The Ultimate Guide to Getting Big as an Ectomorph

Getting big as an ectomorph is a long and challenging journey however that doesn’t mean that you can’t get big as an ectomorph.

Body types are a surprisingly controversial topic, some believe that they are a certain body type and use it as an excuse for their progress (or lack off) which is typical of ectomorphs and endomorphs. Others believe that there’s no such thing as a body type category and that’s it’s a stupid concept to try and group body types when everyone is clearly unique in their physiology.

Regardless of what you believe, the term Ectomorph does describe someone with certain physical characteristics, of which are not ideal when it comes to building muscle. Typical characteristics include long limbs, short muscle insertion/attachment points and a high percentage of slow twitch muscle fibre types. There’s no denying that these are not optimal when it comes to building muscle regardless of how you group them.

I say this through experience, I was 6’1 at 16 years old when I first got a home dumbbell set and the effort required to build noticeable muscle is surprising. It’s only really when I started to apply the basic principles outlined in this article that I really started to see any real progress. 

Ectomorph Body Transformation

It’s not a quick process (^^ 7-8 years progress) and you are basically building from scratch but there are processes that you can implement that drastically speed up this process and the results will surprise you.

If you have any of the above characteristics then this article is aimed at you whether you want to be classified as an Ectomorph or not. I’m going to cover everything you need to know to build muscle and get big as an Ectomorph despite your apparent physical limitations.

Diet

Your diet is the first thing that needs to be modified when looking to build muscle. It’s a common theme to hear ectomorphs claim that they eat everything but can’t seem to put in weight when in reality they don’t track their calories and have no idea what they need to consume to gain weight. 

It does sound obvious but it’s only obvious once you realise that the human body works in a certain way when it comes to calories in and calories out, all this depends on your energy expenditure and more importantly your maintenance calorie requirements. 

Determine Your Maintenance Macros 

The human body really likes to stay in a state of homeostasis (chemically and biologically balanced), it likes to maintain a set core body temperature, a consistent pulse/heartbeat and more importantly for the purpose of this article a consistent body weight for survival purposes. 

The more muscle you have the greater the demand in terms of energy expenditure and requirements needed to sustain more size so you need to force your body to change. It will be very difficult to do this if you don’t know what your baseline calorie intake should be just to maintain your current body weight, this is known as your maintenance calorie requirements. 

There are a few equations to work this out however everyone has a different biological makeup and entirely different lifestyles so none of these are 100% accurate, there are however a number of online calculators that will do a decent estimate from which you can use as a starting point and adjust where necessary. 

You can also use the following equation (I will use myself as an example to demonstrate).

First you need to calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR). This is the amount of energy required by the body to sustain everyday functions when at rest, this includes breathing, regulating body temperature, blood circulation and brain/vital organ functions. To calculate this you need to take your weight in kilograms and times it by 15 (some vary it between 15 – 18 but 15 is the most conservative figure) and then add 700. This will give the following formula:

BMR = (15 x weight in kg) + 700

My BMR would therefore be: (15 x 82) + 700 = 1,930

This figure is one part of working out your maintenance calorie requirements, the other part is factoring in your activity level.

The formula for maintenance calories is BMR x Activity Level. You need to be very honest with yourself for this selection, if you work a desk job and live a very sedentary lifestyle then you need to accept this as your starting point. 

My maintenance calorie requirement is the following – 1930 (BMR) x 1.55 (activity level) = 2,992kcal

Therefore just to maintain weight I need to be consuming roughly 2,992kcal per day. Without even taking into account any muscle building requirements this is already a very high calorie requirement for a lot of people. 

If you are struggling to put on size then this will be your starting point, it’s very easy to say you are consuming every calorie under the sun and can’t possibly consume more calories on a daily basis but the actuality is that you are probably massively underestimating just how many calories you currently consume in relation to what you maintenance requirements are. 

The next step is to then get a good starting point in terms of your macronutrient breakdown. Rather than going into detail about why this is a good macronutrient split just use the following as a starting point, you can always adjust these numbers depending on personal factors. 

Protein – 1 gram per pound of body weight
Fat – 0.45 grams per pound of body weight
Carbohydrates – make up from whatever calories you have remaining after calculating protein and fat

To illustrate, I’ll use myself as an example again, I’m currently 182lbs (82kg), 6’1 and have maintenance calories at 2,992.

