Ectomorph Workout & Diet Guide And The Skinny-Fat Hardgainer Solution

I love when people write articles about being a hardgainer and/or ectomorph. They start off by mentioning how terrible their genetics are and how borderline impossible it is for them to build muscle or gain weight.

This of course is done to make you see that they are (or were) just like you. Why? So you’re more likely to trust what they’re about to say about this subject (and buy whatever it is they’re usually trying to sell along with it).

I mean, a true hardgainer/ectomorph would be skeptical taking advice from someone who was born with amazing genetics, right? That’s fine. I totally get that.

But it’s when the writer gets into the specifics of where they started out that I tend to smile. For example, I’ve seen articles like this begin with claims of the person (a man) being a pathetic 150lbs when he first started working out.

Wow… you really had it rough with those genetics. Poor guy.

Here’s the thing though. I started out at nearly 120lbs (at 5’11) my first day inside of a gym. I had to put on 30 F-ing pounds before I’d even qualify as having the “bad genetics” this person had.

So why am I telling you this? Simple. So you understand that the following article is coming to you from a legitimate text book definition of what we’d all consider an ectomorph, hardgainer and genetic loser to be. Just like you are.

Or, at least… just like you think you are. There’s a big difference. Let me tell you all about it…

What Is An Ectomorph? What Is A Hardgainer?

Well, if you asked most people about these terms, they’d probably tell you that they’re the same thing and have an identical meaning. Usually something along the lines of the following…

Ectomorph/Hardgainer:

These words are most commonly used to describe a man or woman who is naturally (or better yet, genetically prone to being) skinny and has a harder time building muscle or just gaining weight in general than most people.

They have a “fast metabolism” compared to the average person and appear to be unable to gain weight no matter how much they eat. They often tend to be picky eaters with small appetites (although you do occasionally see the opposite too).

They have a small bone structure. Narrow shoulders, flat chest, narrow waist and hips, super small and skinny wrists, super small and skinny ankles. Sometimes, but not always, they’re a bit on the lanky side with longer than average limbs and longer than average muscle belly length.

They’ve probably been skinny/thin their entire lives.

That’s how most people would define this body type. And yeah, I’d agree with all of it. Except, there’s a bit more to it than that…

Ectomorph vs Hardgainer: Is There A Difference?

Alright, sure… an ectomorph is a naturally skinny person with a thinner overall frame and faster metabolism who has a harder time gaining weight/muscle than everyone else. And yes, I would say that all of this describes the hardgainer as well.

They are very similar, and there’s tons of overlap between them in that most hardgainers ARE ectomorphs, and many ectomorphs ARE hardgainers. But, if you ask me, there is one very subtle difference here:

An ectomorph is someone who genetically has a harder time building muscle.

A hardgainer is someone who genetically sucks at it.

To put it another way, I’d define a hardgainer as an ectomorph with worse genetics.

Ectomorph + Fat = The Hardgainer

The best example I can give you of what I mean revolves around the word “skinny” which we keep throwing around here. How so? Because some ectomorphs aren’t just naturally skinny. They’re naturally lean. And therein lies a key difference.

I mean, a male ectomorph could be 15% body fat and look super skinny. Another male ectomorph could be 9% body fat and still look super skinny. Hell, in clothes, they’d probably look identical.

But take those clothes off and you’ll see the difference. One is skinny and lean, and one is just plain skinny. Or, more accurately with this body type… skinny-fat.

And that’s what I think a true hardgainer is. There are skinny ectomorphs that are naturally lean and defined (the good version), and there are skinny ectomorphs that are naturally skinny-fat (the bad version). Now granted, both versions suck if your goal is building muscle (and this article is aimed at helping both).

But, that second version — the bad one — that one sucks a little extra. Those are what I call hardgainers.

They’re essentially ectomorphs that aren’t naturally lean. They have all the negative aspects of this body type (super thin frame, fast metabolism, etc.) without the one positive aspect (leanness).

They’re the ones who, while in a caloric surplus, tend to put on more fat and less muscle than most people do with all else being equal. And in a deficit, they tend to lose more muscle and less fat. Basically, a hardgainer’s calorie partitioning is much worse than everyone else’s, including the “good” version of the ectomorph.

With me so far? Awesome. Now it’s time to send half of you packing.

The “Fake” Hardgainer

Here’s the funny thing about all of this. After learning what a hardgainer is, everyone thinks they are one.

I bet most of the people reading this were probably nodding along while thinking “Yes, this is totally me… building muscle is extra hard for me and happens very slowly. I gain too much fat in a surplus, I lose too much muscle in a deficit… thus leaving me skinny-fat. I’m clearly a hardgainer.”

Wanna know why I think that’s funny? Because out of the TONS of people who might THINK they are hardgainers, I’d guess that maybe (at most) 25% of them actually are. Probably less.

Why is this? I think there are two primary reasons.

  1. Unrealistic expectations.
    As I’ve covered before, the rate of muscle growth is painfully slow. Yet most people expect to build 20lbs of muscle in 6 weeks like all of the bodybuilding magazines, supplement companies, fitness products and muscle building programs have been promising for decades. Our perception of reality is clouded by a combination of deceptive sales tactics (blatant lies and bullshit claims) and the amazing unrealistic results of steroid users. So when a person isn’t gaining muscle at the “lightning fast” rate they’ve been promised or somehow came to believe was possible, they assume the problem is their crappy hardgainer/ectomorph genetics. Nope. It’s that their expectations are way too high.
  2. You eat and train like a moron.
    This is the most common reason of all. Take someone who has approached their goal of building muscle in a way that is less than optimal. Hell, take someone who has approached their goal of building muscle in a way that isn’t even remotely intelligent or effective. Guess what? I just described the majority of the population. Now guess what happens after a few weeks/months/years of training and eating that way? They all come to the incorrect conclusion that building muscle is harder for them than it is for everyone else, and they are… [cue the dramatic trumpets]… a hardgainer!

Sorry, but no.

They are just normal people who attempted to build muscle by doing things that don’t work very well for building muscle.

So the problem isn’t your supposed ectomorph body type or hardgainer genetics. The problem is that you don’t eat enough to support growth and your workout routine is horseshit. Or maybe that you weren’t consistent. Or maybe that you didn’t give it enough time. Or maybe one of the other 100 reasons people fail at improving their bodies.

Like I said, this describes most of the population. It’s why most of the people trying to build muscle don’t get great results. It’s not that the majority of the population are hardgainers… it’s that the majority of the population are dumbasses. (Don’t worry, as a proud long-time former dumbass, I’m allowed to say stuff like that.)

In fact, I think a better name for this group would be “dumbgainer” rather than “hardgainer.” It’s not legitimately harder for you to make gains than everyone else, you’re just going about making those gains in a way that is dumber than you ideally should be… and it just seems harder. It’s not.

So if you’re currently skinny or skinny-fat, and you’ve been trying to change it but your results have been poor, chances are it’s NOT your genetics. Chances are it’s because you’re just doing a bad job at building muscle and/or losing fat. True story.

The Real Hardgainer: Does It Even Exist?

Because this “fake” version is so damn common, it leads some people to claim that there is no such thing as a hardgainer (or even an ectomorph)… there’s just people who eat and train incorrectly for their goal.

To which I say… bullshit.

The true hardgainer definitely DOES exist in that there are people who, when doing everything right, are just genetically below average at gaining muscle. With all else being equal, they’re just physiologically worse at it than most people are. How so?

  • Maybe their rate of muscle growth is below realistic averages in terms of the speed they are capable of building it and/or the quantity that gets built.
  • Maybe their genetic potential for total muscle gained in their lifetime is below realistic averages.
  • Maybe some aspect (or every aspect) of their hormonal profile (testosterone especially, cortisol, insulin, thyroid, etc.) is less ideal than realistic averages.
  • Maybe their muscle fiber composition, tendon insertion points and muscle belly lengths are less suited for muscle growth than that of the average person.
  • Maybe their overall bone structure, joints and tendons put them at a significant disadvantage for gaining muscle or even just lifting heavy things on a regular basis for the purpose of gaining muscle.
  • Maybe their p-ratio is below realistic averages. Maybe with all else being equal, they do gain more fat in a surplus and lose more muscle in a deficit than the average person does.
  • Maybe their recovery rate and/or work capacity is below average.
  • Maybe they are more injury prone than others.
  • Maybe all of the above and then some.

