Our specialty is helping naturally skinny hardgainers bulk up. One of the main questions we get is: why can’t I build muscle? We have skinny guys coming to us after years of trying and failing to build muscle. No matter what they try, their bodies don’t grow. It’s a rare issue. Most people are overweight. But it’s not rare here. This is what we do.
So, first of all, I’m a hardgainer myself. I grew up skinny, and I spent several years trying to build muscle without gaining a single pound. Even though I was exercising, lifting weights, and eating as much food as I could, my body refused to gain muscle. I gave up several times, assuming that my genetics would keep me skinny forever. Sometimes I was so frustrated that I would give up for months or even years at a time.
But I did eventually figure it out. I did eventually succeed at building muscle. Here’s a photo showing me at 130 pounds and then at 190 pounds, at around 11% body fat in both photos:
My transformation was completely natural—just weight training, eating a good bulking diet, and improving my lifestyle—and I was able to gain 55 pounds within just two years. So not only was I able to build muscle, but I was able to build it quite quickly. It’s kind of crazy remembering back to when I thought I had poor muscle-building genetics. I didn’t. I just wasn’t training and dieting in a way that suited my naturally skinny “hardgainer” body type.
I’m not an outlier, either. Before he started helping college, professional, and Olympic athletes bulk up, my business partner, Marco Walker-Ng, BHSch, PTS, PN, gained 63 pounds while getting his health sciences degree and his personal training certifications:
And we’ve reproduced these results in thousands of online clients over the years, such as Hugo, who gained forty pounds during a single year:
So then the question is, if our genetics aren’t limiting our muscle growth, what the Hell is going on? Why is it so incredibly hard for us to build muscle? Why is it that we spend years without making any gains and then all of a sudden explode into growth?
The first reason is the more obvious one. Hardgainers are good at building muscle, we’re just not very good at gaining weight. And if we aren’t gaining weight, there’s no surplus material to build muscle tissue with, and so we fail to gain any muscle. It’s only once we succeed at gaining weight that our muscle growth kicks into gear.
For instance, one study looking into muscle-building genetics found that skinny guys are able to build muscle more quickly than other body types. And that’s great, right? But the researchers knew that to gain muscle, we have to gain weight, so they disqualified all the participants who weren’t able to gain weight.
(Note that skinny-fat guys have a slightly different issue. We have a separate article for skinny-fat guys.)
Why Can’t We Gain Weight?
So what this study shows us that we can build muscle wonderfully well if we can succeed at gaining weight. But for hardgainers, gaining weight can be extremely difficult. We have a full article on why it’s so hard for hardgainers to gain weight, but here are a few reasons:
- Because our torsos are thinner, our stomachs are physically smaller.
- Because we have less fat to insulate us, more of our body heat radiates outwards, and our metabolisms rise higher.
- Being thin gives us a greater surface area relative to our weight, causing us to radiate even more heat outwards, and causing our metabolisms to rise even higher.
- Many of us are fidgety and/or put our bodies in inefficient positions, raising their metabolisms higher still.
- Because we’re more insulin sensitive, we feel full more easily, at which point it becomes extremely uncomfortable to continue eating.
- When we get stressed or busy, our appetite disappears and we often forget to eat.
So as you can see, our stomachs are smaller, our metabolisms are faster, and our appetites are less aggressive. This can make it very difficult to eat enough food to gain weight, which is made harder still because all of the popular diets were created for overweight people trying to lose weight.
For example, intermittent fasting is often advertised for helping people make lean gains. But the base assumption is that people are overeating. It’s a diet designed to help people eat less food. Not only does intermittent fasting make it harder to gain weight (study), but it’s also actually quite bad for building muscle.
Another example is low-carb and ketogenic diets, which have become popular diets to combine with weight training. Again, the whole point of limiting carbohydrates is to reduce our calorie intake, making it harder to gain weight. These are weight-loss diets. No wonder that if we try to use them to gain weight, we fail.
Why Don’t We Build Muscle When Working Out?
The other problem that hardgainers run into is that most workout programs aren’t designed to stimulate muscle growth.