Protein – 1g per 1lb BW = 182g (728kcal)
Fat – 0.45g per 1lb BW = 81.9g (737kcal)
Carbs – To work out remaining calories for carbs you will need to do the following sums.

  • 728kcal + 737kcal = 1,465kcl (protein and fat). 
  • To make my calorie target of 2,992 I will do 2,992kcal – 1,465kcal (protein and fat) = 1,527kcal carbs. 
  • 1g carbs is equal to 4 calories so to get my carb amount in grams I do 1,527 / 4 = 382g carbs.

Macro Split

  • 182g protein
  • 82g fat
  • 382g carbohydrates

For a brief overview, this protein target will more than cover the muscle repair and building process that will come from following a weight lifting program. The fat target will cover your hormonal requirements (this one is vital for muscle growth and is overlooked). Lastly the carb target will fuel your training sessions, heavy lifting will drain your glucose stores (energy system for muscular contractions) so when looking to build muscle you need to keep these constantly replenished. Carbs will also trigger an insulin response which is vital for muscle hypertrophy but again this is just something to be aware of, to cover the actual science behind it is a long article by itself!

Eat In a Calorie Surplus 

So now that you have your maintenance calorie requirements the next step you need to get in place is working out your calorie surplus and this is where ectomorphs or ‘hardgainers’ tend to fall down in estimations. As demonstrated above my maintenance calories are already higher than the average recommended daily amount for males so I need to eat more than the average male just to maintain weight. 

It’s very easy to say “I’m always eating and couldn’t possibly eat anymore” but until you look at what you currently consume compared to what you need to consume then it’s just an empty statement and more often than not an excuse. 

This is not to say you should go and binge eat aimlessly just to guarantee a calorie surplus, what you should do is work out your maintenance calorie requirements, add 300kcals to this and then track your weight. It’s honestly that simple, the tricky part is the follow through. 

We now live in a world where we have access to MyFitnessPal and other macro tracking apps/technology meaning it’s easier than ever to stay accountable and track your own progress. It’s worth tracking what you’d regularly eat first and then comparing it with your maintenance and surplus requirements as a starting point. 

To adjust the macros you’d use the recommendations that I listed above, using myself as an example again I’d consume the following when bulking up on a calorie surplus:

With maintenance calories at 2,992 I’d start of by setting my new calorie requirements at 3,292kcal.

Protein – 1g per 1lb BW = 182g (728kcal), this is based on weight so will stay the same.
Fat – 0.45g per 1lb BW = 81.9g (737kcal), this is based on weight so will stay the same.
Carbs – To work out remaining calories for carbs you will need to do the following sums.

  • 728kcal + 737kcal = 1,465kcl (protein and fat). 
  • To make my calorie target of 3,292 I will do 3,292kcal – 1,465kcal (protein and fat) = 1,827kcal carbs. 
  • 1g carbs is equal to 4 calories so to get my carb amount in grams I do 1,827 / 4 = 457g carbs.

Macro Split

  • 182g protein
  • 82g fat
  • 457g carbohydrates

Once you’ve got this initial starting point track your scale weight daily, take a weekly average and adjust calories upwards if you see a lack of progress over time.

*** Note – the muscle building process takes time, if you can 5lbs a week then the majority of which will be fat. Aim for 1-2lbs a month to take the slow, sustainable and more importantly optimal rate of growth.

Stay in a Positive Protein Balance

This final point regarding your diet is not crucial and is difficult to action or track but also it’s possibly the single most important thing you could do to grow muscle and that is to stay in a positive protein balance. 

Your body likes to stay in a state of homeostasis and constantly goes through daily cycles to maintain balance and many are based on survival mechanisms. This can be controlling core body temperature, controlling blood flow and for the purpose of this article controlling protein balance through protein synthesis or protein breakdown.

Protein synthesis is the muscle building state that you want to be in more frequently whilst protein breakdown is a catabolic state that you want to minimise. Training is something that triggers both as and example, whilst training you will go through protein breakdown as your muscles contract against the load however this will then trigger protein synthesis afterwards for recovery. 