But whatever is it, there are most definitely men and women out there who, with all else being equal, are genetically less-good at muscle growth than the average person is.

You know, just like how there are a few lucky bastards who are above average in all of these categories (the “genetic elite”). And then there’s the majority of the population who is neither above nor below average… they’ll fall somewhere in the middle (aka average).

And some will just use drugs/steroids and make all of this stuff irrelevant.

But the point is, while most of the people who assume they’re hardgainers will fall into the “fake” hardgainer category described above (aka the dumbgainer), there is indeed a decent number of us who can legitimately be considered real life hardgainers.

If you’re one of them, welcome to the club. Please allow me to take your coat and remind you that as long as your diet and workout routine are designed intelligently and executed correctly, you CAN still build muscle (and get lean) despite your less-than-stellar genetics.

Let me show you how…

The Best Hardgainer/Ectomorph Workout Routine

Alright, so you realized long ago that you had an “ectomorph” body type and assumed you’re a hardgainer… an assumption which may have been confirmed as you read through the beginning of this article.

The next step is figuring out how you need to train to get the most out of your below average genetics and build muscle as well as you can. So, what kind of workout routine is best for people like us?

How You’ve Been Told To Train

If you have ever researched this kind of thing before, I can almost guarantee the majority of what you’ve heard is something along the lines of the following. This is supposedly how an ectomorph/hardgainer should approach weight training for muscle growth…

  • Very low volume (very few exercises, very few sets… this body type supposedly overtrains very easily).
  • Very low frequency (typically training each muscle group once per week, any more would supposedly be overtaining for this body type).
  • Low rep ranges only (rarely if ever going above 5-8 reps).
  • Very high intensity (go heavy all the time).
  • Go to failure often, maybe even all of the time.
  • Focus ONLY on a few big free weight compound exercises (squat, bench, deadlift, etc.). Nothing else.
  • Squats, squats and more squats. (And milk.)
  • No isolation exercises or machines… ever.
  • Very short workouts (get out of the gym in 30-45 minutes!! Even a second longer will supposedly be overtraining for this body type).
  • HIT (high intensity training) is a training approach that is often suggested.

Sound familiar? I’m sure it does. It’s exactly what I saw when I went researching the same type of workout years ago, and exactly what I’d find if I went looking again today.

And guess what happened when I tried training this way? Guess what happened when I put all of that advice into action? I got nowhere. (See #3 here for additional details).

Turns out that the type of workout routine that’s supposedly ideal for ectomorphs/hardgainers actually isn’t. It flat out sucks, just like how this type of training tends to suck for the rest of the population, too. I don’t recommend it at all.

How You Actually SHOULD Train

Now here’s what I actually recommend. This is what I’ve personally found to work best for those of us with the ectomorph body type and/or hardgainer genetics… including myself:

1. Progressive Overload = Still The Key

Regardless of your genetics and body type, and above all of the other workout factors I’m going to be mentioning here, the true key to building muscle for EVERYONE is progressive overload. Your #1 training focus is to make sure you’re getting stronger on each exercise over time.

Don’t lose sight of that. It’s more important than everything else.

2. Increase The Frequency

As I’ve written tons about before, pretty much all research and real world experience confirms that typical low frequency training (hitting each body part once per week) is the least effective training frequency for virtually EVERYONE with any goal, especially building muscle.

This is why I recommend beginners train everything about 3 times per week (ideally using a full body split), and intermediate and advanced trainees hit everything about twice per week (ideally using an upper/lower split, a smarter version of push/pull/legs or some similar workout schedule).

With hardgainers/ectomorphs, I find this recommendation to be EXTRA important. In my experience (and I wasted years training at a shitty once-per-week frequency), we lose muscular, neural and even technical adaptations surprisingly fast. It’s yet another of our crappy genetic traits.

Case in point, when some people take a full week off from training, they can often come back right where they left off and feel fine, sometimes even better and stronger. When I take a week off, I come back mentally and physically fresher for sure (the main benefit of taking that week off), but I require a good few weeks before I’m fully back to where I left off in terms of strength, performance and just feeling comfortable.

To a lesser extent, I think this is exactly why we are so extra bad at low frequency training. We lose way too much progress way too quickly during those full 7 days between training that body part again. So we make some progress and signal new adaptations, but lose some/all of it before that next workout comes along a week later.

Again, I find this to be true for most people… just to a much higher degree with our body type.

3. Avoid High Frequency Training/Full Body Workouts

I know, I just said to avoid low frequency training because we suck at it… and we do. But at the same time, I find that our body type also sucks at higher frequency training which in this case will be defined as training each body part 3 times per week (or more).

Beginners are an exception here. But if you’re past the beginner stage, I’d recommend training each body part more often than once per week, but less often than 3 times. So… about twice. I think this is BY FAR our sweet spot for progression AND I think it’s safer on our skinny/injury prone frame (joints and tendons especially).

I’d also recommend avoiding full body training (which is the most common high frequency split) for the same reasons plus the fact that I just think we don’t do best with full body workouts. When done right, full body workouts are usually a bunch of big compound exercises (sometimes with lots of supersets — another thing I think we suck at — to allow you to fit what you need without the workout taking forever).

But in my experience, our below average work capacity just isn’t ideally suited for training the entire body in a single workout. It’s not that we can’t tolerate something like 4 big compound exercises and maybe 2 smaller isolation exercises in a single workout. If we did an upper body workout fitting that description, we’d do just fine.

But the fact that the exercises being done are training the whole body makes it quite a bit more fatiguing and taxing overall on the CNS. Not exactly something an ectomorph or hardgainer does well with. Again, beginners are the exception.

Additional details here: Is A Full Body Workout Routine Best For You? Probably Not.

4. Rest Longer Between Sets (Sometimes) 

In what will become a running theme here as you go through this list, our CNS (central nervous system) recovery and work capacity are both below average. All part of what makes our shitty genetics so damn shitty.

And this fact means we respond to certain aspects of training a bit differently than others and should tweak these things accordingly. One such area is rest periods. If I’m doing a big compound exercise like the bench press, squat or deadlift (for example) in a lower rep range (say 5-8) and therefore heavier, and I try to rest less than 3 minutes (2:30, 2:00, 1:30, etc.), my performance absolutely sucks and the drop-off from one set to the next is substantial.

In a scenario like this (big exercise done heavy in a lowish rep range), I ALWAYS take a full 3 minutes on most exercises. Not a second less, and sometimes slightly more (like 3:30). Doing so leads to a huge improvement in my strength, performance, form, ability to progress, and just my overall comfort level on subsequent sets.

Now I’m definitely not suggesting that you take 3 minutes or more between everything. I’m suggesting you do it during your couple of biggest/heaviest lower rep primary lifts of the day, where progressive tension is the main focus.

For your secondary exercises (the stuff in the 8-10, or 10-12, or even 12-15 rep range, where progressive tension is still a big focus, but metabolic fatigue and muscular damage is now a focus as well), I think slightly shorter rest periods (1-2 minutes) are still ideal.

BUT, you may still want to experiment with exactly how long you take. A 30 or 60 second difference doesn’t seem like much, but for us ectomorphs/hardgainers, that tiny time difference can have a surprisingly big impact on our performance. So, experiment. I know exactly which exercises I do best with more or less rest during. You should too.

5. Increase The Volume

I’ve found that the typical super low volume approach that is supposed to be ideal for our body type most definitely is NOT. Don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not suggesting a typical high volume bodybuilding approach or anything close to that either. We’re extra horrible at that too, just like most of the population is (like most things, we’re just much worse at it than they are).

