How to look like you lift if you’re a flabby hardgainer

Since the beginning of time man has pondered the important question of how to look cool with no shirt on. For the naturally gifted, it’s easy: lift heavy things and eat lots. However, that plan won’t work for the hardgainer with a slow metabolism like me. We’ll get slightly bigger and stronger, but mostly just fat. All is not lost, though.

Big ideas meet genetic reality

I work out for strength and health, but I freely admit the urge to look good naked is also part of it.

Since age 19 I’ve trained and eaten to build up my body. But contrary to my aspirations, I have a bird skeleton and limited ability to put on muscle. Worse, I get fat easily.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably in the same boat. Thankfully you can still look above-average with below-average genetics.

Desperate measures

To overcome a limited genetic hand, some undergo surgery, getting silicone muscle implants and vacuuming out their fat by surgical means. Others resort to taking steroids and other drugs to grow muscle and get lean.

These options are non-starters. Fake muscle and other surgery is deeply unsatisfying at best (and comical at worst), and the health risks of drugs aren’t worth it.

So the question remains: how can you look muscular if you have limited ability to grow muscle?

The street performers

The question was answered for me unexpectedly.

Walking through London, I noticed two acrobatic street performers. Their physical appearance was attention-grabbing—neither wore a shirt and they were very muscular.

I kept watching their performance, and it dawned on me. Neither of them were big. In fact, they were downright wiry and small. So why did they look so muscular?

Simply, they were very lean. Their muscles were extremely well defined, which maximized what little they had. Their low body fat created the illusion of muscle size.

Leanness is the secret

Muscle mass is a big part of what makes an impressive physique, but it’s only half the equation. Regardless of how much muscle you have, it doesn’t look like much if it’s obscured by body fat. Therefore, the other half of the muscularity equation is leanness.

If you’re one of my genetically subpar sisters and brothers, leanness becomes even more important. Very large muscles can take a fair layer of fat and remain visible, but the less muscle you have, the leaner you have to be to show it.

To illustrate

As mentioned, I don’t have much muscle mass, so this comparison shows the point. I’m heavier with more muscle in the photo on the left, even though it looks like the opposite.

(Ah, the good old days of flip phones and thinking force-feeding was the key to muscle growth. Compared to how much fat I eventually put on, I’m barely overweight on the left there.)

The art of banging your head against the wall

You could spend years force-feeding and waiting for a miracle like I did (if you wait long enough, fat turns to muscle, right?). But it defeats the purpose. You’ll have little to show for all the effort you put into physical self-improvement.

(And taking the bulking mentality as far as I did was horrible for my self-esteem, as well as health.)

Control what you can

Even with optimal training and diet, your muscle mass ceiling is out of your control, and no amount of extra calories will change that. Leanness, however, you can control.

There’s still a genetic component, and you probably won’t be able to stay in bodybuilding stage condition (and most people shouldn’t try to). But chances are you could keep visible abs permanently, and that’s enough to greatly improve how you look.

Plus, it’s a rewarding achievement and badge of honor in its own right, especially if you’re not naturally lean. Becoming lean requires knowhow and some suffering. Staying that way requires real expertise.

Stay lean, grow gradually

Arguably you might grow faster if you allow significant fat gain, but in my decades of experience the difference is small, and the trade off isn’t worth it. If you’re a serious bodybuilder, the few percentage points difference might be worth it, but for the average gym-rat it just undermines all the effort we put into training and diet.

Therefore, if you’re a hardgainer who wants to maintain the most impressive physique you’re capable of, stay lean. By definition, muscle growth for the hardgainer takes a long time, but it will take a long time regardless of whether you’re fat.

There’s a caveat in that finding your caloric sweet spot requires experimentation. You have to balance leanness with an energy intake permissive of muscle growth—stay too lean and you won’t be able to make gains. For me, reverse dieting was a critical tool for this.

To sum up

This article is intended for a specific person: the hardgainer whose muscle is obscured by body fat. Someone who’s been working hard in the gym for at least a year or two with mediocre results, and wants to finally look like they actually lift.

If you fall into that category like I used to, stop trying to force muscle growth by eating too much and living overweight. Get lean, stay lean, and aim to increase your muscle mass slowly over time.

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