How to train as an ectomorph

How do I build muscle as an ectomorph?

Do you have a hard time building muscle? Do you want to get bigger but nothing you try ever works? In this guide I will teach you the best way to train as an ectomorph. Before we can explain that, we will first need to define what an ectomorph is.

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What is an ectomorph?

Does the following describe you?

● You have naturally low bodyfat, but are not naturally muscular either
● You have long limbs, but a thinner bone structure
● You have narrow hips and waist, and skinny legs
● You’ve got bony shoulders that click a lot, and a flat chest
● You have a “fast metabolism” and its difficult to gain weight
● You can eat a lot sometimes, but your appetite can also be very low
● Your digestion can vary between being fast, or being slow. Some
foods simply don’t agree with you
● You’ve never had much bodyfat, but your ribs stick out, and having
abs while being 140lbs is not that impressive
● You have lifted weights, but you feel like low reps don’t work well, or
you tend to get joint pain in your wrist and elbows
● You feel like you overtrain easily, and some programs you’ve tried left
you exhausted more than they built any muscle

If this sounds like yourself, you are definitely an ectomorph. The Ectomorph is one of the three Somatotypes. It is the “skinny” type, built long and thin and lean, but also often not very strong, and not muscular like the Mesomorph.
Ectos are often envied for their inability to gain weight, but their biggest obstacle is also….their inability to gain weight. Ectomorphs are most often called “hardgainers” as they simply do not gain muscle very quickly or easily. While ectomorphs are often called a “hardgainer”, that term itself is grossly overused. Ectomorphs can build muscle, and they can gain weight if they eat enough…but the issue is that these gains are “hard” to come by following conventional lifting advice.
If you have “good” genetics for muscle building, you can follow a program, drink a protein shake, and grow.

How do I train if I am an ectomorph?

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The meta issue for Ectomorphs goes something like this: You get exposed to weights for the first time. Let’s do the big 3 lifts—squat, bench, and deadlift. You might have decent leverages perhaps for these lifts, but you realize after a few months that low reps is just not putting on muscle the way you thought it would.

Additionally, your joints kinda hurt. Your lower back is achy, your shoulders are feeling the bench press more than your pecs are. If you are unlucky, you strain something in your shoulderand now that hurts. Benching you’re really not gifted at, and you are not getting the big slabs for pecs that you really want.

Maximal strength gains and low reps don’t seem to be getting you big. But does the internet not say that you must get stronger to get bigger? What gives?

Some exercises you really feel, and you find that isolation exercises definitely hit the target muscle. But then other exercises seem to simply not work at all.

Bent-over rows work your low back more than your lats, barbell shoulder press is at a constant plateau. Barbell curls torque your wrists and biceps tendon more than they work your biceps. Skullcrushers just hurt; You quit those because your elbow started to spike in pain.

You really want bigger shoulders, because your shoulders are extremely bony. But you don’t know to train your upper back and posterior delts, and everything you read says you need to overhead press.

Aside from the trial and error process, there is also EATING. Maybe you can put away a lot of food at one time, but eating day in and day out, how do guys do this? You’re full after two meals, you simply don’t have that kind of
appetite. How does someone eat 6 times a day?

This is the typical experience for the ectomorph, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Principles for ectomorphs:

So what’s the solution? Well let’s lay down some basic principles for ectomorph training.

#1: Train Submaximally, and Train Maximally Sparingly

Becoming a Legend: Frank Zane's Top 10 Training Tips | Muscle & Fitness

Frank Zane is arguably the greatest ectomorph bodybuilder of all time, a naturally skinny man who built a physique that to this day is considered one of the greatest to ever exist, and is the gold standard of aesthetics.

Zane started out powerlifting, and while he eventually achieved a 400lb squat and deadlift, and a 285 bench press, at a bodyweight of about 185-190, he realized that pursuing weight was NOT conducive to complete development of his physique.

