The Skinny Struggle is Real

I spent almost 10 years of my life trying and failing to gain weight. In fact, when I tried to bulk up, I would often lose weight. And whenever I did gain a few pounds, I’d get a cold or take a break, and the weight would melt right off. I’d wind up right back where I started.

I didn’t understand why it was so damn hard for me to gain weight. Was it because I had an ectomorph body type? Could it really be that simple? But if that were the case, how come so many ectomorphs are able to bulk up? How was I different? Was I a hardgainer? Was I non-responder to weightlifting?

Other people would see me struggling to gain weight and they’d figure I just I wasn’t eating enough calories. They’d tell me to “just eat more.” Then they’d look at me like they’d just solved all of my problems, totally confident they’d given me the information I’d been missing all my life.

I had been skinny all of my life, though. “Just eat more” wasn’t new advice. I mean, it’s not like I hadn’t tried to eat more. Of course I had. I’d been trying to gain weight my entire life.

I get it. That advice would work fine for most people. After all, gaining weight is second nature for most people. If you tell the average dude to eat more, he’d be able to. Hell, he’d probably even like it.

So the assumption is that no matter how fast our metabolisms are, and no matter how small our stomachs are, we’re just supposed to tough it. We’re supposed to force-feed ourselves. But after grinding out a brutal bulking diet for a few weeks, feeling bloated and tired the whole way through, we’ll inevitably give up. It’s just not a sustainable diet.

So at that point, most of us blame our ectomorph genetics, thinking that we’re doomed to stay skinny forever. But some ectomorphs do it. Some skinny guys are able to bulk up. What’s their secret?

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • Why is it so hard for ectomorphs to gain weight?
  • What’s the best ectomorph bulking diet?
  • What type of exercise should ectomorphs do to bulk up?
  • How quickly can skinny guys build muscle?
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Illustration of a man on vacation with a woman in a bikini

The Art of Not Disappearing on Vacation: How to Maintain Muscle Mass Without Lifting

Imagine being in the midst of a bulking routine, and things are going super well—you’re gaining weight on the scale each week, steadily building muscle. But then, lo and behold, disaster strikes. And not just a run of the mill muscle disaster, like running out of trail mix, but the worst kind of disaster imaginable: a vacation.

And I’m not talking about one of those cushy vacations at a resort that includes a gym, I’m talking about one of those vacations where we’re forced to stop lifting weights entirely. 

For many of us, even just the thought of taking a break from our workout routines gets our hearts racing, our minds spiralling down into the depths of pure terror. Unfortunately, I’ve been there too. I know what you’re thinking:

In desperation, you might start googling around to learn more, but since only 3% of the population is trying to gain weight, good luck trying to find an article for people who are worried about losing weight when they stop working out.

So what do you do? Cancel your vacation? Do bodyweight workouts? Or take a break from lifting?

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The Best Lifts for Building Muscle

One of the most common questions we get asked is, “What exercise is best to grow my small chest (or arms, shoulders, abs, etc)?” It’s a surprisingly large question. Yes, some exercises tend to be better for activating certain muscle groups, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg:

  • Effectiveness: how well they build the target muscle groups
  • Efficiency: how many different muscles they bulk up at once
  • Learning curve: How easy they are to learn and master
  • Risk-to-reward ratio: How likely they are to strengthen versus injure us

So we’ve put together a guide showing you the best exercises for each muscle group. These exercises represent your best chance of safely building muscle as rapidly as possible for your experience level.

Dive in
Illustration of a skinny-fat guy holding his stomach.

The Skinny-Fat Workout & Diet Guide

Skinny-fat is when you’ve got a body-fat percentage of over 20% but still look skinny in a t-shirt. It’s when you’ve got skinny arms but still have fat around your belly. Why does that happen? Why are you gaining fat instead of muscle when you gain weight? And why are you losing muscle instead of fat when you lose weight?

It’s a confusing situation because it’s not clear whether you need to focus on bulking to build muscle or cutting to lose fat. As a result, some experts recommend body recomposition, where you gain muscle and lose fat while maintaining the same bodyweight. Is body recomposition the best approach for skinny-fat guys?

Finally, how should skinny-fat guys approach diet and exercise? What’s the best skinny-fat workout? What’s the best skinny-fat diet?

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The Skinny Guy’s Guide to Bulking Habits

Maybe you know that skinny guy who gets totally amped up to gain some weight and build muscle. He’s tried and given up in the past but blames his failure on not trying hard enough—on not having enough motivation. He starts off strong: hitting the gym 5 times a week, eating 100% clean (whatever that means to them), and spending hundreds of dollars on bizarro supplements that he read about on the Internet that even the supplement salesman is confused by.

A few weeks go by and after sacrificing so much in his life: time, energy, money… the scale hasn’t budged. Or maybe his weight even dropped because he cut out the easy calories he was getting from junk food.

Feeling disappointed and burnt out, he slowly stops going to the gym and throws in the towel.

Why does this keep happening? Some people might say that he didn’t have the grit or willpower to tough it out. But honestly, this guy has incredible willpower and motivation—that’s a brutal routine that many professional fitness models couldn’t even keep up. His willpower isn’t the problem. Anyone with that routine will either reach capacity and burn out, or switch their energy to something else—something new and exciting (new job, holidays, new relationship)… and then there’s no room left for the crazy muscle-building routine.

I’ve been that guy too many times to count. (And not just with building muscle, either.)

Us skinny guys aren’t even having a hard time building muscle because we’ve got bad genes, although that was an excuse I once used. No, us skinny guys are actually pretty great at building muscle!

