Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Monday, January 30, 2017

From Skinny to Muscled - post roundup & expansion

I've written a number of posts on going from skinny to muscled. I needed to round them all up for a client who is on that journey himself. So why not share out that round up with some additional advice?

There are three essential posts on this blog on the subject:

Three Easy Ways to Add Calories

Eating to Gain for Skinny Guys: Part I

Eating to Gain for Skinny Guys: Part II

Here is some more general advice that will help skinny guys.

Training Frequency and Intensity Errors

Don't do too little . . . or too much.

Too little means missing workouts. Skipping out on half of what you're supposed to do because you don't like that. Substituting things you like for things you hate. Rationalizing swaps ("The elliptical is legs, so I can do that instead of Bulgarian split-squats!) or skips ("I'm still tired from last workout.")

Too much is the opposite approach - adding in more and more reps, more and more exercises, more and more frequency. Doing "active recovery" that somehow involves 100 pushups and high-intensity cardio. Training every day, no matter what. Skipping sleep or meals to lift ("I need to lift and I can't eat right before I lift, so I won't eat!")

You want something in the optimal middle range for frequency and intensity. Ideally:

- You lift hard 3x a week. You can do as little as twice and as much as four times a week if you're going hard and have a program designed around it. But your goal is mass gain and strength gain over the maximum amount of time you can sustain it. Don't get hooked in by a high-frequency approach that's meant for short-term use (a squat-every-day program meant for a 3-4 week cycle, say) or for fat loss (heavy lifting combined with frequent low-intensity cardio and fast days, for example).

- You do your postural and mobility work frequently. Rehab/prehab exercises, pull-aparts, chin tucks, stretches, mobility drills - you almost certainly need these. This is the stuff you need to do often. Instead of sneaking in some extra biceps curls or pushups or a set on the leg press, sneak in hourly band pull-aparts or planks or glute activation drills. No client I've ever had broke down, stayed weak, or ruined their progress because they did too many deep-breathing exercises or scapular retraction drills on their off days. And all of that does add up to more strength and more muscle.

Eat a Baseline, not a Maximum

The most common error in skinny guys wanting to get muscled is not eating enough. That's hammered into the posts above. Eat, eat, eat. It's homework. It's a job. That food being outside of you instead of inside of you is the obstacle to success.

Track your food - for 3 days a week at least - with an app or a journal. Set a minimum and make sure you hit it. Try to exceed it with as much quality food as you can stand.

Especially if you use an app, expect to get nagged to stay under your calories. Consider the "attaboys" you get as black marks against you. When your app says, "Wow, you ate so little today! Congrats!" read it as "Wow, you've sabotaged all of the work you did! Why did you do that?"

One particular approach I used with success was to eat a minimum every day, and one day a week try to exceed that by as much as possible without getting sick. Packing in 4000 kcals a day? Try for 6000-8000+ one day (and I'd let the quality go a little on the extras).

Finally, be willing to adjust the number upward. If you set yourself at 2500 a day and gain, great. If you aren't putting on weight week to week, up to to 3500. Then 4500. Keep going until you gain. Yes, this is a lot of food. Yes, this is work.

People will say, "I wish I could eat all of that, it must be great!" or "That must be nice to be able to eat so much." They're wrong. It's work. It can be enjoyable work, but you have to eat even when you're not hungry and spend money on food even when money is tight. You have to shop even when you don't feel like it because you rip through a fridge worth of food in no time at all. Do it, and muscle awaits you.

Food Quality and Quantity

Think meats and fish and vegetables and fruits over sugar and sweets and things that in bags with serving sizes written on the labels. The advice I gave in those posts above is basically drink milk, eat a lot of meat (it could easily be fish), drink a quality protein powder - put good food in you.

If you have to choose between bad food and no food, eat the bad food. But endeavor to make it good food as much as possible. People have gotten bigger, stronger, and better on cruddy institutionalized food supplied by the lowest bidder - but I'd bet they didn't get healthier on it. Good food, in large quantities.

By all means live it up - now is the time to enjoy those treats, eat a piece of cake, have that breaded chicken in sauce from the buffet, etc. etc. You'll look back fondly on the time you could eat half of a pie as dessert because you needed it. But put that on top of the good foods you eat.


You'll grow and gain when you rest, not when you train. Your training and eating is the stimulus for your body to grow and add muscle, but sleep is when you'll realize those gains. Sleep as much as you can.

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