Want to go from a skinny guy to building muscle quickly? I got you.
I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to pack on muscle, and after years and years of trial and error, I finally cracked the code.
Today, I share that code with you!
This is a topic that is near and dear to me, because I’ve spent my life devoted to this stuff:
These are the exact tactics I’ve used, and the same strategies we use with our Online Coaching Clients.
This free guide is gonna get you started off on the right foot!
Here are the 4 parts we’ll cover in this ultimate guide:
- The most important thing for putting on muscle (your diet).
- What foods should I eat to bulk up?
- What are the best bulk up strategies?
- What supplements should I take to bulk up and build muscle?
#3) STRENGTH TRAINING:
- How to grow bigger muscles (get stronger).
- Skinny Guy Workout Plans for bulking up.
- Can bodyweight training help you bulk up?
- I am skinny fat: should I gain weight or lose weight first?
#4) RECOVERY, TIPS AND TRICKS, NEXT STEP:
- Proper sleep and rest for putting on muscle.
- FAQ for skinny guys trying to bulk up.
- More resources for skinny guys looking to bulk up.
How I Bulked up After Years of Struggling as a Skinny Guy
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 weight or build muscle.
When people tell me “must be nice to have been skinny growing up,” I explain that 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 was in good shape already!), I still took the free sessions for the hell of it.
I’m so glad I did!
The trainer drastically simplified my workout and DOUBLED the amount of food I was eating.
I thought he was crazy at first, 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-mile 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, though a great gym workout can certainly speed up the process.
And after a few more years of up and down challenges, I had finally – jokingly – changed from Steve Rogers to Captain America (there’s a story behind this):
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.
The Most Important Thing for Putting on Muscle: Eat More Food.
As they say, muscle isn’t made in the gym, but in the kitchen:
If you want to bulk up, 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.
Want to know how many calories you burn every day just existing?
Plug your stats into our TDEE (Total daily energy expenditure) calculator:
Click right here for our Metric calculator.
Note: we have used The Mifflin-St Jeor Equation to create this calculator! 
For every person, the number of required calories for bulking up daily is different, especially when you factor in how much you move, fidget, and how much weight you need to gain:
- For some people, it might be 2,500 calories a day.
- For others, it might be 3,500 calories a day.
- For others, it might be 5,000 calories a day.
I don’t love calorie counting (I prefer a “Balanced Plate” approach), but I think for a newbie starting out, tracking calories for a few days is a great place to begin.
So, track your calories using something like MyFitnessPal over a few days and get an average.
I bet you’ll discover you’re eating significantly less than you thought you were.
LEARN HOW MANY CALORIES YOU NEED TO EAT FIRST.
And then eat MORE!
Spend the next two weeks eating an additional 300-500 calories per day above your TDEE (which you calculated above) and see how your weight adjusts (and how you look in progress photos!).
If you are not getting bigger, add an additional 300-500 calories per day and repeat the process.
Depending on your training, genetics, how skinny you are, and how much muscle you need to gain, you can decide how much weight you want to gain each week.
Everybody’s results will vary, and thoughts are mixed on how quickly we can build muscle:
- Under optimal conditions, some say you can expect to gain 1 pound (.5 kg) of muscle per week,
- My results have shown that 2 lbs (1kg) per month is more realistic.
- A 2016 studyrevealed that strength training produced a 2.2 lb increase (1kg) increase in lean mass in 8 weeks.
Regardless of how fast you bulk up, it might be helpful for you to gain weight by putting on some fat with your muscle!
Here are things to consider if you overeat WHILE strength training: 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.
Yes, it is possible to have incredible transformations in a short amount of time, like when I gained 18 pounds (8.1kg) in 30 days
This was due to strength training, overeating, protein, and extra water weight (from supplementing with creatine):
My advice: Rather than massive weight gain over a month, you’d be much better off gaining .5-1.5 lbs. (.25-.75 kg) a week, every week, for six months…and keeping the weight on!
Now, I know this stuff isn’t easy.
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 guide your nutrition based on your current situation, consider checking out our Online Training Program!
What Food Should I Eat to Bulk Up?
Let’s go through how you should be prioritizing your nutrition, nutrient by nutrient:
- Protein: rebuilds muscle after you break it down.
