Ectomorph Body Types: Bulking Up for Skinny Guys

Let’s face it, building muscle is hard. You know what makes it even harder? Being an ectomorph!

Any ectomorph can be at a disadvantage due to their fragile and thin bodies. Some general traits of this somatotype include: flat chest, small joints, small and droopy shoulders, long skinny necks, and probably the only upside is that they’re usually relatively lean.

The reason why ectomorphs struggle to put on size is because of their extremely fast metabolism.  It can often seem as if no matter how much you eat, you just can’t gain any weight.

As an ectomorph myself, I’ve dealt with these problems first-hand. I used to try everything and anything to put on muscle. From drinking 2 gallons of chocolate milk a day to chugging mass gainer every morning, I’ve tried it all. Luckily, over the past few years I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to gaining muscle as an ectomorph. I’m currently sitting at 165lbs at 7% body fat and 5’10” height. You can take a look at the pictures below to see how my body changed throughout the years.

ectomorph athlete weight gain muscle mass
Jeremy’s transformation

In the left picture I was around 13 years old and couldn’t gain weight for the life of me. In the middle pictures I was around 17 years old and had already worked out for a year. The last picture is me currently at 21 years old after several years of working out. As you can see I put on a lot of size and strength throughout the years. It wasn’t easy but it was definitely worth it and has helped me out tremendously as an athlete.

Throughout the process, I’ve learned that some things work and some things don’t. I’m going to share with you the 5 things that you must do to put on size as an ectomorph.

1. INCORPORATE COMPOUND MOVEMENTS

crossfit athlete bjorgvin karl gudmundsson deadlift powerlifting
Compound Exercises: Deadlift

As an ectomorph you don’t want to just focus on isolation exercises when trying to put on muscle. This won’t get you very far. You need to focus on compound lifts. The reason why compound lifts are so effective is because they work a lot of different muscles simultaneously as well as your smaller stabilising muscles. They also provide a “hormonal boost” by increasing testosterone and growth hormone levels compared to isolation exercises.

The main compound movements I recommend are the following:

  • Bench Press
  • Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Overhead Press
  • Weighted Pull-Ups

You need to incorporate these exercises into your program every week, as these are the exercises that will put the most muscle mass on your body. Olympic lifts such as the clean and jerk are great options as well. Use these articles to learn more about technique and programming:

– Deadlift

– Squat

– Clean

– Snatch

2. FOCUS ON GETTING STRONGER EVERY WEEK (PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD)

As simple as it sounds, this is both mentally and physically tough. However, it’s also an extremely important factor in building muscle. Basically, every week you need to either increase how much weight you’re lifting or how many reps you’re performing. This ensures that you are constantly putting on size and gaining strength.

ectomorph male athlete squatting
Squatting will improve your strength, flexibility and mental toughness

Now you don’t necessarily need to increase in weight/reps every week in every single exercise you perform. Instead, primarily focus on progressively overloading your compound movements (bench, deadlift, squat, etc.) rather than the smaller movements you may have in your program. When this is incorporated into Crossfit training, separate and specific strength training work should be added to your programming.

Here’s a simple trick I personally used and found worked the best for me:

Let’s say my main chest exercise is the bench press. I will perform 4 sets of bench press with a rep range of 6-8 reps. If I can perform 4 sets of 8 reps at a certain weight, the next week I will increase the weight by 5-10lbs and try to do 4 sets of 6 reps. Then, I will increase my reps each week until I reach 4 sets of 8 reps of the new weight so I can add more weight and repeat the process. I’ll also try to increase the weight and reps of my other exercises after bench press, but my compound lifts will be my primary focus.

3. FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU NEED TO EAT TO GAIN WEIGHT

During the first year of my training I had no idea how much food I needed to eat, and didn’t realize the importance of knowing. Don’t make this mistake! Knowing how many calories you need to eat everyday is essential. If you aren’t eating more calories than your body is burning everyday, then you’re not going to gain weight. It’s as simple as that. And if you aren’t eating enough calories, it’s going to feel next to impossible to try to progressively get stronger each week.

Snatch lift technique crossfit male athlete
The Snatch is an excellent full body exercise to build strength

In order to minimize fat gain, I recommend striving to gain 0.5 lbs per week. This will put you at about a 250 caloric surplus (also termed a “lean bulk”). Keep in mind that gaining fat is inevitable when putting on muscle, however you can minimize it by maintaining a moderate caloric surplus.

Chances are, the number of calories you will need to eat are quite high. I currently need to eat a little over 3000 calories a day in order to gain 0.5 lbs per week, and I find that fairly difficult to do (I don’t have a very big appetite). But over the years I’ve found a lot of high calorie foods that make eating 3000 calories a day a breeze. Here’s a list of foods I recommend adding to your diet for a nutritious calorie boost:

  • Peanut butter
  • Almonds
  • Chickpeas
  • Olive oil
  • Granola
  • Bagels (whole grain)
  • Salmon

These are all full of nutrients and pack a ton of calories to help you meet your daily caloric intake needs. And it helps if you stick to meals that you legitimately enjoy eating. As far as macronutrients, I suggest sticking to a 25-30% protein, 45-55% carbohydrate, and 25-30% fat diet. However, these are not strict guidelines and the best macronutrient splits vary for each individual. You need to test out different variations and see which one enables your body to perform the best.

4. TRACK YOUR CALORIES

Another mistake I made for a long time was not actually keeping track of how many calories I was eating. I just assumed I was eating around what I needed to be eating to gain weight. When I finally decided to track how much I was eating it turns out I was 300-400 calories under my goal even though it felt like I was eating tons of food.

crossfit games photographs d ball cleans
Max effort, pure intensity

If you want, you can buy a scale and actually weigh out your food. This helps a lot in the beginning so that you familiarize yourself with portion sizes and the amount of calories they contain. Otherwise, you can use a cup to measure what you can and do a good estimate for the rest. But make sure you’re consistently tracking your food as this will truly make a huge difference.

5. ECTOMORPH BULKING: MONITOR YOUR PROGRESS

This point applies to everything mentioned above. Make it a habit to keep track of your lifts (especially compound lifts) every workout session, and also keep track of your bodyweight. This will help show you if things are working and more importantly if things are working at the ideal rate they should be at. Your lifts should be increasing either by weight or reps every week and your bodyweight should be increasing by 0.5lbs per week.

What’s the best way to weigh yourself? This is actually a little tricky, because your body goes through weight fluctuations every single day and you don’t want to make rash decisions based on this. I recommend weighing yourself every single morning as soon as you wake up, then after a week take the average of the past 7 days. Use this as your comparison for future week averages. This helps eliminate fluctuations and will provide you with the most accurate figure.

I hope this guide can help you out if you are a struggling ectomorph. If I can do it, so can you. Just keep in mind that you need to be patient with it. Putting on size doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of consistent effort, especially when starting out with a skinny frame. But follow the points mentioned above and you’ll get there in no time!


ectomorph athlete weight gain muscle mass © Jeremy Ethier

crossfit athlete bjorgvin karl gudmundsson deadlift powerlifting © Bjorgvin Karl Gudmundsson

ectomorph male athlete squatting © RX'd Photography

Snatch lift technique crossfit male athlete © RX'd Photography

crossfit games photographs d ball cleans © CrossFit Inc

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About The Author

Jeremy is a personal trainer and Kinesiologist from Vancouver, Canada. He is the creator of HIIT Your Body where he provides anything and everything HIIT. From full out HIIT programs to quick home workouts, you can find it on his site.

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