I’m suggesting a point somewhere in the middle… a moderate optimal amount of volume that is neither too high nor too low. Something like 30-60 total reps for each big muscle group per workout, and around half that for smaller muscle groups (with again, about two workouts per week).

6. Widen The Rep Ranges, Vary The Intensity

In all honesty, I do believe that the 5-8 rep range is probably the most important and beneficial rep range for ANYONE trying to build muscle, including us ectomorphs and hardgainers. And if you were forced to only use one rep range, that would probably be the one I’d recommend.

But luckily, you’re NOT forced to only use one rep range. And in that case, I’d recommend using the 5-8 rep range for your big primary exercises (squats, deadlifts, bench press, etc.), but definitely go up into the 8-15 rep range on the accessory stuff.

There’s two main reasons for this. First, our CNS, tendons and joints aren’t built for nothing but heavy low rep work (no one is, really… our body type/genetics are just a lot worse). Second, while progressive tension is the biggest muscle growth signaler (and the 5-8 rep range is ideal for that), some degree of muscular fatigue and damage helps to signal growth too. Going into these higher rep ranges (8-10, 10-12, even 12-15) is ideal for that.

7. Avoid Going To Failure

Our CNS recovery is below average, and going to failure is an absolute CNS killer. This is why there are few aspects of weight training as bad for us as going to failure all the time, or just ending up going to failure more often than we should (which, if you ask me, would ideally be just slightly more frequently than never).

Granted, going to failure all the time sucks for most people, which is why I don’t recommend it. It just tends to suck a whole lot more for people with our genetics.

Case in point… when I’ve occasionally gone to failure on a set or two of my first heavy exercise of the day (especially in consecutive sets), I’ve found that it can sometimes completely blow me out for the entire rest of the workout. My performance on EVERYTHING after that is reduced. I’m more tired. Mentally and physically drained. Just a little out of it overall.

For this reason, I’d highly suggest stopping your sets about 1 rep before hitting failure 98% of the time.

Of that remaining 2%, save 1% of it for the occasional isolation exercise that happens to hit failure (much less problematic to reach failure on higher rep tricep push-downs than on lower rep barbell bench pressing… still not something you should purposely set out to do though), and the other 1% for the occasional time where you feel pretty sure that you’ll get that next rep but end up failing on it anyway (which is something that is bound to happen from time to time since progression is the #1 goal, but still not something you want to happen often and definitely not something should be purposely aiming to make happen).

8. Choose The Right Set/Rep Scheme And Progression Method

I suck at doing traditional straight sets, and I find many other ectomorphs/hardgainers do too. Meaning, if I’m supposed to be doing something like 3×8 with 200lbs on some exercise, I will take forever (if ever) to get 8 reps in all 3 sets with that weight. More likely, I’ll just keep on getting 8, 7, 6 over and over again, finding it extremely difficult (bordering on impossible) to add those 1-2 reps to those later sets.

I just naturally tend to lose 1 rep in each subsequent set with the same weight. Always have (which is why 5×5 with the same weight sucks for me too). Why is this? My theory is that, among other things, it’s a genetic work capacity thing. I’m just not capable of maintaining reps from set to set with the same weight (unless that weight is lighter than I want it to be).

And hey, wouldn’t ya know… hardgainers/ectomorphs typically have a below average work capacity (at least when it comes to strength training… we’re usually quite good at endurance). And pyramid sets? Where you start with the lightest weight and end with your heaviest weight while decreasing reps (e.g. 180lbsx10, 190lbsx8, 200lbsx6)… that’s even worse.

Instead, I’ve found 3 other set/rep schemes to be ideal for me:

  1. Do straight sets, but with a rep range instead one specific rep amount. So warm up to my heaviest set, and then get one less rep per set with the same weight (so 3×6-8 instead of 3×8… thus allowing the 200lbsx8, 200lbsx7, 200lbsx6 I’m naturally prone to getting to be the acceptable progression goal).
  2. Reverse pyramid. Warm up to my heaviest set, then reduce the weight in subsequent sets while increasing the reps (e.g. 200lbsx6, 190lbsx7, 180lbsx8).
  3. Modified reverse pyramid. Warm up to my heaviest set, then reduce the weight each set while maintaining the reps (e.g. 200lbsx8, 190×8, 180lbsx8).

Additional info here: Pyramid Sets vs Reverse Pyramid Training vs Straight Sets

9. Focus Mostly On Big Compound Exercises

Exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench press, shoulder press, pull-ups, rows, various single leg movements, etc. should most definitely make up the majority of your workout and get the majority of your focus. That’s something I’d recommend to everyone.

10. Certain Machines And Isolation Exercises Are Perfectly Fine, Too

You read and understood #9, right? Good. Having said that, it’s perfectly fine (and often beneficial) to include certain machines and isolation exercises in a smaller secondary role in your workout.

For example, biceps and triceps isolation work is not the devil. When programmed correctly (i.e. tiny amount of it after the more important stuff), it will only help your arms grow… not hurt (seriously).

And stuff like leg presses, lat pull-downs, lateral raises, leg curls, chest flyes, various Hammer Strength machines, cable-based exercises and even the dreaded leg extension? They’re all fine and CAN serve a beneficial role in your workout routine. In fact, in some cases, you may find you’re not built well for certain supposed “required” exercises, but you’re built perfectly for others you’re often told to avoid for some stupid reason.

In my case for example, I avoid the incline barbell bench press (bothers my shoulders) in favor of the incline Hammer Strength machine (feels absolutely perfect for me). Another example below…

11. Squats, Squats And More Squats… Or Maybe Not

Look, if you want to build big legs, the back squat is a fantastic way to do it. This is why I include it in virtually every program I design by default. The thing is, for certain people, the squat isn’t always an ideal exercise.

What kind of people am I referring to? Taller people and/or those with longer legs (a common trait among many (but not all) ectomorphs), and those who are posterior chain dominant (hams/glutes take over during quad exercises).

Now I’m definitely NOT saying that anyone should automatically avoid squats completely. I’m just saying that some people (many of which are ectomorphs) have a body type that isn’t built well for squatting and they’ll end up struggling with it more so than most people will, and getting less out of it than most people will.

In these cases, they might be better off experimenting with focusing less on squats, and more on leg presses, deadlifts, and various single leg exercises (split squats, lunges, single-leg leg press, etc.). Or, just skipping squats altogether in favor of these kinds of exercises.

Oh, and by the way, if you’ve heard that squatting is a requirement for ectomorphs because it releases tons of growth hormones that will make your entire body grow like crazy… that’s bullshit. I mean, there’s truth to “it releases growth hormones” part, it’s just that this training induced hormone spike isn’t enough to actually matter in any meaningful way.

12. Avoid High Exercise Frequency (Maybe)

This one is something I’ve observed with myself, so I can’t say for sure if it’s the same for you (although I’d suspect it could be). And that is, I find I can train muscle groups twice per week with no problem.

BUT, doing the same specific exercises twice per week… something about that just isn’t right for me.

So I can squat on Monday and leg press on Thursday, but squatting both days sucks. I can do heavy weighted pull-ups one day and higher rep lat pull downs on another. But heavy pull-ups twice a week sucks. I can overhead press one day, and do lateral raises on another. But overhead pressing on both days? My body just doesn’t seem to like it for some reason, at least not as well as these other exercise selection scenarios.

Just something to think about and experiment with.

13. Deload

Again, deloading is something I recommend to everyone regardless of body type or genetics. But as you’ve probably figured out by now, people like us tend to “hit the wall” and “burn out” a bit easier than others with better genetics. I also find we hit that wall a bit harder than others, and stall out/backslide faster than most once reaching that point.

Our muscles might not have any problem at all, but it’s mainly our CNS that can’t really take as much hard/heavy training as others can, or at least not for as long as others might be able to take it. Our injury prone joints/tendons certainly can’t either.

