Are you a skinny guy having a hard time getting strong, and building your physique?
Sick of looking into the mirror with disgust about the lack of results despite all your hard work?
Ever feel like this training stuff is just a big waste of time?
If you’ve struggled to put on size and strength in the past, consider this your lucky day.
Today’s advice may be slightly different than most of what you’ve read about getting big and strong.
Instead of merely stating the obvious actions you must take, I’m going to cover one of the most important things you can ever do for yourself if you want to get big and strong, and stay that way.
Beware though. I’m not going to recommend any killer new muscle gain programs, or something bright and shiny for you to get distracted with.
The last thing you need is to make a switch to yet another program, or second-guess yourself.
What You Need Is A System
Before we dive into this concept, let’s first cover a few reasons skinny guys typically have a hard time achieving their muscle building goals.
Here’s a general list of issues I’ve encountered in my day…
- chronic under eating
- poor diet choices
- lack of proper training
- bad sleep habits
- lack of general consistency with all of the above
- no system in place for success
The typical skinny guy looking to build his physique is unique in a manner of ways.
Many Skinny Guys Under Eat
If I had a dollar for every time I heard the classic excuse “I eat a lot — I swear I’m eating enough,” I’d have a lot of dollars.
This is the typical trap many guys fall into. It’s easy to think you’re eating a lot even if you aren’t. The only way to truly know how much you’re eating is to track and measure.
I know it sounds tedious, but it’s not unheard of for guys to eat 2-3 big meals per day relying on hunger signals alone, only to discover they’re drastically under their caloric needs for putting on body weight, gaining size and strength.
Countless times I’ve had males track their intake for a few days only to find out they’re not eating as much as they’d originally thought.
What was once thought to be upwards of 3500+ calories ends up being around 2500 or fewer.
If you’re in the gym 3-5 days per week, and eating too little, no amount of training is going to make you gain the size and strength you want.
Another skinny guy issue is the self-sustaining trap that habitual eating can create.
Our bodies are smart. Homeostasis is much easier for some than others, especially the guys who seem to eat a lot and not gain weight.
The only answer for this is to stick with eating a fixed amount, track and measure over time, and then assess after a few weeks.
Once you’re familiar with the portions, you won’t have to track so closely all the time.
But beware… old habits die hard, and it’s easy to fall back into the place of relying on hunger cues and not eating enough.
The tracking portion requires a system, we’ll get to that soon.
Poor Diet Choices
Alongside the issue of not eating enough comes the dilemma of poor diet choices. This is twofold:
- following fad diets
- misinterpreting dietary advice
I’m not going to cover everything here, but many fad diets promise a benefit that usually can’t be substantiated by much other than quack science (read: far too inconclusive).
We can speculate all day about what the Paleo diet, targeted keto, or latest IIFYM concoction can do for you, but in the end, it all comes down to the essentials.
Those essentials are getting a solid balance of protein, carbs and fats to help you make the physique changes you desire.
In general, I think it’s good to abstain from the belief that a certain diet will yield a particular result over another because it’s not practical to obsess over tiny details.
So don’t go believing that eating a Paleo diet will grant you all the gains without any body fat.
Oh, and the idea of cutting out all carbs or fat in the name of massive muscle acquisition is a BIG mistake.
Misinterpreting Otherwise Good Dietary Advice
Whiles there’s a ton of bad dietary advice, there’s also plenty of good stuff, too.
Everything has context. Remember that.
For instance, intermittent fasting can be a great tool for those looking to make dieting to single digits easier than previous efforts. 24-hour fasts 1-2 days per week is also a pretty suave solution for the typical dieting woes.
But following IF with the hopes of gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time is generally a BAD idea for most skinny guys.
It’s actually a mental trap that can keep them stagnant for months.
You ask them what they’re doing after training for 4 months without gaining a single pound, and no visible changes to their body and they respond with “I’m recomping.”
Riiiight… How’s that going for you again?
Chances are it’s not going anywhere.
Another idea is that it’s okay to eat nothing but pop tarts, candy, and take-out as long as you hit your macros.
But herein lies a few problems.
You can’t really know if it fits your macros because you’re not preparing it yourself, and food quality is usually very subpar compared to what you could make at home.
Surviving on overly processed carbohydrate, and cheap fat sources (most low-quality polyunsaturated varieties) will be hard on your health, and possibly equally as hard on your physique.
I have nothing against Paleo or IIFYM, but people like to take these ideas to extremes. I’ve found that for most everything in life, taking the middle road is usually best.
Lack of Proper Training
Without writing an entire section on this, I want to cut to the meat and potatoes. If you’re on this site, you probably have a good idea of what good training looks like.
Proper, to me, means a major focus on large muscle groups using compound movements, and hitting the entire body fairly frequently.
3-4 times per week is typically the sweet spot.
Body part training (usual high-rep bodybuilding splits) have their place, and you will eventually graduate to those, but it’s not essential, or even optimal for most skinny guys.
