Have you always been conscious of your skinny build like me? You tend to eat hearty wholesome meals, maybe even regularly indulge in fatty greasy junk food much to your friends’ envy- yet you never seem to put on any weight. Sounds familiar?
Well, you, my friend, are a ‘hard gainer’ or ‘ectomorph’.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with you, nor is it some unique gift. It is simply that as an ectomorph, you are built differently from some of those around you which makes you physically averse to putting on weight, just like I do.
By your ‘build’, here, I mean your body type with reference to your musculature, bone structure, and the effect your metabolism has on how you process the conventionally ‘fattening’ food.
In this article, we shall discuss what it really means to be an ectomorph, and how to overcome the hurdles we face as ectomorphs in achieving our fitness goals.
Being Ectomorph: What is a Hard-Gainer?
For men, being skinny is often associated with being less ‘manly’ or being ‘weak’. Especially during adolescence and in your early adulthood when you are growing into your masculinity, it is difficult to remain self-confident when everything or everyone around you may seem to feed into your insecurities.
From the classical image of the ‘Macho Man’ in media, to societal norms of what a man should look like, the ectomorphic build definitely subverts a few conventions. Apart from the psychological aspect of it, the relatively delicate build and meager endurance of us ectomorphs definitely makes life a little difficult- which is a very tangible hurdle that must be overcome.
Whether it is for aesthetic reasons, or practical ones, it is quite understandable for an ectomorph to feel the need to gain some mass- and I am here to help you along that journey, since I’ve seen it all, and in some way, still an ectomorph.
The 3 Body Types
Your body type, also called ‘somatype’ if you want to get technical, is the rough categorization of the physical build of people into three types- endomorphs, mesomorphs, and ectomorphs.
A Brief History of Somatypes
The origin of this categorization, back in the 1940s by Dr. W. H. Sheldon, had much less to do with the realm of fitness than it does today. Back then, as Dr. Sheldon theorized, these somatypes were watertight categories that determined not only the physical appearance of the person, but also had a great deal of impact on their personality.
Interestingly, the origin of the names of these somatypes was embryonic layers before birth- that is, the ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm. This further cements how Dr. Sheldon and people back in the day considered your body type to be fixed at birth, kind of like fingerprints or the pattern of a zebra’s stripes.
However, this theory is quite obsolete now, and the relation of your body type to your personality is debunked. We now know that body types are not limited to the three strict categories as proposed by Dr. Sheldon, and instead exist as a spectrum.
A true endomorph remains one with a low metabolism, tendency to gain body fat, and typically larger and more rounded figures. Mesomorphs have a traditionally athletic build and high metabolism with responsive muscle cells. The ectomorphs are the skinny type with long lean bones and a high metabolism who have difficulty building muscle mass.
At the same time, these body types aren’t set in stone and you can fall in between.
A mesomorph, who can bulk down quite easily, or an endomorph who puts on weight if they relax their diet, but can also bulk up if they want to is quite common, or an ectomorph who can build adequate muscle mass with the right training- almost everyone is a mix of different body types.
What is an Ectomorph?
Have a good look in the mirror- ideally, with as few layers on as possible. Pay attention to your bone structure and musculature. Here are a few features that may pop out to you:
● Thin limbs, that are quite long in comparison to their width
● A frame that appears delicate and fragile
● Thin bones
● Small joints
● A narrow and linear body shape
● Narrow shoulders and hips, disproportionate to height
● Very poor muscle mass- compared to the bone length, the muscles are quite small
● Typically flat chested, in case of women
● Men may appear very lean or scrawny
As ectomorphs, we have a very fast metabolism, especially when compared to our endomorphic counterparts. Our bodies are especially good at transforming the carbs we consume into energy. You can eat pretty much anything you want, and the fat gets burned off really fast and with negligible effort.
The flipside of it is the struggle to gain muscle mass. In the arena of fitness, ectomorphs are known as ‘hard gainers’ for exactly this reason. A lower muscle mass is not necessarily desirable- you can end up looking scrawny and fragile.
Our fast-twitch fibers, which help execute swift and powerful movements like lifting or sprinting, are not very well developed. Coupled with the general lack of bulk in our appearance, we may come off appearing quite ‘weak’.
To counteract the difficulty in bulking up and build both endurance and muscle mass, we ectomorphs must work out extra hard and need to have a wholesome and tailor-made diet.
To achieve an appealing musculature and build enough stamina to keep working out consistently and go about the hurdles of daily life, we ectomorphs may also consider nutritional supplements such as protein powders or mass gainer blends for that extra nudge towards our fitness goals.
