I’m an ectomorph who’s (twice) added more than 20 lb. of muscle in my life. I’ll share how that went.
This article also shares advice bodybuilding & fitness experts give those of us with thin builds on how to eat & train in order to gain lean muscle weight as fast as possible.
Below are important things I’ll be going over with you in this article. Dial these in properly, and you’ll be on your way to your body transformation goals.
Ectomorph muscle gain: 9 keys to success
Understand that the term Ectomorph is outdated & doesn’t influence how you should build muscle.
Lift heavy, emphasize compound exercises.
Train using progressive resistance principles.
Only lift 3-4 days/week.
Eat more, as in at least 500+ calories/day above normal.
Eat more quality protein & carbs – no junk.
Supplements: protein powder, creatine, maybe BCAA if you’re vegan.
Cut out cardio, or cut way back.
Insure proper recovery no matter what: get quality sleep & reduce stress.
The To-Do List For Ectomorphs list above came from strength & conditioning coaches, a nutrition consultant for Olympic athletes & pro sports teams, & two registered dietician nutritionists, and their advice applies to both women & men.
Up ahead I’ll get into each one of those keys.
I’ll share the experts’ recommendations and break them down into doable action items.
I’ll also chime in with my own 2 cents’ worth of opinion every now & then.
And later on I’ll talk about how a skinny ectomorph person like me gained a good amount of muscle weight at two different periods in my life over 35 years apart.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science & medical resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.
How to gain weight as an ectomorph
For starters, here are just the diet-related recommendations I mentioned earlier.
I got these from the bodybuilding & fitness pros I polled for this article:
- Eat more, as in 500+ calories/day above normal
- Eat more protein (& carbs)
- Eat quality food only – no junk
- Consider supplementing with protein powder
Eat 500+ calories/day above normal
The dietitians writing for the American Council on Exercise (ACE) recommend boosting your calories by 500 per day, if you’re looking to gain weight & build muscle. (1)
Their 500 calories per day number comes from the medical weight loss experts, like Mayo Clinic.
1 lb. = 3500 calories per week = 500 calories per day
Mayo’s math is based on the accepted theory that 3500 calories per week = 1 lb. of weight.
And 3500/7 days = 500 per day.
Thus Mayo says that if you want to lose 1-2 lb. per week, you need to consume 500-1000 calories less than you burn, per day. (2)
For those of us looking to gain weight – say 1-2 lb. per week – we reverse the logic and consume 500-1000 calories per day more than we burn.
Eat every few hours too
Instead of 2 or 3 meals per day, find a way to down some quality food every 2-4 hours, per ACE’s dietitians. (3)
This idea of several small meals per day, 3 hours or so apart, is recommended by medical weight specialists as a way to gain healthy weight. (4)
My weight gain smoothie recipes
I’ve written an article here on heydayDo where I share several of my high-calorie protein shake recipes; that’s a link to it.
I drink these 500-700+ calorie whoppers in between ‘normal meals’ when I’m on an ectomorph weight & muscle mission, like the training cycle I finished at the end of last year.
Besides the specific recipes, I also provide all of the ingredients that I choose from (and their amounts) when I whip up a smoothie:
- the different fruit
- nut butters
- protein powders
Armed with this info you’ll be able to create a few dozen great recipes of your own.
And…I also give you the macronutrient breakdown for each recipe:
- the number of calories, and the grams of
Eat more protein
Next up – make sure you’re eating enough protein every day.
This is critical if you’re trying to build muscle, because to do that you have to keep your body in a positive protein balance. (6)
A high- protein diet can provide a number of benefits to anyone using strength training as a way to improve their body composition. (7)
How much protein?