For this reason, when we hit that wall, we really need to pay close attention and back off a bit. As mentioned earlier, I think we suck at taking actual time off (e.g. a full week off). Instead, we need to deload, and in my experience we (myself included) do much better by deloading intensity rather than volume. Full details here: How To Deload

14. Avoid Common Injury-Causing Exercises

Technically, every exercise is potentially an injury-causing exercise depending on your form and overall workout routine. And of course, individualization plays a huge role here as some people can do certain exercises forever and be just fine, while others will have problems.

In that same vein, I find that there are exercises that just tend to pose an increased risk to the thin bone structure, joints and tendons of an ectomorph.

First up on that list for me is the straight barbell curl. Now I did straight barbell curls on and off for years without any problem. It always felt a little weird on my wrists/forearms to curl a straight bar (sign #1 that maybe I shouldn’t be doing it), but it wasn’t until years later that it finally caught up with me and became a legit cause of injury. Stick with the EZ curl bar or dumbbells instead.

Heavy chin-ups (underhand grip) were almost an identical issue for me. It always felt a little uncomfortable on my wrists/forearms when gripping the chin-up bar (or lat pull-down bar) with an underhand grip (here we go again), and after doing it long enough/eventually getting heavy enough, they became a problem. Stick with pull-ups (overhand grip), neutral grip (palms facing each others) or rings.

Then we have skull crushers. Even when done with an EZ curl bar instead of a straight bar, they’re a known elbow killer. Either find a safer way of doing them (details here: skull crushers) or avoid them in favor of other less problematic triceps exercises (for example, cable press downs… with a rope or v-bar, not a straight bar).

And I’d be crazy if I didn’t mention dips… likely the killer of more shoulders than any other exercise in existence. Again, some people can do them without problems, but MANY can’t.

The biggest point here is that if ANY exercise (free weight, body weight, machine, barbell, dumbbell, cable, etc.) of ANY kind doesn’t feel completely “right” for your body now or at any point in the future (and again, I find the ectomorph body is more prone to having injury issues than other body types with all else being equal), you need to adjust or avoid that exercise. (For example: 6 Good Exercises I Will Never Do Again)

Unless you’re a competitive powerlifter, there’s not a single exercise you MUST do (yes, even squats). There are plenty of equally effective replacements that WILL be more ideal for your body. Do only those. Because, if you think building muscle is hard now, wait till you try to do it with an injury preventing you from doing what needs to be done.

15. Workouts Longer Than 30-45 Minutes Won’t Kill You

We’ve all been told that we should get in and out of the gym as quickly as possible, ideally within 30-45 minutes. This is supposedly a good guideline for most, but for ectomorphs and hardgainers, it’s supposedly an absolute requirement!

Why? It seems to be a combination of the fact that A) we can supposedly only tolerate super low amounts of volume, and B) at 46 minutes exactly, the cortisol fairy will supposedly show up, drink your testosterone, make your muscles fall off instantly, and add 1 pound of fat to your body for every additional minute you’re still inside the gym.

Or some crazy shit like that? I honestly can’t even keep track anymore. But whatever the claimed reason is, it’s nothing you actually need to care about.

As long as your workouts are intelligently designed and not filled with more than you need to be doing (e.g. stereotypical bodybulding workouts… which are horrible), it’s no problem whatsoever for your workouts to exceed this mythical time frame.

In fact, it’s normal for something like a perfectly designed “upper body day” (as part of an upper/lower routine) to take 60-90 minutes depending on the specifics. Don’t worry. You’ll be just fine. What matters is that your overall workout program is designed optimally… not that each workout lasts a specific (and meaningless) amount of time.

16. Warm Up Just Right

I’m not just referring to the general warm-up for the workout itself (like mobility stuff, prehab work, foam rolling, etc., which is also definitely important), I’m referring to your warm-up sets for each exercise.

Again, the body of the ectomorph and/or hardgainer is a little different than everyone else’s when it comes to building muscle and really just the act of lifting heavy things. One such example I’ve noticed is that if I don’t warm up for an exercise just right, my first set feels heavy as hell. In a “wow, I sooo wasn’t expecting this” kind of way.

And not even just heavy. Like unstable and awkward and weak and sloppy. Where my second set usually feels a lot better, stronger and smoother than the first. What… you’ve experienced what I’m describing before too? It’s not your imagination.

Like most of this stuff, this is something that is true for everyone… but again… just to a more significant degree for us. I’ve previously outlined how to do your warm-up sets before, so definitely check that out. But, here’s one specific tip I’ve found to be hugely beneficial for me.

And that is… the heavy single. My final warm-up set is just 1 rep with 90-95% of my working weight. No matter how thoroughly I’ve already warmed up, this last set primes my nervous system for my working sets better than anything else. For me, on certain exercises, it’s key.

17. Avoid HIT

Nothing else to say really. High intensity training (not to be confused with HIIT, high intensity interval training… although you may want to avoid that too, see below) is just an inferior approach to training (1 set to failure? no thanks) for damn near everyone… us especially. Yet it’s one of the more common forms of weight training recommended to ectomorphs/hardgainers. Avoid it.

18. Avoid The Unnecessary/Stupid Stuff

Off the top of my head…

  • Dropsets. Supersets. Forced reps. Eccentric only. Random nonsense before/after/between sets (burpees, push-ups, kettlebell stuff, finishers, etc.). And on and on and on. Um, no. No to all of it. This kind of fancy unnecessary stuff is nothing but counterproductive to the needs of an ectomorph. Avoid it.
  • Making sure the right muscle groups are doing the work during various exercises (e.g. making sure your back is working during back exercises and not just your biceps) is definitely important. But, training specifically/solely to get tons of pump in your muscles and be sore as hell the next day? That couldn’t be dumber. Avoid it.
  • Changing your workout often? Shocking your muscles? Muscle confusion? Um, no again. Avoid it. You need consistency to make progress, and changing things all the time makes that impossible. As I’ve said before, your muscles don’t need to be shocked. They need to be consistently challenged. Change things only when needed.
  • Doesn’t “feel like” you’re doing enough in your workouts? It “feels like” you need to be doing more? Nope. Trust me… you’re doing enough.
  • Wondering if you’d build muscle better and faster if you used the popular bodybuilder routines you often see? You most definitely will NOT.
  • Worried about your upper and lower chest? Stop it.
  • Ladies… scared of becoming too big and bulky like a guy? Don’t worry… you won’t. Only want to lift light weights for high reps so you just get “toned?” Coincidentally, that won’t happen either.

These are just a few common examples of the many unnecessary and just plain stupid things that we often end up doing/thinking about doing which just prevents us from doing the things we truly NEED to be doing. Avoid it. Avoid all of it.

19. Cardio: Limit It Or Avoid It Completely

And speaking of counterproductive to the needs of an ectomorph, we have cardio.

As I’ll cover in detail in a minute, a caloric surplus is the primary dietary requirement of muscle growth, and as you already know, our “fast metabolism” (more on that later as well) makes being in this required surplus extra hard. It may seem impossible, but it’s not. It’s harder for sure, but it’s still very doable.

However, do you know what makes it even harder? Burning tons of additional calories through cardio.

For this reason, if you have trouble eating enough to support growth (like most ectomorphs usually do) and want to put yourself in the best possible position for successfully meeting your calorie intake needs, I’d highly suggest keeping your non-weight training activity limited to nothing but small amounts of light and easy cardio.

In fact, I’d even go as far as to say that most ectomorphs will do best if they just avoid all forms of cardio completely. I know I do.

For me personally, when muscle growth is my goal, I do absolutely nothing but weight training. Additional activity just makes things harder/worse for me. Trust me, I’ve tried. I do best when my rest days literally are rest days. No cardio, no “conditioning,” no anything. With the possible exception of stuff like foam rolling, I’m just resting, recovering and eating.

Recommended Workout Routines

If you’re looking for a routine that already incorporates most of what you just read into a complete program designed for muscle growth, I’d highly recommend checking out The Muscle Building Workout Routine. That routine is basically an improved version of the first routine I used that actually worked well for me. Extremely well.

Unless of course you’re a beginner, in which case I’d recommend starting out with The Beginner Weight Training Routine instead.

