Here’s What You Need To Know…
1. Every body is shaped a little bit different and can be classified into one of three somatotypes. Ectomorphs tend to be skinny with little body fat or muscle while endomorphs tend to gain both fat and muscle easily. Mesomorphs have a naturally lean, muscular and athletic build.
2. You won’t gain muscle if you don’t have a strong enough reason to change from your skinny self. Find your “why” and unlock the door to gains.
3. To gain weight, you’ve got to take in more energy than you burn off, but you’ve got to make sure you get your nutrients from the right sources. Be sure to consume the right combination of protein, fat and carbohydrate.
4. Your execution of a program, your nutrition and your lifestyle are the most important factors for making gains. In terms of programming, if you’re a skinny guy trying to pack on size, ditch the endless sets of bicep curls and focusing on getting strong in the big compound lifts like the back squat, bench press, deadlift and military press.
5. Figure out why you actually want to change, keep a food journal of what you’re currently eating, tweak one thing at a time with your diet and keep a training journal. Then, focus on getting strong on a program with a heavy diet of compound exercises.
Introduction For “Hard Gainers”
The skinny struggle is real.
In every weight room across America, you’ll see guys who have been coming to the gym day-in and day-out and still look like the same wiry-framed individuals they were a year earlier.
They read all the muscle magazines and take every mass gain supplement known to man yet can’t buy a pound of muscle.
On the other hand, you’ve got dudes who can simply touch a weight and grow. Heck, they can even miss a couple of weeks here and there and still get yoked.
Not fair, right? Then again, life’s not fair.
If you’re scrawny, you can easily put on size. You’ve just got to work a little harder than others.
Let’s discuss common pitfalls with your current training and nutrition (yes, I said nutrition) regimen and what changes you need to make to get that muscular frame you’ve always craved.
What’s Your Body Type?
Everyone’s a little different. Some of us listen to rap music, while others like nothing but country. Some prefer to hit the gym after a hard week of work, while others may want to curl up on the couch in their pajamas and watch re-runs of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (hey, no judgment).
Just like we all have our own individual interests, we each have different body structures.
In the 1940s, American psychologist William Sheldon popularized the term “somatotype” to categorize the shape of a human physique. He described three kinds of somatotypes – ectomorphs, mesomorphs and endomorphs (Carter and Heath, 1990).
Those with an ectomorphic build tend to be lean with little body fat and little muscle. Endomorphs are “big-boned” per se, as they tend to have lots of fat and muscle and gain weight easily.
Mesomorphs have a lean, muscular and athletic build and can both gain and lose weight with relative ease.
Now, Sheldon actually associated one’s body type with certain personality traits, although these assertions raised much debate.
He claimed ectomorphs tend to be self-conscious, private, introverted and socially anxious. Sheldon said endomorphs are tolerant, relaxed, fun-loving and have an affection for food, while mesomorphs are assertive, courageous and risk-takers.
Again, many of these claims are generalizations, but there’s definitely some truth to these.
Think about it – when’s the last time you saw a group of strong, muscular guys playing Dungeons and Dragons?
So ectomorphs may struggle to build muscle not only because of their body type, but also because of their personality.
Based on Sheldon’s claims, ectomorphs could lack the confidence needed to sustain a muscle-building routine because of low self-esteem.
A double whammy.
Still, there’s hope. As an ectomorph, you can certainly put on size.
We’re going to get a little sentimental for a minute, but it’s going to help. Before you make a change, you’ve first got find your “why.”
The Secret To Gains – Finding Your “Why”
Many people don’t like change. There’s a reason we go to the same grocery store, hang out with the same people and wear the same type of clothes.
Research actually supports the fact people don’t like to deviate from the norm. In a 2010 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the longer something is thought to exist, the more value people place on it (Eidelman et. al, 2010)
In the first part of the study, those at a university chose an existing requirement over an alternate choice for a course when they were told it had been around for 100 years instead of 10. In the second part of the study, participants who were told acupuncture had been around for 2,000 years thought of it more favorably than those who were told it had existed for 250 years.
Because something had been around longer, people assumed it was better. But longevity doesn’t always mean something is of higher quality.
