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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. It’s difficult to eat the required calories to bulk when you seemingly burn off the calories as quickly as you consume them!
While it can be incredibly frustrating when you are trying to build muscle but can’t gain weight, There are some strategies that you might be missing. Read on and I’ll show you how to bulk as an ectomorph to start building lean muscle mass without gaining excess body fat in the process.
Table of Contents
How to Bulk as an Ectomorph
A lean bulk is arguably the optimal method for building muscle. This 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 there are some general rules you should follow for a successful ectomorph lean bulking plan.
1. 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 an 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 favor is to place a big focus on the multi-joint compound movements. These movements include:
- Bench Press
- Overhead Press
- Weighted Dip
- 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 pullup and deadlift will see more muscle mass built (even for biceps) than 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 that you like from your routine, however, focusing on progressive overload on the compound lifts should be your main priority whilst on a lean bulk.
2. 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 and as a result, cardio is the first thing to be dropped from a routine.
For many people, the focus of training is to build muscle instead of cardiovascular health the main concern of the routine is lifting weights. Cardio is thought of as a tool that is used to burn fat to show off the progress of this 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 fiber makeup, which is a higher proportion of slow-twitch oxidative muscle fibers. These 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 bulking 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 are on the more excessive side so it’s best to monitor your scale weight and make sure you’re 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.
3. Maintain a Low-Calorie Surplus
A common mistake when starting a bulking phase is drastically overestimating how much of a calorie surplus you should be in. Ectomorphs in particular will follow the mantra of:
“Eat big to get big”
The first thing that you should be aware of before setting a calorie target though is your maintenance calorie requirement. This is essentially how many calories you need to consume per day just to maintain weight.
For ectomorphs, this requirement alone 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 an estimated daily intake for maintenance.
Consuming that calorie target for a few weeks whilst tracking your daily weight and weekly average should give you a good indicator of what your maintenance requirement should be. If you consume 2,000 calories per day but lose weight, you know you need to increase it.
Once you’ve found the calories required to maintain weight, you just need to have a surplus of 200kcal – 500kcal in order to facilitate muscle growth.
Far too many ectomorphs get carried away with their surplus and end up gaining significantly more body fat than they need to. The upper limit of 500kcal will be enough that even the most stubborn of hardgainer should be able to move their scale weight.
4. Track Your Scale Weight Daily
Your weight isn’t the only thing that will determine how successfully you are gaining muscle when bulking.
A mirror and pictures should be a tool used often to track progress and changes in your physique. In addition to this, most scales just don’t give very accurate readings.
What taking daily readings of your scale weight (at the same place and fasted first thing in the morning) will do is show accurate changes to daily weight and weekly averages.
Your weight changes daily due to a number of reasons, this includes water retention, 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 this muscle during any dieting phase.
5. Get Enough Sleep And Active Recovery
Sufficient rest/sleep and recovery are one of the most important factors when trying to build a physique.
It’s not how well you can hit 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 bulk for ectomorphs.
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.
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 from waking you during sleep.
The reason all the factors are so important when bulking is becuase you are going to be lifting heavy weight with reasonable volume in the gym. 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.
6. 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.
Related – How to bulk with a low appetite
It is therefore essential that you treat digestive health as equally important as how you are going to approach your commitment to your diet.
The human body is already amazingly well adapted enough to digest food and go about business as normal however when pushing this to the extreme (like when bulking), 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 filling 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. 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 favorite 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 whole foods, 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 or mass gainers to up your calories without filling up your stomach too much.
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.
You can check out a good digestive enzyme for bodybuilding here
7. Avoid Overtraining
Overtraining is a word that gets used far too frequently.
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. World-renowned strength coach Christian Thibadeau even made an article stating how rare it is for someone to be truly overtrained and he’s pushed Olympic athletes to their limits!
There is however a very real issue in that you can train too 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 effect of consuming more calories. This does however mean that people then take this newfound 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.
Related – Importance of tracking workouts
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 session as a “success”.
If however you are still sore five days later and the rest of your workouts have been impacted then you are not recovering effectively from this workout and limiting your progress.
Muscle soreness is one indicator of a trained muscle group but biologically you should still be recovering from a workout after 48 hours. You need to be hitting the weights hard but ensuring workout volume allows you to recover within this timeframe.
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 an ectomorph bulking phase.
Bulking as an ectomorph isn’t easy. Calories need to be high, training needs to be intense, and recovery needs to be as equally intense (meaning get to bed early).
To successfully bulk as an ectomorph, you need to consume a calorie surplus of at least 200 calories, but no higher than 500 calories. You also need to follow a weight training program training 3-5 days per week with a focus on progressive overload and a focus on heavy compound exercises.
While a dirty bulk approach is favored, ectomorphs should take advantage of their faster metabolism and opt to lean bulk. You’ll utilize calories more efficiently for muscle growth and will store excess carbs as muscle glycogen instead of body fat.
Just note that the process for lean bulking as an ectomorph is slow. In your first year training, you should only expect to gain 25lbs of lean muscle mass at the higher end, with 15lbs – 20lbs being an average.
For more tips on bulking as an ectomorph, check out our dedicated guide on how long you should bulk for as an ectomorph.