And if you’re looking for more than that, my compilation of The Best Workout Routines might be worth checking out, too.

The Best Hardgainer/Ectomorph Diet

As much as people screw up their workout, and as hugely important as it is to implement all of the above components, I would say the biggest problem (by FAR) that ectomorphs and hardgainers face has nothing at all to do with our workout.

It’s our diet. More specifically, it’s our calorie intake. We just don’t eat enough.

The BIG Secret

As you may or may not know, the primary dietary requirement of building muscle (or just gaining weight) is a caloric surplus.

This basically means that we have to eat more calories than our bodies burn so that a small surplus exists. (Additional details here: Calories in vs Calories out)

So for example, if you maintain your current body weight consuming 2000 calories per day (this would be your “maintenance level”), you’d gain weight if you consumed 2500 calories per day instead. In this example, those extra 500 calories would be your surplus. It’s additional calories beyond what your body required to maintain its current state.

And assuming you’re training correctly (as outlined in the first half of this article) and doing everything else right, most of the “weight” you gain will ideally be in the form of muscle… not body fat.

But the big super secret magical point here is that above all else diet related, a caloric surplus is the key. If you’re not eating enough to support growth, you won’t build any muscle, and you won’t gain any weight.

Please read that again. Now go ahead and read it again. Then take a second and read it one more time so it really sinks in. This is something that needs to be beaten into brain of every ectomorph/hardgainer walking the earth.

The Annoying Complaints

Why is it so important for you to understand this, you ask? Because due to our shitty genetics, it’s significantly harder for us to eat enough calories to be in that required surplus than it is for most people.

And this is why it seems like you can eat and eat and eat and never gain any weight. Or why the most common ectomorph complaints are “I’m eating TONS of food but I still can’t gain any weight” or  “I swear I’m eating A LOT, but I just can’t gain weight no matter what I do!”

Trust me, I understand these complaints better than anyone else ever could. I’ve been there. I’ve said those exact words many times.

But, it’s NOT actually true. It just seems that way to you because your definition of “eating a lot” or “eating tons of food” is a lot lower than it actually needs to be for your body.

Why? Because of that darn “fast metabolism” characteristic you’ve always heard about.

Our “Fast Metabolism” PROS and CONS

Fat people almost universally think we’re lucky. “You can eat whatever you want and not gain weight! I wish I was an ectomorph like you!”

And in that regard, they’re kinda right. I mean, if your primary goal was to just avoid becoming obese, then our “skinny” genetics are actually fantastic. And if you’re one of the “good” naturally lean types of ectomorphs, and your primary goal is to get/stay lean, then again… you’re genetics actually are quite good. And if you ever did somehow gain TOO MUCH weight (quite rare, but certainly possible) and your goal was to simply lose weight (a goal most of the population has) then again, we did kinda hit the genetic jackpot for that sort of thing.

So yeah, as crazy as it might sound, when you look at it like this… our “fast metabolism” makes our genetics surprisingly good for certain things.

Unfortunately, they are mostly things we couldn’t give a shit about.

We want to build muscle. We want to gain weight. We want to get bigger and stronger. We want to NOT be skinny. And for these types of goals, our fast metabolism is our worst enemy.

So what exactly makes our metabolic rate so “fast?” Why is it harder for us to gain weight than others? Why are our calorie requirements above average?

What Makes Our Metabolism So Fast & Our Calorie Needs So High?

There’s a handful of factors that play a role here. These are the ones that are probably the most significant:

  • Hormones. It starts with what is likely to be a variety of hormonal factors (thyroid, insulin, leptin, ghrelin, etc.).
  • Digestion. From there, I have a strong feeling digestive issues play some role as well for many of us in that, if you’re not properly digesting some/many of the foods you eat, then you’re not properly absorbing the calories/nutrients they contain. (For example, in my case personally, I’ve found that I don’t digest dairy or oats well at all, and have issues with wheat too.)
  • Appetite. I guess this technically isn’t something that makes our metabolism fast, but rather something that makes it seem even faster. And that of course is the fact that many ectomorphs and hardgainers grew up being picky eaters (I certainly was), and often don’t have the largest appetites in the world. I figure this at least partially ties in with the hormonal factors mentioned before, specifically with leptin and ghrelin… the hunger regulating hormones.
  • Activity & Lifestyle. Then we have activity levels. Lots of times (but not always), skinny people tend to lead a more active lifestyle than fat people (or is it that fat people are just less active than skinny people?), and started that way as kids. For example, I grew up playing every sport imaginable from the youngest possible age (5?) all the way through my teens. I had a handful of fatter friends who I hung out with during these years, and just from observing them, it was pretty clear that me and the other skinny kids moved around a whole lot more (and just sat still a whole lot less) than the fatter kids. Is that part of what caused some of us to be skinny and some to be fat? Maybe. Or, was the fact that some were skinny and some were fat what affected how active we were? It’s a chicken/egg scenario I guess. Either way, it plays a role.
  • NEAT. I actually think this one may be too important for a small bullet point. So…

NEAT: Possibly The Biggest Factor Of All

NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogensis) is defined as the calories burned as a result of all of the little things you do over the course of the day BESIDES obvious stuff like exercise.

I’m talking about things like standing, brushing your teeth, getting dressed, walking to the bathroom, etc.. All of that. Plus, all of your spontaneous daily activity too. You know, like moving around in your chair, tapping your foot, adjusting/maintaining posture and position, fidgeting… basically just extra movement that you didn’t consciously make yourself do. (By the way, you can’t make yourself increase spontaneous activity, because then it’s no longer spontaneous. That would just be normal activity no different than if you made yourself get on a treadmill.)

The most interesting thing about NEAT is that, for many people, it increases with overfeeding. So when you consume more calories, NEAT upregulates and your body naturally burns more calories without you even realizing it. So the more calories you consume, the more calories your body burns thanks to NEAT.

Now here’s where it gets REALLY interesting. The variance between the amount of calories burned via NEAT from one person to the next is sometimes pretty damn crazy.

For example, studies have shown that some people don’t upregulate NEAT at all. So when they eat more, they don’t burn any additional calories. But for others, eating more calories causes their bodies to burn HUNDREDS of additional calories. Others fall somewhere in the middle.

So let’s put that into a completely hypothetical example.

Let’s say 3 people have a maintenance level of 2000 calories per day. Starting tomorrow, they will each eat 500 MORE calories each day (so 2500 total). Here’s what can potentially happen:

  1. Person A may burn no additional calories whatsoever. In their case, they have a 500 calorie surplus (eating 2500 calories).
  2. Person B may burn 100 additional calories via NEAT. In their case, they end up with only a 400 calorie surplus (as if they’re only eating 2400 calories).
  3. Person C may burn 300 additional calories via NEAT. In their case, they end up with only a 200 calorie surplus (as if they’re only eating 2200 calories).

So in this made up example, we have 3 people with the same calorie needs creating an identical surplus and eating the same total amount. But, their results will be quite different based on how their body responds to these extra calories.

In this example, you can see why Person C will have a much harder time gaining weight than Person A would (in fact, person A is likely genetically prone to being fat just like Person C is likely genetically prone to being skinny). Person C’s body is just super efficient at burning calories (due to NEAT) to the point where it canceled out more than half of the extra calories that were consumed.

Of course, this was just a hypothetical example. Just how legit is this type of variance in NEAT in the real world? Allow me to quote Lyle McDonald…

Changes in SPA/NEAT can vary hugely and explain most of the discrepancies in expected vs. actual weight gain.  In the earliest study, when overfed nearly 1000 calories/day weight/fat gain varied almost 10 fold but this was explained by massive variance in NEAT; some people increased their spontaneous movement by 700 cal/day (making the true surplus 300 cal/day) while one poor person (a woman) had her NEAT go down a little bit (she gained the most fat).  This is mostly genetic, unfortunately.

Behold the power of NEAT.

And if I had to guess, I’d say the NEAT of the ectomorph/hardgainer is through the roof. It may very well be the biggest contributing factor to our infamous “fast metabolism” and why it seems like we can’t gain weight no matter how much we eat.

