This article is for the skinny guys who haven’t been able to gain weight yet. For the the skinny guys who are still worried that it’s impossible for them. This one’s for you.
I wouldn’t blame you for your doubt. It’s common for us to see other people who were born muscular, or who were able to build muscle with just some casual effort. We try following in their footsteps and fall flat on our faces. This gives us good reason to assume that our genetics suck.
This is made worse by the fact that nobody understands our situation at all. All the mainstream magazines and websites feature bulking up routines for skinny guys seemingly designed by people who have never even met a skinny guy. Nowhere is there any mention of the actual reasons why gaining weight is so hard for us, nor are any solutions provided for overcoming them. Just people offering advice that worked for them without having any idea what we’re even struggling with. When that advice inevitably fails, we worry that building muscle is impossible for us.
Because their advice seems to work for everyone except us, what else are we supposed to think?
Then we get told to “just lift heavy and eat more, bro” from the gym rats. They blame our lack of effort, not knowing that we may have tried far harder than they did and still not gotten anywhere.
And we get the dismissive “oh, I wish I had that problem” from all the people who aren’t interested in building muscle because they were born with enough of it, who instead struggle with extra fat.
The advice we get doesn’t suit us, but our genetics are good. Uncommon, but good. I’m not just talking about the ease with which we can avoid obesity either. Even our muscle-building genetics are good.
In this article we’re going to go over the things that make it difficult to build muscle as an ectomorph, and then discuss ways that we can overcome them to finally build a ton of muscle.
We Don’t Just Gain Weight By Accident
There’s a monthly research review that all the experts in the muscle-building industry read religiously: Alan Aragon’s Research Review. Alan Aragon is the nutritionist for many of the world’s top athletes (e.g. the Lakers), natural bodybuilders, and fitness models. Every month he publishes a report on each of the significant new fitness and nutrition studies.
I found one part of the latest issue especially fascinating. It was a review of the studies about obesity and appetite regulation, but the whole time I was reading it I was thinking about how this could apply to us ectomorphs.
Here’s a quote: “The human body wasn’t designed to overeat. Just a quick glance at the consequences of long-term overeating can tell us that the body doesn’t cope with it too well. [He’s saying that being obese is incredibly unhealthy.] That’s probably why there are several mechanisms in place to signal hunger and satiety so that energy balance can be met most of the time.”
Said more normally: if you’re a regular healthy person your body will make it very hard for you to eat enough gain weight.
At this point you might be thinking, well, then why do so many people gain weight so easily?
Later on he quotes a 1992 study where people were given an unlimited amount of vending machine foods to eat. The study participants accidentally gained a couple pounds in a single week. The writer then goes on to say that it’s junk food that’s messing with our appetite regulation.
This is why most people gain weight. Because they eat tons of junk food.
This makes sense. Most research confirms that hypothesis. That’s actually the leading hypothesis for the current obesity epidemic. Not carbs or fat on their own, but the delicious combination of carbs and fats that is junk food. These foods are low protein, low fibre, high carb, high fat, salty and sweet.
Overeating is hard, but these things make it far easier. So much easier that many people are becoming overweight.
However this doesn’t help us skinny guys. Bulking and carbs go well together, but if we bulk on a higher fat diet we’re going to get fat. Since junk food has a huge amount of heavily processed and unhealthy fat in it, this makes it a bulking disaster. This is why a lot of skinny guys who are finally able to eat enough to gain weight become skinny-fat. (If you’re already skinny-fat, here’s our skinny-fat article.)
This is a common mistake we see skinny guys make, and I’ve made it myself a couple times, so let’s go into slightly more detail here. When you read mainstream fitness information, keep in mind that this is weight loss information. Even if it’s “muscle-building” information, it’s usually written for guys who are naturally beefy. More often than not it’s still weight loss information.
Even guys who are trying to write to us skinny guys often get their information from this mainstream weight loss stuff, so they accidentally spread this false information around.
You can use a low fat or a low carb diet to lose weight. So long as your diet is low in something you’ll lose weight, since that means you’ve removed calories from your diet. This is why going vegetarian and going Paleo will often result in similar amounts of weight loss, even though they’re exact opposites of one another. Both involve restricting certain foods, and that often means accidentally restricting calories.
Just because you can lose weight on a higher fat diet does not mean that you should build muscle on a higher fat diet.
When your body doesn’t have enough calories it will burn fat (and burn muscle) to get the calories that it needs. It doesn’t matter if you’ve eaten more carbs or fat that day, either way your body is short on energy and will be forced to burn fat.
When you’re gaining weight things change. When your body has too many calories your body will try to store the extra calories you’re eating as fat. This is where things get interesting. The fat that you eat is already fat. If your body wants to store it as fat, it simply stores it.
