Today, we’re going to discuss a healthy life coming from the opposite end of the spectrum.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a crazy increase in the number of emails from skinny nerds looking to pack on some muscle and size and feel better about themselves, no doubt spurred on the summer weather and bathing suit season!
I know that feeling, because I was that guy.
Although I’ve spent the past five years helping people lose weight and live better through Nerd Fitness, I’ve spent the past thirteen years personally focused on the art and science of getting bigger and stronger.
If you are a skinny guy and struggle putting on weight, this post is for you.
If you are a skinny lady and are interested in bulking up, a lot of the same advice will apply (and we even have an entire section for you that explains any differences).
If you are trying to LOSE weight, keep reading. I guarantee you’ll learn something.
To me, getting bigger and stronger is more than just the pursuit of looking better – though there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s about confidence in your own skin, self-respect that comes with strength (thanks Henry Rollins), and the satisfaction that comes from being able to do something today that you couldn’t do yesterday.
Of course, a side effect of getting bigger and stronger is that you also happen to look good naked, which isn’t such a bad thing 🙂
Growing up, I was always the scrawny, skinny weak kid.
There was a reason I dressed up like superman every other day for the first six years of my life: Superman was strong, big, and powerful…and I wasn’t
To this day, it’s still a big challenge for me to gain any sort of weight or muscle. Now, if you’re somebody that struggles to lose weight, you might be thinking: “Steve, you’re so lucky you didn’t have to deal with being overweight growing up.”
Don’t you worry, a killer flat top, my height (5’2″ until I was 16), four years of braces, and two Acutane treatments made sure I still got the full adolescent experience 🙂
When I was cut from the high school basketball team (which I thought was the end of the world), I signed up for a gym membership to get big and strong; within five minutes I had almost killed myself when loading up way too much weight for a set of bench presses. Fortunately I survived, and thus began my love affair with strength training.
I spent the next six years training in a gym, reading every muscle and fitness magazine I could find, drinking protein shakes religiously…and had about 3 pounds of muscle gain to show for it. I just assumed “I’m one of those people who can’t gain weight.”
It turns out, I was doing it all wrong.
After graduating college I moved to California, signed up for a gym membership, and received a few free personal trainer sessions. Although I thought I had known it all (I had been training for 6 years in a gym! I read the muscle mags!), I still took the free sessions for the hell of it.
The trainer drastically simplified my workout and doubled the amount of food I was eating. I thought he was crazy, but I stuck with it.
In 30 days, I had put on 18 pounds (pictured below), increased the strength in ALL of my lifts, and felt more confident than I ever had before in my life.
That’s when the lightbulb when off in my head: there’s a better way.
And thus began a radical redefinition of how I thought the human body worked, how muscle was built, and where I needed to put my priorities. Since then, I’ve spent seven years learning everything I can about how muscle is built.
A few years back, I took an epic 35,000 trip around the world, and despite not having access to a gym for 6 months, I managed to once again pack on even more muscle and get myself in great shape without once picking up a weight (pictured below):
Again, my world was turned upside down. I learned that gyms are not a requirement to build muscle and get stronger (if the proper training routine is used).
I’m still not the biggest guy in the world, nor will I ever be. I’m okay with that. I’ve learned that anyone can pack on muscle, even skinny nerds like me. If you’re skinny and want to get bigger, you’ll be fighting genetics the whole way, but do not let that deter you. Anything is possible.
Today’s article outlines everything I’ve learned over the past 13 years of mistakes, successes, failures, and adventures.
Your diet is the most important thing
- 15 Fitness traps you should avoid
- Comprehensive beginner's guide to Paleo diet
- BONUS: How to level up your life and be the hero of your own story
As they say, muscle isn’t made in the gym, but in the kitchen.
Just like for somebody trying to lose weight, in order for somebody to GAIN weight, their diet will account for 80-90% of their successes or failures.
What that means: you’d be better off working out twice a week for 30 minutes and eating right, than working out 6 days a week and not eating properly.
I learned this the hard way.
I spent four years of college working out five days a week for 90 minutes a day trying to get bigger. I drank protein shakes like I thought I was supposed to. I got a little stronger, but never bigger.