Just because you’ve eaten cereal for breakfast every day for the last 15 years doesn’t mean that’s the best type of food to have first thing in the morning.
Change is hard, so in order to change, you’ve got to find your “why.” You have to have a strong emotional reason to adjust your lifestyle.
Think about it. You’re not really building muscle just to build muscle. What do you stand to gain from adding 15 or 20 pounds of muscle?
Will having more muscle mass give you greater confidence? What will you be able to do with more confidence?
Will you finally be able to go for that job you’ve always wanted? Will you finally be able to ask out that girl you never thought you could have?
Whatever your reason for wanting to change, you’ve got to remind yourself of it often. Post sticky notes on your bathroom mirror, refrigerator and dashboard in your car. Once you find a strong enough motivating factor, you’ll change.
The First Law of Thermodynamics (Why You’re NOT Gaining Weight)
Alright, enough of the emotional stuff.
So we’ve established it may be harder for you to add muscle than average person. Still, you can pack on plenty of size if you actually focus on what you’re doing outside the gym.
That’s right – you can follow the perfect training program to a “T” and have nothing to show for your hard work if you don’t take in enough calories or burn off too much energy via other methods of exercise.
To gain weight, you’ve got to be in a positive energy balance (take in more energy than you burn off) and to lose weight, you’ve got to be in a negative energy balance (burn off more energy than you take in).
Now, it’s a little more complex than that.
If you follow the “see-food” diet and shovel in everything in sight, you will gain weight – just not the kind of weight you want.
You’ve got to eat the right foods in the right amounts at the right times to optimize muscle growth and weight gain.
According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association, your caloric intake should be about 10 to 15 percent above maintenance to gain strictly muscle weight (Campbell and Spano, 2011). Excess calories will get stored as fat.
While you’ve got to eat enough, you also need to make sure you don’t exercise too much.
Going for a long run or playing pick-up basketball for hours on end during your off days will get you nowhere. If you need to take in more energy than you expend, you better tone it down on the cardio.
So What Types of Foods Should You Eat?
You’ve got to make sure you’re eating the right foods. Shoveling candy, chips and ice cream down your throat will put on mass, but mostly the wrong kind.
Sometimes, though, it’s OK for a leaner guy like you to have some “cheat” foods.
If you’re traveling all day and don’t have access to “health” foods, you would be better off stopping at Burger King and McDonald’s than not eating for 10 hours.
Here are a couple of things you should know about your body type. As an ectomorph, you have a fast metabolic rate, high carbohydrate tolerance and high sympathetic nerve activity (Berardi et. al, 2015).
Ever heard of non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)? Things like tapping your foot on the ground and walking around do actually contribute to your daily energy expenditure. Skinny guys tend to fidget more than the average person.
So being active all the time can actually work against you.
Also, you’ve got to use carbs to your advantage since you tolerate them well.
Since the majority of the population is interested in weight loss, you’ll hear lots of recommendations for “low-carb” diets. In these cases, we frown upon consuming foods like rice, bread and potatoes in large quantities.
And that’s fine – if you’re overweight.
As a guy who struggles mightily to pack on size, you need carbohydrates – and lots of them.
So why do carbs help you build muscle?
Glucose, the end product of carbohydrate metabolism, is your body’s preferred source of fuel. Because strength training consists of lots of high-intensity work over a relatively short period of time, you’re going to need energy fast, so increasing muscle glycogen stores is crucial.
Carbohydrates are especially important around a workout because carbohydrate consumption greatly increases the secretion of the anabolic hormone insulin, which promotes protein synthesis, decreases protein breakdown, stimulates glucose uptake and enhances glycogen storage (Campbell and Spano, 2011).
So yeah, carbs are kind of important.
For this reason, Precision Nutrition recommends those with an ectomorphic build consume 55 percent of their calories from carbohydrate, 25 percent from protein and 20 percent from fat (Berardi et. al, 2015).
More than half your calories should be coming from carbs.
While your body prefers to burn carbohydrate for energy from either muscle glycogen or blood glucose, you still need some dietary fat (Kleiner and Greenwood-Robinson, 2014). Fat is important in the production of testosterone and assists your body in the repair process post-exercise.