Protein and carbs are not fat. The protein will first be used to repair and build muscle, and the carbs will first be used to fill your muscles up with fuel (glycogen). This is good. If there are still protein and carb calories left over, your body needs to convert them into fat. Fortunately, when your body converts those carb and protein calories into fat, most of the energy is lost as heat.
They mentioned this in the obesity/appetite research review too: “Both studies have also found that excess fat was stored more efficiently than excess carbohydrates. In Rising et al., 76% of the carbohydrates were oxidized whereas none of the fat consumed was.” (study, study.)
In simple English: bulking on carbs will make you hot, whereas bulking on fat will make you fat.
(And protein is even less likely to be stored as fat.)
That’s why “see food” diets (where you eat everything you see) don’t work very well if you’re trying to build muscle leanly. It’s also why GOMAD (where you’d drink a gallon of whole milk per day) will often result in a bunch of fat gain.
It’s that nasty combo of sugar and fat that causes most people to overeat. That’s what leads to weight gain. That’s what makes people fat.
Since we aren’t trying to get fat, that doesn’t help us. Bread, rice and whatnot when bulking are perfectly fine. However bread, rice and whatnot do no lead to accidental weight gain because they are not junk food.
Without the magical appetite increasing powers of junk food, people in general are quite good at regulating their bodyweight. Us skinny guys are exceptionally good at regulating our bodyweight. This is why we’re able to live in this junk-food-filled world without struggling with obesity. We often have smaller stomachs, we don’t have an exaggerated hormonal pleasure response from food, our metabolisms are often high and adaptive.
This all makes it brutally difficult to bulk.
Not many people understand us when we gripe about it. They eat junk food and they gain weight. They’re unhappy about it because they get fat. Since this is what they do intuitively, they don’t understand why we have so much trouble gaining weight.
The thing is, gaining weight without having an unhealthy relationship with junk food is very hard. We need to override one of our most powerful natural instincts—appetite regulation.
Fortunately, there are ways to deal with that. You won’t see this information in mainstream fitness info, but there are strategies out there for us ectomorphs too. For example, eating junk food isn’t the only way to trick our appetite. liquid calories don’t fill us up as much as eating solid calories, so sneaking in smoothies, milk or protein shakes can help a lot. Snacks help too. So are condensed whole foods, like dried fruits. We wrote about a ton of other options for increasing appetite in our article, The Skinny on “Just Eat More.” We have even more in our muscle-building program.
This article is about why building muscle is hard for us skinny guys though, so let’s move on to the next issue: stimulating muscle growth.
Exercising to Build Muscle
Weightlifting is by far the most effective way to build muscle. If you’re a college rower who eats a lot, yeah, over the course of years of training each and every each day you can build up a moderately bigger back. And yeah, if you do hours of bodyweight workouts each day and you eat a ton, perhaps over the course of several years you can build up a more muscular physique that way too. Weightlifting isn’t the only way to build muscle, so you’ll see success stories from guys who have used a different approach, but it’s 10,000% times as effective as any other method.
Trying to build a muscular physique with any other type of exercise is like using a unicycle to do your grocery shopping instead of a car. It’s possible yes, and if you go on YouTube I’m sure you’ll see some people bragging about how they had success with it, but it’s still needlessly difficult.
There used to be two main types of weightlifting: strength training and bodybuilding. Powerlifters, Olympic lifters, and athletes would do strength training. Actors, fitness models, bodybuilders and people trying to look better would do bodybuilding. Both approaches work well, but recent research has shown that combining both approaches together works even better.
There’s a third type of lifting too. Some people call it high intensity power training (HIPT), others call it high intensity functional training (HIFT). Most people just call it CrossFit. That can be okay for some people in some situations too, but that’s more of a sport that weightlifters do, not something that’d be any good for a skinny guy trying to build muscle.
If you’re tall and fit you may enjoy learning to play basketball, but you wouldn’t play basketball to become tall and fit. You can think of CrossFit that way. It’s a great sport for people who are already strong and fit, but you wouldn’t want to use it to become strong and fit.
(For more details on the different styles of exercise and the adaptations they encourage, check out our article, The Skinny on “Just Lift Heavy.)
Anyway, nowadays most high level athletes, actors, powerlifters and bodybuilders who know what they’re doing will do a combination of bodybuilding and powerlifting. Strong athletic people looking for a fun fitness challenge will do CrossFit. Like using a unicycle to do your grocery shopping, CrossFit adds a level of complexity that can make things more interesting for people who already find building muscle easy.
Even when explaining the basic types of weightlifting, we’ve already run into a problem. CrossFit is massively popular and many skinny guys think it’s a good way to build muscle. This is another example of mainstream fitness stuff misleading us because we’re not the majority.
