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.

Illustration of a skinny ectomorph building muscle and becoming muscular.

How Much Muscle Can an Ectomorph Gain in a Year?

Before we can talk about how much muscle ectomorphs can build, we need to understand what sets us apart from the average guy. The main difference is that by the time the average man reaches adulthood, he’s naturally accumulated a fair amount of muscle mass on his frame, partly due to his genetics, partly due to the fact that he’s probably a bit overweight. That means that compared to us ectomorphs, he’s already far closer to his genetic muscular potential.

When the average guy makes newbie gains, he’ll be able to gain around two pounds of muscle per month, which, to be clear, is an incredible rate of muscle growth. As ectomorphs, though, many of us can dwarf those newbie gains:

Now, to be clear, your results will surely vary. Everyone has a different frame, different muscle shapes, and a slightly different genetic potential. You can see a wider variety of ectomorph bulking transformations here, but even then, you shouldn’t expect to get the same results as anyone else.

The point we’re trying to make is that, on average, the skinnier a guy is, the more quickly he’ll be able to build muscle.

How is that possible, though? Doesn’t the research disprove this? The research shows that the average guy can gain about two pounds per month. There are studies showing far greater rates of muscle growth than that, but, at least on average, most experts agree that a lifter following a good bulking program can realistically expect to gain about two pounds of muscle per month.

However, the research also shows that rates of muscle growth vary highly from person to person. While gaining two pounds of muscle per month may be the average, some guys are able to gain muscle up to three times as quickly (study).

If we look at GK’s before and after photos, instead of gaining two pounds of muscle per month, he’s appearing to gain more like six pounds. Mind you, not all of his weight gain is muscle. At least a few of those pounds are other forms of lean mass—denser bones, more connective tissue, and so on—and surely there’s some fat in there as well. Still, he’s gaining muscle far more quickly than the average guy could ever hope to.

Do Hardgainers Gain Muscle More Slowly?

Don’t hardgainers have worse muscle-building genetics? When I first started trying to build muscle, I assumed that being skinny meant that I wouldn’t be able to build muscle very quickly. That was confirmed by the fact that I was trying everything I could to gain weight and still couldn’t get the damn scale to budge.

Furthermore, the term “hardgainer” is sometimes used to describe someone who struggles to gain muscle. The way we use the term, though, a hardgainer is someone who struggles to gain weight. 

I know that sounds like a weird distinction to make, given that bulking up requires gaining both body weight and muscle mass. However, our struggle to gain weight has little to do with our muscle-building genetics and more to with hardgainers having higher metabolisms and smaller appetites/stomachs.

In my case, at least, I wasn’t failing to build muscle because I was having a poor response to lifting weights. Rather, I was failing to build muscle because I wasn’t gaining any weight overall. I wasn’t able to eat enough calories to bulk up. It was a diet issue.

Once we learn how to eat enough calories, skinny guys tend to respond incredibly well to lifting weights. With a proper bulking program, we’re often able to exceed all the expected rates of muscle growth even while keeping our gains fairly lean.

Hardgainers Start With Less Muscle Mass

Although we don’t gain muscle more slowly, we do start off with less of it. A study published in 2000 in the Journal of Applied Physiology determined that the average man weighs around 200 pounds and has about 80 pounds of muscle mass on his frame (study). Over the course of his life, he might be able to add another forty pounds of muscle to that, accumulating 120 pounds of muscle overall.

A naturally skinny guy, on the other hand, might only weigh 130 pounds. He’ll likely have slightly thinner bones, a narrower frame, and a smaller stomach, which accounts for some of the weight difference, but most of the weight difference is due to the fact that he’s carrying far less muscle and fat. Obviously there are different degrees of hardgainers, but for the sake of this example, let’s say that the hardgainer only has around forty pounds of muscle by the time he reaches adulthood. He’s starting behind the starting line.

Muscle Growth Has a “Catch-Up” Mechanic

If you read our newbie gains article, then you know that the further away from our genetic potential we are, the faster we’re able to grow. This is because the slow part of building muscle is the process of adding more nuclei to our muscle fibres, like so:

Newbies don’t need to do that. When we’re far enough away from our genetic potential, the nuclei in our muscle fibres are still capable of managing larger areas, meaning that we can gain muscle without needing to increase the number of nuclei in our muscles fibres, like so:

Admittedly, this example is oversimplified, and there are other known factors that contribute to the slowing rate of muscle growth as well (such as the repeated bout effect). The main takeaway here, though, is that our muscles grow quickly at first, and then as we get closer to our genetic potential, our rate of muscle growth slows. We get progressively diminishing returns:

However, given that we’re starting so far away from our genetic potential—and here’s where a bit of speculation comes in—we’re starting at the best possible point on the growth curve: right at the very beginning.

This seems to explain why guys who are starting out thinner than average are able to build muscle at such a tremendous pace. I suspect that our muscle growth trajectory looks more like this:  

Muscular Genetic Potential for Ectomorphs

Now we’ve arrived at the issue of our genetic muscular potential. As naturally skinny hardgainers, how far away from our genetic potential are we? After all, it doesn’t matter how close to the average genetic potential we are, it matters how closer to our genetic potential we are.

