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.

In the past 18 months, 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.)

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!
  • More interested in gymnastics and bodyweight exercises? Check out our newly released Rings and Handstands course!
  • 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 BarStarzz on Instagram or 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.

Even though I have some back issues, I’ve crawled my way to a higher deadlift the past 18 weeks.

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 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 18 months, 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?

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.

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! 

Here’s how to not suck at sleeping.

My last 18 months

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

Here are two recent photos to highlight how I’ve transformed over just the past six months.

  • Photo on the left: October 1st, 2014. 171 pounds
  • Photo on the right: May 1st. 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)

###

p.s.: Still not sure what to do or where to start? Check out the Nerd Fitness Academy – an excellent self-paced mindset, nutrition, and workout program that’ll serve you well for the first 6-12 months of your journey.

p.p.s: Need more accountability? Check out Rising Heroes, our epic real-time multiplayer fitness and self-improvement adventure! Save the world! Get in shape!

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  • Mark

    Hi Steve
    I’m 56 kgs and I’m only 16 years old I find it hard because I have a fast metabolism I do biceps curls and push ups and hardly seen results I get alots and eggs al the time but I do get wider could someone please give me a detailed routine in what I need to do please:)?

  • Mark

    Hi Steve,
    (I had a lot of spelling mistakes)
    I’m 16 and weight 56kg I’ve been trying for a while to put on weight I eat a lot and eat eggs every day i do push ups and biceps curls all the time but don’t see results and I’m hardly getting wider please help me out by replying with a detailed response or a routine I should do

  • dioGENIS KKris

    I’m 17 and 6’2. Started working out about half a year ago. I’m a bit skinny so an ectomorph probably, I’ve read many articles and they all say the same thing-eat more(5-6 meals a day!..while I normally eat 3)…so my guestion is this: as I get older and enter the 20’s, will my body become an mesomorph (gain more fat which will help me build the extra muscle) or will I remain skinny for the rest of my life -_- and rely on supplements and eating too much (cause I really believe 5-6 meals per day is not normal for a human) to achieve it (body size). Please someone reply it’s really important for me. Thank u!

  • Tim Rahill

    I’m 6’4 – 190lbs after recently packing on 15 pounds that I had lost due to a back injury that forced me to stop training. I’m not having a hard time putting size on but am having issues with the weight going to my stomach which was never an issue when I was younger. I need a plan to continue packing on muscle without increasing stomach fat. I know diet is important and also cardio but when I do cardio I burn the calories I worked so hard to eat and in turn lose the gains. Any suggestions?

  • The AwesomeDino

    I don’t eat healthy, I eat lots of snacks and only things like pizza, some chicken, pasta, and no meat or salad. But I’m trying to push myself to do 10-15 push-ups every morning(I’m very skinny). What else should I do?

  • Andrea Bunoza

    Sunestron really works! I have been using Sunestron for two weeks and see the difference in my workouts. It makes you push yourself more and no pain the next day. I will continue to get Sunestron

  • Raman

    I’m trying to gain muscle mass and I eat a lot of food(way more than my maintenance calories) and I workout but my question is should i workout and eat a lot of food every day or eat a lot every day and workout when my muscles are healed. Thanks

  • Jin Kage (iDerp)

    Wtf I cant see any difference between the last 2 pics. I cant be the only one lol 18 months and nothing happened? maybe a bit of traps but chest,hands,abs look the same

  • Rob

    Great read and I learned a lot. I have just one question. How do you get bigger and still keep your six pack? I am a lean muscular guy with abs but I am afraid if I over eat and get bigger I will lose my six pack…Thanks!

  • liam bailey

    so does that mean you need to eat more healthy food or can I eat food full of crap like chocolate

  • liam bailey

    I really don’t know what to eat from day to day any help?

  • Shayan

    Hey sir.
    I really love your strategies but i wish i could follow them just like you mentioned,
    I’m 16. Nit very skinny but skinny. Tired of being bullied. College mates bully me like hell. I got 2 and a half months of vacations. I atleast want to get strong enough to atleast not get bullied. Any help? My diet sucks and i’m afraid i can’t do much about it. I don’t eat meat. I puke after i eat it, allergic to eggs. Really need your help bro

  • daniel

    is it possible to still gain muscles and become bigger even after the age of 21
    cause im 21 and skinny and really want to know if i still have hope in becoming bigger

  • Syuzanna

    Hi I am 5’4 115 pounds , but I have a lot of cellulite on my butt and my legs , I never had weight issue I always been skinny . The only times I have gained weight is when I got pregnant been pregnant 5 times I have 3 children . How do I gain some weight and gain muscle most important .

