Is High Intensity Training Best for Ectomorphs?

Since December 2010, I have been a huge fan of  High Intensity Training. I’m in the best shape of my life and unlike my free weight days, I never get injured anymore. In other words, everything is going great.

A few days ago, I was reviewing some information in the outstanding book Body By Science regarding genetic potential and intensity. After a detailed explanation on all the factors that determine our genetic potential for muscle size, the book explains how some individuals respond best to High Intensity and other respond best to Modest Intensity.

Individuals who have two copies of the insertion gene (an “ii” gene) of the angiotensin converting enzyme tend to have high levels of slow-twitch fiberts and to be especially endurance oriented…

And:

People with the “ii” version likely respond better to higher repetitions, longer TULs, and even multiple sets…

How did I miss the importance of this paragraph the first three times I read the book? He is speaking directly to ectomorphs. Maybe this one set to failure isn’t the best idea for the lanky lifter? I couldn’t let this drop, so I did some more research.

Body by Science: A Research Based Program to Get the Results You Want in 12 Minutes a Week

Dr. Doug McGuff in his article Grist For The Mill referenced High Intensity Training’s pioneer Arthur Jones.

Slow twitch motor units produce modest contractile force, fatigue slowly, and recover quickly. Because of their fast recovery profile, these are the motor units that might stand to benefit from repeated exposure to stress and fatigue (this has been borne out in data collected by Arthur Jones that showed subjects with a predominance of slow twitch fibers actually perform better on a second set after a first set to failure).

This opinion isn’t just that of McGuff, it is common. Mike Westerdal of CriticalBench.com in the article High Intensity Training versus Volume Training had similar advice for ectomorphs. In the quote below, VT stands for Volume Training.

Ectomorphs tend to respond better to VT better than HIT. Ectomorphs are thin, light-framed and sometimes have long limbs. For these guys, it takes longer to gain muscle than for your average mesomorph, who usually has a more rectangular frame with more muscle mass. A lot of ectomorphs really need the longer workouts and higher reps to stimulate muscle growth.

This got me thinking that I might be giving false credit to the one-set to failure. What else changed when I adopted HIT? Two things. I abandoned free weights for machines and I slowed down my movements. Free weight exercises were very hard on my body. I covered that already in the posts My Bench Press Sucks and I Don’t Care and I Don’t Give a Squat About the Squat. At first I was skeptical about using machines, because the movements seemed too easy. Only when I slowed the movement down and experimented with static holds did I become a believer in using machines. I was no longer “throwing weights”, which is a phrase Arthur Jones used to describe fast moving weight lifting.

Returning to Volume

I need to know if the benefits I’ve gotten from High Intensity Training are really from using machines in a slow controlled manner or from going to failure. Starting with my next workout, I will lower my intensity and increase my volume.

If you are an ectomorph or have experience training ectomorphs, I’d love to hear your feedback. Also, if you have any ideas on how I should construct my volume workout, please leave a comment. My initial thought is to increase my workout volume to twice a week, increase sets to three, use a slow (not SuperSlow) movement and stop short of going to failure. The exercises would still be the ones used the Big 5 Workout. Maybe I’ll restrict failure to one movement per week or one week per month? Good idea?

AUGUST 2013 UPDATE: Is High Intensity Training Best for Ectomorphs? One Year Later

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MAS

Critical MAS is the blog for Michael Allen Smith of Seattle, Washington. My interests include traditional food, fitness, economics, and web development.

68 thoughts on “Is High Intensity Training Best for Ectomorphs?”

  1. The problem with this is that at the moment its predominantly speculative and theoretical. When we wrote our Evidence Based Resistance Training Recommendations we struggled to find any research that had compared responses based on somatotype let alone studies that had identified different somatotypes, or responders vs non-responders, and then further split those groups to investigate the response to different training approaches. We found one study that used on training approach but differentiated between their mesomorphs and ectomorphs and found (surprise surprise) that mesomorphs gained more muscle mass than ectomorphs.

    The research Jamie Timmons groups is doing is great with regards to looking at responders vs non-responders for some characteristics and for some training approaches (HIIT). It would be great if a group with the technology to look into it started investigating it. Although, just somatotyping would be sufficient for a simple study. You’ve given me an idea to pursue at some point now. It’s going in my “To conduct a study some day” folder.

