From Skinny to Muscular: 5 Key Ectomorph Diet & Workout Strategies
Authored by Elliot Reimers, M.S.(C), CNC
Going From Skinny to Buff with an Ectomorph Body Type
The ectomorph body type is a double-edged sword of sorts; people with this somatotype typically struggle to build muscle, but they also have no problem staying lean. Hence, ectomorphs are commonly referred to as "hardgainers" in fitness subculture.
We all know those "blessed" individuals who can eat seemingly infinite amounts of fast food and guzzle sugary drinks by the gallon without gaining an ounce of body fat. Heck, that might be you. Being an ectomorph is indeed a gift for staying lean, but going from skinny to muscular is a challenge for folks with this body type.
Now, the good news is that ectomorphs can still pack on plenty of muscle with diligent training and a calorie-dense diet. If you're a classic hard gainer that's struggling to build mass, this article will walk you through actionable ectomorph diet and workout strategies to facilitate muscle growth.
What is an Ectomorph Body Type?
An ectomorph body type is one of the three primary human somatotypes — the other two being endomorph and mesomorph. Somatotypes are used to describe an individual's general body morphology. (The Latin root "soma-" means "body.")
A person's somatotype gives us hints about their physiological tendencies, such as how efficiently they metabolize certain nutrients and their anabolic response to resistance training (1).
In contrast to endomorphs, ectomorphs generally have a slight build with a long torso, slim hips, and narrow shoulders. While endomorphs and mesomorphs tend to put on body fat easier than ectomorphs, the latter faces an ongoing battle for packing on muscle (or any weight at all).
With that in mind, here are five essential ectomorph diet and workout tips to take you from skinny to muscular!
Bulletproof Ectomorph Diet Tips
Muscle building is an anabolic process, meaning it requires energy (i.e. calories). Intuitively, if you're not eating enough calories consistently, you will not gain much muscle.
The conundrum for ectomorphs is that they have fast metabolisms, so they need to consume a surfeit of calories to facilitate muscle growth. To get a better sense of how many calories and macronutrients you need to build muscle, use our handy Macronutrient & Calorie Calculator.
Once you have a general idea of how much to eat, follow these ectomorph diet tips to make the transition from skinny to muscular more efficient:
Eat Plenty of Calorie-Dense Foods
There's no way around the laws of thermodynamics: You need to eat more calories than your body burns to build muscle (2). To ease the "burden" of ingesting tons of whole food, ectomorphs should focus on calorie-dense nutrient sources (or "low-volume" foods).
Why? Because calorie-dense foods such as almonds, avocados, whole eggs, and rice provide you with the necessary energy and muscle-building nutrients without filling you up as quickly as high-volume foods like broccoli and chicken breast.
Now, don't misconstrue "calorie-dense" to mean sugary junk food, like ice cream, candy, and soda. The calorie-dense foods we're talking about should still be fairly "clean," including:
- Nuts and nut butters
- Lean red meat
- Whole eggs
- Whole milk/yogurt
- Grass-fed butter
- Olive oil
If you're eating the right calorie-dense foods, there is no excuse for not meeting your calorie needs every day as an ectomorph. It's okay to indulge in some "junk" food here and there, but the emphasis should be on quality sources of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
Take a Mass Gainer To Help Meet Your Calorie Needs
Liquid calorie sources are a godsend for ectomorphs who can't stomach a large amount of food multiple times per day. You will inevitably have days where eating 5000+ calories doesn't sound appetizing.
Rather than forcing the issue and "refunding" your meals down the toilet or making yourself ill, invest in a mass gainer powder to fuel recovery and muscle building, like Transparent Labs Mass Gainer.
Alternatively, you can use whey protein powder to make a high-calorie smoothie at home. Just add 12 to 16 ounces of whole milk, a few tablespoons of almond butter, and a banana or two to a blender along with a couple scoops of 100% Grass-Fed Whey Protein Isolate, and voila! That's an easy 1,000+ calories plus 60+ grams of complete protein to amplify muscle growth.
Plus, mass gainer shakes are a cinch to make and take along on your commute or whenever you're in a pinch for time.
Consume 3 to 5 Meals/Snacks Per Day with No Less Than 30 g of Protein Each
It's prudent for true hardgainers to eat at least three meals per day, if not four or five. If your target calorie intake for building muscle is 4,000, eating once or twice daily just isn't going to cut it.
Be sure to include a decent amount of complete protein with every meal/snack you eat — 30 g is a stable rule-of-thumb minimum (2). Ideally, each meal and snack should have a good balance of carbs, fats, and protein.
The Ectomorph Workout: What It Should Include
Alright, now that you have a better grasp of how much to eat and what to eat as an ectomorph body type, it's time to cover what to do when working out. As with nutrition, an ectomorph workout is a matter of fine-tuning and consolidating so you can get the most "bang for your buck," so to speak.
Compound Your Gains with Compound Exercises
Consider the last time you saw someone who weighs 130 lbs soaking wet squat 500 lbs to proper depth? The odds are you've never seen anything like that, understandably so. If you want to go from skinny to muscular, getting strong on basic multi-joint (compound) movements, like barbell squats, deadlifts, bent-over rows, pull-ups, and bench presses, is a necessary prerequisite.
