For skinny dudes, the weight room can be equal parts heaven and hell. On the one hand, throwing around those shiny metal things can bring on the mass and glory you’ve always dreamed of. On the other, they can be a real slog, especially if you put in so much work with little to show for it. Stop wasting your time with this proven advice from personal trainer Michael Matthews, author of Bigger, Leaner, Stronger and founder of Muscle for Life.
Go to the gym frequently, for short periods
“You don’t have to spend 2+ hours in the gym every day,” Matthews says. Instead, he recommends getting to the gym on the regular. “You can gain muscle and strength lifting just once or twice per week,” Matthews says. “But if you want to maximize your gains, 5 to 6 days per week is optimal because it allows you to do shorter, more intense workouts and achieve optimal weekly volume for each major muscle group.” That means splitting ‘em up by day, so you’re not overworking or neglecting any: Day 1 could be chest/abs; Day 2, back/calves; Day 3, shoulders/abs; Day 4, legs; and Day 5, upper body with arms emphasis/abs.
Focus on compound lifts
Within those workouts, incoporporate lots of compound lifts—ones that use more than one joint, such as bench presses and rows. A sample chest and abs workout, courtesy of Matthews:
* Warm up with 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps with 50% of one-rep max (1RM), with 1 to 2 minutes’ rest between sets:
Incline Barbell Bench Press
* Then, 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 85% 1RM, with 3 to 4 minutes’ rest between sets:
Incline Barbell Bench Press
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
Flat Barbell Bench Press
Face Pull (8-10 reps with 2-minute rest)
* Then, 3 circuits with 2 to 3 minutes’ rest between sets:
Cable Crunches (12 to 15 reps)
Captain’s Chair Leg Raise (to failure)
Air Bicycles (to failure)
Treat isolation exercises as icing
Endless biceps curls aren’t the answer when major mass is the goal. “These can be done as well but they should be seen as supplementary to compound moves [in the previous slide],” says Matthews. To ID isolation moves, think about ones that move just a single joint in one direction.
Bring the intensity
You must go hard—and Matthews has found that hard gainers benefit more by following what is generally considered a strength routine. “Working sets should be done with 85-percent of your one-rep max in a 4-to-6 rep range,” Matthews says, like in the same workout on the second slide. You’ll rest for three minutes (which only sounds like a lot when you read it), then go again, for three or four total sets. Once you hit the top end of the rep range and feel like you could do another one, it’s time to increase your load.
Go light on cardio
Ectomorphs (a.k.a. guys that are naturally slim, i.e., you) seem to burn through calories while just sitting on the couch. “If you're relatively skinny and lean and want to gain muscle as quickly as possible, then you want to do as little vigorous cardio as possible,” says Matthews. So when you’re in a mass-building phase, it’s smartest to walk but not run.
“Specifically, you want to ensure you're not regularly eating less energy than you burn,” says Matthews. He recommends aiming for 16 to 18 calories per pound of body weight to start, then tweaking as you see how your body responds.
Especially when it comes to protein
“You want to eat between 0.8 and 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight,” Matthews says. That’s as much as 150 grams, if you weigh 150 pounds—no small feat over the course of a day. To get it in, go for multiple smaller meals where protein takes center stage. Think: meat, chicken, fish, soy, and greek yogurt.
Don’t ignore carbs, though
For two reasons: One, they’re a source of calories, and two, they’re a source of energy, which you’ll need to get through those grueling workouts. “You also don't want to eat a low-carb diet as this will hinder both your performance in the gym and the amount of muscle you gain from your workouts,” says Matthews. After accounting for protein at 25 to 30 percent and fat at 20 percent, the rest of your diet—50 to 60 percent of your calories—should come from this group. Pick complex carbs, though, steering clear of white stuff (flour, rice, sugar), for the best body benefits.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was Adonis (or whomever the Roman equivalent is). “If you have your diet dialed in and you're following a well-designed workout program, you should see significant results within your first three months,” says Matthews.
Know that you CAN get big
There’s no such thing as someone who can’t put on mass. “Some guys gain size faster than others but everyone can gain a large amount of muscle if they know what they're doing and stay patient,” Matthews says. (If you've read the rest of this article, you should now know what you're doing.)