(Updated July 2015) I wasn’t like some guys. Puberty didn’t automatically plumpen my pecs, and my weight never accidentally inched upwards on the scale. When I exercised, even when trying to build muscle, I’d need to watch out that my weight didn’t drop even lower. When I did gain weight, it was ephemeral. After every failed attempt I was sure that my skinny genes would keep me in my skinny jeans for the rest of my life… but it wasn’t genetics that were the problem, it was the fact that I wasn’t training properly for my body type or goals.
Following a mainstream approach to nutrition and fitness won’t get us the bodies we’re looking for, since most of them are designed to make us eat less and move more. They’re designed to help us lose weight or improve our fitness levels. That makes sense for most people, but obviously not for us.
There’s genuine muscle-buliding information out there though, especially when it comes to weightlifting. Building up bigger muscles is a relatively common hobby for men. That’s where the mainstream advice for skinny guys comes in: “Just lift heavy, man!” Yep. Lifting heavier would have helped… but it’s not quite that simple, and by leveraging science we can do a whole helluva lot better.
So let’s look into a few types of training that people commonly ask us about: bodyweight training (e.g. callisthenics, P90x), high intensity power training (e.g. Crossfit), strength training (e.g. powerlifting and 5x5s) and hypertrophy training (e.g. bodybuilding).
Then we’ll talk about what the evidence suggests is the best way to optimize muscle growth for us naturally skinny guys.
People normally do a whole slew of things to build muscle, so it’s very hard to root out what the actual source of it is. Is your muscular friend muscular because he goes to absolute muscular failure? Some guys claim that you need to lift hard. That only the last rep counts. That you’re wasting your workout if you aren’t going to absolute failure and beyond. They might even totally believe it. But is it the first 9 reps that are causing muscle growth, or that final really awkward looking 10th rep that made them red in the face?
Consider this story.
The Dynamic Resistance Fitness Course™. Back in the 1920’s Charles Atlas came up with a muscle-building program for skinny guys. This was back in the good old days when skinny guys didn’t even know that they could build muscle.
Atlas, buff man that he was, knew he could create an insatiable urge to build muscle in ectomorphs all over the world. So he came up with a system that he could market. He called it the Dynamic Resistance Fitness Course™, and he placed advertisements in magazines, reaching out to skinny guys who were eager to buff up and strut their bod’s on the beach. Ectomorphs all over the world began eagerly placing their orders, finally confident they could build up enough muscle to woo bikini babes.
His theory was that you could “pit muscle against muscle” to create the tension needed to build muscle. You’d clench your triceps, say, and then contract your biceps against that tension. He claimed that the resistance you could create would would make it similar to lifting a weight. As your muscles became stronger the resistance you’d create would become more intense, allowing you to become stronger still. Best of all you could do it right from the privacy and comfort of you own home. No equipment required. And I mean, what skinny guy who’s new to building muscle doesn’t want to do it secretly? Brilliant.
In the 1940’s Charles Atlas was accused of false advertising in court, or so the legend goes. Bob Hoffman, founder of York Barbell™ and a veritable weightlifting legend, was fairly certain that calisthenics (aka bodyweight workouts) weren’t very good for building muscle. He suspected that Atlas was sneaking in weightlifting workouts to get his hearty manly man physique.
On the stand, Atlas insisted that he did his calisthenics program daily. When asked if he also used dumbbells or barbells, he remained adamant that his bodyweight workouts were how he maintained his burly physique … but he admitted that he used weights “on occasion” to test his strength. Pressed further, he admitted that he “tested his strength” three to four times per week …
Not surprisingly, the dynamic resistance style of training is relatively uncommon these days.
Even if Charles Atlas was maintaining his muscle just with bodyweight workouts, another thing to keep in mind is that maintaining or rebuilding muscle mass is a breeze compared to building it for the first time. If you see a muscular guy happily maintaining his muscle mass … that doesn’t have very much to do with what you need to do to build muscle. This is good news – once you have your muscle it will be easy to keep it or rebuild it – but it doesn’t help us if we’ve always been skinny.
Here’s another story.
The Colorado Experiment. Back in 1973 the famous bodybuilding equipment inventor Arthur Jones decided to test out his experimental approach to bodybuilding on his protégé, Casey Viator. Over the course of 28 days Viator trained using a series of very heavy lifts, largely done on machines, and often done using a very slow tempo. Over the course of those 28 days he gained an astounding 63 pounds of muscle. To make the story even more remarkable, Arthur Jones had Casey Viator following an extremely minimalistic workout routine. He was training just three times per week and each workout averaged about thirty minutes.
