How I Bulked up After Years of Struggling as a Skinny Guy
Growing up, I was always the scrawny, skinny weak kid.
There was a reason I dressed up like superman every other day for the first six years of my life:
Superman was strong, big, and powerful…and I wasn’t.
To this day, it’s still a big challenge for me to gain weight or build muscle.
When people tell me “must be nice to have been skinny growing up,” I explain that a killer flat top, my height (5’2″ until I was 16), four years of braces, and two Acutane treatments made sure I still got the full adolescent experience 🙂
When I was cut from the high school basketball team (which I thought was the end of the world), I signed up for a gym membership to get big and strong.
Within five minutes I had almost killed myself when loading up way too much weight for a set of bench presses.
Fortunately I survived, and thus began my love affair with strength training.
I spent the next six years training in a gym, reading every muscle and fitness magazine I could find, drinking protein shakes religiously…and had about 3 pounds of muscle gain to show for it.
I just assumed “I’m one of those people who can’t gain weight.”
It turns out, I was doing it all wrong.
After graduating college I moved to California, signed up for a gym membership, and received a few free personal trainer sessions.
Although I thought I had known it all (I had been training for 6 years in a gym! I read the muscle mags! I was in good shape already!), I still took the free sessions for the hell of it.
The trainer drastically simplified my workout and DOUBLED the amount of food I was eating.
I thought he was crazy, but I stuck with it.
In 30 days, I had put on 18 pounds (pictured below), increased the strength in ALL of my lifts, and felt more confident than I ever had before in my life.
That’s when the lightbulb when off in my head: there’s a better way.
And thus began a radical redefinition of how I thought the human body worked, how muscle was built, and where I needed to put my priorities.
Since then, I’ve spent seven years learning everything I can about how muscle is built.
A few years back, I took an epic 35,000 mile trip around the world, and despite not having access to a gym for 6 months, I managed to once again pack on even more muscle and get myself in great shape without once picking up a weight (pictured below):
Again, my world was turned upside down.
I learned that gyms are not a requirement to build muscle and get stronger, though a great gym workout can certainly speed up the process.
And after a few more years of up and down challenges, I had finally – jokingly – changed from Steve Rogers to Captain America (there’s a story behind this):
I’m still not the biggest guy in the world, nor will I ever be. I’m okay with that!
I’ve learned that anyone can pack on muscle, even skinny nerds like me.
If you’re skinny and want to get bigger, you’ll be fighting genetics the whole way, but do not let that deter you.
Anything is possible.
Today’s article outlines everything I’ve learned over the past 13 years of mistakes, successes, failures, and adventures.
The Most Important Thing for Putting on Muscle: Eat More Food.
As they say, muscle isn’t made in the gym, but in the kitchen:
If you want to bulk up, you’d be better off working out twice a week for 30 minutes and eating right, than working out 6 days a week and not eating properly.
I learned this the hard way.
I spent four years of college working out five days a week for 90 minutes a day trying to get bigger.
I drank protein shakes like I thought I was supposed to. I got a little stronger, but never bigger.
BECAUSE I DIDN’T EAT ENOUGH CALORIES.
When I get emails from people who lament the fact that they can’t gain weight, I always first ask about the person’s diet.
More often than not, that person thinks they are eating enough, but are definitely not.
Here’s the truth:
If you are not getting bigger, you are not eating enough.
Your body can burn 2000+ calories every day just existing (and then factor in exercise and, gulp, cardio – I’ll get to that in a minute), and you need to overload your system with calories in order for it to have enough fuel for the muscle building process.
Want to know how many calories you burn every day just existing?
Everybody’s results will vary, and thoughts are mixed on how quickly we can build muscle:
Under optimal conditions, some say you can expect to gain 1 pound (.5 kg) of muscle per week,
My results have shown that 2 lbs (1kg) per month is more realistic.
A 2016 studyrevealed that strength training produced a 2.2 lb increase (1kg) increase in lean mass in 8 weeks.
Regardless of how fast you bulk up, it might be helpful for you to gain weight by putting on some fat with your muscle!
Here are things to consider if you overeat WHILE strength training: extra glycogen, some fat, and water stored in your body can be a good thing for your confidence and get you headed down the right path.
