Amit was our recent Member of the Year and in this blog post, we’re going to show you how skinny guys can build lean muscle, the right way.
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Scientists have made some outstanding discoveries in our lifetime—the Higgs boson, gravitational waves, quantum supremacy—but skinny people everywhere are still waiting for one important finding: The perfect (drug-free) formula for turning an ectomorph into a mesomorph so that they can build lean muscle mass.
There are millions of people all over the world looking for a simple solution for fat loss. It’s all over the media, and we’re all aware of the obesity epidemic. But for every overweight person, you will find a skinny person desperately wanting to pack on the pounds.
Both body types are separate issues that need to be addressed differently; there is no one size fits all approach. Just like fat loss, there is no magic pill for skinny people to pack on muscle without taking drugs. It comes down to hard work, grit, and perseverance whilst obeying the basic rules of physiology and nutrition.
How We Train Skinny Guys to Build Lean Muscle
Whenever we work with skinny people, we often find the following common issues:
- They’re not eating enough (of the right foods)
- They’re not training enough
- They’re not strong enough to withstand a muscle-building program
This is across the board. There is a fourth factor that comes into play often too, and that is a lot of skinny people are what we call “skinny fat.” If you’re a little unclear on what exactly skinny fat means, it’s a phrase that refers to someone who has a weight and BMI that is normal for that person’s height but has much more body fat and not enough muscle mass recommended for optimal health.
Many people assume that if their weight and/or BMI is normal, they have nothing to worry about. This has a lot to do with misconceptions about BMI’s usefulness in assessing weight and health.
For example, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), if your BMI is between 18.5 and 24.99, you are in the normal range for sufficient health. So, if you have a BMI of 22, you’re automatically in the clear, right? Not so fast.
Although the WHO has set these ranges, they are quick to qualify them with the following:
BMI should be considered a rough guide because it may not correspond to the same body fat percentage in different individuals.
The bottom line: Looking skinny doesn’t mean you’re healthy. Because of the way fat can be stored, skinny fat people risk having serious health problems.
Not all fat gets stored under the skin. The fat that people can see is referred to as subcutaneous but there’s a second type–visceral–and it’s the worse of the two. If you’re skinny fat, you likely have a lot of this second type.
Visceral fat is internal fat that develops in the abdominal cavity, gets stored around the organs, and wraps around your kidneys, intestines, stomach, and liver. Having large amounts of visceral fat can spell a heap of trouble, according to Harvard Medical School.
Visceral fat has been linked with:
- Increased risk of heart disease
- High cholesterol
- Insulin resistance, leading to type 2 diabetes
- Lower bone mineral density
- Loss of cognitive function
While on the exterior, skinny fat people might look healthy, on the inside, their bodies may be at high risk for several health problems and syndromes. So how can you tell if you’re skinny fat? It’s not as easy as looking in the mirror or standing on a scale.
You need to know your body fat percentage. Therefore, even for skinny people, it’s important to determine not just your weight but your body fat percentage so we can make better, more informed decisions about your health.
This is our approach for all people who want to build lean muscle mass, not just skinny people. Irrespective of body type, we strongly recommend you focus on losing body fat first before attempting to add some bulk to your body. For men and women, this means aiming for 10 to 12 percent for men and 18 to 25 percent for women.
There are three compelling reasons to do this:
#1: Gaining Any More Fat Is a Slippery Slope
Gaining muscle without gaining fat is very difficult, even if you count every calorie you eat meticulously. To gain muscle, our bodies need to be in an anabolic state, which is fed by an ample amount of protein, carbs, and calories.
If you are attempting to build muscle, it is expected that you will add some fat. This is keenly understood by bodybuilders who bulk up with both muscle and fat during the off-season.
Let’s say you are a 5’11” male who weighs 185 lbs with 15 percent body fat. You put on 15lbs during your bulk phase, 8 lbs being muscle and 7 lbs being fat. Your new body fat is 19 percent, which is close to the 20 percent level you don’t want. This means you will need to lose around 18 lbs to get down to 10 percent body fat for that rippling six-pack.