    Thanks MAS

    James

  2. Hey MAS,

    I’ve been doing a Big Three workout for probably 5 months now (leg press, chest press, pulldown), and I, too, am an ectomorph. I typically get TULs in the 90 second range, and if they go above that, I increase the weight. The problem is, I’ve been stuck for several weeks at current weights and my TULs aren’t moving. Maybe this phenomenon is why. I may experiment with lowering the weight to extend my TULs and then see if the progress goes further from there.

  3. I am a 47 year old Ectomorph, 5’7″, 130 lbs (with a bit of a gut no less). Unfortunately for the atypical, I think we may be experiments of one.

    I have been trying weight training since my late teens to put some meat on my slight frame, with negligible success. For some time I followed the writings of Stuart McRobert, Clarence Bass and anyone who seemed to be thinking in this field (and wasn’t on steroids) and over the years I have tried many protocols, I am always following research into fitness and resistance training (which I why I was lurking here).

    Here are some observations of what failed/worked(sort of) for me, and a recent experiment that I had to discontinue.

    Failure:
    1/week per body part. This had me sore as heck for 4 days after workouts, yet I pretty much never progressed, it was just extreme DOMs pain with no gain.

    Low Reps(standard speed): I don’t seem to be able to progress on low Reps at all (5-8). Even medium is questionable(8-12).

    One set: This never did anything for me. I didn’t get sore, I didn’t grow, I didn’t progress.

    Worked (sort of):
    Best success was working out at a college gym MWF at lunch same workout (so 3 days a week/exercise) back when I was in college. I attained my heaviest body weight (~140lbs) I remember bench pressing 170lbs for reps. Though that was ~20 years ago and I had a friend for a training partner.

    At a previous employer for whatever reason, I defied the common wisdom about rep ranges and started making progress on 14-20 range on some exercise. But I think I was limited by the 2/week maximum amount of workout to allow recover time thinking then (and not wanting to be in the gym that much).

    Today: my economic situation says Gym memberships are a luxury, so I do mainly bodyweight/dumbbell exercise at home, and in the summer it drops off because I get into biking. I was trying to follow a twice/week per exercise regime (of Chins/DB Rows/pushups/Overhead DB press/DB squats/Wall sit). These days I just hope to hold the line on muscle loss.

    The experiment. For whatever reason, I finally had an epiphany about conventional wisdom not actually working for me so I decided to pick a variable and experiment on me. I picked one exercise and go with 3 sets, of higher reps, these were two elements I felt certain I needed after reflecting back. What I really planned to study was sessions/week. I was leaning toward even 2/week not being enough for me, figuring 3/week or every 2nd day, might be better. But I decided to start with the silly. Every day. When that proved futile or even clearly detrimental, or after one month, then move to every second day(then the same 1 every 3 days, 1 every 4). I hoped I might even chart a bell curve that clearly demonstrated every day/1 per week were out and every 2 or 3 days was idea. This was finding out what actually worked for me. Unfortunatley I had to cut the experiment very short.

    Here is what happened:

    I moved pushups out of my regular workouts which I planned to keep doing. I started doing my three sets (essentially the same thing I was stagnating at in my more normal workouts 2/week) every day around breakfast. But this was not a case of drop and give me twenty each morning, I was aiming for progression and doing each set to failure.

    The thing is that I was showing steady gains. The workouts felt awesome, After 3 days my pecs were pumped like crazy at each workout, I just kept getting better every day for about a week. This seemed like the easy gains I had always heard everyone talk about but never really experienced. But day 6 and 7 I started getting headaches and day 8 I had to quit because of them. Not only that, but I had to quit any lifting workouts because the same thing would happen on almost any resistance exercise. I can still bike intensely though.

    I have only rarely had exertion related headaches in the past, they usually got the back of my head, I think from tensing neck muscles and I usually got past them quickly, these were different. More around the eyes and much more predictable, I could feel the onset building with each rep and practically any resistance exercise I tried until I decided to back off for a while before restarting.

    I wish I had more data, but this was a recent experiment and I am backing off for a time before I try again, but during that one week, I had better improvement than in any previous month of training in my life. I definitely plan to return to this experiment, but your post hit so close to home, I felt compelled to share.