Compound exercises recruit several muscle groups, which inherently allow you to lift greater loads. In turn, heavier weights encourage greater muscle overload; ultimately, the more you overload your muscles (to a point), the more they will hypertrophy (read: grow).
However, isolation exercises like bicep curls, side lateral raises, leg extensions, and tricep press-downs still have their place in an ectomorph workout program. Start your workouts with 3 to 4 compound exercises, then finish 2 to 3 isolation exercises as "assistance" or "accessory" lifts to the compound movements.
For example, if you're following a push-pull-legs routine, your push day might look like this:
- Compound Exercise 1 — Flat barbell bench press
- Compound Exercise 2 — Standing military press
- Compound Exercise 3 — Decline dumbbell bench press
- Isolation Exercise 1 — Overhead tricep extensions
- Isolation Exercise 2 — Dumbbell side lateral raises
- Isolation Exercise 3 — Chest fly machine
Have a Progression Scheme In Place
Arguably the main culprit of stagnation in the gym is a lack of a progression scheme. Every time you work out, you should be trying to progress in some form or fashion, ideally by adding weight to the bar.
It's perplexing how common it is for gym-goers to go through the motions during their workouts; they lift the same weight for the same number of reps and sets for months — even years — on end.
Well, guess what? They don't have much to show for it. Why would they? Your muscles grow to adapt; if you're giving them nothing worth adapting to, they have no reason to come back bigger and stronger for your next workout.
Moreover, progress doesn't necessarily mean you're adding weight to the bar every workout. Even though that's still a priority for ectomorphs, progress can be as simple as adding more volume (sets and reps), implementing intensity techniques (like drop-sets and supersets), reducing rest between sets, etc.
If you're improving in some capacity each week, that's what matters.
Stimulate. Don't Annihilate.
Your muscles do the vast majority of growing when you're not training. Lifting is the impetus for muscle protein synthesis after training (3). Hence, consuming protein and carbs after a workout supplies the fuel for muscle growth.
Longer workouts aren't necessarily better for muscle growth.
Here's a mantra for ectomorphs to live by: Get in, go hard, get out.
Push yourself when lifting, but don't overdo it either. If you're crushing yourself every day with lengthy workouts, you'll burn out quickly. You should be able to complete most of your workouts in an hour, give or take 15 minutes or so.
Snooze Your Way to Gains
Keep a consistent sleeping schedule. Need we say more?
Most active teenagers and adults need 7 to 9 hours of shut-eye per night (4). If you can fit a "power nap" or two in throughout the day, by all means, take advantage of the additional rest. Again, work hard when you're in the gym, but when it's time to rest, rest.
Limit Your Cardio
It should be common sense that hardgainers don't need to be doing much cardio at all when building muscle is the primary goal. Lifting weights is the priority when you hit the gym.
Make no mistake that doing some cardio in conjunction with resistance training can help muscle recovery and growth. Still, ectomorphs are already at a disadvantage of having high energy expenditure (and cardio only makes it harder to have a positive energy balance).
Ultimately, you shouldn't be doing much more than maybe an hour of cardio (total) per week if your goal is to go from skinny to muscular.
How Long Does it Take to Go From Skinny to Muscular?
If you're an ectomorph body type, building an appreciable amount of muscle mass will take time. However, if you're new to lifting, the "newbie gains" phenomenon kicks in quickly once you start pumping iron regularly — ride the wave as long as possible to capitalize! You might be able to put on 2+ lbs per week during the first few months of weight lifting (assuming your diet, workouts, and recovery are all on point).
After that, your gains in strength and size will become less linear. An experienced ectomorph bodybuilder who is already near their natural muscle-building potential might only be able to add half a pound per year. (And that's if they are firing on all cylinders.)
If you're not getting stronger and seeing improvements in muscularity on a fairly consistent basis, try increasing your calorie intake (particularly from carbs and protein) and ensure you're not overtraining. Contrary to popular belief, more is not necessarily better when it comes to lifting. Ectomorphs typically respond best to brief, intense training with ample recovery between workouts.
In the unlikely event you end up gaining excessive amounts of body fat during the bulking process, cut back on your calorie intake by about 10% and consider adding a small amount of cardio after your weight-lifting workouts.
Having an Ectomorph Body Type is No Excuse to Remain Scrawny
Don't let your ectomorph body type dissuade you from undertaking the skinny-to-muscular journey. Frankly, you have arguably the best somatotype for getting shredded, and if you work hard, you can build plenty of muscle. There are countless ectomorph bodybuilders and strength athletes out there with head-turning physiques.
Remember, emphasize calorie-dense foods, supplement with a mass gainer, eat plenty of protein, prioritize the basic compound lifts when working out, and always strive for progress in the gym. It really is that simple — the key is staying consistent. Small jumps in weight and strength will accrue over time and take you from skinny to muscular no matter how much of a hardgainer you are.
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