So, don’t listen to the sites or programs that say “gain 40 pounds of muscle in two months!”
Unless you’re on the juice (‘roids, not Hawaiian Punch), it’s going to be a slow, long process.
Consume 1-1.5g per pound (2.2-3.3g per kg) of bodyweight in protein every day.
Consume the rest of your calories from foods composed of carbs and fats.
Always eat vegetables so that your body can actually PROCESS all this extra food.
If you are not gaining weight, add more carbs and/or fats to your meal.
It really does come down to the following:
If you are not gaining weight fast enough, you’re not eating enough. Increase your portions of carbs and fats!
Whenever we work with coaching clients who struggle to bulk up, this is the area we target: adding more carbs and fats to each meal.
What are the Best Popular Bulk Up Eating Strategies?
If you read the previous section, you know that we have some pretty specific “best practices” on how to bulk up.
However, there are multiple strategies that can also work, and I’d like to cover each of those here too.
Depending on your budget, your taste in food, and your goals, these strategies will work better for some than others.
#1) The “Healthy” Bulk
I have followed this method to great success multiple times (including right now).
Ultimately, I follow the “real food” principles whenever possible (good sources of quality meat, tons of vegetables, minimal amounts of gluten and processed carbs), but mixing in some specific items that are calorie/carbohydrate dense to reach my calorie goals for the day.
But for me at the time, it worked (and got me interested in diet research).
If you are super skinny and on a tight budget, this might be your only option, and that’s okay! Foods that are high in calories include:
Whole milk, cottage cheese, cereal, pasta, rice, potatoes, fast food, ice cream, juice, peanut butter sandwiches, fast food, meatball subs from Subway, pizza, burgers, etc.
Whatever gets you to your caloric intake goal for the day.
When I put on my 18 lbs, I used to drink 3 CytoGainer shakes a day, because it was the easiest way for me to stay on target.
If you are training properly, a majority of these calories will go towards building muscle instead of putting on a lot of fat.
Steve’s thoughts: I’m not a big fan of this method much, as I’ve come to learn the quality of food is as important (if not more so) than quantity when it comes to your overall health, and we’re aiming for bigger AND healthier.
Drink a gallon of whole milk every day along with your meals.
Sounds crazy, yup, but it works.
A gallon of whole milk is full of enough sugar, carbs, fats, and protein that when all said and done, results in 2400 calories consumed in liquid form.
Mix in vegetables and meat for healthy meals and you got yourself a simple to follow diet.
I’ve attempted this diet back in my younger days, and although my stomach hated me, I certainly had success with it, mostly because it was simple to follow and easy to understand.
Yes, it’s possible to bulk while following either of these diets:
If you are eating Paleo, you’ll want to eat LOTS of carbs and fats from calorie dense foods like fruit, sweet potatoes, and nuts.
If you are going Keto, you’ll want to eat LOTS of fat from cheeses, nuts, oils, and so on.
If you have the budget and want to try it, go for it. You’ll be eating truckloads of nuts, avocados, and sweet potatoes.
“WHICH STRATEGY IS BEST FOR ME?”
In our opinion, we’ve had the most success with Coaching Clients who adapt a “healthy bulk” strategy, #1 above.
It’s a focus on real food, sustainable increase in calorie intake, and can be adjusted easily by adding or reducing total portions of carbs and fats.
But hey, you do you, boo.
What Supplements Should I take to Bulk up? How to eat more calories.
If you are struggling to consume enough whole foods every day, then here are some tips to help you reach your caloric goals to bulk up:
“WHAT SUPPLEMENTS SHOULD I TAKE TO BULK UP FAST?”
Most supplements are garbage
Plus, you should ALWAYS prioritize consuming real food over shakes and powders.
HOWEVER, if you are interested in bulking quickly, there are two I would recommend:
Protein Powder. A great solution for getting extra protein and calories in your diet and building muscle. As we point out in our article on protein and protein shakes, mix and match your own ingredients and see how many calories you can get into a smoothie without breaking your blender.
Creatine supplement. It helps your muscles retain more water , and has been shown to increase the hormone IGF-1, which is needed for muscle growth. It’s one of the only two supplements (along with protein) that I take regularly.