The best researcher looking into this question is Casey Butts, PhD, who found that the genetic muscular potential of a hardgainer is about 5–10% lower than the average man (due to having thinner bones and smaller frames). So if the average man can hold around 120 pounds of muscle, us hardgainers can expect to hold about 108–114 pounds of muscle.

That’s a genetic disadvantage, sure, but not a significant one. In fact, given how few people get anywhere even close to reaching their genetic potential, there’s nothing stopping us from becoming far stronger and more muscular than almost every other man we come across.

Our 130-pound ectomorph beginner, though, still only has forty pounds of muscle. That means that he still has 68–74 pounds of muscle to gain before he starts butting up against his genetic potential. That’s an absolutely insane amount of muscle that he can gain over the course of his lifetime, most of which he could theoretically gain during his first couple years of proper bulking.

Compared to the other male body types, yes, ectomorphs start off with less muscle, but our genetics aren’t nearly as limiting as most of us think they are. With some heavy metal and protein shakes, we’re able to completely transform our physiques.

As we showed above, it’s almost like ectomorphs get multiple rounds of newbie gains, allowing us to catch up to other guys incredibly quickly. At that point, through cleverness and a good work ethic, we have every opportunity to blow past them.

How Quickly Can Ectomorphs Gain Muscle?

Skinny guys can gain muscle quickly at first. However, the more muscle that we gain, the more our growth will slow. The law of diminishing returns will starting kicking in. Eventually, those kicks will get quite painful.

We have our ectomorph newbie gains, where we bulk up insanely quickly. This often allows us to shoot past the average non-lifter. Here’s a remarkable example of that:

Then, because we’re no longer skinny, we have more typical newbie gains, where most of us can expect to gain around two pounds per month without a noticeable increase in body-fat percentage. This usually allows us to catch up to the other casual lifters over the course of a year or so, earning us a totally athletic and attractive physique.

Here’s an example of the progress some ectomorphs can make with just a single year of lifting:

Once we reach an intermediate bulking level, we can expect to start gaining muscle at a slower rate. It also becomes hard to add more muscle mass. We need to start following especially well-programmed lifting routines as well as actively overcoming plateaus. This is also where we might need to start bringing up weak or lagging muscle groups.

The good news is that by the time our progress really begins to slow, we’re already quite strong and muscular, and we’ve hopefully developed good skills, knowledge, and habits. Yes, it takes longer to see further improvements, but we already look and feel awesome, so there’s less urgency to it. For example, here’s JoeBrusk going from having an awesome physique to having an incredible physique:

Compared to Dan gaining thirty pounds in ten weeks, gaining an estimated eight pounds of muscle over the course of five months might not sound like a lot, but that’s actually quite rapid progress for someone who’s already built such a solid foundation.

Now, again, keep in mind that these are specific examples. Your results will surely vary. Everyone gains muscle a little differently.

Okay, now let’s talk about strength standards for ectomorphs.

How Strong Can an Ectomorph Get With a Year of Lifting?

Most ectomorphs are able to laugh at the muscle growth standards, shooting way past them. With average male strength standards, though, we have the opposite problem: they seem totally unrealistic. Why do we keep hearing that within our first year of lifting, we should be able to bench press over 225 pounds? That’s insane!

Illustration of a man doing a barbell bench press.

So, first of all, where do these strength standards come from? As far as I can tell, the most credible source that’s looked into this is Greg Nuckols, MA, from Stronger by Science (an incredible strength training blog). He took a survey of his readers, all of whom are serious about both powerlifting and science, but who ranged from beginners all the way up to advanced lifters. He found that within a year of serious lifting, the average guy was able to bench press 235 pounds. Furthermore, Greg mentions that with proper workout programming and coaching, most guys should be able to do even better than that.

However, we also need to consider how much these guys were able to bench press when they started lifting. In this case, the men started off benching around 188 pounds. So within their first year of lifting, they only added 50 pounds to the bar. They were adding less than five pounds to the bar each month. This is an “aha” moment for a lot of us skinny guys.

It’s not that ectomorphs gain strength more slowly, it’s that we start off behind the starting line. In fact, similar to how we can build muscle far more quickly than the average guy, we can also gain strength far more quickly. It just takes a little while for us to catch up.

To Match Strength, We Must Match Muscle

The main thing to keep in mind when thinking about our genetic strength potential is that it’s closely tied to our muscular potential. In order to reach our strength potential, we first need to reach our muscular potential. Fortunately, strength and size are a happy couple that enjoys strolling hand in hand along the beach. Most things that increase strength can also increase muscle mass, and vice versa.

When we’re looking at this 235-pound target, we need to keep in mind that we’re talking about the average man here, and the average man is starting off with roughly 80 pounds of muscle mass. Then, during his first year of lifting, he can make it up to around 100 pounds of overall muscle mass. That means that he only needs to bulk up his chest musclestiny bit in order to have the horsepower he needs to bench 235 pounds.

Illustration of a skinny ectomorph doing the bench press with long arms and a thin ribcage.

So to understand why our strength is starting off so much lower, we need to consider how much muscle mass we’re starting off with. Consider the 130-pound ectomorph from our example. He’s only starting with forty pounds of muscle, so he doesn’t have anywhere close to the amount of muscle mass required to bench press 185 pounds, let alone 235.

