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 ectomorphs on how to eat & train in order to gain lean muscle weight as fast as possible.
7 keys to muscle gains for an ectomorph
Eat more, as in 500+ calories/day above normal
Eat more quality protein & carbs – no junk
Supplements: protein powder, BCAA, creatine
Lift heavy, emphasize compound exercises
Only lift 3-4 days/week
Cut out cardio, or cut way back
Proper recovery: 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 dude 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
Here again are the diet-related recommendations from the health & 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.
I drink these 500-700+ calorie whoppers 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. (10)
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. (11)
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:
- 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
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.
Recovery is critical.
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.
You can find them on this directory page.
(By the way, it’s dirt cheap too, since it’s so easy to make… my Optimum Nutrition creatine is only 11¢ a 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:
Skip the cardio
The last piece of workout advice our strength & fitness experts have to pass along to ectomorphs is a simple one:
“DITCH THE CARDIO”
Before I supply a few of their quotes on the matter, I can tell you that I’ve poked around the sports science world on this topic.
I found evidence that too much cardio can hurt strength training results, in a systematic review published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. (28)
And that meta-analysis of 21 research studies involved 422 weightlifters of ALL body types.
Plus, for us ectomorphs it’s hard enough to get the calories to stick even without aerobic activity.
Why burn them up even faster by doing cardio workouts?
From the strength & conditioning specialists:
“Too Much Cardio. We need to make sure you’re not sabotaging those gains with excessive exercise. On the cardio side of things, be sure not to add long, steady state exercise days while training to gain lean muscle.” – Dr. Marc Bubbs (29)
“The key to stimulate muscle growth is to do the minimal amount of cardio required…” – American Council on Exercise (30)
“You won’t build muscle from it (cardio). Muscle is hard to build as it is, and endless running or workouts on the cross-trainer won’t help this situation.” – Coach Magazine (31)
How ectomorph me gained muscle
As mentioned at the beginning of the article, I’ve built a decent amount of muscle onto my skinny frame twice.
They occurred 37 years apart.
I did it once when I was in my 20s, and then again recently when I turned 60.
The 1st time – 1982 – starting at 6’ 2”, 167 lb.
When I first set foot in a gym in the early 80s, I was 23.
I’m 6’ 2”, and at the time I began lifting I weighed 167 lb. – that’s a pretty skinny guy.
15 months later I had added 45 lb. to my body, and most of it was muscle.
I weighed in the neighborhood of 210 lb., and I was “strong like bull.”
The 2nd time – starting at 170 lb.
(I couldn’t lift any weights for a few months.)
I got my weight down to around my early 20s’ weight (170 lb.), with the HIIT burning off all the crap caused by a year of being bedridden prior to surgery.
And once I recovered enough from surgery to start lifting, I began my ectomorph muscle build all over again, 37 years later.
In four months I had gained 22 lb., and most of it again was muscle.
Not all of it of course, but most. Lifting at 60 ain’t like lifting at 23… 😅
There’s a picture somewhere on this page’s sidebar that shows what that 22 lb. looks like on me now, but here it is again anyway:
My ectomorph weight gain plan
During my first ectomorph transformation in ‘82-’83, I was heavily influenced by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s book Education of A Bodybuilder.
(I still own my original copy and wrote a review of it in my article 10 Best Strength Training Books For Beginners & Intermediates.)
I patterned my diet after his suggestions as best I could.
I was 23 so I ate A LOT of everything.
And I also started drinking protein shakes made with whey and whatever else I’d throw in the blender.
Result: I gained 45 lb. in 15 months (from 167 lb. to 212 lb.); that’s 3 lb. per month.
Last year’s weight & muscle gain plan
I was a lot more picky about what I ate the second time around vs. in 1982 & ‘83.
The fats I ate were all good quality: nuts, nut butters, olive oil, avocados.
The carbs were all clean this time around too: whole grains, fruit, vegetables, no processed food, no fast food.
My protein choices were leaner: a lot more fish & chicken, a lot less red meat. I still ate eggs almost every day, but I was eating 3 instead of 6.
My whey protein shakes were way cleaner too.
I used fruit & vegetables, olive oil, avocados, nut butters, maybe some oatmeal or chia seeds.
(Here’s the article with my weight gain smoothie recipes again…)
Long gone were the days of throwing in scoops of ice cream and high-calorie, low-quality mass gainer powders of unknown origins.
They’re hard at work cooking up the next who-knows-what crap supplement to hype at us…
Another difference between then & now: a BIG technology boost
Two big 21st century tech upgrades:
1. COMPUTERS – I counted calories now that the computer had been invented just so it could help me out with all that nutrition math 😄.
This made sure I nailed my calorie surplus & protein numbers every day.
2. THE INTERNET – And since the internet had been invented too, I was able to search for expert nutrition info.
Thus I learned that for best muscle-building results, I ought to eat every 2-4 hours throughout the day.
3. CREATINE HIT THE MARKET – Another big boost for this second muscle build was the availability of creatine.
I take it every day now, but it wasn’t around back in the 80s during my first weight & muscle gain adventure.
Result: I gained 22 lb. in 4 months (170 > 192 lb.), that’s 5 ½ lb. per month
My ectomorph muscle building plan
In essence, my weightlifting programs were not much different in my two ectomorph muscle building cycles, despite the 37-year gap between them.