But there are other ways to tell the story. Arthur Jones was looking for the most incredibly transformation the world had ever seen so that he could promote his new line of Nautilus™ bodybuilding machines. Casey Viator would be the perfect candidate for this. He had a bodybuilding career full of steroid use, and a previous history of steroid use is known to make building muscle easier in the future. He had lost a couple dozen pounds of muscle mass over the course of the past year due to losing a finger and getting an infection. He had some of the best muscle-building genetics the world had ever seen (he had won the title of Mr. Universe at age 19); and he was extremely skilled when it came to training intensely and eating ludicrously enormous amounts of food.
In the two months leading up to the experiment, Viator then intentionally lost a couple dozen more pounds of muscle by following a strict starvation diet (800 calories per day) and by strictly avoiding heavy lifting. Casey Viator was being paid a tremendous amount for every pound he gained, and all of this was strategically designed to make his transformation as dramatic as possible. It worked. Viator gained 63 pounds of muscle in four weeks!
There are a few cases of people using a similar approach to rebuild muscle and doing very well. Arthur Jones followed the same protocol as Viator – starvation diet, detraining, recovering lost muscle – and managed to rebuild 17 pounds of lean mass in a month. Recently, best-selling author Tim Ferriss was detrained and underfed in the year leading up to his own experiment, and was able to rebuild 34 pounds of lost muscle mass in a month.
This is not to undersell their techniques or their results. These are people achieving otherworldly gains that deserve to make headlines, and their minimalist techniques, given their unusual circumstances, make a whole lot of sense. The stimulus required to rebuild muscle is small and they’re thus able to rebuild muscle mass with only an itty bit of training extremely quickly.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell what actually builds muscle. Sometimes people build muscle by doing totally traditional weightlifting behind the scenes and then also do a very peculiar and marketable type of exercise on the side that they tell everyone about.
There are lots of very bizarre muscle-building techniques that have been marketed over the years, and, err, I feel like I’ve tried my fair share of them. These are novel ways to train and I understand the appeal. They make training easier and more accessible, and previously unheard of methods also bring about the excitement of maybe, just maybe, achieving previously unheard of results.
I’m not saying that you won’t get results using these programs – you might – but it turns out the that the very things that make these routines unique are also what make them a poor choice for your typical guy trying to build muscle. The results tend to come from the fundamentals, whereas the gimmicks might make the program less effective, but more interesting and marketable. They make the program sexy … at the expense of your results.
Some of these techniques make sense for nearly everyone. Viator lifted weights three times per week and he lifted heavy. This works well.
On the other hand, some of their techniques aren’t very effective at all. There have been a number of developments in the muscle-building world in the past several decades and we now know that slow lifting is ineffective compared to a more moderate lifting tempo (study, study, study). A new study that came out last month put another nail in the coffin – intentionally lifting slower reduces your ability to build muscle. (study) Moreover, low volume training is ineffective compared to higher volume training (meta-analysis, more recent study).
Check out the results of a low volume squat routine compared with a higher volume squat routine (extrapolated for a 150 pound man):
One Set Squatters: 0 pounds muscle, 0 pounds fat. (Strength up by 36 pounds.)
Four Set Squatters: 0 pounds muscle, -3 pounds fat. (Strength up by 46 pounds.)
Eight Set Squatters: 5 pounds muscle, -2.5 pounds fat (Strength up by 82 pounds.)
Looking at the one set squatters, the average was a zero pound gain but that doesn’t mean that everyone gained zero pounds. Some guys gained weight, others lost weight. This is why you’ll see some guys succeed even when doing suboptimal training programs – because they naturally build muscle easily. The same is true the other way. Sometimes people do a halfway decent training program and get nothing out of it even though most other people do. (I would have been the guy losing muscle …)
This is a well studied phenomenon. In one study they put the participants on a 12 week arms-only weightlifting program (bicep curls and tricep extensions). The vast majority of people added around 2 inches to their arms, a few gifted participants were able to add 5.3 inches, and the few “non-responders” lost 0.1 inches. This can likely be explained by nutrition, which wasn’t monitored, but nevertheless some people naturally respond very favourably to weightlifting and others do not. (study)
We aren’t genetically cursed or anything – us skinny guys can build muscle wonderfully well – but we certainly shouldn’t be doing types of exercise that don’t even work well. We just aren’t the genetically elite that, against all odds, manage to build muscle when doing things that don’t reliably build muscle. We instead need to stack the odds in our favour (including nutrition). If you do this well enough, naturally skinny or not, your cleverness may soon have you seeming exceptionally genetically gifted.