#2: You Look Bigger When You Are Lean
If you are not lean, then you have body fat that is hiding your hard-earned muscle mass. The fat is hiding the shape of your muscles. A chiseled physique generally will look bigger, fuller, and more impressive than a soft physique of a similar size.
This is important if you are trying to build muscle; you may find when you lean out that you already have the muscle mass you want, you just couldn’t see it before.
#3: You Will Know How Much Bigger You Want to Get
Let’s say you want to add 10lbs of muscle to your frame. Do you have any idea of what those 10lbswill look like on you? You may not need to put on nearly as much muscle weight as you think you do.
This leads us nicely into the month’s case study and 2021 Member of the Year Amit Sharma. Amit is a shining example of this exact process. He has had to work extremely hard, consistently, to achieve his results.
People are always amazed by great fat loss stories, whilst the lean-to-muscular stories get lost in the ether. Not this one, not today. I’ve seen how hard he worked with his coach Josh Kennedy, who also deserves some credit here.
Name: Amit Sharma
Country: United Kingdom
Training Program: 14 months
BMI Before: 22.8
BMI After: 21.3
Weight Before: 70kg (154lbs)
Weight Halfway: 66kg (145lbs)
Weight After: 68kg (150lbs)
Body Fat % Before: 16.7%
Body Fat % Halfway: 11.6%
Body Fat % After: 12.6%
Waist Before: 32.7 inches
Waist After: 29.7 inches
The numbers don’t tell the true story of Amit’s transformation. You must look at the corresponding pictures as his training program progressed. Amit’s goals were to get stronger and put on muscle size; however, there were several key issues that we had to address before we could do that. Let’s dive into each of the three phases.
Phase 1: Laying the Foundations
After putting Amit through the Strength Matters Assessments, the following results stood out:
Body Fat %: 16.7%
Zenith Twist Test: No (Both Sides)
Standing Twist Test: No (Both Sides)
2,000m Row Test: 08:53
Amit moved well in most areas, but his thoracic spine was completely locked down. He couldn’t rotate left or right. Your thoracic spine is the middle section of your vertebra between your neck and lower back.
Thoracic mobility involves available movement of this portion of the spine and is essential to remain pain-free for sports and most modern lifestyles. Poor movement in this area can lead to complications elsewhere in the back, neck, hips, and knees.
This was certainly a priority for us moving forwards. Particularly because his goal was to build muscle. The last thing you want to do is lift heavy with rocky foundations.
There were two other things we were concerned about: One was an ongoing elbow issue he had and the second was his time in the 2,000m row test.
Many people have elbow issues because of instability, weakness, and poor neural-sequencing patterns in the core. Lack of bracing and support from the inner core cylinder during coronal and transverse movements makes the body vulnerable to compensation injuries.
We needed to rebuild his core from the ground up whilst simultaneously building up his aerobic capacity. It’s a myth that cardio makes you weak. A strong powerful heart allows you to lift more, more often, and in less time—a prerequisite for anyone looking to add muscle mass.
Most people understand that better mobility and cardiovascular capacity improve performance and help prevent injury, but very few understand the role it plays in muscle gain. We used this period to create foundations for the training that lay ahead.
Without establishing sufficient thoracic mobility and aerobic capacity, Amit was an injury waiting to happen if he was to load heavy weight onto his frame.
Most people are not physically prepared for a muscle-bulking program. These types of training programs are hard, very hard. When people jump straight into them with two feet blind, often they end up injured within a few weeks, setting them even further back from their bulking goals.
This was something we wanted to avoid with Amit, and it’s why our first goal was to improve thoracic mobility and aerobic capacity.
In terms of his body fat percentage, we were happy that Amit wasn’t skinny fat; however, by doing this assessment, it meant our priority was going to be fat loss whilst preserving lean muscle mass, before attempting a muscle-building phase.
Phase 2: Strength and Fat Loss
After improving his mobility and aerobic capacity issues, the next step was to address his body fat percentage whilst building a solid foundation of strength and muscular endurance.