Protein synthesis can be switched on for a number of days however as you become more trained and recover better from training it becomes more difficult to keep this switch on for long periods and will eventually be 24 – 48 hours after training the muscle group. Training full body everyday would be optimal however we wouldn’t be able to physically recover from this which is why a balance is needed. 

The best way to ensure a positive protein balance is to ensure protein is readily available in the body at most times and this is of course done by hitting your minimum protein requirements. When you first start training the new stimulus will keep protein synthesis switched on for longer which is why you see such a quick progression curve for people new to the gym however once you pass 6 months – 1 year this will slow down and you need to ensure that protein is readily available to be utilised. 

Training 

Training is the part of the muscle building process that ectomorphs tend to focus the most on but will often see a marginal improvement when it comes to progress. This is often because the focus is on advanced techniques, shocking the muscle and program hopping when the focus should instead be on the systems required to build muscle. 

To illustrate this point from a different perspective take photography as an example (this is a subject I know nothing about), you could have a top model camera, the most expensive photo editing software and every accessory needed to take a picture in any situation but if you don’t understand the fundamentals of photography and where to position the subject or what lighting would be most beneficial then you’ll never get a good picture.

Now to go back to training you could be doing triple drop sets to fatigue the slow twitch muscle fibres, have a giant set programmed for cell swelling and even incorporate occlusion training but if you’re not basing this around the fundamentals of training then it’s mostly wasted. 

The following principles are what you should be focusing your training program around, they are simple to implement but will create immediate changes to your physique in as little as 1-3 months. 

Create Mechanical Tension

A muscle needs a stimulus created by a load in order to stimulate growth. This is the most basic yet most important principle to consider, the working muscle needs to be placed under a load. Once this happens you will create what is known as mechanical tension (the force required to shorten a muscle group to lift the load). This is the most important thing to focus on when it comes to building muscle however the focus is often misplaced on metabolic stress. 

Metabolic stress is basically the pump work and building up lactic acid in the muscle. People chase the pump but as an Ectomorph this will have a much lesser impact on your physique which is why I said earlier the focus shouldn’t be on advanced techniques. 

Coming back to mechanical tension then, your sole focus of the lift should be to ensure the target muscle is for the most part the only muscle group under tension for the duration of an exercise. If you do a chest press for example but don’t actually feel the chest working during a set then chances are something else like the triceps or front deltoids are doing the majority of the work (or worse the surrounding ligaments and tendons). 

As simple as it sounds in theory it’s very easy to just go through an exercise without even noticing the process, especially if your just focused on moving a heavy weight from point A to point B. You therefore need to reassess the weights you currently use for each exercise, keep your ego out of it and lift the weight that allows you to keep tension on the working muscle for the entirety of a set. 

This is the first step to building a physique and is incredibly important for those that have adopted the mentality of just lifting heavy weight. This of course is also needed for getting bigger as an Ectomorph and I’ll come on to this shortly but for now you just need to make sure you can feel the target muscle working for the duration of the set.

Focus on Progressive Overload

Once you are comfortable creating mechanical tension you now need to focus on progressive overload. Progressive overload is the process of putting your muscles under more stimulus than they are previously used to in order to force adaptation and growth. 

You’ve probably seen the quote:

“Train the same, remain the same”

This is a broad term to say if you do what you’ve always done when it comes to training then your body will have no reason to adapt and grow muscle as the stimulus created will not warrant it. This is therefore where ectomorphs tend to go wrong in their training, they mix up routines to shock the muscle group but they usually just change exercises and techniques without actually progressing in terms of weight lifted or number of reps. 

To truly build muscle and get big as an Ectomorph you need to get significantly stronger over time, it’s absolutely essential. The reason that training for a pump works so well for people that recommend it is because they are likely a professional bodybuilder on some form of performance enhancing drug. That’s not a negative comment, it’s just simply a fact that a performance enhancing drug will enhance the results you get from using these techniques, it’s pretty much recommended. Pump work still has a place in your routine but shouldn’t be the foundation of it. 

You therefore need to pick a few compound movements per body part that you like and get seriously strong in them over time. The reason I say pick ones you like is because you need to stick to them for the long run and really commit to getting strong with them. Just because people recommend the bench press doesn’t mean it has to work for you, an incline dumbbell press is likely a better chest builder if you have long limbs. 

