Strategies For Ectomorphs
by Kasey Esser T-Nation
Most traditional muscle-building programs simply do not work for naturally skinny guys. If you're an ectomorph, there are different rules for you. Disobey these rules and say goodbye to any chance of head-turning hypertrophy.
Follow the rules I outline below and "Bro, do you even lift?" will soon become "Do you compete?"
Hardgainers vs. Ectomorphs
When people use the term "hardgainer," they're usually referring to us ectomorphs, but they're not the same thing.
"Hardgainers" is a grossly overused term to define anyone who doesn't eat or train hard enough. But being an ectomorph – tall, long limbs, fast metabolism – is a real thing.
In fact, legendary bodybuilders Frank Zane and Flex Wheeler, both known for their pretty lines and impeccable symmetry, were also considered ectomorphs.
So while Frank and Flex show that being an ectomorph isn't exactly a physique death sentence, problems can occur when determined ectomorphs try to adopt the same training and nutritional approaches as the more gifted mesomorphs.
But what exactly defines an ectomorph? Ectomorphs are characterized by the following qualities:
Long, thin limbs
Flat chest and narrow shoulders
Very little bodyfat, and very little natural muscle tone (ribs are not muscles)
Faint marks all over their body where girls have barely touched them with a ten-foot pole
If that describes you, keep reading.
I've Been There
What makes me suited for this job? Well, I've been there. I was 145 pounds when I was a junior in high school. In four years, I built myself to over 215 pounds and competed in a bodybuilding competition.
I won't be mistaken for Flex or Frank any time soon, but I'll be darned if I don't maximize my own potential. What my journey has taught me is that ectomorphs can build a respectable physique with the right approach.
#1: Think Intensity, Not Volume
To put it bluntly, the high-volume, 12 exercise, 40-set split routines seen in bodybuilding magazines don't work for ectos.
Many of us get thrown off track because what we read is the standard "8-12 reps for hypertrophy" recommendation. Of course, that rep range has stood the test of time because it works – for most people.
I spent a few years of my early training career doing the typical 5-day split, making sure to bomb and blitz every muscle with 4-5 sets of double-digit reps. If I didn't feel a muscle was exhausted enough, I would toss in some drop set and superset action. Looking back, I could kick myself, because I probably broke down as much muscle as I ended up building!
Not until I grew wiser did I accept that I made much quicker gains in size and strength when I slashed the volume and bumped up the intensity. This meant staying in the 6-8 rep range (sometimes lower) for 2-4 sets, and doing no more than 3-4 movements per training session.
Remember, you already have a ridiculously fast metabolism; therefore your goal is not to burn a motherload of calories in the gym. Muscle grows at rest and not during the actual training session, so practice that.
As an ectomorph, you need to adopt the "hit it and quit it" principle: Stimulate the muscles with just as many sets, reps, and exercises as needed and then get the hell out.
This is very effective because you actually end up putting some weight on the bar due to the lower repetition and set demands. This greater load will then tap into the fast-twitch motor units that have the highest growth potential, the ones you obviously want to maximize for increased mass.
In short, make your training more intensity-focused and less volume-oriented. Eighty to ninety percent of 1RM is your sweet spot.
#2: Get Basic
Isolation exercises do not have any place in an ectomorph's training program.
Too many ectos blindly follow the popular bodybuilding routines endorsed by guys who usually aren't ectomorphic and often have some chemical enhancement to boot. Those guys can grow just fine doing 8-10 exercises a workout, 6 days a week. You can't.
It's time to cut the fat from your program and focus on what's going to give you the most bang for your buck. It doesn't do you any good to be in the gym for an hour and a half when you could accomplish all you really need in 45 minutes.
I know that's a hard concept to swallow, but swallow it you must. Otherwise, you're doomed to stay where you are!
With that being said, appropriate ectomorph exercises need to meet three criteria:
Does it stimulate multiple muscles?
Can you load it to an appreciable degree?
Will it set you up for maximal success?
Here's a list of the primary exercises an ectomorph needs:
Deadlift (any variation)
Box Squats (back and front)
Military Pin Press
The deadlift arguably stimulates more total muscle mass than any other exercise. As such, it slaps mass on all the right places (legs, back, traps) to make the scale start tipping in the right direction.
Focus on putting as much force as you can into the ground before you rip the bar off the floor and make sure to achieve a full hip extension at the top. I prefer the conventional deadlift, but feel free to mix it up with some sumo and snatch-grip variations.
I like using the box for squatting because as ectomorphs our legs are so darn long that it provides a good reference point for improving our stability at the bottom of the rep. Without a box, there's a much greater tendency for us to "tuck under" at the bottom and lose control of the rep.
Box squats can be a very hip-dominant movement when done correctly, as you're forced to sit back to a physical point. With the conventional squat (for ectomorphs), there's a propensity to get more knee and toe-dominant.
To encourage a solid posterior weight shift, set up the box far enough back to where only the leading half of your butt touches the box at the bottom.
Always do a few practice repetitions so you know exactly where the box is. There's nothing worse than loading up a bar and sitting down (or falling) to the floor. When you touch, focus on minimizing the amount of time your butt touches the box and explode off.
Say what? No bench press?
As with the box squat, the goal is to provide you with a range-of-motion that will set you up for more mass and strength.
I don't think there's any ectomorph out there that naturally dominates the bench press. Long arms mean a greater distance the bar has to travel, which means that strength gains can come slowly on the bench.
After struggling for years on the bench, I decided to switch to the floor press. This immediately eliminated a lot of the shoulder instability I was having at the bottom of the bench press as the floor press removes those last few degrees the glenohumeral joint has to go through, allowing you to use more weight and get more reps.
My chest growth was very stubborn for a long time, but after substituting the floor press for my primary horizontal push, I'm seeing a solid growth-spurt.
I'm not against the bench press by any means; it just isn't the best option for an ectomorph looking to bust through a plateau. Go back to the bench after you've first built up some decent strength on the floor.
Military Pin Press
Similar to the bench, an ectomorph's smallish shoulders weren't built to press heavy loads overhead. It can be done of course, but it'll take quite a while if you stick with the conventional military press week after week.
Instead, take a few months and do some military pin presses. The reduced range will eliminate the limitations of your long arms and unstable shoulders, allowing you to use more weight and still experience the total-body benefits of a military press.
These basic movements are going to form the meat of your program, attacking your fast-twitch motor units and stimulating a ton of muscle with ROMs suitable to your ectomorph limbs.
I've outlined a four-week mesocycle on a three-per-week training frequency that will maximize an ectomorph's specific needs. You'll notice it's straightforward, but it doesn't need to be complicated. Again, the objective is to get in, hit it, and grow.
Focus on adding weight to the bar on the primary lifts and with the accessory exercises each week.
Figure out your one-repetition maximums for the primary lifts and use the appropriate loads for the prescribed reps. If you don't do this, you're not going to have much direction in your training. The numbers are essential.
In addition, the shorter time that you're in the gym will require you to absolutely get after it on every single rep. We don't want any missed reps from a lack of focus or technique. This is why you're allowed to rest as long as you need between sets.
If you finish the workout and feel like you didn't get much out of it, you didn't push yourself as hard as you could have.
Give yourself at least 48 hours between sessions. At the end of the four-week cycle, assess how you feel. If you need a week to de-load, do it. If not, then simply start back at Week 1.
Hopping onto the right training program is only half the battle for the eternal ectomorph. Your other war is fought in the kitchen, where the commitment must be made to consume plenty of quality calories.
The problem is, most ectomorphs think more calories means having a few more ounces of chicken at dinner or tossing in an extra egg at breakfast. To put on serious mass you need a lot of all the macronutrients, not just protein.
Make sure your diet contains considerable amounts of the following:
Eggs (not egg whites)
Water (why is it only fat loss diets recommend this?)
This is just a cursory list, and you certainly don't have to eat each of the above every single day, but making sure each one appears regularly in your weekly menu is a great start. Remember, failing to plan is planning to fail.
Some of the most impressive physiques to ever grace a cover of a muscle magazine started out as painfully skinny, so don't use your body type as an excuse – follow the rules and get after it!