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 do have thinner bones and narrower frames. We tend to start off weaker. Is that going to 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 225lbs (100kg), squat 315lbs (140kg), and deadlift 405lbs (180kg). Are these numbers realistic for an ectomorph?
  3. What’s an ectomorphs 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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Should you lift while sore? Is it bad not to feel sore after a workout? Is soreness in your lower back normal?

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) & Muscle Growth

When I first started lifting weights, I was absolutely crippled by muscle soreness. People cringed when they saw me try to sit in a chair. I loved it. I was sick and tired of being skinny, and I thought the muscle soreness was a sign that my muscles were growing. But was that crippling muscle soreness a good thing?

A couple of months later, my soreness had faded away to almost nothing. I could sit down in a chair without everyone in the room grimacing. I could even hold myself upright in it. I started to feel less like a burning puddle of oil, more like a human being. It was awful.

My gains had started to slow down as well, and I was convinced that my waning muscle growth was connected to my fading muscle soreness. Was my fading muscle soreness causing my plateau?

Muscle soreness is intimately connected to muscle growth, but most of us have no idea how it works, making the whole process that much more confusing. So in this article let’s go over a few of the more common muscle soreness questions that we get:

  • Should you work out if you’re still feeling sore?
  • What’s the link between muscle soreness and muscle growth?
  • Can muscle soreness interfere with muscle growth?
  • What can you do to reduce muscle soreness?
  • Can you build muscle without becoming sore?
  • What if a specific muscle isn’t getting sore?
  • What if your joints or tendons are getting store?
  • What if your lower back is sore?
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Illustration of a man flexing flaming biceps.

How Inflammation Affects Muscle Growth & Fat Storage

Inflammation is an odd beast. We’ve been getting some questions about it in the community, but most members are approaching it dead backwards. I don’t blame them—it’s totally counterintuitive.

Unhealthy foods cause inflammation, and if we eat too many of them, we can wind up chronically inflamed. Healthy bulking foods, on the the other hand, are rich in antioxidants, and if we eat enough of them, it reduces our baseline inflammation.

Similarly, being obese can cause inflammation, and is linked with higher risks of morbidity. Being lean, however, reduces inflammation and is linked with improved long-term health.

We’re interested in building muscle, though, and lifting weights causes inflammation. In fact, lifting weights causes a lot of inflammation. So much so that lifting may become your main source of inflammation.

And inflammation is bad… right?

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What is creatine? How do you take it? What side effects does creatine have? Can creatine cause balding? Stomach aches after taking creatine?

The Creatine Guide: What Is Creatine, How To Take It, Natural Creatine Sources, Side Effects, The Best Creatine Brands & More

Once upon a time, I was 23 years old and 130 pounds at 6 feet tall. I was dangerously skinny and clinically underweight, with a BMI of 17.6. I stood hunchbacked from all my time spent hunched over my desk studying graphic design. I was not a beacon of health. My roommate and business partner, Shane, was in a similar situation, so we made a pact to change our skinny ways. We called it Muscle May and spent much of April preparing for it. But even before I started lifting weights or eating more food, my body was already transforming.

In preparation for the start of Muscle May, I had started taking creatine monohydrate a week early. I wanted to load up on creatine beforehand so that my levels were optimized for my first workout in the gym. I would mix in 5 grams of Allmax Creatine into blueberry Fruitopia juice. The creatine was grainy at the bottom of the dark purple juice, but it was tasteless. Unless you count taking some multivitamins as a kid, it was the first supplement I ever took.

Every morning I’d faithfully drink my grainy purple drink. And by the end of the week… I had gained 8 pounds. I hadn’t even started working out. I hadn’t changed what I was eating. And I had gained 8 pounds of totally lean weight. I couldn’t believe it. It was crazy.

If you’re a skinny guy and you’ve struggled to gain weight, this might sound incredible—maybe even unbelievable—but this is a common “side-effect” of creatine. It draws more water and sugar (glycogen) into your muscles, making them look bigger and fuller, giving them extra strength and endurance, and, in my case, adding 8 pounds to the scale.

This initial success with creatine is what set the stage for our transformations. In our four-month experiment, I had gained over 30 pounds. Shane gained 25. We had such extreme results that random people on BodyBuilding.com were commenting that our transformations were either photoshopped or that we were using steroids. Neither of which was true. Oh boy.

Obviously eating a bulking diet and lifting weights were the keys to building rapid amounts of muscle (see our how-to article about gaining weight here), but creatine played a meaningful supporting role.

So, what exactly is creatine? How can it help build muscle easier—faster? How much does it improve our strength and muscle-building potential? Perhaps the skeptic in your head says that anything this effective and this cheap must ultimately be bad for us, right? Is that true? And if you do decide to try it, how exactly should you take it?

