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?

Before and after illustration of an ectomorph's progress as he gains muscle.

Introduction

Dan Ariely, our favourite behavioural economics researcher, believes that New Years Resolutions are an important marker for change because they offer us a fresh start. Perhaps we were skinny, skinny-fat, weak, or low-energy last year. But not this year. This year we’ve got a clean slate.

But our slate won’t stay clean for long. We’re all going to slip; we’re all going to “fail.” And that’s okay. That’s part of the process. What separates those who succeed from those who don’t is how we think of those failures. Do we think of a failure as a death blow, or is it just a setback that we need to overcome?

Is failure at the end of or in the middle of your story?

If we think of failure as a setback, then it’s just an opportunity for us to figure out what went wrong, what needs adjusting, and how to move forward more effectively.

Failure isn’t even the right word for it. The moment we stop thinking about change as binary—either as success or failure—but rather as a process that’ll evolve, the more likely we are to actually reach our goals.

So when looking at our bulking routines, we need to analyze them objectively. If our routine was failing, which part of it is holding us back? What piece is missing?

If our routine is working but is tough to maintain, what part was enjoyable and sustainable? What’s the part that’s actually responsible for our results? What’s useless filler that just wears us down?

If a routine is too hard to maintain, that doesn’t we should abandon it. Instead, we should trim it down into something we can manage. Keep what’s working, get rid of what isn’t.

Depending on what you’re doing, there’s a good chance there’s a bulking workout that’s less tiring but does a better job of stimulating muscle growth. (And if you’re curious about what makes a good bulking workout, check out our article about hypertrophy training.)

Similarly, being full doesn’t mean we ate enough calories, just that we ate a filling meal. Maybe there’s a less filling meal that provides more calories and nutrients or less filling snacks that we can have between our bigger meals.

Failure isn’t the end, it’s just a point that we pivot from.

This is how we gradually develop lifestyles that work for us—making things more effective, more enjoyable, easier. This is how we get to consciously decide who we want to become. Then eventually those habits become what we do automatically—subconsciously.

Can you imagine if every single day you subconsciously made good longterm decisions for yourself? What if working out and eating well was so easy that you didn’t even think about it? What if being muscular could be your natural comfortable way of being?

In the first part of this article, we’ll teach you how to adjust and overcome the challenges you’ll face in your first few weeks of building muscle. In the second part, we’ll teach you how to develop them into an enjoyable lifestyle so that you can still be rock-solid, huge and healthy ten years from now.

Bulking Habits Are Free

Think of establishing good habits as free goodness. They don’t tax your energy levels at all because they’re decision-free. If you turn something into a habit, that means it becomes unconscious, automatic, and that it no longer stresses you. It’s just something that you do on autopilot.

Admittedly, selling the idea that habits are your one-way ticket to muscleville isn’t very exciting. Many of us would rather search for the revolutionary bulking workout or magic bulking supplement to make us look like Wolverine in 72 hours instead.

What’s interesting is that even if you found a radical bulking routine that got you quick results, you’d still be selling yourself short. James Fell, a writer for TIME Magazine, recently interviewed Hugh Jackman, and it turns out that his routine is so brutal—several hours of intense training and 7,000 calories every day—that he’s only able to maintain it while filming. He lets his physique go to pot as soon as the filming stops. By the time Wolverine hit the theatres, Jackman was no longer a jacked man.

Now, you might look at that and think that in order to get those results, you need to put in that same amount of effort. Fortunately, that’s not true.

As a naturally skinny guy, you can bulk up with a few months of hard but reasonable work. Maybe three challenging bulking workouts every week, each about an hour long. Maybe a 500-calorie surplus, bringing your calorie intake from 2,500 up to 3,000 calories per day.

It’s not going to be easy, but it’s something that almost all of us can reasonably manage. It’s realistic.

