Illustration showing a skinny ectomorph having trouble with the barbell bench press.

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, 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.

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?
  • Which lifestyle intervention caused simultaneous muscle growth and fat loss?

All of those answers and more inside.

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Illustration of a skinny man building muscle.

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?

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Illustration of a skinny hardgainer's stomach.

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?
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Illustration of a doctor evaluating a skinny and a muscular man.

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.

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Illustration of a man doing a single-legged bodyweight pistol squat.

Most people build muscle by lifting free weights, and that’s certainly an easy way to do it, but it’s also possible to bulk up with just bodyweight workouts (aka calisthenics). If we put enough mechanical tension on our muscles, they will grow. That’s just as true with bodyweight workouts 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 and bulk up.

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Before and After Illustration of man building a thicker and more muscular neck.

Given that our specialty is 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 was fourteen inches around. A long way from the average man’s sixteen-inch neck. And even after gaining a full sixty pounds, my neck had only gone up to 14.5 inches.

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. However, neck training is ubiquitous in contact sports and martial arts, given that it reduces our risk of concussions, knockouts, and brain trauma. We can look at that research and then modify it for our own goal of building a thicker, stronger, and better-looking neck. And our neck will become more robust as a bonus.

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 do add over an inch to my neck circumference. We were then able to reproduce those results with members of our community.

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Illustration of men with varying leg sizes.

What’s the ideal male leg size? How often should we be squatting and deadlifting? How much emphasis should we put on leg training if our goal is to improve our health, general strength, and appearance? What’s interesting is that there are popular views at opposite ends of the spectrum:

  • Some aesthetics-oriented approaches have us spending more of our time doing upper-body training: more incline bench pressing, chin-ups, overhead pressing, and biceps curls. If lower-body training is included at all, it’s often lighter stuff, such as one-legged squats and Romanian deadlifts.
  • Some strength training programs tell us that we should focus our energy on getting stronger at the Big Three lifts: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. In those circles, it’s common for every single workout to start with a few sets of strenuous back squats. Is that a good way to build a strong and attractive physique?

If we’re trying to build strong, healthy, and attractive physiques, how big should our legs be? How often should we train them? And what lower-body lifts should we choose?

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Illustration of a muscular man doing biceps curls with resistance bands.

We have an article about how to build a barbell home gym and we’re about to publish one about how to build a much smaller, cheaper home gym with just dumbbells or kettlebells. Our motto has always been that we can help you build muscle with any sort of weights, whether that’s a full gym membership, a barbell and some plates, some adjustable dumbbells, or a couple of old kettlebells.

One question we often get, though, is why we don’t recommend resistance bands. Now, it’s not that we discourage people from getting them. We just don’t actively recommend them. And that’s weird, right? I mean, resistance bands are cheap and portable, and aren’t they just as good for building muscle? After all, to stimulate muscle growth, all we need to do is challenge our muscles … right?

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Illustration of a sick man who's lifting weights

Most of us know that working out, eating a good diet, and getting plenty of good sleep will improve our health. So why, then, whenever we start working out, do we keep getting sick. Isn’t working out supposed to make us healthier? Is getting sick every time we try to bulk up just an unavoidable part of our skinny curse?

Nothing can ruin the momentum of a good bulk like getting a cold, the flu, or—every skinny guy’s worst nightmare—the stomach flu. I can’t tell you many dozens of pounds I’ve lost to the stomach flu over the years. Getting sick while leading a sedentary life is bad enough, but it feels all the worse when we’re in the middle of a bulking routine. We lie there in fear, breathing through our mouths, certain that our muscles are being eaten away, but unable to muster the willpower to shovel down enough food to maintain our body weight.

Our bulks eventually resume, those pounds come back, and regaining muscle is a total breeze compared to gaining it in the first place. But still, better to never get sick in the first place.

Nothing will guarantee that we won’t get sick, but there are a few things we can do to reduce our risk.

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