I typically write my articles based on feedback and questions I get from clients or other people curious about improving their physique. The most frequently asked question I receive is “What should I do to gain weight?” Unfortunately, not everyone can naturally gain muscle mass easily. For every guy that seems to have had softball-sized biceps since birth there are ten that struggle to even fill out a t-shirt. On the bright side, you aren’t necessarily doomed to have the shadow of Olive Oyl forever. No matter how stick-like you look or feel, with the proper planning you can start adding size to your frame and get closer to reaching your physique goals.
#1 Don’t just Eat Big, Eat Smart
One of the first things a typical bodybuilder will suggest to a skinny guy, otherwise known as a hard-gainer or ectomorph, is to “eat big to get big.” This advice is partially correct. As a hard-gainer you will in fact usually have to eat more than other body types in order to gain appreciable muscle mass. However, sporadically scarfing down any food you can get your hands on is not the optimal way to gain muscle.
Just like any other body type, male or female, it’s imperative to begin tracking your daily caloric intake. Do not just count overall calories, but each of the three macronutrients that contribute to the calories in food: carbohydrates, protein and fat. Eating 3,000 calories lacking in protein but high in saturated fats will have vastly different effects than 3,000 calories balanced among the three macronutrients and containing enough vitamins and minerals for good health. Forget the “calorie calculators” out there too - they don’t take into account each individual’s specific metabolism, needs and goals. The idea of "calories in versus calories out" is far from an all-encompassing formula for maximizing performance and appearance. You’re much better off using an educated guess to decide your initial caloric intake, then making changes each week depending on your weight change, appearance, energy levels and performance in the gym. Probably the easiest way to begin tracking your diet is to spend 2-3 days tracking your current eating habits. Next, take the average macronutrient intake of those days and use it as your baseline intake. Once you’ve gotten your baseline, you can then focus on your weekly macro manipulation.
The take away message should be that, without tracking your daily intake, randomly eating tons of food is not only less optimal but could lead to subpar muscle growth and excess fat gain. Not only will you add unnecessary and unappealing amounts of body fat but you will also make it more difficult to get into contest shape or to even get ready for summer vacation. Adjusting macros to allow for roughly 0.5-1.0lbs of weight gain per week can be a great way to ensure you’re adding lean muscle and limiting unnecessary fat gain. I can assure you, the guys bragging about packing on 15 pounds in a month aren’t gaining that much in muscle. It will show the next time they lean diet for the stage or beach season. After all, we aren’t bears arbitrarily gaining weight for hibernation. We're athletes in pursuit of more muscle mass in order to look and perform better. Tracking your daily intake can be really quick and convenient with the aid of smartphone applications. I am personally a huge fan and user of MyMacros+. Created by a bodybuilder for bodybuilders, this app has some really cool features unlike any other and makes tracking really easy - even with a hectic schedule.
#2 Shake it up
As I mentioned in rule #1, as an ectomorph you may end up taking in many more calories than a mesomorph or endomorph body type. Whether it’s because of a busy schedule or you simply can’t comfortably get in all your calories through whole foods, making a shake with quality ingredients can be a great way to get in some of your macros throughout the day. Here's an easy example of a shake you could make at home:
- 2 Scoops Chocolate MTS Nutrition Whey
- 120 Grams Quick Oats
- 100 Grams Banana
- 20 Grams Peanut Butter
Approximate Macro Total: 70 Grams Protein, 117 Grams Carbohydrates, 27 Grams Fat
As you can see, these shakes are a great way to take in a lot of calories without sacrificing the quality of the food sources and also enjoying a nice treat. If measuring all of that out seems like a lot of trouble, there are several pre-made weight gainers from popular supplement companies that can make for a quick and easy meal. My top suggestion would be iForce Mass Gainz. Recently released by iForce, this gainer is full of quality food sources including oats, whey protein and medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). If I were a hard-gainer looking for a pre-made shake, this is definitely the one I would go for. Homemade or from a supplement company, weight gain shakes can make it much easier to get in a lot of calories without constantly having to stuff your face with whole food sources as well as save you from spending all day in the kitchen cooking up meals.
