Lean bulking as an ectomorph is not only a great strategy to use when building a physique but is also easier than you might expect.
As an ectomorph you are likely already in a situation where bulking in general and gaining any sort of weight is a struggle. In the past I’ve resorted to high calorie shakes, 5+ meals a day and even instant mash to up my daily calories as it’s difficult to eat the required calories to bulk when you seemingly burn off the calories as quickly as you consume them!
When you factor in that a lean bulk is quite possibly the optimal way to build muscle then it makes the task of bulking as an ectomorph even more difficult. The reason I say a lean bulk is optimal is because you can only build so much muscle over the course of a week/month/year and therefore excessive weight gain on a ‘dirty’ bulk will just lead to excessive gains in body fat.
Minimizing fat gain whilst still building muscle should be the goal for everyone, lower body fat is ideal for far too many reasons to list however staying between 10%-15% body fat is optimal for building muscle and should therefore be the goal of a lean bulk.
As an ectomorph this will of course be a struggle and therefore the following 7 points are basic rules that you should follow to ensure that you have a successful lean bulk and don’t adopt the mentality of getting big at all costs.
Get Stronger With Progressive Overload
When training for strength, aesthetics or general fitness the focus should always be on progressive overload, this is one of the cornerstones of building muscle and developing a well rounded physique. A lean bulk is the ideal time in a training cycle to get a logbook started and make sure you are progressing on key lifts each and every workout.
With the surplus of calories that you will be consuming you will feel stronger and have more energy as a result and should focus on pushing the key compound movement numbers up every single session. As an ectomorph you are already at a mechanical disadvantage when it comes to building muscle, one thing you can do however to tip the balance in your favour is to place a big focus on the multi joint compound movements (squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, rows, dip, lunge, pull ups, weighted carries).
Adding significant poundage to these movements over time will also see you add significant pounds of muscle to your physique, it’s more difficult to add weight to single joint isolation exercises like a bicep curl and will see less muscle built as a result. A good focus should be on building overall mass whilst on a lean bulk and trying to build muscle everywhere, adding 50lbs to a weighted pull up and deadlift will see more muscle mass built (even for biceps) then focusing on concentration curls will.
Use the extra calories to get as strong as you can in the key compound lifts and then do any other exercises you like as accessory and finisher work. You don’t need to remove any exercises you like from your routine however focusing on progressive overload on the compound lifts should be your main priority whilst on a lean bulk.
Keep Doing Cardio
As soon as people start a bulk and are no longer concerned with remaining lean (the focus is now on gaining muscle mass so gaining body fat is an accepted course of action) then cardio is the first this to be dropped from a routine.
For many who’s training is to build muscle instead of of cardiovascular health the main concern of the routine is lifting weights, cardio is a tool that is used to burn fat to show off the progress for the weight training. It is however seen as a chore and the boring part of training for many and is therefore dropped as soon as it is no longer required for aesthetic purposes.
Ectomorphs in particular excel at cardio due to their muscle fibre makeup being a higher proportion of slow twitch oxidative muscle fibres, they also metabolise and burn off calories at a much quicker rate which isn’t ideal when looking to make use of a surplus of calories to build muscle. Ectomorphs therefore tend to be advised against performing cardio when on a bulk in order to use surplus calories to gain weight and muscle mass.
The purpose of a lean bulk however is to build muscle whilst minimizing excessive fat gain, even as an ectomorph/hardgainer this should still be your goal for a lean bulk and cardio is therefore a tool that should still be utilized.
This doesn’t mean that you need to take up energy sapping HIIT sessions however, a simple tactic to keep energy expenditure low whilst still reaping the cardiovascular and metabolic benefits is to set a daily step target between 7,000 and 10,000 steps. 10,000 steps is on the more excessive side so it’s best to monitor your scale weight and make sure your not losing weight. Walking is the easiest way to monitor your energy output in terms of cardio so should therefore be utilized for a lean bulk.
Keep The Calorie Surplus Within 200 – 500 Calories
A common mistake when starting a bulking phase is drastically overestimating how much of a calorie surplus you should be in. The first thing that you should be aware of is your maintenance calorie amount, this is essentially how many calories you need to consume per day just to maintain weight.
