Back in the 1940s, William Sheldon, Ph.D., M.D., introduced the idea of somatotyping or classifying people according to their natural body shape. Initially, Sheldon used his classifications to identify dominant psychological traits. Still, they were soon recognized and adopted by the fitness industry as a way to explain why some people are naturally fatter, more muscular, or slimmer than others.
Broadly speaking, there are three body types. Each one has defining physiological characteristics that may help explain your natural shape and the activities you are more likely to be good at.
The Three Somatotypes:
People in this somatotype group gain weight easily – both fat and muscle. They often have a rounded shape, with broad shoulders and broad hips. Endomorphs can make good powerlifters, football linemen, and throwers in athletics, i.e., shot-putters. Endomorphs usually have a hard time getting lean.
Mesomorphs are bodybuilding’s chosen people! Naturally athletic, they tend to have broad shoulders, narrow waists, and a V-taper. Mesomorphs gain muscle easily but don’t tend to gain much fat. If they do begin to accumulate a little too much blubber, they usually lose it quickly and easily.
With their slender bone structure and lightly muscled frames, ectomorphs are built for endurance activities, such as long-distance running. They have a hard time gaining muscle and tend not to gain fat either. While ectomorphs can gain appreciable amounts of muscle, they have to pay extra attention to their diet and exercise program to achieve results.
Bear in mind that pure endo, meso, and ectomorphs are rare, and most people are a combination of these somatotypes. For example, you could be a meso-endomorph or an ecto-mesomorph. However, most people have a dominant type that influences their shape and the activities they tend to be best at.
In this guide, we reveal how ectomorphs can overcome their natural propensity for being skinny and start building more muscle.
If you have always struggled to gain muscle, have slender wrists, are generally quite lean, or tend to gravitate toward endurance activities like long-distance running, you probably have strong ectomorphic genes. In bodybuilding terms, you are what is known as a hard gainer.
Generally speaking, ectomorphs have a lot of small diameter slow-twitch muscle fibers, small muscle bellies, and a fast metabolism. While these are the ideal characteristics for marathon runners, they’re not so good for getting big and strong.
However, even ectomorphs CAN build muscle, and, with their small bone structure, a little muscle goes a long way. Having smaller bones makes your muscles look bigger than they really are. Examples of ectomorphs who have built impressive physiques include 3-time Mr. Olympia winner Frank Zane and martial arts legend Bruce Lee.
So, while you might never become a mass monster, you can still build an imposing physique, and, as an added benefit, you probably won’t need to diet too hard to get lean. Ectomorphs also tend to have a lower risk for certain chronic diseases, including heart disease, which is something to appreciate (1).
Ectomorph Training Principles
Needless to say, if you want to build muscle and get stronger, you’ll need to pay your dues in the gym. Because ectomorphs have a hard time building muscle, and that muscle will soon start to vanish if you take long breaks from training, you’ll need to work hard and consistently to make meaningful progress.
That said, strength training is powerful medicine, and a little goes a long way. For ectomorphs, there is a fine line between productive workouts and overtraining. Doing too much could impede muscle growth.
Follow these guidelines to make your workouts as ectomorph-friendly as possible – and then check out the sample workout at the end of this article.
Focus on the compound lifts
Compound or multi-joint movements should make up at least 80% of your training volume. Exercises like squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, and bent-over rows should be staples of your workouts.
Isolation exercises are useful for targeting individual muscles. However, if you focus on compound exercises, things like your biceps, triceps, and medial deltoids are already receiving plenty of muscle-building work.
Doing lots of sets of biceps curls after heavy pull-ups and rows is overkill and could just impede your progress. Feel free to include a few isolation exercises in your workouts but remember to put most of your time and energy into those compound lifts.
Low to moderate reps, heavy to medium weights
Ectomorphs have an abundance of type 1 slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are well suited to endurance training. However, to build muscle, you need to work on your type 2a and 2b fibers which have the greatest growth potential.
That means training with heavier weights and using lower reps. 5-8 reps should be your go-to rep range. Some higher rep training won’t necessarily hurt your progress, but the more time you spend in the 5-8 rep range, the better your progress will be.