WHAT CAUSES MUSCLE GROWTH
Okay. So first things first, when evaluating different types of training it’s important to have a clear grasp of a few muscle-building fundamentals. A muscle will be encouraged to grow because of three things, in (probable) order of importance:
Mechanical tension. This is the tension placed on the muscle by the weights that you’re lifting. The heavier the weight (study) and the larger the range of motion (study, study, study), the more muscle you’ll build. This is the most important factor when it comes to building muscle. The tricky part is that if the tension isn’t intense enough it won’t stimulate any muscle growth. (study)
Metabolic stress. This is the “burn” or the “pump”. This will cause your body to produce local growth factors in the muscles you’re training, which can cause muscle growth. This is the second most important factor, and again it requires a fair amount of tension on the muscle in order to stimulate muscle growth. (study)
Muscle damage. This is how much damage you inflict on the muscle. The muscle soreness you feel the next day (or the day after that) is caused by inflammation as your body sends nutrients in to repair the damage. If the type of stress you placed on your muscle is the type of stress that would cause your muscle to grow bigger and stronger, then your body will attempt to rebuild that muscle bigger and stronger. (study)
The more overall sets and reps you do the more growth you’ll be able to stimulate via these three factors, so long as you can recover fully from the workouts. (meta-analysis) As you saw in the squat example, this is very important. Similarly, the more often you hit a given muscle, the more your muscles will grow, again, so long as you can fully recover. Programming your workouts is thus a balancing act of trying to stimulate maximum amounts of mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage while still being able to properly recover.
So let’s look into some popular training styles and how they can help you accomplish your muscle-building goals. I’ve focused on the four most common ones that we get asked about and then included our own approach at the end.
GENERAL FITNESS TRAINING
CONDITIONING & CALISTHENICS (E.G. P90X)
My roommate in university was a muscular guy who naturally weighed in at a beefy 200 pounds. Over the course of a couple years he managed to lose twenty pounds by biking and doing bodyweight workouts (P90x and ab workouts) in our living room. Even though he probably lost a bit of muscle, he wound up looking pretty buff, since he had so much muscle to spare.
I was very different. Even though I would have been thrilled to look like the after shots, well, I didn’t have all the muscle (or fat) that the guys in the before shots had. My starting point was 130 pounds. I couldn’t do a conditioning program, lose some weight, and wind up looking ripped. Willem could. Here’s me after gaining my first 32 pounds (by lifting heavy), and Willem after losing his first 20 pounds (by lifting light):
These programs are for him.
For fat loss. A twelve week study looking at body composition when losing weight found that all participants lost 21 pounds on average, regardless of whether they were doing no exercise, light workouts, or heavy workouts. Their body composition afterwards was quite different though. The ones who weren’t exercising lost 14 pounds of fat and 7 pounds of muscle, the ones who were doing light resistance training lost 16 pounds of fat and 5 pounds of muscle, and the ones who were doing heavy weightlifting lost 21 pounds of fat and 0 pounds of muscle. (study)
An even more recent study found that the lighter weightlifting group lost 13 pounds – 7 pounds of fat and 6 pounds of muscle. The heavier weightlifting group lost 18 pounds, losing 22 pounds of fat and gaining 4 pounds of muscle. (study)
For muscle-building. If you’re eating in a calorie surplus and gaining weight you can make slight improvements at first if and only if these workouts are relatively heavy for you. If you can’t do 10 push-ups, you will indeed need to build up muscle size and strength to be able to get there. As a result, in beginners these workouts can stimulate a little bit of muscle growth at first. (study) Beyond that very early stage though, it doesn’t matter how gruelling the workouts are, or how fearsomely your muscles burn with a hellish fire … if the stimulus isn’t heavy enough it won’t cause you to adapt by becoming bigger and stronger. (study, study, study, study, study) If you keep eating in a calorie surplus, at a certain point you will begin to gain fat.
Remember—sweat is your fat crying, not your body building muscle.
Yes, calisthenics can be progressed to be quite difficult. Planches and handstand pushups require a ton of stabilizer muscle strength and a ton of balance. This makes them rather impressive (and fun) … but the very thing that makes them impressive also makes them rather poor at building up muscle mass. Even with advanced progressions of bodyweight workouts the limiting factor will very rarely be mechanical tension in the targeted muscle, but rather stabilizer muscle strength and/or balance. As a result, your balance and stabilizer muscle strength will improve while your muscle size will remain more or less the same.