My favorite movements are weighted dips and chins, squats, leg presses, deadlifts (all versions), hyperextensions, rows, overhead presses, and shrugs.
I’m also a fan of finishing off your workouts with a good amount of ‘pump’ work using isolation movements and/or complexes.
Oh yeah… barbell curls, after all, are VERY functional for building big biceps.
Don’t waste your time jumping from program to program.
Focus on strength, and building your intensity each session. Mindfulness and focus can take you very far. Here’s an article I wrote for Arnold’s website. Here’s my contribution on bodybuilding.com — The Power of Focus.
Again… you need a system in place. You need structure. We’ll get to it in a bit.
Horrible Sleep Habits
Look, you might think you sleep well, but going to bed at 1 a.m. multiple nights per week and/or getting less than 7-8 hours of rest per night could be messing with your recovery, as well as your hormones which are responsible for anabolism, and otherwise good health.
It’s pretty common for students or hardworking nine-to-fivers to skimp on sleep. Averaging 4-5 hours a night was typical for me when I was in college.
It’s no wonder many of us are stressed and worn out.
Consistently not getting enough sleep can result in plummeting testosterone, as well as the rise of stress hormones such as cortisol.
While sleep is super important, many of us tend to neglect it… probably more than any other part of this muscle-building equation. Remember, if you’re a skinny guy, you need every advantage you can get.
Sleep hygiene seems a foreign endeavor. Getting enough sleep and to bed on time is not only good for your muscle gain efforts, but for mood, proper recovery, immune system function, and your libido.
Circadian Rhythm, in Brief
Our bodies prefer we rise and set with the sun. It’s endogenous and totally in line with our biology and evolution.
Have you ever stayed up past midnight, gotten a full 8-9 hours of sleep, and still felt like shit the next day?
Yeah? I have too.
Staying up late can be a result of many things such as anxiousness, working late, depression, partying, or meth addiction.
One culprit messing with our ability to get to sleep is blue light from our computer screens, televisions, smartphones, and tablets.
At night, our bodies produce a hormone called melatonin, which is very sensitive to the light entering our eyes. This hormone is produced as the sun goes down, and will continue throughout the night as we sleep.
As light hits our eyes in the evening, melatonin production can be switched off which, in turn, makes it increasingly difficult to fall asleep.
Any light (sun, lamps, etc) can suppress melatonin production, but our circadian rhythms seem to be most funked up by the blue light from our computer screens and more modern light bulbs. For more studies, check out this NYT article.
It’s not necessary, nor practical, to rid yourself of artificial lighting after the sun goes down, but you should definitely keep in mind how it’s affecting your sleep, and thusly your muscle gains and overall health.
To cope, I’ve found the following apps to be of tremendous benefit. For my macs, I use a software called f.lux.
It’s really too bad Apple hasn’t created an app version for the iPhone and iPad. I’ve heard there’s a possibility for using f.lux on your Apple devices if you decide to jailbreak them, but I haven’t tried that.
If you’re using a Windows machine, it seems f.lux is now available as well.
If you’re an Android user, there’s a neat app I just installed on my Nexus called Twilight, and so far I love it. It’s very similar to f.lux.
With Twilight, I use a very dim setting so my sleep is not affected at all from reading my Kindle books before passing out.
Of course, the other option is avoiding computers, phones and tablets a few hours before bedtime, but that’s not always possible, which is another reason to install those free apps above…
One more note: if you’re in your late teens or early twenties and scoffing at all these remarks about how important sleep is, consider this: while your body is very robust, it will wear down over time if you don’t give attention to proper sleep and recovery.
Just like nutrition and lifting are very important, sleep is just as crucial to your success. I once fell into the trap of believing ‘I could sleep when I’m dead’ but that was a very foolish ideal.
It eventually caught up to me, and it will you too.
Skinny Guys Lack Consistency
We are, at this very moment, a product of our habits — good or bad.
Nothing worth having in this world comes by chance. Everything comes with a price, and we all have to pay it, one way or another.
The way you pay that price is through creating habits.
Habits simply are what you do on a very consistent basis.
You brush your teeth every morning and night. That’s a habit.
You make coffee right after your shower every morning. Habit.
You take a certain route to work everyday. Another habit.
Habits are created with consistency of effort. Like anything… you have to train yourself to continually do something.
Most skinny guys lack consistency with their training, diet, or all of what I mentioned above.
Don’t believe me? It’s evident in the fact they’ve not made changes to their physique, even after lots of trying.
The truth is you can’t fib about what you’ve been doing.
Sure, you might have worked out hard today, but what about 2 days ago? Did you train with a similar intensity? Did you even train at all?
Have you been keeping records of your training? Keeping a food journal?
Time is the ultimate test, and if you’re consistent with all variables, it’s virtually impossible not to succeed.
Tynan wrote a great post called ‘Sticking to it Works.’ Check that out and see what consistency did for someone in the field of art. Hint: it works in every field.
If you haven’t made the progress you’d like to make, I’m your bearer of bad news… You probably haven’t been committed and diligent enough.
