If you are a naturally skinny guy or a hard-gainer (someone who has a tough time gaining weight, especially muscle), you may be thinking your genetics will make it impossible to get the muscular body you always wanted. Well, I am here to tell you this thinking is largely mistaken.
I get it. You feel like you eat a ton of food, you have tried lifting weights and you’ve taken protein powders and supplements, but very little happens to your body. I know what this feels like. I have the classic skinny hard-gainer genetics and fit entirely into the somatotype of ectomorph.
In the 1940’s American psychologist William Herbert Sheldon categorized humans into three general physical categories. He labelled these groups, or somatotypes, as endomorph, mesomorph and ectomorph. According to Sheldon, endomorphs have a genetic tendency towards being overweight. They gain fat easily and their bones are thick and bulky. Mesomorphs are naturally thickly muscled, relatively lean, athletic and strong. They are the natural athletes. Ectomorphs are skinny, have narrow bone structure, have a tough time gaining muscle or weight, and tend to be naturally physically weak.
These days, scientists do not take Sheldon’s somatotype categories very seriously. The vast majority of us don’t fit cleanly into any of those three categories. Most people are a combination of one of the three somatotypes. However, a smaller percentage of us do seem to fit perfectly into them. If you have a narrower thin bone structure, are naturally skinny and find gaining ANY weight to be practically impossible, you can argue that you are an ectomorph, but don’t give up just yet. You can still build the body you want.
There is hope. With the right approach, you can build a very impressive body. Unfortunately, most of the muscle gain routines and dietary approaches are not designed for guys like you (or me). They are usually touted by men who are mesomorph types. These individuals are usually genetically gifted when it comes to muscle building, and worse, they often take steroids. They get lots of attention and perceived authority because they look so impressive, but make no mistake, they have ZERO idea what it is like to build muscle on a naturally skinny hard-gainer frame. I have personally trained hundreds of natural ectomorphs during my decades in personal training, and I am myself a classic skinny hard0-gainer. Although there is always an individual variance when it comes to training and diet, there are some general consistencies I have observed with people who don’t seem to build muscle on the traditional approaches. Believe it or not, with the right approach and application, you can and will build a visually impressive body. First off, let’s break down your body, its features, weaknesses and strengths.
Your bone structure is likely thinner which makes it harder to pack on tons of muscle. This is true, but there are advantages to it as well. Any lean muscle you gain will LOOK more impressive. Smaller bones also mean smaller joints. Muscle built around smaller bones and joints tends to look more bulbous and rounded. Think of a calf muscle on a thick ankle versus a smaller ankle. Your bone structure can give you a smoother aesthetic look when you put muscle on it, versus a heavily boned person.
You have a super-fast roaring hot metabolism which can make muscle gain difficult, but this makes fat gain difficult as well. You are probably sick of hearing about how lucky you are to have a fast metabolism but hear me out. When you pack on muscle it will be lean and hard muscle. Lean muscle LOOKS far more impressive than bulk; lean muscles look bigger. Brad Pitt in the movie “Fight Club,” is often used as an example of the perfect muscular physique. He looked very impressive and most of us would love to look that way. Most people do not know he only weighed 155lbs. Hardly a huge muscle head. But that’s not the point, he LOOKED muscular as hell and impressive. Your fast metabolism will help this happen so long as you apply the right training and dietary principles.
Another note to consider…muscle can be built and sculpted in a very targeted way. I have naturally narrow shoulders, so I built the heck out of my delts. When I am in a tank top or shirtless, my round-built shoulder muscles offset my narrow shoulder bone structure. I look wider as a result. When you build a solid base of muscle, you can train in ways that offset your physical weaknesses to create an aesthetic body. Because you are starting from scratch with little muscle, you have more say over how the finished product will look.
Alright, it’s time to talk business. Let’s get down to what ectomorphs and naturally skinny hard-gainer guys need to do to get their body types to respond.
Most muscle building routines are known as split routines. They take the body and break it down into parts like chest, back, shoulders etc., and they have you train one or two of these parts a day. The theory is that this allows you to spend a lot of time hammering a body part and then allows the body part to rest and recover for a week before repeating. In other words, if you hit chest and shoulders on Monday, you can let those body parts recover all week until next Monday. This works fine for some people, but it usually does not work at all for naturally skinny hard-gainer types.
Although it’s true that muscles need time to heal and recover, most people don’t realize that recovery and ADAPTATION are two separate things. Regarding your muscles, recovery is just the healing process while adapting is the process by which your muscles get stronger, build and GROW.
