Some of the most driven and motivated people in the gym are skinny guys. Their disdain for feeling small, weak, and inadequate pushes them to lift weights with a fervor and a passion that most people would envy. Alas, most of these guys see such little results that their fire and drive burn out.
I know what this feels like. I started working out because I was skinny. I hated it and it drove me to lift weights like a maniac. I thought that my passion and consistency was all I needed to build the muscle I so desperately craved. A few years later, and with barely ANY results to show for my efforts, I was ready to throw in the towel. I did everything the bodybuilding magazines at the time told me to do with my training.
I lifted to failure and beyond with forced reps, partial reps, and even negatives. I “bombed and blitzed,” (that was the terminology of the day), my body with set after set of exercises. I chased the pump, always seeking the fleeting feeling of being bigger. I used every machine I could, trying to add as much variety to my routine as possible. After I destroyed a muscle group, I gave it a full week to “rest and recover.” Little did I know, those were all the exact WRONG things a hard-gainer skinny guy should do.
After finally admitting I was getting nowhere fast and throwing my hands up in desperation, I decided to question everything I thought was right when it came to packing on muscle. I started reading real studies and I examined the training methodologies of Soviet weightlifters who had dominated Olympic weightlifting for decades. The best information I got was from digging up old books and articles about the training styles, exercise selections, and muscle building approaches of strength athletes and bodybuilders from eras that existed BEFORE the widespread use of steroids.
What I learned contradicted what I understood to be common muscle building knowledge. Much of the information I found was just plain opposite from what was popular at the time. I was desperate, so I was game. I also considered that maybe the current information being communicated through muscle building publications and articles was coming from anabolic steroid users. Steroids surely had to change how bodies respond.
I am going to share with you the biggest, most common mistakes that thin and skinny men tend to make with their training, and I am going to share with you the BETTER way to train. Below are the top 5 skinny guy muscle building mistakes and the remedies for each.
1. Abusing INTENSITY
This one is the WORST. We are told that we need to force our muscles to grow and that the only way to do that is to go beast mode, or to hammer muscles into submission. This also feeds into our own insecurities about being skinny. We WANT to punish ourselves in the gym because we do not like the way we look. Combine this with a hard work ethic and strong drive, and it is a recipe for disaster.
Don’t get me wrong, intensity is important. You do need to send a “stress” signal to your body in order for it to build muscle, but if this signal is too “loud,” not only will your body NOT build muscle but it may actually start to go backwards.
Building muscle is an adaptation process. Your body is getting stronger and building muscle to avoid future similar stress. It’s not that different from your body’s reaction to sunlight. When you go out into the sun, your body tans to be able to handle the same amount of sun exposure in the future.
HOWEVER, before your body adapts it must HEAL. Healing is NOT the same as adapting, although they can happen simultaneously. Healing has a priority over adapting. If you spend too much time under intense sunlight and your skin blisters, your body is not focusing on tanning, it is working hard to heal.
Too much intensity with weight training is the same. You damage muscles, get super sore, rest, and heal, then go back to the gym with NO strength gains or muscle. You are stuck in the breakdown recovery trap where you break muscle down and recover but you never ADAPT.
For most people, lifting to failure is far too much intensity. The old school pre-steroid muscle men and bodybuilders hardly EVER trained with failure type intensity. They observed that it resulted in less strength gains and less muscle if they did so.
Skinny guys are even MORE sensitive to intensity. You are not naturally muscular and your body registers muscular stress as “more stressful,” than a gifted naturally muscular or bulky type. If you over apply intensity, you will just get sore with little to no muscle gains or strength gains.
Instead, use intensity judiciously. In my professional experience, training hundreds of people who wanted to gain maximum muscle for over two decades, stopping each set around two reps BEFORE failure is perfect. In other words, stop your sets when you think you can maybe squeeze out or muster only two more reps.
2. Too Much Volume
This one is like abusing intensity. We think that if some is good, then more is always better. This is just plain wrong.
Volume is the amount of total work or sets you do for a particular muscle. Studies CLEARLY show that there is a PERFECT dose of total sets people should perform, for maximum muscle growth. Go below it and you gain less muscle and strength. Go above it and you also gain less muscle and strength. Veer too far off from your perfect dose and you will see zero progress or, in worst cases, lose muscle and increase risk of injury.
Volume is a factor that is important, but it can easily be overdone. Luckily for you, we now have studies that show the right amount of volume and I will back them up with my personal and professional experience. For most people, roughly 9-15 sets of TOTAL sets completed, per week per body part, is ideal. Naturally skinny guys should aim to be on the side of less. Our bodies can grow muscle (in some cases surprisingly fast), but they tend to get overwhelmed with volume faster than people who are naturally more muscular.
3. Focusing on the Pump
The pump is the temporary accumulation of blood in your muscles that can happen when you lift weights. As you do rep after rep, blood rushes into your muscles faster than it can come out.
