Illustration of a skinny and a muscular man doing dumbbell biceps curls.

Most exercise programs are designed for overweight guys. Even most lifting programs are designed for overweight guys. After all, overweight or not, who doesn’t want to be big and strong? Thing is, most guys intuitively overeat, and so year after year, they gain pound after pound (study). They don’t gain muscle quickly, they gain it relentlessly.

Skinny guys are different. We don’t naturally overeat. We aren’t muscular by default. But once we start bulking, we can usually gain muscle more quickly than any other body type. We’re far enough away from our genetic potential that our bodies are primed for muscle growth. The average guy would be lucky to gain ten pounds of lean mass in a year. Some of us skinny guys can gain up to forty, defeating our skinny genetics in a single year.

Thing is, most weight training programs aren’t actually designed for muscle growth. Yes, they often produce some muscle growth as a byproduct. But as naturally skinny guys, we shouldn’t be doing workouts that stimulate muscle growth as a byproduct, we should be doing workouts that are designed to stimulate as much muscle growth as possible—on purpose.

So how do we deliberately train for muscle growth? With something called hypertrophy training. Let’s talk about how to build muscle, and why hypertrophy training is the most effective way to bulk up.

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Illustration of a man doing a conventional barbell deadlift

Deadlifts are one of the only true full-body lifts, challenging our muscles from our fingers down to our toes, stressing our bodies from the skin on our palms all the way down to our bones. They’re hard, tiring, and absolutely amazing for building muscle, gaining strength, improving our fitness, and becoming much better looking.

When it comes to bulking up, the only lift that can rival the deadlift in terms of sheer muscle growth is the squat (and especially the front squat). Even then, the deadlift has a few unique advantages:

  • Deadlifts bulk up our traps, backs, glutes, and forearms, which is great for improving our aesthetics.
  • Deadlifts are one of the best ways to increase the density of our bones and the health of our spines, making them great for our health and longevity.
  • The strength we develop with deadlifts transfers near-perfectly to our daily lives, making us look strong because we are strong.
  • Squats and deadlifts train different muscles, with the front squat emphasizing the quads and upper back, and the deadlift emphasizing the hamstrings, glutes, and entire back.

As with all the big lifts, though, there are several different ways of deadlifting, each with different pros and cons. And given how many different sorts of adaptations deadlifts provoke, it’s not surprising that some ways of deadlifting are much better for building muscle than others.

Most guys who are interested in strength favour the conventional deadlift, which is wise—and we’ll explain why—but they deadlift for low reps and drop the bar to the ground after every repetition, making it worse for building muscle mass.

The most heinous sin, though, belongs to the bodybuilders who forego the deadlift altogether, thinking that it’s not a good lift for gaining muscle, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.

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Illustration of a man doing a barbell front squat

All types of squatting are great for building muscle, gaining strength, and improving our health and fitness. In fact, in many ways, squats are the best bulking lift. However, although all squat variations are great for us, each of them has a different purpose, and some of them are much better for bulking than others.

For powerlifters, the low-bar squat is king. It uses a smaller range of motion, it has great leverage, and our back strength won’t ever hold us back. If our goal is to squat as much weight as possible, low-bar squats are best.

For athletes, high-bar squats are popular. The range of motion is a little larger, it still allows for fairly heavy loading, and it does a great job of bulking up the lower body. For sprinters, footballers, and rugby players, it’s a great squat variation.

But what if you’re a skinny guy who’s trying to get bigger, stronger, healthier, and better looking? We aren’t trying to win powerlifting competitions, and we care about more than just being able to sprint like a demon. 

For us, front-loaded squats–such as goblet squats and front squats—are easily the best squat variations. They allow for the largest range of motion, they pack muscle onto our lower and upper bodies, they toughen up our spines, and they help us stand taller and straighter.

  • If our goal is sheer muscle growth, front squats win.
  • If our goal is to develop general strength, front squats win.
  • And if our goal is to improve our aesthetics, again, front squats win—easily.

Here’s why.

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Illustration of the tortoise and the hare

I remember being skinny and wanting to gain weight FAST. I didn’t just want to be muscular yesterday, I wanted to be muscular in every single one of my previous lives.

We aren’t trying to gain weight, though, we’re trying to gain muscle. And if we bulk up too fast, won’t we become skinny-fat? That can happen. Not to everyone, but it can happen to some of us sometimes. It’s important to understand those risk factors.

Over the past eight years, we’ve helped nearly 10,000 skinny guys bulk up. We’ve helped them bulk fast, we’ve helped them bulk lean, and everything in-between. Even when dealing with naturally skinny guys, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

Let’s talk about the pros and cons of gaining muscle quickly versus gaining it leanly. That way, you’ll know exactly how much weight you should be trying to gain on the scale each week.

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Illustration of a margarita

Maybe you’ve heard that beer builds beer bellies, that alcohol can tank our testosterone production, or that drinking too much can impair muscle growth.

