I think you’ll agree with me when I say:
Conditioning is the most overlooked aspect of building athletic muscle, especially for skinny dudes. After all, you need to do is eat, hoist huge weights, and eat some more and you’ll easily build muscle.
Or is it?
In today’s post, I’ll show you how to escape from hardgainer hell and improve your conditioning while simultaneously building high-performance muscle.
Building slabs of high-performance muscle isn’t just lifting and crushing your diet—you need specific conditioning for hardgainers for optimal muscular development, workout efficiency, and overall health.
What’s the point in being strong and jacked without the ability to use or sustain your athleticism?
Yea, gaining mass is hard work, and along with the hard work comes a fear of over-conditioning and as a result, stalling muscle growth. Don’t fall for the belief that conditioning will zap your training to the detriment of your health and athletic performance.
When it’s all said and done the real badasses are strong and well-conditioned machines, not just muscular.
Don’t be like most scraggly hardgainers who avoid conditioning like it’s an Ebola-laced napkin. Your gains won’t hemorrhage out of all your orfices, far from it.
I’ve been around the block and spent my time as a hard-gainer. I’ve done moderate steady state cardio, kept volume super-low, and even skipped conditioning completely.
As a result, I’ve grown a smidge bigger, but I always lose athleticism, and gain a ton of fat.
Drop the “conditioning keeps me small” sob story—it’s time to maximize your training with well-planned and precisely executed conditioning. With these four conditioning methods you’ll build renewed athleticism and get jacked with minimal fat gain in your escape from hardgainer hell.
1) Low Volume Sprints
Option One: Sprints Before Lifting:
Sprinting before lifting is ideal for improving performance in athletes and potentiating the nervous system for heavy lifts and explosive training. This comes with a risk vs reward trade-off as sprinting done before training should be enough to spark the nervous system yet low enough in volume and intensity to not fatigue the body and hinder lifting ability.
Moreover, sprinting is a technical movement that needs practice. The most most nuerally demanding and explosive exercises need maximum focus and energy and thus, must done first in a workout.
That’s why jumps get scheduled before Olympic lifts or heavy strength work. The neural demands of sprints need full focus and energy for maximum performance at the beginning of your workout.
Perform low volume, short distance sprints before training rather than long-duration sprints when you’re already gassed and fatigued. Two days per week perform five sets of 10-20 yards with walk-back recovery and adding one sprint per week is ideal.
This way, you’ll condition the body to high velocity, high impact movement without excess stress and training volume to interfere with your gains.
Option Two: Sprints at the end of your workout:
I’m a huge fan of sprints, agility drills, and movement skills, but there’s a catch:
Performing any coordinative skill under excess fatigue runs the risk of engraining a poor movement pattern and subsequent injury.
In other words, sprinting while exhausted from your hardgainer training is a great pop yo’ hammies, especially if you haven’t sprinted in ages.
While sprints are obviously a great exercise, and not inherently “bad” or dangerous, they’re a skill that requires mechanics and practice before piling on tons of volume, a process to which most gym rats aren’t willing to dedicate time.
That said, sprints as a conditioning tool do them with sub-maximal speeds and on a hill or incline. Using an incline and submaximal speeds prevents over striding and most hamstring related injuries.
If you go with this option sprint two days per week on a treadmill or hill. Don’t worry about the specifics; work your ass off for 10 minutes with 5-10 second sprints and 30-60 second rests. Increase your speed before the jacking up the incline to technique.
Do your Sprints:
As a performance coach first I prefer sprints before any lifting because of the neural demands mentioned above. Being strong is important, but being athletic is more about movement than just being strong in the gym.
Without a base of movement it doesn’t matter how strong you are, inefficiencies in movement will hold back your high performance training.
Sprints fire up fast-twitch fibers and potentiate your nervous system for greater muscular recruitment and strength to keep your strong and shredded as you escape hardgainer hell.
2) Conditioning Complexes
Before going any further there is a clear distinction between complex pairs and conditioning complexes.
Complex pairs use a heavy strength movement and an explosive lighter movement in sequence to improve explosive performance. Complex pairs are an advanced training method for elite sports performance, which I covered in depth here on elitefts.
When it comes to conditioning I’m referring to barbell complexes: A series of major movement patterns performed in-series without rest. Better yet, complexes only take 5-10 minutes at the end of your workout to keep you lean while you get big and jacked.
Regardless of strength levels I’d recommend starting with an empty barbell. Speed and full range of motion are more important than weight. Besides, adding too much weight will hinder your recovery and conflict with the rest of your intelligent programming. Move as fast as possible through each exercise (with good form, ahem) and without putting the bar down. Your heart will be pulsating through your t-shirt, your lunges will scream, but damn you will be glad you did these.