We can of course, it’s just that the amount we’ll have to eat will be a lot higher.

How You’ve Been Told You Should Eat

So now you know why it’s so hard for us to eat enough calories to gain weight and build muscle. The question now is, how in the hell do we do it, and how many calories should we eat?

If you’ve ever researched this type of thing before, I can almost guarantee that the most common recommendation you’ve seen is that you need to just start eating a shitload of food. You know, “eat whatever isn’t nailed down,” “eat as much as you possibly can,” “you gotta eat big to get big,” and on and on and on.

Now sure, I get it. People like us DO legitimately need to eat a lot of food to be in that required surplus, especially compared to how much we’re used to eating. So, in theory, I understand the point of this sort of advice.

But it’s when you get into the specifics that things start to get… scary.

Scary Calorie Intakes And Rates Of Weight Gain

For example, it’s commonly recommended that skinny ectomorphs trying to gain weight should automatically start eating 1000 additional calories per day. Or some very large and specific calorie intake is suggested (e.g. 5000 calories per day) and you’re told that every ectomorph should eat that much starting tomorrow.

Or you’re told to aim for gaining 1-2 pounds per week and eat accordingly to make that happen. Hell, I’ve even seen supposed “experts” recommend GOMAD (gallon of milk a day) for the purpose of trying to gain 25lbs in 25 days.

Excuse me for a second…. hahhahahahahaha!

Alright, I’m back.

Here’s the thing about this sort of advice… it’s absolutely horrible.

I know that the dream of the ectomorph and/or hardgainer is to build muscle and gain weight as quickly as possible, and this advice appeals to that. The problem is, it’s complete and utter horseshit. Allow me to quote myself from a previous article (How To Bulk And Cut)…

But here’s the thing… there’s a limit to the amount of muscle a person can build and the rate at which they can build it (more here: How Fast Can You Build Muscle?).

What this means is that there is also a limit to the amount of calories the human body can actually put towards the process of muscle growth. Consuming more calories than that amount doesn’t lead to more muscle growth or faster muscle growth. It just leads to you getting fat as hell.

See, once you have supplied your body with the extra calories it needs to build muscle, any additional calories you consume beyond that point will just be stored as fat. And with this style of bulking (where little to no attention is put on monitoring calories, and the attempted rate of weight gain is often hilariously high), this is something that always ends up happening

and…

Super skinny or not, eating MORE calories above what is needed for optimal muscle growth will STILL lead to excessive amounts of fat being gained just the same. Sure, it may seem like less of a problem if a really skinny person gains that extra fat rather than someone who isn’t as skinny to start.

But who gives a shit? No one wants to unnecessarily gain extra fat, period. Even the super skinny.

As someone who once fit that description (it may have even been an understatement), I know I sure as hell didn’t. But, all of the advice I was hearing at the time made it seem like someone as skinny as I was needed to ignore everything and just eat a ton. Eat big, get big, right?

Why should someone who is barely 125lbs and the width of a broomstick waste time closely monitoring their calorie intake or try to gain weight at a slower more moderate pace? Someone with my body type should be gaining 20lbs in the next 10 weeks!!! Right?

This seemed to make sense in my silly noob head, so that’s exactly what I did. And do you know what happened? I built some muscle, but I also got fat as hell in the process.

and last but not least…

That’s why whenever I see people recommend the “eating whatever isn’t nailed down” approach, or to not bother closely counting calories, or suggesting you aim for 2 pounds gained per week (or more), or doing GOMAD (gallon of milk a day) for the purpose of gaining something as insane as 25lbs in 25 days… I do a combination of laugh and cringe.

Seriously… as someone who started off as skinny as anyone ever will, I can tell you firsthand that it’s all just flat out wrong. Even for the super skinny. You’ll certainly gain a ton of weight really fast by following this type of bulking advice. There’s no doubt about that at all, and if all you care about is just gaining weight, then I guess it’s alright.

But if you actually give a crap about what that weight is, then it’s not alright at all. Why? Because the majority of that weight will always be fat, not muscle.

Got it? Good.

But We’re Skinny… It’s OK To Gain A Little Fat!

A little fat? Sure. And let me tell you straight up… if you’re going to try to build muscle/gain weight while remaining super lean and not gaining ANY fat whatsoever, you’ll probably never build an ounce of muscle or gain a pound of weight. You’ll just spin your wheels and get nowhere.

Without steroids or amazing genetics, some small degree of fat gains WILL come with the muscle gains. It’s just not gonna happen any other way. But the key however is to try to keep those fat gains as low as possible.

But that’s not what the “experts” tell us. Nah, they’ll say things like “Don’t worry about gaining a bunch of fat now… with your skinny ectomorph genetics, you’ll be able to easily lose that fat later on! Just focus on eating a ton and gaining weight fast!”

Um, no. Sure, people like us will probably have a much easier time losing that fat than others might. But, it’s still just terrible advice. Here’s why:

  • Who wants that unnecessary job? Who wants to waste any amount of time losing a bunch of fat that you didn’t need to gain in the first place and didn’t help you build muscle any faster? I sure as hell don’t.
  • Who wants to look fat, bloated and disgusting during the long period of time between when you first start gaining this fat and finally finish losing it? Isn’t the goal here to, you know, look good? Who wants to even temporarily look like crap for no beneficial reason? Not me.
  • Besides the potential for loose skin and stretch marks (gain enough weight/fat fast enough, and that CAN happen to us just like everyone else), gaining too much excess fat now will improve how good your body is at storing fat in the future (thus screwing with your p-ratio during future attempts at building muscle/bulking).
  • And for the hardgainer, gaining excess fat is the ultimate recipe for us becoming exactly what our genetics want us to be… skinny-fat. It’s one of the absolute worst things we can do.

Just Eat Clean!

To supposedly counter any excess body fat gains, it’s commonly suggested that ectomorphs just need to eat clean. You know, avoid “dirty foods” and “bad carbs” and eat nothing but TONS of safe, healthy, “clean” foods (grilled chicken, oatmeal, vegetables, etc.). As long as you do that (and do it with 6 smalls meals every 3 hours!!!), you’ll gain only lean muscle mass.

Sorry, give me a minute… ahahahahahahhhhhhaahahahhahaha!

Alright, I’m back. First and foremost, that’s pure bullshit. Clean or dirty, healthy or unhealthy, good or bad… that has no direct impact on body composition with all else (total calorie and macronutrient intake, training, etc.) being equal. More here: Clean Eatings vs IIFYM

Second, this is just going to make the already hard dietary life of an ectomorph even harder. Your calorie needs are super high. Your metabolism is super fast. You’re (usually) a picky eater with a small appetite. Your hardest job is going to be eating enough. But hey, guess what… let’s make it even harder by limiting your food choices to only “clean foods” like grilled chicken, oatmeal and vegetables AKA highly filling foods that contain very few calories.

Genius idea guys. Seriously. Be sure to let me know how that goes. Idiots.

How You Actually SHOULD Eat

Now here’s what I actually recommend. This is what I’ve personally found to work best for those of us with the ectomorph body type and/or hardgainer genetics… including myself:

1. Calorie Intake

Since the rate of muscle growth of the ectomorph is already BELOW AVERAGE, and the skinny-fat hardgainer is already genetically prone to gaining more fat/less muscle while in a surplus, this means our calorie intake needs to be more controlled and optimized than most people’s, and our rate of weight gain needs to be slower.

Yeah, the complete opposite of the horseshit advice we’re usually given.

With that in mind, my recommendation is to consume a surplus of about 200-250 calories per day. (Women should cut that recommendation in half.) Which means…

  1. Step 1 is to estimate what your current daily calorie maintenance level is. The full details of doing that are here: Calorie Requirements Calculator
  2. Step 2 is to then add this small surplus of calories on top of it. The full details of doing that are here: How Many Calories To Build Muscle
  3. Step 3 is to monitor what your weight is doing over the next couple of weeks. If it’s increasing at the ideal rate it should be (I’ll explain that in a second), then you’re good. Keep eating that amount. BUT, if your weight is NOT increasing at that ideal rate (or just not increasing at all), add an additional 250 calories and monitor what happens then. And, if your weight happens to be increasing too quickly, remove 250 calories and monitor what happens. Your goal is to end up gaining weight at the ideal rate explained below. If you are, good. If you’re not, adjust until you are.