Summary. If your goal is building muscle or cutting, these workouts fail at the most important criteria for growth: they aren’t heavy enough. Combined with a calorie deficit you will lose weight (both muscle and fat). Combined with a calorie surplus you will gain weight (both muscle and fat).
These are general fitness workouts though, and they will indeed help make you fit and healthy. This will improve your energy levels, your mood and even your cognition (as will most other types of exercise). Moreover, they can also help you lose weight, as they will help create a calorie deficit by burning calories.
HIGH INTENSITY POWER TRAINING (E.G. CROSSFIT)
There are a lot of routines that involve doing weightlifting for the purposes of improving general fitness. These are common in Men’s Health, group weightlifting classes, and when doing sports specific training. Some of them are very advanced, too. CrossFit™, for example, involves doing a lot of highly technical advanced lifts in a gruelling and competitive way. Part general fitness, part extreme sport. In fact, it’s a workout that’s so sport-like that people will sit on the couch and pay to watch CrossFit on TV.
CrossFit isn’t for sissies, and it’s actually pretty damn effective at what it’s designed to do – make you incredibly fit in a very versatile way. There are a lot of claims that CrossFit encourages poor lifting poor, but I think that’s a little harsh. There are people who practice poor lifting form in all styles of training, and it doesn’t seem to me like CrossFit is particularly problematic. Nevertheless, it has a debatably (very) high injury rate, given how advanced the lifts are and that you’re (oftentimes) supposed to do them well beyond the point of fatigue
… but the studies invariably also show that it will indeed make you wicked fit. I would say that the results of the studies looking into CrossFit are very positive, and like callisthenics programs I don’t think it’s a fad, nor should it be. (study, study)
Is it good at building muscle? Well you’ll certainly build a whole hell of a lot more muscle by doing CrossFit than by reading blog posts. We have a few relatively advanced guys in our program who also do CrossFit, and, well, they tend to be pretty damn badass dudes. If they’ve got a good grasp of muscle-building nutrition they often come in having gained a decent amount of muscle mass too. Heavy-ish weightlifting, even when done for the purposes of general fitness, can be good for that. While it doesn’t rival other forms of exercise designed to build muscle, CrossFit can indeed make you bigger and stronger, especially if you’re relatively skinny starting out. (study)
With general fitness programs designed to make you fit in every way possible, it’s understandably hard to make consistent size/strength gains. After all, it’s a program designed very specifically to make you athletically fit, so any mass gains are more of a side effect rather than the intended outcome. You’ll usually fail with your central nervous system (aka overall fatigue) rather than with the muscle group that you’re trying to grow. When you do fail with the muscle group you’re training it’s often due to muscular endurance instead of muscular strength, which leads to endurance adaptations more so than muscle-building adaptions. The weight used, since it’s used so athletically and with such varied rep ranges, is only occasionally heavy enough to cause muscle growth, the volume and frequency for any one muscle group is sporadic, and most of the lifting is done in the sagittal plane (at the expense of the transverse and frontal planes). As a result your muscle development may not be that balanced. (study)
Summary. These are not programs designed specifically to build muscle, but you may build a bit of it anyway! As far as fitness oriented styles of training go this is by far the best way to go. It’s also very advanced, and probably something you’d want to do after you’ve built up a helluva lot of muscle.
MUSCLE & STRENGTH TRAINING
Alright so now we’re into the types of training that aren’t about fat loss or general fitness, but rather about building up more muscle mass and strength. Heavy weightlifting is without a doubt the easiest way to optimize all muscle-building factors, since you’re moving heavy objects by stretching and contracting your muscles. As a result, virtually every type of training designed to build muscle will involve lifting heavy weights. There are many ways to do this though. One of the more popular approaches is to focus on getting stronger (strength training/powerlifting) and the other popular approach is to focusing on getting bigger (bodybuilding).
There are some less common ways that people lift, like Olympic lifting. It’s a sport in and of itself, and it’s commonly used to train athletes to be explosive, and it’s used in sporty competitive training programs like CrossFit. The lifts are very difficult to learn, they require a lot of equipment, there’s only mechanical tension in the concentric part of the lift (since you drop the weight after lifting it), there’s no emphasis on metabolic stress, and they’re often done far away from failure in order to minimize muscle damage and reduce the risk of injury. This is well known in the muscle-building community, and you rarely see people doing them with the goal of building up muscle mass.
STRENGTH TRAINING (POWERLIFTING)
Now we’re at the heart of the “just lift heavy” argument. That’s what strength training is all about – damn heavy deadlifts, squats, bench presses, overhead presses, etc. This involves lifting very heavy weights through a large range of motion. This is excellent for stimulating mechanical tension, which is the most important factor when it comes to building muscle. Since your muscles will be so eager to grow (aka your muscle cells will be very insulin sensitive) this will mean that a caloric surplus will cause your body to preferentially build muscle instead of storing fat. Brilliant.