As a naturally skinny guy, I mean, I don’t know about you, but when I first started bench pressing, I was benching fifty pounds for six reps. Rounding up, that puts my estimated one-rep max at 60 pounds. Worse, I wasn’t even able to bring the barbell down to my chest. Technically, I couldn’t even get a single rep with the 45-pound bar.

At the time, I figured I was at a disadvantage because I was an ectomorph. I had a thin torso, long arms, and just generally bad genetics for the bench press. That can make the bench press harder for ectomorphs to learn, for sure, and it explains why I couldn’t bring the barbell down to my chest, but a new study confirms that bench press strength is directly correlated with the amount of muscle someone has in their chest, upper arms, and shoulders.

Bench press strength has almost nothing to do with body proportions. It has almost nothing to do with skill, either. It’s a movement that requires sheer muscle mass. Once we build the muscle, we’ll have the strength.

In my case, at 6’2 and 130 pounds, it stands to reason that I was only benching fifty pounds. I still had a small chest, small arms, small shoulders. I wasn’t weak because of my lanky proportions, I was weak because I had so little muscle mass on my frame.

What do Conventional Strength Standards Mean for Ectomorphs?

Not much, unless we also factor in muscle mass. So let’s do that. The average man starts off with eighty pounds of muscle and can bench press 188 pounds. During his first year of lifting, he gains twenty pounds and moves his bench press up to 235 pounds.

If strength is indeed directly related to muscle mass, then in order to even bench press 188 pounds, I’d need to match his muscle mass pound for pound. To do that, I’d need to gain an estimated forty pounds of muscle. Then, in order to bench press 235 pounds, I’d need to gain another twenty pounds on top of that.

In my case, this theory held true. I gained 55 pounds within my first couple years of lifting, going from 130 up to 185 pounds with a body-fat percentage of 10.8% (as measured by DEXA). Again, no drugs or secrets, just a good bulking program:

By the time I had gained 55 pounds, I was benching around 250, squatting around 275, and deadlifting around 365 pounds. When I got more serious about my squat and deadlift, they popped up to 315 and 405 over the course of another couple months. Once I had a solid amount of muscle mass, my strength hit those targets without a problem.

To be fair, I hit both a size and a strength plateau at around 150 pounds, and if it weren’t for Marco coaching me through the process, I probably would have stayed stuck there for quite a while. (Here’s our article on how we went from skinny to muscular.)

I know, I know. Even taking into account that I had a world-class strength coach guiding me through half of this bulk, I realize this rate of weight gain sounds remarkable. Now, keep in mind that not all of the weight I gained was muscle. My bones got denser, my connective tissue got stronger, I gained some fat, and I grew my hair out.

Still, much of the weight I gained was muscle, and for many guys, gaining that much muscle would be unrealistic. But keep in mind that it took me two years of lifting to reach the size and strength standards that most guys can reach within a single year. My progress may seem remarkable, but remember that I had to train for a year just to make it to the starting line.

For another example, Marco is 6’4 and started off his adult life weighing around 150 pounds. He gained 65 pounds over the course of a few years, bumping up to 215 pounds at a little under 10% body fat. At that point he was benching 250, squatting 315, and deadlifting 450. Again, once he gained enough muscle mass, he was able to achieve those strength targets without an issue.

If we want to get strong, we have to get big; if we want to get big, we have to get strong. And for us skinny guys trying to become big and strong, that’s perfect.

Anyway, all things considered, it takes ectomorphs a little longer to build a big and strong physique. Not that much longer, mind you—maybe an extra 6–12 months, depending on how skinny you are right now. If you aren’t as skinny as I was, don’t expect to gain muscle as quickly as I did, but do expect to bench press 250 sooner than I was able to.

Ectomorphs Also Have a Natural Strength

Lamenting about our lack of natural muscle size and strength can certainly be satisfying, but we also have a pretty cool advantage: skinny guys have naturally lower body-fat percentages.

Even skinny-fat guys aren’t dealing with the same propensity for obesity that the average guy is—not even close. And the more muscle we gain, the easier it becomes to stay lean (study). If a skinny-fat guy gains 40–50 pounds of muscle, gets in the habit of lifting, starts eating a better diet, staying lean is probably going to become second nature for him. (Here’s our bulking guide for skinny-fat guys.)

In fact, most of us skinny guys don’t have abs because our ab muscles are too small, not because our body-fat percentage is too high. Our problem is flipped around backwards.

That’s the edge ectomorphs have. We can often build muscle quite quickly, and if we do it properly, we’ll be able to maintain a lean and muscular physique year-round.

Besides, even if we’re only able to get 90–95% as big as the average serious lifetime lifter, that’s still an incredible degree of muscularity. With good training, most of us should eventually be able to bench over 315 pounds, squat over 450, and deadlift over 500. That’s plenty.

But wait a second. If you train at a standard gym, you may have noticed that the vast majority of ectomorphs stay skinny forever. And Hell, even most naturally strong guys with a decade of lifting experience aren’t deadlifting anywhere close to even 400 pounds.

In fact, if you do a set of deadlifts with four plates on the bar in a commercial gym, you’re going to draw stares. Guys will probably come up to you and ask for lifting advice.

Why Do So Many Ectomorphs Struggle to Bulk Up?