Amit was already strong, but his work capacity was completely out of proportion to his levels of strength. When you’re following a fat loss training plan, it’s all about the effort and intensity you put in. A good fat loss plan will include:
- Heavy Lifting
- Lactate-inducing Lifting
- Aerobic Work
- Anaerobic Alactic Work
Amit was now training five to six times per week consistently with four strength-based training sessions and two aerobic recovery sessions per week. His assessments showed more weakness in his pulling movements than his pushing movements, so we worked on a 2:1 ratio of pulling to pushing throughout. He also showed some weakness in his single-leg squatting pattern, so we made him squat a lot on one leg.
In terms of his strength program, each workout covered the fundamental human movements (locomotion, push, pull, hinge, squat, rotate, and anti-rotate) and rep ranges were either between five to eight or 10 to 12. People often think that to get stronger and more athletic you need to perform lower reps. That is true, up to a point.
What most people don’t realize is developing quality, lean muscle mass that performs well requires you to work all the ranges of strength which include muscular endurance, strength endurance, and max power.
You need to own all three. What you tend to see is people get good at one of these ranges, mostly max strength, and forget the rest. Our system takes you from muscular endurance to max power work via strength endurance. Therefore, there were no maximal effort lifts in this phase.
The key to Amit leaning out in this phase was not just down to his training plan, it was his diet. Amit followed a flexible diet plan centered around calories and macronutrients. As with any good diet plan, you need to establish a baseline of maintenance calories. This was Amit’s, as well as his macros:
Maintenance Calories: 2,547 calories
Carbs = 270g, Protein = 150g, Fat = 95g, Fiber = 40g
After a few weeks at maintenance, he began his calorie deficit in line with the following calories and macronutrients:
Calorie Deficit #1: 2,100 calories
Carbs = 192g, Protein = 177g, Fat = 70g, Fiber = 32g
However, in the first two weeks, he lost weight too fast (the joys of being an ectomorph) so we had to increase his calories accordingly:
Calorie Deficit #2: 2,276 calories
Carbs = 228g, Protein = 167g, Fat = 77g, Fiber = 35g
We approached his diet using a three-week deficit, one-week maintenance cycle that he continued until he reached a solid 66kg in bodyweight and 11.6 percent body fat.
The fastest way to achieve your body composition goals is through nutrition. As simple as it seems, it is not easy, and Amit did incredibly well here to stick to the plan and achieve these results setting him up perfectly for the final phase: Muscle gain.
Phase 3: Muscle Building
There is an art and a science to building lean muscle mass and it comes down to a mixture of both heavy lifting and nutrition. Let’s start with nutrition.
If you’re lifting heavy weights consistently and you are not getting bigger, you are not eating enough. This one detail will help 95 percent of most skinny men and women who are looking to get bigger.
If you don’t eat enough calories, you won’t get any bigger. It’s science. Over the years, I’ve come to realize it’s not just about eating whatever the hell you want—that’s asure-fire way to make you fat. You’ve got to follow a calculated, meticulous plan.
Why? Because we want to put on as much lean muscle mass as possible whilst reducing the amount of fat you put on. Increases in fat are normal during a bulking phase, but you can control how much fat you put on by gradually increasing the number of calories you eat.
Amit had the following maintenance level:
Maintenance Calories: 2,547 calories
Carbs = 270g, Protein = 150g, Fat = 95g, Fiber = 40g
We only increased his calories by five percent to begin with, along with his macros, which looked like this:
Bulking Phase #1: 2,646 calories @ 5% Increase
Carbs = 307g, Protein = 148g, Fat = 91g, Fiber = 35g
Amit stayed at this phase for a couple of weeks. When we didn’t see any increase in body fat or body weight, we upped his calories to the following:
Bulking Phase #2: 2,718 calories @ 10% Increase
Carbs = 318g, Protein = 149g, Fat = 94g, Fiber = 41g
Again, just another five percent increase, but this is where the changes started to happen. We started to see his bodyweight rise with minimal fat increases. The plan was starting to work!
