Hard gainers need more than hard training. I, for one, am a firm believer in employing many different principles to achieve bodybuilding goals. Unfortunately, I had to discover this the hard way, from personal experience.
Until that time, I took a simplistic approach to the construction of muscle: namely, that there is no such thing as training too often, too much nor too long. If some is good, I thought, more must be better.
Eventually, of course, the growing ceased, and the more furiously I trained, the worse were the results. That's when I had to face the fact that, in bodybuilding, effort and effect do not exhibit a linear relationship. Building a physique is not the same as building a brick wall. You're not simply piling bricks on top of each other until you have a completed Structure. Quite the contrary, our bodies are complex, fuel-burning entities that depend upon delicate balances and interrelated components that at times work independently while at others, integrally. Train one of these components improperly, and it will break down. Burn the fuel faster than it is supplied, and you'll deplete the entire mechanism.
It's a tough pill to swallow, but there is such a thing as overtraining, and it can bring your progress to a halt no matter what your stage of experience. If you're a beginner, you must condition your body to handle increased levels of stress rather than jump into them. If you're an experienced hard gainer, you are very likely training too much, too often and too long and should back off to the point where your body can recuperate.
Beginners would be wise to limit workouts to no more than three days per week, training the whole body each time and hitting each muscle group with only three sets per exercise. Each set should be taken to total failure, not just mental failure but physical failure. In other words, don't quit mentally before you quit physically.
These sets can be either all the same exercise or they can be different exercises. A variation might be to do all of one exercise for a specific workout, then a different exercise the next workout.
Regardless of the exercise, your first set should always employ the overload principle, which is as heavy as possible with a basic movement and repetitions anywhere from 12 down to six.
For the second set, you should switch to continuous tension, using a much higher range of repetitions, as many as 30, never going to the point of full extension or contraction in order to keep the muscle tight at all times.
Set number three should follow the peak contraction principle, with a moderate number of repetitions, between 10 and 15, but getting a final squeeze in the movement at the greatest point of contraction.
For the more advanced bodybuilder, I would suggest split training four days a week (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday) separating bodyparts so that half the body is worked Monday and the other half on Tuesday, repeating the sequence on Thursday and Friday. Most bodybuilders, including professionals, will say that's not enough, but I assure you that many of the top pros, in recognizing that overtraining is our worst enemy, are lowering their sets and reps as well as the number of days they are training each week.
Nutrition is the other major factor in breaking through stubborn gains. I have always been in disagreement with the amount of protein we need as bodybuilders. The base amount is derived from FDA recommendations, even though we are aware that those recommendations are extremely conservative for even inactive or normally active people. As bodybuilders, however, I believe we need much more protein than is currently accepted. As soon as I substantially increased my protein intake, my muscle size increased significantly. In fact, I would say that if you are a hard gainer, you need at least two grams of protein per pound of body weight. A 180-pounder, for example, needs at least 350 grams a day, but the bodybuilders I know don't even take 50% of that.
Where the high-carbohydrate, low-protein concept gained its popularity was in running, but it doesn't translate into bodybuilding; the same with carbohydrate loading, which has also been the downfall of many bodybuilders. The popular opinion here is that excess protein will damage the kidneys and liver. That's not true. We need more, much more; in fact, the minimum amount I'm eating now of red meat alone is two pounds every day.
Another fallacy is that sodium is evil. My father was a strong believer in not depriving the body of sodium. He used to tell us that during World War II it was said that no two ingredients were more sine qua non for survival than water and salt. For a long time, I deprived my body of sodium; but no longer, and the difference is like sky and earth. It's unbelievable. If you deprive your body of sodium, I think it's a big mistake; you'll feel exhausted all the time, you'll experience loss of energy and stamina, and you will appear flat and stringy.
My sister, a surgeon, often sends me information from the latest medical research reports, and she says they are now discovering that people have been wrong about how much sodium the body needs. Recommended daily requirements are being raised, especially for active people.
If you are having a problem with a specific bodypart, priority training is an imperative. Make that muscle group the first you train in the day, and stay with heavy, basic movements.
For chest, I personally prefer flat barbell and dumbbell presses for the overload set, inclines for continuous tension and dumbbell flyes for peak contraction.
Back definitely gets heavy bent rows for the overload set, pulldowns for the continuous tension set and pulley rows or T-bar rows for peak contraction.
Overload for my quadriceps is always squats, continuous tension is the 45-degree leg press and peak contraction is leg extensions. Hamstrings are most certainly stiff-leg deadlifts for overload, lying leg curls for continuous tension and standing leg curls for peak contraction.
My shoulders begin with overhead presses for the overload set; you can use either a barbell or dumbbells, whichever your preference. For continuous tension, I like side laterals; and for peak contraction, upright rows.
Overload for triceps is close-grip bench presses, continuous tension is lying French presses, with peak contraction provided by cable pushdowns.
Barbell curls are the overload movement for my biceps. For continuous tension, I like cable preacher curls. Peak contraction comes from concentration curls.
Don't get the idea from these details that overcoming plateaus is simply a matter of sophisticated training. To the contrary, it's a philosophy comprising training, nutrition and rest. Get as much sleep as possible. In fact, the ideal for a hardcore bodybuilder is 10 hours a day; and in this case, more is even better.
To paraphrase Arnold about mass gaining: If you don't have to run, walk. If you don't have to walk, stand. If you don't have to stand, sit. If you don't have to sit, lie. If you don't have to remain awake, sleep.
Put all these together, and you will grow.