Recruit as Many Muscle Fibres as Possible 

The reason some people are genetically gifted when it comes to building muscle is because of their ability to maximally recruit muscle fibres very quickly. The prime example of this is in sprinters, they have a higher proportion of fast twitch muscle fibres which are key to muscle hypertrophy and they can recruit them almost instantly. This means that not only are they explosive and strong but they are also some jacked individuals!

Ectomorphs tend to have a higher percentage of slow twitch fibres which are more difficult to fatigue through training and don’t offer as much of a growth response as the highly receptive fast twitch fibres. This doesn’t mean that you lack fast twitch fibres, it just means you’ll need to work harder to recruit them. 

The goal of your workouts should therefore to be recruiting as many fast twitch muscle fibres as possible. The way to do this is by focusing on multi joint compound movements. These are your big lifts that will offer the most bang for your buck and include deadlifts, squats, bench press, barbell row, loaded carries, weighted pull-ups and weighted dips. 

These exercises require multiple muscle groups to be active and therefore recruit a greater number of muscle fibres. Take the dip for example, the triceps are a secondary muscle group in this exercise however due to the weight potential of the exercise (200lbs and over) you’ll recruit more fast twitch muscle fibres than if your primary tricep exercise was a 50lb cable pushdown. 

Isolation exercises will still be useful for your training but try to make 75% of your routine about maximally recruiting muscle fibres, the remaining 25% can be isolation movements that also target and fatigue the slow twitch fibres.

*** Tip – the fast twitch muscle fibres respond best to explosive movements, therefore the concentric portion of your lift should be heavily focused on moving the weight as fast (explosively) as you possibly can whilst maintaining control of the weight.

Focus on Frequency Over Volume 

The final consideration for ectomorphs looking to get big should be that for a single workout less is more whereas the frequency of workout means that more is actually more. 

What I mean by this is frequency is king when it comes to building muscle as an Ectomorph. Many programs will emphasise volume as a key to muscle growth however this is not as beneficial when you’re a natural ectomorph. The more volume you do in a workout the harder it will be to recover from, the more cortisol you will accumulate (a hormone that negatively impacts muscle growth) and the less time each muscle group will spend in a stare of protein synthesis.

For maximum muscle growth potential a frequency of 3 x per week per muscle group will be optimal in terms of triggering protein synthesis, if you follow a bro split (one body part per session, eg having an arm day) then you will only be training a muscle group once a week. It takes 48 hours for a semi-trained individual to recover from weight training and this is also roughly the time frame that protein synthesis will be switched off for that muscle group. 

This is primarily the reason that females can make quick progress with their training, I am generalising quite a bit but if Instagram is anything to go off then females will train legs and glutes a minimum of 3 x per week and often see quick progress as a result. 

It’s not a coincidence, frequency simply offers greater potential growth. This is also evident in well known beginner strength programs like starting strength and stronglifts 5×5. These programs have you do the key compound movement 3 x per week and a small amount of accessory work and the result is often a significant growth response. 

The real difficulty with this approach is limiting the number of sets you give a muscle group each session. When done correctly using a combination of proper mechanical tension and progressive overload you should be able to stimulate a muscle group with 3-6 sets max. The more sets you do the longer it will take to recover making this frequency approach pointless. 

Your focus should be to stimulate the muscle group and then get out of there, eat and recover and you’ll soon see the benefits. You are a bit limited by your routine splits with this approach so it’s best to look at a push/pull or upper/lower split. 

I cover both of these in this optimal training split article

Recovery 

Recovery is arguably more important than training when it comes to building muscle, especially for an Ectomorph however there are simply less areas to go wrong and fewer strategies to implement which is why I covered training first.

Get Sufficient Sleep 

The first, and most important thing that you need to be focusing on in terms of recovery is getting enough sleep to facilitate muscle growth. Training will cause the initial trigger for muscle growth however rest (and sleep in particular) is where the growth actually occurs. 

There are hormonal trigger points through the day that will result in muscle growth such as insulin however your body will recover and repair when at rest. Professional bodybuilders training twice per day will often take midday naps in between workouts due to the importance of rest and recovery and should not be overlooked by those with no intention of competing in the sport either.