Then, once you’ve bulked up, maintaining that physique is even easier. You can likely maintain your new physique with just a couple of workouts per week, maybe 45 minutes long, and they won’t need to be that challenging—you can lift within your comfort zone. After all, you won’t need to provoke new muscle growth anymore.

A maintenance diet is even easier. Bulking up usually means eating more calories than you want to eat. But maintaining a muscular physique means eating according to your appetite. (It might take a few months of consciously maintaining your weight while your body establishes a new “set point,” but once that’s done, you’ll naturally maintain your higher weight.)

When you run into a muscle-building setback—and you will—you’ll need to strategically adjust what you’re doing. Over time, if you adjust cleverly, you’ll gradually weed out the bad habits while adding new positive ones. You can take the more enjoyable, convenient and successful parts of your routine and cement them into lifelong habits. Being jacked becomes totally natural. And all your friends start complaining to their other friends about how easy you have it—about how you’re all ripped and energetic and don’t even seem to try.

There are a couple of necessary parts to consciously creating a new habit. It all starts with:

  1. Defining a concrete/tangible/reachable goal. (Perhaps gaining twenty pounds of muscle before summertime.)
  2. Using your willpower and motivation to lay down the foundation for a new habit.
  3. Honest and brutal accountability.
  4. Learning to strategically adjust your plan if needed.

Setting Realistic Bulking Goals

How Much Muscle Do You Want to Build?

Before you take a step forward towards reaching your goals, you need to figure out which direction is forward. The clearer, more concise and concrete your goal is, the better.

It’s not enough to say you want to build muscle. How much muscle? 15 pounds? 20 pounds? 30 pounds? Once you know, you can make a clear and detailed plan on how to get there.

Let’s say you want to gain 20 pounds in 20 weeks. Great, so you need to gain one pound every week. And every week, you can weigh yourself to see how you’re doing. If you gained a pound, keep doing what you’re doing. But if you gained less than a pound, you know you need to find a way to eat more calories the following week.

Think of your goal as a mountain in the distance. If the weather is clear, you know exactly which direction to head to keep making progress. Introduce a bit of fog and you’re doomed. Even a small bit of fog can obscure the goal, allowing you to veer off the path.

The problem is, if your bulking goal is vague, like “get strong” or “become muscular” or “get abs”—how do you measure that? How do you know when you’re progressing and should stay the course? How do you know when you need to re-evaluate your workout routine, or diet, or lifestyle? How do you know when you’ve reached a huge milestone and should reward yourself for a job well done?

How Long Will it Take to Build That Muscle?

If you feel like you know everything you need to about building muscle but haven’t really started, you need to get clearer with your goals. In the incredible book Switch, by Chip & Dan Heath, they make a great point: what’s sometimes seen as resistance is just a lack of clarity. Clarity dissolves resistance.

You can apply these same principles to building muscle.

  • No weight gain this week? You aren’t in a calorie surplus. You need to consume more calories.
  • Gained some fat this week? You’re consuming too large of a calorie surplus for your lifestyle. Perhaps you need a better training program, better nutrition choices, more protein, or a smaller calorie surplus.
  • Couldn’t make it to the gym for all three workouts? Maybe you need to workout in the morning to make sure it happens, build a simple home gym instead, make your workouts more efficient, or introduce some accountability.
  • Haven’t started because you have no idea where to start? Think about buying a good muscle-building workout and diet program that takes care of all that for you.

When you’ve made your goal defined and concrete, there’s nothing left but to just do it.

Don’t let endless research or decision paralysis wear you down or kill your motivation. You’ve probably already spent too much time reading about this stuff—time that could have been spent doing this stuff. Keep researching after you’ve started. This stuff will all make far more sense then, and you’ll be motivated by what you’re seeing in the mirror to keep learning and keep lifting.

The hardest yet most important thing when it comes to exercising and eating well is to actually start doing it. It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to start happening.

