Having a naturally skinny body with a metabolism that seems to burn off everything, combined with genes that are more suited for long distance endurance walking than for building big strong muscles, can be a real problem for those of us who want to build muscularly impressive physiques. Most people have average muscle building genes while a small percentage us are on the extreme ends of the muscle building spectrum.
I have personally known a handful of guys, in my 2 decades of work in the fitness industry, who were blessed with incredible mutant-like muscle building genes. One of these people was a night front desk attendant who worked for me when I managed my first gym 24 Hour Fitness gym. He did not make a ton of money (we paid night front desk people minimum wage), and he was not super versed with exercise programming or technique. Due to his financial situation he couldn’t afford a lot of quality food, let alone supplements or steroids. Yet this guy was JACKED. Huge round shoulders, big arms and a wide back. When I would do my night audits, I would talk to him about training. His workout routine was terrible, and his diet consisted of cereal with milk, peanut butter sandwiches and tuna fish, yet he was able to do lying skull crushers with 225lbs and could overhead press the 120lbs dumbbells. Watching this as a natural hard-gainer skinny guy, this was massively infuriating.
On the other end of the muscle building spectrum are the skinny, hard-gainer ectomorph types, and that where I was. People on this side of things don’t build muscle or gain weight easily at all. We eat more than the average person, yet we stay skinny. We lift weights but progress is consistently subtle. If we do not lift weights, our natural tendency is to be thin with lower muscular strength. If this sounds like you, don’t worry, I have some good news. Although we can’t get around the fact that your hard-gainer genes make building muscle and gaining strength harder, you are NOT without options.
Here is the problem, you likely work out all wrong. You probably got your workout advice from some muscular social media influencer who is undoubtedly one of the very few people on the extreme OTHER side of the muscle building scale. Most of them are even on anabolic steroids! Social media creates the illusion that people with genes like this are everywhere.
Think about it this way, in real life how often do you come across anyone who looks like the jacked social media influencers? It’s VERY rare. I bet you rarely even see someone who looks like that in the gym you go to, which is already a selection bias because everyone who goes to a gym works out and is interested in building muscle. My point with all this is that you are getting your muscle building advice from people who are rare and are on the OPPOSITE side of the muscle building gene pool from you. Do you think the workouts they do and the workout “tips” they share, which work great for their genetically gifted, roided out bodies, applies to you?? Of course not. Your body responds way differently to muscle building workouts, and you don’t take steroids. Maybe it’s time to follow the advice of people who know EXACTLY what it’s like to be a skinny hard-gainer?
Below are the worst workout mistakes made by skinny hard-gainers. The following pieces of advice are often touted and promoted by the muscle head steroid freak influencers, which work great for them, but will completely derail your progress.
Mistake 1: Chasing the “pump”
Transient sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is the scientific term for “the pump”. This is when your muscles fill up with more blood and fluid than can be pumped out, resulting in a distorted enlarged muscle. This can be caused by repetitive strenuous motion, like riding a bike uphill or by lifting weights. It is a pretty awesome feeling to finish a workout and to look much “bigger” with a pump. Unfortunately, it’s a temporary phenomenon that goes away quickly.
Influencers will have you believing the pump is everything. When they post their workouts, they say things like “this exercise or workout will give you a crazy pump,” insinuating that the pump alone is what tells you it was an effective workout. I get it. The pump feels great, and it makes workouts much more fun and enjoyable, but don’t be fooled. The pump does play a role in muscle building but chasing the pump with workout styles and exercises that produce the best pump is a HUGE mistake, which will result in little to no muscle gain for the typical hard-gainer.
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with the pump. It is not a bad thing at all. It just isn’t what you should be aiming for. Although the ABILITY to get a pump is a decent signal that often tells you that you are well hydrated and rested, the pump itself plays a small role in muscle building when compared to other factors. The pump can contribute to muscle building, but it is not even in the same universe as STRENGTH. Building strength and getting stronger DIRECTLY builds muscle, even if the pump is never present. Getting great pumps without gains in strength is a fool’s trap. You remain stuck with your current amount of muscle and the size you get from the pump is never permanent.
Hard-gainers should make getting strong their number one priority. Your muscles’ main function is to move your body, or to move objects with your body, and in order to do this they contract. Bigger muscles contract harder than smaller ones, this is a fact. If you get consistently stronger in the gym however incrementally, you will eventually be gifted with bigger muscles. Forget the pumping type routines, instead train in ways that produce the best strength gains.
Mistake 2: Relying on machines
Go into any gym and you will see rows and rows of machines. They promise to hit and target any muscle you can think of. They look technologically advanced, especially when compared to old fashioned dumbbells and barbells, and are also easy to set up and use. Just add weight and get in and move in the pre-determined range of motion the machine was designed for. We also often see the meat-head fitness influencers posting videos of themselves using these machines and often in ways they were not designed for.
Some of the dumbest examples I have seen on Instagram include sideways chest pressing on a machine that was designed to be used for head on or shoulder presses and curls on leg machines. Sometimes I wonder if these morons are just trolling everyone, or if they are so damn juiced up that those silly exercises work really for them. Although there is a role for machine work for most people, it should be a small role. For hard-gainer skinny guy types, machines should play a tiny role, or not be included at all.
Machines are preset and pre-designed to move in specific ways. Although they come with adjustable seats and hand grips they are still designed with a particular avatar. No joke, the standard machine is designed for a 5’9 male who moves in a way that the machine manufacture deems as “average.” We have already determined that your muscle building genes and body are not like most people. You are a hard-gainer, which means these machines don’t typically fit your body or how you move. With machines your body must follow the machine regardless if it is the best way for YOUR body to move.