Some types of exercise, such as cardio, obviously aren’t designed for building muscle. I went through phases of focusing on cardio because I was fed up with being the skinniest guy at the gym. At least with cardio, it’s something that I was naturally good at. I could tell that my lighter frame gave me an advantage over the typical overweight person. Cardio is quite good for our health, too. We build more blood vessels, improve our oxygen delivery, and develop a higher red blood cell count. Great things, but I knew it wouldn’t help me build muscle, and I knew that building muscle was even more crucial for my health. After all, I was clinically underweight. So I would eventually turn back to weight training. And that’s where things got confusing.
With weight training, I assumed that all of it was designed to stimulate muscle growth. But that’s not the case. The vast majority of people are overweight. In fact, according to one survey, only 3% of people are trying to gain weight. We’re a tiny minority. Even with weight training, most programs aren’t designed to help skinny people bulk up.
For instance, CrossFit is a type of exercise known as high-intensity power training (HIPT), which is quite similar to high-intensity interval training (HIIT), except that it promotes fitness adaptations by using explosive Olympic weightlifting instead of sprints. In my naivety, I didn’t realize that CrossFit was just another type of cardio—cardio done with weights.
Now, CrossFit can certainly stimulate some muscle growth as a byproduct, especially if you gain weight and muscle easily. But the time under tension is very low, the lifts aren’t great for stimulating muscle growth, there’s no system of steady progressive overload, and there’s a huge emphasis on power and momentum. CrossFit is not a good way to train for muscle growth.
So what about the opposite of CrossFit? What if instead of doing high-rep Olympic weightlifting, we choose low-rep strength training? That’s where things get really confusing. Strength training programs like Starting Strength and StrongLifts 5×5 often claim to be quite for building muscle, and that’s not entirely wrong. They’re quite a bit better for building muscle than cardio programs. But these programs aren’t designed for muscle growth either. Rather, the low rep ranges are designed to help people learn to contract their muscles more forcefully. They’re designed to make people stronger for their size. And the lifts—the low-bar squat, bench press, and deadlift—are chosen to help people use the heaviest weights possible, not to help people build muscle.
For example, let’s consider the main strength training lift, the low-bar squat (as pictured above). Most strength training workouts start off with a few sets of low-bar squats, and that’s perfectly fine if your goal is to become a better powerlifter. It’s a great lift for packing meat onto our hips, adductors, and quads. But it uses a relatively small range of motion, it does a poor job of engaging our upper-back muscles, and it can be hard on the hips and shoulders. If our goal is to gain muscle mass, it’s not the best option.
Now consider something like a front squat (pictured above). Front squats are a bit lighter than back squats. Most people can only front squat about 75% as much weight as they can back squat. But they use a much deeper range of motion, they’re much easier on the hips and shoulders, they improve our posture, and they also bulk up our upper backs. As a result, we have a lighter lift that’s easier to recover from, safer, and quite a bit better for stimulating muscle growth, especially in our upper bodies.
We can improve strength training in a number of other ways, too:
- If we increase the rep range from five reps to ten reps, we can stimulate around twice as much muscle growth per set, making our workouts twice as efficient, and freeing up more time for other lifts (meta-analysis, study, study, study).
- We can choose lifts for other muscles that we’re eager to grow: chin-ups and curls for our biceps and upper backs, the overhead press to build bigger shoulders, lateral raises for wider shoulders, and triceps extensions for bigger triceps. We can also bulk up areas that aren’t trained by compound lifts, such as building a thicker neck.
- We can use a mix of shorter and longer rest times to build even more muscle.
This is how the thinking differs between strength training and hypertrophy training—training designed to stimulate muscle growth. When our goal is to train specifically for muscle growth, we can design workout programs that stimulate much more muscle growth, making it far easier to build muscle. Not only will that allow us to build muscle more leanly, but it can even help to increase our appetite and slow our metabolisms. The more muscle growth we can stimulate, the less likely our bodies will be to burn off extra calories.
You’re not crazy. It can be really hard for skinny hardgainers to gain weight. It’s a well-documented phenomenon with decades of research to back it up. And if we can’t gain weight, then we can’t build muscle. Again, this isn’t controversial. Gaining weight is at the heart of building muscle, especially for guys who are starting off skinny and underweight.
We’ve been there ourselves and we’ve helped thousands of skinny guys bulk up. Almost all of us have gone through a long period of our lives when we worried that it would be physically impossible to build muscle. Some members make it into their forties and fifties before they finally manage to bulk up. For example, our client Eddi only succeeded at gaining muscle right before his sixtieth birthday:
However, it isn’t impossible to gain weight. If you combine a proper bulking diet with a good hypertrophy training program, not only will you finally be able to build muscle, but you’ll probably be able to build muscle faster than any other body type (study).
Here’s what to read next:
My left shoulder has been higher than the other for as long as I can remember. I always thought of it in a superficial way, and figured it must be because I always carried my backpack slung over my right shoulder, pushing it down. Marco had the same thing, but thought it had to do with his skateboarding habits.
We were both sort of right… but mostly wrong.
Both are caused by the same thing: the fact that our bodies are innately asymmetrical. Our brain has a left and right side, and both perform different functions. Our hearts and livers are on just one side of our bodies. The right diaphragm is bigger than the left and has a longer attachment on the spine. Our left and right lungs expand to different degrees. One hand usually possesses more find motor control than the other. We usually favour one leg over the other as well, as Marco discovered when he was skateboarding.
It’s no wonder that over the course of our lives we fall into patterns of asymmetry, and that these effects can be seen when we look in the mirror.
If you go and look at the mirror right now, you will probably notice your left knee rotates out and your right knee rotates in. You may also notice that one shoulder sits higher than the other—usually the left. Another common compensation is a right rib hump. Your right rib on the backside will be more filled with air due to this twisting of the ribcage. One pec might thus grow bigger than the other and sit on your rib cage a little differently. If you don’t have a mirror handy, this pelvis/rib twist usually looks something like this:
For most people this isn’t a problem. The links between posture, performance and injury are iffy, since our bodies are so good at creating functional compensation patterns. It’s hard to tell whether they really have a large impact on one another, especially when we’re not currently injured or in pain. Better posture and better symmetry could theoretically improve your mood, your confidence, your breathing, your anxiety, your strength. It’ll certainly make you look better too. And if you’re currently in pain, it might help you get rid of it.
A good weightlifting program will do a good job of this, provided you develop good habits, train in a balanced way, and lift symmetrically. Even just learning how to squat well and squat heavy can work wonders.
Sometimes it can take a little extra work though. Here’s a good drill to help you learn to hold your hips in a good position while moving. Since most postural issues stem from the hips, mastering this will usually address the asymmetry at its root and allow you to develop a more balanced upper body.
Take it away, Marco:
No lift is mandatory. You can bulk up without squatting, without deadlifting, or, in extreme cases, without doing biceps curls. So long as you’re stimulating some of your muscles, then some of your muscles will grow. So the worst thing you could possibly do as a skinny guy is avoid lifting weights simply because you can’t do a particular movement or lift.
How to Bulk Without Squatting
Squats tend to be easy to skip. If you skip your squats, you’ll probably get away with it. People don’t really look at your legs, and they don’t play a large role in male aesthetics. I mean, this survey about the ideal male body doesn’t include a single leg. Not even one leg. Most of the research about how male muscularity relates to attractiveness doesn’t include legs either.
But on the off chance that anyone ever asks why you never squat, you can just tell them that you have cranky knees or some other common injury. Cranky knees are quite common, and not just in people who are trying to avoid squatting. Another good excuse is to just blame your small legs on the squat rack always being busy.
If neither of those excuses do the trick, try claiming to have early-onset arthritis from doing too much squatting in the past.
If all else fails, just pick the best squat variation for your needs. Some are easy on the knees, some load the spine less heavily, and some are better for guys with pre-existing lower back injuries. I know it’s not ideal, but if you have to squat, there will almost certainly be a squat variation that works well for you.