The International Society of Sports Nutrition are one of the world’s top authorities on diet & supplements’ role on strength & athletic performance.(8)
They recommend that if you’re athletic &/or lifting weights, then you need to consume 0.7 – 1 gram of protein per lb. of your bodyweight every day. (9)
For example, I weigh 188 today. My daily protein range is therefore between 132 and 188 grams:
0.7 x 188 = 132 grams
1 x 188 = 188 grams
Supplement with protein powder if needed
I find it very difficult to get all of my daily protein from regular protein-rich foods, like:
I don’t have the appetite or the room for 188 grams of solid food protein.
Plus, I just don’t feel like eating anywhere near the amount of meat I pounded when I was in my 20s or 30s.
So I eat what protein I can, and mix in a couple of protein powder drinks during the day.
Lactose-free whey protein isolate
During the day I drink a grass-fed whey protein isolate made by Muscle Feast; isolate means just about all of the lactose has been removed.
This makes it real easy to digest for people who are lactose intolerant, but still want the many benefits that whey provides.
Casein protein powder
And before I crash for the night, I drink a scoop of chocolate casein protein powder mixed with water.
Sometimes I pour it over a bowl of cereal or oatmeal, which I often eat before bedtime for some reason.
Casein is a milk protein that is slow to digest.
This makes it a great choice before bed, because it’s been shown to reduce muscle breakdown while we sleep and help with muscle recovery too.
Other protein powders too
There are other types of protein powders: egg white, pea, hemp, brown rice, etc.
I’ll stick with my whey, since I like it’s taste & mix-ability more than those others, and its amino acid profile is the best of the bunch.
Plus I’ve been drinking it for over 35 years.
But to each their own.
(Egg white protein has a very good amino acid profile too, for sure.)
If you’re vegan, here’s an article on high-calorie weight gain powders you might find helpful: Vegan Mass Gainers.
Eat quality food only – no junk
For most of us ectomorphs it’s easy to eat just about anything we want without packing on unwanted fatty pounds, especially when we’re young.
But if you want to gain quality weight, you have to eat quality food.
And your muscles do not want any junk food either; they simply can’t use it for growing.
Avoid processed food, fast food, sugary food and choose real food instead:
- Lean meats, eggs, chicken, fish, yogurt (no sugar)
- Whole grains
- Nuts, nut butters, seeds
- Carb-rich brown rice, oats, barley, quinoa, sweet potatoes
Don’t skimp on those quality carbs either
With the emphasis on protein so far, the importance of having plenty of good carbs in an ectomorph’s diet plan might get overlooked.
Dr. Marc Bubbs, the author of the highly-regarded Peak: The New Science of Athletic Performance is the nutrition consultant for the Canadian national basketball team & for ALTIS, an elite training facility for Olympic athletes.
Regarding carbs’ critical role in ectomorph muscle gain plans, he says:
“Carbohydrates also help stimulate the release of insulin, and when combined with strength training and a caloric surplus, provides the ideal terrain for building muscle.” (12)
How an ectomorph can build muscle
Here are the muscle building & workout recommendations for ectomorphs from the strength coaches & fitness consultants referenced in this article:
- Utilize progressive loading principles
- Emphasize compound exercises & lift heavy
- Lift 3-4 days/week max
- Consider supplementing with creatine & BCAAs
- Cut out cardio, or cut way back
- Proper recovery: quality sleep, reduce stress
Utilize progressive resistance principles
Simply put, you program your workouts & your overall training cycles around the idea of increasing the amount of weight you’re lifting gradually over time.
There are lots of ways to accomplish this. Below is an easy-to-understand article on the strategy. I also recommend Arnold’s Education Of A Bodybuilder book, which helped me quite a bit. In part 2 of the book he shares training methods that follow progressive overload training principles.
The Progressive Overload Guide (on Masterclass.com)
Emphasize compound exercises & lift heavy
All of the strength coaches & fitness trainers whose opinions I gathered for this article advise that ectomorphs need to:
- use compound exercises, and
- lift heavy
in order to gain weight & build muscle.