The lifts are compound lifts too, which means you’ll hit many muscle groups at once. The squat uses something like 200 muscles. Not all of these muscles will grow maximally, of course. Many are stabilizer muscles, and not even all of the prime movers will be limiting factors. (If your quads are the limiting factor, then it’s your quads that are getting the best stimulus for growth.) You’re going to see a decent amount of growth in many of the muscle groups worked though: your quads, butt, hamstrings, lower back, etc. As a result your workouts will be fairly efficient.
Classic strength training is also based around barbells. This means you’ll do a great job of building up stabilizer muscles, balance, tendon and ligament strength, etc. It’s safer too, since your body will be able to use natural movement patterns and distribute the stress in a biomechanically sound manner. (Counterintuitively, free weights tend to be safer than machines.) Furthermore, the strength that you build will transfer to virtually every other type of manly strength activity, whether that’s advanced callisthenics, CrossFit, carrying your wife over a threshold, flexing and unflexing your pecs to the rhythm of your favourite song, carrying an old woman out of a burning building, etc.
We get a lot of guys coming into our program who didn’t make any progress even when following a hearty strength training program. This is probably not a training problem, but rather a nutrition problem. If you’re trying to lift heavier and heavier weights each week but your body doesn’t have the nutrients it needs to build up more muscle mass, it will be forced to make neural adaptations, i.e., it will learn to use the muscle it already has more efficiently.* This isn’t always bad. This is how you’d get stronger while staying inside your weight class. This is bad when you’re a skinny dude trying to build muscle … because, err, well we don’t want to stay in the featherweight weight class.
*These are called “neural” gains because your body will grow new neurons to allow you to optimize the unfamiliar movement patterns you’re practicing.
So this is indeed an effective way to build muscle mass… but this still isn’t a mass-building approach to training. This is a strength-building approach to training. If you’re a skinny guy trying to build muscle mass this a fairly poor approach. Here’s where the “just lift heavy” argument falters:
Volume is optimized for building up muscle strength. The weights are so heavy that it imposes a huuuge stress on our central nervous system. As a result we fatigue very quickly. We fatigue before we’ve maximally stimulated our muscles for growth.
To illustrate this point, consider the deadlift. If you’re doing a heavy 5×5 with a deadlift you’re going to be absolutely destroyed by the end of it. But you’ve only done 25 reps. That’s nowhere near the optimal amount if you’re trying to develop muscle size. Yes, you could do 10-15 sets of five reps and build maximal amounts of muscle… but it would take you hours to do your workouts and your central nervous system would be fried to a crisp by the end of it. Your risk of injury in those later sets would be very high, you’d very quickly become overtrained, and you’d grind your joints to the bone. (study)
Strength-building versus muscle-building lifts. A deadlift is an excellent exercise for strength. After every rep you set the weight on the ground, get back into a great position, and then lift the next rep. You’re essentially doing a series of single rep lifts. You also need to set the weight down relatively quickly, or you risk causing excessive damage / injury on the way down. This means that mechanical tension isn’t constant throughout the lift and the time under tension is quite small. Perhaps the best lift known to man for overall strength… but surprisingly mediocre for size.
Form is optimized for lifting more weight, not building more muscle. A common example is the bench press. If you’re powerlifting or strength training you’ll bring your elbows in right close to your body so that you can press with your triceps and shoulders, and you’ll create an arch in your back to limit the range of motion and improve your leverage. This will radically reduce your ability to grow your chest, but substantially increase the amount of weight you can lift in a competition. If you aren’t competing in a powerlifting competition that isn’t very helpful.
The accessory lifts are designed to improve strength. A good strength training program will use accessory lifts designed to blast you through plateaus on your big lifts. It’s common to do rack pulls to work on locking out a deadlift, or add chains to your bench press to even out the strength curve. These accessory lifts are designed to improve your strength on the big lifts, not designed to build muscle mass.
If you’re wondering if accessory lifts are needed at all (some minimalist 5×5 programs don’t really use them), a study that came out May 2014 looked into how doing just squats compared with doing squats, leg presses and leg extensions. The volume was equated, so both groups were doing the same amount of weightlifting overall. The multi-exercise group did far better than the squat-only group. They both grew the same overall amount of muscle, presumably because the weightlifting volume was equal, but the greater variety of exercises resulted in more balanced muscle growth – all heads of the quads grew proportionally. Surprisingly, it also resulted in a far greater increase in strength! (study)
Another example is a November 2014 study that found that including partial range of motion accessory lifts (like rack pulls) alongside full range of motion lifts (like deadlifts) was more effective at improving strength gains than just performing a greater volume of full range of motion lifts. (study)
So there’s a very strong case for including accessory lifts in pure strength programs.