Testosterone? Recovery? Those are pretty important words. If you want to see some serious gains, dude, you better eat your fat. Add things avocados, nuts, nut butters and coconut oil to your diet.
And finally, let’s address the most talked about muscle-building macronutrient of all-time – protein.
Just about any serious lifter will have a protein shake readily available after a workout, and for good reason. Your body needs protein to grow and repair damaged cells and tissue. Because your cells are constantly breaking down and regenerating, your body needs to grab amino acids from its free amino acid pool. While your body makes some amino acids on its own (nonessential amino acids), you need to get eight essential amino acids from your diet. If your body doesn’t have enough amino acids stored, it will break down protein stores in the muscles to get what it needs (Baechle and Earle, 2008).
So eat your protein, bro. And get it from numerous sources – not just your precious whey protein powder.
Foods like eggs, lean ground beef, chicken and fish are all great sources. Just make sure you get enough. Two eggs for breakfast and a tiny cup of yogurt for lunch isn’t going to cut it.
What Types of Workouts Should You Do?
Type in “workout to build muscle” on Google, and you’ll get more than three million results.
With so much information out there, you’re no doubt confused.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret – the program itself isn’t the most important part. Do you think Ronnie Coleman, Jay Cutler and Phil Heath all followed the exact same training routines to get to the top of the bodybuilding world?
You can get great results from tons of different programs. The most important factors are your execution of the program, your nutrition and your lifestyle.
Pick a program, and stick to it.
Whatever workout you do, you need to follow the basic rules of strength training.
First, you’ve got to practice the principle of progressive overload. In layman’s terms, you’ve got to focus on adding weight to the bar each time you lift.
Do a little bit more every time. Keep a training journal so you remember how much weight you lifted last time.
You’re not going to get jacked benching 135 pounds the rest of your life. While you may notice bodybuilders performing lots of reps and using intensifiers like drops sets, you need to realize those bodybuilders spent their initial years in the weight room getting strong.
At the beginning of his career, Arnold Schwarzenegger followed Reg Park’s 5×5 strength training program, focusing on getting strong in compound lifts like the back squat, bench press, deadlift and military press.
So if you’re a skinny dude trying to pack on some size, don’t you dare head for the dumbbell rack to do biceps curls before you’ve gotten your big, compound lifts out of the way.
Trust me, you’re not attracting any ladies heaving around 50-pound dumbbells like you’re having convulsions.
Similarly, you’ve got to follow the SAID (specific adaptation to imposed demand) principle. Your body will adapt to a certain type of stressor to get better at withstanding that same stressor in the future.
If you train with light weights and high reps, you’re going to improve your muscular endurance. If you want to build muscle, you’ve got to train at least moderately heavy and place lots of tension on your muscles.
So man up and start training with some intensity. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. When your muscles start to burn, push through it.
Giving a better effort than than last time is the best way to see those gains, dude!
Ectomorph Training and Nutrition Program
So you want a program that will help you both build muscle and gain weight?
Here are four simple steps you need to take to get started:
- Figure out why you actually want to change. What would adding more muscle do for you? Would it make you more confident? If having more muscle won’t make your life better, you won’t change.
- Keep a food journal of what you’re currently eating. To gain weight, you’ve got to be consistent with your diet. As we talked about before – no more starving yourself for an entire day just because you don’t have access to “health” foods. Use an app like MyFitnessPal to make it easy.
- Try to tweak one thing at a time with your diet. If you change everything at once, you’re setting yourself up for failure and you’re going to end up overwhelmed and back to where you started. Once you’ve been able to continue with a habit every day for at least a week or two, add in something else.
- Get a training journal and follow the training program below. Don’t tweak anything with this program and stick to it for a while. One of the biggest mistakes skinny guys make is constantly changing their programs based on something they read somewhere else. The only way to know if what you’re doing works is to stick with it for a long period of time. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither were the top physiques out there.
Before we even talk about the program, let’s address your nutrition. Remember, no amount of training you do matters if your nutrition isn’t on point.