By no means was he “weak”, but a double bodyweight squat and deadlift, while respectable as an athletic level of strength it is simply not that impressive. Zane also never benched 3 plates. But did his physique lack anything? Was it incomplete? Absolutely Not!

Zane knew that for maximal muscular development, he had to train in a manner that actually worked the muscles. His bodybuilding training was typically done in the 8-12 rep range, although he went slightly lower in the 5-8 range when he won his three Mr. Olympia titles. Again though, at no point during his peak years did he prioritize getting his 1 rep max up.

Muscle growth depends on eccentric damage, time under tension, neuromuscular innervation, metabolic depletion, and blood flow. Nowhere in the above do you see “muscle growth depends on you getting your 1 rep max up on an exercise you cannot even feel in the target muscle”.

Here is the reality-when you have a lighter bone structure, you have to deal with more joint stress. Unless you have bulletproof joints (and some guys do), lifting heavy will come with a cost. That is not me telling you to never lift heavy ever, it’s me telling you to be intelligent about it.

This does not mean you resign yourself to being weak, but rather you need to not beat yourself up over not smashing crazy weights and being obsessed with how much weight is in your hands.

#2 Prioritize Mechanical tension and mind muscle connection

By feeling, I mean the classic mind muscle connection. When you are assessing movements, go by whether or not you can feel it in the target muscle. If you are struggling, then try adjusting it. And if it’s still not working then try a different movement, you have no obligation to stick with an exercise if its not producing targeted innervation in the muscle you are trying to train.

#3 Use Progressive Resistance and Progressive Overload

What is progressive resistance?

Progressive resistance is finding different ways work a muscle harder, but without increasing the weight.

An example would leaning lateral raises versus standing lateral raises. The deltoid gets worked harder in a leaning lateral raise, but you’ll need to use
less weight. You increased the resistance on the muscle, but the weight itself is the same or less.

Another example; slow down the eccentric on chest exercises. Imagine you are doing DB chest press, for 4 sets of 6-10 reps. Do your reps with a slow 5 count descent on each set. The weight is the same, but now the muscle is being worked harder.

Another example; banded pushups. Let’s say you’re fairly strong at standard, moderate grip pushups. Loop a light band around each hand and across your back. Now it’s harder, you increased the resistance, without adding weight to your body.

Another example; unilateral training. Make all of your leg exercise single leg movements for one month. Suddenly every exercise is more challenging, even though you are using less weight.

There are many more tactical examples I can give, but the point is this: milk every exercise you can for as long as possible, finding ways to make it harder.

If you do this, you’ll be able to add weight steadily with time

#4 Wear Supportive Gear

Man wearing lifting gloves

Oftentimes online there is a disdain towards wearing supportive gear, usually accompanied by the some chest beating of how it “makes you weak”.

I’m not sure why this attitude exists, other than it seems to be anonymous accounts who just started lifting weights a few months ago. The reality is that if you were to go to Venice Golds gym, which has the highest concentration of professional bodybuilders of any gym in the world, you would realize that everyone uses supportive Gear.

• They wear belts.
• They wear gloves.
• They wear wrist straps on back day.
• They were wrist wraps on pressing day.
• They use versa grips for every exercise, even arms and things like bicep

You can call them weak if you want, but…STRONGMEN do the same thing. Strongmen are even more notorious for using waist wraps with their belts, knee wraps, elbow wraps, wrist wraps, and even ankle stabilizers. They almost
never train without wearing gear of some kind.

Keeping your joints healthy must be one of your top priorities in lifting.

And if you have the light bone structure of an ectomorph, you are doing yourself no favors in trying to work around wrist pain, elbow pain, shoulder pain, knee pain, low back pain, etc.

Aside from learning proper technique, use supportive gear as you see fit.

I’m not telling you to put a belt on to do bicep curls, but abandon the notion that you are weakening your body by using gear that allows you to lift harder and keeps your joints intact.

#5 Start with the Minimum Effective Dose, and then Work Up

Most ectomorphs don’t overtrain, rather, they over-exercise.