Make a clear goal that you can reach relatively soon, write it down and put it on your fridge to remind yourself every day. Some ideas to start are:

  • Train 3x a week for one month.
  • Gain twenty pounds of muscle in five months.
  • Literally explode your pants into pieces with a simple flex of your glutes.

The Willpower to Eat & Work Out

Kickstarting New Habits With Willpower

You’re going to need to make some changes to your current lifestyle to reach your goals. Making those changes will require some effort—some willpower. Doing the same thing over and over again (a habit) is easy, but making these changes is tough. It’s easy to put off building a home gym or scouting out the neighbourhood gym. It’s easy to put off finding a good bulking program. It’s easier to go to the grocery store tomorrow.

Willpower is how you override desires that aren’t in line with your longterm goals. For example, maybe you need to use willpower to stop playing video games and go to the gym. It’s also how you motivate yourself to do something that you feel too tired to do, such as going to the gym after a long day at work.

According to Switch, every single decision you make—even ones as small as what to wear in the morning—slowly deplete your willpower. This explains why even relatively simple things, like shopping, can be draining.

If you haven’t hit the gym before, you’ll need to sign up for one even if you think you’ll feel out of place there. Or build a home gym. And try not to get your home gym from the side of the road, as Shane did:

home-gym-rack-be-safe

If you’re not currently gaining weight, you’ll need to scheme up a way to eat more food (article on that here).

If you don’t feel good or feel low energy, you may need to eat more micronutrients (whole foods containing vitamins, minerals and fibre), eat more carbohydrates or get some more quality sleep.

Shrinking the Change, Swapping, And Realizing You’re Only Human

While 46% of people making New Years Resolution are keeping up with them after 6 months (study) another study by the same researcher, John Norcross, found only 19% of people were still with them two years later (study).

It’s not because their goals weren’t worthwhile or because they were unattainable. It’s because we assume that since we’re motivated now that our willpower will last forever.

It won’t, and we need to anticipate that.

We’re hyper-aware of where we need to improve. It can be easy to make a list of 15 items that need to change now. But we really only have space in our life for one major lifestyle change at a time—if that. Sometimes people even need to deprioritize another area of their life to make room for new priorities.

So what can you do when you’ve only got so much willpower?

Shrinking the Change

If you want to gain 50 pounds of muscle while losing a tiny bit of fat around the belly while doing cardiovascular exercise 5 times a week… those are all great things, but will likely end in failure.

Prioritize and shrink it down to just one goal, fully achieve it, progress to the next step. That way you can accomplish everything in succession rather than failing at everything all at once.

Let’s say you decide to order a pair of dumbbells from Amazon and start lifting three times per week in front of the TV. Next month, when that is easy and part of your life, then start adding in a bunch of calories. Once that’s easy, worry more about the quality of your lifting and the quality of your calories. A couple of months and a couple of dozen pounds of muscle later, you could start adding in some more off-day activities like sports or swimming. By the end of the year, you’ll be a lean mean health machine.

Change takes time and the more you realize the limits of your body and how to stay within them, the better chance you’ll have to stick with it. Once you can learn to actually accomplish lasting lifestyle changes that aren’t taxing your willpower, that’s when you’ll see results that effortlessly last forever.

(Maintaining muscle is also 1,000% times easier than building muscle, so don’t expect being perma-full and sore and all that stuff to be a lasting part of your life—it won’t be. You wouldn’t even need to lift three times per week.)

When Shane and I were planning our “Lean to Mean” experiment the idea of losing three hours a week to lifting heavy things and chugging protein shakes didn’t sound like fun to the sedentary and skinny version of me.

So we set a 30 day limit on eating well and working out which made the commitment way less daunting. I wasn’t giving up my entire future life, just a few hours a week for a month.

muscle-may-ectomorph-transformation-jared-polowick

At the end of that month, I’d gained over 30 pounds, felt amazing, and was eager to keep going. The next month was much easier. Soon we started finding ways to streamline our plan—making it more fun, more efficient, more delicious. Nowadays it’s easier to be muscular than to not be muscular.