Machines also support and stabilize the weight for you. This may be valuable for someone who is rehabbing a specific type of injury, but it’s terrible if you are otherwise healthy and you want to maximize your strength and muscle gains. Taking away the stabilizing and balancing component reduces the muscle building signal that resistance training can send. It will still send a muscle building signal, but it is not as loud or effective as a signal sent by a barbell or a dumbbell.
Free weights take more skill, balance and stability, and this is part of the reason why they build more muscle and real-world strength. Add 50lbs to a barbell squat, and you will have built more muscle than if you added 50lbs to a leg press. Free weights also follow your body regardless of your shape, size or movement patterns. They are AUTOMATICALLY individualized for your body, whereas with machines they hardly are.
Free weights build more muscle in most people, but this is especially true for skinny hard-gainers. Since your body does not build muscle easily, you should not waste precious recovery ability or workout time on less effective machines. Most of your workout should be free weight based.
Mistake 3: Not phasing rep ranges
Some studies show that the 8-12 rep range is superior to other rep ranges. I have also seen some studies that show 15-20 rep ranges builds the most muscle. In the muscle building world of “common knowledge,” the lower rep ranges of 6-8 are considered best for muscle building and strength. So, which is correct? All of them.
All rep ranges, between 1-30 or so, have the POTENTIAL to build muscle. Notice I said potential. If a study was done with several groups of experienced lifters to determine which rep range was best over a 4-12 week period, I would only need to ask one question to accurately predict which group would do best. That question would be, “what rep range were the participants training most in BEFORE the study.”
When it comes to muscle building, novelty plays a small but consistent role. When you train in a specific rep range, your body adapts by getting better at that specific rep range. Over time, as you get better and better, you build muscle. Stick to that same formula for too long however, and you start to see diminishing returns until you eventually plateau completely. Over time, as your body gets adapted to the rep range that you consistently train in, your body “gets used” to the experience. It stops just stops responding.
The best muscle building approach when it comes to rep ranges is to phase them. Train in one rep range long enough to get good at it, then switch to another. An example would be to train in the low rep range of 3-6 reps for a while, and as your body slows its response down, you switch to a rep range of 8-12 reps.
Some people like to mix up rep ranges throughout the week or even in the same workout, but this approach is not as effective if you do not have years of lifting experience under your belt. Different rep ranges have a different feel and require a different mental approach. Doing heavy grinding barbell squats for 4 reps is a very different space and feels totally different than doing barbell squats for an exhausting set of 20 reps. Stay in a rep range for at least a few weeks so that you can learn the mental space, technique and strategies to maximize the effects of that rep range. Once your progress slows down, switch to another. Keep this pattern up indefinitely.
Mistake 4: Following a body part split routine
A body part split routine is where you break your body up into body parts to each be trained on their own on specific days. An example would be to train chest on Monday, back on Tuesday, shoulders on Wednesday and so on. Body part split routines became popular in bodybuilding right around the “Arnold” era. This was the late 1960’s, throughout the 1970’s, and beyond. It’s called the “Arnold” era because it was the time when Arnold Schwarzenegger was winning all of the big bodybuilding contests. It was also incidentally when steroids were being widely used by bodybuilders and at higher doses. Before this era, the main way people lifted weights to build muscle was to train the whole body three to four times a week. Steroids were still present in bodybuilding before this time, but the doses were very low in comparison (10 times lower). It is safe to say that the effects of higher doses of steroids influenced how bodybuilders trained.
When you lift weights properly, with appropriate intensity, you send a muscle building signal to your body. The body then builds muscle in an attempt to become more resilient to future workouts or to become “better” the next time around. It’s an adaptation process not unlike how your skin tans to become more resilient to sunlight when you lay out in the sun. The cool thing is that these days with modern technology, we can measure this muscle building signal by tracking muscle protein synthesis. When muscle protein synthesis spikes above baseline, it means your body is building. Studies show that muscle protein synthesis levels quickly rise after weight training, but they only stay elevated for 24-72 hours. They then quickly return back to baseline.
Anabolic steroids prolong this signal tremendously. In fact, taking high doses of steroids all by themselves, with NO resistance training has been shown to raise muscle protein synthesis levels. I also believe that the people on the end of the muscle building scale, who build muscle easily, also maintain elevated muscle protein synthesis levels longer than the average person, and it is much shorter than average for naturally skinny hard-gainers. Great muscle building genetics, plus steroids, equals long periods of muscle protein synthesis following a workout. Hard-gainer skinny genetics, plus being natural, equals short periods of muscle protein synthesis.
If you are following a body part split routine, you are likely only training each muscle 1 or maybe two times a week. This means your muscles build for a day or two after a workout and then stop or worse, they reverse gears. Training muscle groups that infrequently is ineffective for people like us. We need more FREQUENT muscle building signaling.
Rather than hitting chest once a week on a split, follow a full body routine three days a week. An example would be Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This ensures that you hit the entire body three days a week, keeping muscle protein synthesis levels higher and more often. This equals MORE MUSCLE. One caveat, this does NOT mean you triple the total volume of your training. In other words, if your body can handle a once a week chest workout where you do a total of 12 sets, don’t do 12 sets for chest three days a week when you train your whole body. Do 4 sets for chest on Monday, Wednesday and Friday which equals to 12 total sets. The increased frequency of training almost ALWAYS makes a huge impact for naturally skinny hard-gainer types.
At the end of the day, you must train your body in a way that causes the most change and response in YOUR body. If you are a naturally skinny person who gains muscle and strength at a snail’s pace, when compared to most people, you need to follow a routine designed for YOU. Make getting strong the number one goal, stick to free weights, phase your rep ranges and follow a full body routine and witness your true muscle building potential.