Outside of these two supplements, you really don’t need to prioritize supplementation, despite what the muscle magazines tell you! Hell, many of these muscle mags are OWNED BY SUPPLEMENT COMPANIES.
I’ll leave you with two more big suggestions on how to bulk up in this section:
#1) Liquid calories are your friend. Liquid calories can give us lots of calories without ‘filling us up,’ which is an easier way to consume enough calories every day without feeling overly full.
I personally get a huge chunk of my calories every day from making my own ‘Powerbomb Shake – from our Protein Guide
I put all of this into a Vitamix Blender – yep, it was expensive, but worth the investment. This blender has been used twice a day for 8 years without a single issue.
If you need even more calories consider adding whole milk, coconut milk, or almond milk instead of water.
You can also add a shot of olive oil to add calories/fats to a shake in the quest for MOAR MUSCLE!
#2) Train your Body to Eat More: If you are cooking rice, each week try adding in an extra quarter cup when you cook it.
And yeah, you have to FORCE your stomach to accept more food, even when you’re not hungry.
This is not enjoyable, as you often feel like you’re going to explode.
However, just like it’s necessary to force your muscles outside of your comfort zone to get bigger, you need to force your stomach outside of its comfort zone until it adapts to accepting more calories.
So, start by adding a little bit more food each day and soon enough your stomach will expand.
How to Grow Bigger Muscles: Get Stronger
When you strength train, your muscles are broken down and then get rebuilt stronger to adapt to the stress you have applied to it.
So every time you pick up a slightly heavier weight, you are increasing the challenge and forcing your muscles to adapt and get more resilient.
Now, don’t worry too much about which path is best.
Nutrition plays the most important role in bulking up, and any strength training plan will help you get bigger.
There are 3 studies I want to point out:
A recent study showed that a higher intensity workout (heavier weight for low reps) created more muscle mass than a higher volume (lower weight for more reps).
Getting more volume (more sets of exercises) per week resulted in more mass compared to less volume (fewer sets of exercises), in this study.
Studies show that weight training creates superior “bulk up” results compared to bodyweight training, but that doesn’t mean bodyweight training isn’t beneficial. Studies show that bodyweight training exercises can build muscle, but require a LARGE number of sets per rep, and pushing oneself to absolute failure.
What this means: Don’t overthink it.
Pick up heavy stuff for 3-4 sets of 5 reps. Pick up a weight that is heavy enough that you can only complete your specified number of reps.
Challenge yourself on bodyweight exercises, either by making them more difficult, adding weight, or doing high reps to failure.
And then do more next time.
What’s important is that you pick a plan and follow through with it while focusing on eating enough.
After a few months, you can reevaluate and then adjust based on how your body has changed.
On any of these days, feel free mix in bicep curls or tricep extensions or calf-raises at the END of your workouts.
Focus on the big lifts first and get stronger with them.
It’s important to get form right and get your body used to the movement for when you start to lift heavy weight.
How long should you wait between sets? Again, don’t overthink it. Waiting 2-3 minutes allows you lift heavier weight, and thus makes you stronger.
Waiting 60-90 seconds puts more of an emphasis on muscular size and endurance (as you’re resting for a shorter period)…but don’t overthink it. Do the next set when you’re ready.
A piece of advice from 8-time Mr. Olympia, Lee Haney: “stimulate, don’t annihilate.”
Don’t destroy yourself for the sake of destroying yourself; stopping one or two reps short of maximum effort can save you from overtraining and potential injury – remember that muscles are built in the kitchen!
If you’re already overwhelmed and just want somebody to tell you what to do, you’re not alone.
I’ve had a coach since 2014 and it’s the best investment I make in myself every month.
Can Bodyweight Training Help Me Bulk Up?
Yes, you can get bigger and stronger doing exclusively bodyweight exercises.
Take a look at any Olympic gymnast: he is jacked, with giant muscles, all built with bodyweight exercises:
HOWEVER, it requires a very specific type of training regiment to see those results.
Studies show that weight training creates superior “bulk up” results compared to bodyweight training, but that doesn’t mean bodyweight training isn’t beneficial.
Studies show that bodyweight training exercises can build muscle, but require a LARGE number of sets per rep. In other words, you’ll need to push yourself to absolute failure.