The Ectomorph Workout Strategy
As ectomorphs, our body’s natural tendency is to refute gaining muscle or fat. To school it into doing otherwise would not only require intense working out, but also very strategically so.
To figure out the ideal workout plan for training the ectomorph body into gaining mass, we need to identify and understand which exercises to put your money on, and which ones to steer clear off.
As someone who has battled and overcome the struggles of being a hard gainer, I have tried to explicate both these factors of the ectomorph workout strategy below to help you build your own routine successfully.
What Not to Do
1. Dial Down the Cardio: A general tip that holds merit, when it comes to maximizing muscle gain despite the underdeveloped fast-twitch fibers and high metabolism rate of an ectomorph, is to set aside cardio in favor of compound exercises that get your growth hormone release pumping. Long-drawn or slow-distance workouts like the treadmill and other cardio are really easy for us ectomorphs to ace, but it is exactly the sort of exercise that we need to ditch.
2. Don’t Bank on Isolation Exercises: Prefer compound exercises and intense workouts that engage your entire body, as opposed to isolation workouts like muscle curls which are geared towards the weightlifters. It is understandable why you would think it is a good idea- the buff and sturdy build of a weightlifter is enviable and seems like a distant dream for us ectomorphs. If the bicep curls and hamstring curls are working out great for mesomorphs in maintaining their muscular build, they must be doing something right… Right?
What we often forget is that their body’s natural tendency is to build muscle and they are just catalyzing the effect. For us hard gainers, we need to train our body to give us the hormonal boost we need to build muscle. Isolation exercises simply won’t cut the deal.
Yes, they are necessary to some extent, but the majority of your routine should include compound exercises that engage your entire body to adequately stimulate the hormone release and consequently build muscle.
3. Don’t Over-Train: While your workouts need to be intense, you don’t necessarily need to clock in to the gym like it’s your 9 to 5 job. Moderation is ideal for most things in life, and when it comes to training your ectomorph body type to pad up with those muscles, moderation actually becomes crucial.
Becoming a total gym junkie is actually going to do more harm than good for us hard gainers, as it is going to further speed up our metabolism- and we really don’t need that. Also, you need to give your muscles time to recover, in order to build well.
A 45 minute workout thrice a week or so is quite enough for us, as long as it is the right kind of workout.
Crafting the Perfect Ectomorph Workout
So now that we know what NOT to do, let’s move on to what we should.
1. An ideal training routine for hard gainers should be a blend of strength training and low-intensity cardio. In a week, reserve three days for strength training to bulk up, and do cardio for two so you don’t inadvertently speed up your metabolism and burn off all the mass.
2. In terms of weight training, carefully plan out the ectomorph workout to ensure your primary focus remains on compound workouts that target larger muscle groups, and supplement these with a few targeted exercises. Include about 80% intensive compound exercises that work your entire body, and 20% isolation exercises that target the specific muscle groups which you want to pay extra attention to.
Compound exercises include dead lifts, overhead presses and bench presses, pull ups, barbell squats, etc. Isolation exercises like bicep curls, hamstring curls, lateral raises, calf raises, leg extensions, etc. are great for improving the bulk of your arms, legs and chest. Ab workouts like the bicycle crunch and ab crunches are perfect for building a powerful core to complement you growing brawn.
3. There are a bunch of mass gaining workout programs, curated by experts and extensively tried and tested, already in the market.
● You can explore the 5 X 5 Program (5-by-5 Program) which includes 5 sets of 5 reps of three principle exercises targeting the main muscle groups throughout your body, the German Volume Training (GVT) which aims at the same agenda as the 5 X 5 but with 10 reps of each set instead of 5, or the FST-7 Training Program (Fascial Stretch Training Program) which aims to stretch the soft connective tissue and helping you build mass via 15 reps of 7 sets of miscellaneous exercises with about 30s of total rest interval between. The 5 X 5 and GVT are excellent for building a lot of volume, strength, and endurance, and are two very popular picks for hard gainers.
● You can also try the Upper/ Lower Split Training which picks two dedicated workout days, and focuses on a single muscle group per day. The format makes it very attractive to and effective on hard gainers recently venturing out on their mass gain journey.
● Most of these are full body workouts anyways, but a true full body workout assigns one dedicated exercise per muscle group and is the most comprehensive compound exercise routine you could aim for.
When we hard gainers work out, we are essentially training for hypertrophy, that is, increasing your muscular size and definition by catalyzing muscle cell growth through exercise. Another phrase you will often come across when trying to put together your ideal workout is ‘maximal strength’.