Some important similarities…
Progressive resistance training both then & now
I still followed the concept of progressive resistance training, slowly increasing the intensity via more weight or volume (sets) as I got stronger. (31)
Mostly compound exercises both times too
Like the advice offered by the strength coaches earlier in this article, I have always stuck to focusing most of every workout on the most basic compound movements:
- Squats & deadlifts for legs
- Pull ups & rows for back
- Chest presses
- Shoulder presses
- Dips and extensions for triceps
- curls for biceps
- crunches: bicycle, reverse, & vertical leg for abs
Changed routine every several weeks
Another similarity between both of my muscle gaining cycles is that after several weeks of heavy training I’d either take a week off or back way way down on my lifting for a week.
And when I resumed a week later, I switch up the weight training program.
I learned that from some really strong powerlifters & competitive bodybuilders I knew back when I started.
The combination of a refresh/recharge + a different routine kept the muscles growing AND free of overtraining issues.
Dumbbells vs. barbells: now vs. then
I haven’t belonged to a gym in quite awhile, so my most recent muscle building cycle was done here at home with dumbbells, a pull up bar, a bench, and some Bodylastics resistance bands.
For my first ectomorph transformation in the early 80s I belonged to a bodybuilding gym, so I had access to barbells for all the heavy lifts.
Ectomorph Muscle Gain FAQ
Here are answers to a few of the commonly asked questions regarding us skinny-framed people.
Can an ectomorph get fat?
Ectomorphs who don’t have much muscle often have more fat than they think, per Web MD. (32)
When younger, an ectomorph’s metabolism can be higher than those in other body types, which helps to process food quickly and keep body fat at bay.
Metabolism slows down as you get older
But that metabolism starts slowing at age 20, and drops 10% per decade after that. (33)
Piling on that is the fact that we start losing our muscle mass at age 30, and less muscle equals slower metabolism. (34)
Most ectomorphs have very little muscle mass to begin with, unless they are actively doing regular resistance exercise of some kind.
And all this slowing metabolism causes an increase in an ectomorph’s body fat. (35)
Ectomorphs can become skinny fat
An ectomorph who is inactive can develop what the medical world calls normal weight obesity, a condition with many health risks. (36).
Here in the world of fitness jargon, we know it as skinny fat. (37)
Medical experts agree that an exercise program involving strength training is a great way to get rid of skinny fat, and fight off its potential dangers. (38)
I wrote an in-depth article here on heydayDo on the normal weight obesity health problems an inactive ectomorph is at risk for.
It’s called the Skinny Fat Workout Plan & Diet For Women & Men and has lots of helpful sports science & medically-backed info to put into practice.
What are Ectomorphs good at?
Anything they put their mind to.
Esteemed powerlifting & bodybuilding magazine T-Nation passes along some good advice on this topic in their article 3 Things You Need to Unlearn. (39)
They say that these body type labels – endomorph, ectomorph, & mesomorph – are “self-limiting” and don’t “have any real world translation” regarding one’s potential.
T-Nation goes further to point out this little-known but very important fact:
The use of the term ectomorph was started by a psychologist and had nothing to do with athletic potential or muscle growth.
I’ll go into this a bit more in the next question.
(And now, from the “Huh…I never knew that” file…)
What is an ectomorph?
An ectomorph is one of the three body composition labels (AKA somatotypes), with endomorph & mesomorph being the other two.
These terms were first put into use in the 1940s by psychologist Dr. William Sheldon in his books The Varieties of Temperament and The Varieties of Human Physique. (40)
Dr. Sheldon used these 3 terms to classify people as a way to predict their personality traits according to how they looked. (41)
According to Sheldon, that besides being skinny, ectomorphs were:
- socially awkward
- introverted and private
These theories of Sheldon’s have long been debunked & discredited. (42)
However, the use of his terms to predict the personality types of body shapes has been morphed 😜 in line with the modern era’s obsession with appearance.
Nowadays it’s only about the body type, and the generalizations go something like this:
- Ectomorphs – thin with little muscle
- Endomorphs – rounder with more body fat
- Mesomorphs – in between with more muscle potential
Health & fitness professionals adopted the terms
The labels ectomorph, endomorph, & mesomorph are used by
“nutritionists, exercise physiologists, and even doctors…to help design effective, individualized fitness plans”,
according to the University of Houston’s Dept. of Health & Human Performance. (43)
But broad & vague terms like these need a disclaimer
They have a chart describing the physical appearance characteristics of ectomorphs, endomorphs, & mesomorphs.
Recognizing the limitations of these 3 labels, they advise that we each fall into one of these categories, but
“not altogether neatly”.
And they add
“Keep in mind that these are generalizations, and that most of us have characteristics of two or even all three somatotypes.”
Backing up even further, they conclude by saying that
“Most people are unique combinations of the three body types.”
I like T-Nation’s advice I mentioned earlier in this section: don’t get hung up on these body type labels. Take your unique body & get busy.
Related articles here on heydayDo
I hope that my article on how
ectomorphs string beans can gain weight & build muscle is useful to you, and I wish you well on your fitness journey.