Swap—Don’t Add or Remove. 

Let’s say you like to snack on junk food (Doritos anyone?) before bed—a behaviour you’ve been meaning to change. Let’s say you also have trouble eating enough to build muscle. And let’s say you also eat too little protein to build muscle well. A clever way to accomplish all of your goals would be to swap something muscle-buildy into that junk food habit cycle.

why-skinny-guys-cant-gain-muscle-habits-willpower-accountability-swap-chips

Since you’ll need more calories, removing the snack—in this case, Doritos (an easy source of calories)—from your diet isn’t going to help you. Instead, you need more healthful calories and more protein. You need a better snack. So an option would be to dip your Doritos into a small bowl of plain Greek yogurt for some added calories, protein, micronutrients, and deliciousness.

If you like drinking milk and need some more calories, just swap out that regular 1% or 2% for a higher fat whole milk. Need even more calories and micronutrients? Mix in some cocoa.

For swaps like these ones almost no willpower is needed. This leaves willpower available to focus on the harder stuff—like waking up early to go to the gym before work or training in your basement after a long day at school.

Change Your Surroundings

Some people can’t eat wholesome foods unless all the junk foods are removed from their house. Other people don’t make it to the gym because it’s too long a drive.

If you’re running low on willpower, why not change your surroundings instead of yourself? If signing up for a gym membership is too inconvenient or too stressful, buy some adjustable dumbbells and lift at home.

If you feel too tired to cook every night, cook in bulk Sunday afternoon. If you can’t handle large serving sizes, snack more during the day. If you forget to snack (as is common for us skinny guys), put a big bowl of delicious nuts or dried fruit on your desk, making it instinctive to snack throughout the day. Even better if it’s in a clear bowl (study).

bulk-meals-cooking-for-a-week-lean-gain

Once you change the environment, these changes will be willpower-free, leaving your willpower available for other things.

Exhaustion and Laziness are Different

If you feel lazy, maybe you’re exhausted. You will need to honestly judge yourself, but when you’re feeling lazy… are you actually lazy or just completely exhausted?

If you’re exhausted, something in your life needs to change. You may need to eat more wholesome foods to give your body what it needs to function properly, you may need more restful sleep (members, great post on that here), or eliminate useless stressors in your life.

Don’t beat yourself up by thinking you’re too lazy to get off your butt when it could be the complete opposite. Get smart about it instead.

If you’re already feeling low-energy, lifting weights may seem like another energy-sapping activity… but people who exercise develop more energy and more willpower than people who don’t. To start it might take a bit of energy to develop the habit, but once you’re used to it, you cash in on the energy investment. This is why lifting makes such a great first step.

Make Building Muscle More Enjoyable

You need to develop a lifestyle that includes solid exercise and good foods. But that doesn’t mean you need to eat bland, expensive or inconvenient superfoods all day long. The meals you cook should be quick to prepare and fit easily inside your schedule, they should be made up of foods you already enjoy, and they should be well within your budget.

Ectomorph Muscle-Building Vice Guide: Pizza

Sleep Builds Muscle & Replenishes Willpower

When you wake up after a good sleep you have 100% willpower. The moment you make a decision like deciding between eating a bowl of cereal or having a protein smoothie, you’ve already used up a small piece of your willpower for the day. This is why many successful people like Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Obama wear/wore the same outfit every day to make their mornings as decision-free as possible.

Some people have very taxing jobs that require them to make a lot of decisions, and they understandably feel completely drained by the time they get home. If you fall into that camp, one option is hitting the gym before work. That way you’ll have full willpower to draw from to ensure you get there. Not only that but there are some mental clarity benefits you’ll get throughout the day from exercising (study).

