Illustration of several different bulking foods

When figuring out our ideal bulking macros—how much protein, carbs, and fat we should eat—there are a few things we need to consider. First, we can look at the research to see which macros allow us to build muscle the fastest. Second, we can see which macros help us avoid gaining fat while bulking. Third, we can look at which macros make it easier to get into a sustainable calorie surplus.

But a lot of us care about more than merely building muscle. We also want to improve our general health as we do it. So we can also look at which macros have the best impact on our health as we bulk up.

So, what are the best macros for bulking?

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The best chest exercises for mass

A few compound lifts have earned a reputation for being the best chest exercises: the barbell bench press, dumbbell bench press, weighted dip, and push-up. And it’s true, all of these are great lifts. But there’s a bit more to it than that. These are big compound lifts, working several different muscles at once. Depending on how you do them, you can be limited by your chest, shoulders, or triceps, changing which muscles get most of the growth stimulus. And if you’re trying to build a bigger chest, you need to make sure that your chest’s strength is what limits you.

A few isolation lifts are commonly used to bulk up the chest, too: the dumbbell fly, the cable crossover, the chest fly machine, and the pec deck machine. Again, all of these are great exercises. All of them will help you bulk up your chest. But you can speed up your muscle growth by quite a bit if you focus on working your chest under a deeper stretch, and some of these lifts are better at that than others.

Finally, we have the upper chest, which is often treated as a whole separate beast. What are the best lifts for building a bigger upper chest, and what kind of priority should you give them in your workout routine? For example, should the incline bench press be your main chest lift? Or should you favour the flat bench press?

So, what are the best exercises for building a bigger chest? What are the best lifts for building a bigger upper chest? And how should we organize them into a workout routine? Let’s dive in.

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Before and after illustration showing the results of a man building a bigger chest.

The chest is one of the biggest and most powerful muscles in our bodies, but it’s also notoriously difficult to grow, and many people find that it lags behind. In fact, if you’re a naturally skinny guy with narrow shoulders or a shallow ribcage, building a bigger chest may seem downright impossible. I’ve been there.

There are a three principles that reliably improve chest growth:

  • Choose exercises where your chest the limiting factor, ensuring that it gets most of the growth stimulus. And if your upper chest is lagging behind, the same rule applies: choose lifts where your upper chest is the limiting factor.
  • Challenge your chest under a deep stretch, improving how much muscle growth you stimulate with every set. As we’ll cover below, this can double your rate of muscle growth.
  • Make sure that you’re achieving progressive overload, getting stronger over time, gradually lifting more weight or doing more repetitions. This includes eating enough protein and calories to recover and grow from your workouts.

If you can get stronger at lifts that are limited by the strength of your chest, then your chest will grow. And if those lifts challenge your chest under a deep stretch, it will grow much faster.

So, which lifts are best at challenging our chests through a deep range of motion? And how can we make sure that our chests are the limiting factor? Let’s dive in.

Dive In
Illustration of a skinny guy flexing his forearm muscles.

When you first start lifting weights, it’s a good idea to focus most of your energy on the big compound lifts. Your workouts start with lifts like the squat, bench press, deadlift, chin-up, and row. These are the biggest lifts that build the most overall muscle mass. After that, we add in some isolation lifts. Curls for our biceps, extensions for our triceps, lateral raises for our shoulders, and maybe some exercises for our abs. These train the muscles that aren’t properly stimulated by the big compound lifts.

As you gain weight, build muscle, and get stronger at these lifts, you’ll probably notice that your grip is getting stronger, and your forearms are getting bigger. This is because the rows are training your elbow flexors, the biceps curls are training your wrist flexors, and the lateral raises are training your wrist extensors. They aren’t the main muscles being worked, but since we’re new to lifting weights, they grow.

The thing is, as you continue getting bigger and stronger, you’ll probably notice that your forearms stop growing. That’s because your forearm muscles have gotten both stronger and tougher, and these compound lifts aren’t challenging them enough to provoke any growth.

So how do we get bigger forearms? We train them directly. Here’s how.

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Illustration of a skinny guy doing a lean bulk, gaining no visible fat.

One of the most common issues that us skinny guys run into while bulking is gaining too much fat. For someone who’s already muscular, gaining some fat makes them look beefy. Not a big deal. But for someone who’s still fairly thin, it can make us look skinny-fat. It can make us look worse than when we started. Better to bulk more leanly, right?