If there’s one thing you can learn from this phase, it’s thatyou need to spend time figuring out your maintenance calories irrespective of if you want to lose weight or bulk up. If you do, all this math becomes a lot simpler and the process of losing or gaining weight becomes a lot easier.
During a bulking phase, you should only add modest increases of five percent to your caloric intake. That way you can hopefully minimize the amount of fat you put on whilst maximizing building lean muscle mass. There’s no guarantee but it’s a plan that works often for us.
In terms of strength training during this phase, it was all about compound movements (hinge, push, pull, and squat movements) using a mixture of low rep sets paired with supersets and high-volume muscular endurance sets of 10+ reps. Amit was training five days a week.
Here’s an example of one of his workouts:
- Deadlift: 3 sets x 10 reps. Rest 2-3 minutes.
- Kettlebell Swing: Heavy 5 sets x 5 reps. Rest 60 seconds.
- Bench Press: 5 sets x 10 reps. Rest 60 seconds.
- Pendaly Row: 5 sets x 10 reps. Rest 60 seconds.
- Heavy Biceps Curl: 5 sets x 5 reps. Rest 3 minutes.
When it comes to bulking, everyone looks to their workouts but the real secret lies in the nutrition. That’s the hard part, and Amit did exceptionally well sticking to that throughout.
Lessons You Can Learn from Amit
When starting a bulking or muscle-building plan, most people want to jump straight in before they’re ready, often influenced by the mainstream media and society’s desire to look good at all costs.
If you’re starting a bulking program but don’t have the fundamentals of good mobility and flexibility, your body will not be able to stand up to the true demands of training for muscle building.
Like so many who have tried before you, you will likely end up injured and even further from your goals. After all the years of work we’ve done helping people over 30 lose weight, get stronger, and live better, the one lesson we have learned is that it pays to take your time in the beginning. It’s better to be the tortoise than the hare in this race.
If you’re about to embark on your own muscle building journey, ask yourself: Are you ready for this? Are you mobile enough? Are you strong enough? Do you have good cardiovascular capacity? If you answer no to any of these questions, you will want to follow the type of plan Amit did. It may work out faster for you in the long run.
Congratulations Amit on your hard work! It’s a fantastic achievement and we’re extremely proud of what you have achieved.
Why is it hard for skinny guys to build muscle?
Often referred to as “hard-gainers,” skinny guys might struggle to build muscle due to factors like a fast metabolism that burns calories quickly, less natural muscle mass, or a genetic predisposition. This makes it more challenging to create the calorie surplus needed for muscle growth. However, this can be overcome with the right nutrition and workout plan.
What type of exercise plan is recommended for skinny guys to gain lean muscle?
Compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups at the same time are most effective. This includes exercises like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. In addition, skinny guys should focus on progressive overload, which means gradually increasing the weights, repetitions, or number of sets in their workouts over time to continuously challenge and grow their muscles.
What is the typical diet plan for a skinny guy trying to build lean muscle?
Skinny guys need a higher calorie intake to create a calorie surplus which is essential for muscle growth. The diet should be rich in protein (for muscle repair and growth), complex carbohydrates (for sustained energy), and healthy fats (for overall health and additional calories). It’s also important to eat frequently, with five or six smaller meals spread throughout the day rather than the traditional three large meals.
How can skinny guys bulk up and build lean muscle?
Skinny guys can bulk up by consistently following a balanced diet high in protein, doing resistance and strength training, and ensuring adequate rest and recovery.
What types of workouts are most effective for skinny guys aiming to build muscle?
Compound exercises, such as squats, deadlifts, bench press, and pull-ups, are highly effective for building muscle as they engage multiple muscles at once.
Do skinny guys need to eat more calories to build muscle?
Yes, to build muscle, skinny guys need to consume more calories than they burn, with a focus on high-protein foods to support muscle growth.
Is it harder for skinny guys to build muscle?
While individual body types may affect muscle building, with a dedicated workout routine and diet plan, skinny guys can effectively build lean muscle.
How long will it take for a skinny guy to build lean muscle?
Progress varies per individual, but with consistency and adherence to proper diet and workout regimen, noticeable muscle growth can typically be seen within a few months.