Gaining weight and building muscle as a skinny guy is an uphill battle. “Hardgainers” can spend years in the gym without success if they are not eating for their body type. I personally experienced years of limited gains in the gym during my early Army career. I was hitting the gym three to five times per week consistently and doing everything right… or so I thought. I was stuck below 225 bench press for years. It didn’t matter what routine I tried, what supplements I took, or what I did, I could not build muscle. Once I started researching the problem, I realized my mistakes.
Here are five scientifically proven tips that will help you overcome the struggle to build muscle as a skinny guy.
1. Eat like it’s your job.
Your first objective is to gain weight. This will come by increasing your daily caloric intake. The key to weight gain is to gain it in a controlled manner. Gaining fat isn’t the primary goal here even though fat gain may occur especially in a heavy bulking phase. You want to limit the amount of fat gained while maximizing muscle development.
Nutrition is listed first here because it is by far the most important aspect of gaining muscle and getting huge for hardgainers.
Calculate current total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). This is the amount of calories you burn every day.
Once you know your TDEE, you will want to start conservatively by eating 500 more calories per day. A great way to ensure you are eating enough is to track your calories. There are many great apps out there that do this.
Protein is King
There is a strong association between dietary protein intake and lean mass as well as muscle strength. (1)
Aim for between 1.2g protein to 2.2g protein per kg as your daily target. This translates to between 0.55g per pound body weight and one gram per pound of body weight.
For a 160 pound person, this equates to between 88g and 160g protein daily. I would definitely advise you to start closer to the 160g protein daily as a hardgainer.
Consuming at least 0.4g of protein per kilogram of body weight each meal, spread out across at least four meals, is required to maximize anabolism (muscle growth). This will equate to 1.6g protein per kg. If you use the upper daily intake of 2.2g protein per day, you would aim for 0.55g protein per meal. This means you should aim for between 25g and 40g per meal. (2)
This might seem difficult to reach. This is where extra whey protein and weight gainers can help.
Aim for 1 pound of weight gain per week. If you are not making gains after a month or so, it is time to increase your calories by 500 per day.
2. Track your fitness goals and metrics
Next you will want to track your goals and metrics for success. Without a plan and objectives, you have no concrete way to gauge your weekly success. Tracking your metrics will help with overall motivation and increase your likelihood of success for the long-term.
Track your Workouts
Tracking your workouts ensures you make progress. Going into the gym without a plan is a recipe for disaster. I personally use JeFit. It allows me to create or find workout routines and track my progress. I use it during my workout to track my lifts and the rest counter between sets helps too. I am not affiliated with JeFit but it is definitely a great app and I highly recommend it.
Track your Nutrition
You want to make sure you are in a calorie surplus every day. The best way to do this is to take out the guess work and track your calories daily. Myfitnesspal is the app I am currently using to do this. Since I typically eat the same meals frequently, I really like how I can create custom meals to update my calories with ease. It also has a bar code scanner for food to make updating your calories much easier.
Track your Body
Weigh yourself once a week at the same time. I advise people to weight themselves first thing in the morning since weight can fluctuate drastically throughout the day. This will let you know if you are making progress.
I highly suggest that hardgainers keep track of their body measurements with a tape measure. The workout app JeFit has a measurements tracker that you can use to keep up with your body measurements. This is something you should use to keep motivation high or make adjustments quickly when you realize you aren’t progressing like you want to be.
In addition to the body measurements, the app also tracks your 1 rep max for your lifts. You want to make consistent gains especially while eating in a calorie surplus. This is a great way to ensure you are using that calorie surplus to build lean body mass and strength instead of just fat.
3. Focus on sleep and recovery
Recovery and sleep are key in gaining muscle mass. You will want to ensure you are giving your body adequate time to recover and grow.
Lack of sleep leads to loss of muscle mass through a decrease in protein synthesis and increases the degradation of anabolic pathways. (3)
Sleep is essential for muscle recovery through many pathways primarily hormone secretions and keeping cortisol levels in check. (4)
Getting enough sleep is one aspect of recovery. It is also important to give your muscles adequate rest between workouts. Muscle growth occurs when the muscle is mechanically damaged in order to grow back bigger to adapt to the stress it was exposed to. If you are not giving your muscles time to repair before breaking them down again, you are hindering muscle growth. Working out three days in a row has been found to cause weakness that persists for at least three days. This study doesn’t even take into account the long-term loss of potential benefits from doing this over extended periods of time. (5)
Avoid this pitfall and get 8 hours of sleep per night with at least one day between strength training sessions.