So, here’s where the challenges arise:
Like with weight training above, you need to increase the difficulty in order for your muscles to adapt.
Because it’s often more challenging to add a few pounds to a bodyweight exercise to make it tougher – compared to putting a weight on a bar, you need to increase the difficulty of the bodyweight movement itself.
If you are trying to build size, you can also do sets where your rep ranges are in the 25-35 reps per set, and you are pushing your muscles to failure (woof):
If you can do 4 sets of 15 push-ups, consider making them harder to progress. Do 4 sets of 15 push ups with your feet on a bench.
4 sets of 12 pull-ups not a challenge anymore? Great. Make them tougher. Go for a wider grip, an uneven grip, or weighted pull-ups.
I highly recommend beginners start to take a serious look at strength training with free weights; it’s much easier to record one’s progress, easy to add more difficulty (just add more weight!), and very structured.
In fact, I personally believe the best routine mixes both weights and bodyweight training. I have been working with my online coach for 4 years, and I’ve packed on size by following abarbell + bodyweight training routine.
Weight training for my lower body, advanced bodyweight movements for my upper body.
What it really comes down to is this:no matter what you have access to (a gym, barbell, dumbbells, or just a pull-up bar) you can find a way to build strength and muscle if you follow a plan and eat enough calories.
If you’re trying to bulk with just bodyweight, it might be worth enlisting the help of a coach to help you scale your bodyweight exercises correctly and in the proper sequence!
I am Skinny Fat: Should I gain or lose weight first?
If you are skinny fat (you have skinny arms and legs but have a gut), there are three paths available to you:
Get yourself down to roughly 12% body fat (~20% for women), and then start to increase the size.
By slimming down first, while building muscle, you don’t have to worry about buying BIGGER clothes first, only to then need smaller clothes once you start cutting the fat.
Then, once you decide to eat more and get bigger, if you notice your body fat percentage start to creep up, you can simply adjust until your body fat gets back in the acceptable range. Then keep building!
To recap, here’s what to do if you are skinny-fat:
Either plan will get you there. It’s 90% diet anyways.
What’s important is that you pick a plan, you progress, you keep track of your results, and you consistently progressively increase the load that you are moving (be it your body’s weight or an actual weight).
QUESTION: “I want to get bigger and faster and have more endurance and flexibility ALL at the same time, can I do that?”
I hate to say it, but building endurance and getting bigger simultaneously is brutally difficult.
As I point out in “How to build any physique,” compare a marathon runner’s body with that of a sprinter or gymnast. Put the running on hold for a while, and focus on getting bigger: you’ll get there faster.
When you decide to mix running back in, keep your calorie consumption high and don’t forget to keep strength training!
You can still go for walks, and still get a good cardio workout by lifting quickly with minimal breaks between sets.
QUESTION: “Do I need to eat every three hours?”
Nope, you don’t have to:
The TOTAL number of calories you consume over the course of a day is more important than the timing of the meals.
The same is true with protein intake: studies show it doesn’t matter WHEN you eat your protein. HOW MUCH you consume in a day is more important.
You’ll work with our certified NF instructors who will get to know you better than you know yourself, check your form, and program your workouts and nutrition for you.
2) Good at following instructions and want a blueprint to follow? Check out our self-paced online course, the Nerd Fitness Academy.
20+ workouts for both bodyweight or weight training, a benchmark test to determine your starting workout, HD demonstrations of every movement, boss battles, nutritional leveling system, a questing system, and supportive community.
3) Download our free Bulk Up Guide, which you can get when you sign up in the box below:
Download our free skinny guy’s guide to putting on muscle!
Enter your email below to download now
The Nerd Fitness “Get Bigger” Shopping List
Bulk like the Hulk with our rules for getting bigger
Lastly, I’d love to hear from you!
PLEASE leave your questions, eating or strength or otherwise below so we can answer them and become best friends and practice karate kicks in the garage:
How can I help you get bigger and stronger?
What part of this journey are you still struggling the most with?
What are your favorite bulking up foods!?
Share with your friends in the comments so we can all go buy it in bulk at Costco.
PS: Make sure you check out the rest of our Bulk Up guides: