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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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?
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.
Most people build muscle with weight training, and that’s certainly an easy way to do it, but it’s also possible to bulk up with bodyweight workouts (aka calisthenics). If we put enough mechanical tension on our muscles, they will grow. That’s just as true with bodyweight training as it is with free weights.
The catch is that if we want to see good muscle growth, we still need to do dedicated hypertrophy training, and that can be confusing. After all, most calisthenics workouts are designed to help overweight people lose fat, improve their general fitness, and become healthier. The workouts may stimulate a bit of muscle growth as a byproduct, but it’s not enough to do a bonafide bulk. That won’t cut it for us skinny guys, ectomorphs, and hardgainers.
So in this article, we’ll go over how to do a bodyweight hypertrophy workout that’s designed specifically to help skinny guys build muscle, bulk up, and gain mass.
Given that we specialize in helping skinny guys bulk up, we often get asked how to build a thicker neck. And I can relate to that. I always hated how skinny my neck was. When I first started bulking, my neck circumference 14 inches—a long way from the average man’s 16-inch neck. And even after gaining a full 60 pounds, my neck had only gone up to 14.5 inches. Clearly, building muscle overall wasn’t doing anything for my skinny neck.
That’s where neck training comes in. Doing muscle-building exercises to bulk up the muscles in our necks is a fairly new thing. It’s not common in either bodybuilding or strength training. But neck training has a long history in contact sports and martial arts, given that it reduces the risk of concussions, knockouts, and brain trauma. We can look at that research and then modify it for our own goal of building thicker, stronger, and better-looking necks. And, as a bonus, our necks will grow tougher, too.
Given the paucity of research, I was skeptical about how well a neck bulking routine would work. But within a few months of doing neck training while resting between sets, I was able to add over an inch to my neck circumference. We were then able to reproduce those results with members of our community.