The Skinny on “Just Lift Heavy”

Written by Shane Duquette on May 8, 2014

(Updated July 2015) I wasn’t like some guys. Puberty didn’t automatically plumpen my pecs, and my weight never accidentally inched upwards on the scale. When I exercised, even when trying to build muscle, I’d need to watch out that my weight didn’t drop even lower. When I did gain weight, it was ephemeral. After every failed attempt I was sure that my skinny genes would keep me in my skinny jeans for the rest of my life… but it wasn’t genetics that were the problem, it was the fact that I wasn’t training properly for my body type or goals.

Following a mainstream approach to nutrition and fitness won’t get us the bodies we’re looking for, since most of them are designed to make us eat less and move more. They’re designed to help us lose weight or improve our fitness levels. That makes sense for most people, but obviously not for us.

There’s genuine muscle-buliding information out there though, especially when it comes to weightlifting. Building up bigger muscles is a relatively common hobby for men. That’s where the mainstream advice for skinny guys comes in: “Just lift heavy, man!” Yep. Lifting heavier would have helped… but it’s not quite that simple, and by leveraging science we can do a whole helluva lot better.

So let’s look into a few types of training that people commonly ask us about: bodyweight training (e.g. callisthenics, P90x), high intensity power training (e.g. Crossfit), strength training (e.g. powerlifting and 5x5s) and hypertrophy training (e.g. bodybuilding).

Then we’ll talk about what the evidence suggests is the best way to optimize muscle growth for us naturally skinny guys.

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The Skinny on “Just Eat More”

Written by Shane Duquette on December 17, 2013

(Updated July 13, 2015) As a skinny guy, each and every time I tried to build muscle people would tell me two things: “just eat more” and “just lift heavy.” Then they’d look at me like they’d just solved all of my problems – totally confident they’d given me the information I’d been missing all my life. I was quite familiar with being skinny though, so I was also quite familiar with that advice.

I’d even tried it. Many times.

We’ll cover the lifting heavy part in another post. Both are really misunderstood and fascinating topics, and I think going into some depth could be really helpful. In this article we’ll cover the eating more part – the part that hits really close to home for me. Literally close to home – even my mother would tell me to just eat more.

That’s because in a world where the average first worlder is overweight, us skinny guys, hardgainers, ectomorphs, dreamboats – whatever you want to call us naturally thin guys – we’re outliers. Even when it comes to building muscle we’re often slotted into a footnote – “Oh yeah, and for hardgainer ectomorph body types, you’ve got a fast metabolism and stuff so you’ll need to eat more. Eat carbs – lots of carbs.”

That “just eat more” advice would work fine for most people, but the fact that we aren’t most people is precisely why they’re giving us that advice … and also why that advice is rather naive. I mean, for most people eating lots of food and gaining weight is second nature. If you tell the average dude to “just eat more” he’d be able to. He’d probably get fat, but he’d be able to do it. Hell, he’d probably even like it.

Little do people know that they’ve just casually told us to climb the mount everest of ectomorph challenges.

Eating more is rough. First, our physiology makes it hard to get into a caloric surplus. Second, most mainstream approaches to muscle make it even harder, since they either totally ignore appetite issues or, worse yet, they’re cleverly designed to reduce our appetites. Third, even when we do manage to get into a caloric surplus, our adaptive metabolisms kick in.

By trying to simply eat more and lift heavy we often find our results underwhelming and unsustainable. Ironically, as skinny guys we often have the most natural potential for muscle growth … since, err, we’re so far away from our genetic potential …

Anyway, we should be seeing extremely rapid gains – especially at first. Gaining 2+ pounds of muscle per week is pretty much unheard of in the muscle-building world, and yet us skinny guys are able to do it pretty consistently.

Appetite can bottleneck our results, yes, but most of the news is actually pretty good. In this article we’ll cover ectomorph physiology and appetite, and how overfeeding, building muscle and staying lean differs for guys like us. Turns out we’ve even got some incredible natural advantages when it comes to leanly building muscle – advantages that we can leverage.

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How to Build a Badass Home Gym

Written by Shane Duquette on October 17, 2013

(Updated February 2014) I gained my first twenty pounds using a rusty old barbell and bench that my dad and I found on the side of the road. It wasn’t expensive, it wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t safe. It also wasn’t the first time I’d tried to build muscle. I’d already tried going to the gym, using a personal trainer, and martial arts. This time though, in my simple rickety home gym, I finally figured out the basic principles of weight gain.

You don’t need much equipment to build muscle optimally. The big heavy muscle-building lifts don’t require much. You don’t even need the rickety bench and rusty barbell that I had. If you’re smart about this, you can get away with just one simple piece of fairly inexpensive equipment. Maybe two.

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(Updated November 2014.) There are two things we ectomorphs often forget when getting into weightlifting. The first is that when we first start taking it seriously, well, we’re still novices. We can’t exactly be expected to perform lifts that require high degrees of athleticism – athleticism that we don’t necessarily have yet. This is off-putting, because we often desperately want to get bigger without being held up for months with all sorts of posture and mobility work. Luckily, we can develop mobility, strength, stability and power simultaneously with size. But we do need to learn how to move and lift right from the get-go though, otherwise we’re setting ourselves up for building an imbalanced body that looks funky, performs poorly and is vulnerable to injury.

The second thing we often forget is that we don’t have the same bone or muscle structures that most bodybuilders and powerlifters have. Most of those guys have highly specialized bodies, accomplished both through decades of training… and also their genetics. They’re often born with bodies that suit the lifts they do. Just like the tallest guys are drawn to basketball, weightlifters typically gravitate towards the lifts that they naturally excel at.

This means that the guys you’re watching do the bench press are often the worst ones to get your cues from. The lift is very different for them—they’ve got big muscle bellies, short thick bones, stubby limbs and barrel chests. We’ve often got long tendons, long slim bones, long lanky limbs and shallower rib cages.

Taking their cues is like asking a 7’2 guy how to dunk a basketball. He may very well say “uh just reach up and put it in.”

Overall we’re just longer people. We make better decathletes than shot-putters; better quarterbacks than linebackers. Hardly anything to be upset about—it’s not like thin guys can’t kick ass at athletics and build amazingly powerful bodies. We just need to take a different approach, and it’s not the approach you’d likely see the biggest guys in the gym taking.

But if we want to be strong muscular dudes we really do need to lift. Unlike many other body types, we can’t rely on our genetics or everyday physical activities to build us any muscle. (More on that here.) So let’s talk about lifting like ectomorphs so we can turn ourselves into big burly dudes.

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(Updated September 2014) It’s May 1st, 2010 and Shane and I just graduated from university a few days earlier. We’re living in a high-rise apartment with our good friend Payam in a less than ideal neighbourhood. We’re just starting our “Muscle May” experiment – a one month challenge Shane presented to Payam and me. The idea was to have all three of us roommates hold one another accountable for 30 days of an extreme diet and exercise change.

At this point I have about $500 left on my nearly maxed out credit card, $38 in my bank account, and no savings. To make matters worse I have no income streams, as Shane and I just started up our design business a few days earlier. We’re looking for our next client, are in the process of applying for a business loan, and rent payments are coming up.

“Wait, so I’m going to need to spend more money on groceries?” I say, weighing in at a soaking wet 130 pounds of pure bone and a large head.

“No, you’re going to need to spend a normal amount on groceries. You’re horribly underfeeding your body right now. We all are.” Shane responded.

“How the heck am I supposed to pay for rent, more food and these supplements you keep talking about … like this nitrous oxide–

“– it’s nitric oxide. Nitrous oxide is what you put in your car.” Shane cut me off. “And it’s only for 30 days. Plus, some supplements, like protein powder, are actually cheaper than real food.”

Fast forward 30 days and I’m now 30 pounds heavier than I was before. (22 pounds from the nutrition and training + 8 pounds from the creatine.) I feel pretty damn incredible. But it looks like I  better figure out a way to pay for this new “normal” amount of groceries. Inside are the top 17 tricks I’ve found for cutting costs over the past 2 and a half years without compromising results.
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The Best Muscle-Building Supplements for Ectomorphs

Written by Shane Duquette on November 11, 2012

(Updated December 2016) We’ve gotten several hundred questions about supplements for ectomorphs—which supplements are best for us, what brands we recommend, whether they’re healthy, and whether we need them at all. The answer to that last question is simple: you don’t need them. You can build muscle just fine without them. However, adding in some key supplements can speed up your gains, make your life easier, improve your health, and even save you some money. That is, if you’re smart about it.