Unfortunately, CrossFit is just one example. The same is true for a lot of sporty fitness things: martial arts, callisthenics, p90x, Insanity, etc. They help us burn calories (not a good thing for us) and they help us develop better coordination, fitness and stabilizer muscles, but they’re ineffective ways to gain weight and build muscle. So ineffective that us skinny guys trying to build muscle become discouraged. This can cause us to blame our genetics.
So to build muscle efficiently there’s really no getting around it—we have to lift weights.
This brings us to problem number three:
Going to the gym can be rough for us skinny guys
Us skinny guys are built well for many sports. We have light bodies and long legs, making us great at running. We have long arms and aerodynamic torsos, making us great at swimming. We have a light bodyweight and a long reach, making us great at boxing. We excel at sports where being proportionally long and light are an asset, not a disadvantage.
Unfortunately, weightlifting is not one of those sports.
Weightlifting is a sport that stubby people excel at. They have good leverages because their limb lengths (lever lengths) are short. Their muscles are proportionally large compared to the length of their limbs. This means that their muscles not only start off proportionally larger, but also that even a small increase in muscle mass can go a long way, both visually and in terms of weightlifting performance. Because they’re short, they also don’t need to move the weight very far to complete a rep.
For example, it’s no coincidence that dwarfs dominate powerlifting. Andrzej Stanaszek can squat 639 pounds at a bodyweight of 113. He can squat 5.6 times his bodyweight. That record will likely never be broken by a taller person.
Moreover, since our spines are long, thin and not held in place by thick strong musculature yet, the deadlift can be difficult to learn. Even though we don’t excel at it right away though, this makes the deadlift an extremely important lift for us. It builds up the musculature surrounding our spine that will fix and strengthen our posture. The people who are naturally the best at deadlifts don’t need to deadlift. We do.
(We talk about some solutions for these weightlifting issues in our article, Why Ectomorphs Need to Lift a Little Differently.)
Those are some good logical reasons. There are also some psychological reasons that make going to the gym tough. If on the basketball court you’re judged by how good of a basketball player you are, then in the gym you’re judged by how large your muscles are.
Going into any new social setting is intimidating, but going into a gym can be an especially intimidating place for a skinny guy, or a guy who can’t lift a lot, or a guy who isn’t familiar with the basic lifts. We are often all three of these things—I know I was.
Unless you’ve got truly incredible self-confidence going to the gym is going to be a true test of your character.
For someone who just wants to build muscle, not test their self-esteem, that sucks.
If we spend our time jogging around trying to get fitter though, we’re running with our strengths (pun intended) instead of strengthening our weaknesses (is that a pun?). If we want to become well-rounded athletic guys that exude strength and fitness—aka look sexy and strong—we need to strengthen our weaknesses.
We’re already good at avoiding obesity and improving our cardiovascular health. That’s half the battle won. But we don’t have dense bones, big strong muscles and superb power output—yet.
So just like a naturally strongish chubby guy will probably suck at cardio and feel embarrassed on a treadmill but need to do it anyway to improve his cardiovascular health—most overweight guys struggle massively with heart health issues—us skinny guys need to lift weights in order to make the most of ourselves.
Here are three possible solutions:
- You need to lift weights, but you don’t have to go to the gym. All you need is an adjustable bench and some adjustable dumbbells. That will allow you to work every muscle group optimally, and many of our members go that route. They do just as well as our members who go to the gym. We have a full guide for building a cheap, simple home gym here.
- You can avoid peak hours. The busy hours will vary depending on the gym, so I’d just ask the receptionist. Scheme up a time when neither you nor the gym is busy. In the gym I go to, most guys train after work, and most guys work until 5pm. This means that at 6pm on Monday, Wednesday and Friday I’m training at the same time as all the other guys who lift 3x per week, as well as all the guys who lift 6x per week. Nowadays that’s nice, since most of them will smile at me and say hi, ask how my day went. However, if I want some peace and quiet I can go at 8pm on a Tuesday, when it’s a ghost town.
- You can practice at home. One of the scary parts of going to a gym is not knowing what lifts to do, or not knowing how to do those lifts properly. First of all, stay away from back squats, barbell bench presses and conventional deadlifts. Those are expert lifts that require a ton of practice and expertise. Start with simple variations: the goblet squat, the dumbbell bench press, the dumbbell sumo deadlift. They build muscle just as well and they’re far easier to learn. Most guys won’t know what those lifts are either, so they won’t be able to tell if you’re doing them wrong. And you can practice them at home beforehand in front of the mirror while holding a book or something. That way you show up with a plan, you don’t need to use the coveted bench press station, and you’re doing lifts that match your experience level.
