(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.
(Updated October 2018) We’ve been getting hundreds and hundreds of questions. What are the best weight gain supplements for ectomorphs, hardgainers and skinny guys? What brands do we recommend? And what’s the deal with weight gainers? Are they healthy? Are they effective?
So we’ve put together a supplement protocol that’s designed to help a naturally skinny guy build muscle more quickly. This specific protocol optimizes every principle in the scientific literature, I personally used it to gain 55 pounds, and we’ve recommended it to over 5,000 members as well as the nearly 500,000 people who have read this article.
These probably aren’t the supplements you expect, though. Two of the best supplements are classic, since they work for all body types, but you’re going to find the third one a little weird. Because it only works well on ectomorphs, you might not even know that it exists. 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.
Finally, this is a research-based article, and there’s a lot of research being done into muscle-building supplements. We’ll update this post every month with all the relevant new studies that come out.
On that note, these supplements didn’t make the cut, but they’re 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 are incredibly effective, with hundreds of studies backing them up.
(Updated November 2017) Every straight guy knows how a woman’s femininity can tug on our heart strings. And our lust strings. Sometimes a woman’s shape, personality, face, voice—it all just adds up to make her absolutely irresistible. (Here‘s an article on the most attractive female body.) Women feel the same way about us men… just based on a whole different set of traits.
For better or worse, the impression we give off can have a huge impact on our lives. Even if we train and eat well for our health and performance, we also want to attract great women, and ultimately spending the rest of our lives with the one we want is a pretty damn big deal. And, of course, even once we have her that doesn’t mean we should stop striving to be the man of her dreams.
It’s not just about women either—getting the respect of other men is important to us too, both in our personal and work life. So too is getting the respect of ourselves. I know that confidence should come from within, but that confidence also needs to come from real accomplishments. Being able to put in the time and dedication required to build a strong, healthy and capable body is one of many things that can give us a true kind of confidence. It also gives us the physical power that is sometimes needed to stand up for our beliefs.
Aesthetics, muscle, health and masculinity are all so closely related to one another that how we train and eat can roll over into every area of our life. So of course we care. It’s not just instinctual, it’s logical.
If anything, as men sometimes we tend to think attractiveness matters less than it actually does. A new study just published at the University of Notre Dame found that the whole successful but otherwise unattractive guy marrying a beautiful woman stereotype is pretty much just a myth. It turns out that attractiveness attracts attractiveness, just like success attracts success. This is great news for sexism, bad news for thinking you can get away with being a schlub. (study)
The tricky part is that some of the traits we portray are obvious… but some we’d never even think to think of. Moreover, sometimes it’s those elusive traits that make or break us.
I had coffee a few weeks back with a good friend of mine from Montreal. I had just finished a couple months of the Bony to Beastly program, and I’d put on 20ish pounds of muscle since she last saw me. She was wowed by my progress and told me I looked a Hell of a lot stronger. My physical health was obviously not a problem, but she was worried that I was headed down the road to obsession. She knows that I barely train 3 hours per week, so there’s obviously no obsessive behaviour there. But she also knows that I’m extremely fascinated by the role that nutrition plays with fat loss, health and building muscle—especially for us ectomorphs. So, despite the fact that we had just finished pouring rum into our coffees, she was concerned that I was developing an obsession with eating healthy foods and only healthy foods.
The interesting thing is that eating healthy and only healthy foods can actually hinder your results. Many people struggle to build muscle, lose fat, love life, and accomplish their goals because they place too much emphasis on “healthy” eating. The true secret to becoming superhuman isn’t to eat superfoods, it’s to eat “Clark Kent” foods—everyday foods that will give you superhuman results.
(Updated March 2015) Weightlifting, training for a triathlon and chugging along on your mum’s treadmill will all result in your body adapting to the given training stimulus. You’ll create more blood vessels, develop more mitochondria in your cells, trigger gene expression and transform your body right down to a molecular level. You’ll become better at what you’re training to do and collect on all the corollary benefits: health, fitness, energy, longevity, intelligence, happiness, calmness, etc. You’ll also spend more of your life feeling awesome, since exercise affects your neurotransmitters and releases endorphins.
So exercise in general is great. However, not all exercise is equally great. Different types of exercises accomplish different goals. Cardio and endurance training is mostly an oxygen delivery thing—more blood vessels, more red blood cells, more blood, etc—whereas strength training is mostly a muscle thing—more muscle fibres, thicker muscles fibres, more fluid in your muscle fibres, etc.
Both types of adaptations are incredibly good for your health. Weightlifting keeps you young, spry, strong, resistant to injury, lean, intelligent, focused. Cardio keeps you energetic, lively, calm, happy and strong-hearted.
So for optimal health you need to be both strong and fit.
The trouble is that mixing strength training and cardio together means that your body will be trying to adapt in at least two separate ways. Some people think that’s good, some people think that’s bad.
Things get more confusing still when you’re an ectomorph—naturally thin and already burning a ton of calories just by reading this blog post. That last thing you want to do is burn calories by jogging around town, since that will mean you need to eat even more. Ain’t nobody got time for that. (Kidding, everyone in the world has time for that except for us.)
Anyway, that raises the age-old question: should ectomorphs do cardio?
You’ve probably heard that alcohol calories will make you fat and that beer causes beer bellies. You may have heard that alcohol consumption negatively affects your metabolism and testosterone production, or even that it hampers protein synthesis. You might also be thinking this is nutrionazi Shane ordering you to vacate the bar. If you knew me better you’d know otherwise—being a beast is about enjoying life, not raining on peoples’ parades. If I wasn’t too busy dancing my glutes off at a rock ‘n roll show—beer in hand, I’d be the one at the bar telling you that you don’t need to worry about a few shots of vodka or a hearty glass of scotch.
That might sound strange coming from the guy telling you to put down the cupcake and stick to the steak, but the facts on alcohol consumption back up my lack of concern for the state of your shredded abs while having a drink with your friends. Most of the hype surrounding the negative effects of alcohol are exaggerated, avoidable or just plain wrong.