It sounds technical, but it is essentially your ability to exert force on stuff around you how as a measure of how strong you are. For ectomorphs, the two major goals remain hypertrophy and boosting maximal strength, or in simpler terms, bulking up and increasing your endurance. This is pretty much what I have been discussing the ins and outs of in the previous sections.
Most of the recommended workouts for hypertrophy are anaerobic in nature, that is, they break down glucose in the body without oxygen and are typically arduous in terms of intensity but short in actual duration.
These, in conjunction with longer rest periods and an optimum diet (which I will elaborate on in the sections to come), are perfect for ectomorphs aiming to gain weight and maintain the bulk, since they won’t encourage your body to burn calories unlike the fast-paced aerobic exercises would.
The Ectomorph Diet: Role of Nutrition for Ectomorphs
In order to gain muscle mass, and successfully maintain the bulk, simply being a gym junkie won’t show you results. A strategic ectomorph diet that is specifically curated for mass gain is critical.
The fact that you, as an ectomorph, need your diet to be abundant in calories is a no-brainer. Ectomorphs burn through energy sources and energy reserves pretty fast owing to their very high metabolism, so if you don’t want to lose all the bulk, then the more calories you include in your diet the better.
Below, I will shall discuss some of the key factors that you should keep in mind when building your ideal ectomorph diet for gaining mass.
1. Pack in the Proteins
When we talk of building muscle and bulking up, we are essentially trying to attain a more mesomorphic physique. Whether it is through fat loss or weight gain, the crux of the muscle gain-focused diet remains proteins, and a lot of it. Proteins are the building blocks of your cells and tissue- and muscle tissues are after all, tissue. If you want to grow your muscle tissue, and encourage your body to produce more of it, you need to supply it with the necessary proteins.
An average ectomorph would need somewhere around 1.2 to 1.6 grams of protein per day, per kilogram of their body weight in order to see optimal bulking. Say you weigh 50 kilograms- then by this reasoning, you should be consuming 60 to 80 grams of protein every day. In extreme cases, one might need up to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
2. Do Not Skimp on the Healthy Carbs and Fats
When you are building a diet for mass gain, don’t skimp out on the carbs and fat. While proteins are the main muscle building ingredient, carbs and fat will also contribute to a great extent in helping you bulk up faster and more evenly.
Carbs and fats are two rather contested nutrient groups since they are often associated with unhealthy food or snacks that don’t do zilch for your body and nutritional requirements. The key here is to include healthy carbs and fats.
For instance, potatoes, whole wheat or whole grain breads (if it has a few seeds thrown in, all the better), oats, and the like are carbs that would do you well in your weight gain journey and do not really wreck havoc on your body unlike white bread and other baked items using white flour.
Consume more of the complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, quinoa, fiber-rich veggies, and sweet potatoes for the additional nutrient benefits as well as the carbs being healthy in themselves.
Yes they exist, do not contribute towards heart diseases, cholesterol, and the usual host of debilitations that fats are demonized for. They actually help your organs function better, improve the look of your hair and skin, boost your immune system, are great for hormonal function, and contribute towards improving both your overall mental and physical performance.
Trans fats are the unhealthy ones that you should keep an eye out for. Healthy fats can be categorized into saturated fats (such as quality cheese, grass-fed beef, coconut oil, etc.) and unsaturated fats which are arguably the most healthy.
Healthy unsaturated fats can be further categorized into PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids) and MUFAs (monounsaturated fatty acids). Eggs, macadamia nuts and walnuts (or any type of nut, really), avocados, flax seeds and pumpkin seeds (again, most seeds usually offer high levels of healthy fat), olives, fish, etc. are all safe terrain to explore when it comes to healthy fats.
For ectomorphs, fats and carbs are almost as essential as proteins, since they help spike your blood sugar level without also elevating your insulin resistance, which will in turn catalyze the muscles into actually assimilating the proteins you want to feed it.
A bonus factor is that they are almost always tasty and help bring variety and nutritive value to your weight gain meals. Shoot for about 8 grams of carbs and 1 gram of fat per kilogram of your body weight for optimum
3. Increase the Frequency of Your Meals
Increasing your meal frequency is a crafty way of staying ahead of your metabolism rate, and bulking up. Take your meals every three hours to make sure that the amount of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) signals generated from the amino acid (that is, the building blocks of proteins) called Leucine, are judiciously made use of throughout the day.
