The main drawback when it comes to being classified as an ectomorph is how incredibly difficult it can be to build muscle, especially as a beginner.
When you are young, having a fast metabolism and high level of endurance is great but once you get older and want to start adding muscle to your frame for performance or visual reasons then it can become a very frustrating experience.
There is a lot of information out there for ectomorphs to build muscle however if you look in the wrong places then you will likely come across the terms “eat big to get big” or “if you think you’ve eaten enough, eat some more”.
This mentality focuses on the force feeding principle which is if you eat as much as you can until you can’t possibly eat anymore and repeat this daily then you will gain size and muscle.
Theoretically this does work and you can’t really knock this approach as it’s what some people need to hear, the issue however, is that this is an archaic approach and you can build muscle much easier as an ectomorph by following a few basic strategies.
How to build muscle as an ectomorph? To build muscle as an ectomorph you need to consume a calorie surplus, train heavy compound movements with a focus on progressive overload over time and finally ensure you get enough rest to recover and grow. These are the strategies anyone can use to build muscle but an ectomorph must follow them precisely.
How to Build Muscle as an Ectomorph
I’ve just listed 3 crucial components for building muscle that an ectomorph must follow. If you think you are doing these already but don’t track your macros or sleep then it’s more likely that you are not doing the basics.
The following are 7 tactics/strategies that you can employ to start building muscle immediately as an ectomorph. You don’t need to do them all at once so start slow and gradually add each into your routine over a few weeks.
If you follow these then there is no denying that you will start to pack on pounds of muscle in the subsequent months to come.
1. Consume a Calorie Surplus
By far the biggest detriment to most ectomorphs struggling to build muscle is that you are simply not consuming a calorie surplus each day. You might think you are constantly eating and must be in a calorie surplus however this is not based on any sort of foundation.
For starters if you don’t know what your maintenance calorie requirements (the quantity of calories you need to consume on a daily basis just to maintain weight) are then how can you possibly know what is required to be in a surplus?
The answer is of course that you can’t know and therefore you could be massively overestimating the amount of calories that you consume on a daily basis. As an ectomorph with a fast metabolism and more than likely too much time spent working out you are probably not in a calorie surplus.
To workout your maintenance calorie requirements I recommend that you check out my dedicated bulking for beginners guide here. This will give you the baseline knowledge needed to work out your calorie requirements each day.
Once you have this worked out then you simply 300kcals on top of this figure. This will be your daily surplus however it’s not as simple as picking a number and just assuming that it will work. This is to be used as a baseline from which you monitor and adjust over time.
If it’s been a few weeks and you haven’t gained any weight then you should simply increase the surplus by a further 100kcal-200kcals. This will ensure that you get into the habit of monitoring your progress and making necessary adjustments over time.
This is a crucial aspect when it comes to building a physique and it’s why you shouldn’t fall into the trap of assuming you already eat enough!
2. Make Compound Movements a Training Staple in Your Routine
The next biggest issue that prevents ectomorphs building muscle is majoring in the minors. What i mean by this is too much time spent doing bicep curls and other low impact isolation exercises and not enough time spent training heavy in the multi joint, compound movements.
Compound movements like the squat, deadlift, overhead press, bench press and row require multiple muscle groups to be active in order to complete the movement. The more muscle groups involved in a movement the more motor units are recruited and the greater the hormonal response.
A heavy deadlift will fatigue more muscle fibres and release more testosterone and growth hormone than a bicep curl ever will and this is where many ectomorphs fall down in their training.
There’s too much time spent reading the latest arm specialization program and advanced techniques like occlusion training and triple drop sets to fully fatigue your muscle fibres and increase lactic acid buildup but not enough time spent underneath the bar lifting heavy weights.
As an ectomorph your hormonal response to training is just as important as the training itself. You need to be putting yourself into a muscle building state and the best way to do this is to focus on heavy compound movements.
A heavy dip with bodyweight plus and additional 100lbs will do more for your tricep development then a 25lb overhead dumbbell extension ever will. Whilst you won’t be able to do the 100lb dip starting out it’s something you should work towards which leads nicely onto the next strategy.
3. Train With Progressive Overload in Mind
If you are not logging your lifts and training with the intention of getting stronger each and every workout then you are leaving missing out on a significant amount of muscle building progress!
The human body is constantly striving to be in a state of homeostasis which basically means balance. This is true at a cellular and chemical level but also in terms of your level of muscle mass.
The more muscle mass you have the more energy you require each day to function, this is not ideal as far as the human body is concerned though. The human body likes to operate for survival which is why it is both difficult to get extremely lean or to build a large amount of muscle mass.
We are not meant to operate at the extreme end of the scale and this is why you need to give your body a reason to grow and adapt. When you first start training the new stimulus or lifting weights will be enough to see some early adaptations in terms of muscle growth.
What you did to build your first pound or two of muscle is unfortunately not the same as what is required to build your next few pounds of muscle. In order to progress your physique you need to progress in terms of weight lifted as well.
It’s not all about lifting more weight, you can add more sets, more reps or reduce the rest period in order to introduce a new stimulus for the body to adapt to but the important thing is that you do need to force the body to adapt.
Getting progressively stronger over time is a proven method for this, constantly beating the log book is the best training method you can follow and it’s even more important that you focus this on the compound exercises.