The good news is that it has nothing to do with genetic variation. As I mentioned above, even if you’re an ectomorph, you can almost certainly still get your bench press over 300 pounds, your squat over 400, your deadlift over 500. The trick is that you need to build a bunch of muscle in order to do it (which is probably your main goal anyway, so that’s great).

The real reason that most people fail to make progress is that:

  • They refuse to follow good bulking programs. Maybe they want to do this without spending any money. Or maybe they spend money on the programs with the fanciest marketing instead of by looking at the education and credentials of the people making it. Or maybe they follow programs designed for people on drugs. There are a lot of great programs out there, but there are also a lot of bad ones.
  • They don’t use coaches. Right when we started beta testing the very first version of our bulking program, we realized that we needed to include online coaching with every membership. We know that our members are going to run into problems and plateaus. They’re going to have unique circumstances. They’ll benefit from feedback on their lifting technique. We need to be there to help them through that. That’s the only way that we can guarantee progress.
  • Intermediate lifters fail to put in enough effort.
  • Beginners lack consistency. 

People who follow a good lifting routine, eat a good bulking diet, and focus on gradually gain strength are able to accomplish incredible things, blowing past the average lifter in no time. But if you aren’t bulking properly, ectomorph or not, you’re not going to gain enough muscle mass to get anywhere even close to these muscle growth or strength targets.

The other thing to keep in mind is that progress requires getting a few things right all at once. If you aren’t bulking properly, it’s not that you’ll progress more slowly, it’s that you won’t progress at all. No matter how diligently you persist, zero gains per week will still add up to zero gains per year.

In fact, it’s possible to spend decades lifting weights without ever gaining more than 10–20 pounds of muscle and without ever even matching the strength of a guy who followed a good program for a single year. If you never bulk properly, you might go your entire life without ever knowing what it’s like to be big and strong.

This is great news in the sense that we have every opportunity to become far better than average. But it’s bad news if you were hoping that this would be a walk in the park.

Your Doubts Are a Greater Limitation Than Your Genetics

There’s also the issue of people underestimating their potential, which is why I wanted to write this article in the first place. A recent study published in Nature split the participants into two random groups. They told half the participants that they were genetically gifted, and they told the other half that they were at a genetic disadvantage. Those who thought they were genetically gifted performed markedly better. (Greg Nuckols wrote up a good breakdown of the study here.)

You have to expect a lot of yourself and then truly fight for it in order to reach your full potential. If you keep thinking that being an ectomorph is holding you back, it will.

What’s Our Genetic Muscle Size and Strength Potential?

  • Ectomorphs start off with less muscle mass, but we catch up quickly. While we’re underweight, we’re often able to build muscle at a tremendous pace, often gaining 20+ pounds in just our first couple months of lifting, and up to forty pounds within our first year. Then, when we get up to a more average size, we can expect to gain muscle at a more average rate.
  • Strength and size are almost perfectly correlated. Until we’ve gained as much muscle mass as the average lifter, we shouldn’t expect to be able to lift as much as him. That might mean that we need to gain 20–40 pounds of muscle before we’re able to lift as much as they are, which can add an extra 6–18 months before we’re able to hit the strength targets of bench pressing 235, squatting 330, and deadlifting 405 pounds. (Keep in mind that although strength and size are virtually the same things, that doesn’t mean that strength training is ideal for gaining muscle size. If you’re trying to gain muscle size, hypertrophy training is better.)
  • Our potential is quite high. Most people aren’t failing to hit these standards because of genetic limitations, they’re failing because they aren’t following good programs, they aren’t seeking the advice of qualified strength and conditioning coaches, and they aren’t pushing themselves consistently.
Illustration of a skinny hardgainer building muscle and becoming muscular (before/after).

If you want a structured lifting and nutrition program that will help you gain size and strength every week, guaranteed, then you’ll love our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program. And if you hit a plateau along the way, we’ll guide you through it in the coaching community, ensuring that you’re able to march steadily closer towards your size and strength potential.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder and creative lead of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and has a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained sixty pounds at 11% body fat and has nine years of experience helping over ten thousand skinny people bulk up.

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.

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  1. ricky on May 6, 2019 at 9:42 am

    LOVE THIS. Love your content. Keep it coming! So good!

    • Shane Duquette on May 6, 2019 at 10:46 am

      Thanks, Ricky. Always great to hear from you, man! 😀

  2. Greg Nuckols on May 7, 2019 at 5:36 am

    Thanks for linking back to my site! However, I’m not an MS. For now, all I have is a BS. Once the grad school accepts my revised thesis doc, I’ll be an MA, but I haven’t gotten around to making those revisions yet.

    • Shane Duquette on May 7, 2019 at 8:36 am

      I’m sorry, Greg. I misremembered your being in the process of getting your MA with actually having gotten it. I’ve updated the article with the correction.

      And regarding the link, my pleasure! You’ve got an amazing site. Your research review, MASS, is great too.

  3. MI on May 11, 2019 at 1:34 am


    I always look at guys like Frank Zane and Stallone for what an average height guy with a smaller frame can accomplish.

    The one question that’s driving me crazy is, why do many people with average and large frames seem to add muscle between their teen years and middle age even without working out? This goes for both men and women. You mentioned it in your article above; we thinner people start with less because we don’t accumulate much or any naturally over those years. But why? Does bone size have something to with it? You wouldn’t think it should. Why do we have to work out with weights in order to signal our bodies to add and maintain a normal amount of muscle, but some naturally bigger people just gain it without doing so?

