Illustration of a skinny guy eating a feast in an attempt to gain weight and build muscle.

How to Eat More Calories (to Gain Weight)

To eat more calories, eat more often, focusing on dense foods that are easy to chew, lower in fibre, or lower in water. Think of foods like trail mix, ground meat, smoothies, yogurt, milk, bananas, and dark chocolate.

Even then, though, many skinny guys still have trouble eating enough calories to gain weight. There’s a good reason for that: we often have faster metabolisms and smaller stomachs. Unfortunately, the only way to gain weight is to get into a calorie surplus. I know that’s a tough bite to swallow, especially if you’re already stuffed to the gills, but there’s no way around it.

To make matters worse, we aren’t just trying to gain weight, we’re trying to build muscle. That adds a few other considerations. Protein is very filling, but we need to eat enough of it. Fat is very calorically dense, but we need to make sure we aren’t overdoing it. And we can’t rely on junk food to boost our calories up. That makes gaining weight much harder.

So what we want to do is design a diet around calorie-rich foods that improve our digestion and make it easier to build muscle quickly and leanly.

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Illustration of a beginner, intermediate, and advanced bodybuilder lifter

Are You a Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced Lifter?

How can you tell whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced lifter? That’s a good question. The answer can change which exercises you build your routine around, which workout program you pick, how quickly you can add weight to the bar, and how quickly you should gain weight.

Let’s delve into different ways of determining your lifting level. We’ll demonstrate why some of those methods are flawed, then cover a more useful way of doing it.

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Illustration of a man going from having bad posture to having good posture

The Skinny Guy’s Guide to Fixing Bad Posture

It’s common for skinny guys to have crooked posture. Part of that is because we’re skinny. We lack the muscular strength to hold ourselves up straight. The other problem is we often have longer spines that are harder to stabilizer.

The good news is both of these issues are the same issue. You can think of posture as weakness in the muscles that are supposed to hold your body in the proper position. If you can learn how to lift weights with good posture, you’ll strengthen these muscles, and your posture will improve.

My expertise is in helping thinner athletes bulk up, including college, professional, and Olympic athletes. Fortunately, these postural techniques work just as well on everyday skinny guys like us.

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Illustration of a sugar cube

How Much Sugar is Okay While Bulking?

Sugar is often criticized for causing weight gain. It’s technically a calorie surplus that causes the weight gain. But sugar can certainly make it easier to get into a calorie surplus, and so increasing our sugar intake can indeed lead to weight gain.

What if we’re trying to gain weight? For a lot of us hardgainers, the idea of sugar causing accidental weight gain sounds like a potential benefit, and it can be. In fact, when Marco first started helping me bulk up, one of the first things he did was have me add some sugar (dextrose) into my workout shakes. It’s a common trick that strength coaches use with high-level athletes to help them get into a calorie surplus. Marco cut his teeth by helping college, professional, and Olympic athletes build muscle, so it was the first thing he thought of when I told him that I was having trouble gaining weight.

Look at drinks like Gatorade, designed for the Gators from the University of Florida to keep them fueled up while playing sports. It’s full of sugar. Or look at the recovery drinks we see at the supplement stores. Again, full of sugar (or starch). The same is true with weight gainers. Their main ingredient is usually either maltodextrin or dextrose—both of which are quickly broken down into sugar as soon as we drink them. Sugar is the main ingredient in bulking supplements and sports drinks.

In the general public, though, most skinny guys take the opposite approach. They’ve heard that processed sugar will raise our blood sugar levels and can lead to various health issues, including, of course, fat gain. So when they start bulking up, they intentionally try to reduce their intake of processed sugar. Now, there’s certainly no problem with that, and most health experts recommend keeping our sugar intake quite low anyway—often limiting sugar to 25% of our total calories but sometimes as low as 10% of our total calories (study).

However, the idea of limiting our sugar intake to 25% of our calories is based on the idea that eating more processed sugar can lead to nutrient deficiencies. If we eat more candy, that can mean eating fewer fruits and veggies. But that’s not all that relevant to us skinny guys who are intentionally driving ourselves into a calorie surplus to build muscle. It’s especially irrelevant if we’re getting that added sugar from sources that are rich in micronutrients, such as from fruit, fruit juice, honey, and milk. In that case, even though our sugar intake would be increasing, we’d be consuming more micronutrients.

Furthermore, sugar has a different impact on skinny guys who are underweight and exercising than it does on people who are overweight and sedentary. We don’t have the same issues controlling our blood sugar levels, removing most of the downsides to our general health. And, when combined with a good lifting routine, raising our intakes of sugar can lead to leaner muscle gains than increasing our intakes of fat.

So, what effect does sugar have on skinny guys as we bulk up? How much added sugar is helpful. How much is harmful? And how can we make it easier to bulk up quickly and leanly?

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Illustration of a skinny "ectomorph" doing cardio while bulking up.

Should You Do Cardio While Bulking? Yes, Sort Of

Cardio causes a different type of adaptation from hypertrophy training. Cardio causes us to build more blood vessels, gain additional mitochondria in our cells, and strengthen our hearts. Hypertrophy training stimulates muscle growth, makes us stronger, and makes our bones and tendons tougher.

