How Should Skinny People Exercise?

Surprise! Skinny people can be unhappy with their bodies, too. Get-Fit Guy asked a bones-to-bulk expert to share some quick tips to help even the skinniest ectomorph build some muscle.

Brock Armstrong
6-minute read
Episode #529
The Quick And Dirty
  • Being underweight can be just as mentally challenging as being overweight.
  • Lifting weights is going to help but eating well is also a key to putting on healthy weight.
  • Bulking up takes times just like losing weight does.
  • Don't get caught up trying to find the perfect workout—start where you are.

A while ago, a listener named Luis wrote in and asked:

I have thin legs and thin arms and a flat chest. What I do have is a pretty big belly. What is the fastest way to gain muscle?

To start with, in the fitness industry, Luis would be termed an “ectomorph” body type, meaning he's naturally thin. He is also what we would call a “hard gainer,” meaning his body type has difficulty putting on muscle.

Both men and women can fall into this category, and when they’re out of shape, it’s fairly common for extra fat to gather around the mid-section, which causes the look Luis mentioned. 

How to bulk up

To help with this question, I reached out to coach Bryan Parady who specializes in what he calls “bones to bulk” training. He told me a bit about his origin story.

Photo fo Bryan Parady"Way before I started Bones to Bulk, I used to be a super skinny guy." Bryan said. "I weighed 118 pounds and was super insecure. I walked with my shoulders stooped. I couldn't look you in the eye. I just had zero self-confidence. Then I was watching the Rocky series one day when I was 23. And after I watched it, I was like 'I'm going to get buff!' And I went out the very next day, I bought some weights, I bought a bench, I brought it home, I set it up at my house and worked out consistently for about a year. And I saw literally no change. And I was like 'What in the world is going on?' That's when I really started to dive in, and really do my research and learn things. So that's what got me started. I have to think Sylvester Stallone for that."

I put Bryan on the hot seat and asked him to give us his take on a few questions that I get asked often via emailFacebookTwitter and voicemail. Here are his responses.

Do I need to work out if I am already skinny?

A lot of people will say "Oh, I wish I had that problem of not being able to gain weight," but you know, both sides of the spectrum are really difficult. When you're very underweight, it's just as mind-crushing as being overweight. It's still that mental battle that we have to realize "I'm not happy with who I am." So I think it's important on both sides of the spectrum to workout. Not just for our physical appearance, but for our lifelong health.

Can a skinny person work out safely?

Yes. If you're skinny, you can still lift weights. Now you're not going to start off at the top of the chain. Like when I first started, I was bench-pressing I think like the bar, that's it. That's all I could do. So, don't be ashamed or afraid to start off with where you are. The thing is, regardless of how light a weight you're using—even if you're using five-pound dumbbells—you should be focusing on your form, going slow on your repetitions, and really building those solid habits.

Even if you're using five-pound dumbbells, you should be focusing on your form, going slow on your repetitions, and really building those solid habits.

What exercises are best for an ectomorph?

As far as what exercises are best for an ectomorph. I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all exercise. I honestly think you should be hitting all muscle groups. So, break it up into individual days. I recommend starting off with a five-day split:

  1. Chest and triceps one day
  2. Back and biceps one day
  3. Shoulders one day
  4. Legs one day
  5. A circuit day, where you pick a couple of exercises from each muscle group

This is going to be the most beneficial for starting off. Down the road, you can change it up. You can hit muscle groups more than once a week. But for starting off, that's the best approach. Each day, aim to hit about seven to eight exercises for the muscle group you're working out.

How should someone skinny approach going from bones to bulk?

You know, when people approach me and say "Hey, how do you gain weight?" or "How do you gain muscle mass?" I tell them several things, but the main thing is to go slow.

This is not a sprint, it's a marathon. Whether you're trying to get weight loss, whether you're trying to bulk up, it takes time. It took me years to put on the muscle mass that I have now. It did not happen overnight.

It takes time. It took me years to put on the muscle mass that I have now. It did not happen overnight.

The thing is, regardless of what your goal is, food is so important. It is absolutely the key to your success for any fitness journey. You know, until I changed the way I ate, nothing changed. And a lot of people just told me, "Oh, well just eat more." Well, that didn't work. I was eating 5,000 to 6,000 calories a day of pure junk food. I'm talking soda and ice cream and pizza and you name it. I was Downing it. I ate little Debbie snacks ... by the box!

So it wasn't just a matter of getting more calories in because I was getting plenty. It was a matter of getting in the right kinds of foods, where my body could actually use them to build muscle,

What is the best way to exercise if you want to bulk up?

There's a lot of talk between low reps, high reps, what kind of equipment. Again, start off with what you can. Maybe you only have some dumbbells at home and that's all you have available. That's great. YouTube some videos on dumbbell workouts. There's so much good information out there if you just research it a little bit. If you have access to a full gym, that's awesome too.

I think we get kind of caught up too much on the perfect rep range or the perfect amount of sets. Ideally, you should be changing it up, but if you're starting off, I recommend starting off with three sets and aim for a rep range of about 12 to 15 reps. Giving yourself a range allows you to have a little play with it. So, maybe one day you're feeling really good and you can hit 15 and maybe another day you're not feeling so good and you can only hit 12. It gives you a little bit of leeway.

Also, I feel like this is a good range because it's not too high to where you're just ridiculously doing too many reps with an extremely low weight. But it's also low enough to where you can still lift a decent amount of weight. So that would be my suggestion for starting off three sets of 12 to 15 on every exercise.

What is an effective bulking-up workout my ectomorph listeners can start doing right away?

So if you're struggling with putting on weight or you're struggling with gaining muscle, the number one thing you should do is look at your nutrition.

Yes, you have to work out in order to gain muscle, and I recommend you start doing that. Even if it's a couple of days a week, do what you can now, that's the key. Don't feel like you have to jump headfirst into this.

Do what you can now, that's the key. Don't feel like you have to jump headfirst into this.

So the first thing is yes, workout ideally five days a week. But if you can't do that, that's fine. Do what you can.

The second thing though, is nutrition, nutrition, nutrition. I cannot talk about that enough. Make sure that you are eating good healthy foods. And again, this doesn't happen overnight. You don't go from years of crappy eating to all of a sudden being on point with your diet. Start off small.

I hope this helps! And you can find me anywhere at BonesToBulk.com and all my social media handles are @bonestobulk.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show.