Before and after illustration showing the results of a man building a bigger chest.

How to Build a Bigger Chest (Even If It’s Lagging Behind)

The chest is one of the biggest and most powerful muscles in our bodies, but it’s also notoriously difficult to grow, and many people find that it lags behind. In fact, if you’re a naturally skinny guy with narrow shoulders or a shallow ribcage, building a bigger chest may seem downright impossible. I’ve been there.

There are a three principles that reliably improve chest growth:

  • Choose exercises where your chest the limiting factor, ensuring that it gets most of the growth stimulus. And if your upper chest is lagging behind, the same rule applies: choose lifts where your upper chest is the limiting factor.
  • Challenge your chest under a deep stretch, improving how much muscle growth you stimulate with every set. As we’ll cover below, this can double your rate of muscle growth.
  • Make sure that you’re achieving progressive overload, getting stronger over time, gradually lifting more weight or doing more repetitions. This includes eating enough protein and calories to recover and grow from your workouts.

If you can get stronger at lifts that are limited by the strength of your chest, then your chest will grow. And if those lifts challenge your chest under a deep stretch, it will grow much faster.

So, which lifts are best at challenging our chests through a deep range of motion? And how can we make sure that our chests are the limiting factor? Let’s dive in.

Dive In
Illustration of a skinny guy flexing his forearm muscles.

Forearm Training: How to Build Bigger Forearms

When you first start lifting weights, it’s a good idea to focus most of your energy on the big compound lifts. Your workouts start with lifts like the squat, bench press, deadlift, chin-up, and row. These are the biggest lifts that build the most overall muscle mass. After that, we add in some isolation lifts. Curls for our biceps, extensions for our triceps, lateral raises for our shoulders, and maybe some exercises for our abs. These train the muscles that aren’t properly stimulated by the big compound lifts.

As you gain weight, build muscle, and get stronger at these lifts, you’ll probably notice that your grip is getting stronger, and your forearms are getting bigger. This is because the rows are training your elbow flexors, the biceps curls are training your wrist flexors, and the lateral raises are training your wrist extensors. They aren’t the main muscles being worked, but since we’re new to lifting weights, they grow.

The thing is, as you continue getting bigger and stronger, you’ll probably notice that your forearms stop growing. That’s because your forearm muscles have gotten both stronger and tougher, and these compound lifts aren’t challenging them enough to provoke any growth.

So how do we get bigger forearms? We train them directly. Here’s how.

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Illustration of a skinny guy doing a lean bulk, gaining no visible fat.

How to Do a Lean Bulk

One of the most common issues that us skinny guys run into while bulking is gaining too much fat. For someone who’s already muscular, gaining some fat makes them look beefy. Not a big deal. But for someone who’s still fairly thin, it can make us look skinny-fat. It can make us look worse than when we started. Better to bulk more leanly, right?

Thing is, when you look up how to do a lean bulk, you’ll hear about how you need to gain weight very slowly—just a pound or so per month. You might hear about how you need to restrict certain foods or eat a cleaner diet. And sure, those can be factors. But one of the best ways to build muscle more leanly is to stimulate more muscle growth. After all, the faster we’re building muscle, the more calories are being invested in lean mass, leaving fewer that can spill over into fat storage. This is especially powerful for us skinny guys, given how much more muscle mass our frames can hold.

So in this article, we’ll cover why people gain fat while bulking, how to gain muscle faster, how to minimize fat storage, and how to do a proper lean bulk.

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Illustration showing a skinny ectomorph flexing his lanky arms.

What’s An Ectomorph? Are They Even Real?

Is “ectomorph” a real term? Is it a real thing? Is that an accurate way to describe a naturally skinny person with a tall, narrow build who has a hard time gaining weight? 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 their 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 an “ectomorph diet” or an “ectomorph workout.” They might claim that endomorphs need intermittent fasting, whereas ectomorphs need to eat more carbohydrates. Or that endomorphs need more cardio, whereas ectomorphs should eschew it. That’s questionable, yeah. 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 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 wanting to bulk up?

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Illustration of an ectomorph who bulked up and built a Hollywood physique.

The Skinny Guy’s Guide to Building 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.

Should Skinny Guys Use Mass Gainers?

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 to Know if You’re Skinny

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.

Should Beginners Lift to Muscle Failure?

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.

Ectomorph Workout Plan: Beginner Weight Training Routine

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.

A Review of Interesting Muscle-Building Research for Skinny Guys

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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