(Updated January 2018) Being skinny can be rough. We grow up around people who gain weight by accident, and then when we turn to the fitness industry, we find ourselves slotted into a footnote: “Oh yeah, and if you’re naturally skinny, you’ve got a fast metabolism and whatnot so, you know, just eat more.”
I know that advice would work fine for most guys, but the fact that we aren’t most guys is precisely why we’re being given that advice in the first place, and also why that advice fails. Hard. For most guys, eating lots of food and gaining weight is second nature. If you tell the average guy to “just eat more,” he’d be able to. No problem. Hell, he’d probably even like it (until he got fat).
What they don’t realize is that telling us to eat more is as useless as us telling them, “Just eat less—duh.” That’s not going to solve any problems. In fact, if you go around telling people that, you’re probably going to get in a fight. (And if you’re going to go around getting in fights, it might help to build some muscle first. Luckily, that’s what this article is about.)
It’s no surprise that during our first weight gain attempts, most of us lose weight. That clues us into the fact that we’re different, and we assume that we’re doomed to be skinny forever.
But that doesn’t make sense either. The best athletes, the most famous sex icons—most are ectomorphs. I mean, look at Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Cristiano Ronaldo, Connor McGregor and Michael Jordan. These guys are hardly suffering for being ectomorphs. They’ve found a way to get around their skinny genetics and live the biggest lives ever.
So what’s going on here? Why is it so damn difficult for us to gain weight? What’s going on with our small stomachs, meagre appetites, raging metabolisms, long limbs and stubborn muscles? Is building muscle even possible? And if so, how?
Well, for the skinny guys who are still worried that gaining weight is impossible for them, this one’s for you.
You’re eager to build up a more muscular physique, and things are going super well. But lo and behold, disaster strikes—and not just a run of the mill muscle disaster, like running out of milk, but the worst kind of disaster imaginable: a vacation.
I bet just the mention of a vacation has your heart racing and your mind spiralling down into panic mode. Unfortunately, I’ve been there. I know what you’re thinking. Will all of your hard-earned muscle wither away if you don’t go to the gym for a week or two? Can you build muscle with bodyweight workouts? How many mojitos does it take to spike muscle protein synthesis? Why don’t they make luggage big enough to fit a barbell? Is there real coconut in a piña colada, or does it count as junk food? Will the customs agent mistake your whey protein for cocaine? (Can you really get jacked in prison?) How much of a tan will be enough to disguise your now skinny-fat physique?
In desperation, you might start googling around to learn more, but since only 3% of the population is trying to gain weight, good luck trying to find an article about how to maintain/gain muscle while travelling.
So what do you do?
One of the most common questions we get asked is, “What exercise is best to grow my small chest (or arms, shoulders, abs, etc)?” It’s a surprisingly large question, since there are so many things to consider. There are a ton of studies looking into the best exercises for activating certain muscle groups, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
So we’ve put together a guide showing you the best exercises for each muscle group. These exercises represent your best chance of safely building muscle as rapidly as possible for your experience level. We’ve selected these exercises based on a few factors: muscle activation, efficiency, learning curve, risk:reward ratio, etc.
Skinny-fat is when you’ve got over 20% bodyfat but look skinny in a t-shirt. When instead of your shirt hanging off your pecs, it’s puffed out by your gut. This is is a frustrating situation to be in because the advice the typical skinny-guy hears is to avoid cardio, lift and eat more; whereas the typical chubby-guy is told to do plenty of cardio, lift and eat less.
…But it feels like whenever you eat more you just get chubbier, and whenever you eat less you just get skinnier. In the past I’ve “bulked” myself into having a love-handly gut, and I’ve lost all the muscle I gained from the bulk when trying to get rid of that gut. Not a good cycle to get caught in. As far as my physique went, I don’t think I’ve ever struggled with anything quite so confusing and frustrating. To make things even more infuriating, if you’ve tried to lose fat while building muscle… then you know all too well that that’s the least effective advice of all.
At that point, feeling let down by classic advice, most of us desperately turn to novelty advice: eating like a caveman, avoiding carbs (or even going ketogenic), doing some sort of extreme sport routine (like CrossFit), or eating 100% “clean” (whatever clean means), etc. I’ve been down that road as well, because it seems like somebody finally, finally has the solution. But after a few months of having sky-high energy levels (because your body is pumping you full of energizing stress hormones), you realize that you’re exactly where you started except now you have a bunch of food phobias, your grocery bill is twice as high, and you can’t eat at a normal restaurant anymore.