(Aside from them constantly telling us to “Eat a lot” of course…)
Their workout advice for the ectomorph:
“Your training should be primarily centered around compound, multi-joint lifts.” (13)
“Building muscular bulk requires 3 things: a lot of food, heavy weight, & concentrating on a select handful of compound exercises” (14)
“A common mistake many people make in the gym is not including enough compound exercises in their regime.” (15)
“To build muscle mass, increase strength and sculpt the body, a simple weight-training routine using heavy weights is critical for the ectomorph.” (16)
This is a relative term amongst weightlifters and amongst strength coaches & fitness trainers designing workouts for people.
It basically means “don’t pick a weight that’s so light that you can easily do too many reps”.
So when you “lift heavy”, the last couple of reps ought to be harder than the first few.
How many reps?
There’s a lot of debate in the wide world of muscle building over what the ideal rep range is.
I don’t worry about it, hopefully you won’t either.
Anywhere from 5-12 reps has been shown to get it done as far as muscle building goes.
An ectomorph beginner’s lifting program
In an article I wrote on how to get rid of the Skinny Fat syndrome, I put together a whole section on workouts featuring compound exercises.
These routines would be ideal to put to use in an ectomorph muscle gain program, so I figured I’d mention them here.
I created both a 3-day full body program and a 4-day workout split.
And there are instructional videos for all of the exercises.
This link here ought to take you to the exact spot in the article where the workout section starts.
It’ll open in another browser tab too.
How often should ectomorphs lift?
The consensus from strength & fitness experts is that for ectomorphs, no more than 3-4 days per week in the gym.
You grow when you’re not lifting, on your off days & while you sleep.
From STACK, the premier site for amateur athletes:
“Less is more. You must be careful not to train too much or you’ll expend too many calories, negating your weight-gaining efforts. Also, ectomorphs tend to get overuse injuries more often…”
Make quality sleep a priority
Speaking of recovery, 7-8 hours of good sleep per every 24 is essential.
Muscle tissue is repaired and even muscle coordination is improved during quality sleep. (17)
Deep sleep is when your body secretes most of its growth hormone, a critical ingredient in gaining lean muscle weight. (18)
Poor sleep habits interfere with growth hormone production, and research has demonstrated that inadequate sleep hurts your workout effort & results. (19)
Consider taking creatine & BCAAs
Thousands of fitness supplements aggressively marketed at us these days, keeping fitness models everywhere gainfully employed.
When all is said & done however, only a few substances have been definitively proven to actually provide significant performance enhancement during exercise &/or enhanced recovery post-exercise.
Protein is one of them. (20)
And creatine monohydrate & branched-chain amino acids are also part of that elite group of proven enhancement supplements.
The ISSN’s (International Society of Sports Nutrition’s) governing body released a Position Stand on creatine. (21)
They consider it the most documented supplement on the planet, since hundreds of research studies over the past 50+ years have verified its effectiveness.
Creatine is proven to:
Works for women & men alike
Creatine has no gender bias; its enhancements have been proven effective for females who are athletes &/or weightlifters. (24)
I’ve researched the research on creatine quite a bit and have written a few science-backed articles on it, including one on Creatine Alternatives.
(By the way, it’s dirt cheap too, since it’s so easy to make… my Optimum Nutrition creatine is only around 25¢ per daily dose with Subscribe & Save.)
Branched-chain Amino Acids
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are very popular for all sorts of reasons these days.
Vegans take them because plant-based foods are low in those 3 amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, & valine.
And many people take them in pre-formulated concoctions that manufacturers claim will build muscle or give you energy, or… ____ (whatever).
BCAAs haven’t demonstrated the slam-dunk evidence for enhanced exercise energy or muscle building that supplement makers would have you believe.
The ISSN’s official word on BCAAs’ effect on those areas is:
“Limited & mixed results. Possibly effective” (44)
Where BCAAs ARE proven to be effective
But BCAAs have repeatedly shown in clinical trials that they’re able to enhance recovery post-workout.
Dozens of studies illustrate BCAAs’ ability to: