9 Mistakes Skinny People Make Trying to Get Bigger

I’ve been trying to get bigger for as long as I can remember.

It started when I was 17, days after being cut from the basketball team. What began as a simple quest to pack on a bit of muscle and feel a bit better about myself eventually evolved into a love of health and fitness (and ultimately, Nerd Fitness!).

We receive a few emails every day from skinny men (and some women) who are trying to get bigger. As a former very skinny guy, I’ve made all the mistakes one can make over the past twelve years.

Over the past few years, after a decade of making inconsistent progress, I’ve cracked the code, and figured out how to finally gain some muscle. I’m still not big by many people’s standards, but I’m the Incredible Hulk compared to where I used to be.

Make sure you’re not making these mistakes!

 

1. Not Eating Enough

Lego BBQ Paleo Bacon Preparation

If you’re not getting bigger, you are not eating enough.

This one solution will account for 95% of most skinny men and women who are looking to get bigger. When I started lifting, I spent 5-6 days a week in the gym following a bodybuilder workout routine from various fitness magazines.

Over the next six years (end of high school and all of college), I put on maybe five pounds total, even though it felt as though I was eating a lot.

Turns out, I was eating 500-1000 less calories per day than I needed to stimulate muscle growth.

It wasn’t until after college that I finally cracked the code, simplified my workouts, and doubled the amount of calories I consumed and I was able to put on about 15 pounds in 30 days. This is back in 2006:

Steve 2006 Before and After

I didn’t put the weight on a healthy or sustainable way, but after six years of struggle, this experience solidified the connection between diet and getting bigger. It finally made sense.

If you don’t eat enough calories, you won’t get any bigger.

If you aren’t getting bigger, you probably aren’t eating enough calories.

If you’re trying to gain, the moral of the story is: when in doubt, eat.

(I highlight some of my favorite techniques in my “How to Get Bigger” article. Hint: liquid calories are your friend, slowly add more calories until your stomach gets used to it, and when in doubt, eat more.)

As for what you SHOULD be eating, depending on how skinny you are – you can get away with eating junk food as long as you’re getting enough protein and calories. HOWEVER, I would advise that you instead focus on quality bulk-up foods.

Things like sweet potatoes, yams, rice, and oats along with plenty of protein and vegetables should be your focus.

I know how overwhelming this stuff can be, so I chopped the info down to two actionable pages. Grab your printable “Get Bigger” shopping list and Bulk Up Cheat sheet when you join our email list in the yellow box below.

2. Setting unrealistic expectations

arm

We live in a world of instant gratification.

Just as people have unrealistic expectations thanks to marketing when it comes to weight loss (“Lose 30 pounds in 30 days!”), people also have unrealistic expectations when it comes to NATURALLY building muscle as well (Scientists don’t want you to learn this trick to pack on 40 pounds of muscle!”). These ads are designed to sell supplements, not get you bigger quickly.

We cover this extensively in our “how fast can I naturally build muscle?” article.

The short version is: In optimal conditions, you’ll most likely only be able to put on 1-2 pounds of muscle per month (or less). Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t make tremendous strength gains — just not overall muscle mass.

What this means: stop setting your getting big goals by the week or month. It’s time to think in terms of months and years.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Muscle isn’t built in a matter of days or weeks. It’s going to take time, and it’s going to take patience. But you can get there!

3. Not having a solid plan

plan

You need a plan. A plan that is balanced, and provides you with big movements that stimulate growth all over your body.

If you just wander into the gym without a strategy, you’re going to struggle to get bigger. It’s better to pick a basic plan and stick with it for months and months and months, than jump around from week to week chasing the newest shiny object.

Here’s the easiest way to put it: get freaking strong at the following movements, eat enough, and you will get bigger:

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Overhead Presses
  • Rows
  • Pull-ups (weighted)
  • Dips (weighted)

What plan to follow?

  • No idea what to do or where to start? Check out the Nerd Fitness Academy, where you’ll take an assessment quiz that tells you exactly what to do. Work out from home or the gym!
  • If you’re terrified of the gym, we’ve outlined some steps and programs in our Beginner’s Guide to the Gym article to get you comfortable and in a routine.
  • If you’re not ready for barbell workouts, start with bodyweight!
  • Other great barbell-based programs are Stronglifts 5×5, Wendler’s 5/3/1 program, and Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program.
  • I started with Stronglifts, then moved into more of a hybrid barbell/bodyweight program (similar to the workouts featured in the Nerd Fitness Academy).

Which one of them? Honestly, any of them will work – you just need to start, and stick with it for months at a time, focusing on getting stronger with each movement.

4. Not doing enough

lego workout

If you are trying to get bigger, you might not be doing enough in the gym or in the park to stimulate muscle growth.

No matter what, you need to be doing heavier weight, or doing more repetitions in order to challenge your body, breakdown muscle fiber, and force your body to rebuild stronger.