BECAUSE I DIDN’T EAT ENOUGH CALORIES.
When I get emails from people who lament the fact that they can’t gain weight, I always first ask about the person’s diet; more often than not, that person thinks they are eating enough, but are definitely not.
Here’s the truth: If you are not getting bigger, you are not eating enough. Your body can burn 2000+ calories every day just existing (and then factor in exercise and, gulp, cardio – I’ll get to that in a minute), and you need to overload your system with calories in order for it to have enough fuel for the muscle building process.
Now, for every person, the number of required calories daily is different:
- For some people, it might be 3,000 calories a day.
- For others, it might be 5,000 calories a day.
- For this guy, it’s 8,000 calories a day.
Now, you might be thinking “there’s no way I can eat more than I’m already eating. I’m always full.”
Like a muscle, your stomach can be trained to eat more food. I’m not a big fan of calorie counting, but I think for a newbie starting out, tracking calories for a few days is a great place to start. I find that a majority of skinny dudes overestimate the number of calories they consume (and conversely, a lot of overweight people UNDERestimate how many calories they consume).
So, track your calories over a few days and get an average. Then, spend the next two weeks eating an additional 500 calories per day and see how your weight adjusts. If you are not getting bigger, then you should add an additional 500 calories per day and repeat the process.
Depending on your training, genetics, how skinny you are, and how much weight you need to gain, you can decide how much weight you want to gain each week. Some gurus say that under optimal conditions, you can expect to gain one pound of muscle per week, while others say 2 lbs per month is more realistic.
Now, if you’re a true beanpole, putting on more weight than 1 pound a week might be a good thing: extra glycogen, some fat, and water stored in your body can be a good thing for your confidence and get you headed down the right path.
So, don’t listen to the sites or programs that say “gain 40 pounds of muscle in two months!” – unless you’re on the juice (‘roids, not Hawaiian Punch), it’s going to be a slow, long process.
Sure, It is possible to have incredible transformations in a short amount of time, but it’s far less likely to be sustainable change, which is what we’re looking for. Rather than massive weight gain over a month, you’d be much better off gaining .5-1.5 lbs a week, every week, for six months…and then keeping the weight on!
Before we get into the workout stuff, let’s get you eating more.
What types of calories to eat
For starters; you need to be eating enough protein each day. Claims for the amount of protein needed vary wildly from source to source (and athlete to athlete). Personally, I have found that 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body weight (2 grams per kg) works for me. If you’re not interested in figuring out your body fat percentage to determine your lean body weight, try taking your total weight and eating .8 grams of protein per pound of body weight (1.6 grams per kg).
After protein, in order for you to get bigger, you need to eat enough calories composed of carbs and fats.
It’s no surprise around here that I’m a big fan of the Paleo Diet. That being said, when I’m in the process of getting bigger, I don’t strictly follow the Paleo Lifestyle. In fact, I strategically add in foods that are NOT Paleo because they help me gain weight. If I need to eat 4,000 calories, it’s easier for me to do so by mixing in some non-paleo items. Depending on your desired level of healthiness and amount of weight you need to gain in a certain time period, you have a few different options available to you:
The “See Food” Diet: This is the diet I used to put on 18 pounds in 30 days. Looking back at how I ate, I’m now grossed out, but for me at the time, it worked (and got me interested in diet research). If you are super skinny and on a tight budget, this might be your only option. Whole milk, cereal, pasta, rice, potatoes, fast food, ice cream, juice, peanut butter sandwiches, meatball subs from Subway, whatever gets you to your caloric intake goal for the day. When I put on my 18 lbs, I used to drink 3 CytoGainer shakes a day, because it was the easiest way for me to stay on target. If you are training properly, a majority of these calories will go towards building muscle instead of putting on a lot of fat.
Now, I’m not a big fan of this method much, as I’ve come to learn the quality of food is as important (if not more so) than quantity when it comes to your overall health, and we’re aiming for bigger AND healthier.