- deadlift 4×12 rest 0
- hang clean 4×12 rest 0
- Military press 4×12 rest 0
- front squat 4×12 rest 60-90 sec
Hang Snatch 3×10 Rest 0
Push Press 3×10 Rest 0
Hang Clean 3×10 Rest 0
Front Squat 3×10 Rest 0
Front Squat Reverse Lunge 3×10 Rest 0
High Pull 3×10 rest 60-90 sec
**Note: If you don’t know how to properly perform these exercises avoid this sequence. Never perform exercises without proper training, but even more with overhead lifts such as the Olympic lifts.
“The Widow Maker”
Overhead Press 2×10 Rest 0
back squat 2×10 Rest 0
reverse lunge 2×10 Rest 0
hang clean 2×10 Rest 0
front squat 2×10 Rest 0
- bent over row 2×10 Rest 0
- Romanian deadlift 2×10 Rest 0
- Front Squat lunge 2×10 Rest 0
- biceps curl 2×10 Rest 0
- front squat hold calf raise 2×10 Rest 90-120 sec
Complexes are an ideal conditioning tool for hard-gainers once per week because they’re of short duration and high-density. As a result, the conditioning affects span beyond the immediate workout because of exercise post-oxygen consumption (EPOC). In other words, your heart rate stays jacked up for greater cardiovascular benefit to keep you leaner while your building muscle.
Hardcore exercises like sled pushes and sprints get all the glory, but one old school tool doesn’t’ get the attention it lightly deserves: the jump rope.
Jumping rope is low impact and not-overly catabolic—two huge factors in recover for hardgainers. Beyond that, jumping rope is safer than most conditioning drills for two reasons.
First, jumping rope is a self-limiting exercise: to jump rope without failing you must stay in an aligned, joint stacked position while moving, forcing your trunk to stay engaged and resilient under the load of movement. If you miss mess up, welt your calves or triceps, or catch a toe, the exercise ends. All of this makes it extremely unlikely to over-do it; and, even better, nearly impossible to incur injury.
Second, jumping rope is a low-impact movement, despite a high number of foot strikes. Here’s why this is important for us formerly skinny guys: the lower impact does not create a hyper-catabolic environment that will erode your precious hypertrophy like other repetitive impact exercises. In other words, you will get shredded without about dropping lean body mass.
For hardgainer conditioning Double-Unders and the Runnin’ Man are my two go-to conditioning drills with each being performed twice per week with at least 48 hours between workouts.
So, if I did double-unders as my focus on Monday I would wait until Wednesday or Thursday until my next jump-rope conditioning session.
Exactly like it sounds—whip the jump rope two times in a row with one singular jump. Work up to sets of 10 and use a lighter rope, like the Cross Rope Burn set. Rests 30-60 seconds and continue on for 10-15 minutes or until your lungs and calves explode, your choice.
No, you don’t need the Running Man outfit Arnold wore in the movie, but that will increase your anabolism 400%. Fact. Seriously, I’m kidding. But, seriously.
Run in place while skipping the rope. Not only will this improve your coordination, it’s a deceptively tough conditioning workout. Go for time and work up to 10-15 minutes of continuous “running.” The impact is far less than your traditional steady state cardio or plodding along on the treadmill.
As it stands, the jump rope is the ultimate low impact tool for accelerated fat loss, conditioning, and improved athleticism for hard gainers.
4) Sled Work
I’m a huge proponent of sled-work as a conditioning tool. Hardgainers are terrified of conditioning exercises overloading their recoverability and zapping their hypertrophy.
Besides building muscle, sled work gets better:
Sleds have no eccentric stress—the stress incurred on the “negative” of resistance training exercises that causes the most muscle damage. For this reason, the volume accumulated with sleds won’t hinder recover to the same extent as other training methods.
Once the force applied to the sled exceeds that needed to overcome friction all muscular actions are concentric, resulting in increased total training volume and thus, increased protein synthesis for muscle building. For this reason, sled work is great to improve conditioning and muscle building without stressing the body past its recoverability.
In other words, sleds are a top tool to help you minimize fat gain and improve conditioning—especially if you’re a hustlin’ hardgainer with muscle building ambitions.
Hardgainer Cardio Solutions
It’s important to prioritize weight training as it’s the driving force for muscle building. Regardless, well planned conditioning is imperative to improve work capacity, improve athleticism, and keep you lean while you’re bulking. Conditioning one to three times per week, but absolutely no more.
Sample Conditioning Routine
Monday: Upper Body Training
Tuesday: Lower Body Training+ Sprint work
Wednesday: Off or Jump Rope
Thursday: Upper Body Training
Friday: Total Body Training + Sled Work
The hard to swallow fact is you still need some conditioning even if you’re looking to gain mass. Hypertrophy training is no reason to get fat and out of-shape—it’s a cop out for laziness and poor planning even for the locked in hard-gainer.
Train with these four conditioning methods you’ll build renewed athleticism and get seriously jacked with minimal fat gain in your escape from hardgainer hell.
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[A variation of this article was published on T-Nation]