Here’s the issue. Doing both hypertrophy training and cardio causes us to adapt in two separate, competing ways. This is called the interference effect. That’s what people say, anyway. Is it true?

On the other hand, if cardio makes you fitter, maybe you’ll be able to handle tougher hypertrophy training workouts. If it improves blood flow to your muscles, maybe you’ll have improved performance and better recovery. There could be advantages to doing cardio.

Things get even more confusing if you’re a naturally thin “ectomorph.” The more cardio you do, the more calories you’ll burn and the more calories you’ll need to eat. If you’re already struggling to eat enough calories to gain weight, that can be a problem.

Illustration of vegan bodybuilder bulking up

How to Bulk on a Vegan Diet (Plant-Based Bulking)

Vegans can build muscle just as quickly and effectively as anyone else, provided they eat a proper plant-based bulking diet. Vegans tend to be healthier than the average person (study), and plant-based diets lend themselves quite well to building muscle. After all, many of the best bulking foods are plants: bananas, oats, rice, legumes, leafy greens, carrots, garlic, and so on (study).

We’ve been helping skinny guys bulk up for over a decade now, and our vegan members have always done just as well as everyone else.

Still, there are a few common mistakes vegans make. And there are some extra considerations to keep in mind. Let’s go through all of it.

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Illustration of a skinny guy building muscle on keto.

Can You Build Muscle On Keto? Most Research Says You Can’t

People have been using keto to lose weight for the past 200 years. For example, in the 1970s, it saw a surge in popularity because of the Atkins Diet, which started with a strict ketogenic phase.

During that same time period, bodybuilders have leaned towards higher-carb diets. Conventional bulking diets get most of their calories from carb-rich foods like rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, oats, bananas, yogurt, beans, and lentils.

What happens if you try to use a ketogenic diet to build muscle? Will it hinder muscle growth? Can it yield leaner gains?

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Illustration of a powerlifter doing strength training.

Is Strength Training Good for Building Muscle?

Is strength training good for building muscle? Some of the most popular programs that skinny guys use to bulk up, such as StrongLifts 5×5 and Starting Strength, are designed for gaining strength. But what if we’re trying to become bigger and stronger? Are strength training programs good for building muscle?

If we look at a recent study comparing low-rep training strength training against moderate-rep hypertrophy training, we see that hypertrophy training stimulates more than twice as much muscle growth per set. Does that show that hypertrophy training is better for building muscle?

There’s new research coming out showing that doing metabolic training in higher rep ranges increases muscle growth by increasing the amount of fuel in our muscles—sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Lower-rep training is thought to stimulate muscle growth via myofibrillar hypertrophy. Does that mean that strength training builds harder, denser muscles?

Are the big three powerlifting lifts—the back squat, the bench press, and the deadlift—the best lifts for building muscle? And how crucial are isolation lifts when bulking up?

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The Growth Mindset

One of the biggest obstacles to transform our bodies might not be in our genes. It’s not about being skinny. It’s not about being ectomorphs. Many times, what holds us back are our beliefs. We want to change our bodies, but… how can we get started on a new journey when—deep inside—we believe we won’t make it?

We say we want to gain weight and put on muscle, but part of us holds back. Otherwise, we should have already solved this, right? If you are still struggling with being skinny, chances are you need to take a look at your mindset.

In fact, if you can adopt the right mindset, it won’t just change your psychology, it will also change your physiology. It will improve the rate that you build muscle through a process akin to the placebo effect, where simply believing that you can grow will physically increase the rate that you’re able to gain muscle.

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Muscle Size and Strength Standards for Ectomorphs

How much muscle and strength can an “ectomorph” gain? There’s plenty of research looking into rates of muscle and strength gain. But what if you’re a naturally skinny guy? Are there different strength standards for ectomorphs?

Ectomorphs do start off with less muscle mass, but what effect does that have on how quickly we can grow? Do we have an extended period of newbie gains, allowing us to gain muscle and strength more quickly? Or does having less muscle mass indicate that our genetics are poor, causing us to build muscle more slowly?

We have thinner bones and narrower frames. We tend to start off weaker. Does that limit how strong we can become, or can we still expect to become as strong as any other lifter?

In this article, we’ll go over two main questions from an ectomorph’s perspective:

  1. How much muscle can an ectomorph gain in his first year? Most guys can expect to gain around twenty pounds of muscle during their first year of lifting weights. How does that change for an ectomorph?
  2. How strong can an ectomorph get after a year of lifting weights? With a good workout routine, most guys are able to bench press 225 pounds (100kg), squat 315 pounds (140kg), and deadlift 405 pounds (180kg). Are these numbers realistic for ectomorphs?
  3. What’s an ectomorph’s lifetime muscular genetic potential? If we lift for a lifetime, how big can we hope to get?
  4. How strong can an ectomorph get with a lifetime of serious training? If we develop our muscles to their full potential, how strong can we hope to become?

Let’s dive in.

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