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 March, 2018) As a naturally skinny guy, I spent almost 10 years of my life trying and failing to gain weight. During these failed attempts, I would often lose weight. People would see this, and they’d tell me to “just eat more.”
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 “just eat more” advice… and how dumb it was.
I mean, it’s not like I hadn’t tried to eat more. Of course I had. Many times.
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 in the first place… and also why it won’t help us. After all, eating lots of food and gaining weight is second nature for most people. If you tell the average dude to “just eat more,” he’d be able to. Hell, he’d probably even like it.
Even if they mention our crazy metabolisms, they assume it can easily by balanced out by eating more. But they rarely acknowledge that a fast metabolism is just one small aspect of physiology. For example, it’s also harder to gain weight because of our smaller stomachs.
So we assume that we’re supposed to force-feed ourselves, but that’s a terrible time, and it gives us underwhelming results anyway. So after grinding out a typical bulking diet for a few weeks, feeling miserably the whole way through, we inevitably give up. At that point, most of us blame our genetics, thinking we’re doomed to stay skinny forever.
We never make it far enough to realize that we’ve got some incredible genetic advantages when it comes to 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.
Over 5,000 shares and 500 comments later, here’s our revised supplement guide for naturally skinny guys who are trying to gain weight, build muscle quickly and leanly, and do all of this in a healthy way. We’re interested in the best weight gain supplements for ectomorphs, hardgainers and skinny guys. We’ll cover the very best supplements, we’ll recommend brands that have good reputations, we’ll cover creatine and other supplements that are proven to increase muscle growth, and we’ll go over the pros and cons of supplements designed to help guys eat more calories, such as weight gainers.
These may not be the supplements you expect, though. Two of the best supplements are classic, since they work for all body types, but the third one is only helpful for hardgainers, and you might find it a little weird. We’ll also teach you how to make your own homemade weight gainer supplement that outperforms the store-bought ones, is better for your digestion, and is far cheaper.
It’s easy to show that a supplement is effective by looking at a single study, but when we zoom out and look at the entire body of evidence, only a few supplements remain standing. Our goal is to make the ultimate evidence-based supplement guide for naturally skinny guys who are having trouble gaining weight, so this article takes into account every study about a given supplement, favouring systemic reviews and meta-analyses over the latest (and often controversial) studies.
In addition to leveraging science, we’ve also been in the trenches with this. I’ve personally used these supplements to gain 55 pounds at 10–11% body fat, and we’ve recommended it to nearly 10,000 members of the Bony to Beastly Bulking Program as well as the 500,000 people who have read this article.
On that note, these supplements didn’t make the cut but are still worth a mention:
- Citrulline Malate: good. This is the best “pump” supplement on the market right now, and is starting to get some good research behind it. When digested, it converts into arginine, which turns into nitric oxide, which allows you to get a fearsome pump. The pump improves the health of your blood vessels and increases protein synthesis. This isn’t quite a top-tier supplement, but it’s a good one.
- Beta-alanine: good. Beta-alanine supplements are proving to be quite effective. They’re not quite top tier yet, but for ectomorphs eager to experiment with new supplements, this is another solid choice. The ideal dosage seems to be around 3–5 grams per day at any time (similar to creatine). Be warned, though—it can make your skin tingle (paresthesia). Harmless, but strange.
- Ashwagandha: decent. Last year a study came out showing that ashwagandha can increase testosterone production, reduce cortisol production, increase strength, limit fat storage, and accelerate the pace that your body can build muscle. To give you an idea of the magnitude of these effects, the study found a 15% greater increase in testosterone and a 44 pound greater increase in bench press strength when compared to the placebo group over the course of 8 weeks. If more robust evidence comes out to back up these findings, ashwagandha could be a good supplement for bulking ectomorphs.
- Vitamin D: decent. Vitamin D supplements can increase testosterone output if you’re deficient in vitamin D, and most people are. However, unlike steroids, it won’t boost your testosterone production outside of normal ranges. For guys who don’t get enough sun, though, this can bring their muscle-building potential back to baseline.
- Fish oil: okay. Another study has come out showing that fish oil supplementation can slightly improve weightlifting performance (study). There are others showing that it can allow you to build muscle more leanly. However, these effects are quite weak compared to the core muscle-building supplements.
- HMB: ignore for now. HMB performed very well in a couple recent studies, getting participants steroid-like gains. However, since HMB is found within protein sources, it’s generally better just to optimize your protein intake. Focusing on protein instead of HMB will allow you to build muscle more quickly.
- Nitrates: ignore for now. The nitrates found in beets and leafy greens are incredibly for your health, muscle soreness and even your lifting performance… but there’s no need to supplement with nitrate supplements. In fact, if you want the benefits of eating more vegetables without needing to eat more vegetables, we recommend Athletic Greens instead.
- Collagen powder: ignore for now. A new study just came out showing that collagen powder can be effective for building muscle in old people with sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss). However, as with HMB, collagen is found within regular protein sources. You’ll build muscle far better if you just focus on your protein intake.
- Arginine: use citrulline Malate instead. Arginine is a popular supplement that cannot be digested properly, and thus doesn’t work. Citrulline malate can be digested properly, successfully producing the intended effect (a bigger pump and accelerated muscle growth).
- Baking powder: use beta-alanine instead. Baking powder mimics the effects of beta-alanine, making it an effective pre-workout supplement… kind of. Not only will it make you feel incredibly sick and dehydrated, a single dose contains 4x your recommended daily sodium intake.
With that handled, let’s move on to the very best weight-gain and muscle-building supplements. All of these have proven to be incredibly effective and have hundreds of studies backing them up.