    Also related, when a thin person works out hard enough the right way and recuperates enough in between, does that automatically signal the body to add more muscle and the extra few calories go to the muscles as priority? Why aren’t they burned off by NEAT instead, since muscle is apparently so metabolically expensive to produce? In the past, I was trying to bulk, and focused on eating, but didn’t gain much. I was eating about 1,000 extra calories (measuring and tracking very carefully). I think the reason I never gained much was I wasn’t working out hard enough in terms the training volume sweet spot. I am about 30, and darn near resistant to getting fat, save for a little bit of abdominal fat (which ironically, my dad says becomes problematic in your 50s, 60s, and 70s…he is trying to “recomp” over time and get rid of that extra 10 lbs of fat that accumulated over the years, but he’s finding it hard to lose it and gain more muscle).

    So, is it a misnomer that a thin person has to eat enough that it would cause them to get fat if they weren’t lifting? I can’t believe some trainers recommend that. Because I don’t think I could ever get fat, honestly, unless the health/efficiency of my body were to fail. it would just cause major digestive distress. In other words, there is no need to eat a 1,000, 1500, or 2,000 calorie surplus just to gain muscle, right? A few hundred extra calories and good workouts and recuperation should do it, right?

    • Shane Duquette on May 11, 2019 at 7:14 pm

      Hey MI, these are interesting questions. I think I understand what you’re getting at. Let me go through a few of your points.

      Is Frank Zane a good example of what a guy can accomplish? I’m not a fan of using bodybuilders as examples of what can be accomplished by a regular guy. I wouldn’t say Frank Zane is an example of what someone can accomplish unless they have absolutely world class bone structure and muscle-building genetics, are willing to devote their life to bodybuilding, are willing to sacrifice their health, and are willing to take all kinds of drugs to do it.

      Sylvester Stallone definitely had some cool movie roles… but again, there’s all the drug stuff muddying the water. I remember hearing him say that his lifting was beating him up so much that he had to take HGH in order to prevent the wear and tear on his body (after he got arrested for having HGH). It just seems like a bad way to train. I want to lift in a way that makes me stronger and tougher, not in a way that requires all these drugs and whatnot. I’m not about to break the law just to get bigger or look better, either. I’d hazard a guess that that line of thinking has a negative impact on society.

      I think it’s cooler to look at guys with smaller frames who bulk up naturally and get damn strong in a way that benefits those around them, and fortunately, there are a lot of guys who do it. They might not be as muscular, they might not be as lean, but they actually represent something positive. I even find that those physiques look cooler.

      Why do so many people gain muscle without working out? By overeating, usually. Even if you don’t lift weights, you’ll gain about a pound of muscle for every two pounds of fat that you gain. So if someone is sixty pounds overweight, which is pretty normal, then they’ve got around twenty extra pound of muscle. And twenty pound of muscle is what you see in a lot of our transformation photos. That’s a lot of muscle!

      There are other factors too. Some guys gravitate towards fairly high-protein diets, eating tons of wings and ribs and whatnot. Some guys have a history of lifting or playing sports, which resulted in them gaining muscle back in the day, and then that predisposed them to being more muscular later on. One of the great advantages of building muscle is that it adds nuclei to your muscle fibres, which will forever make you more likely to be more muscular.

      Bone size (such as wrist circumference) and frame size (such as collarbone length) are factors as well.

      Why will your body build muscle instead of burning it off? The purpose of lifting weights is essentially to tell your body that you need bigger and stronger muscles. Yes, those muscles are costly, but if you need them, then your body will try to build them. Then it’s just a matter of giving your body the nutrients it needs to build that muscle.

      Do you need to gain weight to build muscle? You do need to gain weight in order to gain an appreciable amount of muscle, yeah. If you’re following a good lifting program, eating enough protein every day, eating 1,000 extra calories, and you still aren’t gaining weight, try eating an extra 200 calories. Weigh yourself again in a week. If you still aren’t gaining, add another 200. Keep adjusting like that until you’re gaining weight at your desired pace.

      The idea isn’t to eat x amount of calories, the idea is to eat enough calories to gain weight. So you need to weigh yourself and adjust your calories accordingly. You can guesstimate how many calories you need. 20x bodyweight (in pounds) is a good place to start. But adjusting is always necessary, especially since your metabolism will always be adjusting itself as well.

      Does that help / answer your questions?

    • Shane Duquette on May 11, 2019 at 7:23 pm

      Oh! And to be clear. I’ve got nothing against people thinking that Frank Zane looks like a total badass. It just breaks my heart to think that so many guys look up to bodybuilders on drugs and are doomed to either start taking drugs or forever fall short of their idols’ physiques.

    • MI on May 12, 2019 at 1:32 am

      Hi Shane,

      Thank you taking the time to answer my questions. You answered most of them. First, I honestly had no idea about Stallone and drugs. I just knew that he had about the same bone structure as me, and was able to get to about 200 lbs lean (which seems pretty unbelievable, considering that fully natural bodybuilders my size top out at about 165 in lean competition form if they have a normal bodybuilder’s (small/medium bone structure) frame, and maybe 175 or 180 if they have a really big frame. I’d definitely rather be like them. It’s good to keep this in perspective.

