The 3 Best Workout Routines To Build Muscle For An Ectomorph

Building muscle as an ectomorph is always going to be an uphill battle, your main focus should be on eating in a calorie surplus, getting adequate sleep/ recovery (7 – 9 hours good quality sleep) and training to get stronger in the multi joint compound movements. 

To get stronger in the compound movements takes proper programming, especially once you get past the beginner stages or rapid gains in progress. When you first start out it’s easy to see progress in terms of strength and apparent muscular gains because the starting point is so low, this is even true for ectomorphs. 

Once you get to a stage however when you have learnt the mechanics of the basics lifts and can control and flex all muscle groups then it’s time to consider what routine you are going to follow for your program. The most popular and probably most enjoyable routine is a body part split which basically means you dedicate each session to one or two single muscle groups, ie chest day or an arm day. 

I’m personally a big fan of specialized, muscle specific machines and routines, working out is my main hobby and therefore I place a higher importance on enjoyment of my workouts rather than purely focusing on immediate and optimal progress. The reason I make this point is because following a body part split routine will not provide optimal results for an ectomorph.

As an ectomorph your main focus should be on getting stronger, getting the greatest hormonal response from a workout (stimulating the most testosterone and growth hormone production) and training each individual muscle with enough frequency to promote muscle growth. 

Most magazine publications and videos will promote specialized body part routines because these are the best to market to the general public, “specialized arm building routine” and “top 5 killer chest exercises” are a lot easier to promote than a basic full body workout focusing on compound movements. 

I’m not hating on these and incorporate plenty of these specialized routines into my own programming however as an ectomorph you need to look at routines that will utilize multiple muscle groups within a single session. An arm day won’t do much in terms of stimulating testosterone production, especially when compared with a session that comprises of heavy deadlifts and squats, therefore you need to look at a routine that will bring you the most bang for your buck. 

There are 3 tried and true routines that as an ectomorph you should look to at least test out and see how well you respond to them. The reason these 3 routines are so effective is because they use multiple muscle groups each session whilst getting a good amount of frequency on a weekly basis. 

Full Body Routine

This routine is the most prescribed for beginners new to weightlifting and also those that can’t commit to the gym for more than 3 days per week. This was the program that originated from old school strongmen that were short on specialized equipment and therefore workouts revolves around barbells, dumbbells and heavy stones. 

This routine resulted in great physiques being built in the early 1900’s long before anabolic steroids entered the scene and therefore act as a good example of what can be achieved with proper programming and consistency.

A modern day full body routine takes full advantage of scientific knowledge and modern training methods to allow more flexibility in your routine so that you don’t feel like your stuck doing a prehistoric routine. The efficiency of this system can be shown in the popular beginner routine named ‘starting strength’. 

Starting Strength 

is a simple full body barbell only routine that focuses on progressive overload and getting strong in the compound lifts. It’s an incredibly simple routine but results are genuinely guaranteed. You will perform a routine 3 times per week over a two week cycle as follows: 

Workout A

Squat – 2 x warm up sets, 3 x 5 working sets
Press/bench press – 2 x warm up sets, 3 x 5 working sets 
Deadlift – 2 x warm up sets, 1 x 5 working sets

Workout B

Squat – 2 x warm up sets, 3 x 5 working sets 
Press/bench press – 2 x warm up sets, 3 x 5 working sets 
Deadlift – 2 x warm up sets, 1 x 5 working sets

You will perform 3 workouts per week, workout A and B take turns rotating the pressing exercise (popular pressing choice is overhead press), once you can do 3 sets of 5 reps with your weight then you add 5lb – 10lb to it the next workout. This style of progressive overload isn’t sustainable forever as you will eventually hit a plateau, though it will get you to a decent level of strength in a short space of time. 

One issue with programming is hoping to a new one before you’ve maximized the potential of your current program, this example of a full body routine places the focus on compound movements and getting stronger to build muscle and any ectomorph following this program will see results. 

This is a very basic program however and whilst there is the option to add accessory movements you need to be very careful not to overdo it and fail to recover fully in time for your next session. 