  • Derek A Biglin

    Great article, I was wondering about your diet. I’m about 6’2″ 165 skinny as a stick, I’m not much of a big eater, but if I knew I was getting enough calories I would feel a lot better about working out. If I could eat the same stuff everyday I would be happy to know I was just getting my calories, and feel a lot better working out. Any advice would help?

  • RiK

    Sir… I’m 5.9 feet and 118 pounds.. I dont wanna get too much bulky.. but a perfect sexy physique with muscles and cuts….. plz suggest how much shall I lift… diet… routine…
    etc

  • Yatharth Verma

    i’m 23 year old and i started gym, my height is 5’11 and weight is 60kgs. what should i do so i can look better and stronger.

  • fred

    i want to be at a healthy weight zone and still look skinny how do i do that

  • Rohan Sharma

    hi jake i want to gain 20kg in 1 month and i am vege so can u help me out with the workout and diet i am 5.8 150 lbs,22 age

  • Rich

    I’m 34 years old. 213 Lbs 5’11” , im going to the gym about 3 times a week i can bench press 155 pounds 12x for my rep, seated arm cable pulley rows at 70 lbs, , 80 lbs lat pull down. im eating about 2500 calories a day. i added a vega protein shake to my diet for the morning and afternoon. I’m at about 30% body fat so you really can’t tell that I’ve done anything. I’ve been going to the gym for about 4 months i probably need to eat more. my sessions are about an hour to an hour and a half.

  • sahil

    Hello admin can u plz msg me in WhatsApp or email me at sahildabas17062000@gmail.com or 8132931056 it’s very important.

  • sabil
  • Sree Hari

    I’m a vegan. What kind of food should i eat to get the result?
    I’m about 45 kg. And I’m 16 years old. Pls reply.. Thank you.

  • Johnathan

    Im 16 and really skinny and I bench 50kg and I have been gyming 8months nou and I cant get bigger and I eat allot more cal then neaded so can you help me get a program for a workout for 4day a week please I need one my email is jwestraadt74@yahoo.com

  • exlibrisas

    Struggling to grow weight so much. My health is perfect but I need to fix my body for aesthetical reasons as it keeps me from finding relationships. I have worked out. But the problem is I hate it. It`s not hard or anything. It just feels that it is taking up valuable time and is boring as hell. Watching documentaries seems more interesting for me. I have to change this somehow. Because every day when I remember “it`s time to work out” I fell like “ech, again… just get on with it”.

  • Jordi

    Yeah ive been a twig my whole life. Still am. Just 20 push ups progressing to 30 then 50 ect every day right before i shower. Im a rather toned twig 😉.

  • Junarie de Lumban

    I love you! 🙂

  • Dee

    Hello.

    I am looking to getting a bigger bottom. I have tried deadlifts, bridges, jump squats, squats, lunges, donket kicks, junping jack squats, bouncing squats. You name it I have done it. I would like to get a larger rounder bottom. How many calories should I be eating to acheive this goal? Moreover, what are the best foods for this goal? Thanks.

  • Raul Torres

    I have the same problem. I’m 6’0 and I started at 168 lbs. I was eating about 2500 calories a day. I upped that to 3100 calories a day, roughly 45% from carbs, 35% from protein and 20% from fat everyday (rest and workout). I saw the scale go up to 180 lbs, and with it, my waistline. I was at 14% body fat when I started, and I am at 18% now (3 months later). So, yeah, two questions: 1) At this point I want to lose the fat without losing the muscle. How do I do that? Once I’m down to 13 or 14% body fat, how do I pack muscle without climbing up to 18% body fat again?

