(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 ectomorphs who are trying to build muscle quickly and leanly. We’ll go over the very best supplements, recommend some supplement brands that have good reputations, discuss creatine and other supplements that are proven to increase muscle growth, and we’ll go over the pros and cons of bulking supplements such as weight gainers.
To do this, we need to evaluate the research—all of the research. It’s easy to claim that a supplement is effective by showcasing results from a single study, but when we zoom out and look at the entire body of evidence, only a few supplements remain standing. This article takes into account every single study about a given supplement, favouring systemic reviews and meta-analyses over the latest (and often controversial) research.
In addition to leveraging science, we’ve also been in the trenches with this. I’ve personally used these supplements to gain 60 pounds at 11% body fat, and we’ve recommended them to nearly 10,000 members of the Bony to Beastly Bulking Program, as well as the 500,000 people who have read this article.
Before we dive in, these bulking supplements didn’t make the cut:
- 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, which could certainly help an ectomorph gain a little bit more muscle. 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 8-week study found a 15% greater increase in testosterone and a 44-pound greater increase in bench press strength when compared to the placebo group. Ashwagandha may help ectomorphs bulk up by increasing their testosterone production, but there’s not enough evidence yet.
- 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. It’s a good supplement, but it’s situational, and getting more sunlight would be better anyway.
- 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.
- Ecdysterone and ecdysteroids: interesting. This new study found that a spinach extract containing small amounts of ecdysterone caused the study participants to gain quite a bit of extra muscle mass and strength. However, this is just a single small study, it was hardly conclusive, and it’s still far too soon to tell whether ecdysterone could be a good bulking supplement.
- 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 best bulking supplements for ectomorphs. All of these have proven to be incredibly effective, with hundreds of studies backing them up.
(Under Construction) Most of us are eager to improve our appearance, but we’re also notoriously bad at understanding how to do it. Some of these mistakes are simply about how far to take things. For example, when men guess what degree of muscularity women find the most attractive, they’re off by thirty pounds (study).
But other guys have an even deeper misunderstanding. They don’t realize that our appearance is so influential because of how accurately it reflects our strength, fitness, and health. They try to become more attractive on a purely superficial level, muscle by muscle. That will never work. It will never be as convincing as the real thing.
So in this article, we’ll dive into:
- What women find the sexiest (attractiveness)
- Which physical traits men respect and idolize (aesthetics)
- How those two ideals differ from one another
- How to get the best of both worlds.
We’ll cover exact proportions and ratios, talk about which strength standards correspond with which degrees of muscularity, and dig into a bunch of fascinating research. By the end, you should have a full understanding of how far away from the ideals you are and know exactly how to improve your appearance.
We’ll also make sure that as you improve your appearance, it comes along with benefits that run far deeper. Or, if you want to look at it the other way, we’ll make sure that as you get into better shape, it also makes you more attractive.
However, be warned, this article is long. I’ll understand if you don’t want to read the whole thing. If that’s the case, here’s a quick and simple trick that will make you instantly sexier: have a drink. It will boost your attractiveness (to yourself) by 50%. This is called the reverse beer goggles effect, also known as, beauty is in the eye of the beer holder (study). I know it’s not a perfect solution, but it could save you a good half hour of reading.
If you’re looking for an improvement that other people will notice, too, don’t worry—that’s what the rest of this article is for.
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.
If you’ve been having trouble bulking up, adding more milk into your diet will probably help. By drinking more milk, you’ll be adding more calories and protein into your diet, not to mention all of the other nutrients that milk contains. Best of all, drinking more milk is quick, simple, and easy on the appetite.
However, if you add too much milk into your diet, then you may find yourself gaining quite a bit of fat along with your muscle (study). Worse, since whole milk is so high in saturated fat, going overboard with it can cause you to store proportionally more visceral fat, which can be quite bad for your longterm health (study). That’s why GOMAD, where you drink a gallon of whole milk every day, is so infamous for making guys fat.
You could avoid some of those problems by choosing low-fat milk, but higher-fat milk has some unique muscle-building properties that you might want to take advantage of.
So, what’s the best way to bulk up with milk?
Let’s dive into the science.
(Updated July 2016.) Sugar’s a pretty sensationalized nutrient these days among the health conscious. Many people claim that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is responsible for everyone being so overweight, that fruits are worse than vegetables because they contain sugar, that sugary indulgences cannot be part of a balanced diet, that artificial sweeteners are toxic, or that “functional” sugars like agave nectar are the more healthful choice.
It’s a bias-ridden topic, and I feel like we’re up to the sugar party naked because us skinny guys don’t really crave sweets like the other 97% of society. Our happiness won’t really be impacted by whether we get to have a sugary Starbucks drink on the way to work or a brownie for dessert. There’s no reason for us to stigmatize or fetishize this sugar stuff, we can just approach it rationally.
We also have very different goals and issues. Hell, when you heard that high-fructose corn syrup causes weight gain, you probably rushed off to buy all the Aunt Jemima corn syrup you could find.
When you get back, we’ll discuss what science has to say about the health and body composition effects of sugar.