#3 Work it Out
It happens all the time. People come up to me asking things like “Man, how can I gain more size? How long will it take for me to get bigger? Should I buy a weight gainer? How big can I get naturally? I’ve thought about taking steroids. What should I eat?” These same people, searching for a magic bullet, are often those most hesitant to actually put in hard, consistent work in the weight room. If you want to eat all the time but not put in the work at the gym, competitive eating may be better suited for you than bodybuilding. Whether you’re 140lbs or 340lbs, you can’t expect to gain serious size without creating enough stress for your body to respond by becoming stronger and adding muscle mass. Natural pro bodybuilder and CEO of Core Nutritionals, Doug Miller didn’t reach such a high level of physique by simply wishing he was big. Instead, he got in the gym and started working this butt off!
So many things go into a good training program. Current weak points, time availability, gym equipment at hand, preexisting injuries, unavoidable stress levels, and all come into play when designing a training program. This article's focus isn't to design workouts but there are a ton of online resources that can be used for research to better design your own training programs. The Strength Guys is one coaching service in particular that is amazing at creating personalized training programs and diets for all sorts of athletes that want guidance as they pursue their goals. (Not to mention they provide a lot of free information on their Facebook page that everyone should take advantage of). However, just to give you an idea of what a program could look like as you get started, here’s a push, pull, legs template that is popular and effective, along with some exercise ideas:Push, Pull, Legs Training Split
- Day 1 Push: (Chest, Shoulders, Triceps)
Flat Barbell Bench Press, Dumbbell Incline Press, Barbell Shoulder Press, Dumbbell Lateral Raise, Close Grip Bench Press, Tricep Extension exercises
- Day 2 Pull: (Back, Biceps, Core)
Barbell Deadlifts, Dumbbell Rows, Pull-ups, Rear Deltoid Flies, Bicep Curls, Hammer Curls, Planks, Hanging Leg Raises
- Day 3 Legs: (Legs)
Barbell Squats, Barbell Hip Thrusts, Hack Squats, Leg Press, Walking Lunges, Leg Extensions/Curls, Calf Raises
- Day 4: Rest Day
- Repeat Cycle
Periodically changing aspects such as volume, intensity, exercise selection, rep ranges, and rest periods between sets can help you not only keep things interesting but also ensure you continue making progress over time and maximize results.
#4 Cut the Cardio
Okay, okay time to cut the crap people… well actually just the cardio. This may sound contradictory to rule #3, but if you are a smaller person in search of additional muscle size it may be wise to cut down on the off-season cardio. Weight training is obviously important for stimulating muscle growth but tons of cardio on the other hand can really hinder weight gain. Along with burning a lot of calories which make it harder to gain weight, chronically high amounts of cardio can also raise cortisol levels higher than normal (2) which can lead to muscle loss and impaired immune function (3).
There is a lot of information on the topic of concurrent training (programs with both endurance and strength training components) which I won't go into too very much at this time. However there are two points I would like to touch on that can play into a hardgainers programming. These are increased recovery requirements and potential conversion to type 1 muscle fibers seen during continual long duration cardio sessions. Performing multiple sessions of long duration cardio year round in hopes of keeping a low body fat percentage, while simultaneously training hard 5-6 days a week in the weight room can cause athletes to run the risk of overreaching and burning out much sooner than athletes properly adapting their aerobic activities throughout their training programs.
Another consideration is the conversion of type II muscle fibers to type I, more commonly known as slow twitch muscle fibers. Endurance training has been shown to facilitate the conversion of muscle fibers from type II to type I fiber types through increased activation of the factor PPAR-α, increased mitchondrial biogensis and other influences.(4). Type I fibers are known for producing sustained low intensity force output for longer duration while type II fibers are better for producing maximal force output for short bursts of higher intensity and are more capable of increased size (5). This being said, a physique athlete would ideally have larger proportion of type II muscle fibers to optimize the potential for muscle size increase. Our proportion of fiber types are largely determined at birth. Yet by performing aerobic activity like an endurance athlete year round, physique competitors are possibly selling themselves short by prompting a shift toward a larger portion of slow twitch, less capable of growth, muscle fibers.