Here are two nutritional habits to follow that will add noticeable size to your frame. You can add more once you’ve done these. Pick one to follow each week and don’t add another habit until you’ve proven you can complete the initial habit consistently for at least a week.
- Eat a big breakfast every day. Choose four to eight ounces of a lean protein source like eggs, ground beef or chicken and combine it with a starchy carbohydrate source like oats, rice and potatoes and a vegetable. Skipping breakfast or eating a light breakfast will do you no good if you want to pack on lots of size.
- Add two protein shakes per day. Now, we’re not just talking about a shake with whey protein only. Add a handful of berries, two tablespoons of peanut butter, a handful of lettuce or spinach and a serving of coconut oil. That will add some serious calories!
In terms of training, skinny guys respond really well to heavy weights.
Just ask the terminator.
In The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger recommends ectomorphs use plenty of power moves with heavy weight and low reps in the six-to-eight-rep range (Schwarzenegger and Dobbins, 1999).
Seeing as Arnold is a seven-time winner of the Mr. Olympia award, you should probably listen to him.
Get really good at the “Big 3” exercises – the back squat, the bench press and deadlift.
Sure, you may be using them in your program right now, but are you doing them right? If you’re not growing, chances are you’re not.
Perform five sets of eight reps for each of these exercises three times a week. Use two warm-up sets to ramp up to your three working sets at the same weight. Start with a light weight you can hit easily and add five pounds to the bar each time. For many, your starting point may be just the 45-pound barbell.
It’s progressive overload 101, which is the best way for beginning lifters to see progress.
If you need to add in a couple of isolation exercises like biceps curls or calf raises at the end, fine. But don’t do them before you get your compound lifts out of the way.
Let’s go through the set-up and execution of each of the “big three.” Using improper form is one of the biggest things holding skinny guys back from getting strong.
Key Coaching Cues For The Back Squat:
- Grab the bar and grip it tight, thinking about pulling the bar apart
- Take no more than two or three steps back
- Set your feet so your toes are pointed slightly out
- Take a breath in
- Push your knees over your toes as you descend
- Descend until just before your back starts to round
- Extend your hips at the top of the lift
Key Coaching Cues for The Bench Press:
- Lie on the bench with your eyes directly underneath the bar
- Grab the bar and grip it tight, thinking about pulling the bar apart
- Set your feet underneath your knees
- Arch your upper back, thinking about putting your shoulder blades in your back pockets
- Un-rack the bar without your shoulders coming up
- Take a breath in
- Pull the bar down to your sternum
- Lock your arms out at the bar of the lift
Key Coaching Cues For The Deadlift:
- Set your feet shoulder-width apart and keep your shins an inch away from the bar
- Grab the bar with your hands just outside your hips
- Push your chest up
- Move your knees forward until they touch the bar
- Take a breath in
- Pull the bar off the floor and finish by extending your hips
About The Author
Luke Briggs is a strength coach, fitness addict and former full-time print journalist. Luke is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association and a Level 1 coach through Precision Nutrition. He also holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin’s prestigious school of journalism. A former skinny guy himself, Luke’s vision is to help leaner guys all over the world push past their genetics and build the muscular frames they’ve always wanted. You can check out his free blog and services at LukeBriggsFitness.com
Baechle, Thomas R., and Roger W. Earle. “Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning.” Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2008. Print.
Berardi, John, and Ryan Andrews. The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition. Second ed. N.p.: Precision Nutrition, 2015. Print.
Campbell, Bill I., and Marie A. Spano. “NSCA’s Guide to Sport and Exercise Nutrition.” Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2011. Print.
Carter, J.E. Lindsay, and Barbara Honeyman Heath. “Somatotyping: Development and Applications.” New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Print.
Eidelman, Scott, Jennifer Pattershall and Christian S. Crandall. “Longer is better.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Nov. 2010. Web. 23 Feb 2016.
Kleiner, Susan, and Maggie Greenwood-Robinson. “Power Eating.” Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2014. Print.
Schwarzenegger, Arnold, and Bill Dobbins. “The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding.” New York, NY; Fireside, 1999. Print.