There’s an age-old saying that you should sleep on big decisions. This makes sense, as it allows you to make decisions with full willpower. At the end of the day, when your body is exhausted you will always pick the short-term option. This affects any important decision you’ll make in your life: eating well, working out, saving money, quitting drugs, quitting smoking, etc.

In Willpower by Tierney/Baumeister, the authors share that research has found that sleep deprivation has been shown to impair your willpower. Baumeister believes that in order to get the most out of your willpower, you should use some of it to set aside time for quality sleep.

As a bonus, getting enough good sleep will help you build muscle around 30% faster, and it will keep your gains leaner, too. So not only are you getting extra willpower, you’re also getting better bulking results.

How to Replenish Your Willpower

If you’re feeling drained, how can you replenish your willpower? Getting more sleep is the best method. But aside from sleeping—calories!

Your brain uses a lot of energy. Researchers think that upwards of 20% of your daily calorie intake is used up by your brain (study, article). More specifically, your brain uses glucose. Glucose is just a simple energy unit—the type of sugar our body likes to use and store (in the form of glycogen). Some foods are also made out of glucose—dextrose, maltodextrin, potatoes, rice, etc. Glucose delivery is an essential part of willpower. Researcher Todd Heatherton famously found that consuming glucose reversed the brain changes wrought by depletion (article).

So what happens when you don’t have enough available glucose in your system? Your brain doesn’t just shut off when it’s not getting the energy it needs from food (thankfully). Rather, it switches into “energy saving mode”, which basically means you’ll resist doing any high-energy stuff—you’ll probably default to watching something on Netflix. When you’re exhausted, this allows your body to keep up with your deeper processes, like breathing.

This means that when you’re exhausted you won’t feel like hitting the gym, you can’t write your best chapter for your novel or learn a new instrument, and even insignificant decisions become hard to make. Like whether you want to eat frozen pizza or chicken strips.

How Glucose Affects Willpower

There are many examples from Willpower about how important your body’s ability to deliver steady delivery of glucose is. In one study they reference, below-average glucose levels were found in 90% of juvenile delinquents just taken into custody.

Even driving while sick is more dangerous than driving while mildly intoxicated. This is because taking care of your body takes precedent over your activities, so your body dedicates glucose/energy to fight off the germs… leaving less for your brain. (Evidently our immune systems don’t understand the dangers of driving.) The reason we sleep so much when we have a cold is perhaps to reserve the glucose in our system for fighting germs.

Now here’s the cruel catch-22 for most of the Western world. They want to lose weight, so they need to eat less food, and they need willpower in order to do it… but because they’re eating less food, they have less willpower. Our bodies can also grow “addicted” to junk food laced with sugar since it knows it’s a great hit of instant energy. So we’ll actually start to crave sweet things when we’re feeling exhausted. This is why people become grouchy while they’re cutting—they don’t have as much self-control as they normally do.

As skinny guys, though, this is amazing news. We need to eat more to fuel our muscle growth but those extra calories won’t just turn into bigger guns, they’ll give us the fuel we need to keep up with our new routines. This makes it easier to make healthy choices like cooking our own food and hitting the gym.

If you know you need some willpower in a pinch, have a Coke or a Gatorade. Generally, though, the best way to ensure a dependable and predictable amount of willpower is to eat lots of nutritious bulking foods with lots of good nutrients in them and maintain a healthy body-fat percentage (not really much concern there for us skinny guys) for a steady stream of willpower and energy throughout the day.

Celebrating Small Wins

There will be rough patches in whatever you pursue. Plan for it, brace yourself, and always remind yourself how far you’ve progressed. If you gain ten pounds, but then catch a cold and lose two pounds… you’re still up eight pounds!

It’s important to remind yourself that what you’re doing is worthwhile and that if you don’t reach your goal, that it has nothing to do with your self-worth. If you slip or lapse, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure—it just means something in your plan needs to be strategically adjusted.