      As far as why some people have so much muscle, what you say does make sense. I have a rather healthy diet compared to some people, so I tend to take in less calories. When I tracked macros, I found I was often on the lower end of my desired range for protein for a bulk. It was often a struggle to eat lean proteins in sufficient quantity after workouts due to feeling a bit queasy post workout.

      You are absolutely right though. There are guys eating a lot of hamburgers, chicken wings, etc. It’s no wonder they’re bigger. They don’t just eat more, they eat more calorie rich (sometimes less healthy) food. It all makes sense now why they have so much muscle naturally. (The same goes for some women, too. I’ve mention it before, but my former girlfriend, as well as some of the women I’ve gone on dates with since, were varying degrees of curvy, and some definitely had proportionately more muscle for their size than me, as a ~5’10, 150 lb guy who is about 12% bodyfat these days but was 8% in college).

      I think I focused too much on calories and macros in the past when I tried to bulk. I thought I could make a science out of it and guarantee results, but I should have focused more on my workouts, protein intake, rather than just rrying to eat enough calories and carbs to gain weight. I don’t even think I’m going to track calories this time. I’ll try estimating.

      • MI on May 12, 2019 at 1:53 am

        Plus, some of those higher protein meats might also have signaling molecules that induce more muscle gain, such as IGF-1. I know you’ve written about those things before. Everyone keeps telling us IGF-1 is bad and we should avoid it. But if it and other things help partition proteins to muscle tissue, they’re not all bad.

  4. Leo on May 12, 2019 at 7:11 pm

    Hi Shane,

    Found your site today and it’s been a revelation. First article I read was about the 3 tests to test your genetics to see if you are a hardgainer, and yea, I definitely “passed” all 3 tests with flying colors, I’m a naturally skinny hardgainer.

    I have a question. For how “big” a naturally skinny guy can get, do you think there SHOULD be a limit for health reasons? This is something I’ve been wondering for a while, but if skinnier guys have smaller/thinner bones and overall frame structure, I wonder if the overall weight (preferably muscle but even fat) people like us should be carrying should be lower than naturally bigger guys, or it might cause undue stress on our bones, joints, etc as we age.

    I’m 6’2″, and I’d love to be an NFL linebacker-like beast and get up to 250 pounds, but I do wonder even if was to manage to do that and it’s at a lower body fat percentage, still would carrying around that much weight be bad considering my smaller bones. I do wonder if something like 220 or maybe even as light as 200 would be a better/safer long term goal…

    • Shane Duquette on May 12, 2019 at 9:22 pm

      Hey Leo, glad you’re digging the site, man!

      That’s a really cool question. Lifting weights, building muscle, and getting stronger is definitely incredibly healthy, but there’s also a point of diminishing returns. For example, going from a 150-pound squat up to a 315-pound squat is amazing for your health. But I think it was Andy Galpin, PhD, who was saying that going from a 400-pound squat up to a 450-pound squat doesn’t yield any additional health benefits. I imagine the same is true with muscle mass—at a certain point, you’ve already capped out all the benefits.

      Then the question is… at what point does gaining more muscle/strength/weight become harmful?

      Regarding your bodyweight, I think it’s safe to say that getting up to 250 pounds would hurt your health. I think in order for you to to get that heavy, you’d either need to take drugs or your body-fat percentage would need to climb up over 20%, both of which could harm your health.

      But what about 200 versus 220? I don’t know about that. I’d imagine 200 is perfectly fine. In fact, fighting your way up to 200 (at 10–15% body fat) would probably be good for you. It’s on the border of being technically overweight, but given that you’d be lean, I suspect that’d be fine. But what about going up to 220? I don’t know. That’s a BMI of 28. That’s borderline obese. There might be downsides such as making your heart work harder. I’m not sure.

      You’re making a good point, though. It’d be cool to have some sort of end goal that’s better than “until you look good” or “just get as big/strong as possible.”

      I really like this question. Let me try to figure out if there are any good experts who are looking into this. My hypothesis is that sticking to a healthy BMI is the safest bet. A BMI of around 25 tops (around 200 pounds at your height). After that maybe it starts getting hard on your heart or knees or digestive system. That’s my guess. But let’s see.

      • Leo on May 13, 2019 at 12:10 am

        Thanks Shane! Would be interested to read whatever you find out!

      • Louis on June 11, 2019 at 9:46 am

        Interested to see if you found anything on this, it’s something I’ve thought about (do naturally skinnier guys have a lower healthy weight limit) but never found any satisfying answers.

  5. Donald on June 6, 2019 at 6:23 am

    Sorry but look at the faces of those guys in the pictures, they went chubby and the jawlines disappeared. I think the only superpower that ectos have is that fat gains do get distributed over the body evenly so that it appears more like “muscle” than fat.

    • Shane Duquette on June 6, 2019 at 8:48 am

      In Dan’s case, sure, he gained 30 pounds in 10 weeks, so of course some of that is going to be fat. But even if he’s gaining 20–25 pounds of lean mass and 5–10 pounds of fat—which is a fantastic bulk—that would be enough to raise his body-fat percentage a few points and show on his face. He’s still at the lower end of the healthy body-fat range, though, not to mention that it looks great. And if he wanted a leaner face, that’s no problem—he could solve that with a few weeks of cutting. (And for ectomorphs, when we stop intentionally overeating, we tend to naturally lose fat anyway.)