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Illustration showing a 16:8 intermittent fasting meal schedule (with no breakfast).

Is Intermittent Fasting Good For Gaining Muscle?

Intermittent fasting is a common technique that people use to lose weight. But what happens if we use it for muscle gain? What if do it while bulking? How will it affect our muscle growth and fat gain? After all, intermittent fasting raises growth hormone production, which purportedly helps with muscle growth; it increases insulin sensitivity, which could help make your muscle gains leaner; and research shows that intermittent fasting may help preserve muscle when losing weight. This could theoretically make intermittent fasting a good bulking diet… right?

On the other hand, most athletes gain their muscle mass and strength by eating several meals per day. The classic bodybuilders with the most famous physiques in history were famous for eating frequently—every few hours. And that’s true of modern natural bodybuilders, too. They eat more meals than the average person Why is that? Is eating more meals per day better for building muscle?

Finally, us skinny guys are notorious for having tiny stomachs, raging metabolisms and small appetites—all of which can make bulking up much harder. Does intermittent fasting make it harder to eat enough calories to gain weight?

So, should we use intermittent fasting for gaining muscle?

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How to know your bodyfat percentage using the mirror as a skinny or skinny-fat guy

The Skinny Guy’s Guide to Body-Fat Percentage

As a skinny guy, it can be hard to figure out what your body-fat percentage is. Here’s why: let’s take a totally average guy in this study. He goes to get a DEXA scan, and he’s told that he has a body-fat percentage of 20%. Then he goes to sit in the BodPod, which puts him at 22%. A bit of a discrepancy, but he can be reasonably confident that he’s between 20–22%. Moreover, both of those body-fat percentages have the same implication for his health and appearance: he’s a decently healthy guy who looks a bit out of shape.

The overweight guy goes in next. DEXA puts him at 34%. BodPod puts him at 32%. Now it’s DEXA that’s estimating high, but the discrepancy is still just 2%. Again, not a big difference at all. He’s overweight either way, and he could stand to lose some fat.

Now you walk in. DEXA puts you at 9%. Amazing! Not only are you lean enough to bulk aggressively, but you’re also leaner than most professional athletes. Next, you get your BodPod done. It tells you you’re 22% body fat…

Huh? 22%? That’s not the end of the world, but you’re slightly outside of the healthy body-fat percentage range. You’re skinny-fat, you might say. And so you might want to start with a cut before bulking.

You’ve spent a few hundred dollars and an entire day getting two of the most accurate body-fat percentage tests in the world, and you can’t even tell if you should be bulking or cutting. For guys who are underweight, DEXA and BodPod can be off by up to 13%. Totally useless.

So in this article, we cover why your body-fat percentage matters even as a so-called “ectomorph,” how to measure it properly, and then we’ll run through some real-life examples (with pictures) so that you have a better idea of how to judge your leanness at a glance.

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The Best Clothes for Skinny Guys

Being a man is about being a good person, and part of being a good person is knowing how to fit into society. Demonstrating that social savvy will make you more attractive to women, earn you more respect with other men, and make frailer people feel safer around your strength instead of threatened by it.

As you gain more strength, that last point becomes more important.

There are a few things we can do. Being polite, knowing when to smile, improving our posture, and knowing what to wear.

Even by just fixing up our style, we can start living better almost instantly.

But for us ectomorphs, things are not quite so simple. We’ve got a rarer body type, and it can be hard to find clothes that fit and flatter us.

Then as we build muscle, we look better in clothes, yes, but new challenges are introduced. Having a butt means switching to a whole different cut of jeans. If you don’t, you’ll blow out the crotch.

Building up bigger shoulder muscles will bring you up a shirt size, but that bigger shirt will be enormous around your still-slim waist.

So now that you’ve bulked up and you need to buy new clothes anyway, let’s see if we can help you do it right.

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Illustration of a man getting his shoulders measured.

How to Build Broader Shoulders (for Skinny Guys)

Is it possible for a skinny guy to build broader shoulders? If you’re a naturally thin “ectomorph,” chances are you have a thinner bone structure, which often includes having narrower shoulders. Perhaps that’s why you’re interested in finding out if you can build broader shoulders.

Wanting to build broader shoulders isn’t unique to us skinny guys. Lots of men are trying to make their shoulders broader. Lots of those men succeed. However, for those of us with shorter collarbones, the path there can be a little different.

Inside, we’ll discuss why so many guys want bigger, broader shoulders, what we can control and what we can’t, and then we’ll give you a step-by-step guide to help you add a few inches to your shoulder circumference.

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