  • Raul Torres

    This helps with putting on weight, but for me it has been muscle and fat weight. I’m 6’0 and I started at 168 lbs. I was eating about 2600 calories a day. I upped that to 3100 calories a day, roughly 45% from carbs, 35% from protein and 20% from fat everyday (rest and workout). I saw the scale go up to 180 lbs, and with it, my waistline. I was at 14% body fat when I started, and I am at 18% now (3 months later). So, yeah, two questions: 1) At this point I want to lose the fat without losing the muscle. How do I do that? Once I’m down to 13 or 14% body fat, how do I pack muscle without climbing up to 18% body fat again? (I workout 5 times a week, no cardio. I am getting stronger and I am putting muscle weight, but I hate having lost the six pack.)

  • Djsxj40

    hey Steve, I’m 40yrs old I’ve been working out now for a year and I’ve made some progress but the gut is still there (11st 5lb) I’m a slim guy and I hear what you’re saying about the calorie intake but do I need more Cardio or just let the eating and training do the work for me? thank you!!

  • Marcus Taylor

    You looked better at 171 pounds, if I want to chub up I can go from my current 143 pounds to over 150 in about 2 weeks. I’ll be a bit stronger but look more like you do at 194 where normally I look like you did at 171.
    I’m also slower on my mountain bike carrying more weight and have less stamina so sacrificing a little strength to look better and have more performance is a no brainer.

  • Brandon Aguiar

    I’m still in school and barely have time to go to the gym (2-3 times max) and my diet is very limited due to cafeteria food, budget, etc. I’m 6’1 and weigh 145 pounds. I need some serious muscle while keeping fat down anything would help, plan, supplementation, etc. I read the article but anything else you suggest based on my situation Steve? Thanks for any help and email me if you can at brandonA.67@aol.com

  • https://disqus.com/by/xavirex Xavier

    I’m 5’9 or 5’10 and I weigh about 95-100 pounds. Yes, I’m the REALLY skinny guy you see around.

    Any tips for me? What should my diet consist of and how much of it should I consume on a daily basis to actually see some gains fast. I know Rome wasn’t built in a day, but still with the build I have, I’d love to be at least average weight (right now I am way underweight).

  • Steven allen

    I have always been skinny , no matter what I eat the doctors say I have a high metabolism and burn it off a lot faster than most people, ando that’s no mater what I eat cakes , chocolate, 4 meals a day I even wake up in her night and eat but can’t put any weight on !!! I want to go to my local gym and try and build myself up but I’m worried about the amount of food I will have to eat to put weight on , any suggestions would be very helpfully.I think I’m quite a fit person don’t smoke or drink , I can easily do 50 press ups sit ups not so easy any suggestions please reply

  • Jon O’Shea

    This is top-notch stuff, Steve. Eating enough is always the hardest part.
    Jon theabsman.com

  • H

    I say just eat like fruits and vegetables more often

  • Omkar Patil El Caballero

    Great information, thank you for share

  • Isaac Chavalier

    Hi Steve, Im 16 and only weigh 54 kg. I am relatively fit in the sense that Im good at cross country running. However, I carry a bit of a belly despite the fact that my arms are stick thin. Is it worth me joining a gym? Anything I eat goes to my belly. What do you reccomend and which exercises should I do?

  • Nathan

    Hello, I apologise for going back to a post 2 years old, but I hope you get around to reading this!
    As a skinny bloke as you once were I’m struggling to find a workout that I feel is right to do throughout the week. Would you suggest doing all of the compound exercises throughout the week, as in, squats, bench, deadlift etc, all on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday and so on or a chest and arms day or legs and abs or whatever,

    Is there a workout on this website you would suggest?

    Cheers

  • bkc

    from everything I am reading, increasing the amount of push-ups doesn’t help you gain size, instead of doing more push-ups try wearing a weighted backpack and just do 20 . When that becomes easy, add more weight to the backpack.

  • anonymous person

    Im a skinny student. Alot of people around me always say why am i so skinny. I have a bloated tummy, weak stamina and very fragile(weak: leg problems…). What can i do to gain weight healthy?

  • Brennan

    Hi I’m 6’3 and I weigh 158 pounds. I’m very skinny even though I eat like a pig. I don’t eat a lot of junk food often and I usually focus more on the meats and vegetables. I work out 3 days a week and I still see no improvement in size, just in strength.

  • Avijit Palit

    Should i lift heavy or light weight…i m skinny