You’re doing competition lifts instead of lifts that align with your goals. If you’re doing a minimalist powerlifting sort of program you’ll be doing lots of things designed to make you a better squatter, deadlifter and bench presser (and maybe barbell curler or rower). If you don’t like to squat, deadlifts aggravate your back, barbell rowing hurts your forearms or your goal is to get big and strong in general rather than compete in very specific lifts… then your program isn’t optimal.
Summary. Strength programs are ideal for developing badass strength in competition lifts. They’re also pretty damn decent when it comes to building muscle when gaining weight. Similarly, when losing weight these programs will help preserve your muscle mass. However, in the longer term these programs can be fatiguing and tough on your joints and the overuse / injury rates are somewhat high – comparable to CrossFit. (study, study, study) Because of how much stress very heavy lifting will put on your body, it may be wise to begin by bodybuilding to give your tendons and stabilizer muscles time to adapt to the stresses of lifting, and to give yourself an opportunity to practice your lifting technique with lighter loads.
If you aren’t interested in becoming a powerlifter, but rather you’re interested in building muscle size and strength, then this type of training probably isn’t for you.
Note: Make sure that if you’re jumping straight into strength training that you’re doing a program that’s appropriate for beginners. A proper strength training program will be, but these are not the ones you tend to find online. It’s extremely rare that someone can just put a barbell on their back and squat with anything close to decent form, it’s even rarer that someone can deadlift a barbell off the ground with decent form, and I’ve never even heard of anyone picking up a barbell and pressing it overhead with enough technique that it’s even remotely safe. Rushing right to doing these big compound lifts is often dangerous and ineffective – especially if you’re a naturally skinny guy, since our bodies are longer and thinner. More on that here.
HYPERTROPHY TRAINING (BODYBUILDING)
A good bodybuilding program will be designed to make you muscular in a balanced, symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing way. If you’re bulking bodybuilding will build more muscle mass, and if you’re cutting bodybuilding will maintain all of your muscle mass so that you can exclusively burn fat. If you’re trying to optimize your body composition or aesthetics then this is the type of training you’re after.
Since muscle size and strength is so closely correlated, there are actually a lot of similarities between a good bodybuilding program and a good strength training program. Bodybuilders also tend to build their routines around compound free weight lifts like squats, chin-ups, bench presses, deadlifts, overhead presses, etc.
However a bodybuilder isn’t limited to competition rules and lifts. A bodybuilder doesn’t have to squat below parallel, or include deadlifts in his program, or bench press to his chest. If he likes those lifts and handles them well then he probably should, but he doesn’t have to. He also doesn’t need to maximize his one rep max, so he can spend less time doing the hard-to-recover-from low rep training and more time stimulating muscle growth.
Bodybuilding tends to build more muscle for a few reasons:
More emphasis on the “pump” (metabolic stress). Powerlifters focuse on getting strong via mechanical tension, whereas bodybuilders focuses on getting big via metabolic stress. Instead of loading up the bar with as much weight as possible and lifting for 1-5 reps, a bodybuilder will focus on using perfect form for 6-12 reps. They’ll focus on building up a mind-muscle connection, feeling the burn, and working towards getting a pump.
Some lifters bash the pump, saying it’s meaningless when it comes to growth. That isn’t true. Metabolic stress is a real factor when it comes to muscle growth, and there’s lots of evidence to back this up (study).
Besides, when aesthetics and size are the goals it might not be enough to just do the right lifts, you also want to make sure you’re targeting the right muscles when doing those lifts. Want a big chest? The bench press is a great lift for most, however if you get a pump in your shoulders and triceps instead it’s a sure sign that you’re using other muscle groups to do the lift instead. You may need to work on your technique or use a different lift to target your chest.
Less central nervous system fatigue, more muscle damage. Strength training is very taxing on the central nervous system, since the rep ranges used are so low. Bodybuilders spend less time lifting maximally, which means less central nervous system fatigue, which leaves your body with more resources to build muscle. Because of this bodybuilders are able to do more sets, more reps, more lifts, and train more frequently.