      In the other cases, no, Hugo has abs after gaining 45 pounds, and at least to me, his face looks stronger and healthier. GK appears way leaner than when he started, showing that virtually all of his gains were lean. And in the case of me gaining 55 pounds over the course of a couple years, I took a DEXA scan afterwards—10.8%. (Given that I started at a similar body-fat percentage, that means that around 10% of my overall weight gain was fat.)

      As for ectos having the ability to gain very quickly and leanly, they can, and it’s not that controversial of a stance. The best hypertrophy researchers agree, and I think it’s something that anyone with a bit of experience in this field has noticed. I checked with Eric Helms, PhD, to make sure I’m not totally off-base here, and his response was, “Yup absolutely underweight beginners can certainly gain faster with a leaner outcome.”

  6. Bony to Beastly—The Growth Mindset on June 21, 2019 at 2:23 pm

    […] can expect to gain in his first year, we’re talking about around 40 pounds, as we covered in our article about how quickly hardgainers can gain size and strength… which just so happens to be more than the average lifter could expect to gain while on […]

  7. […] approach our bulking diets, they won’t pose any kind of limitation beyond that. Here’s our article about how much size and strength a hardgainer can expect to gain in just his first year …. In that article, we go over research showing that even as naturally skinny guys, our potential to […]

  8. Jason on July 2, 2019 at 6:12 am


    Long time no speak! Hope you’re well.

    When you refer to these strength standards, are they a 1rm or working set weights?

    And if for reps, how many sets and reps are we talking for these standards? So when you hit your 250 bench.. was it a 1rm or were you doing 3 sets of 8?


    Jay (crystalsheen)

    • Shane Duquette on July 2, 2019 at 1:11 pm

      Hey Crystalsheen, glad to hear from you, man!

      When we talk about strength strength standards like this, we’re always talking about how much you can lift through a full range of motion for a single rep. For example, benching to your chest and then locking it out.

      Mind you, outside of powerlifting, I don’t think singles are a better representation of strength than moderate-rep sets. If you’re strong at doing sets of eight, that’s just as good as being strong at doing singles. To claim a 1RM, you actually have to lift the single, but if that’s not a big deal for you, you could get a pretty good estimation of how your strength stacks up by just estimating your 1RM based on your moderate-rep sets 🙂

      • Jason on July 3, 2019 at 2:27 am

        Cool – yeah i get the whole 1Rm concept, i was just wondering if your standards listed above were 1Rms because i’ve seen many times of YouTube after 1 year of lifting the average guy should be able to lift 225 bench, 315 squat and 405 deadlift for reps, and that being able to do 5 reps for sets of this is a good intermediate bench mark.

        I think mind set of your surrounding area can hold you back too, particularly if you have the skinny mindset, but you can maybe also get “average fish in the pond” mindset For example, i have seen maybe 5 different people squat 3+ plates for reps in the gyms i’ve been in the whole time i’ve been lifting (3+ days a weeks for 5 years) so i assumed this was really high level strength. Cruise around youtube for 10 mins and its actually the intermediate benchmark same with benching and Dl.

        • Shane Duquette on July 3, 2019 at 9:44 am

          Totally. I’ve only seen a couple guys deadlift over 4 plates or squat more than 3 plates in the gym. And yeah, I think that can really throw a wet blanket over our rate of progress. We just don’t realize how strong we’re capable of becoming. We internalize false limits.

          It’s true, though, that squatting 3 plates makes you stronger than almost everyone else that you’ll ever meet. It’s advanced in the sense that most people never get there. Or if they do, they eventually fall off the wagon. Squatting 3 plates was something they did in college, not something they do twice a week.

          Pretty cool how many of us can go from being the weakest people we know to being the strongest—or at least among the strongest—people we know in just a couple years. And if we’re smart about it, that’s something we can hold onto into our early seventies.

          As for talking about how much you can lift for x reps, I think that makes sense in the context of programs like Starting Strength, where everything is done for 5s. You compare your 5s instead of comparing your singles. Outside of that context, where people lift in a variety of rep ranges with varying amounts of reps in reserve, I think measuring singles makes strength easier to compare. (And if your goal is to get big and strong, I don’t know why you’d stick strictly with 5s anyway.)

  9. […] pounds on the bar. Even 400 pounds might sound like a lot of weight, but within a couple years, you’ll probably be able to deadlift in the mid 400’s. Better to choose thin, dense plates that allow you to load up 600 […]

  10. […] These physiques are quite a bit harder to build. Most guys can build an attractive physique within just a few months of serious training, whereas building a physique that looks strong and aesthetic will usually take at least a couple of years, and will require hitting some pretty impressive streng…. […]

  11. […] If you’re curious about how big and strong you can get, and how quickly you can do it, here’s our article on ectomorph muscle and strength potential. […]

  12. […] good news is that once we start training for muscle growth, we can gain muscle more quickly than any other body type. We’re far enough away from our genetic potential that our bodies are primed for muscle […]