These have the most room to improve your strength as they require multiple muscle groups to be active. Therefore forget about any training fads guaranteeing you bigger arms in 28 days and instead pick some compound exercises and focus on getting incredibly strong with them.
If you do this then muscle mass will surely follow.
4. Prioritize Rest and Recovery
Weight lifting and resistance training will only act to stimulate the muscle and kickstart the muscle building process by activating protein synthesis. It’s only during rest that your body actually builds muscle.
This is where many, not just ectomorphs, fall down in their quest to build more muscle. You’ll often find people going hard in the gym and beating their body down with endless sets and exercises but equally don’t go hard in their rest and recovery.
Consuming a calorie surplus is a big contributor to recovery but so too is actually getting enough sleep every night in order to fully recover.
Adequate rest is what keeps our hormonal balance in check and optimized, poor sleep has a knock on effect to hormone production and ultimately muscle growth which is a part of this chain of events.
A workout should only be used to stimulate a muscle group and cause the muscle fibre damage that you will then repair and grow during rest. If you are not getting enough rest then you are not able to recover from session to session and will struggle to see any sort of progress with your physique.
6-8 hours sleep each night should be an absolute priority for you, more important than actually doing your workout. To supplement this you should also add in some stretching and soft tissue work like foam rolling to break up adhesions in the muscle and increase blood flow in order to further support muscle growth.
5. Reduce Your Cardio
Another thing that can have a negative impact on your ability to build muscle is too much cardio. Ectomorphs are particularly guilty of this because cardio is something many excel at due to the high slow twitch muscle fibre makeup meaning we (yes, I too identify as a lifelong ecto!) are better suited to endurance based exercises.
I personally used to do anywhere from 20 minutes to 1 hour of cardio as a warmup when I first started going to the gym and you can believe that impacted my weight lifting progress even if I didn’t realise it at the time.
Increasing your energy expenditure through cardio will not only fatigue your muscle fibres and impact on your weight lifting training but it will also increase your energy expenditure greatly. As we’ve already covered you need to be in a calorie surplus to build muscle and increasing your energy expenditure will increase your maintenance requirements.
The more cardio you do the more calories you will need to consume in order to get into a surplus which is not ideal for an ectomorph who will already need to consume a relatively high amount of calories on a daily basis!
Therefore you should look to keep cardio to an absolute minimum and employ some lower impact forms of cardiovascular exercise like a daily step target. This will still increase your energy expenditure but will have minimal impact on muscle fatigue.
6. Consume Nutrient Dense Foods
Whilst hitting your calorie surplus target should be your number one priority another key component should be hitting this surplus whilst consuming nutrient dense foods to promote muscle growth.
You could hit a few thousand calories each day just by consuming sugar filled snacks but this will do nothing beneficial for you in terms of your physique.
Therefore you want to ensure that the calories you are consuming are from nutrient dense sources meaning they have a good macronutrient and micronutrient makeup.
A good starting point is therefore your protein sources and daily intake. Protein is the building block of your muscles and you need a sufficient amount in order to facilitate muscle growth. A good rule of thumb is to consume 1g of protein per 1lb of body weight.
Therefore a 160lb ectomorph will want to consume a minimum of 160g of protein daily. This is very difficult to do if you select foods that have a low nutrient density so you should instead look to consume the bulk of your protein from red meats, poultry, fish, nuts and dairy.
It’s even been shown (source) that a high protein diet consumed alongside heavy resistance training can promote more muscle growth.
Fats and carbs are also essential when building muscle and providing energy for intense workouts. Fats help to regulate your hormones and carbs are broken down into glycogen which is the muscles primary source of fuel.
Therefore you want to get roughly 0.25g fat per 1lb of body weight each day, primarily from sources like nuts, avocados, coconut and olive oil, red meats and eggs.
For carbs you simply make up the remaining amount of your daily calories after taking into account protein and fat requirements. You want a good mix of slow and fast digesting carbs based around when you workout so choose sources like potatoes, rice, oats, honey, fruit and veg.
7. Utilize High Calorie Shakes
Finally, this strategy is a bit of a dieting hack but if you are struggling to build muscle as an ectomorph and don’t want to force feed, then you can make use of high calorie shakes.
Shakes are a great way to increase your daily calorie intake without having a significant impact on your overall appetite. If you struggle to bulk up and have a low appetite then I’ve got a list of tips you can implement with a low appetite here
Controlling your appetite is key when bulking up and consuming a calorie surplus but it’s important to note that these shakes are meant to be used to supplement your wholefood meals.
Many try to use shakes in place of a wholefood meal and go down the route of chugging down mass gainer shakes all day only to put on a significant amount of body fat and find that they are not building much muscle in the process.
This comes back to my previous point of consuming nutrient dense foods and having a good macronutrient split. Mass gainers are mostly made up of sugars and have a poor nutrient density so you need to make sure you are focusing on all three macronutrient groups and not getting sucked in to marketing ploys.
A homemade, high calorie shake on the other hand is perfect to supplement your meals and training as you can manipulate the macros to suit your requirements. Using some wholefood sources you can make a shake in excess of 1,000kcals and still have a great macro makeup.
Make use of foods like mixed berries, bananas, nut butters, honey, milk (regular or almond), whey protein and a range of other ingredients. This will be light on your stomach but heavy on the calories which is a great combination for any ectomorph looking to build muscle.
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