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. I dutifully chugged protein shakes that made me gassy, I went to the gym 6 days a week and followed bodybuilder workout routines, and did everything I could to get bigger.

However, I had a few key things wrong, and that resulted in YEARS of frustration, confusion, and no progress.

Over the past few years, after a decade of making inconsistent progress, I 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.

Now, you’re reading this article because you’re a fellow skinny guy (or gal) who is frustrated and wants to start feeling better about yourself when you look in the mirror. I hear ya.

This stuff isn’t easy. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading about it on the internet!

I’ve been trying to get bigger for over 15 years, and I can tell you that I wasted my first 6+ years training and eating the wrong way because I didn’t have the right strategy to actually get results.

There’s nothing worse than spending 6+ months in a gym and doing what you think you SHOULD be doing, only to step on the scale and realize that you haven’t made any progress!

If you’re somebody that’s worried about wasting time, or you want to have an expert hand craft a workout and nutrition program that’s based on your current situation, consider checking out our really popular 1-on-1 Online Training Program! I’ve been training with an online coach for the past 3.5 years and it has been the biggest boost for me in the world.

Click on the image below if you want to learn more about our coaching program, and then scroll down to see the nine reasons why skinny guys and gals don’t get bigger!

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.

2. Setting unrealistic expectations


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


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


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


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


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


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 help you reach your goals, and know that having a personal coach that can build your workout programs, help you with your nutrition, and keep you accountable can be a big difference maker. If you’re tired of the guesswork and just want results, consider checking out our 1-on-1 online coaching program!

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