(Updated August 2017) 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. The best supplements to take, 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.
Runner ups & noteworthy mentions:
- Citrulline Malate: good, not great. This is the best “pump” supplement on the market right now, and is starting to get some good research behind it. When digested, it converts into arginine, which turns into nitric oxide, which allows you to get a fearsome pump. The pump improves the health of your blood vessels and increases protein synthesis.
- Beta-alanine: good, not great. Beta-alanine supplements are proving to be quite effective. It’s not on the golden list yet, but for ectomorphs 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.
- Ashwagandha: promising. 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 be a good supplement for bulking ectomorphs.
- HMB: almost promising. HMB did really well in a couple studies funded by the supplement 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 muscle-building supplement, but it’s too early to say.
- Vitamin D: a healthy testosterone booster for some. Vitamin D supplements 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 supplementation can slightly improve weightlifting performance. There are others showing that it can allow you to build slightly more muscle slightly more leanly. 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.
- 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.
- Collagen powder: ignore until you’re very old. 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 a better supplement for young skinny guys trying to build muscle because it has more of the amino acid leucine, and leucine is the amino acid that optimally stimulates muscle protein synthesis.
- Arginine: replaced by citrulline malate. This was used in the past, but wasn’t very effective. Recently, citrulline malate is proving to be a better supplement for increasing arginine, increase nitric oxide, and ultimately get a bigger pump.
- Baking powder: misery awaits. Some cool research is going on with plain old baking powder as a pre-workout supplement, 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.
With that handled, let’s move on to the very effective muscle-building supplements that have rigorous research proving their effectiveness.
(Updated November 2017) 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.
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.
(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?
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.
One summer I decided I was going to bulk up. This was back when I was 130 pounds and sick and tired of being 130 pounds. I was working at an ad agency as a junior designer on the illustration team. I was new there, and also newly determined to gain 20 pounds. Drinking a bag of milk (1.3 litres) each day was part of my plan to do that.
Err, okay, so that’s not entirely accurate. I thought I was drinking the entire bag, but I wasn’t. A couple months into the summer one of my particularly caffeinated coworkers started complaining to everyone that by the end of the day, each and every day, I would always finish the milk, leaving none for her after-work coffee. She was appalled that I was so consistently inconsiderate. I don’t blame her. Drinking 1.3 litres each day of communal office milk would certainly be an office foul. Shame on Shane.
When this was brought to my attention I felt awful. This was a really awkward situation. First, I had to tell her that I knew what she was saying behind my back, then that I understood her concerns… and then that I wasn’t drinking the office’s milk, I was bringing my own bag of milk in with me each morning. She’d been using my milk for her coffee throughout the day each day. At that point someone pointed out that there were communal milk and cream cartons in the door of the fridge. She wasn’t impressed: “How on earth would I know that? Who brings in milk to work like that?! You even have your own milk pitcher here!”
Who brings milk to work like that? Desperate skinny boys who are trying to build muscle, that’s who. Office politics aside though, milk’s still a controversial drink. I’ve learned a lot since then about bulking up on milk.
So what’s the skinny on milk?
(Updated July 2016.) Sugar’s a pretty sensationalized nutrient these days among the health conscious. Many people claim that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is responsible for everyone being so overweight, that fruits are worse than vegetables because they contain sugar, that sugary indulgences cannot be part of a balanced diet, that artificial sweeteners are toxic, or that “functional” sugars like agave nectar are the more healthful choice.
It’s a bias-ridden topic, and I feel like we’re up to the sugar party naked because us skinny guys don’t really crave sweets like the other 97% of society. Our happiness won’t really be impacted by whether we get to have a sugary Starbucks drink on the way to work or a brownie for dessert. There’s no reason for us to stigmatize or fetishize this sugar stuff, we can just approach it rationally.
We also have very different goals and issues. Hell, when you heard that high-fructose corn syrup causes weight gain, you probably rushed off to buy all the Aunt Jemima corn syrup you could find.
When you get back, we’ll discuss what science has to say about the health and body composition effects of sugar.
I’m a huge fan of improving posture. It may not be the most “hardcore” thing to focus on in a training program, however, it will turn your body into a hard-core machine. If you took a look at all the people in super hero movies you will find some commonalities. They are usually devilishly handsome, very muscular, big fans of Bony to Beastly and they all have great posture.
I get it, your parents have already told you a thousand times to sit up straight and I’m sure you’ve already heard that it improves the way you look, improves your performance, and maybe even that it improves your energy levels and how you feel.
Some people have even claimed that their great posture is why these actors are able to build muscle so quickly when they need to bulk up for their superhero movie role.
But is there really a link between posture and muscle?
The belief that you need to eat frequently runs rampant in the fitness and weightlifting communities. It’s actually rare to see a guy who knows what he’s doing who doesn’t think that he should be eating all the damn time. You know, to stoke the metabolic fire, prevent muscle catabolism, keep blood sugar levels steady, keep his muscles fuelled by a steady supply of amino acids / protein, and prevent his body from going into starvation mode and thus store fat more readily. That’s a lot to worry about …
We’ve been there and done that. The strange truth:
Okay so not having heard of something isn’t a myth—it’s a mistake. (I apologize for the lithpy pun.) Anyway, neutral spine and neutral neck (or “packed neck”, as Marco calls it) are both really damn important. Proper spinal alignment is debatably the single most important training cue out there. All performance trainers, powerlifters and high level athletes know this, but most gym-goers are out of the loop. They lift with really poor spinal alignment, not because they aren’t focusing enough on form, but because they’ve never even heard that spinal alignment exists, let alone matters. You’ve probably heard not to round your back, but that’s as far as mainstream sources go on the matter. The problem here is that as ectomorphs we’re particularly vulnerable to injuries, as our structures are naturally smaller. We can fix this, of course, and your bone density and tendon strength will soon reach beastly levels, but as a skinny dude starting out you can do some real damage to yourself if you neglect your alignment.
This post will help you improve your longterm health and strength, dodge future back pain, and help you build more muscle in the short term by properly targeting the muscles you’re trying to hit.