We’re going to cover why you’re skinny-fat, and then how to become strong and lean. This approach isn’t novel—there’s nothing revolutionary in this article, and your doctor would likely agree with all of it. However, because it’s thorough and evidence-based it’ll actually work.
Updated January 4th, 2016. Maybe you know that skinny guy who gets totally amped up to gain some weight and build muscle. He’s tried and given up in the past, but blames his failure on not trying hard enough—on not having enough motivation. He starts off strong: hitting the gym 5 times a week, eating 100% clean (whatever that means to them), and spending hundreds of dollars on bizarro supplements that he read about on the Internet that even the supplement salesman is confused by.
A few weeks go by and after sacrificing so much in their life: time, energy, money… the scale hasn’t really budged. Or maybe his weight even dropped because they cut out the easy calories they were getting from junk foods.
Feeling disappointed and burnt out, he slowly stops going to the gym and throws in the towel.
Why does this keep happening? Some people might say that he didn’t have the grit or willpower to tough it out. But honestly, this guy has incredible willpower and motivation—that’s a brutal routine that many professional fitness models couldn’t even keep up. That isn’t the problem. Anyone with that routine will either reach capacity and burn out, or switch their energy to something else—something new and exciting (new job, holidays, new relationship)… and then there’s no room left for the crazy muscle-building routine.
I’ve been that guy too many times to count. (And not just with building muscle, either.)
Us skinny guys aren’t even having a hard time building muscle because we’ve got bad genes, although that was an excuse I once used. No, us skinny guys are actually pretty great at building muscle! In the b2B program the average member will gain ten pounds in the first five weeks and twenty within the first three months. While this may sound crazy, especially if, like us, you’ve tried and failed in the past… these results line up well with what’s found in research. The largest and most thorough muscle-building genetics study found that skinny guys build muscle faster than anyone else (study). Some guys in the study added two inches to their arms and doubled their strength in just the first three months.
So why do so many of us skinny guys fail at building muscle over and over again?
(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.
(Updated November, 2017) As a skinny guy, each and every time I tried to build muscle people would tell me two things: “just eat more” and “just lift heavy.” Then they’d look at me like they’d just solved all of my problems – totally confident they’d given me the information I’d been missing all my life. I was quite familiar with being skinny though, so I was also quite familiar with that advice.
I’d even tried it. Many times.
We’ll cover the lifting heavy part in another post. Both are really misunderstood and fascinating topics, and I think going into some depth could be really helpful. In this article we’ll cover the eating more part – the part that hits really close to home for me. Literally close to home – even my mother would tell me to just eat more.
That’s because in a world where the average first worlder is overweight, us skinny guys, hardgainers, ectomorphs, dreamboats – whatever you want to call us naturally thin guys – we’re outliers. Even when it comes to building muscle we’re often slotted into a footnote – “Oh yeah, and for hardgainer ectomorph body types, you’ve got a fast metabolism and stuff so you’ll need to eat more. Eat carbs – lots of carbs.”
That “just eat more” advice would work fine for most people, but the fact that we aren’t most people is precisely why they’re giving us that advice … and also why that advice is rather naive. I mean, for most people eating lots of food and gaining weight is second nature. If you tell the average dude to “just eat more” he’d be able to. He’d probably get fat, but he’d be able to do it. Hell, he’d probably even like it.
Little do people know that they’ve just casually told us to climb the mount everest of ectomorph challenges.
Eating more is rough. First, our physiology makes it hard to get into a caloric surplus. Second, most mainstream approaches to muscle make it even harder, since they either totally ignore appetite issues or, worse yet, they’re cleverly designed to reduce our appetites. Third, even when we do manage to get into a caloric surplus, our adaptive metabolisms kick in.
By trying to simply eat more and lift heavy we often find our results underwhelming and unsustainable. Ironically, as skinny guys we often have the most natural potential for muscle growth … since, err, we’re so far away from our genetic potential …
Anyway, we should be seeing extremely rapid gains – especially at first. Gaining 2+ pounds of muscle per week is pretty much unheard of in the muscle-building world, and yet us skinny guys are able to do it pretty consistently.