A more modern day approach to fully body training takes into account the enormous choice of equipment that we have available to target numerous body parts. 

Whilst still looking to train 3 times per week and hit all muscle groups equally you will rotate compound exercises to place a focus on different key muscle groups each session. 

Modern full body routine 

Workout A

5 minute or 400m row warm up 
Squat – 3 x 5
Reverse barbell lunge – 3 x 10
Barbell row – 3 x 10
Weighted pull-ups – 3 x 8
Incline barbell chest press – 3 x 8
Dumbbell side lateral raise – 3 x 15

Workout B

5 minute or 400m row warm up 
Deadlift – 3 x 5
Single arm dumbbell row – 3 x 12
Barbell bench press – 3 x 8
Incline dumbbell fly – 3 x 15
Dumbbell split squat – 3 x 10
Calf raise – 3 x 20
Rear delt dumbbell fly – 3 x 15
Barbell shrug – 3 x 8

Workout C

Barbell overhead press – 3 x 8
Dumbbell side lateral raise – 3 x 15
Leg press – 4 x 12
Romanian deadlift – 3 x 10
Incline dumbbell press – 3 x 12
Pull-ups – 3 x failure
Barbell curl – 3 x 10
Cable tricep extension – 3 x 12

This example workout places a heavy focus on certain muscle groups each session by placing them at the start of the workout and then uses less demanding exercises later in the workout to still stimulate hypertrophy. 

This isn’t an ultimate guaranteed gains routine but more like an example of how you can structure a full body routine within a week to avoid overtraining the smaller muscle groups. You’ll notice arms for example have limited isolation movements dedicated for them and that’s because of the volume the are already enduring performing the rest of the routine. 

Structuring your routine this was will ensure equal balance for muscles worked and will prove enough frequency to stimulate full body hypertrophy. 

The drawback of this routine is trying to get used to the soreness that will result from full body training for the first few weeks. Only getting a day rest between workout will not be optimal in the start as you likely won’t have the recovery capacity so early on. 

After a few weeks however you will adapt to the demand being placed on your body and will see a noticeable reduction in DOM’s (this isn’t a bad thing, you need to recover from each session to see progress and crippling DOM’s whilst a sign of a good session is not optimal or recommended)

Upper Body and Lower Body Split

The next routine that works effectively for an ectomorph and looking to build muscle is an upper body, lower body split. This split is ideal for those that have a bit more time to dedicate to their training and will be 4 days per week.

A convenient split that you could look to use would be train Monday, Tuesday, rest on Wednesday, train Thursday, Friday and then take Saturday and Sunday as rest days. 

The upper/lower split means one day you will only train upper body and the next will be dedicated to lower body. The reason this is a good routine for ectomorphs is because you can train each muscle group with sufficient volume and frequency at 2 sessions per week but also have sufficient rest between sessions for recovery. 

I am a big believer in placing a great emphasis on recovery from training, especially for a natural litter of ectomorph and feel you should only train as hard as your recovery capabilities will allow. As much as I enjoy training (I have done 2 times per day training routines before when I’ve gone through spells of being addicted to working out) I do also understand the need to recover fully from each session. 

Upper/lower allows you to hit body parts hard with more volume per muscle than a full body routine whilst also still getting sufficient rest.

Example Upper/Lower Training Split

Upper Body Workout A

Barbell bench press – 3 x 8
Weighted dips – 3 x 8
Barbell row – 3 x 8
Weighted pull-ups – 3 x failure
Barbell overhead press – 4 x 12
Dumbbell lateral raise – 3 x 15
Barbell curl – 3 x 8
Dumbbell hammer curl – 3 x 10
Cable tricep pressdown – 3 x 12

Lower Body Workout A

Barbell back squat – 3 x 12
Wide stance leg press – 3 x 15
Romanian deadlift – 3 x 12
Barbell hip thrust – 3 x 8
Barbell reverse lunge 3 x 12
Standing calf raise – 3 x 15
Seated calf raise – 3 x 12

