There are thousands and thousands of different types of workouts that you could follow in your pursuit of building a muscular body. If you’ve spent any kind of time on the internet reading about fitness, this isn’t news to you.
Heck, if you’re like most guys I know, you have 10, 20 (or more?) workout programs that you’ve purchased, sitting on your hard drive.
But here’s a little something that may come as a surprise to you: not all workouts work for everyone in the same way.
Some guys step into a gym, pick up a few weights, and within a matter of weeks their arms are bustin’ outta their sleeves.
My older brother was like this in high school. We’d both go to the gym, hit the typical routine of bench press and curls, and suddenly he’s jacked and strong; and I was still painfully skinny and weak.
Some guys just seem to pack on muscle no matter what workout they follow (and sometimes, in spite of the workouts they follow). It doesn’t seem to matter what they do; they grow and get stronger.
But that’s not most guys. It’s not me – and because you’re reading this, I bet it’s not you either.
Guys like us – we gotta work our asses off for any gains we see. If we overdo it in the gym, we end up worn out or injured. Sometimes, it can feel like we’re “non-responders” in the exercise world – no matter what we do in the gym, we don’t see the physical changes that we want.
Maybe you’ve lost some fat, but you’ve got flab hanging around your midsection that just won’t seem to go away. And even though you’ve been hitting the weights hard, but you still lack the muscular definition and size that you want.
This is the life of the skinny fat hardgainer – and the reality you may be experiencing right now.
Every day, I talk to ambitious guys over 30 who are stressed out, getting low quality sleep, and struggling to make any kind of progress in the gym.
You may not be a typical genetically chosen skinny-fat hardgainer, but lifestyle factors (many things out of your control) are creating a physical and hormonal environment that leaves you struggling to build muscle or lose fat just like someone with crappy genetics.
It’s the curse of the modern lifestyle (and the curse of the aging process). And if this describes you, you can’t keep following the mainstream fitness advice and expect optimal results.
Here’s 7 changes you must make immediately to get back on track.
1. ACTIVATE, DON’T ANNIHILATE.
Stop trying to beat the hell out of yourself in the gym and start focusing on quality.
Too many guys are training with too much intensity. Going to muscular failure on every set or pushing themselves until they are throwing up.
It’s become like a badge of honor to see who can put themselves through the craziest, most intense workout imaginable, with people trying to one-up each other on social media.
Problem is, this is annihilating your body. It’s beating up your joints, making it difficult to recover. You gotta remember, that exercise is a stressor on your body. If the stress from your workouts matches your ability to recover – all is good. You get stronger and you build muscle.
But if the stress from your workouts enough that you’re body can’t recover – that’s no good. You get weaker and you don’t build muscle. You get injured and you feel like crap all the time. Also not good.
Sure, you can get away with really intense workouts for a while. And guys with phenomenal genetics (like pro-bodybuilders and Crossfit Games Athletes), may be able to thrive with crazy intense workouts.
But normal guys who have jobs and families and other responsibilities can’t get away with this for long. Eventually, you’re gonna get worn down.
Think of your workouts as less of an effort to see how much you can put your body through and more as practice for working your muscles.
Now, you might be thinking… “Practice? What the heck are you talkin about?”
Practice means you walk into the gym focusing on working the target muscles and perfecting technique. You’re not in there to train so hard you’re crawling down the stairs after endless sets of squats or unable to lift your arms for a two days after bench pressing for an hour straight.
You should feel momentary fatigue after each set. You should be out of breath and feel a burn in the belly of the muscle (not the joints). But you should still walk out of the gym feeling better than when you walked in.
If you’re exhausted for the rest of the day following a workout, you’re doing it wrong. And eventually that intensity will catch up to you and your progress will stall.
Definitely don’t train to muscular failure. Hit your sets hard, but stop a few reps shy of where you’d have to drop the weight or need a spotter. That’s the “sweet spot” where you’ll see gains without overdoing it.
At first, this will feel weird and you won’t know if you’re working hard enough or too hard. That’s okay. Keep practicing.
2. DOMINATE YOUR LIFTS
Only train with a weight that you can dominate for the amount of reps you’re aiming for while maximizing tension in the target muscles. Forget about the powerlifting b.s. suggesting you gotta be throwing around crazy amounts of weight.
Maybe that’s necessary if you’re trying to compete in powerlifting, but it’s not necessary – or helpful – if you’re just trying to build a body that looks, feels, and performs well. In fact, worrying too much about how much weight you’re lifting will actually make it harder to build the body you want.
Most guys I see at the gym are training with weights that are far too heavy. They’re using crappy form and bouncing the weight all over and performing some bastardized version of the exercise they’re doing.
Don’t do that. I’m giving you permission to lift “light.” I feel like telling you to reduce the amount of weight you’re currently using on your lifts by 10-15% would be a good place to start. Maximize tension in the muscles. You should be getting great muscle pumps and feeling the movements in your muscles, NOT your joints.
If you finish a set and you felt it in your joints more than your muscles, you need to decrease the weight and focus on mastering technique.