Here is an analogy to explain the difference between recovery and adaptation. Let’s say you start doing some manual labor that requires you to use a shovel. Your hands, which normally are used to type on a computer keyboard are suddenly challenged differently. The soft skin on your hands, which was well suited for computer work, is predictably damaged by the rough shovel handle. You get a couple blisters and your hands get raw. Once you stop the manual labor, your body considers the healing of the skin on your hands as its top priority. The healing process brings your hands’ skin back to where they were before; HOWEVER, if the manual labor is consistently introduced, your body ALSO adapts by thickening the skin on your hands with callouses to help prevent damage in the predictable future. The healing process patched up the blisters and the raw skin. The adaptation process went above that to make the skin resilient to future potential damage. Although both can happen simultaneously they are separate processes.
This is what happens to muscles when you lift weights with sufficient intensity. The body aims to heal and THEN adapt (BUILD). We can measure the adaptation process these days by quantifying something called muscle protein synthesis. This measurement tells us when muscles are actually building. Here is the crazy part, studies clearly show that muscle protein synthesis predictably spikes after a workout, but it also drops FAST in about 48-72 hours. This means your Monday chest workout told your chest muscles to build until approximately Wednesday, but then it stops. It does not matter if you are still sore, the adaptation process has stopped. What’s worse is that the adaptation process is always happening. This means if there isn’t another direct signal sent to your chest, it adapts in the opposite way. This means you built a little and then you LOST A LITTLE!
This is why you find yourself stuck in this breakdown recovery trap. You train a body part and get sore. You rest that body part for a week and then go back to the gym exactly where you left off. Zero gains in strength or muscle, extremely frustrating. If this is happening to you, I have great news. It can be fixed very easily. My estimation is that ectomorph types see their muscle protein synthesis levels drop off faster than most. You need those muscle protein synthesis levels to stay above baseline more often than not, so that you end up with more strength and muscle. You need more FREQUENT muscle building signaling.
Here is the simple fix: take your total workout volume per body part and divide it up between 3 workouts. Instead of hitting chest on Monday for 15 sets, hit chest on Monday for 5 sets, Wednesday for 5 sets and Friday for 5 sets. Same exact total volume, but now you are spiking muscle protein synthesis (muscle building) more frequently, and you are not allowing it to drop to baseline or below.
The easiest way to do this is to train the whole body three days a week. There are other ways you can break the body up, but the whole-body three-day approach works best for most people in my experience. It also gives you days off in between to allow for recovery. A good example of this would be to train your whole-body Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Start with the large body parts and move to the smaller body parts. Example: start with legs then go chest, back, shoulders, arms, calves and abs.
Focus on STRENGTH
It is great to get a pump in the gym and its awesome to sweat. Both, when applied properly, can lead to muscle. However, nothing is as directly connected to muscle gains as strength is. The primary function of muscle is to contract and move your body, or to move objects with your body. Strength is what muscle expresses. If you get stronger, consistently over time you WILL build muscle. It is as simple as that.
One question you may have regarding strength is how some guys are smaller or skinnier than other guys, yet they are also stronger. Strength is not just about muscle, it is also about leveraging muscle attachments (shorter arms make bench pressing easier), the central nervous system firing (the louder your central nervous system signal is the stronger the muscle contraction), and it is about skill. So, it is very possible for someone with less muscle to be stronger than someone with more muscle, but make don’t be fooled, anyone who gets stronger consistently over time builds muscle. A skinny strong dude would be a stronger dude if they had more muscle.
The primary focus of your training should be, above and beyond all else, to get stronger. It is the easiest signal to measure because it is objective and is recognized faster. If you can bench press 150lbs for 6 reps today and next week you can lift the same weight for 7 reps, you got objectively stronger. One extra rep or 5 extra pounds on the bar means you gained something. Keep in mind, one rep or 5lbs is almost unnoticeable, visually speaking, which is why guys tend to get stronger and stronger little by little, and then BOOM muscles are larger. Strength gains LEAD to muscle gains.
The best exercises with the most potential for overall noticeable strength gains are the classic compound barbell lifts. The barbell squat, deadlift, bench press, rows and overhead press. Gains in strength performing these lifts will result in more muscle gain than other exercises. Add 50lbs to your squat and you will undoubtedly have more muscle gains to show than if you added 50lbs to a leg extension. Your routine should revolve around these basic movements. Practice them often using perfect form and take aim to get stronger at each. If all your training focus is centered on getting stronger at these lifts, in combination with good diet, you would see maximum muscle gains. Speaking of diet…
Here is a rule that you cannot get around, you MUST eat more calories than you burn in order to build any muscle. Building muscle requires building blocks, and if you are burning everything you are eating there is nothing left to build with. It does not matter if your workout routing is perfect. Not even MAPS Anabolic, the workout plan I designed for skinny hard-gainers, will put size on you if you don’t eat enough.