For ectomorphs this might already be higher than what you are already consuming, the best way to find this maintenance amount is to use an online calculator to get and estimated reading and then test it.
Consuming that calorie target for a few weeks whilst tracking your daily weight and weekly average should give you a good indicator and any drastic changes in weight should give you a good idea of any adjustments you need to make. Once you have your maintenance calorie target to simply need to start with a surplus of 200 – 500 calories for a lean bulk.
You could take on the extreme mentality and aim to eat as much as you can everyday, I’ve done this before consuming 7,000+ calories and fortunately I had a labour intensive job on top of my gym sessions otherwise my weight would have ballooned with about 95% being fat. This however is a sure way of gaining unwanted body fat that will take longer to lose than it did to put on.
Therefore a cautious approach should be taken first and 200 – 500 calorie surplus is enough to ensure muscle gain whilst minimizing fat gain. Just note that as you gain weight this amount will need to be adjusted upwards to take into account the new maintenance amount.
Track Your Scale Weight Daily
Your weight isn’t the only thing that will determine how successfully you are gaining muscle and the mirror/pictures should be a tool used often to track progress and changes in your physique, plus most scales just don’t give very accurate readings. What taking daily readings (at the same place and fasted first thing in the morning) will do is show accurate changes to daily weight and weekly averages.
Weight changes daily due to a number of reasons, this includes holding water, digestion of food and other hormonal factors, therefore what you really want to be tracking is your weekly average. This will account for daily fluctuations and allow you to see how much weight you are gaining over time.
If you notice that you’ve put on 5lbs over the space of a few weeks then this is almost certainly not muscle mass, muscle gain is unfortunately a slow process and weight gain of a few lbs per month is more realistic for a successful lean bulk. Trusting the process and making smaller gains over time is a more efficient strategy for long term progress and being able to successfully hold the muscle in any diet phase.
Get Enough Sleep And Active Recovery
Sufficient rest/sleep and recovery is one of the most important factors when trying to build a physique, it’s not how well you can kill a workout session that determines progress but rather how well you can recover from the workout. This is one of the most overlooked factors when it comes to building a physique and should therefore be a priority during a lean bulk.
The first thing you need to consider is that your sleeping environment is optimal, we now live in a society where technology means we are subjected to sources of light almost 24/7, however this is not how our biological system has evolved over the years.
We work in circadian rhythms and that means we wake when it’s light and go to sleep when it’s dark, once it gets dark our brains release the hormone melatonin into the body with signals it’s time to prepare for sleep.
Melatonin initiates the feeling of tiredness, muscle relaxation and a reduction in core body temperature to prepare you for sleep, light sources however dampen the release of melatonin due to tv, laptops, phones and artificial light sources.
Therefore your first step should be to ensure that your bedroom is completely dark and void of artificial light, reducing electronic usage or using blue light blocking settings a few hours before you plan to go to sleep is recommended. You also need to make sure your room is at a comfortable room temperature (between 15 – 20 degrees Celsius).
Finally ensure complete silence to avoid disturbed sleeping patterns during the night due to noise, if that isn’t possible then utilize white noise with something like a fan which will provide a constant noise that will prevent unexpected noises waking you during sleep.
The reason all the factors are so important on a lean bulk is because you are going to be lifting heavy weight with reasonable volume in the gym and therefore getting the right sleep is essential for testosterone production to aid muscle growth and also for muscle repair.
Not getting sufficient sleep is stressful for the body which will raise cortisol levels (these counteract testosterone production) which is a hormone that is not beneficial for males looking to build muscle, you want to raise testosterone production whilst keeping cortisol levels low. It will also have a negative effect on muscle and central nervous system recovery meaning your future workouts will be impacted because of this.
Loosely tied in to the above point is active recovery, as you will be putting your body under great levels of stress during your workout you need to find ways to maximize recovery and active recovery is something that can be utilized on a lean bulk.
Active recovery does not mean pushing intense cardio sessions but rather walking as mentioned earlier as a way to get blood flow moving through the body and aid recovery. You can also stretch and use soft tissue massage such as foam rolling to break up and muscle adhesion’s and again get blood flow circulating throughout the muscles.
