Summer rolls around and it’s cutting season. All your buddies are half-heartedly getting into cardio, and all of a sudden, the fries are turning into salads whenever you go out. It starts as a trickle, but the first wave of heat drags out the least keen onto the cutting board. It’s time to get shredded, everyone, the world seems to call out.
That is, everyone but you.
You’re on that forever-bulk, and at this point, it’s looking like you’ll never stop being on the forever-bulk. You might be hitting the gym multiple times a week and avoiding cardio like the plague but you’re still as skinny as you’ve ever been—just leaner and stronger.
But there’s obviously an aesthetic dimension to every workout routine and every diet plan, and nothing you’re doing seems to be hitting your aesthetic goals. By now, you’ve obviously heard the age-old advice of, “just eat more bro,” but that’s just not cutting it.
While for a lucky few “just eating more” works well enough, for some of us, the advice might as well be telling us to do what we’ve been doing all along, but better.
The good news is that while “eating more” is important, there’s a number of aspects that can either hinder or help our journey to meathead status.
All bodies are not built equal, that much is obvious. Three guys can eat the same meals every day for a year and look very, very, different by the end of that year. If you’re someone for whom the classic advice of either “eat less” or “eat more” doesn’t necessarily work for, then it’s probably that you fall further on one end of the body type spectrum.
This spectrum is usually broken up into three archetypes:
First, there is the endomorph. Often referred to as “stocky,” these are our thick-boned brothers. Easier for weight gain to happen, usually rounder, and a tendency for a higher body fat percentage. The polar opposite of us, for whom it’s easy to pack on the pounds and difficult to shave them off.
And then there’s the mesomorph. While aesthetic standards change with the cultural mores in vogue, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that the mesomorph is not what most men aspire to be. Naturally athletic with a heavy bone structure, this body type finds it easy to build muscle and keep it on. The negative side is that it is easy to pack on the pounds. If you’re not someone who’s athletically inclined, then the pounds packed on are going to tend to be fat rather than building muscle.
And finally, we, the ectomorphs. If you’re reading this, then we’ve finally gotten to the star of the show. The “hard gainers”, since it’s difficult for this body type to gain weight. Characterized by lean muscle mass, long limbs, knobby joints, and fast metabolisms. The skinny-guy build, the build that’s usually on the forever-bulk, the build that’s told to “just eat more.”
To fill out the ectomorph frame is going to be variably challenging depending on how far along the spectrum your body-type is. Because these are, of course, archetypes. Very few people are going to be solely ectomorphic, mesomorphic, or endomorphic. This is simply a tool for people to use in order to generalize a good way forward for their specific characteristics—and thus, it should just be used as a tool.
You might be an ectomorph-mesomorph who might not have to work as hard to gain muscle but is still generally lanky. Or you might be an endomorph-mesomorph who has to work harder in order to gain lean muscle mass rather than just fat.
While ectomorphs and endomorphs are on opposite sides of the spectrum, it’s definitely possible to be skinny-fat. But this is generally those people who don’t work out at all and eat “dirty” foods, such as fast food, simple carbs, and sugar. If you’re already doing what you can to bulk up as an ectomorph, then you probably don’t have to worry about skinny-fat—it’s just an issue of turning all that food into muscle mass.
Which brings us to the next point….
Just like all bodies are not built equal, all nutrition is not built equal either. We’ll dive into this further down below as it relates to ectomorphs, but for now, let’s get a general idea of how food interacts with your body.
When it comes down to the basics, every diet is essentially, CICO (Calories In Calories Out). You want to lose weight? Eat fewer calories than you burn. Gain weight? Eat more than you burn. We’re looking at the latter, so let’s expand on that.
Just like bodies and nutrition aren’t built equal, neither are calories. You might’ve heard of the tongue-in-cheek phrases, the “dirty bulk” and the “clean bulk”. As the names suggest, you want to be aiming for the latter meal plan.
Furthermore, there are four ways your body burns calories—a number, which when added together, is the number of calories you have to surpass each day in order to gain weight. There’s the calories you burn for your most basic bodily function (BMR), the calories you burn while being active (TEA), the calories burnt while exercising (EPOC), and those that are burnt while digesting food (TEF).
Someone who has a body type in the mid-range will usually find that their body is good at storing calories for rainy days. An evolutionary advantage borne out of a need for nutrients if outside sources were impossible to come by.
On the other hand, the skinny body type says, to hell with evolutionary advantage—I’m going burn everything, now. Physiologically speaking, this means less fat and less muscle stored on the body due to a higher metabolic rate.
Even common traits such as fidgeting, tending to stand or sit, walking while talking on the phone, or moving your hands while you speak can have significant effects on how many calories you burn. While not very meaningful on their own, these idiosyncrasies add up over the long term and definitely have an effect on the number of calories burned.
So, with all this exposition behind us, what are the best ways to circumvent the curse of the ectomorph?
Before you say, “But I AM eating more,” make sure that’s really the case. There’s been a number of studies done on under-reporting and over-reporting the amount of calorie intake, and there’s a correlation between those who are skinny and over-reporting how much calories they’ve consumed.
As arduous as measuring every calorie you consume might be, it might be beneficial for some people to do over the course of a few days. Eat like you normally would and see whether you’re really hitting those caloric goals—or if you’ve been unknowingly leaving a lot of gains on the table.
You hear this a lot in weight-loss circles, but it’s helpful to reinvent your relationship with food. If you’re serious about gaining weight, treat eating as training—not just as a complementary activity. Remember, it all comes down to CICO. Are you eating enough calories?