You are probably wondering how much is enough when it comes to food. For real ectomorphs it is more than you think. Studies on men with fast metabolisms show that on average, they need to consume roughly 22 calories per pound of body weight. This would mean that a 150-pound ectomorph type would need to eat approximately 3300 calories a day, in combination with a good lifting program, to see gains. Take your current body weight and multiply it by 22, that is your number. Also consider that there is a wide individual variance. You may need a little less or a bit more for your own body. I personally needed to eat more than that to really see consistent muscle gains on my body. Lastly do not make the mistake that thinking just any calories will do. Junk food does not build muscle as well as whole natural foods do. You also need to pay special attention to protein.
Protein is the nutrient most responsible for muscle gain. Your muscle fibers are literally made up of protein! Without adequate protein your muscle gains will come very slowly, or not at all. Above adequate protein intake will SPEED UP the muscle building process. To maximize muscle gains you need to eat a very high protein diet. How high? Studies consistently show that an intake of 0.6 to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight to be most effective. This means that a 150-pound man should consume 90-150 grams of protein per day. Since our genetics want us to be skinny, and since putting on muscle is challenging for guys like us, I recommend aiming for the upper limit. Take your bodyweight and that is your protein number. For example: If you weigh 130lbs, then you should eat 130 grams of protein. The best sources of protein for us ectomorphs are whole eggs (the yolk is VERY good for muscle building), red meats, chicken, fish and whole milk if your digestion can handle dairy.
So long as protein targets are hit, you can break the rest of the calories up between fats and carbs. It is not important to follow a specific breakdown for fats and carbs when it comes to muscle building if you do not go “low” in either. Low carb diets do not fuel strength gains very well and low-fat diets can lower testosterone in men. Eat both fats and carbs to hit your calorie goals and always hit your protein target number.
Here is where hard-gainers tend to mess up. Training and diet make logical sense, but when I talk about sleep, they usually stop paying attention. This is especially true for younger guys in their late teens and twenties. If you are serious about packing on as much muscle onto your body as fast as possible, do not ignore the rest of this article.
Good and proper sleep are ESSENTIAL for the muscle building process. Sleep is one of the most important recovery processes of the body. It is where muscle building hormones like growth hormone is optimized, and good sleep leads to naturally high spikes in testosterone in the morning. Without good sleep, your body is not set up to build as much muscle or build it as fast as it could be.
Bad sleep or lack of sleep is a muscle killer. It leads to an environment where your body wants to get rid of muscle and it severely hampers your strength. Remember earlier when I said strength was a combination of a few different things including your central nervous system? Well, lack of good sleep damages the brain and nervous system essentially draining you of the strength you need to lift effectively.
Sleep is so important to muscle building that I have had clients to go from no results to massive gains in strength and muscle, by ONLY focusing on better sleep. No change in diet or training, just a focus on good quality sleep.
When you take a workout seriously, how do you prepare for it? You likely mentally go to the workout space an hour beforehand. Maybe you drink some coffee, an energy drink, or pre-workout. You may even warm up or better yet, PRIME your body with mobility before you get into the lifts. This process almost always ensures a good workout. Now imagine vegging out on the couch all day and going straight from there to a squat rack to start your workout. The workout would feel like crap and be far less effective.
If you want good effective muscle building sleep you should PREPARE for it. 1-2 hours before bed, turn off all electronics. Turn the lights down in your house. Let the low light and low stimulation send the signal to your brain that its almost time to sleep. At the very least, you can wear blue light blocking glasses, so that your brain is not getting the blue light mixed signals to stay awake. I also like to sip on calming tea like chamomile. Studies show that a sleep routine can produce healthier sleep hormones like melatonin, and lead to higher outputs of growth hormone. This will put your body in a much more optimal state for muscle building.
There you go. Apply the above information consistently and you can expect to gain strength and muscle. In my experience it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see skinny hard-gainers pack on 10-13lbs of solid muscle in under 6 months, when they follow effective workout programs like MAPS Anabolic, combined with a consistent muscle building diet and sleep routines. Ignore all the crap on social media and do not fall for the gimmicks. Do as I said above, and you will see better progress than you ever have before.