How to Bulk Without Deadlifting
Skipping deadlifts is a little harder. Small legs are easy to hide by wearing loose pants or by filling your pockets with paper-back books. The problem is, deadlifts train the entire posterior chain. Yes, you could build your upper back with front squats, rows, and even chin-ups, but there’s no getting around the fact that the deadlift is by far the best exercise for bulking up your upper traps and thickening up your torso.
Still, there are a couple good excuses you could use. The main excuse for not doing deadlifts is having a sore lower back. Yes, it’s true that deadlifts are often an effective way to rehab a sore lower back, given that they strengthen the spinal erectors, but most people don’t know that. And besides, on the off chance that someone points out that deadlifts are good for bad backs, you can rightly respond that you’d need to talk to a physiotherapist before doing them. (It’s wise to talk to a physiotherapist if you have a chronic injury. They’ll probably recommend that you eventually do deadlifts to fix a bad back, as mine did, but back injuries can vary in type and severity, and you may want to ease into them.)
Another good excuse for avoiding deadlifts is that you don’t want to bang up your shins or ruin the smoothness of your hands.
If all else fails, you can probably find a deadlift variation that suits you and your goals. Perhaps a sumo stance if deadlifts make your lower back overly sore. Or perhaps a dumbbell sumo deadlift if you’re working on overcoming a chronic back injury. Or maybe a conventional deadlift if your main goal is to build a thicker torso.
Can You Bulk Without Biceps Curls?
What about skipping curls? Skipping biceps curls has gotten quite common in the strength training community. The most obvious excuse for skipping biceps curls while bulking up is by doing chin-ups “instead.” If you do chin-ups with an underhand grip, they’ll train your biceps just as well as biceps curls would.
However, that excuse fails because of the word “instead.” There’s no reason for it. Doing biceps curls in addition to chin-ups would help you build even bigger biceps, so I can’t think of a good reason not to do both. That’s why some lifts are easier to skip that others.
What Lifts Do You Need to Do While Bulking?
Bulking programs can be quite flexible once you know the rules. If you want a good framework for what lifts to include in your bulking program, here’s our article about how to structure an ideal bulking workout, and here’s our article about the “Big 5” Bulking Lifts. You don’t need to do every lift, and your workout routine doesn’t need to be perfect. So long as you lift weights and eat a good bulking diet, you should be able to make good progress.
If you can’t squat, that’s fine. There’s probably a variation that will suit you, but meh, not squatting isn’t the end of the world. The same is true with deadlifts and, really, any other lift.
The only lift you really can’t skip is the biceps curl. Curls are what bulking is all about.
Our specialty is helping skinny guys bulk up, so no surprise, then, that one of the most common questions we get from skinny-fat guys is whether it’s okay to bulk or if they should cut down to a lower body-fat percentage first.
At first glance, neither bulking nor cutting sounds very appealing. Most skinny-fat guys have the awful experience of bulking up and seemingly just gaining fat or trying to lose weight and just winding up even skinnier.
To be fair, when you bulk, you’re probably building some muscle. It’s just you aren’t noticing it because it’s hidden by the fat. And when you cut, you probably aren’t losing that much muscle. It’s just that you’re getting smaller overall, your muscles aren’t as puffed full of glycogen, and you don’t have quite as much energy to train. Even if everything is going fine, it can seem like you’re losing muscle.
Either approach can help, as long as you do it correctly: bulk leanly and maintain your muscle mass while cutting. Mind you, that’s easier said than done.
Nutrition plays a role here, but most of the guys that we see who are struggling with this are doing cardio or p90x style programs when trying to lose fat. These are programs designed for your average person looking for weight loss. And weight loss is what they get. They lose some fat, they lose some muscle.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Cardio can be effective, but it should be combined with hypertrophy training—training designed to stimulate muscle growth. If you do some cardio alongside your lifting routine, then burning some extra calories and raising your metabolism a little higher can help with body recomposition. It can help skinny-fat guys build muscle and lose fat simultaneously. But the main driver of that body recomposition is hypertrophy training, not cardio, so emphasize the hypertrophy training.