Keep Your Digestive System Working Optimally
As an ectomorph and even on a lean bulk you are going to find that the calories you need to consume daily to build muscle mass are a lot higher than what you would expect or are even used to. As an average starting point it will be between 3,000 – 4,000 calories for most ectomorphs and this is just the beginning.
If you are not used to consuming this quantity of calories already then you are going to find that after a while you will struggle with normal body issues such as a loss of appetite, feeling bloated, not often enough or too frequent bowel movements and even time constraints to consume the needed amount of calories. It is therefore essential that you treat digestive health as equally important as how you are going to approach your commitment to your diet.
To body is already amazingly well adapted enough to digest food and go about business as normal however when pushing to the extreme I’d advise using the following factors to keep your digestion optimal whilst on a lean bulk.
Consume adequate dietary fiber
The last thing you want to hear on a bulk is that you need to consume more foods however this is going to be the case with leafy green veg and high fiber foods. The number one issue with this is that foods high in fiber (wholegrain, green leafy veg, potato skin) are also very filing which is not what you want on a bulk! It is however a necessary evil as you want to be digesting food optimally and ensuring good gut health, therefore including some leafy green veg or using foods high in fiber as your carb sources are good ways to go about this.
Take advantage of liquid calories
This is my favourite bulking hack and it’s to make high calorie liquid meals that will be easily digestible. It’s very easy to say that you should be getting all your nutrition from wholefoods, which to an extent is true, however it’s just not realistic to believe that your digestive system can keep up with a high quantity of wholefoods day after day. Therefore look to use homemade high calorie protein shakes like the daily muscle building shake I describe here to hit your calorie targets whilst being gut friendly.
Use a digestive enzyme
Whilst your body is already capable of producing the required enzymes to break down food it doesn’t mean a supplement can’t assist the process. Supplements are literally designed for this purpose and if you are an ectomorph on a bulk then you will need all the external help you can get to see results. Therefore taking a digestive enzyme with your largest meals of the day will help digestion and give you that extra 5% help that you need when effectively supplementing your diet.
Overtraining is a word that gets thrown about far to easily in modern health and fitness society, people are terrified of training too hard in case their central nervous system fatigues and that they will see negative progress. The truth is that to be truly overtraining is a very rare occurrence, Christian Thibaudeau, a world renowned strength and body composition coach whose work I read regularly even made an article stating how rare it is for someone to be truly overtraining and he’s pushed Olympic athletes to their limits.
There is however a very real issue in that you can train to hard (intense to be precise) with too much volume and fail to recover from each workout fully. When bulking you will feel a natural increase in strength and energy due to the calorie surplus, this is just the effects of consuming more calories, however people then take this new found energy and apply it to marathon length training sessions. To truly get the most out of your workout you need to be pushing strength increases whilst maintaining a session volume that you can recover from.
If you hit a 15 set session for biceps throwing in drop sets and eccentric loading movements and can barely move your arms the next day then it’s easy to take this as a session well done. If however you are still sore 5 days later and the rest of your workouts have been impacted then you are not recovering effectively from this workout and hurting your progress.
Muscle soreness is one indicator of a worked muscle group however biologically you should be recovering from a workout after 48 hours and therefore you need to be hitting the weights hard but ensuring workout volume allows you to recover within this time frame.
Failure to do so will mean that you are overtraining in a loose sense of the word and whilst it won’t have a negative impact on your progress directly it will mean you are not progressing at the optimal rate which should be the goal of a lean bulk.
If you are looking to make changes to your physique by either losing body fat, building muscle or looking to maintain a lean physique then sign up to my weekly newsletter below. Each week I send out actionable tips to help you lose that extra 1lb of fat or build that extra 0.5lb of muscle mass on a weekly basis.
If you sign up now you’ll also receive my 28 day body recomp program completely Free. This ebook will be sent straight to your inbox and will provide an intense 28 day program aimed at helping you lose up to 8lbs of body fat whilst also building 2lb-4lb of lean muscle mass in just 4 weeks.
Don’t worry if you’re not ready for an intense program just yet, my weekly newsletter will give smaller tips that when implemented daily, will stack up over time and see you transform your body with seemingly minimal effort!
Also check out:
Lean bulking guide