Yes, you can get bigger doing just bodyweight exercises – take one look at gymnasts – these dudes have built their muscle through years of intense bodyweight training. However, you must be scaling these exercises constantly to make them increasingly more difficult, which many people struggle to do.

Just doing more regular push ups, bodyweight squats and pull ups is a good way to get conditioned, but after a certain point, it most likely won’t produce muscle growth without increasing the challenge. Once you can do more than 10-15 reps of an exercise in a single set, you need to increase the challenge.

I detail this during my “stay in shape while traveling” post, in which I packed on a few lbs of muscle while ONLY doing bodyweight exercises.

I started by doing just pull ups and dips. Now I’m up to doing pull ups with 60 pounds on a weight belt, and dips with 70 pounds on a weight belt.

I used to just do ring pull ups, now it’s muscle ups and gymnastic complexes like this and this. So, YES it can be done! You just need a solid plan that allows you to consistently push your muscles further.

Looking for a plan to gymnastics mastery? We’ve got a Rings and Handstands course that we’ve recently released. You’ll get 20 different levels to work through, so exercises will continue to get harder (and you’ll get bigger and stronger). Check it out!

5. Going too quickly and getting injured

xray

In the age of instant gratification, we always want more, now now now.

Over the past decade, I followed a terrible cycle:

  • Try to get bigger. Eat lots of food, and put on some weight.
  • Ramp up my workouts too quickly.
  • Sustain some sort of injury from trying to do too much.
  • Take a month off to recover.
  • Start back at square one.
  • Repeat the process.

Have patience.

Start out with easy weight, and get a teeny tiny bit better every single day. In fact, it wasn’t until I stopped chasing fast goals and instead focused on tiny habits that I went from Steve Rogers to Captain America

Back when I started deadlifting again, I kept thinking “I can do more! I can go heavier!” – but I patiently forced myself to go just a tiny bit further than the week prior.

As bodybuilder Lee Haney says, “Exercise to stimulate, not to annihilate.”

6. Not following a sustainable strategy

Plan A B

Just like losing a bunch of weight by running on a treadmill and starving oneself is not sustainable in the long term, neither is making yourself miserable for a month just to pack on some size.

As soon as you go back to “normal” you’ll lose all of your gains!

For me, I’ve found that eating the same meals every single day, getting enough sleep, and training four days a week for about an hour each time is sustainable for me. As a result, I’ve been able to make consistent progress for the past 18 months, and my new “normal” is progress and strength improvements!

If you can’t work out six days a week for the next year, DON’T!

Start with twice a week, doing a basic program, and dump the extra time you would have spent training into eating more or getting more sleep. If you can train three days a week, that should be MORE than enough to make you bigger. Remember, if you’re not getting bigger, you’re not eating enough!

It might take you 6+ months longer than if you went all-in and did nothing but eat and lift all day every day, but you’ll actually KEEP the progress you’ve made rather than giving it all back.

7. Not making it a priority

training

After telling myself “I want to get big and strong,” I realized that for much of the past decade, it wasn’t really a priority.

I put work, messing around on the internet, video games, and going out and drinking before my training. Over the past few years, I made it a point to see what I could accomplish if I made getting bigger and stronger a priority.

I ate extra meals even when I wasn’t hungry. I rearranged my work schedule so I could get all my training sessions in. I hacked my productivity so I could get more done in less time. I said “no” more often to staying out really late and drinking. I made fitness a priority.

Is this truly a priority for you? If it’s not, you’re going to give up when you’re tired, or not hungry, or don’t want to exercise.

8. Sweating the small stuff

ladybug

Bicep curls! Forearm curls! Calf raises! Should I target all three heads of the triceps muscle? I see the big guy over there doing 8 types of bicep exercises – should I do what he’s doing? Does chest day need to be bench, incline bench, decline bench, cable chest flys, dumbbell flys?

Should I do 6 sets of 8 reps or 5 sets of 5 reps?

Forget all of that stuff!

If you want to get bigger, focus on getting stronger in one of the few big, basic movements. Once you have a solid foundation, then we can start targeting specific isolated muscle groups like the bodybuilders do.

Back to the basics (noticing a theme here?):

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Bench Press
  • Overhead Presses
  • Barbell rows
  • Pull-ups (weighted)
  • Dips (weighted)

“But where’s my bicep curls, tricep extensions, ab work, etc.!?!?!”

ALL of those muscles get worked incredibly well with the above exercises, so don’t worry about isolating. Instead, just get strong. When you can lift heavy things or complete intense bodyweight exercises, your body needs to adapt.

Let your body worry about getting bigger. Just make sure you are eating enough to fuel your recovery and following the Bulk Up Like the Hulk Axioms (covered in the free download when you join our email list in the box below!)

9. Not recovering enough

Cat

I used to pride myself on not needing a lot of sleep. I also used to be dumb, apparently. Since putting a focus on getting bigger and stronger, I’ve had to considerably up my sleep time.