The other option is to combine a bulking program with a fat-loss diet. Eat for fat loss while training for muscle size. Your diet will take care of the fat loss, and your training will ensure that you don’t lose muscle. In fact, you may even gain muscle while cutting.
Not everyone succeeds at losing fat and building muscle simultaneously, but skinny-fat guys often have success with it, especially if they’re relatively untrained or out of shape (study, study). For an example of that, here’s what happened in a study comparing weightlifting with aerobics when in a calorie deficit:
- The aerobics group lost seven pounds of fat while also losing six pounds of lean mass. (Thirteen pounds lost overall.) If you were a 170-pound man with 20% body fat, this would bring you down to 157 pounds with 17% bodyfat. You’d have lost a fair bit of muscle and still wouldn’t be anywhere close to having abs.
- The hypertrophy training group lost 22 pounds of fat and gained four pounds of lean mass. (Eighteen pounds lost overall.) If you were a 170-pound man, this would bring you down to 152 pounds with 8% body fat. You’d have fitness model abs, a few pounds more muscle, and could begin bulking leanly from there.
That’s the approach we take with our clients, doing a few weeks of cutting combined with hypertrophy training, and then doing a couple of months of lean bulking. After a few months of that, the transformations can be quite impressive:
Okay, I’ll end this one here. Here’s where to go next:
One reason could be that you’re “skinny-fat”. Masculine hormones generally cause us to store fat in our stomachs, so it’s actually pretty common for skinny guys to start developing a bit of a belly—and only a belly—if they aren’t eating very well or doing much to encourage muscle growth (like lifting weights). The solution to that would be to start eating and training for muscle growth.
…However, many of the skinny “pot bellies” we see have nothing to do with fat at all—they’re postural. More specifically, they’re caused by an anterior pelvic tilt. This is incredibly incredibly common. I’d guess that around 80% of the skinny guys coming into our program have them. So around here we affectionately call this postural pot belly issue “ecto-belly.”
Here’s what I mean:
In the first image you’ve got a typical skinny guy with ecto-belly. His pelvis is tilted forward, perhaps from years of spending a lot of time sitting and not a lot of time developing strength or working on mobility. This creates an arch in his lower back (lordosis). In order to keep his upper body upright, his ribs then need to flare upwards. This creates a flat zone in the mid back. In order for his head to remain upright, his upper back rounds forwards and his neck juts forward. This creates rounding (kyphosis) in his upper back and something called “forward head syndrome.”
This arsenal of postural compensation patterns isn’t that bad. Many skinny guys go through their entire lives without ever addressing it and nothing all that horrifying happens. This posture also boosts the perceived size of your tush, making it a create choice when taking belfies*.
Most men try desperately to get out of it though, and there’s good reason for that. It can make it dangerous to lift weights overhead, it could potentially reduce athletic performance, it gives you the appearance of a skinny dude with a pot belly, and it also makes you look a whole lot less confident. In fact, it mirrors a timid posture so perfectly that your brain will respond to it by reducing your actual confidence levels.
Luckily it’s very fixable. Learning how to do deadlifts, squats push-ups and planks properly will go a long way to fixing it, so a good strength training program (like ours!) will help a tremendous amount even if you don’t pay that much attention to your posture. You can also work on building up better glute strength, doing planks, and practicing maintaining a neutral pelvis and strengthening that position with lifts like the dead bug:
Postural stuff can take time. If you’re lifting well though, you’re well on your way. You’ll be standing a little taller and more confidently each week.
Most men want to have an attractive physique. Trouble is, few know exactly what that means. When men guess the degree of muscularity women prefer, they’re off by thirty pounds (study). To make matters worse, some guys have an even deeper misunderstanding, failing to realize their appearance reflects their fitness and strength. They try to become more attractive on a purely superficial level, muscle by muscle. That rarely works. It’s never as convincing as the real thing.