  13. […] I had spent my whole life thinking that my body was unable to become strong and muscular. In a few months, Marco had shown me that my potential was far higher than that. I could become as strong and muscular as I wanted. (Here’s our article about how much muscle size and strength an ectomorph can expect to gain.) […]

  14. […] We just need to learn how to combine a good ectomorph diet with a good ectomorph lifting program. Once we can do that, we can build muscle. And not in a slow and patient way either. We’re far enough away from our genetic muscular potential that we can usually build muscle mor…. […]

  15. The Science of Newbie Gains + How to Get Them on July 24, 2019 at 6:48 pm

    […] If you’re new to lifting weights, it’s possible to build muscle extremely quickly. Lifters call this phenomenon “newbie gains,” and it lasts for about a year. During that first year alone, the average man is able to gain around 20 pounds of muscle. Skinny guys are able to do even better, gaining upwards of 40 pounds with just their newbie gains alone. […]

  16. Clay on July 29, 2019 at 12:43 am

    How does age play a factor. Im 42 and wondering how this would factor in your program. Thanks

    • Shane Duquette on July 29, 2019 at 9:10 am

      Hey Clay, it won’t be much of a factor. In terms of building muscle and gaining strength, 42 is still young. In fact, many natural bodybuilders and powerlifters hit their peaks in their 40s 🙂

      Age doesn’t start slowing muscle growth until your 60s, and it doesn’t slow strength gains until as late as your 70s. What tends to make it harder for older guys to bulk up is either: a) they’ve already gotten close to their genetic muscular potential over the previous decades, or b) they’ve accumulated nagging aches and pains (which we could help you work through in the coaching community).

  17. The "Big 5" Bulking Lifts - Outlift on August 28, 2019 at 2:33 pm

    […] If you aren’t getting stronger over time, you aren’t getting bigger. And vice versa, of course. If you aren’t getting bigger over time, you aren’t going to get any stronger. […]

  18. […] lifts will make you a better athlete. No real room for argument here, at least for most sports. The bigger the muscle, the more powerful it is. This helps with sprint speed, strength, and verticality. Moreover, weightlifting is one of the […]

  19. […] The same is true with strength. Ectomorphs will often start off with less muscle mass, and they’ll often have longer spines to stabilize. That means that we tend to start off weaker. However, since we’re able to gain muscle so quickly, we’re also able to gain strength incredibly quickly. This acts as a sort of catch-up mechanic, and we can often catch up to the other body types within a year or two. (Here’s how strong an ectomorph can expect to be after a year of lifting weights.) […]

  20. […] This is one of the reasons why ectomorphs bulk so aggressively, building muscle so quickly and leanly. (Here’s our article about how quickly you can expect to gain muscle and strength while bulking.) […]

  21. […] our article about how big and strong you can get as a skinny guy. Your potential is probably greater than you think. But the point is, if you’re still skinny, […]

  22. Is 225 a good bench? — Outlive on February 5, 2020 at 2:49 pm

    […] if you’re a skinny ectomorph? Well, your starting line has been moved back quite a bit. For example, I was only benching 75ish pounds for a couple reps when I first started lifting (I […]

  23. […] If you’re curious about how big and strong you can get, and how quickly you can do it, here’s our article about size and strength standards for ectomorphs. […]

  24. […] enough calories to gain weight: the ideal rate of weight gain depends on how skinny you are, how new to lifting you are, how lean you are, and how aggressive you want to be with your bulk. […]

  25. Ross on May 9, 2020 at 3:41 am

    I have a hunch about how guys start off benching 180+: they’re delusional. I remember seeing a study in which average guys were picked off the street and asked how much they could bench. (It was ages ago when I saw this on TV, so I can’t begin to find a link.) These weren’t necessarily guys who lift, and we’re all used to seeing normal-looking guys bench well over 200. So for somebody in this study, 180 or so probably seemed like a conservative estimate for his own bench. As you can imagine, their expectations didn’t match up with reality when they were tested.

    The result doesn’t surprise me at all, because I was once a delusional newbie, too. The first time I started seriously strength training, I got under 120 fully expecting to rep it easily. I BARELY got one rep. I didn’t know anything about form or bar path, and I wasted a lot of energy as the bar wobbled all over the place, because I hadn’t yet developed the muscle memory to control the weight efficiently. OF COURSE I couldn’t bench very much.

    Thankfully, I found a set of lifting standards that seem more realistic to me. These standards don’t expect you to bench well over your body weight on your first day in the gym (yeah, right), and they don’t expect you to bench 1.5x bodyweight in a year, either.

    • Shane Duquette on May 9, 2020 at 8:38 am

      Yessir, you’ve got a good point. Before someone’s initial strength can be tested, they need to be taught how to do the lift and to get a little bit of practice. I think these initial strength measures were taken after a couple of weeks of instruction and practice. So before an appreciable amount of muscle had been built, but after they’d already worked out those kinks.

      On the other hand, having terrible form doesn’t make people better at the bench press. If they need to press the barbell off their chest (i.e. full range of motion) then it’s a rather fair measure of strength. Can’t lift it without the necessary muscle, no matter how you wriggle or wobble.

  26. […] but most of it comes from gaining muscle. Having more muscle directly improves our strength—a bigger muscle is a stronger one—and reduces our risk of heart disease, cancer, and dying for any reason whatsoever (study, study, […]

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