Growing up, Liem Pham was bullied for being a skinny guy. Though the 19-year-old college student from California was always an athlete (a swimmer, to be specific), Pham was never quite able to build up the muscle he thought his 6-foot frame deserved. Until, that is, he discovered the weight room — and packed on more than 15 kilos of muscle.
“I was always called ‘skinny’ and ‘Mr. Skeleton’ and stuff like that,” the biotech student told MensHealth.com. “I didn’t mind it at first, but it slowly wore on me.”
Like many teenagers trying to impress their classmates, Pham started hitting the gym. But without knowing what to do for muscle growth, he squandered his time on workouts that weren’t quite working, performing endless rounds of calisthenics, situps, and bodyweight movements without any real routine.
He knew this wasn’t enough, especially after cruising YouTube for workout advice and coming across a video of professional bodybuilder Steven Cao.
“That one particularly affected me,” Pham said. “I just remember seeing this one video where he's doing this leaning stance. I thought to myself, ‘Wow.’” He wanted to look like that, and he was ready to put the work in.
Pham began digging deep into the research and found a PPL — or “push, pull, legs” — routine that he thought could work for him.“The summer going into senior year I put on 17 pounds,” he said. “I went from 130 to about 150.” (By the way, PPL workouts aren’t just for young guys. This circuit uses push-pull supersets, and it's ideal for men over 40.)
Then, Pham started working out with a buddy from high school. Having a workout partner changed his fitness game forever; it made him more dedicated to the routine, because he had to ensure he didn’t let his partner down.
“I put on another 12 pounds because of that,” he said. “I feel like this is the body I should have had my entire life.”
Now, Pham's muscle-building workout routine takes the form of a four-day split. Each day, he spends his time on one main lift: either bench press, overhead press, press squat, or deadlift, doing a certain number of reps. Week by week, he increases the weight and lowers the reps until he maxes out, performing this in a four-week cycle. Pham has found so much success that friends, family members, and gym strangers have starting to approach him for advice.
“One thing I've always told [people] is that they need to eat big, eat right, lift big, and lift right,” Pham said. “This means they should keep track of the amount and types of food in their diet and lift with proper form while focusing on progressive overload. This way, they'll see definitive progress and make the most out of their beginner gains unlike me.”
Pham encourages other skinny guys to keep their expectations in check—especially in the age of Instagram.
“Instagram is full of deception, and the fitness industry is grossly saturated with hopefuls trying to find their own niche in this community,” he said. “The sculpted bodies you see on your feed are results of hours and hours of hard work, but they don't tell the whole story.”
He even added that he’d take his own muscle transformation “with a grain of salt,” because he cherry-picked the photos out of his hundreds of other gym selfies. “Instagram photos and YouTube transformations should only serve to inspire you; they shouldn't be standard of your expectations,” he said.
Still, if you're looking to make some muscle gains, Pham says you should start as soon as possible.
“Just start right now," he said. "But remember the quote: 'The gym shouldn’t be your life, but it should make your life better.'”
This article originally appeared on Men's Health