- Carbohydrates: provides your muscle with fuel and body weight with energy
- Fat: helps your bodily functions and can also be burned as fuel in the absence of carbs.
Let’s look at each of these individually:
PRIORITY #1: PROTEIN
Protein can come from any number of sources, including:
- Meat (steak, bison, pork).
- Fowl (chicken, turkey, duck).
- Cheese and dairy.
- Fish and shellfish (salmon, tuna, shrimp).
- Legumes (black beans, chickpeas).
- Other vegetarian protein sources here.
As we cover in our “How much Protein do I need?”, claims for the amount of protein needed vary wildly from source to source (and athlete to athlete).
Here is our recommendation for protein consumption:
If you’re of healthy weight, active, and wish to build muscle, aim for 1 g/lb (2.2 g/kg).
If you’re an experienced lifter on a bulk, intakes up to 1.50 g/lb (3.3 g/kg) may help you minimize fat gain.
Let me simplify it for you: target at least 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight (2.2 grams per kg).
If you’re curious, from our healthy eating article, this is what a portion of protein looks like:
Also, here’s how much protein is in a serving of food:
- 4 oz (113 g) of chicken has around 30 g of protein.
- 4 oz (113 g) of salmon has 23 g of protein
- 4 oz (113 g) of steak has 28 g of protein.
Want to get more protein? Consider protein shakes, like so:
PRIORITY #2: CARBS
After protein, in order for you to get bigger, you need to eat enough calories, and those calories should come from sources composed of carbs and/or fats.
Here are foods full of carbohydrates you can prioritize for bulking up:
- Legumes and lentils
- Sweet potatoes
- Regular potatoes
- Whole grain pasta
- Whole grain bread
To help you get better at eyeballing serving sizes:
1 serving of a starchy carbohydrate is 1 cupped hand (uncooked), or your two hands forming a cup (cooked).
Here are some images to help you learn proper portion sizes (thanks to SafeFood):
In addition to consuming carbohydrates from these sources, it’s okay to consume plenty of fruit while trying to bulk up!
You can read our full “Is fruit healthy” guide to learn more.
PRIORITY #3: FAT!
Fat is a macronutrient that you can eat that can help you reach your goals in the right quantity, as fat can be higher calorie and you can eat lots of it without feeling full.
Healthy fat can be found in foods like:
- Macadamia nuts
- Olive oil
- Almond butter
- Peanut butter
Science has recently come around on saturated fat too . Once completely vilified, but now considered okay for moderate consumption.
Saturated fats can come from things like:
- Whole milk
- Full fat dairy
- Coconut oil
- Grass-fed butter
- Fatty cuts of meat
To help you gauge: a serving size of fat is roughly the size of your thumb!
For reference, this is a single serving of almonds (162 calories):
THIS is a serving of olive oil (119 calories):
As you can see, you can eat an extra 500 calories of “healthy fats” by eating lots of “heart-healthy” fats like nuts or adding more olive oil to your meals.
PRIORITY #4: VEGETABLES!
Last but not least, you need vegetables in your diet.
If you start to eat a lot more food, your “indoor plumbing” is going to really benefit from eating some high-fiber veggies with each meal:
A serving of veggies is about the size of your fist.
Here’s a quick, non-complete list of veggies that can fill your plate:
- Spaghetti squash
- Brussels sprouts
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER:
This plate and serving size stuff above is just to help you get started thinking about healthy food differently and in proper portion sizes.
HERE’S HOW TO EAT TO BULK UP:
- Calculate your (Total daily energy expenditure) and add +500 cal over your number.
- Consume 1-1.5g per pound (2.2-3.3g per kg) of bodyweight in protein every day.
- Consume the rest of your calories from foods composed of carbs and fats.
- Always eat vegetables so that your body can actually PROCESS all this extra food.
- If you are not gaining weight, add more carbs and/or fats to your meal.
It really does come down to the following:
If you are not gaining weight fast enough, you’re not eating enough. Increase your portions of carbs and fats!
Whenever we work with coaching clients who struggle to bulk up, this is the area we target: adding more carbs and fats to each meal.
What are the Best Popular Bulk-Up Eating Strategies?
If you read the previous section, you know that we have some pretty specific “best practices” on how to bulk up.