So let’s get on with what it really takes.
You don’t need to set more goals. You don’t need new motivation. You probably don’t need a new program.
What you need is clarity and consistent action.
Building Your Personal System
There are two types of people in this world; those that create goals, and those that create systems.
Goals without a system are futile.
If you have no plan of action, you can’t get anywhere. It’s akin to a ship without a captain — a derelict.
Goals are also hard for people who are extremely driven. In the past, I’ve set very high standards for myself.
Sometimes I’d hit the mark, and sometimes I’d be way off due to underestimating how long it would take to accomplish something.
When my results didn’t match up with the time frame, I felt a personal guilt and shame. I’d spiral into a thinking I was a failure, and unworthy.
This is the crappy part about aiming for the stars with an exact date for completion.
It’s being too outcome-dependent.
The flip side is remaining present while also setting some benchmarks for yourself. It’s maintaining a daily focus and taking action toward your goal, without placing a specific time frame on it.
When you keep your focus on today, you have no time to worry about tomorrow, or what you did the day before.
This is where a System trumps traditional goal-setting every single time.
If you work on something long enough, you will see the fruits of your labor. It’s impossible not to.
In order to succeed, you need to become great at building tiny habits that will propel you forward. Many people act on motivation, but it’s forever fleeting.
I’m never motivated to brush my teeth, but I know that if I don’t, I’ll get cavities and they’ll fall out.
I brush my teeth because of two reasons:
If I don’t, I’ll suffer major consequences.
I’ve been doing it so long that I don’t have make a conscious decision to do it.
There’s no motivation needed after you’ve established the habit.
Habits are created through repetition. There’s an old saying that it takes 21 days to create a habit. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s definitely the right idea — doing something consistently.
So how do you create new habits?
You start small, and build on them over time.
The biggest trap is picking many things you want to change and trying them all at once. I only recommend picking one change, and maybe two at a time, but no more than that.
You should, at first, pick something very easy.
Leo Babauta told me one time that he wanted to jog on a daily basis. His biggest problem was getting started.
He said if he didn’t get to running in the morning right away, it would become harder to get it done as the day went on.
Therefore he would create a situation that was very hard to ignore. He would set up a trigger that would make his goal of running in the morning very easy to stick with.
Triggers are what happens right before we do perform our habits.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you want to floss every day. You need to pick something you already do daily and attach the idea of flossing to your already-established habit.
Brushing your teeth makes the most sense here.
Brushing teeth = the trigger.
Flossing = the new habit you want to create.
Therefore, everyday after you brush, you’ll be reminded to floss.
If this sounds simple, it’s because it is. Not all triggers and habits are this easy to create, but it’s the same principle nonetheless.
Let’s get back to Leo’s example.
His trigger was to set his running shoes by his bed, so ever morning when he woke up, all he had to do was slip into them.
He said that if just got his shoes laced up, it was enough effort to get him out the door.
He made it easy on himself by putting his shoes right there as a reminder he couldn’t possibly ignore.
As a result, as long as he laced up, he’d get on with his run.
And it was a success. He became a runner and did multiple races and marathons.
How To Set Up Your Own System
Pick a goal you want to accomplish
Write it down and forget about specific time periods to achieve it by. If you’re a skinny guy, I’m sure you want to be big and strong. Good – write it down. There needs to be some urgency, but no need for impractical deadlines. This is a journey.
Establish Your Training
Decide what it will take to get there. For instance, you know you’ll need to train 3-4 days per week. Carve out the time on your calendar and make that sacred to you. It’s your time to reflect, train, and do what you gotta do. Your body is a high priest, and the gym is your sanctuary.
Commit To Your Meal Times
Make time for all of your meals. Commit to eating at certain times, and stick with it.
Decide you’re going to track your calories and adjust only when needed. This means you will make sure you’re getting enough protein, carbs and fat, and adjust upward or downward as needed (no more than once every 2-3 weeks).
Creating a plan and tracking accordingly will help you remain objective. Adjustments become a matter of rational, as opposed to emotional, decisions.
For macro and calorie guidelines, this is a good resource.
Make Sleep a Major Priority
Cut off all bright screens an hour before bed, or make sure you use f.lux or twilight. Establish a nightly ritual you can stick to make sure you’re in bed at a similar time each night. Try to rise and fall with the sun. Your body wants to, so why fight it?
Be Committed to Consistency
If you want this bad enough, you will create the process necessary to succeed. I’ve been training for 14 years. It’s no longer something I consciously decide to do — it’s merely a part of my being.
Track Your Journey
Make sure you keep good notes. This is one of the most important parts of the system. How can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been? Track your training. Track your intake. Journal about your progress.
Keep notes at all times! It will also serve as encouragement and motivation in the times you feel stuck, or dissatisfied.
If you want the body of a physique model, you can’t get it by chance.
Create your system.
Put in the time to create positive, daily habits.
Forget about deadlines and focus on the moment.
Will you transform your body a year from now? You can, and it’s entirely up to you.