Do you need 24 sets for legs, when 12 sets will do the job? Do you need 4 exercises for biceps, when two exercises done with intensity would be sufficient?

Overtraining is a serious state of fatigue that lasts for weeks and your body legitimately breaks down with time.

Over-exercising is a condition of tiredness that you are simply doing more than is necessary to invoke a growth response and adaptation.

I wish there was a clean and easy dividing line to point to…But there isn’t one.

The most sensible way to think about exercise volume and “how many sets” you should do is this.

Adaptation to exercise operates on a dose response curve that resembles a Bell curve

Basically, the more you train, the more you adapt, but only to a point.  I can give this the following (and credit to Brad Schoenfeld for his research on this, as well as Prilepin)

Once you reach your respective sweet spot, you DON’T get more muscle growth. Your workouts have moved into the “overexercising” territory.

Low Volume Training is 1-8 Working sets per muscle, per week
-Some people respond well to low volume training, and its popular with
some lifters who lift in an intense rest-pause style. You can train a muscle
twice a week this way, but you’re never doing much more than 1-2 working

Moderate Volume Training is 8-16 Working sets per muscle, per week
-This is the bell curve middle, and where I believe most trainees, including
Ectomorphs, generally fall into. If you train a push/pull/legs style split, this
level of volume suits that kind of schedule

High volume Training is 16-30+ Working sets per muscle, per week
-Arnold famously trained very high volume, and during the 1960s and 1970s, it was not uncommon for the Golden Age lifters to train for 2-4 hours daily. The problem with this is an obvious one; its a ridiculous amount of time time, and I’d argue that you need anabolic support (ie, steroids) to benefit from doing this.

That in mind, what does that mean for you?

For any kind of lifting program you do, start with a measured approach, and then increase your volume relative to the gains your making.

#6 Keep your workouts around 12-16 working sets MOST of the time

I picked this up from Vince Gironda years ago, and I’ve always been impressed at how well it works. If you cannot get in a good workout in 12 sets, you’re not training with enough focus. That breaks down to 3 exercises at 4 sets each, or 4 exercises of 3 sets.

If you’re doing one, two, three, four exercises, and you’re still not feeling like you’re in the “zone” with your training and your muscles are thoroughly taxed, what are you doing?

This level of volume also keeps the workout at around 45-60 minutes. Right at the point that your blood sugar is leveling off and your body is releasing cortisol, the workout ends.

Are there times to do high volume training? 100% I believe there is, but based on what I’ve seen historically and anecdotally, its best to use this strategy for about 3 months each year. But it is not how you should train MOST of the time.

#7 Eating

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What I’m about to tell you is going to change your life. And to give credit where credit is due, what I’m sharing is what I learned from John Meadows, Vince Gironda, Stan Efferding, and Flex Wheeler.

That ectomorphs struggle to gain weight is a common issue. The combination of having a low appetite, a fast metabolism, and feeling full, it can make weight gain seem impossible. How do you gain weight when eating is a struggle?