So in this article, we’ll dive into attractiveness research, as well as two surveys we’ve done, each with over a thousand responses (survey 1, survey 2). First, we’ll cover the ideal degree of muscularity and the ideal body proportions. Then we’ll go over how strong you need to be to achieve different tiers of muscularity. Finally, we’ll talk about the law of diminishing returns and whether it’s possible to become too muscular. By the end, you’ll know exactly how to improve your appearance.
But be warned: this article is long. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, here’s a simple trick to improve your appearance: have a drink. It will boost your attractiveness (to yourself) by 50%. This is called “The Reverse Beer Goggles Effect,” also known as Beauty is in the Eye of the Beer Holder (study). It’s not a perfect solution, but it could save you a good half hour of reading.
It can be hard to figure out what the best diet for ectomorphs is. When you search for the healthiest diets, you’ll find diets that are designed to help people lose weight. And that makes sense. After all, at least in the United States, the CDC estimates that only 1.9% of people are underweight. Wanting to gain weight is quite rare.
The reason the CDC cares about this stuff is because so many people are running into health problems from being overweight. As a result, most people need to adopt various diets to help them lose weight. This has become the standard recommendation for improving health: choose a diet that helps you lose weight.
In fact, the very term “dieting” implies that we should be restricting foods and calories to help us eat less. But what if we’re trying to gain weight? Do ectomorphs need an anti-diet?
Yes. We do.
If you’re a naturally skinny guy who’s been having trouble bulking up, milk can often help. There’s a simple reason for that: by drinking more milk, you’ll be adding more calories and protein into your diet. Milk is also a rich source of nutrients that are helpful for guys who are trying to build muscle. Finally, milk is extremely easy on the appetite, making it easier for us ectomorphs to gain weight.
However, if you add too much milk into your diet, then you may find yourself gaining quite a bit of fat along with your muscle (study). Worse, since whole milk is so high in saturated fat, going overboard with it can cause you to store proportionally more visceral fat, which can negatively impact your longterm health (study). That’s why GOMAD, where you drink a gallon of whole milk every day, is so infamous for making guys fat.
You could avoid some of those problems by choosing low-fat milk, yes, but higher-fat milk has some unique muscle-building properties that you might want to take advantage of.
So, what’s the best way to bulk up with milk?
Posture is a tricky thing. There’s not much research to show that transforming our posture will improve your health or athletic performance. After all, what often happens is that our posture adapts to our lifestyle. If you play a sport that benefits from a certain posture, your posture will adapt to help you. For example, sprinters will often have hips that are tilted forward. Is that stereotypically good posture? No, but it makes them better sprinters.
The problem is, a lot of us spend most of our time sitting at desks, and so our bodies adapt to become even better at sitting at desks. Our bellies pop out (lordosis), our upper backs hunch over (kyphosis), our shoulders tilt inwards, and our neck juts forward. That may not cause us any problems, at least not right away, but it makes us look weak and unathletic, because we are.
If you took a look at the famous Hollywood sex icons, you’ll find some commonalities. They tend to have well-developed shoulders, chests, and upper backs. They often have abs. And they all stand tall and straight, projecting confidence and strength. They have great posture.
And it’s true. If you can transform your posture, you can improve your appearance. There’s no doubt about that. Having strong posture looks great.
But how do we do it? How can we transform our posture?
Bodybuilders used to think that they needed to eat five, six, or even seven meals per day while bulking. If you asked him why he was eating so often, he would tell you that he needed to stoke the metabolic fire, prevent muscle catabolism, keep his blood sugar levels steady, and keep his muscles fuelled with a steady supply of protein. Perhaps most importantly of all, he would tell you that he needed to prevent his body from going into starvation mode, which would cause him to store more body fat. That’s a lot to worry about, and most of it isn’t true.
Now that intermittent fasting is becoming popular, that idea is starting to die out. Instead of eating seven meals per day, it’s common for bodybuilders to experiment with eating as few as 1–3 meals per day. Now the idea is reversed. Those periods of fasting are good for limiting fat gain while bulking. But there’s a problem here, too. Going through periods of fasting slows down our muscle growth.
So. How many meals per day should you be eating while bulking? What meal frequency is going to produce the most muscle growth with the least amount of fat gain?