You can have protein-rich snacks at regular intervals to fill up the gaps between your regular meals, and consider a protein shake right before going to bed to make up for the extended fasting period and maximize on the MPS till you wake up.
4. The Right Pre and Post Workout Meals are a Gamechanger
Before a workout, ideally an hour to 30 minutes before, consume some sort of protein or fast-digesting carbohydrate to keep you energized through your intense routine. Consider nuts (maybe a few almonds?), fruits (a banana should be a great option), or some nut butter spread on a slice of toasted wholegrain bread as possible food ideas. A protein shake is another great pre-workout meal idea.
Your post workout meal, ideally consumed 30 to 60 minutes after your session, should include a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to proteins. This essential to repair, recover, and build muscle, and replenishing your glycogen stores which you just burned through. Cereal bowls, and smoothies are perfect for this since they are easy to consume but definitely pack a punch. This is also the perfect juncture to incorporate any protein shakes or mass gainer blends that you may wish to include in your diet.
Don’t underestimate the value of these meals as they are critical for you to not only power through your muscle-building workouts, but actually actively contribute towards the recovery and building of muscle fibers.
Additional Dietary Tips
Here are a few helpful pointers that I put together for your consideration when it comes to putting together your ideal nutritive mass gain- focused diet:
1. Since you will be eating a lot through the day, your digestive system may go into overdrive. You can make its burden a little easier by consuming warm food over cold ones since they are easier to digest.
2. Include fruits for weight gain such as bananas, papayas, avocados, peaches, etc. and vegetables like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, beets, and the like, for their high calorie count as well as nutritional density.
3. Consider switching out your cooking medium from refined and hydrogenated oils, to healthier options such as ghee (clarified butter which is actually considered a superfood), olive oil, coconut oil, etc. Since you will be eating a lot, might as well bump up your calorie count without compromising your heart health by using these healthier oils!
4. Nuts and seeds are incredibly high in their healthy fat content, and thus make for the perfect snacks to munch on at regular intervals. Nut butters are also a great option you can consider- they work great as spreads and dips and are much healthier than any fancy dips you can get off the racks.
5. You may not be used to eating such large portions or with such frequency, and it may be overwhelming to you as a person and not just on your digestive system. Try to increase your food intake slowly and strategically, rather than waking up one fine morning and eating every three hours instead of your usual three meals per day.
You can start out by bulking up your sandwiches, or including an extra dish on the size. Salads are relatively lighter and you can jazz them up with seeds and nuts along with your usual proteins, veggies, and fruits.
The Importance of Adequate Rest and Hydration for Mass Gain
Regardless of your fitness goals, hydration and adequate rest are integral for results to show and be maintained. Especially when training towards hypertrophy, the workouts can be very strenuous on the body and muscles. You need sufficient rest and hydration so you do not burn yourself out. If you exhaust yourself too much, that is the death knell of consistency.
Hydrate yourself well before, during, and after your workout to replenish your body and mind. Keep sipping on water through the day (you can infuse some fruits into it, if you want some variety and excitement) so to keep the protein production levels optimum.
When your muscle cells are dehydrated, they lose volume, and not only will the muscle growth be stunted but you may also be faced with protein breakdown.
I cannot stress enough on the importance of adequate rest, if you want to bulk up effectively and safely. If you don’t give your muscles enough time to recover and repair, all of that resistance training and other intense hypertrophy exercises will go down the drain.
There can be no muscle growth without recovery. Of course, rest and sleep are also important for the overall repair and rejuvenation of your body and mind, so you can get back to the gym with renewed vigor.
Bon Voyage: Hypertrophy is Within Your Reach
Through the course of this article, I have given you a comprehensive overview of the ectomorph body type and functioning, and how you can successfully gain muscle mass through strategic workouts and a rich diet. These tips are conducive to most ectomorph bodies, and have worked out great for myself as well, since they align with the basic science of how the ectomorph body functions.
Customize your workout routine and diet based on your individual weight gain goals and where you exist in the spectrum between a true ectomorph and one tending towards being a mesomorph. With the right compound exercises and a diet that is rich in calories, gaining mass is really not all that intimidating.
Just remember to not go too hard on yourself and start camping out at the gym- allow your body sufficient rest to recover and build, and you will definitely see the results!
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Dipanjana’s tryst with fitness and nutrition started way back in high school when she developed an interest in reading about workout routines and diets. A postgraduate student of Literature, Dipanjana has studied Nutrition alongside- both as part of her University curriculum as well as online certificate courses. When she is not working out, Dipanjana can usually be found writing blogs and screenplays or napping amidst a sea of pillows.
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