If during your first week of working out you only make it to the gym twice… that’s still two more workouts than normal, and more than enough to grow. Realize that you can’t reach 100% compliance overnight and instead focus on what’s working (keep doing that) and continue to tweak what you’re doing.

When you reach a big goal that you have, like gaining 20 pounds, don’t bail on the celebration part! Follow through with the reward. Otherwise, you’re just manipulating your willpower into something more like a torture device—perpetual denial of pleasure in the present moment.

Emotional Fuel For That Final Push

When your willpower is nearly empty and you’re feeling drained, you’ll have less self-control and become more emotional. Your emotions affect you both positively and negatively, but you can turn them into fuel for your physical pursuits.

You can lean on positive emotions like hope, enthusiasm, happiness, surprise, joy, contentment, pride and love to motivate yourself to reach your goals. Positive emotions encourage learning and curiosity—perfect for new experiences and change. You can start by believing you’re up to the challenge of creating a better, stronger, healthier future and to remind yourself of the blessing that you have a healthy able body that you can train to grow bigger and stronger.

Understandably, people don’t like using “negative” emotions for motivation—emotions like pain, anger, fear, dismay, disgust, shame, etc. But we need them to be a well-rounded human. They help us navigate the world safely. They can be like putting blinders on—forcing us to become extremely focused and determined. No one is thinking about what they’re eating for dinner when they’re they’re lost in a dangerous neighbourhood in the middle of the night.

Using emotions like anger can help motivate us to adapt. For example, if we hit the gym consistently yet our weight stays the same on the scale at the end of the week (argh, again) you can use that anger to help you add a protein shake to your breakfast, eat a bit more past fullness than you normally would, or track your calories more diligently.

Martin Seligman, a famous psychologist, puts it this way: “If you have a stone in your shoe and it hurts, you’ll fix the problem.”

Muscle-Building Habits

Automating the Good Things in Your Life

Many people don’t choose their habits. Rather, they just sort of “fall” into them because they’re the easiest route in the short-term. One study found that we spend about 45% of our day executing habits – almost half of our lives are spent doing regular ol’ things that we likely didn’t decide to do and aren’t even thinking about!

One of the reasons we naturally fall into our habits is to reduce the number of daily decisions in our lives. This is good—very good. It frees up willpower and decision-making power for other things. If you go to work as a habit, you can use your willpower to motivate you to go to the gym. When going to the gym becomes a habit, you can then use your willpower for something else.

Yet we often hear people talk more about bad habits rather than good ones.

This makes sense. Bad habits are a huge deal. Five of the top health risks in the US are from repeated, habitual actions: drug abuse, obesity, smoking, risky sexual behaviours, and not exercising enough (study).

Establishing good habits is the only way you will find success long-term. You can build muscle quickly at first, allowing you to make very rapid and encouraging progress during your first few months of (smart) lifting and nutrition… but depending on your ideal fitness goals, it could take several years of smart, focused training to reach your ultimate goals.

Eric Helms—calisthenics versus weights for naturally building muscle as a skinny guy / ectomorph

To reach the physique of a natural bodybuilder like Eric Helms, for example, it could take upwards of a decade of lifting, eating and sleeping well.

Your motivation, however strong it is right now, will surely wane before then. Instead of using your motivation poorly (doing weeks of intense research without beginning a routine, doing a super intense training program that fully depletes your willpower, etc), use your motivation, starting today, to help set up a manageable, enjoyable and sustainable lifestyle that you can carry on for a few weeks and gradually turn into an enjoyable habit-driven lifestyle.

That is how you accomplish an enormous transformation that spans months and even years.

Converting Willpower Into Bulking Habits

In The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, he writes that researchers from MIT discovered the neurological loop for habits. The loop is: Cue, Routine, Reward. He has a great PDF for free on his website that delves deeper.

beastly-gym-training-weights-habit-loop

It’s generally very hard to break bad habits, so it’s best to program new better ones to replace them. The cue is what tells your body to do this action. According to Duhigg, a cue could fit into one of these categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, etc. It could be something like “I always hit the gym after having a coffee”, so once you’re done with the coffee, that’s the cue. Some people work out in the morning and set up their gym bag by the door at night, that way when they wake up and see the gym bag by the door, it’s their cue to initiate the habit—to head to the gym.