Because of all of this, following mainstream fitness advice often doesn’t work very well. You tend to get naturally muscular guys becoming coaches and personal trainers, and they tend to spend most of their time coaching overweight people. They’re often very poorly equipped to deal with the lifting and nutrition issues that a skinny guy will run into.
This is why the struggle is real.
This can leave us feeling desperate, and I know that the more desperate I felt the more I wanted to ignore my body and play video games. I really only became inspired to build muscle and improve my health when I learned to like how I already was. Who wants to spend time feeding and exercising a body that they hate, right?
Fortunately, there’s nothing wrong with being naturally skinny. It can be frustrating sometimes, and we can feel misunderstood sometimes. Sometimes people even treat us oddly because of it. But being naturally skinny is pretty great. We’re a minority, which presents a challenge, but it’s actually quite easy for us to look optimally attractive. It’s also quite easy for us to be wickedly healthy.
Once we understand our appetite and how to overcome it, we can gain weight.
Once we understand weightlifting, we can practice it, become good at it, and gain strength.
Combine both of those things together and we can build muscle. Not in a slow and patient way either, but extremely quickly. It’s only once we’re already muscular that progress becomes slower, and at that point progress also becomes more enjoyable, since we’re comfortable lifting, we’re comfortable eating, and we’re comfortable in our fit, healthy, muscular bodies.
If I got to choose my body type all over again, I’d still choose to be an ectomorph. I wouldn’t have guessed that back when I was graduating university at 6’2 and 130 pounds, but I genuinely believe that now.
The only thing I wish is that I’d started sooner—succeeded sooner. That I’d started exercising and eating a little better from a younger age so that I could really take advantage of my genetics.
Sometimes I daydream about what it would have been like to know all this stuff at 15. To have started building muscle as I was going through puberty. I could have been one of the strongest and fittest guys in my school, but I gravitated towards my natural strengths and took up swimming, callisthenics, and then finally martial arts. Each time I would get discouraged by my lack of muscular progress, never realizing that of course these sports wouldn’t make me more muscular—that isn’t even what they’re for.
I quit martial arts once and for all when I started being paired with the girls (because they were the only ones who were as light as me). I took up video games as a hobby instead.
For a long while my body became something to carry my head around, and I started taking great pride in my ability to think well. I even started looking down on people who could also use their bodies well. That was foolish of me, because mental and physical health are so closely intertwined. It’s possible to succeed at one but not the other, but the best results come when you focus on both. A healthy mind is part of a healthy body.
I wish I’d had access to a different kind of information. That I had known more about this stuff. I could have bought some dumbbells and a weight bench instead of snow skis. I didn’t even love skiing that much. Now that I’m good at weightlifting I love it more than any of the sports I used to play, because this “sport” actually helps me accomplish my goals.
Had I known more about lifting weights I could have happily built a ton of muscle in my basement a couple times a week after school. I still would have had plenty of time to play Halo, too!
The same thing is true with how I was eating. I could have easily started to eat more rice and dried fruits, drinking more milk and smoothies. Instead, whenever I became focused on my health, I would try to follow all these mainstream fat loss fads because I didn’t know they were fat loss fads. I’d be focused on choosing leaner meats, eating more veggies, eating “cleaner”. Eating cleaner just made me lose weight, and being as tall as 6’2 and as light as 125-130 pounds… well, you get the picture.
As some experts say, “Genetics may load the gun, but lifestyle decisions pull the trigger.” Taking my skinny genetics and combining it with skinny nutrition and exercise habits wasn’t doing me any favours. Sort of like the naturally chubby guy doing things that chubby people are good at—powerlifting and eating tons of extra (junk) food to bulk up. He’s already strong and already a little too chubby. That’s not doing him any favours either.
This is all to say that being naturally skinny isn’t really any kind of disadvantage. We just have different strengths and weaknesses than the majority of people who are giving fitness advice. With a good ectomorph-oriented lifestyle we can often go from being naturally skinny to being naturally muscular.
That worked for me.
It will work for you too.
I’ve posted a link to an article we wrote about how to eat more as an ectomorph. I posted another link about how to lift as an ectomorph. I think those articles are a good place to start if you’re interested in learning a little more about this stuff.
Just make sure that paralysis from analysis doesn’t set in. You need to actually start lifting, not sitting in front of a screen learning everything about lifting. So if you want a full program that covers everything, that’s what our Bony to Beastly Program is for.
We cover all the fundamentals of nutrition, lifting, and appetite manipulation. We have recipes for some delicious, cheap and convenient bulking meals. We have videos that will teach you all the lifts and gradually take you from a beginner level to a very advanced level over the course of a few months. You also get a membership in our ectomorph-exclusive muscle-building community, and you get coaching from us throughout the entire process.
If you had started a couple months ago, you could have already gained twenty pounds. So don’t delay this time, or a couple months from now you’ll just be wishing you had started today.