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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Illustration showing a skinny ectomorph having trouble with the barbell bench press.

Naturally skinny guys are often called “ectomorphs.” It’s a slang term referring to our thinner bones, narrower frames, shallower ribcages, or lankier limbs. Does that affect how we should exercise, lift weights, and build muscle?

Many of us ectomorphs also have atypical goals. Most people want to lose weight, we want to gain it. Most people intuitively eat too much food, we eat too little. We’re usually eager to bulk up, and we often have a hard time of it. Some of us may even worry that our muscle-building genetics aren’t very good. Does that change how we should train?

And there are a lot of different workout programs out there. Some, like CrossFit, are designed to improve our general fitness. Others, like Starting Strength and StrongLifts 5×5, are designed to improve our general strength. Still others, such as bodybuilding, seem entirely centred around helping naturally muscular guys gain even more muscle. What’s the best way to work out if we’re trying to gain muscle size?

How should ectomorphs work out?

Dive In
Illustration showing various bulking and hypertrophy studies.

In this article, let’s take a closer look at some of the most interesting research that could help us ectomorphs, hardgainers, and skinny guys bulk up, including studies looking into:

  • How important are bicep curls for building bigger arms?
  • Does muscle memory really exist?
  • How long should we rest between sets?
  • Does doing more sets increase muscle growth?
  • What happens if we bulk on a ketogenic diet?
  • Are high-protein diets healthy?
  • Does having casein for bed help with muscle growth?
  • Are 5×5 workouts good for building muscle?
  • Are 10×10 German Volume Training workouts good for building muscle?
  • Are push/pull/legs splits good for building muscle?
  • Which lifestyle intervention caused simultaneous muscle growth and fat loss?

All of those answers and more inside.

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Illustration of a skinny man building muscle.

If you’re a skinny guy who’s new to lifting weights, it’s possible to build muscle incredibly quickly. Lifters call this phenomenon “newbie gains,” and it lasts for about a year.

During that first year alone, the average man will often claim to gain around 20 pounds of muscle. Skinny guys often claim to be able to do even better, gaining upwards of 40 pounds in just a single year. Can beginners really build muscle that quickly?

However, although newbie gains seem to allow some beginners to build muscle unbelievably quickly, research shows that other lifters fail to gain any muscle when they first start working out. When that happens, they’re dubbed non-responders. Do non-responders really exist? And if they do, how do you know if you’re a non-responder?

Why are some guys able to build a lifetime of muscle in a single year, whereas other guys spend an entire lifetime unable to build a single year’s worth of muscle?

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Illustration of a skinny hardgainer's stomach.

Struggling to bulk up as a naturally skinny “hardgainer” can be confusing. We’re in the midst of an obesity epidemic, surrounded by people who gain weight by accident, and yet no matter what we do, we can’t budge the scale. Why is it so hard for us to bulk up?

We’re hardgainers ourselves, and when we first started trying to bulk up, we found it incredibly frustrating. We each gave up several times before finally succeeding. Marco gained 63 pounds while getting his health sciences degree and training certifications, and then went on to help college, professional, and Olympic athletes bulk up. When I started blogging about my weight-gain attempts on my design blog, I was referred to Marco. With his help, I was able to gain 55 pounds in around two years, with our readers getting similar results. We then created a program and have since helped nearly 10,000 other skinny people bulk up.

This is all to say that it’s hard to bulk up as a hardgainer, but it’s not impossible. In fact, we have a number of genetic advantages that can allow us to gain muscle more quickly and leanly than the average person. We just need to combine hypertrophy training with a proper bulking diet and a good lifestyle. If we can do that, we can build muscle, and we can build it fast.

In this article we’ll cover:

  • Do we really have faster metabolisms?
  • Do hardgainers have smaller stomachs?
  • Why do we resist weight gain?
  • What’s the best bulking diet?
  • What’s the best type of training for hardgainers?
  • Why stress management and sleep are so important.
  • How fast can hardgainers build muscle?
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Illustration of a doctor evaluating a skinny and a muscular man.

Different people bulk in different ways, and so depending on how we approach it, it can be either good or bad for our general health. However, as a general rule, bulking involves habitual weight training, eating a lot of whole food, eating plenty of protein, getting an abundance of good sleep, and gaining muscle mass, all of which are incredibly healthy.

One of the main reasons that Marco and I are so passionate about helping skinny guys bulk up is because we’re so confident that it can profoundly improve your health, as it did for the two of us.

Still, there are some things to watch out for, as well as some things we can do to make bulking even healthier, so let’s go into more detail about how we can bulk up in a way that’s good for our general health.

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