It feels AWESOME to get a skin splitting pump in the gym. I can add a (temporary) full inch to my arms, and almost 2 inches to my legs, when they are pumped full of blood to the max. Of course, it only lasts for 20-40 minutes, then I deflate back to normal.
The pump also serves us when it comes to building muscle. The simple fact that you can get a really good pump means you are well hydrated, well-nourished and well rested. Having a pump can mean your body is in a good state to build muscle. The pump itself may also stimulate muscle growth as it encourages more capillary construction, leads to more non-muscle fiber structures within the muscle, and helps your muscles store more fluid. All of which make muscles appear larger. The pump is not a bad thing, necessarily.
The problem comes from valuing it above strength. Your muscles serve a purpose and that purpose is to MOVE your body, or to help you MOVE things. Getting stronger is the main adaptation that directly leads to more muscle. Some strength athletes almost never get a pump. Powerlifters are some of the biggest and most muscular athletes on the planet, and their long rest periods and very low rep training is terrible for getting a pump, yet they build muscle like crazy.
Strength is the most important thing you should chase when lifting weights. Strength gains almost always precede muscle growth. In other words when you consistently gain strength, size usually follows. Add 50lbs to your squat or 30lbs to your bench press and I promise you will have measurable muscle growth.
It’s true that there are guys in the gym who are much bigger than other guys who are stronger, but this isn’t the whole story. Some of us are stronger than others even if we are much smaller, but all of us get BIGGER when we ourselves get stronger.
Instead of chasing the pump, make getting stronger your main goal. Occasionally, it’s ok to train in a way that gives you the best pump, but limit this to ¼ of your training. Get strong and train to get strong, and you will see faster muscle gains.
Training for strength rather than a pump means you rest at least 60 seconds in between sets. Train in the lower rep ranges of 1-10 reps, most of the time. Document the weight you lift each workout so that you can try to out do your best. One caveat, strength gains don’t always come consistently. They tend to come consistently for a few weeks, and then you need to back off for a week or two before trying to add weight to the bar again.
4. Performing the Wrong Exercises
If exercises came with a number system that scored their muscle building potential, everyone interested in adding muscle mass would be far better off. Unfortunately, this does not exist, so we rely on what the huge steroid head on Instagram tells us. It seems they are always trying to come up with cool and new movements to razzle and dazzle us. The funny thing is that those new and weird exercises pale in comparison to old school basic compound movements.
On a scale of 1-10 for muscle building potential, a barbell squat would be a 10 and a leg press would be around a 6. A leg extension would be a 2. Knowing this, which exercise should you focus your time on working on and improving? Obviously, the barbell squat.
Most of the BEST and powerful muscle building exercises are old school barbell and dumbbell movements that work large swaths of your body. They are typically compound movements, meaning they use multiple joints. For example, the bench press is a compound chest exercise that moves two joints, the elbow and shoulder joint, while a cable fly is an isolation chest exercise that moves just one joint, the shoulder. It’s no coincidence that the bench press is at least 2-3 times more effective at building chest mass than the cable fly.
Make most of your exercises compound barbell and dumbbell movements. It is ok to throw an isolation movement in there at times, but they should never be the main part. Practice getting good and strong at exercises like the squat, barbell and dumbbell bench press, barbell and dumbbell rows, overhead presses, barbell and dumbbell curls, dips and pull ups. If all you did was get strong at those exercises, you would surely see significant muscle gain.
5. Not Hitting Muscles Frequently Enough
I know this may sound contradictory to what I said about overdoing intensity and volume but hear me out, it’s not the same. When I went from doing all the sets I had to do per muscle group once a week, to splitting up the volume between three workouts a week (same volume, triple frequency), my body BLEW UP. I gained more muscle in a shorter period changing this one variable than anything I had done up until that point. My hard-gainer type clients saw similar reactions from their bodies as well.
When you lift weight properly, you send a muscle building signal and we can measure this signal by testing something called, “muscle protein synthesis.” This essentially is measuring muscle growth as its happening. After a workout, this signal spikes quickly and peaks at around the 24-72-hour mark. Then it plummets fast, if the signal is not sent quickly enough it goes below baseline, as the body adapts in the opposite direction. If you are hitting muscle groups once a week, you may be building and then LOSING muscle each week ending up flat. No positive or negative overall changes.
The worst part for guys like us is that our muscle protein synthesis signal likely reverses FASTER than other somatotypes. Steroid users and people who are naturally built have the advantage of having muscle protein synthesis levels stay elevated for much longer periods of time. Our bodies NEED more frequent stimulation.
It is best to hit each muscle group around three times a week. Take the total volume you are doing for a body part and divide it between three spaced workouts. The easiest and best way to do this is to hit your whole body three days a week. An example would be to work out on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Sounds basic and simple enough, but it is how pre-steroid era muscle builders lifted. It is not complicated, but it works best for the naturally skinny.