Being a skinny guy sucks. Shirts hang on you like you’re a coat hanger, skinny jeans make your legs look like sticks (baggy jeans look even worse), you don’t feel confident in your own strength and abilities, and NO ONE relates because everyone else is worried about being too fat. I know EXACTLY what this feels like because I was a classic hard-gainer, skinny guy.
I thought that once I started lifting weights my skinny days were over. Boy was I wrong. I worked my ASS OFF with weights and I was eating food all day long, yet I could barely put on a few pounds of muscle. After a while, I started questioning if any of it was worth it. Spending hours hammering my body for little to no results felt like a bunk deal.
You probably know exactly what I mean. You train your body HARD and you get really sore. You repeat this process week in and week out, CONSISTENTLY, yet your progress is elusive. You have heard that building muscle is a slow process (which is true), but gaining NOTHING or maybe only a few pounds after months and months of training just sounds like a complete waste of time.
Before you quit, hear me out. DON’T STOP. Your work ethic and drive will get you to your muscle building goals, but your workout program MUST be effective. Perform the wrong exercises and it’s very likely that you will never see significant success. This is true for almost everyone, but it’s ESPECIALLY true of skinny guys.
Naturally skinny guys just don’t build muscle like everyone else. Notice, I did not say they CAN’T build muscle like everyone else. You can build muscle and you can build enough muscle to radically transform your body, but it won’t happen doing the wrong movements.
You absolutely MUST lift weights if you want to build muscle. Without a sufficient muscle building signal, there is no reason for your body to add muscle. Muscle on your body has a purpose. It is mostly there to move your body, to animate you. Your body will only ever have the minimum amount of muscle it thinks it NEEDS. This is because building muscle and keeping muscle cost your body resources, and it will not add a resource hungry tissue unless it absolutely has to.
Lifting weights provides that reason. Your body does not know you are lifting weights when you work out, it just knows that stress has appeared, and in order to handle this specific stress, it needs to pack on muscle. In other words, your body adapts to lifting weights by getting stronger and more muscular. But some exercises don’t tell the body to do this nearly as much as others.
There are literally thousands of resistance training exercises. They all can send a muscle building signal to the body, but some send a much louder than others. All exercises are NOT created equal. If you are a skinny guy who has a tough time gaining muscle, or you are looking to pack on muscle in the fastest most effective way possible, you need to do the best muscle building exercises and not waste your time on the worst ones.
Below I have listed the most powerful resistance training exercises you can do for your legs, chest, back, shoulders, biceps and triceps. Put them in your routine regularly. Practice them with light weight, go heavy with them, do high reps and low reps with them. Above all, do them consistently.
Barbell back squats are known as “the king of all exercises” by coaches, trainers and bodybuilders worldwide, for good reason. They add slabs of dense muscle to your lower body (and even a bit to the upper body), faster and more effectively than any other exercise you can do. 5 sets of well executed barbell squats are worth more than 10 sets of any other lower body exercise. In fact, you could just barbell squat and you’d likely build more muscle than if you did a plethora of other leg exercises but avoided the barbell back squat. Do squats 1-3 times a week.
Barbell Squat Target: 1-1.5 times body weight for reps
For decades when someone wanted to ask you about your strength they would simply ask, “how much can you bench.” Although there is much more to overall strength than just a bench press, it is a decent measure of upper body strength. When you get good at bench pressing you can get strong, using heavy weight to effectively stimulate your chest, shoulders and triceps. The best form for this exercise is between a powerlifter and a bodybuilder. Make sure to have a slight arch in your lower back, keep your shoulders pinned back, grip the bar hard, and stay tight throughout the movement.
Bench Press Target: 1 times your body weight for reps
The back is such a complex array of many muscles that I had to list at least two exercises to fully cover everything. First up is the deadlift. This movement is right up there with the squat. It works so many different muscles, and it allows you to build up to using some very heavy weights. Deadlifts work everything from top to bottom and they add thickness.
Deadlift Target: 1.5 to 2 times your body weight for low reps
Second are pull ups. Although deadlifts work the lats to an extent, they don’t hit them as directly or as fully as pull ups. This exercise hits the lats from extension to contraction, insertion to insertion. They are great for adding width to your back.
Pull Up Target: 10 strict reps
In my opinion the king of all pushing movements is the standing military press aka the overhead press. This movement hits the shoulders and triceps and it requires you to keep your body tight and stable. In my decades of experience working professionally as a trainer, I have never met ANYONE with impressive shoulder development, who didn’t have overhead presses in their weekly rotation.
Overhead Press Target: 0.5 times your body weight for low reps
Believe it or not, the best bicep exercise is not a curl. Barbell curls and dumbbell curls are amazing, but they don’t force bicep muscle growth like chin ups. Check out the biceps on male gymnasts. Their biceps are usually VERY impressive, and they never do curls; but they do a TON of chin ups. These are different than pull ups. With chin ups you use a palm facing back grip (supinated), and when focusing on biceps, make sure to focus on feeling these in your arms more than your back.
Chin Ups Target: 10 strict reps
Speaking of gymnasts, they also usually have incredible horseshoe triceps. They do TONS of body weight dips and variations of such. Parallel bar dips hit the entire triceps area along with the shoulders and chest. They are hard, but they are also massively effective at bulking up the back of your arms.
Dips Target: 15-20 strict reps
If all you ever did were the above referenced exercises, regularly and properly, and you got good and strong at them, you would build a far more impressive physique than if you chose other random exercises. In fact, if you just work at those movements with good form three times a week, for 3-5 sets each, paired with a good quality diet, you can expect to see significant mass gains. Do not be fooled by the razzle dazzle of other cool looking movements. Focus on those fundamentals, do them often working in different rep ranges, and behold the gains.