Optionally for all ectomorphs but especially for the true hardgainer, I’d also suggest using some type of calorie/nutrient cycling approach (more calories and carbs on training days, less on rest days… but the same total weekly net surplus still remains present).

I find that, with all else being equal, calorie cycling provides a small calorie partitioning benefit for everyone (more muscle/less fat being gained). But for a skinny-fat hardgainer genetically prone to having a below average partitioning ratio from the start? We need all the help we can get, and this is one very effective way of helping.

If you want more details and specifics for exactly how this should be done, hang in there. This article has already crossed the lines of sanity in terms of length and the amount of stuff being covered, so this is definitely not the place to go into a whole thing on calorie and nutrient cycling. But stay tuned, it’s on my to-do list. (Update: Superior Muscle Growth now contains a 50 page chapter entirely about calorie cycling. It covers everything.)

(IMPORTANT NOTE #1: The most important thing is that you’re eating as much as you need to eat to be in a surplus. That’s rule #1. I say this because calorie cycling, while beneficial, is a bit more complicated than a straight forward surplus each day, and may require a bit more effort to sustain. So, if there is any chance this approach would make things too hard/annoying for you and possibly cause you to fail to meet rule #1 (eating enough total calories to be in a surplus), then skip it. Rule #1 is infinitely more important here. But if you’re confident that you won’t have any problems eating this way, I’d highly recommend calorie cycling, especially for hardgainers.)

(IMPORTANT NOTE #2: Something else to keep in mind ONLY in the case of the skinny-fat hardgainer. Just how fat are you right now? I ask because, if you’re above a certain level of body fat, you’d be better off losing some of that fat first and getting a bit leaner before going into a surplus. For most ectomorphs, this is a total non-issue and this note should be ignored completely. BUT, for many of the people starting out in a “skinny-fat” state, the “fat” part of that equation is sometimes just too high to justify going into a surplus and gaining weight. Doing so will actually have a negative effect on your already below average p-ratio, thus making you even more likely to gain fat instead of muscle in a surplus. In these cases, your results will be much better if you lose some of that fat first so you can start out a little leaner. Additional details here: Should I Build Muscle Or Lose Fat First? and here: How Can I Build Muscle & Lose Fat At The Same Time?)

2. Rate Of Weight Gain

You remember before when I mentioned that it’s typically recommended for ectomorphs to aim to gain 1-2 pounds per week (or even more)?

Well, guess what? I want you to aim to gain 1-2 pounds… per month. So somewhere between 0.25-0.5lb per week is the goal. (Women should shoot for about 0.25lb per week, or about 1lb per month.)

That might not sound like much (although if you really think about it guys, is being 12-24lbs bigger at this time next year really that bad?) and it’s probably not as fast as you’d wish it could be (because that just can’t happen without you gaining a ton of unnecessary fat), but it is what I’ve found will work best.

You’ll build muscle as fast as you’re genetically capable, and you’ll keep fat gains to a bare minimum. It’s the ideal scenario.

Also keep in mind that when you reach a point where you stop gaining weight for 2-3 consecutive weeks, you’ll need to add an additional 200-250 calories (and again for women, half that). Don’t forget.

And just in case it needs to be mentioned as well, if you reach a point where you’re gaining weight faster than you should be for 2-3 consecutive weeks, reduce your calorie intake slightly.

And finally, for tracking your weight, I’d suggest weighing yourself daily (first thing in the morning on an empty stomach) and then taking the weekly average.

3. Food Choices

All of the usual choices remain. You know… protein sources like chicken breast, turkey, fish, lean cuts of meat, eggs, milk and protein powder. And of course, various fruits and vegetables.

This stuff contains some calories, so it will help make a dent in reaching your calorie intake goal each day. However, that dent won’t be all that big. The main purpose of this stuff is to ensure you hit your daily protein requirements (which, after total calories, is the next most important part of a muscle building diet) and get plenty of fiber and micronutrients as well.

But from there, the majority of your daily calorie intake will come from high carb foods that ideally taste good and are easy to eat large amounts of. So for example, rice (white, brown, whatever the hell you like best), potatoes (white, sweet, whatever), pasta, oatmeal, beans, bread and various grains. High fat calorie dense sources like various nuts (almonds, walnuts, etc.) and oils (like olive oil) are going to be important and helpful, too.

The key here is going to be picking foods you enjoy, and then eating a lot of them. (Here’s an example from my own diet.)

Also keep in mind what I mentioned earlier about digestibility, something that I think is an underrated characteristic of our high calorie needs. Be sure to pick foods you don’t have issues digesting and/or foods that just make you feel like crap (common symptoms include gas, bloating, nasal congestion, diarrhea, etc.).

For example, in my case specifically, I completely avoid milk and all milk/dairy products due to the first 3 symptoms mentioned above (GOMAD would be soooo extra horrible for me). I also avoid oats (see symptom #4… fun times). And after experimenting a bit over the last few years, I find many wheat products bother me a little too (similar to dairy, just to a lesser degree).

Instead, in my case specifically, I’ve found white rice and white potatoes to be PERFECT for me from a digestion standpoint (they’re usually well digested by everyone, white rice especially). They, along with various fruits and vegetables, comprise the majority of my daily carb intake. Chicken, turkey, eggs, tuna fish and whey protein powder are my preferred protein sources. And fat comes primarily from almonds and other nuts, olive oil (it can be mixed with balsamic vinegar and thrown on damn near everything), and egg yolks.

Keep in mind however that this is just an example of what I’ve found to be ideal for me. These are the foods I like best, don’t have issues digesting, don’t make me feel like crap, and that I’ll happily eat in large amounts on a regular basis to meet my above average calorie and macronutrient requirements.

You need to find whatever foods fit that description for you and do the same.

Additional details here: How To Choose The Best Foods For Your Diet

4. Diet Organization

The exact amount, frequency, timing and size of your meals still doesn’t matter, even for ectomorphs. You can eat 5-8 frequent small meals, 2-4 infrequent large meals or anything in between. As long as your total calorie and macronutrient intake is what it needs to be each day, it doesn’t matter at all. (Additional details here: How Many Meals A Day?)

HOWEVER, if there is one group of people that a moderate-higher meal frequency MAY be more ideal for, it’s people like us. Due to our higher than normal calorie needs, it can get kinda tough trying to eat the amount we need to eat in just 2 or 3 meals per day.

Those will often end up being some CRAZY huge meals, especially for someone with a below-average appetite to begin with.

So whereas something like IF (intermittent fasting) can certainly be a useful approach for some, it might not be as ideal for higher calorie intakes like ours as it is for those with lower-moderate calorie intakes.

I personally find I do best with 4-6 meals per day (currently 4 on rest days, 5 on workout days) because my calorie intake is just too high to eat any less frequently and not explode during each meal. And trying to eat even more frequently than that is just pure lifestyle torture (I actually spent some time years ago eating 7-8 times per day… it sucked). 4-6 seems to be my sweet spot.

But of course, this is nothing more than a suggestion based on a personal preference. I’d recommend experimenting with different meal sizes/frequencies/combinations until you find what best suits your preferences/life and allows you to most easily and consistently eat the amount you need to eat.

I should also note that, for me, the key to getting myself to eat as much as I needed to eat early on (back when it seemed impossible… it definitely gets easier over time… you’ll see) was coming up with some kind of overall meal plan, schedule and frequency, and being pretty strict with it.

Now sure, I’m ALL about “flexible dieting.” If you know me, you know it’s what I recommend. However, for the skinny ectomorph who will basically be forcing themselves to eat more food than they have any interest or desire to actually eat, I found that a more strict, scheduled, structured (aka inflexible) approach may be beneficial… at least until you’ve become more accustomed to consistently eating how you now need to eat.