Keep your workouts short
Naturally skinny ectomorphs should focus on hard, heavy, and relatively short workouts. Try to get in and out of the gym in an hour or less. If you can train longer than this, you probably aren’t working hard enough.
Avoid training for more than two days in a row
Daily workouts are a bad idea for ectomorphs. Give yourself more time for rest and recovery by never training for more than two days without a break. Three to four workouts per week should be sufficient.
Use training systems with care
Bodybuilders use training systems to increase time under tension and metabolic stress. Methods include drop sets, supersets, and negatives. For most ectomorphs, these systems are not just unnecessary, they’re a waste of valuable energy. For most hard gainers, regular sets taken close to failure should be enough.
Go easy on the cardio
Cardio emphasizes those slender slow-twitch muscle fibers and burns a lot of calories, neither of which is helpful when you are an ectomorph. Lifting weights is probably all the exercise you need but, if you really want to do cardio too, limit yourself to just 2 to 3 easy 20 to 30-minute sessions per week.
To summarize, ectomorphs need to train hard and heavy while focusing on the compound lifts. Workouts should be short, intense, and basic, with only minimal amounts of cardio. This flies in the face of the standard high-volume approach to training that a lot of bodybuilders favor, but it’s generally the best approach for ectomorphs.
Nutrition for Ectomorphs
Nutrition is critical for ectomorphs. With your naturally fast metabolism, you need to eat more than the other somatotypes to fuel your workouts and provide your body with the calories and nutrients required for muscle repair and growth. It’s a case of eating big to get big.
If you are training hard but still not getting bigger and stronger, your diet is probably holding you back, so make sure you apply these principles to your ectomorphic bodybuilding diet:
Eat three meals per day with snacks in between
A missed meal or snack is a missed opportunity for muscle growth. Keep your body supplied with calories and nutrients by eating every couple of hours. You should try to eat three substantial meals and 2-3 snacks every day.
This is not an easy undertaking and will require planning, money, time, and effort, but your body needs the fuel if you want your muscles to grow. Here’s an example of a real-lift ectomorph’s eating plan:
- Breakfast: Large bowl of oatmeal, banana, protein shake, or eggs
- Snack: Tuna sandwich, apple
- Lunch: Chicken and pasta with a side salad
- Snack: Cup of natural yogurt, raw honey, banana
- Dinner: Steak, potatoes, broccoli, carrots, optional dessert
- Snack: Cup of cottage cheese, sliced pear
To work out how much food you need to eat, use our free weight gain calculator and then track your food intake to make sure you are hitting those numbers.
While fat and carbs are important, it’s crucial that ectomorphs score enough protein. Make sure you’re getting at least one gram per pound of body weight. Use protein shakes to make getting enough protein easier and more convenient.
You don’t have to eat 100% clean
If you are having a hard time hitting your calorie goal, you may need to relax your diet and eat some high-calorie but less nutritious foods. That doesn’t mean you can pig out on junk food, but a donut, candy bar, or slice of pie could help you consume the calories you need.
Pre and post-training nutrition are critical
Provide your body with the nutrients it needs for training and recovery by planning your meals around your workouts. Make sure you eat before training and immediately afterward.
Before training, eat plenty of carbs to ensure your energy levels are high. Leave enough time between eating and training to avoid stomach upsets – usually 1-2 hours. After training, consume fast-acting protein and carbs to kickstart the recovery process. Liquids digest faster than solids, so things like smoothies and protein/carb shakes are ideal.
Go easy on the stimulants
Caffeine and other stimulants give you energy but also increase your metabolic rate and can cause a rise in stress. Ectomorphs already have fast metabolisms and are also more prone to stress. Avoid making matters worse by using but not abusing stimulants. Take care with caffeine and save pre-workout supplements for emergency use only.
Consider liquid calories
Ectomorphs sometimes have low appetites, making eating enough a real struggle. If you are having a hard time eating enough food, consider bulking out your diet with some easy-to-consume high-calorie drinks.
