Scientists have recently made some outstanding discoveries – like a black hole that’s 12 billion times bigger than our sun and a brand-new species of human ancestor that lived more than 2.5 million years ago. But skinny guys everywhere are still waiting for one important finding: the perfect (drug-free) formula for turning an ectomorph into a mesomorph, genes be damned.
Sick of the wait, they’ve taken matters (and dumbbells) into their own hands. They’re essentially lab rats, testing various lifting techniques and hundreds of exercises, all in the hopes of changing their physiques. And a few have found methods that work for them. Sure, they don’t look like Schwarzenegger in his heyday, but they all packed on double-digit pounds of muscle and now buy bigger-sized clothing. So we reached out to three formerly skinny guys to find out how they did it.
Hit As Many Muscles As Possible
Three years ago, Mike Shannon, a floor layer from Rossendale weighed 140 pounds. Now, at the age of 30, he’s 45 pounds heavier—almost all of it muscle.
His secret: Throw out isolation exercises—which only work one muscle group—for big compound movements like the squat, deadlift, bench press, row, and pull-up—which work multiple muscle groups at once. "I thought I was lifting before, but not really,” he says. “It was a two-year process to gain all that mass.”
Shannon trains everything twice a week in 3-day blocks. During the first block, he lifts super heavy and does lower reps with long rest breaks between sets. Then he takes a rest day. During the second block, he lifts lighter and in the 6-to-15-rep range with shorter rests between sets.
Brad Schoenfeld, a champion bodybuilder and assistant professor of exercise science at Lehman College, explained why Shannon’s change of program worked: “The compound movements recruit a lot more muscle than single-joint lifts. There are numerous synergists and stabilizers involved in performance of squats, deadlifts, bench presses, rows etc. that will pack on more mass,” he says. “Moreover, the heavy and lighter days likely provided greater development of the full spectrum of muscle fibres.”
Shannon’s program created muscle tension, and that’s one of the keys to building mass, says Nick Tumminello, a trainer of trainers in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Tension comes from either lifting heavy, or lifting to failure. Lifting heavy involves at least 85 per cent of your 1-rep max (RM), working in the 1-to-5-rep range.
As for how to lift that weight: “With heavier weight I tell them to rip it off the floor,” Tumminello says. “They won’t move it fast because the weight is heavy, but the intent is to be fast.” And with lighter loads—working at 65-to-85 per cent of 1RM in the 6-to-12 rep range, tension is created by going to “technical failure,” meaning as many reps as you can do without sacrificing technique.
Like Shannon, Brad Kelly, a 24-year-old, 6-foot-one personal trainer in Panama City, Florida, targets as many muscles as possible, too. But his programming approach is radically different than Shannon’s. “I didn’t want to make it up myself,” Kelly said. “So I followed the advice in classic, old school bodybuilder books.” Authors he followed include Steve Reeves, Bill Pearl and Reg Park.
And it worked. Kelly weighed only 100 pounds in high school because of an esophageal problem. After corrective surgery, he wanted to pack muscle onto his gaunt frame. He worked his way up to 225 pounds by performing a 90-minute, full-body workout three times a week. He goes all-out, so he’s absolutely wiped after each workout.
“No one has done studies on hard gainers,” Schoenfeld told me, “but there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that greater frequency—working the same muscle a number of times per week—is an important factor.” The muscles need to be challenged to grow, and higher frequency exercise equates to a greater challenge. Schoenfeld recommends a total-body routine or an upper/lower split routine so you’re hitting every muscle group at least 2 to 3 times a week.
Realise It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint
After college, freelance copywriter Jason Pedley from Brantford, Ontario, weighed in at 145. By making training a big part of his life, however, he moved the scale up to 200. This wasn’t a miracle transformation taking place over months, but several years due to the waxing and waning of the now 39-year-old Pedley’s motivation. “Some years I gave up,” he said. Other years he was “ravenous” to make progress.
“I also worked out with a partner a few times a week and we really helped push each other, ” he says. But “the most important part was believing that I could do it. I started reading lots of different bodybuilding books and decided to make a much more concentrated focus on lifting.”
Pedley made sure his training stayed in the hypertrophy or muscle-building rep range: 6-to-12 reps. This type of training helps create metabolic stress, which is another universal principal for building muscle, says Tumminello. It’ll make you feel the burn.
Concentrate on the “Big Hole” in Your Training
The “big hole” is the one in your face – and you need to stuff it full of food. But stuff it wisely.
“The number one thing is to eat,” says Schoenfeld. “The biggest mistake I see in most ectomorphs is that they’re not supporting their ability to build muscle with enough food. They usually have very fast metabolisms so you need to support your body with enough fuel.”
His guideline for mass building is to consume 20-to-25 calories per pound of body weight per day. Protein should be 1-gram per pound of body weight per day. Schoenfeld says most hard gainers don’t need to worry about overdoing it. “Obviously you don’t want to gain a ton of fat, but for an ectomorph you usually have a problem gaining any weight at all.”
Shannon saw a huge difference in muscle mass when he started paying attention to nutrition. “I decided to focus on macronutrients,” he says. “I realized the higher my carbs were, the better I performed. I haven’t seen much difference with having protein higher or lower. Fat I’ve always kept moderate.”
Shannon tracks his macronutrients closely now, and said his current breakdown is 24% of calories from protein, 57% from carbohydrates, and 19% from fat. In terms of taking in enough food to gain muscle but not fat, he wanted to make sure he stayed lean while building, so he carefully tracked his calories to 10-to-15 per cent above the level needed to maintain his current body weight.
Pedley, on the other hand, took a more Zen strategy. “I didn’t want to worry about macros and just focused on what I knew was healthy eating, and it has never lead me astray,” he explains. “I didn’t count calories, but ate what felt like a right amount. I’m pretty sure I was in a caloric surplus most of the time.”
The point: You don’t necessarily have to micro measure your diet in order to achieve success. Just make sure you’re eating, and you’re eating a lot. According to Tumminello, you can gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, but the leaner you are, the harder it is.
“It is smarter to focus your programming in one direction,” he says, recommending that the ambitious should either bulk or cut, but not both at the same time. Bulking comes first, and needs to be done with caution. That’s because muscle gains come slowly, and you need to pace your caloric surplus with the pace of achievable muscle gain. Take in too many calories, and you’ll be gaining a bunch of fat as well.
Cut when you feel as if you’re hit a muscle-gaining plateau. This allows you to shed fat to reveal your larger physique. You’ll do this through moderate but steady caloric restriction.
James S. Fell is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist who blogs at www.BodyForWife.com.