Thing is, when you look up how to do a lean bulk, you’ll hear about how you need to gain weight very slowly—just a pound or so per month. You might hear about how you need to restrict certain foods or eat a cleaner diet. And sure, those can be factors. But one of the best ways to build muscle more leanly is to stimulate more muscle growth. After all, the faster we’re building muscle, the more calories are being invested in lean mass, leaving fewer that can spill over into fat storage. This is especially powerful for us skinny guys, given how much more muscle mass our frames can hold.

So in this article, we’ll cover why people gain fat while bulking, how to gain muscle faster, how to minimize fat storage, and how to do a proper lean bulk.

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Illustration showing a skinny ectomorph flexing his lanky arms.

Is “ectomorph” a real term? Is it a real thing? Is that an accurate way of describing a naturally skinny person with a small bone structure? These are surprisingly controversial questions, it’s a controversial word, and over the past ten years, we’ve gotten a lot of flack for using it. And I understand why, too.

It’s true that the word “ectomorph” is rooted in the bogus science of William Sheldon. But it’s also clear that different people have different struggles, and those struggles are often rooted in their genetics. Some people find themselves gradually growing overweight, whereas other people find themselves thin as rakes. Why is that?

You’ll also find a lot of questionable ads advertising “the ectomorph diet” or the “ectomorph workout.” They might claim that endomorphs need intermittent fasting, whereas ectomorphs need to eat more carbohydrates. Or that endomorphs need more cardio, but ectomorphs should avoid cardio at all costs. All of that stuff is questionable. But at the same time, should we really be telling the skinny guy who’s trying to gain fifty pounds of muscle to eat the same diet as the overweight person who’s trying to lose a hundred pounds of fat?

So, what is an ectomorph? Is it even a real term? Is there a better word to describe naturally skinny guys? And how should we be eating and training to accomplish our rather rare goal of bulking up?

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Illustration of an ectomorph who bulked up and built a Hollywood physique.

In this article, I want to talk about realistic physique goals, both in terms of understanding the timeframe that it takes to build muscle, as well as how good you can expect to look by the end of it. Perhaps it’s our audience, being largely made up of skinny guys who actively seek out information, but we tend to see things differently than a lot of other fitness professionals.

Can you look like the sex icon from the latest Hollywood movie? Well, you can’t transform your face, and building muscle won’t automatically make you more charismatic, but can you have physique of Brad Pitt from Fight Club, Christian Bale in American Psycho, Will Smith in I Am Legend, Gerard Butler in 300, or Daniel Craig in James Bond? Yes, you probably can.

None of those actors have great muscle-building genetics. All of them are naturally skinny—so-called ectomorphs. Some of them are naturally lean, yes, but so are many of us. And believe it or not, most of them didn’t even routinely lift weights until a few months before shooting for those films. These aren’t just realistic physiques, these are physiques you can probably build with just a few months of dedicated weight training.

I realize this might sound crazy, but hear me out.

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Illustration of a mass gainer supplement for skinny guys.

Mass gainers, also known as weight gainers, are a common supplement that people use to help them gain weight, build muscle, and bulk up. They’re especially popular among so-called “hardgainers“—skinny guys who are having trouble eating enough calories to gain weight. I’m a naturally skinny guy myself, and over the course of gaining 65 pounds, that was always my biggest issue. As a result, I’ve experimented with my fair share of mass gainer shakes.

So, do mass gainers work? Are they healthy? Do they cause excess fat gain? And, if you’re a skinny guy who’s struggling to gain weight, should you use them?

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Illustration showing a skinny man.

How can you know if you’re skinny? There are a couple different ways. One definition for skinny is being underweight, so we can calculate your BMI. Another definition for skinny is having small muscles and lanky limbs, so we can look at your body-part measurements to see if you have smaller muscles than the average man.

That gives us two tests:

  • Are you underweight?
  • Are your muscles smaller than the average man’s?

In either case, we can then help you bulk up so that you’ve got a healthy bodyweight and muscles that look strong because they are strong.

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Illustration showing a beginner deadlifting to failure with a rounded back.

As a new lifter trying to gain muscle size, how close to failure should you be lifting? Some argue that beginners should stop shy of failure, leaving a few reps in reserve, a few reps in the tank. There’s some wisdom to that advice. It allows beginners to better practice their technique, and it reduces the risk of injury.

Others argue that beginners should take their sets all the way to muscular failure, ensuring that they’re pushing themselves hard enough to stimulate a maximal amount of muscle growth with every set. But does taking a set all the way to failure actually stimulate more muscle growth? Let’s take a look at the research.

Finally, not every lift is the same. Some suit training to failure better than others. So it’s not as simple as saying that a beginner should always train to failure or always avoid training to failure. It often depends on the specific lift.

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