Published May 20, 2012
I used to be skinny. Really skinny. In high school and up to my first year of college, I was a complete stick -- until I made the decision in my freshman year that I needed to put some muscle on.
Eventually, by my senior year of college, I went from just “putting on muscle” to actually becoming a bodybuilder – standing on stage and posing 35 pounds of muscle above my original starting point.
If you were born skinny, you may not have the potential to gain the bulk of an NFL lineman, but it’s completely possible for a skinny guy to put on muscle. The bonus for you is that your body fat levels are naturally low, so when you do gain muscle, you’ll be able to achieve a very ripped look, which bigger, bulky guys often envy!
Here are seven things I learned from my own journey.
Normally, you can get from food all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals that you need. But if you’re trying to put on significant size and you’re exercising at a level that is constantly stripping your body of fuel, you’ll need help from supplements.
For calories and upping your protein intake, a protein powder is important. If you don’t want the typical gut distress that comes from eating protein powders, don’t just settle for any version of protein powder. Try to choose one without added soy and corn, with no artificial sweeteners, and with added digestive aids such as digestive enzymes and probiotics.
Other supplements that can effectively help a skinny guy gain muscle are:
-Creatine: 0.3 g/kg bodyweight for 5-7 days followed by 5 g/day.
-Carnitine: 750 mg, 2,000 mg/day, in 2 doses.
-Citrulline: 6-8 g, 30-60 minutes before exercise.
-Beta-Alanine: 2-5 g, 30-60 minutes before exercise.
None of these supplements are a substitute for lifting frequently and lifting heavy, but they will certainly help to enhance results.
Strength training is very glycolytic, which means it burns a high amount of carbohydrates. Because of this, you shouldn't go into any muscle building workout without having eaten about 300-600 calories of a carbohydrate-containing meal two to three hours prior. This meal can include sweet potatoes, yams, oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice or any other healthy carbohydrate source. If you eat another similar meal after your workout, you’ll be able to put on size more quickly, as your muscles will rapidly absorb the sugars more quickly after a workout.
In addition, timing your protein intake with several small 20-25-gram portions split up through the day will be far more effective for gaining muscle, compared to a giant protein shake at the beginning and end of the day.
Ultimately, a skinny guy trying to put on muscle should be aiming to consume a pre-workout meal, a post-workout meal and at least four to five additional meals. This may seem like a lot of eating and food, but this is what it takes to build significant muscle if you’re skinny.
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Use Amino Acids
A big secret among bodybuilders and strength training enthusiasts is a type of supplement called “branched chain amino acids” (BCAAs). These are special protein-building blocks that are rapidly absorbed and easily used by muscles during exercise. They’re cheap, easy to find and can be consumed without stomach distress both before, during and immediately after your workout, and can significantly increase muscle gain.
You should not train for size without amino acids in your bloodstream, and since digesting a steak can be tough during a hard workout, BCAAs are a good way to go. To gain muscle more rapidly, you should aim for 10-20 grams of BCAAs, consumed before, and then every 60-90 minutes during, your weight-training workouts.
Skinny guys who are vegans or vegetarians may cringe at this advice, but meat is muscle fiber, and it’s chock full of fats, proteins and hormonal precursors that help you to put on size more quickly. While you certainly can get adequate proteins from plants, it’s far more difficult to go the vegetarian route, and the volume of food you must eat is going to be very daunting and a bit distressing to your gut.
To maintain muscle, you need to eat about 0.55 grams of protein per pound of body weight, and to build muscle, you need about 0.7 grams per pound. In addition, you’ll need to eat an extra 500-1000 calories each day over and above your basal metabolic rate. This high volume of food and protein should include foods that naturally increase testosterone, including grass-fed beef, eggs and seafood (other lower-calorie testosterone-supporting foods include garlic and broccoli).
Mix It Up
The advice to mix it up should not be misinterpreted. I don’t mean you should change up your workout every day (which is actually good for fat loss but not very effective for gaining muscle). Instead, you should stick to the same workouts each week for three to five weeks, but you should use different types of strategies during your sets to challenge your muscles. These strategies can include bouncing, explosions, quarter reps, ladder reps, stripping, supersets, super slow reps, forced reps, negatives and cheating.
Most skinny guys do not lift adequately heavy weights to build significant muscle. This is one reason why having a personal trainer or workout buddy at the gym will help you put on muscle faster -- you can lift more weight when someone is there to help you if the weight gets too heavy for you to safely handle.
While lifting with slightly higher sets (like 4-6 sets) and higher repetitions (like 10-12 reps) will help you build muscle faster than using low sets and low repetitions (which are better for power or brute strength), you still need to use weights that completely exhaust your muscles by the end of a set. For example, if you’re going to be doing 5 sets of 10 repetitions of a barbell squat, you should barely be able to stand for the last 3 repetitions. That is the kind of tough stimulus a skinny guy needs to build muscle.
Once you put it on, muscle is much easier to maintain than big lungs or good endurance. A runner begins to lose oxygen capacity within about three days of laying off workouts. But muscle only requires one workout a week for maintenance.
However, muscle is hard to put on initially, and for skinny guys typically requires 4-6 workouts per muscle group to build (you can build even faster if you lift twice a day, but if you do that, you’ll need to take a full recovery day at least once a week, and allow at least four hours between workouts).
So what does it look like to lift frequently? One popular split that works very well is to exercise your chest and back on day one, your shoulders, biceps and triceps on day two, your legs and core on day three, then take one day of rest, and repeat.