To make things simpler for you, we’ve put together a protocol that should be ideal for improving your gains. Which supplements, how much, and when.

These probably aren’t the supplements you expect, though. Two are classic, since they work for all body types, but you’re going to find the third one a little weird. It only works well for ectomorphs, so you may have never even heard of it.

Finally, this is a research-based article, and there’s a lot of research being done into muscle-building supplements. We’ll update this post every month with all the relevant new studies that come out.

Recent updates:

  • Ashwagandha: very interesting. Last year a study came out showing that ashwagandha can increase testosterone production, reduce cortisol production, increase strength, limit fat storage, and accelerate the pace that your body can build muscle. To give you an idea of the magnitude of these effects, the study found a 15% greater increase in testosterone and a 44 pound greater increase in bench press strength when compared to the placebo group over the course of 8 weeks. If more robust evidence comes out to back up these findings, ashwagandha could one day make it onto our official list.
  • Beta-alanine: good, not great. Beta-alanine is proving to be quite effective. It’s not on the golden list yet, but for those eager to experiment with new supplements, this could noticeably improve the speed with which you can build muscle. The ideal dosage seems to be around 4 grams per day at any time (similar to how you take creatine). Be warned, though—it can make your skin tingle. Harmless, but strange.
  • Vitamin D: a healthy testosterone booster for some. Vitamin D can increase testosterone output if you’re deficient in vitamin D, and most people are.  However, unlike steroids, it won’t boost your testosterone production outside of normal ranges. For guys who don’t get enough sun though, this can bring their muscle-building potential back to baseline while improving their general health.
  • Fish oil: healthy. Another study has come out showing that fish oil can slightly improve weightlifting performance. There are others showing that it can allow you to build slightly more muscle slightly more leanly and reduce soreness from training. These effects are weak compared to the core muscle-building supplements, though. Fish oil is still a supplement that is better for general health than body composition.
  • HMB: wait and see. HMB did really well in a couple studies funded by companies that make it. That’s not uncommon. Now we need to wait to see if these results can be reproduced. This could wind up being a good one, but it’s too early to say.
  • Collagen powder: ignore it. A new study just came out showing that collagen powder can be effective for building muscle in old people with sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss). However, whey protein is likely still a better bet for young skinny guys trying to build muscle because whey has more of the amino acid leucine, and leucine is the amino acid that optimally stimulates muscle protein synthesis.
  • Baking powder: misery awaits. Some cool research is going on with plain old baking powder, and a new study just came out showing that it improved muscular endurance by 42%! Very cool, but way too early to draw any conclusions, especially when it comes to muscular strength/growth. The dosage in the study was 0.2 grams / kilogram bodyweight taken one hour before training. I tried this and I really do not recommend it—extremely unpleasant.
  • Nitrates: ignore for now. There was a buzz about the nitrates in beets and leafy greens being good for gains, but as more research comes out, they’re seeming less and less intriguing. Great for general health, not gains.

With that handled, let’s move on to the very effective muscle-building supplements with rigorous research proving their effectiveness.

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Ectomorph Aesthetics (Full Article)

Written by Shane Duquette on November 8, 2012

(Updated March 2016) Every straight guy knows how a woman’s femininity can tug on our heart strings. And our lust strings. Sometimes a woman’s shape, personality, face, voice—it all just adds up to make her absolutely irresistible. (Here‘s an article on the most attractive female body.) Women feel the same way about us men… just based on a whole different set of traits.

For better or worse, the impression we give off can have a huge impact on our lives. Even if we train and eat well for our health and performance, we also want to attract great women, and ultimately spending the rest of our lives with the one we want is a pretty damn big deal. And, of course, even once we have her that doesn’t mean we should stop striving to be the man of her dreams.

It’s not just about women either—getting the respect of other men is important to us too, both in our personal and work life. So too is getting the respect of ourselves. I know that confidence should come from within, but that confidence also needs to come from real accomplishments. Being able to put in the time and dedication required to build a strong, healthy and capable body is one of many things that can give us a true kind of confidence. It also gives us the physical power that is sometimes needed to stand up for our beliefs.