More slow twitch fibre growth. Powerlifters tend to exclusively lift heavy weights. Even if you’re doing a 5×5 program, which is light as far as a powerlifting goes, you’re still just stimulating your fast twitch muscle fibres, and thus only growing your fast twitch muscle fibres. Bodybuilders maximally grow their fast twitch muscle fibres too, but by mixing in lighter rep ranges (12-30 reps) they also grow their slow twitch muscle fibres. While slow twitch muscle fibres have less potential for growth, they can add a significant amount of mass to your frame when properly developed. This may be especially true for us hardgainers, as we may have a higher proportion of slow twitch fibres compared to guys who are naturally very muscular.
Accessory lifts added in to improve aesthetics. Some argue that if you’re already doing compound lifts you don’t need accessory lifts. This is true. A strength training program might not include bicep curls because they won’t improve your big competition lifts. Moreover, strength training programs are so taxing on your ability to recover that you’d risk overtraining by adding in a bunch of superfluous accessory lifts.
But if you want burlier biceps, curls sure help. With a bicep curl you’ll load up your biceps with maximal mechanical tension, fail based on bicep strength, you’ll use a full range of motion with your biceps, etc. Adding in some bicep curls on top of your compound lifts is a no brainer if you want bigger biceps.
Chin-ups are good for building your biceps – probably the best lift for building your biceps – but they also have their limitations. Your biceps cross two joints (your shoulder joint and your elbow joint) so you aren’t getting a full stretch or full contraction. The range of motion is deceptively small. In addition to that, your biceps might not be what you’re lifting with, or they might not be your limiting factor. This is true for me – my back grows when doing chins, not my biceps.
The participants that did curls in addition to their chin-ups did indeed grow girthier guns even though they didn’t gain as much weight. I suspect that the differences in arm size would have been even more pronounced had both groups gained a similar amount of weight.
Note: the sample size was so small that this could very well be a coincidence at this point—we can’t say for sure.
Note: more recently, another study came out showing that doing 30 sets per muscle group per week with compound lifts (nearly twice as much as is considered optimal) was able to stimulate max muscle growth, even without the inclusion of isolation lifts. With isolation lifts added in, bringing the volume to 36 sets per muscle group per week, growth remained about the same. Obviously this is an extremely inefficient and overkill way to train though.
This is true with many lifts. In a bench press the long head of your triceps is working through such a ridiculously small range of motion that you won’t be stimulating it at all. Plus, for many guys it’s the shoulders and medial/lateral heads of the triceps that do most of the pushing, so the chest won’t be the limiting factor and thus won’t grow. As a result you’d want to include a few sets of overhead tricep extensions and pec flys. (study)
You’d also be adding in aesthetic and performance enhancing lifts like reverse flys or IYTs, which will build up the under stimulated and under developed back side of your shoulders, overhead tricep extensions so that you can finally target the long head of your triceps, etc. These aren’t very well stimulated with big compound lifts, but they can have a huge impact on your aesthetics (and posture!).
Summary. Hypertrophy programs are ideal for developing a buff physique, and also pretty decent when it comes to getting fearsomely strong. When losing weight these programs will preserve all of your muscle mass. These programs are also fairly appropriate for people just starting with weightlifting, since the rep ranges are more moderate.
COMBINED STRENGTH & SIZE TRAINING
This is the approach that uses all the available techniques/research to create the burliest physique possible. You could think of it as the CrossFit of muscle-building. While CrossFit combines a bunch of different styles of training in an attempt to train for maximum fitness, this approach combines a few different techniques and approaches in an attempt to train for muscle.
You could just as easily call this a subset of bodybuilding, since it will maximally build size … but there are a few things that are common here that aren’t necessarily prevalent in the bodybuilding world. You could call it a subset of strength training too, since quite a few top powerlifters use it to build strength … but there are a few things that aren’t common in the strength training world. Some people realize this is the handsome child of both bodybuilding and powerlifting, so in some circles it’s called “Powerbuilding”.
It’s not new or revolutionary. Most old-time strongmen used a variety of different training styles, lifts and rep ranges to build their physiques. A hundred years ago, Eugen “the Father of Modern Bodybuilding” Sandow used a combination of heavy compound barbell lifts and lighter dumbbell lifts to build his muscle. The golden age lifters did it in the too – Arnold Schwarzenegger was a top level powerlifter and bodybuilder. And it’s still going on today. Ronnie Coleman is an untested world class bodybuilder and powerlifter. Perhaps more relevantly, Layne Norton is a top natural bodybuilder and record holding powerlifter. It’s not a controversial approach to training either. Good luck finding a study that doesn’t show that this is without a doubt the best way to build muscle.