GOMAD: Drink a gallon of whole milk every day along with your meals. Sounds crazy, yup, but it works. A gallon of whole milk is full of enough sugar, carbs, fats, and protein that when all said and done, results in 2400 calories consumed in liquid form. Mix in vegetables and meat for healthy meals and you got yourself a simple to follow diet. I’ve attempted this diet back in my younger days, and although my stomach hated me, I certainly had success with it, mostly because it was simple to follow and easy to understand. Here’s a good write up from my friend JC on The Pros and Cons of GOMAD.
The “healthy” bulk: I have followed this method to great success multiple times (including right now). Ultimately, I follow the Paleo principles whenever possible (good sources of quality meat, tons of vegetables, minimal amounts of gluten and processed carbs), but mixing in some specific items that are calorie/carbohydrate dense to reach my calorie goals for the day: whole milk, rice, oats, legumes and lentils, and/or sweet potatoes, along with enough healthy fat sources (nuts, avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, almond butter).
Can you bulk using just paleo? Yes, it’s possible, though it can get incredibly expense and difficult. Getting 4000 calories from paleo-only sources is a challenge, but certainly doable. If you have the budget and want to try it, go for it. You’ll be eating truckloads of nuts, avocados, and sweet potatoes.
How to eat more calories
Just like knowing that you need to exercise and actually DOING the exercise are completely different things, so is knowing to eat more food and actually being able to accomplish it.
Here’s the biggest piece of advice I can give you:
Liquid calories are your friend.
I get a huge chunk of my calories every day from making my own ‘calorie bomb’ smoothie for post workouts.
Things like whole milk, coconut oil, almond butter, and even olive oil are easy ways to add calories to a shake in the quest for MOAR MUSCLE! No blender? Just add a glass of 8-12 oz of whole milk to every meal!
Feel free to mix and match your own ingredients and see how many calories you can get into a smoothie without breaking your blender 🙂
Along with liquid calories, you can train your body to simply consume MORE regular calories. If you are cooking rice, each week try adding in an extra quarter cup when you cook it. And yeah, you have to FORCE your stomach to accept more food, even when you’re not hungry. This is not enjoyable, as you often feel like you’re going to explode. However, just like it’s necessary to force your muscles outside of your comfort zone to get bigger, you need to force your stomach outside of it’s comfort zone until it adapts to accepting more calories. So, start by adding a little bit more food each day and soon enough your stomach
If you’re interested in more specific advice on diet for bulking up, I cover a lot of this stuff in greater detail in the Rebel Strength Guide, but the explanation is pretty clear: EAT MORE FOOD!
- 15 Fitness traps you should avoid
- Comprehensive beginner's guide to Paleo diet
- BONUS: How to level up your life and be the hero of your own story
Getting stronger = bigger muscles
If you want to get bigger, focus on getting stronger.
Here’s how it works: when you strength train, your muscles are broken down and then rebuilt stronger to adapt to the stress you have applied to it. As long as you are continually increasing the weights or reps you are lifting (to an extent), your muscles will continually adapt to get stronger. If you are doing this while eating enough calories, you are getting bigger.
Now, many sites might recommend you follow a bodybuilder type routine that focuses on isolation exercises that chops your body into different segments and works each of them out once a week.
You may have seen something like this:
- Monday: Chest
- Tuesday: Legs
- Wednesday: Shoulders
- Thursday: Back
- Friday: Arms and Abs
I think these routines aren’t beneficial for 99% of the population, and isolation exercises don’t have the effect that we’re looking for. For the newbie, compound lifts simply do a better job at achieving our goal of muscle/strength building; compound movements are more efficient.
Along with that, there are some safety concerns with isolation exercises: when you train your muscles to work in isolation…they get really good, in isolation but not in real situations. Unfortunately, our body is a complex system in which all muscles work in tandem to get things done.
For that reason, we’re going to focus on full body routines that contain compound exercises that give us the most bang for our buck. If you want to mix in some isolation exercises at the END of a routine for an extra pump, go for it. But build your routine around the big movements, and get really strong with them.
Specifically, get really good at these movements:
There’s a reason Mark Rippetoe (author of Starting Strength, a must-read for anybody interested in the above exercises) lives for old school barbell training: it freaking works. If you can focus on getting really strong with the above movements, and eat enough calories, you will also get bigger in all of the right places.