In the golden era of bodybuilding, some lifters drank a gallon of milk a day to gain weight. If that isn’t appealing, try a weight-gaining shake, either homemade or a commercial product. Drinking an extra 500-1000 calories is usually easier and more convenient than eating them.
Use some supplements
While you don’t need to use supplements to build muscle, they can be helpful. As you are essentially bulking, those are the types of supplements you should use. Good bulking supplements include:
Other Considerations for Ectomorphs
Training and eating are the main things you need to consider to gain muscle when you are an ectomorph, but there are a couple of other things you need to address if you want to add muscle to your naturally slender frame:
Save energy when you can
With your fast metabolism, you are already burning energy at an accelerated rate, which could leave your muscles lacking what they need to recover and grow. Do your best to conserve your energy whenever you can by avoiding unnecessary physical activity.
Australian strength coach Ian King suggests that hard gainers should:
- Ride instead of walk
- Sit instead of stand
- Lie down instead of sit
While it’s impossible to escape all non-training physical activity, if you are having a hard time gaining muscle, things like recreational sports and manual labor are best avoided whenever possible.
Sleep is when your body repairs the damage caused by training and has the time, energy, and resources to build muscle. Lack of sleep will impair muscle growth, and when you are struggling for every ounce of muscle mass, the last thing you want to do is undermine this process with too little sleep. Count back eight hours from the time you have to get up; that’s your latest bedtime.
Sheldon’s somatotypes were originally conceived to identify psychological traits, and ectomorphs tend to be stress-heads. Stress causes a rise in catabolic cortisol levels, which can impede muscle growth. While it might not be easy, do your best to keep your stress levels low. Seek professional help if you think you suffer from stress and are unable to control it yourself.
You now have all the information you need to create a great ectomorph bodybuilding workout. But, to save you time and effort, we’ve got one for you. This workout plan involves four short but intense workouts per week to stimulate muscle growth while leaving plenty of time for rest and recovery.
Remember to start each workout with a thorough warm-up to prepare your body and mind for what you are about to do. Do 5-10 minutes of very easy cardio followed by a few dynamic mobility and flexibility exercises. Finish things off with a couple of light sets of the first 1-2 exercises of the workout you are about to do. Take all work sets to within a rep or two of failure.
|Lower body 1||Upper body 1||Rest||Lower body 2||Rest||Upper body 2||Rest|
Lower body 1
|2||Romanian deadlift||3||6-8||90 seconds|
|3||Lunge||3||8-10 per leg||60 seconds|
|4||Standing calf raise||3||8-12||60 seconds|
|5||Cable crunch||3||8-12||60 seconds|
Upper body 1
|1||Bench press||3||4-6||120 seconds|
|2||Pendlay row||3||4-6||120 seconds|
|3||Incline dumbbell press||3||6-8||90 seconds|
|4||Single-arm row||3||6-8 per arm||90 seconds|
Lower body 2
|2||Leg press||3||6-8||90 seconds|
|3||Bulgarian split squat||3||8-10 per leg||60 seconds|
|4||Seated calf raise||3||8-12||60 seconds|
|5||Hanging knee raise||3||8-12||60 seconds|
Upper body 2
|2||Barbell overhead press||3||4-6||120 seconds|
|3||Narrow grip lat pulldown||3||6-8||90 seconds|
|4||Seated dumbbell overhead press||3||6-8||90 seconds|
|5||Dumbbell curl||3||8-10||60 seconds|
Being an ectomorph can be frustrating, and I should know! As a triathlete, I weighed a mere 155 pounds. I was lean and fit but very weak. Several years later, in my first powerlifting competition, I weighed 205 pounds and deadlifted just under three times my bodyweight.
Not bad for a naturally skinny guy!
Adding 50 pounds to my slender frame took time and effort, and I had to fight for every ounce. But, despite my very dominant ectomorphic genes, I overcame my natural hard gainer traits and transitioned from endurance sports to competing in strength sports.
And if I can do it, so can you.
Use the tried and tested information in this guide to help you make the most of your ectomorphic frame and build the body of your dreams. You might never lift the Olympia crown, but you can definitely sculpt an impressive, powerful physique.
1 – PubMed: Somatotype and disease prevalence in adults https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12088094/