All of this is true. In fact, it gets worse. Alcohol can also disrupt our sleep, which can further reduce muscle growth, cause extra fat gain, and harm our workout performance.

Worse still, alcohol can slow digestion, making it harder for us to digest big bulking diets. It can also negatively impact our appetites, making it harder to gain weight.

However, these aren’t the effects of drinking, these are the drinking too much. As with most good things in life, it’s the dose that makes the poison.

Maybe you’ve even heard that having a drink or two per day is better than having none. Is that true?

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You could think of your body as having a built-in bodyweight thermostat. You might have your weight set at, say, 130 pounds. If you go above 135, your appetite automatically turns off until you get back to 130 pounds. If you go below 125 pounds, your appetite automatically turns on until you get back up to 130 pounds. There’s more at play here than just your appetite, but you get the idea: your body is automatically regulating your weight around a given “set point.”

When you’re bulking up, you’re fighting that set point. It’s trying to regulate your body weight back down. It’s trying to eliminate all the progress you’ve made.

So how do we get your set point to 150, 180 or even 200 pounds? Is that even possible? That’s what this article is about.

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Illustration of two men arm wrestling

Should your calories come from clean foods, dirty foods, or does it not even matter? Bulking up requires a calorie surplus, and the faster you want to gain weight, the bigger that calorie surplus will need to be. But where should those calories come from?

There are two popular approaches:

  • Clean bulking: where we get our calorie surplus from healthy foods, building our muscles out of high-quality calories.
  • Dirty bulking: where we eat whatever we want whenever we want, gaining weight by whatever means necessary.

Now, there’s also the If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) approach, where you eat the correct number of calories and the correct proportion of macronutrients. However, some people follow IIFYM while dirty bulking, others follow it while clean bulking. It’s a whole separate thing.

I started off severely underweight, and over the course of gaining sixty pounds, I’ve tried both clean and dirty bulking. In fact, I’d credit each approach with around thirty pounds of my overall gains. I’ve failed with both approaches, too.

Then, over the past eight years, we helped nearly 10,000 other skinny guys bulk up, as well as our millions of readers. We’ve watched them use a variety of different approaches, we’ve listened to horror stories, and we’ve celebrated too many successes to count. Seeing so many different people bulk up has added nuance to our opinions over the years.

There’s also quite a lot of research looking into how our food choices affect our ratio of muscle-to-fat gains while overeating. And this research is rarely brought up when discussing the pros and cons of each approach.

So. What’s the best bulking diet? Should we bulk clean or dirty?

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Illustration of several different bulking foods

What are the best foods for faster, leaner, and healthier muscle growth? It might seem like a simple question, and it is, but if we want to build a great bulking diet, we can go pretty deep with it.

For example, junk food is high in calories and easy to digest. Great for gaining weight, right? Absolutely. But it’s also full of empty calories, it’s low in protein, and it may make our digestive systems weaker over time. New research is even showing that foods that are higher in saturated fats and fructose—which is common with junk food—are more likely to be stored as visceral body fat instead of as muscle (study).

Fortunately, there are quite a few great bulking foods that make it easier to eat more calories, are great for stimulating muscle growth, are great for our health, and that can improve our digestion over time.

Furthermore, building a good bulking diet isn’t as simple as just eating a lot of healthy food. For example, the best bulking diets tend to be quite high in foods that break down into glucose. Lower-fibre starches, such as white rice and pasta, are great for this. That’s not common in most other pop-culture diets, such as ketogenic diets, low-carb diets, or paleo diets. This makes bulking diets unique.

Without further ado, here are the very best bulking foods.

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Illustration of a tub of weight gainer powder.

Over 5,000 shares and 500 comments later, here’s our revised supplement guide for skinny guys who are trying to build muscle in time for last summer. We’ll cover everything you need to know about supplements that speed up muscle growth, such as creatine, and we’ll go over the supplements that help hardgainers bulk up, such as weight gainers.

To do this, we need to evaluate the research—all of the research. It’s easy to claim that a supplement is effective by showcasing results of a single study, but when we dig into the entire body of evidence, only a few supplements remain standing. This article tries to do that, favouring systemic reviews and meta-analyses over the latest (and often controversial) research.

We’ve also been in the trenches with this. I’ve personally used these supplements to gain sixty pounds at 11% body fat, Marco has used them to gain nearly seventy pounds at 10% body fat, and we’ve recommended them to nearly 10,000 members of the Bony to Beastly Bulking Program, as well as the 500,000 people who have read this article.

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

Most ectomorphs have trouble eating enough calories to gain weight. There’s a good reason for that, too: we 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 harder still, we aren’t just trying to gain weight, we’re trying to build muscle. That adds a few other considerations.

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.

Let’s call this diet the Ectomorph Bulking Diet.

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