Here’s a simple workout plan I just created for you:
- Monday: squats, overhead presses, and pull ups
- Wednesday: deadlifts, bench presses, body rows
- Friday: lunges, dips, chin ups
Deceptively simple, incredibly effective.
Each workout, you get a chance to work out your legs, push movements, and pull movements: a chance for your muscles to be broken down and rebuilt STRONGER!
Another popular workout plan is Stronglifts 5×5 program (which I have also followed to great success). It’s simple, it’s comprehensive, and it works.
In this humble nerd’s opinion, if you are serious about strength training, your routine NEEDS to have squats and deadlifts in it.
Which workout plan is right for me?
Honestly, no matter WHAT routine you follow, if you are getting stronger and adding weight to each exercise (while eating enough calories) you will get bigger.
Get stronger and the rest will take care of itself.
Worried about how many sets and reps you should do?
- 1-5 reps: strength and power
- 5-8 reps: strength and some size
- 8-12 reps: size and some strength
- 12+ reps: muscular endurance
What this means: if you want to get bigger and stronger…keeping your reps in the 5-12 range is the sweet spot. Pick up a weight that is heavy enough that you can only complete your specified number of reps.
But don’t overthink it: One method might get you a little bigger and the other a little stronger, but that shouldn’t concern you. What’s important is that you pick a plan and follow through with it while focusing on eating enough. After a few months, you can reevaluate and then adjust based on how your body has changed.
How much weight should you lift? For every of the barbell movements above, I start with just the bar, and then add weight in 5lb increments each week. It’s important to get form right and get your body used to the movement for when you start to lift heavy weight.
How long should you wait between sets? Again, don’t overthink it. Waiting 2-3 minutes allows you lift heavier weights, and thus makes you stronger. Waiting 60-90 seconds puts more of an emphasis on muscular size and endurace (as you’re resting for a shorter period)…but don’t overthink it. Do the next set when you’re ready.
A piece of advice from 8-time Mr. Olympia, Lee Haney: stimulate, don’t annihilate. Don’t destroy yourself for the sake of destroying yourself; stop one or two reps short of maximum effort can save you from overtraining and potential injury – remember that muscles are built in the kitchen!
What about body weight training?
Long story short: Yes, you can get bigger and stronger doing exclusively body weight exercises. Take a look at any olympic male gymnast: he is jacked, with giant muscles, all built with body weight exercises.
HOWEVER, it requires a very specific type of training regiment to see those results.
When you can do more than 12 reps of an exercise, you are not building strength or size, you’re building muscular endurance. So, doing 100 push ups in a row will not build muscle and size efficiently; instead you’re just becoming really efficient at doing lots of pushups.
Think of it this way: If just doing more of something made you bigger, then it would be marathon runners that look jacked, not sprinters. It turns out that it comes down to the INTENSITY of the exercise and power required to complete the activity.
The challenge with body weight exercises is that, just like with strength training above, you need to consistently increase the difficulty in order for your muscles to adapt. Because you can’t “add weight” to a body weight exercise to make it tougher, you need to increase the difficulty of the movement itself.
- If you can do 4 sets of 15 push ups, you need to make them harder to progress. Do 4 sets of 10 push ups with your feet on a bench. Then do divebomber push ups. Work your way up to handstand push ups.
- Body weight squats too easy? Work your way up to pistol squats (one legged squats).
- 4 sets of 12 pull ups not a challenge anymore? Great. Make them tougher. Go for a wider grip, an uneven grip, or wear a backpack with weight in it.
Due to the difficulty associated with building a proper bodyweight routine with correct progressions, I highly recommend beginners start take a serious look at strength training with free weights; it’s easy to record one’s progress, easy to add more difficulty (just add more weight!), and very structured.
As you get stronger and more experienced, mixing in more body weight training is a great idea.
In fact, I personally believe the best routine mixes both weights and body weight training.
Weight training for my lower body, body weight movements for my upper body.
Every day starts with either a squat/front squat or deadlift. Each workout also contains a lot of olympic/gymnastic style movements and holds to build upper body strength.