The routine is the actual action—in this case, the lifting part.

The reward is necessary for the habit to stick. Over time, working out will become its own reward. The endorphins from working out, energy boosts, feeling better, the strength improvements, looking better—these will be the reward. But all of us know that starting to work out can be difficult. You feel physically tired from the exercise, you feel mentally tired from having to use your willpower, your muscles become sore since your muscles aren’t used to working out, and you lose some time in your day. Having a reward is important to keep you going strong until the longer term benefits start to kick in.

Here are a couple of ideas for a post-workout reward, but pick something specific for yourself that you really love:

  • Having a snack that you love but don’t normally eat, like cookies or ice cream
  • If you love movies, watching a movie to relax post-workout
  • If you’re a naturally very-busy guy, give yourself some time to rest like having a bath after training. (The man version of a bubble bath is an epsom salt bath, but any kind of bath will do!)

Habits Glue Us to Our Bulking Routines

Habits are like glue. They help us stick to our routines, but they also take a while to set. How long do we have to consciously will ourselves to do something before it becomes a habit? A 2009 study found the average amount of time to establish automaticity was 66 days, with 18 days being the shortest time. Every time you go through the habit loop, it’ll get easier and easier to repeat.

In that sense, a habit is like glue—the longer you’ve kept it up, the harder it is to pull off. This is why it’s so hard to break bad habits… and why our good habits never seem to stick. Sometimes we lose motivation and burn out before the glue can set into a habit.

For those wondering, doing something every day is not necessary to form a habit, so sticking to the three hour-long weightlifting workouts per week that we recommend is perfectly fine.

Workout & Diet Accountability

The Ulysses Contract

Let’s say you had a particularly tough day at work. Your willpower has been momentarily exhausted. Normally you can use your willpower to hit the gym, but today you don’t have any left. If you had the choice, you’d just order in some take-out food, sit back and watch something on Netflix. Most people do have a choice, so they skip the gym.

But you don’t have a choice. You can’t sit back and skip the gym. A few days ago when you had more willpower, you gave your buddy Dave $50 in cash and told him that he was free to spend it if you didn’t hit the gym 3x a week for a month. If you meet that goal at the end of the month he gives the money back.

Now you’re faced with two options. Do you go to the gym even though you’re tired, or do you go through the pain of losing 50 bucks? You’ll probably choose the less painful option—the gym. And good on you, for you’ll be sacrificing present mediocrity for longer-term health, strength & happiness. After a good night’s sleep, with your willpower fully replenished, you’ll be glad that you made the right choice.

Without the accountability of the cash in place though, when we’re exhausted we’ll always default to the less painful route. Usually, this means lazing around at home eating junk food that’s easy to prepare (or order). Many studies found that even people who are extremely disciplined when it comes to their future, once you wear down their willpower to the point of exhaustion, they will always favour the present moment.

This accountability system is called a “Ulysses contract”. It’s when a person freely makes a decision to bind their future self.

We used accountability in the Lean to Mean Experiment—my first 30 days of (successful) muscle-building. Shane and I were roommates, and, because we’re huge fans of Dan Ariely’s research, we set up an accountability jar. If we missed a workout it meant we had to put $10 in the jar. A missed meal was $5. Then we set a 30-day deadline for the contract so that we knew the pain wasn’t going to last forever, allowing us to go a little harder on ourselves.

I failed to have a couple of meals on super busy days (we were starting our design business at the same time) and ended up losing a bit of money. But the pain of the cost was enough to get me to hit the gym 3x a week and finish my half-eaten bowls of chili that I normally would have abandoned.