Appetite can bottleneck our results, yes, but most of the news is actually pretty good. In this article we’ll cover ectomorph physiology and appetite, and how overfeeding, building muscle and staying lean differs for guys like us. Turns out we’ve even got some incredible natural advantages when it comes to leanly building muscle – advantages that we can leverage.
(Updated February 2014) I gained my first twenty pounds using a rusty old barbell and bench that my dad and I found on the side of the road. It wasn’t expensive, it wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t safe. It also wasn’t the first time I’d tried to build muscle. I’d already tried going to the gym, using a personal trainer, and martial arts. This time though, in my simple rickety home gym, I finally figured out the basic principles of weight gain.
You don’t need much equipment to build muscle optimally. The big heavy muscle-building lifts don’t require much. You don’t even need the rickety bench and rusty barbell that I had. If you’re smart about this, you can get away with just one simple piece of fairly inexpensive equipment. Maybe two.
(Updated November 2014.) There are two things we ectomorphs often forget when getting into weightlifting. The first is that when we first start taking it seriously, well, we’re still novices. We can’t exactly be expected to perform lifts that require high degrees of athleticism – athleticism that we don’t necessarily have yet. This is off-putting, because we often desperately want to get bigger without being held up for months with all sorts of posture and mobility work. Luckily, we can develop mobility, strength, stability and power simultaneously with size. But we do need to learn how to move and lift right from the get-go though, otherwise we’re setting ourselves up for building an imbalanced body that looks funky, performs poorly and is vulnerable to injury.
The second thing we often forget is that we don’t have the same bone or muscle structures that most bodybuilders and powerlifters have. Most of those guys have highly specialized bodies, accomplished both through decades of training… and also their genetics. They’re often born with bodies that suit the lifts they do. Just like the tallest guys are drawn to basketball, weightlifters typically gravitate towards the lifts that they naturally excel at.
This means that the guys you’re watching do the bench press are often the worst ones to get your cues from. The lift is very different for them—they’ve got big muscle bellies, short thick bones, stubby limbs and barrel chests. We’ve often got long tendons, long slim bones, long lanky limbs and shallower rib cages.
Taking their cues is like asking a 7’2 guy how to dunk a basketball. He may very well say “uh just reach up and put it in.”
Overall we’re just longer people. We make better decathletes than shot-putters; better quarterbacks than linebackers. Hardly anything to be upset about—it’s not like thin guys can’t kick ass at athletics and build amazingly powerful bodies. We just need to take a different approach, and it’s not the approach you’d likely see the biggest guys in the gym taking.
But if we want to be strong muscular dudes we really do need to lift. Unlike many other body types, we can’t rely on our genetics or everyday physical activities to build us any muscle. (More on that here.) So let’s talk about lifting like ectomorphs so we can turn ourselves into big burly dudes.
(Updated September 2014) It’s May 1st, 2010 and Shane and I just graduated from university a few days earlier. We’re living in a high-rise apartment with our good friend Payam in a less than ideal neighbourhood. We’re just starting our “Muscle May” experiment – a one month challenge Shane presented to Payam and me. The idea was to have all three of us roommates hold one another accountable for 30 days of an extreme diet and exercise change.
At this point I have about $500 left on my nearly maxed out credit card, $38 in my bank account, and no savings. To make matters worse I have no income streams, as Shane and I just started up our design business a few days earlier. We’re looking for our next client, are in the process of applying for a business loan, and rent payments are coming up.
“Wait, so I’m going to need to spend more money on groceries?” I say, weighing in at a soaking wet 130 pounds of pure bone and a large head.
“No, you’re going to need to spend a normal amount on groceries. You’re horribly underfeeding your body right now. We all are.” Shane responded.
“How the heck am I supposed to pay for rent, more food and these supplements you keep talking about … like this nitrous oxide–“
“– it’s nitric oxide. Nitrous oxide is what you put in your car.” Shane cut me off. “And it’s only for 30 days. Plus, some supplements, like protein powder, are actually cheaper than real food.”
Fast forward 30 days and I’m now 30 pounds heavier than I was before. (22 pounds from the nutrition and training + 8 pounds from the creatine.) I feel pretty damn incredible. But it looks like I better figure out a way to pay for this new “normal” amount of groceries. Inside are the top 17 tricks I’ve found for cutting costs over the past 2 and a half years without compromising results.