What it really comes down to is this: no matter what you have access to (a gym, barbell, dumbbells, or just a pull up bar) you can find a way to build strength and muscle if you follow a plan and eat enough calories.
If you want body weight routines and progressions specifically designed to build muscle and size, we have plans laid out in the Rebel Strength Guide (including the exact plans I used while traveling the world to put on those 12 lbs).
There are plenty of free resources out there as well (like our very own beginner bodyweight routine, advanced bodyweight routine, and playground routine) – just make sure each routine has you increasing the challenge and difficulty of the exercise, not just increasing the number of reps, and you’ll be on your way towards getting bigger.
- 15 Fitness traps you should avoid
- Comprehensive beginner's guide to Paleo diet
- BONUS: How to level up your life and be the hero of your own story
Get enough sleep and rest!
Last but not least, the other important piece to this triforce of muscle building:
Strength training, eating enough, and RECOVERY.
Your body builds and rebuilds its muscles during RECOVERY. Your muscles generally need 48 hours or so to recover from its previous workout, so I do not recommend you do any serious strength training of the same muscle group on back to back days. Feel free to do dynamic warm ups and some calesthetics if you feel like it on your off days, but I tend to take my off days OFF. I might go for a walk (to Mordor!), but that’s about it.
A word about cardio: if you are serious about getting bigger and stronger, lots of long distance cardio will work against you. Your body has to burn so many calories for your runs that it doesn’t get to use any of these calories in the muscle building process. If you love to run/bike, that’s cool, as long as you know it’s slowing (or halting) your progress.
So, cut back on the running or cut it out completely. Try mixing in sprints and interval training if you want to keep the cardio up without having to do all of the crazy distance. You can always add it back in once you accomplish your weight gain goals.
A few words on SLEEP: You need more of it when you are building muscle. It’s that simple. Don’t be surprised if after a heavy deadlift day you find yourself wanting to sleep for 10 hours. It might mean less TV or less video games. Again, if you are serious about getting bigger and stronger, don’t neglect sleep.
Should I gain or lose weight?
If you are skinny fat (you have skinny arms and legs but have a gut), I would recommend strength training while following a healthy diet to decrease your body fat percentage.
Get yourself down to roughly 12% bodyfat (~20% for women), and then start packing on size.
The alternative is to bulk up first (while putting on even more fat) and then cutting the fat and trimming down.
I like the first method better. When you get your body fat percentage low, your body can add some more fat/muscle without you looking fatter. I like Anthony’s technique of never being more than 2 weeks away from the body you want. So, as you eat more and get bigger, if you notice your body fat percentage start to creep up, you can simply adjust until your body fat gets back in the acceptable range. Then keep building!
Common questions and objections
“But I just want to get toned, I don’t want to get too bulky.” “Toned” is the worst word in the fitness dictionary. Do NOT worry about getting too bulky. I’m gonna guess you have 30+ pounds to gain before you’d ever even be considered “bulky,” and if you struggle with weight gain, what makes you think it’ll be a challenge to drop weight once you reach your goal? You just need to eat less at that point! So, always err on the side of too many calories than not enough.
“But I don’t want to do that stuff, so I’m gonna do _____ instead.” Awesome, go for it. Give it a month, and see how your body reacts. If you’re getting bigger, stronger, and healthier, keep doing it. If not, give the stuff above a shot for a month and see how things go.
“I’m a vegetarian/vegan, can I bulk up?” Absolutely. You just need to make sure you’re getting enough calories and protein in your system to promote muscle growth. Beans and nuts have lots of protein; if you’re vegetarian you can still use dairy to your advantage (whey protein, whole milk, cheese, etc.). If you’re vegan, then it’s slightly more of a challenge to get enough protein, but it can be done: almond butter is your friend 🙂
“Should I do ___ reps and sets or _____ reps and sets?” Most likely, either plan will get you there. Its 90% diet anyways. What’s important is that you pick a plan, you progress, you keep track of your results, and you consistently progressively increase the load that you are moving (be it your body weight or an actual weight).
“I want to get bigger and faster and have more endurance, can I do that?” I hate to say it, but endurance sports and getting bigger are almost polar opposites. Compare a marathon runner’s body with that of a sprinter or gymnast. Put the running on hold for a while, and focus on getting bigger: you’ll get there faster. When you decide to mix running back in, keep your calorie consumption high and don’t forget to keep strength training!
“Do I need to eat every three hours?” Nope. The TOTAL number of calories you consume over the course of a day is more important than the timing of the meals. In fact, there are actually some scientific benefits that can result from not eating all day and instead condensing it into a smaller window. However, if you struggle to get enough calories in your system, spacing out your meals might help you feel less full.
I’m a woman – what’s different?
This section is written by Team NF member Staci, who has had tremendous success with putting on mass the right way as a woman. In the photo above, she’s 25 pounds heavier in the photo on the right (and WAY stronger, and healthier, and happier!) If you’re at all concerned about “getting bulky” or that it’s not healthy/safe/possible for a woman to add weight the right way, this section should put those fears to rest!
The majority of what Steve has already covered is completely applicable for women. If you want to gain weight, lift heavy and eat a lot. However, due to our natural hormones, it’s harder for us to gain muscle. And on top of that, we have a lot of factors (such as hormonal birth control) that have been proven to make it even harder.
But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It just means we have to work harder for it.
Now, before we get started, let me just remind you: If you see a photo of a woman who is full of muscle and looks a lot like a man, she’s most likely on steroids. We simply don’t have the hormones naturally to get that size. Now, that that’s out of the way, lets go:
Since it’s harder for us to gain the right kind of weight, while some guys can eat the “See Food” diet and still look great, we will most likely need to focus on one of the “right food” diets.
Luckily, as it takes less calories for us to just exist, it takes less calories for us to bulk. But, this is still a much higher number than the 1,200-1,500 calories you typically see women following.
Note: I’ve never done “GOMAD” but I have done (and am doing right now) Half GOMAD. Since we’re most likely going to need a lot less calories than men due to our smaller size, full GOMAD is usually overkill.
I would also focus on making sure you’re getting enough saturated and monounsaturated fats, keep your sugar intake low, and make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D and Zinc – all items linked with boosting your testosterone naturally.
Speaking of testosterone – I know you may think of this as a “male” hormone, but it plays a huge part in women, muscle building, fat loss, increase bone mass and many other health related issues (remember: estrogen is made from testosterone). Men make about ten times what we make naturally, so they are way ahead of the game already. Lifting heavy and sprinting are two ways we can naturally boost testosterone
Another way we can help our testosterone levels is to watch our cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone that is promoted by stress and reduces free testosterone levels (in addition to signaling for your body to store fat).
So we want to keep our cortisol levels down by getting plenty of sleep, eating enough, and reducing overall daily stress.
For conditioning, instead of running, try sprinting or pushing a prowler.
As for strength training – not much difference here. We still want to be doing compound, full body movements, and lifting heavy. One big change to note though: women (and their natural growth hormone) have been shown to respond very well to a higher number of sets with a short rest period (60-90 seconds)
No matter what you chose, like Steve’s advice to above, pick a plan and eat a caloric surplus. Stop worrying about the small details and just make sure you are making progress.
How can I help?
This is a monster of an article, and your head probably hurts at this point. If I can narrow it down to three main points:
- Get stronger by picking up heavy stuff or doing more challenging bodyweight movements.
- Get bigger by eating enough.
- Recover faster by sleeping enough and giving your muscles days off to rebuild.
I see this article as a resource of sorts, so feel free to leave a comment with a question, and I’ll do my best to answer it, and perhaps add an FAQ section to this article.
How can I help you get bigger and stronger and feel better about yourself?
PS: Yes, I cover a lot of this stuff in the Rebel Strength Guide, including workout routines for free weights and body weight training, exercise demonstrations, and more in-depth meal advice. However, this article should get you started with EVERYTHING you need….FO’ FREE! Free is good.
TODAY’S REBEL HERO: My friend Helder, Founder of Backlash Beer which currently taking over the state of Massachusetts. If you live in the Boston area, next time you’re in a bar ask for a Backlash Beer. You won’t be disappointed.
Here’s Helder after a workout rocking his NF tee with his dog Stout (who has the ability to fall asleep anywhere, anytime).