Just a suggestion to keep in mind. And I’ll also mention that, over time, my appetite has improved a ton as has my ability (and desire) to eat large amounts of food. Yours will too. Just give it time.

5. Protein, Fat And Carbs… And Everything Else (Supplements Too)

And now for the stuff you most likely already knew…

  • Get at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight (so if you weigh 150lbs, consume a minimum of 150 grams of protein per day). Full details here: How Much Protein Per Day?
  • Get about 25% of your total calorie intake from fat. Full details here: How Much Fat Per Day?
  • Everything else will be carbs. So after your protein and fat intake have been factored into your total calorie intake, whatever calories still need to be filled in to reach that total… they will all come from carbs. Full details (and a step-by-step example) here: How Many Carbs Per Day?
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Surround your workouts with a decent amount of protein and carbs. I find there may be some calorie partitioning benefits to putting a large amount of your total calorie intake around your workouts. Full details here: The PRE & POST Workout Meal
  • No supplements are required whatsoever, but there are a couple that can be of use. They’re the exact same handful of basic, proven ones I recommend to everyone. Whey protein, fish oil (which may provide calorie partitioning benefits… hardgainers take note), creatine (be sure to read my amazing guide to taking creatine), maybe a multivitamin, maybe some other individual vitamins/minerals you may be lacking (vitamin D and calcium in my case). No special “mass gainer” bullshit. You just need more food. (If you have any questions about the effectiveness of other supplements, I’d highly recommend checking out The Supplement-Goals Reference Guide.)

Two Other Tips

These have nothing directly to do with your diet or workout, so they didn’t really belong anywhere else. So, I’ll put them here. And they are:

  1. Avoid stress, and relax.
  2. Sleep as much as you can.

Yes, good tips for everyone regardless of genetics. But, as with virtually everything else, the ectomorph (and extra especially the skinny-fat hardgainer) just handles stress and an insufficient amount of sleep worse than most people do. Or, it hits us harder and negatively affects us more.

And if there’s one thing you should realize by now it’s that we already have more than enough working against us to let other non-genetic factors come in and make things even worse. So, make sure you don’t let that happen.

The End (Almost)

Well, that certainly turned into something bigger than I originally thought it was gonna be.

But, as someone who is in your same skinny shoes with your same shitty genetics, I’ve just spent too much time trying to figure it all out to be short and brief about it.

I know exactly what it’s like. I know the problems. I know how you think. I know what you’re going through. I know how hard it is and will be. I know what you need to hear. I know what you need to do. I know what you need to avoid doing.

And I know that the majority of the diet and training information out there directed at people with our body type and genetics is absolute garbage. It often comes across as if it’s written by people who don’t have the slightest F-ing clue what it’s like to actually BE an ectomorph or skinny-fat hardgainer, or the slightest F-ing clue about what actually works best and worst for us.

Or, maybe they’ve just used enough drugs/steroids for it to not even matter anymore.

Whatever it is, I wanted to put together a comprehensive guide to the REAL diet and training needs of the ectomorph/hardgainer. My advice? Read it, understand it, and most importantly… put it all into action.

I promise you, it… WILL… work. And not just work, but work better for you than anything else you’ve already tried, and everything else you might have ended up trying in the future.

And when that’s happening, when things ARE working well and you ARE seeing significantly positive results and progress IS going awesomely… do me a favor. Come back here and tell me about it. I love all success stories, but success stories from people like us with genetics like ours… I love those even more.

NEW: The Ultimate Ectomorph/Hardgainer Program

Since writing this article last year, I’ve gotten tons of feedback from literally thousands of people.

Some thanked me for writing it. Some had additional questions to ask me. And some wanted to tell me how well their progress has gone since putting this advice into action. Awesome!

But, the one thing I kept hearing the most is that you want one entire muscle building program designed from top-to-bottom specifically for people with our shitty ectomorph/hardgainer genetics.

That means a program designed to maximize our ability to gain lean muscle mass as quickly and effectively as we can… but WITHOUT gaining excess body fat along the way.

Well, I am extremely happy to tell you that after months of working my ass off, I’ve finally done it.

It’s something I call: Superior Muscle Growth

And in all honesty, I recommend this more than anything else I’ve ever created. Seriously. It’s the ultimate program for getting above-average results from our below-average genetics. As someone with those very same genetics, this is EXACTLY what I’ve found to work to best. I promise you, you’re going to love it. Feel free to check it out: Superior Muscle Growth

Want to build muscle as fast and effectively as possible? It's time: Superior Muscle Growth

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250 Comments

  1. Scott Parsons says

    My progress has been pretty amazing on your plan. I’m now up 6 lean pounds in 7 weeks. Two questions for you. I added barbell shrugs to the end of Upper B. Last week, I strained my lats when I was doing shrugs, badly. Now I want to delete the shrugs to keep away the injuries. However, I do 3 sets at 270 lbs and concerned my traps will shrink or not get worked enough in the compound exercises. What would you suggest?
    Second, I do 50 lbs dumbbell shoulder presses on Upper A and 30 lbs standing low-pulley deltoid raises in Upper B. Yet, my progress has stalled on the dumbbell shoulder presses (unlike every other muscle group). I’m thinking I should replace the standing low-pulley deltoid raises with something else (maybe a machine). What do you think?
    Thanks!

      • Scott Parsons says

        Noted for the injuries/safety advice. I’m lifting heavier than I ever have before with this program. It’s an adjustment when 50 lbs dumbbells are my new minimum!

        With the dumbbell shoulder presses, I’ve been stuck at 50 lbs for three weeks (7, 6, 5 reps). Unlike everything else, where I feel stronger each week, I struggle with doing the same reps I did the week before. In other words, I reach failure at 6 or 7 reps. I had a personal trainer check my form. He did suggest I recline the bench a notch (that is, not at 90 degrees). Seems like that’d work my anterior delts more (which may be the point). Maybe I’m just overthinking it.

        Thank you so much!

  2. Manos says

    Great article! Thanks for writing it.

    You mentioned some digestive issues & vitamin deficiencies that sound to me like you should get tested for celiac disease. I have CD, and for years I had a really hard time gaining muscle. I still do (I’m a classic ectomorph), but I found that after I changed to a gluten-free diet, my body wasn’t stealing calories from me anymore. I can gain muscle and recover from workouts much more effectively now.

    Red flags in your post:
    – Difficulty digesting wheat, oats and dairy. Celiac disease is a reaction to consuming wheat, barley, rye, or oats, and people with CD typically are lactose-intolerant, because the tips of the villi in their small intestines have been degraded by their immune system overreacting. The fact that you’re reacting to both wheat and oats, specifically, is what makes me think that you might have CD.
    – Difficulty gaining muscle. This is an issue that undiagnosed celiacs who are eating gluten typically have, because their bodies aren’t absorbing all the calories from the food they eat, because of the condition of their small intestines (flattened villi = reduced intestinal real estate, inflammation from the autoimmune reaction).
    – Nagging deficiencies in vitamin D and calcium. Celiacs typically have issues with absorbing calcium from food, and for some reason, people with CD often have a hard time holding on to vitamin D.

    Anyway, I felt like I should mention my observations.

  3. Vince says

    Hello there. I just saw this article and about the Beginner’s workout and I want to try it out to see if it really works for me, being an ectomorph of course.

    I do have a few questions like:
    1. Is Dumbbell Press a fine substitute for Bench Press? Which of them is better for an ectomorph in terms of gaining muscle mass?
    2. Are isometric variation of exercises (eg. isometric pull-ups) good for an ectomorph?
    3. Somehow related to #1, is there a difference when it comes to using a dumbbell instead of a barbell for exercises that uses them?

    Thank you in advance.

    • says

      1. Pros and cons to each. Some details here. Being an ectomorph plays no role in this, though.
      2. For the average person looking to build muscle/get stronger, I see no reason for it.
      3. See the link in #1.

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