However, there are multiple strategies that can also work, and I’d like to cover each of those here too.
Depending on your budget, your taste in food, and your goals, these strategies will work better for some than others.
#1) The “Healthy” Bulk
I have followed this method to great success multiple times (including right now).
Ultimately, I follow the “real food” 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.
This is the exact strategy we lay out in the previous section of this article.
Speaking of quality calories – how I recommend doing this – receive your Get Bigger Shopping List and Bulk Up Cheat Sheet by putting your email in the box below:
- The Nerd Fitness "Get Bigger" Shopping List
- Bulk like the Hulk with our rules for getting bigger
#2) 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, and that’s okay!
Foods that are high in calories include:
- Whole milk
- Cottage cheese
- Ice cream
- 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.
Steve’s thoughts: 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.
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.
#4) Paleo Bulk or Keto Bulk
Bulking up while following the Paleo Diet, or bulking while following a Keto Diet.
Yes, it’s possible to bulk while following either of these diets:
If you are eating Paleo, you’ll want to eat LOTS of carbs and fats from calorie-dense foods like fruit, sweet potatoes, and nuts.
If you are going Keto, you’ll want to eat LOTS of fat from cheeses, nuts, oils, and so on.
If you have the budget and want to try it, go for it. You’ll be eating truckloads of nuts, avocados, and meat.
“WHICH STRATEGY IS BEST FOR ME?”
In our opinion, we’ve had the most success with Coaching Clients who adopt a “healthy bulk” strategy, #1 above.
It’s a focus on real food, a sustainable increase in calorie intake, and can be adjusted easily by adding or reducing total portions of carbs and fats.
But hey, you do you, boo.
What Supplements Should I take to Bulk up? How to eat more calories.
If you are struggling to consume enough whole foods every day, then here are some tips to help you reach your caloric goals to bulk up:
“WHAT SUPPLEMENTS SHOULD I TAKE TO BULK UP FAST?”
Most supplements are garbage
Plus, you should ALWAYS prioritize consuming real food over shakes and powders.
HOWEVER, if you are interested in bulking quickly, there are two I would recommend:
- Protein Powder. A great solution for getting extra protein and calories in your diet and building muscle. As we point out in our article on protein and protein shakes, mix and match your own ingredients and see how many calories you can get into a smoothie without breaking your blender.
- Creatine supplement. It helps your muscles retain more water , and has been shown to increase the hormone IGF-1, which is needed for muscle growth. It’s one of the only two supplements (along with protein) that I take regularly.
Outside of these two supplements, you really don’t need to prioritize supplementation, despite what the muscle magazines tell you! Hell, many of these muscle mags are OWNED BY SUPPLEMENT COMPANIES.
I’ll leave you with two more big suggestions on how to bulk up in this section:
#1) Liquid calories are your friend. Liquid calories can give us lots of calories without ‘filling us up,’ which is an easier way to consume enough calories every day without feeling overly full.
I personally get a huge chunk of my calories every day from making my own ‘Powerbomb Shake – from our Protein Guide
- Water: 16 oz.
- Quaker Oats: 3 servings (120g)
- Frozen spinach: 1.5 servings (120g)
- Frozen mixed berries: 1.5 servings (120g)
- Protein powder: 2 scoops of Optimum Nutrition Vanilla Whey
And here is the macronutrient breakdown:
- Calories: 815 cal
- Protein: 70g
- Carbs: 107g
- Fats: 12g
I put all of this into a Vitamix Blender – yep, it was expensive, but worth the investment. This blender has been used twice a day for 8 years without a single issue.
If you need even more calories consider adding whole milk, coconut milk, or almond milk instead of water.
You can also add a shot of olive oil to add calories/fats to a shake in the quest for MOAR MUSCLE!
#2) Train your Body to Eat More: 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 its 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 will expand.
How to Grow Bigger Muscles: Get Stronger
When you strength train, your muscles are broken down and then get rebuilt stronger to adapt to the stress you have applied to it.
So every time you pick up a slightly heavier weight, you are increasing the challenge and forcing your muscles to adapt and get more resilient.
What I’m trying to say:
If you want to get bigger, focus on getting stronger.
As long as you are continually increasing the weights or increasing the sets and reps you are lifting, your muscles will continually adapt to get stronger.