This approach will usually involve:
Equal emphasis on mechanical tension and metabolic stress. A combined approach will focus on getting strong via mechanical tension while also focusing on getting big via metabolic stress. A wide variety of rep ranges will be used, typically ranging from 3-20, but perhaps going as wide as 1-30.
Lifts designed to get you fearsomely strong. Like strength training, you’d probably use heavy squats, deadlifts and bench presses. Unless you’re competing though, you have a lot of flexibility here.
You’d also use accessory lifts designed to improve your big lifts so that you can get consistently stronger and blast through strength plateaus. Building up more strength will also help you lift heavier weights in the higher rep ranges, which can improve your ability to build muscle mass in the longer term.
Lifts designed to build muscle mass. Like bodybuilding, you’d use lifts and rep ranges that optimally build muscle size, like moderately heavy romanian deadlifts, dumbbell bench presses, curls, and dumbbell rows. You’d also use accessory lifts to build mass in your goal areas and bring up lagging body parts.
This goes beyond just making you look bigger and better. Building up muscle size is very closely correlated with strength, and training with an emphasis on size can drastically help people improve their heavy lifts. One study found that powerlifting performance on a lift was strongly correlated with the size of the main movers. So, for example, how big your chest is fairly accurately predicts how strong you are at the bench press, at least once technique is mastered (study). Another study found that how much muscle powerlifters have can correctly predict how successful they are (study). So the bigger their muscles are overall, the stronger they’re likely to be overall. This explains why many of the top powerlifters these days also practice bodybuilding.
Maybe some fitness techniques. For example, it’s common to organize lifts into small circuits and/or supersets. You’ll build the most muscle if you’re able to lift heavy and with good form, after all, so it’s advantageous for the given muscle group to be fully rested before using it again. This can take several minutes, so oftentimes you can fit in another lift. This can improve your general fitness and work capacity, allowing you to recover better between sets/workouts in the future. It will also keep your workouts short and efficient. Plus, of all the types of exercise out there, this is perhaps the best bang for your buck as far as your health and longevity goes.
Bigger emphasis on periodization. You’ll be alternating periods of more intense volume with periods of more intense rest. This will yield the most muscular gains, prevent overtraining, and also build up your overall work capacity, which will allow you to better build muscle in the future. You’d also alternate periods where the emphasis is on bodybuilding with periods where the emphasis is on strength training. This will help keep you consistently progressing.
Summary. A combined approach to lifting is ideal for developing the burliest physique possible, both in terms of strength and size, and both in the shorter and longer term. When losing weight these programs will preserve all of your muscle mass. These programs are also fairly appropriate for people just starting with weightlifting, so long as the lifts and rep ranges are properly progressed and periodized.
This is the approach we use. We use every piece of research to find the optimal way to build muscle, and at this point there’s enough evidence that it’s pretty clear that the best way to build muscle is to strategically combine the best practices of both bodybuilding and powerlifting. As a result, this approach is common with the nerdier of muscle-builders, regardless of whether they’re aiming primarily for size or strength.
There are many ways to structure things. We train three times per week. Each workout takes about an hour. We hit every major muscle group each workout. And each workout we use a variety of lifts and rep ranges designed to make us both big and strong. This has us building size as quickly as possible, strength as quickly as possible … and even improving our posture, health and fitness.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
This may or may not sound like good news. The fact that muscle-building programs are the best programs for building muscle is an awkward truth for us skinny guys. When you don’t have much muscle, it can be intimidating to start a style of training where the amount of muscle you have on your body is indicative of your success (or lack thereof). It would be much more pleasant if we could build up muscle mass as a by-product of doing something that we’re already good at. This is why I spent so long trying to get fitter and stronger doing things like swimming and martial arts – because I felt like I wouldn’t be judged as harshly based on my lack of muscle mass. Not surprisingly, this kept me skinny.
(People at the gym won’t actually judge you harshly, in fact they’ll probably be thrilled that they have someone they can pretend they aren’t flexing in front of. On that note, you can build a home gym if you prefer training at home. It’s not as difficult or expensive as you may think. Here’s what we recommend.)
The good news is that the better your training program, the more your muscle cells will be doing everything they can to grow as quickly as possible. They’ll be incredibly insulin sensitive, meaning that more of the food you eat will be invested in building muscle, and less will be invested in storing fat. The quality of your training will determine how quickly you can build muscle, and also to a large degree how resistant you’ll be to storing fat.
The further away you’ve been from training optimally, the more exciting this news is. You may think that your genetics are keeping you skinny, but by optimizing your training for muscle growth you may actually find that you can grow at an incredibly rapid pace.