Aesthetics, muscle, health and masculinity are all so closely related to one another that how we train and eat can roll over into every area of our life. So of course we care. It’s not just instinctual, it’s logical.

If anything, as men sometimes we tend to think attractiveness matters less than it actually does. A new study just published at the University of Notre Dame found that the whole successful but otherwise unattractive guy marrying a beautiful woman stereotype is pretty much just a myth. It turns out that attractiveness attracts attractiveness, just like success attracts success. This is great news for sexism, bad news for thinking you can get away with being a schlub. (study)

The tricky part is that some of the traits we portray are obvious… but some we’d never even think to think of. Moreover, sometimes it’s those elusive traits that make or break us.

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I had coffee a few weeks back with a good friend of mine from Montreal. I had just finished a couple months of the Bony to Beastly program, and I’d put on 20ish pounds of muscle since she last saw me. She was wowed by my progress and told me I looked a Hell of a lot stronger. My physical health was obviously not a problem, but she was worried that I was headed down the road to obsession. She knows that I barely train 3 hours per week, so there’s obviously no obsessive behaviour there. But she also knows that I’m extremely fascinated by the role that nutrition plays with fat loss, health and building muscle—especially for us ectomorphs. So, despite the fact that we had just finished pouring rum into our coffees, she was concerned that I was developing an obsession with eating healthy foods and only healthy foods.

The interesting thing is that eating healthy and only healthy foods can actually hinder your results. Many people struggle to build muscle, lose fat, love life, and accomplish their goals because they place too much emphasis on “healthy” eating. The true secret to becoming superhuman isn’t to eat superfoods, it’s to eat “Clark Kent” foods—everyday foods that will give you superhuman results.

Curious?

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Should Ectomorphs do Cardio?

Written by Shane Duquette on October 2, 2012

(Updated March 2015) Weightlifting, training for a triathlon and chugging along on your mum’s treadmill will all result in your body adapting to the given training stimulus. You’ll create more blood vessels, develop more mitochondria in your cells, trigger gene expression and transform your body right down to a molecular level. You’ll become better at what you’re training to do and collect on all the corollary benefits: health, fitness, energy, longevity, intelligence, happiness, calmness, etc. You’ll also spend more of your life feeling awesome, since exercise affects your neurotransmitters and releases endorphins.

So exercise in general is great. However, not all exercise is equally great. Different types of exercises accomplish different goals. Cardio and endurance training is mostly an oxygen delivery thing—more blood vessels, more red blood cells, more blood, etc—whereas strength training is mostly a muscle thing—more muscle fibres, thicker muscles fibres, more fluid in your muscle fibres, etc.

Both types of adaptations are incredibly good for your health. Weightlifting keeps you young, spry, strong, resistant to injury, lean, intelligent, focused. Cardio keeps you energetic, lively, calm, happy and strong-hearted.

So for optimal health you need to be both strong and fit.

The trouble is that mixing strength training and cardio together means that your body will be trying to adapt in at least two separate ways. Some people think that’s good, some people think that’s bad.

Things get more confusing still when you’re an ectomorph—naturally thin and already burning a ton of calories just by reading this blog post. That last thing you want to do is burn calories by jogging around town, since that will mean you need to eat even more. Ain’t nobody got time for that. (Kidding, everyone in the world has time for that except for us.)

Anyway, that raises the age-old question: should ectomorphs do cardio?

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Should You Drink? The Surprising Facts About Alcohol & Muscle Growth

Written by Shane Duquette on September 29, 2012

You’ve probably heard that alcohol calories will make you fat and that beer causes beer bellies. You may have heard that alcohol consumption negatively affects your metabolism and testosterone production, or even that it hampers protein synthesis. You might also be thinking this is nutrionazi Shane ordering you to vacate the bar. If you knew me better you’d know otherwise—being a beast is about enjoying life, not raining on peoples’ parades. If I wasn’t too busy dancing my glutes off at a rock ‘n roll show—beer in hand, I’d be the one at the bar telling you that you don’t need to worry about a few shots of vodka or a hearty glass of scotch.

That might sound strange coming from the guy telling you to put down the cupcake and stick to the steak, but the facts on alcohol consumption back up my lack of concern for the state of your shredded abs while having a drink with your friends. Most of the hype surrounding the negative effects of alcohol are exaggerated, avoidable or just plain wrong.

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