This is how

  1. Regiment your eating – Eat 4-6 times a day, and space out your meals equal time apart, every 2-3 hours.
  2. Eat the SAME size meals every time you eat. Don’t eat a huge dinner
    or breakfast or lunch. Always eat small to moderate meals rather than obsess over grams of protein, measure by grams or ounces.
    Eating a big meal of 1000 grams (1lb) of chicken, beef, or fish will fill you up.
    Eating a small meal of only 4-6 ounces of protein (250 grams), that WILL not make you full.
    And when you eat small meals that DON’T make you full, you’ll be able to eat more frequently, which will then allow you to eat MORE over the course of a day.
    This also applies to carbs as well. ½ cup to 1 cup of rice is not that much to eat in one meal.
    When that adds up to 3-6 cups though, now you’ve increased your carb intake, and have done so without making yourself sick from eating.
  3. ONLY eat foods that digest FAST-This requires eliminating ALL the foods that slow down digestion, and only eating the fast digesting foods.
    This also requires PREPARING foods to digest easily. How to do this? ALWAYS include fat in all your meals. Cook your proteins in butter or olive oil or coconut oil or ghee, and ADD additional fat to the meat if its on the leaner side (or better yet, get the fattier cuts).
    A simple example is minced/ground beef. Most bodybuilders will tell you to get super lean, 95/5 beef. Don’t do this. Get the 80/20 blend, or the 70/30. This has much more fat, but you’ll find its far easier to eat. Its also cheaper. This applies to fish, chicken, beef, pork, even eggs. You want the fat because it expedites digestion (and it increases overall calorie consumption as well)
  4. SALT – Salt all your food liberally. The demonization of salt intake is another massive mistake by mainstream medicine. Aside from your muscles need salt to contract, the reason you need to be salting your food is because salt is required for stomach acid production. You need salt if you want your food to digest properly. This is why eating “dry” protein with no salt is so unappetizing. It’s hard to eat because its hard to digest. Contrast this with eating a brined whole chicken that’s succulent and seasoned. The difference is massive. What kind of salt? I often use sea salt, not because it has extra nutrients, but simply because it tastes good.

What do I eat as an ectomorph?

Grams of protein daily = 1 X your bodyweight. As you gain weight, increase the grams. I.E if you weigh 160 lbs, your goal should be 160 grams of protein.

Grams of carbs = 2-3x time your bodyweight. This will you have to adjust based on your overall activity levels and personal preference. Some people can handle a lot of carbs, some cannot.

Grams of fat = as much as you want. Seriously, this does not matter. Eat full fat everything and don’t care about how many grams of fat are in anything. If you got fat easily you wouldn’t be reading this in the first place.

Figure out your numbers, and then divide that out over 4-6 meals of whole food (meaning not processed food, real food).

Protein Sources
● Eggs
● Fish
● Chicken
● Beef
● Pork
● Any kind of game meats

Fat Sources
Fat is absolutely critical for metabolism and overall health. Every cell in your body is made from fatty acids, and fat itself is a precursor to every single sex hormone the body makes. if a diet is too low in fat, bad things happen health wise. Low carb and higher fat diets have often proven superior for a reason-fat is more satiating, more nutritious, and more critical for overall health. The fats you eat should not be “fake” fats. Vegetable oil is horrible for health, as all the other types of fake oils (corn, canola, rapeseed, etc). Your primary fat intake should come from the protein you eat, and from these sources when cooking.

● Olive oil
● Butter
● Ghee
● Coconut Oil
● Fatty meats
● Eggs
● Avocados and avocado oil
● Walnut oil

Carbohydrate Sources
Healthy carbs are unprocessed, nutritious carbs that contain no added sugar. If you do consume sugar, it should be from fruit or honey. I strongly suggest people limit overall sugar intake this way, as sugar has pretty much proven itself to be universally lousy for health. I use the term clean carbs often, and mean it; this list covers clean carbs.

-Tubers (yams, sweet potatoes, white potatoes)
-Rice, wild rice, any kind of rice
-Oatmeals and its variants
-Fruit (if you enjoy fruit. Fruit is the only form of sugar you should consume, along with honey)

What about bread? I consider this a personal choice. It’s also been undeniable that many people seem to not digest gluten “well”, although they are able to digest it. Very often people report that their digestive health improved when they switched carb sources to rice and potatoes, versus say bread and pasta. So I leave this upon you to test out yourself and see your response.


In conclusion, building muscle as an ectomorph is not impossible, but it requires a tailored approach to both training and nutrition. As an ectomorph, it’s important to listen to your body and adjust your workout and diet regimen accordingly. While it may be challenging, with the right mindset and strategies, you can overcome your natural body type’s constraints.

If you enjoyed this article, perhaps you’ll enjoy this article on the best chest workout to kill your chest on your next push day.