And yes, for the higher-tier bodybuilders and weightlifters out there, eating does become a chore. For example, just check out how much The Rock eats in a day—it’s insane but necessary. And The Rock has the advantage of not being an ectomorph.
While you might find yourself enjoying food less and meals becoming chores, it’s still possible to reclaim your zest for food with well-planned cheat days. Meal planning at the beginning of the week is also a great week to keep on track with your dietary plan and make sure that you’re not missing out on any important calories that you definitely need.
Let’s say you’ve been hitting the grindstone and eating like a beast, and the gains are either coming too slowly or you’re starting to get burnt out. Even though it does come down to eating more, there are ways to make “eat more,” a lot easier.
For one, it’s a good idea to eat more meals. If your calorie goal is 3500 per day, try eating 5 meals of 700 calories rather than 3 meals and trying to stuff yourself with over 1000 calories a meal. If you’ve been eating like a pigeon for years, you’re going to need to get your stomach used to bigger meals going into it.
If it’s difficult to find time in the day for 5 meals, consider stretching out your eating window. Very much the polar opposite of intermittent fasting, try waking up earlier or eating your last meal later in order to give yourself ample time to consume and digest your food—without feeling sick.
Another good option is to drink your necessary caloric intake. Not only does it digest easier and more quickly than solid food, but it’s also very portable. If your days are normally very hectic, making a 1000 calorie mass gainer shake will put you miles ahead of where you were before.
For example, blending a banana, 100 grams of oats, at least a tablespoon of peanut butter, 300ml of whole milk and two scoops of protein powder will get you close to 1000. Sip this between some of your meals and watch the numbers on the scale rise.
A note on the above: if you choose to use pre-mixed mass gainer shakes, make sure to take a good look at the ingredients beforehand. Many of these use fillers that’ll just make you fat and throw off your nutritional profile. Which brings us to the next point. The type of calories you put in is just as important as the number of calories you consume.
We’ve been bringing this up above, but it’s important to state clearly. The goal here, at least for most people, isn’t fat gain—it’s muscle gain. That means avoiding “empty” calories and junk foods with refined oils and processed sugars. Your diet needs to heavily include enough protein-rich foods with healthy fats.
The diet should consist of food that’s rich in calories, is good for stimulating muscle growth, general health, and will be unlikely to be stored as fat.
Not every food needs to check all these boxes, but it does need to check at least one very well. An example could be spinach. It’s not rich in calories nor easy to digest, but it does have nutrients that improve muscle growth. On the other hand, white rice doesn’t have many micronutrients, but its calories are easily digestible and will be stored primarily as muscle, rather than fat.
Here’s an (incomplete) list of the best foods you should be placing an emphasis on in your diet plan:
How you choose to bulk is up to you. The key is to eat more calories than you burn on a daily basis and lift weights at least 3 times a week. This will provide your muscles the fuel and the stress they need to grow. Be sure to consume enough high-fiber foods in order to keep your digestive system running smoothly. And if you’re vegan, — you bulk up the exact same way as an omnivore...by eating more calories than you burn from unprocessed whole food sources combined with weight lifting.
If you’re going to be eating like a beast, you also need to train like one too or else risk just getting chubby. Without a doubt, the best lifts for muscle mass gain are compound exercises with free weights—much like with bodybuilding.
You need to be doing weight training lifts such as squats, deadlifts, bench press, and other presses and rows. While you can do isolation exercises as well in order to focus on a particular muscle group, the main emphasis of your workouts should be the compound lifts. In this scenario, bodyweight exercises probably won’t cut it.
These lifts activate more of your body and more of your muscle fibers, allowing you to gain mass faster. The way in which you program these is also important. For hypertrophy, mass gains that make you look big, you need to do a higher amount of reps while slightly decreasing the intensity (loads).
This will wreck your muscle fibers and make them heal with a fuller look. If you want to fill out that frame, this is the way to go. Furthermore, don’t forget about progressive overload. You always want to be lifting heavier weights whenever you can. A robust training program will keep you on track.
Obviously, this isn’t a call to over-train or injure yourself by doing something you obviously can’t—but make sure that your body is always under significant tension when you’re working out. This is especially important if you’re training for hypertrophy rather than strength or endurance.
By far the best muscle building supplement you’ll be using is protein powder. Whether it's whey protein powder or a plant-based protein powder, make sure it has the necessary amino acids needed for muscle growth. Preferably, take it right before your workout and during the post-workout, so your body has the protein when it really needs it.
Creatine is a must for anyone looking to put on muscle mass. Not only will it get you jacked, but it’ll also provide more energy when you’re doing those really explosive movements—such as the deadlift. It supplies the energy needed for more powerful muscle contractions, and it’s an excellent and safe way to boost your gains in the iron temple.
Going a step further, branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are also a terrific way to get more out of working out. They’re an essential part of a complete protein that helps to build and maintain your muscles. If you want to get that extra edge, they’re an excellent supplement to take in order to optimize the repair and strengthening of your muscles.
Your body is a temple, and while you can customize it to do some pretty amazing things (and look even more amazing), you have to make sure that the foundations are solid.
And by far the most important foundation is sleep. Even if you do everything correctly, a lack of sleep will leave gains on the table and will seriously hinder you in your quest to fill out that skinny-guy build.
It’ll help your muscles heal after those heavy workouts, allowing you to lift more next time—and thus, building upon your muscle mass. Furthermore, a good night’s rest is essential for maintaining your will power. With a diet plan that might make eating into a chore, you’re going to need every last ounce of willpower in order to build a consistent and solid base for your gains to spring out of.
Eating enough will always remain essential, but to get that physique and power that you crave, it’s going to take a drive and a stick-to-itiveness to the above principles.