Oh, and while we’re on the topic of how much weight you’re using – don’t try to progress too soon by adding weight. I know, I know – this flies in the face of what you hear almost everywhere these days in the fitness industry, where “aim to add 5 pounds to your lifts each week” is standard advice.
But, trust me, from someone who’s spent over 10 years in the iron game (and that’s a relatively short time, really), adding any kind of measurable weight to your lifts on a workout-to-workout basis is not something you will be able to do for years on end. And definitely not if you’re a skinny-fat hardgainer or someone whose lifestyle has them stressed out and struggling to recover.
Slow your roll. When you can dominate a given weight for the rep range you’re working in, go ahead and bump up the weight. But let it happen naturally. Don’t force it.
3. REDUCE TRAINING VOLUME
Do three weight-training sessions per week. For now, that’s plenty. Actually, three solid weight-training sessions per week may very well be all you ever need to build muscle and look awesome.
As a skinny-fat dude or someone sporting the dad bod, you’re in a less than optimal situation.
If you’re the prototypical skinny-fat, injury prone, low testosterone, high cortisol/estrogen hardgainer type – you’re kinda screwed from the get go. Same thing goes for all of you sporting the dad bod after having a kid or two. Sure, maybe you’re genetics don’t suck, but the lack of sleep and stress you’re experiencing from being a parent are creating the same type of physical/hormonal environment that puts genetically skinny-fat hardgainers in such a rough spot.
In both cases, low volume training is the way to go, no question about it. Forget the body-part splits and working out 5-6 times per week. And forget crazy intense stuff like Crossfit. That’ll wreck you.
Best case scenario, you just don’t make much progress. Work case, you get injured or drive yourself into real, true fatigue where you fry your adrenals and your body starts to break down.
Skinny-fat hardgainers and dads need to focus on the least effective dose. And over the past 10 years, I’ve found that three weight-training sessions per week is perfect.
My favorite setup is upper/lower/upper.
The first workout of the week is a heavy(ish) upper body day, where you will typically keep reps under 10 on each exercise.
The second workout of the week is a lower body training session. Since we will only be training lower body once, you will want to hit a variety of reps (low/moderate and higher) for various muscle groups.
The third workout is an upper body rep/pump session. Reps are higher (8-15+) and the focus is on accruing some volume with bodybuilding-style pump training.
So, you end up with something like this:
- Incline Bench Press – 8RM x 120 seconds rest
*RM stands for “rep max.” Starting with a light weight that you could do around 15 times, do 8 reps. Continue adding weight in 10-20 pound increments, performing 8 reps, until you reach the maximum amount of weight you can lift for 8 reps that day.
2) Seated Cable Row – 4 x 8-10 x 120 seconds
3) Standing 1-arm Dumbbell Shoulder Press – 3 x 6-8 x 120 seconds
4) Pullup – 4 x 6-8 x 120 seconds
5a) Triceps band/cable extension – 3 x 8-10 x 60 seconds
5b) Dumbbell Hammer Curl – 3 x 8-10 x 60 seconds
- Vertical Jump 3 x 3 x 60 seconds
*This fires up the nervous system so it’s ready to move heavy weight in the following exercises more safely.
2) Trap Bar Deadlift – 6RM x 120 seconds rest
*RM stands for “rep max.” Starting with a light weight that you could do around 15 times, do 6 reps. Continue adding weight in 10-20 pound increments, performing 6 reps, until you reach the maximum amount of weight you can lift for 6 reps that day.
3) Dumbbell Front Squat – 3 x 10-15 x 90 seconds
4) Dumbbell Reverse Lunge – 2 x 12 (per leg) x 90 seconds
5a) Pallof Press – 3 x 10 second iso hold x 60 seconds
5b) Farmer Walk – 3 x 40 seconds x 60 seconds
- Dumbbell Bench Press – 4 x 12 x 90 seconds
- Inverted Row – 4 x 10-15 x 90 seconds
3a) Dumbbell Lateral Raise – 4 x 10-15 x 60 seconds
3b) Cable/Band Face Pull – 4 x 15 x 60 seconds
4) Close Grip Pushup – 3 x As many reps as possible x 60 seconds
This is just an example.
The exercises themselves aren’t all that important, neither is the “implement” (barbells vs. dumbbells, etc.). You will want to pick exercises for day 1 that stay relatively constant so that you can track progress and aim for progressive overload since improving strength is the primary focus of that day.
For the day 3 exercises, you can mix things up more frequently.
4. CUT THE CARDIO
When I say “cut the cardio”, I don’t mean completely eliminate it, I just mean you have to limit it. Definitely severely limit or eliminate medium-intensity, long-duration cardio. That’s the stuff that’s going to make it more difficult to recover and beat up your joints
You either want short-duration, high-intensity interval type cardio; or, you want to do low-intensity, low-impact options.
So here are your options:
- Do a high-intensity finisher after one of your training sessions each week. For this option, pick an implement (jump rope, sprints, battling ropes, medicine ball slams, etc.) and perform an all-out effort for 10-20 seconds. Rest for 40-50 seconds. Repeat 5-10 times.