When you strength train, your muscles break down and need to rebuilt over the next 24-48 hours. Sleep is a key part of this process. Without it, your body can’t recover, and you can’t grow.

So make sleep a priority! 

My last 18 months

I’m really proud of what I’ve been able to pull off over the past few years, and I’m excited to see what the next 18 months bring.

Here are two recent photos to highlight how I’ve transformed in 6 months

  • Photo on the left: 171 pounds
  • Photo on the right: 194 pounds

The best part is that it was all done in a healthy, sustainable, natural way:

Before After October 1 - May

Do you have any questions for me?

Have you had success as a skinny dude or lady and made great progress?

Have you struggled your whole life with being skinny and still can’t seem to crack the code?

Let me know how I can help!

-Steve (former skinny guy, future Captain America)

PS: I want to send you a bunch of actionable tips and a few free ebooks, including a Get Bigger Shopping List and Bulk Up Cheat Sheet. Sign up in the yellow box below and I’ll send that stuff to you ASAP. Us skinny folk gotta stick together, and I want to help you reach your goals!

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  • Garrett Schultz

    Im 150lbs and Im 25 and Ive been at this weight since high school. Its annoying as hell too. Im extremely self conscience, my legs look like chicken legs and my wrists are like toothpicks. I’ve been training/working out for almost 3 years now and eating a very healthy diet in an attempt to gain more muscle mass or weight in general. For 3 years, Ive been slamming down over 3000 calories/day every day, and still dont gain a single pound. Its embarassing as hell and it doesnt make sense, doctors cant ecen figure out why, since Im extremely healthy to them. I dont know what it could be but its annoying. Ive been an avid park snowboarder since I was 11 and I train on a weekly basis during off season, could this be the culprit why I cant gain?

  • Day

    I’m 6’1 and 140… I eat 2800 ish calories a day and am super athletic but just can’t gain muscle. I can deadlift 250 and do 50 pull ups without stopping etc…

  • Kumbhaj Verma

    i have gained some muscle but got a tummy too , i am following all the points in the above article.

  • ryans nan

    i am 15 years old and 6’3. 3 months ago i was 60 kg, and now i am 78kg. i worked out at home almost every day of the week, pushups were an important part of my wokout, the only weights i have are 10kg dumbells and a 20kg barbell . i changed my diet to vegetables, fruit,meat, protein, and pasta and had no take away foods or unhealthy stuff to eat. you dont have to load yourself with whatever food you just need to cut out the greasy and bad foods like take away, chips, cake, lollies and all that stuff. i did all that in 3 months. when you hear about carbloading dont listen, it will just make you sick and youll eat about 2 meals a day instead of eating 3-5.

  • Chris James

    This is all relative to someone who is short and naturally stocky. Now what about Peter Crouch?

  • liampaulmassey

    I’m not having the shit kicked out of me again from behind on a night out, that’s why I’ve joined the gym again but the only thing is I can eat loads but not put weight on, but I have also got a bit of a better diet aswell so I’ll just wait & see

  • liampaulmassey

    I’m not having the shit kicked out of me again from behind on a night out, that’s why I’ve joined the gym again & this time I’ve gonna start a better diet to make sure I eat enough protein, calories & so on, the downside is I can eat loads but not put weight on

  • angela fuzaylov

    You don’t look skinny to me to begin with 170 lbs. My 16 yrs old son is 5″11 and 124 lb. Now that’s is skinny. He eats about 2500 cal a day and I wish he would eat more, but I can’t force him. He is working out 3 times a week with a private trainer at the gym 30 min each lesson. Not sure if 30 min is enough for the past 3 month and I don’t see any difference in him before and after 3 month. His trainer keeps telling him to eat more. My son is very frustrated and wonders how much more does he needs to eat because he can’t eat more than what he its right now. What would you suggest for him to do?

  • D

    It took you six months to get tan…what hope do any of us have?

  • Kevin Criswell

    “– you can get away with eating junk food as long as you’re getting enough protein and calories. ”

    No, no you can’t.

  • Sam

    Hi, I’m too young to go to the gym but I’m super skinny but already eat a lot of healthy foods. I weigh 54kg and I’m 14. One of the selectors said I need to grow muscle but what do I do as I’m not allowed or can’t lift.

  • Patrick Carpen

    Guy’s don’t kill yourself over this. It’s not a big deal. No matter how fat, or thin you are, it will all boil down to the same shit different day when it comes to attracting women. You will still get cheated on, hurt, lied to, get “used goods” etc etc. And no matter how fat or skinny you are, you will always find women who are attracted or turned off by you. It’s all about luck and chance, so don’t go overboard with something that will get you nowhere.

  • Aditya Sharma

    i am 5 feet 8 inches…and only 105 pounds or say 48 kg ….thats really skinny…..how to start gaining weight can u please help