4. Use science to train
The most critical aspect of gaining muscle for hardgainers is using science to develop a routine. There are too many genetically gifted people out there giving advice that just won’t work for hardgainers. It’s best to use peer-reviewed science to achieve maximum success.
You want to focus on muscle hypertrophy versus strength if gaining size is your goal.
It is important to maximize the hypertrophic response by training to muscle failure. This means going to failure will illicit more muscle growth. A good hypertrophy-based routine will employ between 3 to 5 working sets with the repetitions between 8 and 12 reps with 60 to 90 seconds rest between sets. You should focus on the concentric phase (contraction) between 1 to 3 seconds and the lowering or eccentric phase lasting between 2 and 4 seconds. (6)
The push/pull/legs split routine uses this approach and provides enough rest between workouts to provide adequate recovery time to maximize growth.
Make sure you are focusing on progression workout to workout. Aim to either increase the weight or the repetitions every week. If you are eating in a surplus with enough recovery between workouts, this should be easy to do especially for beginning lifters.
Every four weeks, take a deload week. This deload week is a week of lifting lighter weights and is a great reset to prevent stagnation.
If you like working out at home, here is a free scientifically validated workout program. This 8-week program uses bodyweight exercises and achieved an average of about 3 lbs. of lean body mass gained in just 8 weeks.
5. Stay motivated and focus on small wins
Finally, you want to stay motivated and focus on weekly goals. Having short-term realistic goals will motivate you to continue with a plan. This is where results happen.
Make sure you are tracking your calories and reaching your target total calories and protein every day. Every week weigh yourself and update your body measurements. This will provide you with feedback. This feedback will ensure you are staying on track with your goals and making progress.
Tracking your nutrition and workouts is important. There is a significantly higher chance of success when tracking your progress.
Remember that building muscle is a slow process. Building muscle takes time, so be patient and stay motivated. It’s not easy to build muscle as a skinny guy who has never had results in the gym before. If you are consistent, however, your hard work will pay off over time.
Skinny guys have the odds stacked against them. Many people have advice for building muscle, but it can be difficult to find advice that is tailored for skinny guys. Focus on your nutrition foremost especially getting enough calories per day. Train to failure using a hypertrophy based program. If you are not getting results after a month, it is time to increase your total calories by an additional 500 per day. Lift 3 times per week and get 8 hours of sleep per night.
Finally, stay motivated and focus on short-term goals.
1. Jun S, Cowan AE, Dwyer JT, Campbell WW, Thalacker-Mercer AE, Gahche JJ, Bailey RL. Dietary Protein Intake Is Positively Associated with Appendicular Lean Mass and Handgrip Strength among Middle-Aged US Adults. J Nutr. 2021 Dec 3;151(12):3755-3763. doi: 10.1093/jn/nxab288. PMID: 34494110.
2. Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA. How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018 Feb 27;15:10. doi: 10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1. PMID: 29497353; PMCID: PMC5828430.
3. Dattilo M, Antunes HK, Medeiros A, Mônico Neto M, Souza HS, Tufik S, de Mello MT. Sleep and muscle recovery: endocrinological and molecular basis for a new and promising hypothesis. Med Hypotheses. 2011 Aug;77(2):220-2. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2011.04.017. Epub 2011 May 7. PMID: 21550729.
4. Dáttilo M, Antunes HKM, Galbes NMN, Mônico-Neto M, DE Sá Souza H, Dos Santos Quaresma MVL, Lee KS, Ugrinowitsch C, Tufik S, DE Mello MT. Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Acute Skeletal Muscle Recovery after Exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2020 Feb;52(2):507-514. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002137. PMID: 31469710.
5. Stewart RD, Duhamel TA, Rich S, Tupling AR, Green HJ. Effects of consecutive days of exercise and recovery on muscle mechanical function. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Feb;40(2):316-25. doi: 10.1249/mss.0b013e31815adf02. PMID: 18202569.
6. Schoenfeld BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Oct;24(10):2857-72. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e840f3. PMID: 20847704.