- On off days (days you don’t weight train), do some form of low-intensity cardio. This could be a brisk walk for 45 minutes, a light bike ride, swimming, yoga, etc. You could do this everyday if possible (just not immediately prior to weight-training on days you lift).
5. INCREASE REST PERIODS
Usually, I’m against long rest periods. I even wrote an article a few weeks ago about how decreasing rest periods is a great way to get in better shape if you don’t like (or don’t have time for) traditional cardio.
But if you’re skinny-fat or stressed out and getting low quality sleep, longer rest periods are a must. Getting stronger over time is key for continuing to build muscle. Most skinny-fat guys struggle to gain strength. When you’re recovery sucks, short rest periods are gonna make it even more difficult to perform at a high level from set to set during your workouts.
That’s why I recommend keeping rest periods between 60-180 seconds. The less “demanding” an exercise is, the shorter the rest periods can be.
Big, compound exercises like deadlifts, barbell presses, etc., need longer rest periods (90-180 seconds). For smaller, isolation exercises and most bodyweight exercises, you can get away with shorter rest periods (60-90 seconds).
A few months ago, when I was getting really worn down with stress and lack of sleep, this was the most significant change I made. I had been struggling to gain strength for months (yes – MONTHS – you read that correctly).
Actually, on most of my lifts, my strength had actually decreased. I had been experimenting with shorter rest periods (30-60 seconds), and it was just too much for my recovery ability at the time. I upped my rest periods to 90-180 seconds and BAM, things improved drastically.
I felt a ton better and my lifts started improving again. Bottom line: if you’re over 30, a dad, or anyone whose hit a point of stagnation and struggling to recover, you need to increase rest periods. Especially if you’ve been following some kind of Crossfit setup (or any approach) that has minimal rest periods at a high intensity.
6. EAT FOR HORMONE OPTIMIZATION AND REDUCED STRESS/INFLAMMATION
I know IIFYM (if it fits your macros) and eating whatever you want within your caloric limits is all the rage right now. I know you’re being told you can eat twinkies all day and still lose weight.
But that approach will ruin you if you’ve got recovery issues or crappy genetics. Actually, that’s just a really stupid approach in general.
You need to be eating whole, unprocessed foods 80-90% of the time. Limit the sugar and grains as those are inflammatory foods for most people. That doesn’t mean you’re “dieting” – you shouldn’t be severely restricting calories.
Focus on lean meats, fruits/veggies, and rice/oats/potatoes and eat until you are comfortably satisfied (not stuffed) each meal.
If your sleep quality/quantity is low and you’re stressed to the max, avoid intermittent fasting right now. IF works great for “healthy” people, but if you’ve got recovery issues, it can make things worse. Save that for when you’re feeling better.
7. CHILL THE FUCK OUT
You need to prioritize sleep and recovery above (most) everything else. Most guys I know who are skinny-fat and struggle to progress in the muscle building and fat loss area are the hyper-stressed kinda guys.
You’re ambitious as hell; and that actually plays against you in this area of your life. When you’re always high-strung and trying to perfect every area of your life, eventually, that can negatively affect your health.
Especially if you’re going through a stressful season of life with new kids, busy at work, etc.
Here are a few things you should start doing to combat this:
- Stop obsessing over your training. Find a good workout, hire a coach, and stop freaking out about every little detail. Show up, work hard (but don’t kill yourself) and move on knowing you’re taking care of things.
- Meditate daily. I use the Headspace app and love it. 10 minutes per day. I promise you’ll feel 100x better. If you’re the religious type, you could spend this time praying/reading/etc. The point is to spend some time in a peaceful environment.
- Do yoga 1-2 times per week. I picked this up recently and everything – from my body to my mind – feel better. If you’ve got the “yoga is for pussies” mindset – get over it.
- Get more fun in your life. Find some hobbies you enjoy doing. Hang out with friends or family – and when you’re with them, put your phone away, stop thinking about work (or your workouts) and just have fun.
- Turn the TV off and get to bed. You need 8 hours of sleep. If you have kids, I know that can be tough, but you gotta do what you can to make it happen.
There was a time when I would have read an article like this, and been like, “nah, man, I don’t need to cut back. I don’t need to focus more on recovery or spend less time in the gym. I can push through this – a real man would push through this. Only the strong survive.”
Now, I realize how “off” that perspective is.
If you’re in a season of life where stress is high and you’ve got a lot going on with work and kids and all of that – you gotta make some adjustments. And recognizing that and deciding to make changes doesn’t make you weak; it makes you smart.
If you’ve hit a point if your training where you’re stuck; where you’re not progressing or you can’t seem to gain muscle or improve strength or lose fat – you needa change things up. Stop looking at the genetically elite, single, low-stress guys who can spend hours in the gym each day and only have to worry about themselves and how they look.
I know it’s a tempting reality to pretend like you can have; but you can’t. And honestly, that’s probably not the life you really want. Living a remarkable life is about balance. It’s about optimal health and living for the impact more than it’s about being someone who’s a slave to the gym just so they can look a little bit better.
Follow the 7 tips outlined here today and I promise all areas of your life will drastically improve. Then, send me an email about how awesome you feel now that you’ve finally followed a plan suited specifically for you.