This isn’t to say cardio is unhealthy or unnecessary by any means, but adjusting the amount you perform to fit your goals can go a long way in helping you gain the muscle you’re working so hard for. Cardio is clearly important in the later stages of contest prep or a non-competitive dieting phase, as more focus is shifted toward fat loss. During the offseason however, you can benefit from slowly lowering your cardio and adjusting your diet accordingly in order to create the best environment for muscular hypertrophy, while limiting fat gain. Just like the training program, cardio changes are very dependent on the individual. The table below gives you a good idea on how to go about adjusting your weekly cardio heading into an offseason:Offseason Cardio:
- Week 1: 3 (20 minute) MISS Sessions, 2 (12 Minute) HIIT Sessions
- Week 2: 3 (20 minute) MISS Sessions, 2 (10 Minute) HIIT Sessions
- Week 3: 3 (18 minute) MISS Sessions, 2 (10 Minute) HIIT Sessions
- Week 4: 3 (18 minute) MISS Sessions, 2 (8 Minute) HIIT Sessions
- Week 5: 3 (16 minute) MISS Sessions, 1 (8 Minute) HIIT Sessions
- Week 6: 3 (14 minute) MISS Sessions, 1 (8 Minute) HIIT Sessions
*MISS= Moderate Intensity Steady State (i.e light jog)
*HIIT= High Intensity Interval Training (i.e. alternating periods of sprints and slow paced "recovery" intervals)
You should have an idea of how cardio would be reduced at this point. The biggest thing to take away from this section is that it’s best to reduce cardio slowly. Using benchmarks like weekly weigh-ins can help you reduce cardio at a rate that will allow your metabolism to properly adapt and help you create the best environment for muscle growth throughout your offseason. For example, if you gained a full 1-1.5lbs as you increased caloric intake from one week to the next you should likely reduce cardio less compared to a week you may have only gained 0.1-0.5lbs. Being cognoscente of how you reduce aerobic exercise going into your offseason can help you maximize improvements and limit rebound weight gain that can occur if cardio is dropped or calories are added too quickly.
#5 Patience Young Grasshopper
Patience, after all, is a virtue. If you ask anyone worth their salt, they’ll tell you this same thing; be patient, work hard and progress will follow. Although you’ll probably get tired of hearing this, it couldn't be truer. No top bodybuilder got where they are by training a few months and suddenly blowing up like a balloon. Even people with great genetics often train for years in order to reach the level of physique necessary to contend with other top pros. I like to remind myself that if improving our physiques didn’t take a long time, many people would slack off all year then get into amazing shape right before taking a vacation. If this were the case we would see a lot more successful bodybuilders on stage and a lot less overweight people on vacation at the beach. The truth is, the athletes that win shows and people with great physiques have worked hard over the years to do it. It takes a long time, a lot of preparation, dedication and hard work to build muscle. The good news is, as long as you’re consistently putting in the work and learning how to improve, progress WILL come and you can continue to create a physique you will be proud of.
About the Author:
Andrew Pardue is the marketing and content contributor for Top Supplements Online and also a sales representative for Core Nutritionals. Read more about Andrew by visiting our Sponsored Athletes section and also feel free to follow his personal journey in natural bodybuilding and the supplement industry at the social media links below:
(2) Nadine Skoluda, Lucia Dettenborn, Tobias Stalder, and Clemens Kirschbaum. "Elevated hair cortisol concentrations in endurance athletes." Psychoneuroendocrinology 37 (): 611-617. web. .
(3) Segerstrom, Suzanne, and Gregory Miller. "Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry." Psychological Bulletin. 130.4 (2004): 601-630. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.
(4) Wang, Yong-Xu`, Chun-Li Zhang, Ruth T Yu, Helen K Cho, Michael C Nelson, Corinne R Bayuga-Ocampo, Jungyeob Ham, Heonjoong Kang, and Ronald M Evans. "Regulation of Muscle Fiber Type and Running Endurance by PPARδ." Public Library of Science Biology 2: n. pag. Web. 19 May 2014.
(5) Wessel, T, A Haan, W Laarse, and R Jaspers. "The muscle fiber type–fiber size paradox: hypertrophy or oxidative metabolism?." European Journal of Applied Physiology 110: 665-694. Web. 19 May 2014.