in-hand - great strength is usually in the realm of the big-boned men like Reg Park, John Grimek and Bill Kazmaier - but the "body beautiful" is usually just on the line of average to small-boned.
The Hardgainer Plateau
In sixteen years of involvement with the Iron Game, and over six years studying anthropometric data of drug-free bodybuilders, I've come to the clear conclusion that most drug-free people will plateau when their arms reach a muscular (i.e. not fat) measurement of about 2.28 x wrist circumference - that's at about 10% body fat. For a guy with 7" wrists that comes to about a lean 16.0" arm. For a guy with 8" wrists it's about 18.2". For a little guy with only 6.5" wrists he's going to get into difficulty before his arms reach even a muscular 15 inches. That's a huge difference in potential size based solely on bone structure. The rest of the equations work out as follows:
W = Wrist circumference measured on the hand side of the styloid process.
(The styloid process is the bony lump on the outside of your wrist.)
A = Ankle circumference at the smallest point
Bear in mind that the "plateau points" will be different for everyone - this is not an exact science. However, most people will find these numbers close to the point they stall at after about 3-5 years of serious drug-free, bodybuilding training (assuming, that is, that they take measurements at a relatively low body fat such as 10%).
Does this mean that this is as big as you're going to get? Not necessarily. The equations simply illustrate that at this point your muscle gains will slow down (often to a crawl) and you'll have to be much more meticulous in your approach to training, diet and recovery. I've seen trainees stuck for years at the level of development described by these equations because they failed to adapt their training after this plateau. And these formulae were not arrived at by merely picking numbers out of the air ...they come from years of in-the-gym experience with drug-free trainees following many different training routines and styles.
For comparison, below are John McCallum's "Ideal Physique" equations that you find used on numerous websites as the basis for "Grecian Ideal Physique" calculators. (Website quote: "This fun "calculator" goes back to ancient times. The Greeks used these measurements to determine what the "ideal" male should look like and is represented over and over again in literature and art through the ages.") In reality, the equations were based on 1950's and early 1960's Mr. America contestants and were written by a Canadian in 1964, with no reference to ancient Greece whatsoever.* Ancient Greek sculpture body proportions were, in fact, much smaller everywhere but the waist.
"Mr. America" measurements
chest = 6.500W
biceps = 2.340W
forearms = 1.885W
neck = 2.405W
thighs = 3.445W
calves = 2.21W
waist = 4.55W
Notice that although McCallum referenced everything to wrist circumference (actually he referenced everything to the chest measurement, which itself was obtained from wrist circumference, and I re-wrote them for convenience), his "ideals" were just a little larger than the point where most people will encounter their development plateau. McCallum (a gym owner and trainer) knew that muscular potential was correlated to frame size, so he used wrist circumference to base training goals on. This is accurate because it reflects how most people will develop, but it doesn't accurately reflect a true "Mr. America" physique ...which will also be influenced by measurements with regards to height.
Going back to the Hardgainer Plateau equations we can see where the hardgainer part comes in...
Consider that each of the three example men mentioned above are the same height: 5'9". The man with 8" wrists would have 18.2" arms and tip the scales at about 206 pounds (at 10% body fat). The guy with 7" wrists would have 16.0" arms and weigh about 182. The guy with 6.5" wrists would weigh about 169 pounds and have 14.8" arms. Obviously, a 206 pound man with 18.2" arms is a lot bigger man than a 169 pound guy with 14.8" arms - now you can see the degree of "hardgainerness". A little further consideration and you'll understand how much easier it is for the larger-boned man to develop championship physique proportions and great strength than it is for the smaller-boned man. But also keep in mind that most drug-free champions, and those noted for having the most aesthetics physiques, are not typically large-boned individuals.
A Closer Look at Championship Physiques and Hardgainers
Taking a closer look at a guy who's 5'9" tall with 8.0" wrists and 9.9" ankles, according to the formulae developed in Your Maximum Muscular Bodyweight and Measurements, his championship physique would measure approximately:
chest = 49.9"
biceps = 18.2"
forearms = 14.5"
neck = 17.7"
thighs = 26.2"
calves = 17.6"
From the above equations, he would plateau after 3-5 years of serious bodybuilding training at about:
biceps = 18.2"
forearms = 14.6"
neck = 18.4"
thighs = 26.2"
calves = 17.8"
weight ~ 208 lbs.
A quick glance at these numbers will tell you that this man could reach his full bodybuilding potential size within a few years of training. If he were to concentrate on tyically less seriously trained muscle groups, such as the neck, he might even surpass some of the predicated maximums for these body parts (though this would bring his physique slightly away from the bodybuilding "ideal").
Now let's consider a man who's 5'9" tall with 7.0" wrists and 8.7" ankles. His championship physique would measure approximately:
chest = 46.6"
biceps = 17.0"
forearms = 13.6"
neck = 16.5"
thighs = 24.5"
calves = 16.4"
But from the above equations, he would plateau after 3-5 years of serious bodybuilding training at about:
biceps = 16.0"
forearms = 12.8"
neck = 16.1"
thighs = 23.1"
calves = 15.7"
weight ~ 182 lbs.
We see that this man has reached only about 94-95% of the development of a top champion of his height and bone structure. In reality, these measurements, in lean condition, would be impressive in almost any gym. But, obviously, this man has a harder road ahead of him than his bigger-boned gym friend if he wants to go all the way and build a truly championship physique. In fact, 94-95% is a fairly typical level for genetically average trainees to plateau at after several years of serious training. The demands of real life and genetic limitations are typically such that most long-term trainees never surpass this level of development. Anything beyond this point and the gap closes on a truly outstanding physique. Greater gains are quite possible, but this is the point where much greater-than-average dedication, persistance and patience are required if they are to be achieved.
None of this is meant to be discouraging - merely a rough quantization of the plight of hardgainers. Hardgainers do exist. It is a fact that has to be lived with. They train just as hard as other people, often harder, but big measurements are much harder to come by for them. If you are a hardgainer (and many people are) be aware that success in bodybuilding for you will require more dedication than it does for more gifted individuals, though it is still possible. As Reg Park told his readers in the early 1950s, "...may I remind you that it will take more time to achieve what you desire if you are the small-boned type. Train hard, take your time and don't try to do too much at once. Plenty of rest and a proper diet and there is no reason why you too cannot succeed."
*originally published in the November 1964 issue of Strength and Health magazine and re-published in The Complete Keys to Progress by John McCallum. Also found in Stuart McRobert's books Brawn and Beyond Brawn.
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