This is called “progressive overload” and it. is. everything.
Coach Jim walks you through the ins and outs of progressive overload in this video:
If you want to dive in more, check out our guide “What is Progressive Overload?“
Follow a progressive overload strategy and eat enough calories, and you will get bigger.
You have two approaches to consider while bulking up:
PATH A: BODYBUILDER BULK. 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 are fine, and you might even enjoy them.
However, they do require a fairly large time commitment at the gym, and you’ll be training 5-6 days per week.
PATH B: STRENGTH AND MUSCLE. Focus on full-body routines that contain compound exercises like squats and deadlifts that give us the most bang for our buck.
Every time you train, most of the muscles in your body are getting worked out.
Specifically, this path has you focusing on getting really strong at these movements:
If you can focus on getting really strong with the above exercises, and eat enough calories, you will also get bigger in all of the right places.
Path B is something we’re bigger fans of compared to Path A, and it’s what we recommend to our Coaching Clients.
Specially, we find it to be safer and also more time-efficient: you’ll be training just 2-3 days per week on this path (instead of 5-6 days per week with Path A).
Mark Rippetoe (author of Starting Strength, a must-read for anybody interested in the above exercises) lives for old school barbell training (path B):
Because it works.
Just. Keep. Eating. And. Lifting.
Skinny Guy Workout Plans for Bulking Up
As we cover in our “How to build muscle” article, here’s a sample routine you can follow NOW to start bulking up.
After you do your dynamic warm-up, do the following workout:
MONDAY BULK-UP WORKOUT:
- Squats: 4 sets of 5 reps
- Bench press 4 sets of 5 reps
- Wide Grip Pull Ups: 3 sets of 10 reps
- Planks 3 sets of 60 seconds
WEDNESDAY BULK-UP WORKOUT:
- Deadlift: 3 sets of 5 reps
- Overhead Press: 3 sets of 5 reps
- Inverted Bodyweight Rows: 3 sets of 10 reps
- Hanging Knee Raises: 3 sets of 10 reps
FRIDAY BULK-UP WORKOUT:
- Front Squats: 3 sets of 5 reps
- Weighted Dips: 3 sets of 10 reps
- Weighted Chin-Ups: 3 sets of 10 reps
- Reverse Crunches: 3 sets of 15 reps
Get stronger and the rest will take care of itself.
NERD FITNESS RECOMMENDATION: Feel free to pick WHATEVER workout program you want from wherever. If you don’t want to follow the workout above, consider these sources:
- 5 Beginner Strength Training Routines you can follow.
- Follow our 6 level gym workout routine.
- You can build your own workout routine.
- You can follow any workout from any muscle magazine.
If you’re curious, here are some commonly accepted strategies based on your goals for how many sets and reps you should do:
- Strength and power: 1-5 reps
- Strength and some size: 5-8 reps
- Size and some strength: 8-12 reps
- Muscular endurance: 12+ reps
Now, don’t worry too much about which path is best.
Nutrition plays the most important role in bulking up, and any strength training plan will help you get bigger.
There are 3 studies I want to point out:
- A recent study showed that a higher intensity workout (heavier weight for low reps) created more muscle mass than a higher volume (lower weight for more reps).
- Getting more volume (more sets of exercises) per week resulted in more mass compared to less volume (fewer sets of exercises), in this study.
- Studies show that weight training creates superior “bulk up” results compared to bodyweight training, but that doesn’t mean bodyweight training isn’t beneficial. Studies show that bodyweight training exercises can build muscle, but require a LARGE number of sets per rep, and pushing oneself to absolute failure.
What this means: Don’t overthunk it.
- Pick up heavy stuff for 3-4 sets of 5 reps. Pick up a weight that is heavy enough that you can only complete your specified number of reps.
- Challenge yourself on bodyweight exercises, either by making them more difficult, adding weight, or doing high reps to failure.
- And then do more next time.
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.
On any of these days, feel free mix in bicep curls or tricep extensions or calf-raises at the END of your workouts.
Focus on the big lifts first and get stronger with them.
How much weight should you lift? For every one 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 weight, and thus makes you stronger.
Waiting 60-90 seconds puts more of an emphasis on muscular size and endurance (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; stopping one or two reps short of maximum effort can save you from overtraining and potential injury – remember that muscles are built in the kitchen!
If you’re already overwhelmed and just want somebody to tell you what to do, you’re not alone.
I’ve had a coach since 2014 and it’s the best investment I make in myself every month.
Can Bodyweight Training Help Me Bulk Up?
Yes, you can get bigger and stronger by doing exclusively bodyweight exercises.
Take a look at any Olympic gymnast: he is jacked, with giant muscles, all built with bodyweight exercises:
HOWEVER, it requires a very specific type of training regiment to see those results.
Studies show that weight training creates superior “bulk up” results compared to bodyweight training, but that doesn’t mean bodyweight training isn’t beneficial.
Studies show that bodyweight training exercises can build muscle, but require a LARGE number of sets per rep. In other words, you’ll need to push yourself to absolute failure.
So, here’s where the challenges arise:
Like with weight training above, you need to increase the difficulty in order for your muscles to adapt.
Because it’s often more challenging to add a few pounds to a bodyweight exercise to make it tougher – compared to putting a weight on a bar, you need to increase the difficulty of the bodyweight movement itself.
If you are trying to build size, you can also do sets where your rep ranges are in the 25-35 reps per set, and you are pushing your muscles to failure (woof):
- If you can do 4 sets of 15 push-ups, consider making them harder to progress. Do 4 sets of 15 push-ups with your feet on a bench.
- Bodyweight 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 weighted pull-ups.
I highly recommend beginners start to take a serious look at strength training with free weights; it’s much easier to record one’s progress, easy to add more difficulty (just add more weight!), and very structured.
You can ALSO mix in bodyweight training, which is what I prefer to do!
In fact, I personally believe the best routine mixes both weights and bodyweight training. I have been working with my online coach for 4 years, and I’ve packed on size by following a barbell + bodyweight training routine.
Weight training for my lower body, advanced bodyweight movements for my upper body.
Every day starts with either a squat, front squat or deadlift.
Here I am pulling 420 pounds at a bodyweight of 172 pounds:
Each workout also contains a lot of Olympic/gymnastic style movements and holds to build upper body strength.
Handstands too (read our guide on handstands):
And I just try to get stronger.
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’re trying to bulk with just bodyweight, it might be worth enlisting the help of a coach to help you scale your bodyweight exercises correctly and in the proper sequence!
I am Skinny Fat: Should I gain or lose weight first?
If you are skinny fat (you have skinny arms and legs but have a gut), there are three paths available to you:
- Bulk up and build muscle, then lean out.
- Lean out, then build muscle.
- Build muscle and lean out at the same time.
We all want Door #3, right?
Here how to accomplish both goals at the same:
- Heavy strength training…
- While following a healthy diet and slight calorie restriction…
- To decrease your body fat percentage.
If you follow a program with the right calories and strength training, you can both lose weight AND build muscle at the same time.
It’s how we helped NF Coaching Client Jimmy (these photos are 5 months apart):
Our advice: Get strong and eat a SLIGHT caloric deficit while consuming enough protein every day.
Get yourself down to roughly 12% body fat (~20% for women), and then start to increase the size.
By slimming down first, while building muscle, you don’t have to worry about buying BIGGER clothes first, only to then need smaller clothes once you start cutting the fat.
Then, once you decide to 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!
To recap, here’s what to do if you are skinny-fat:
- Eat a caloric deficit while heavy strength training to build muscle while leaning out.
- Prioritize protein intake: 1.5g per pound (.75g per kg) of bodyweight.
- Get strong as hell with big lifts and low reps (this will build muscle even in a deficit).
- Once you reach a certain body fat percentage you’re happy with (probably 10-12%), then you can increase your caloric intake to build more muscle without putting on too much fat.
Proper Sleep and Rest for Putting on Muscle
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.
Our 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 or fun exercises if you feel like it doing some active recovery on 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.
It’s something Coach Jim brings up in the video “7 things I learned adding on 50 lbs of muscle”:
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.
FAQ for Skinny Guys Trying to Bulk Up
QUESTION #1: “But I just want to get toned, I don’t want to get too bulky.”
That’s not a question, but I hear it all the time. Do NOT worry about getting too bulky. I’ve been trying to get “too bulky” my entire life – it takes years of concerted effort to pull that off.
I’m gonna guess you have 30+ pounds to gain before you’d ever even be considered “bulky.”
That means that if you struggle with weight gain, getting to the point where you are TOO bulky would actually be a good problem to solve.
As you start to put on weight if you ever find yourself getting a tiny bit too chubby, simply eat less at that point!
So, when in doubt, always err on the side of too many calories than not enough. If you’re not sure if you should eat or not, etc.
QUESTION #2: “But I don’t want to do that stuff, so I’m gonna do _____ instead.”
Again not a question. But hey, 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, come back to this article and apply the lessons in here!
QUESTION #3: “I’m a vegetarian/vegan, can I bulk up?”
Absolutely. You just need to make sure you’re getting enough calories and enough 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 🙂
Check out our plant-based protein suggestions.
QUESTION #4: “Should I do ___ reps and sets or _____ reps and sets?“
Either plan will get you there. It’s 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’s weight or an actual weight).
QUESTION #5: “I want to get bigger and faster and have more endurance and flexibility ALL at the same time, can I do that?”
I hate to say it, but building endurance and getting bigger simultaneously is brutally difficult.
As I point out in “How to build any physique,” 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!
You can still go for walks, and still get a good cardio workout by lifting quickly with minimal breaks between sets.
QUESTION #6: “Do I need to eat every three hours?”
Nope, you don’t have to:
- The TOTAL number of calories you consume over the course of a day is more important than the timing of the meals.
- The same is true with protein intake: studies show it doesn’t matter WHEN you eat your protein. HOW MUCH you consume in a day is more important.
In fact, there are actually some scientific benefits that can result from not eating all day and instead condensing it into a smaller window.
But eating more frequently might help…
If you struggle to get enough calories in your system, spacing out your meals might help you feel less full, or give you more opportunities to reach your calorie goal for the day.
I eat all of my calories between 12pm and 8pm, and still get bigger despite only eating 2 MASSIVE meals each day.
QUESTION #7: “But what about this other article? And this other thing I read? Which workout is the best workout?”
Don’t overwhelm yourself. Keep it simple. Get stronger, eat more food, sleep. Break this down into simple steps and goals that aren’t scary, and get started.
The best advice I can give you is to start and make adjustments along the way.
Track your progress, track your calories, and track your workouts.
If you are getting bigger and stronger, keep it up!
I know this stuff can be overwhelming, as I struggled with this stuff for YEARS before getting results.
It why after I started Nerd Fitness, I eventually launched a coaching program: to help people skip the years of mistakes I made!
More Resources for Skinny Guys Looking to Bulk Up
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.
If you made it this far, and you want more specific instruction and guidance, we have a few options for you:
1) If you are somebody that wants to follow a tailor-made program that’s designed around their life and goals, check out our popular 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program.
You’ll work with our certified NF instructors who will get to know you better than you know yourself, check your form, and program your workouts and nutrition for you.
2) If you want a roadmap for home workouts, check out NF Journey. Our fun habit-building app helps you exercise more frequently, eat healthier, and level up your life (literally).
Try your free trial right here:
3) Download our free Bulk Up Guide, which you can get when you sign up in the box below:
- The Nerd Fitness "Get Bigger" Shopping List
- Bulk like the Hulk with our rules for getting bigger
Lastly, I’d love to hear from you!
PLEASE leave your questions, eating or strength or otherwise below so we can answer them and become best friends and practice karate kicks in the garage:
How can I help you get bigger and stronger?
What part of this journey are you still struggling the most with?
What are your favorite bulking up foods!?
Share with your friends in the comments so we can all go buy it in bulk at Costco.
PS: Make sure you check out the rest of our Bulk Up guides:
- How to build muscle quickly
- How fast can I build muscle?
- 9 Mistakes People Make Trying to Get Bigger
- 13 Tips for Guaranteed Weight Gain.
photo source: Not Happy, Marina Pissarova © 123RF.com, magone © 123RF.com, Ekaterina Minaeva © 123RF.com, Morning run with the Fitbit, Inna Vlasova © 123RF.com, Viktor Hladchenko © 123RF.com; Olga Yastremska © 123RF.com; famveldman © 123RF.com; 167/366, LEGO bench