The next month, fifty pounds heavier between us, both Shane and I signed up for continuing on with the jar for another 30 days. During that second month, we didn’t fail once. Our big eating and gym-going had already transformed into a habit. We decided to keep going with our transformation for another month, but we abandoned the jar because we no longer needed it.

Make your goals public. It’s a lot easier to rationalize another slip as “not too big a deal” if you’re the only person who knows about your muscle-building challenge. It’s awesome when our members post introductions and their goals on the forum. We even have some guys checking in with one another to see if they’re following through.

Don’t make the amount too little or it won’t motivate you. You want it to be just high enough to hurt a bit. (But don’t make it so pricey it’ll ruin your life!)

Summary

If you take one thing away from this article, it’s to stop thinking about change as being an all or nothing kind of thing. Change is not like an Oreo. If you’ve missed a few workouts in a row, that’s the perfect reason to get back in there, not a reason to label your muscle-building efforts a failure.

If you’ve failed to gain weight the past few weeks, that’s common. Most skinny guys have a hard time gaining weight. That doesn’t mean you’ve failed, it just means you need to find a way to add more calories into your diet. We’ve all been there, struggled, and fought past it. You can, too.

Before and after illustration of a skinny guy building muscle and gaining weight.

To recap, here’s how you build good bulking habits:

  • Pick one tangible & realistic goal. For the average skinny guy, a good bulking goal is to gain 20 pounds in 20 weeks. That’s fast enough to produce a remarkable change, but slow enough that your muscle gains will be fairly lean. (Or, if you’ve been struggling with being skinny-fat, try gaining 10 pounds in 20 weeks instead.)
  • Make it easy to start towards your goal, and make gradual changes—not radical ones. The very first step is to start lifting weights 3 times per week. Your workout routine doesn’t need to be perfect. Neither does your exercise technique. Just start working out. It’s okay to be a beginner. You’ll get better over time.
  • Change things in your environment to make it easier to stick to your goal. Fill your cupboards with trail mix, keep a supply of protein powder and protein bars on hand, and fill your glove box with snacks.
  • Focus on getting enough sleep. The more good sleep you get, the more willpower you’ll have, and the easier it will be to establish good workout and diet habits.
  • Aim to do whatever it takes to make your lifestyle change automatic and habitual. Instead of waking up every day or two and trying to motivate or convince your self to work out, just follow a plan. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, you go to the gym. Every day, you hit your calorie and protein goals. Every night, an alarm tells you when it’s time to gear down for bed. Automate it. Build bulking habits.
  • If you’re tired of being skinny and desperate to build muscle, take this seriously. Use an accountability tactic. Bet on yourself. If you miss a workout, that means giving a dear friend or bitter enemy $20. Or $50. Or $100. Whatever makes it hurt enough that you won’t skip your workouts. Do the same thing with your calorie and protein goals. Hell, do the same thing with your bedtime.
  • Every time you gain weight, every time you successfully add weight to the bar, every time you finish another good month of bulking—celebrate! You’re winning! You’ve got this! Enjoy your success.

One final bonus tip is to use the ‘Seinfeld’ trick. Jerry knows he didn’t invent this one, but it’s a great tip he’s credited with. Go buy a physical calendar and pin it up where you’ll see it every day. When you accomplish your goal for the day, make a big red X on the day to cross it off, and never break the chain. If you’re working out 3x a week, you can mark your rest day with a nice big red X if you continue to reach your calorie/protein goals for the day.

If there is any way we can help you reach your goals, let us know. Our program may help. We wish you the best of luck with your ongoing beastly journey—we’re all rooting for you! 🙂

Jared Polowick, BDes, has a degree in design from York University. He co-founded Bony to Beastly, Bony to Bombshell, and Outlive, where he translates complex academic research reviews about strength, fat loss, and health into easy-to-read and visual formats that anyone can understand.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and is a certified trainer (PTS) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and general health, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.