In the Bony to Beastly Bulking Program, partially thanks to a phenomenon called newbie gains, the average member will gain ten pounds in the first five weeks and twenty within the first three months. You can see some examples of their muscle-building transformations here.

While this may sound crazy, especially if, like us, you’ve tried and failed to bulk up in the past… these results line up well with what’s found in research. The largest and most thorough muscle-building genetics study found that skinny guys build muscle faster than anyone else (study). Some guys in the study added two inches to their arms and doubled their strength in just the first three months.

Because we’re so far away from our genetic muscular potential, we’re able to build muscle at an accelerated pace.

So why do so many of us skinny guys fail at building muscle over and over again?

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Illustration showing the ideal body type for men.

The Skinny Guy’s Guide to Aesthetics: How to Build An Attractive Physique

Most men want to have an attractive physique. Trouble is, few know exactly what that means. When men guess the degree of muscularity women prefer, they’re off by thirty pounds (study). To make matters worse, some guys have an even deeper misunderstanding, failing to realize their appearance reflects their fitness and strength. They try to become more attractive on a purely superficial level, muscle by muscle. That rarely works. It’s never as convincing as the real thing.

So in this article, we’ll dive into attractiveness research, as well as two surveys we’ve done, each with over a thousand responses (survey 1, survey 2). First, we’ll cover the ideal degree of muscularity and the ideal body proportions. Then we’ll go over how strong you need to be to achieve different tiers of muscularity. Finally, we’ll talk about the law of diminishing returns and whether it’s possible to become too muscular. By the end, you’ll know exactly how to improve your appearance.

But be warned: this article is long. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, here’s a simple trick to improve your appearance: have a drink. It will boost your attractiveness (to yourself) by 50%. This is called “The Reverse Beer Goggles Effect,” also known as Beauty is in the Eye of the Beer Holder (study). It’s not a perfect solution, but it could save you a good half hour of reading.

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The Best Bulking Diet for Ectomorphs Isn’t a Diet at All

It can be hard to figure out what the best diet for ectomorphs is. When you search for the healthiest diets, you’ll find diets that are designed to help people lose weight. And that makes sense. After all, at least in the United States, the CDC estimates that only 1.9% of people are underweight. Wanting to gain weight is quite rare.

The reason the CDC cares about this stuff is because so many people are running into health problems from being overweight. As a result, most people need to adopt various diets to help them lose weight. This has become the standard recommendation for improving health: choose a diet that helps you lose weight.

In fact, the very term “dieting” implies that we should be restricting foods and calories to help us eat less. But what if we’re trying to gain weight? Do ectomorphs need an anti-diet?

Yes. We do.

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Illustration of a gallon of whole milk with a muscular bodybuilder on the front.

Should Skinny Guys Use Milk to Bulk Up? (GOMAD)

If you’re a naturally skinny guy who’s been having trouble bulking up, milk can often help. There’s a simple reason for that: by drinking more milk, you’ll be adding more calories and protein into your diet. Milk is also a rich source of nutrients that are helpful for guys who are trying to build muscle. Finally, milk is extremely easy on the appetite, making it easier for us ectomorphs to gain weight.

However, if you add too much milk into your diet, then you may find yourself gaining quite a bit of fat along with your muscle (study). Worse, since whole milk is so high in saturated fat, going overboard with it can cause you to store proportionally more visceral fat, which can negatively impact your longterm health (study). That’s why GOMAD, where you drink a gallon of whole milk every day, is so infamous for making guys fat.

You could avoid some of those problems by choosing low-fat milk, yes, but higher-fat milk has some unique muscle-building properties that you might want to take advantage of.

So, what’s the best way to bulk up with milk?

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Before and after photo showing Jared strengthening his postural muscles.

How to Transform Your Posture by Building Muscle

Posture is a tricky thing. There’s not much research to show that transforming our posture will improve your health or athletic performance. After all, what often happens is that our posture adapts to our lifestyle. If you play a sport that benefits from a certain posture, your posture will adapt to help you. For example, sprinters will often have hips that are tilted forward. Is that stereotypically good posture? No, but it makes them better sprinters.

The problem is, a lot of us spend most of our time sitting at desks, and so our bodies adapt to become even better at sitting at desks. Our bellies pop out (lordosis), our upper backs hunch over (kyphosis), our shoulders tilt inwards, and our neck juts forward. That may not cause us any problems, at least not right away, but it makes us look weak and unathletic, because we are.

If you took a look at the famous Hollywood sex icons, you’ll find some commonalities. They tend to have well-developed shoulders, chests, and upper backs. They often have abs. And they all stand tall and straight, projecting confidence and strength. They have great posture.

And it’s true. If you can transform your posture, you can improve your appearance. There’s no doubt about that. Having strong posture looks great.

But how do we do it? How can we transform our posture?

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How Many Meals Should You Eat Per Day While Bulking?

Bodybuilders used to think that they needed to eat five, six, or even seven meals per day while bulking. If you asked him why he was eating so often, he would tell you that he needed to stoke the metabolic fire, prevent muscle catabolism, keep his blood sugar levels steady, and keep his muscles fuelled with a steady supply of protein. Perhaps most importantly of all, he would tell you that he needed to prevent his body from going into starvation mode, which would cause him to store more body fat. That’s a lot to worry about, and most of it isn’t true.

Now that intermittent fasting is becoming popular, that idea is starting to die out. Instead of eating seven meals per day, it’s common for bodybuilders to experiment with eating as few as 1–3 meals per day. Now the idea is reversed. Those periods of fasting are good for limiting fat gain while bulking. But there’s a problem here, too. Going through periods of fasting slows down our muscle growth.

So. How many meals per day should you be eating while bulking? What meal frequency is going to produce the most muscle growth with the least amount of fat gain?

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