Upper Body Workout B

Rack pulls – 3 x 10
Lat pulldown – 3 x 12
Incline dumbbell press – 3 x 12
Dips – 3 x failure 
Dumbbell shoulder press – 3 x 8
Rear delt dumbbell raise – 3 x 15 
Incline bicep curl – 3 x 12
Dumbbell overhead tricep extension – 3 x 12
Cable rope push downs – 3 x 15

Lower Body Workout B

Lying leg curl – 3 x 15
Barbell front squat – 3 x 10
Hack squat – 3 x 12
Dumbbell split squat – 3 x 8
Leg extensions – 3 x 20
Standing calf raise – 3 x 15
Seated calf raise – 3 x 12

The above is a generic template that shows increased volume (particularly on lower body) however the exercises and rep schemes are just a very basic guide as to how you could structure this routine. 

You’ll be able to go a lot harder on certain muscle groups compared to full body routines but at a loss to overall frequency. 

As an ectomorph I’d lean more towards full body to start and make the most of frequency, if your not already relatively strong then there is no point in reducing the frequency for more volume as the stimulation won’t be great enough to trigger optimal muscle hypertrophy

Push, Pull and Legs Split

A push/pull routine splits the body into pulling muscles (back, hamstrings, bicep, rear delts) and pushing muscles (chest, quads, shoulders, tricep) so that there is some carry over to the muscle groups during the routine.

The carry over works in the sense of secondary muscles used during a movement, the pull-up for example is a back dominant exercise however depending on where you position your hands the biceps and rear deltoids are also utilized. Therefore mechanically it makes sense to group these muscles together in a workout. 

Another example is a barbell incline bench press, the primary muscle being targeted is the upper chest however the anterior deltoid and triceps are also engaged during the movement. 

A popular (and my personal favourite) variation of a push/pull split is push/pull/legs. This is then a three day routine that expands on an upper/lower routine by splitting the upper body over two days based on pushing and pulling muscle groups. 

As an ectomorph, to really take advantage of this split it would be difficult to fit this into a training week and get adequate frequency for all muscle groups. You’d therefore need to look at a three day on, one day off routine and see how well you recover. It might be that you do three days on, one day off, three days on, two days off and then repeat to ensure you are recovering fully. 

Example Push/Pull/Legs Split

Push Workout

Barbell bench press – 3 x 8
Dumbbell incline bench press – 3 x 10
Seated machine (pec dec) fly – 3 x 12
Barbell overhead press – 3 x 8
Dumbbell lateral raise – 3 x 12
Plate front raise – 3 x 12
Skull crusher – 3 x 8
Cable rope pushdown – 3 x 12
Dips – 3 x failure

Pull Workout

Deadlift – 3 x 5
Barbell row – 3 x 8
Lat pulldown – 3 x 12
Dumbbell row – 2 x failure 
Rear delt dumbbell raise – 3 x 20
Barbell shrugs – 3 x 12
EZ preacher curl – 3 x 8
Dumbbell hammer curl – 3 x 10
Cable reverse curl – 3 x 12

Leg Workout

Barbell back squat – 3 x 10
Leg press – 4 x 15
Lying leg curl – 3 x 12
Leg extension – 3 x 15
Walking lunges – 2 x failure 
Standing calf raise – 3 x 15
Seated calf raise – 3 x 12

The exercise examples are similar for a routines above and that’s because the core focus should be on progressively getting stronger in the key compound movements. 

These are leaning a bit more towards a bodybuilding style of training however as an ectomorph you need to pay close attention to overall volume and your ability to recover from workout to workout. 

The reason I’ve listed this as the ‘3 best’ routines for ectomorphs is because they are all capable of building muscle when you stick to the routine, get stronger, eat in a calorie surplus and recover sufficiently.

Your choice will depend on lifestyle, work, free time and a range of other factors that everyone has to deal with when working out. 

What is the best routine for an ectomorph to build muscle if I had to choose one? A push/pull/legs split is probably best for an ectomorph looking to build muscle due to the volume and frequency with which you can train to stimulate muscle hypertrophy

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