Take Deload Periods 

Much like the need to ensure that you get adequate rest on a daily basis you also need to schedule in regular breaks from training in the form of a deload week. This is entirely dependent on the individual but our central nervous system (CNS) is not designed to operate at full capacity 365 days of the year as far as training is concerned. 

To much exertion and not enough rest leads to burnout and can even have negative impacts on your physique. It’s therefore best to schedule in a week where you take a step back from training and allow yourself to fully recover. This is very much a case of 1 step back for 2 steps forward. 

It’s best if you can take the full week off from training but if you can’t take that long away from the gym the next best alternative is a deload in terms of intensity in the gym. This option is more difficult to implement because it takes a degree of willpower but you’ll basically do your normal routine at a maximum of 50% if your normal load. 

If you start Mondays with 3 x 8 sets of squats at 120kg then you’ll do the same exercise but instead 3 x 8 sets with 60kg max. This is needed to allow your CNS to recover will still get blood flowing through your muscles. After this week off you should notice a significant increase in both energy levels and more than likely see quicker progression in the gym as a result.

It’s advisable to take a deload week after every 6-8 weeks of intensive training, if you’re following an advanced program however then this might even need to be as often as every 4th week. This seems way to frequent but don’t take for granted the need to recover from your workouts, you grow at times of rest and not during training.

Supplements 

This final section is the least important when it comes to getting big and building muscle as an Ectomorph yet it’s something that most tend to prioritise. Supplement companies and target marketing are partly at fault for this because it’s easier to market something as essential when you’ll receive money in return for someone buying your products. 

The following are by no means essential but they will provide benefit during this growing phase. 

Whey Protein Powder

Whey protein powder is top of the list for a number of reasons. The first is the importance of hitting your daily protein requirements as discussed earlier. A standard 25g scoop provides 20g worth of protein on average and whilst the majority of your requirements should be coming from whole foods in your diet one or two scoops a day in a shake will only help you hit that target consistently.

The second reason is because of the versatility and ease of consuming it at any time. A shake can be consumed at any time, especially times on a commute or during work when access to food is limited. It’s also ideal around a workout when your body needs the nutrients and whey is readily and easily absorbed. 

Finally it’s cheap, a scoop on average will cost around 30p depending on the brand and gram for gram fewer protein sources can come in that cheap, if any!

Creatine 

Creatine is the most scientifically studied supplements on the commercial market and is one of the few supplements that can be proven to have any benefit to your training. 

Creatine is a compound that produces ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the energy source of the cells to create muscular contractions. Whilst that sounds impressive it’s certainly not the case that if you take a load of creatine you will suddenly have unlimited energy. The body already creates creatine and you get it from your diet (particularly red meat) however it is unable to produce the optimal amount. 

Roughly 3g of supplemental creatine will ensure that your creatine stores are optimal each day which is of course a key benefit when you are looking to lift heavy weights and build muscle. It’s also one of the cheapest supplements you can buy so even if you don’t believe in it you won’t be breaking the bank by using it.

ZMA

This is a personal favourite though not one specifically for ectomorphs. ZMA is a mineral supplement made up of zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6. Zinc and magnesium play and important role in terms of hormone balance and muscle growth by helping to regulate testosterone levels.

Studies show that athletes (and trained individuals) are deficient in both zinc and magnesium as a result of losing it through sweat which is of course a common occurrence with training. There’s a significant correlation between testosterone and muscle growth so have deficiencies in these minerals will really have a knock on effect on your physique. 

The additional benefit, whilst purely anecdotal and having no real scientific evidence to back it up is the fact that supplementing ZMA before bed helps to get a deeper more restful sleep. This obviously ties in with the need to ensure your sleep is optimal and whilst I can’t explain why it improves sleep I can vouch for definitely feeling the effects when I’ve used it.

I know I’ve only given a brief overview of these supplements but the fact is there is a tonne of information available if you wanted to look into them, I’d only be regurgitating something that’s been said countless times.

My recommendation would be to try all three and see how they impact your training and recovery, they are not magic formulas but certainly do the job when looking to get big as an Ectomorph.

What Next

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