    I don’t think every day workouts would have long term sustainable gains, but it may be the proper starting point to get muscles ready to move on to the next stage, for this weak ectomorph. But it does seem though that it caused some kind of systemic overtrain effect or a bigger spike in BP.

    I will bookmark this page to followup when I get around to giving it another shot.

  4. I’ve found that squats and deadlifts do nothing for me in terms of leg definition and size. But, running hill sprints, 1-2 times per week, makes my legs explode. Both in terms of size and being cut. On the opposite side of the spectrum, my upper body requires a huge volume of work to see any noticeable difference in the mirror. 50-100 reps of presses and pulls and 25-50 reps for accessory lifts (curls, shrugs and etc…) Repeated 2-3 times per week. So, low volume and high intensity makes my legs grow and high volume and medium intensity for my upper body.

  5. I’m also an ectomorph, and have also achieved the best body composition of my life, at age 52, using an HIT approach.

    I found, after using a TUL of 90 to 120 seconds for a couple of years and then plateauing, that I could resume progress by increasing the TUL to 120 to 180 seconds. I sometimes combine that slow-cadence set with followup sets of faster reps, as in the Leangains reverse pyramid approach, though I don’t think the followup sets are actually that important.

    I also found that I needed to split my workouts to avoid overtraining (my split workouts are about every six days).

  6. i realize you just came upon this new info. i have to ask, if you are happy with your current results, why change things?

    “I’m in the best shape of my life and I unlike my free weight days, I never get injured anymore. In other words, everything is going great.”

    your return on time and effort invested has been incredible by your accounts.

  7. I admit I’m guessing, but I don’t see any reason why you would stop short of failure. Lighter loads and more reps sometimes break through plateaus regardless of body type. As do dropsets. So, apparently, do most change-ups. I realize there is a school of thought suggesting that one should never lift to failure, but I haven’t been able to find any experimental evidence in support.

    I’m an ectomorph who was impressed by BBS, but I hedge my bets by doing two sets of most exercises, even throwing in an occasional drop set.

  8. A lot of great comments.

    I posted this because I know many of the readers of this blog are male ectomorphs over 35 years ago that seek muscle. We are a rare breed. Most of our fellow ectomorphs gave up the free weight room and are excelling in sports such as running, biking and skiing. Fitness professionals tend not to focus too much on us and often the advice we are given is trite nonsense.

    Even though I am satisifed with my current training, I now have a seed of doubt that I need to explore. Is it the machines, the slow movements, going to failure in 1 set or some combination? If stress is the limiting factor in muscle growth for ectomorphs would reducing the intensity trigger more growth? Since we have more slow twitch muscle fibers, would additional sets provide more growth stimulus? I don’t know, but I aim to find out.

  9. @Peter S – Thanks for posting. Sorry your comment didn’t show up immediately. I an far more likely to get an exertion headache when the gym temperature is warmer. For me that is anything over 68 F. If the gym is warmer, I actually will go outside to cool down between exercises. Otherwise, I risk getting headaches.

  10. I’m certainly in that boat, I’m 36 and while not especially small, I don’t put on massive amounts of muscle. What I’ve settled on is focusing on getting stronger. I don’t know if that’s right, but I assuming that as long as I’m getting stronger on a consistant basis then I’m doing all I can.

    I’m very close to completely accepting that there may be too much of a genetic headwind to building muscle for some of us. HIT has given me more strength gains that I thought were possible and I’ve really enjoyed it. I find that I can significantly outlift guys in the gym that look much better with their shirts off than I do and I guess that’s just how it goes. It’s not like I look terrible, but I don’t look as strong as I am.

    Settling into my armchair evolutionary biologist chair, it seems to me that there’s a significant advantage of being able to gain strength without putting on much muscle. Maybe we’re just at the top of the wrong evolutionary heap 🙂

  11. Sorry, didn’t realize how huge my post was… But this really hit home for me.

    I haven’t had much success, but every little bit I have had, indicates HIT doesn’t work for me. I do believe in going to failure, but low volume, low frequency and low reps all seem counterproductive for me. Hence my experiment. Which was going really well until the exertion headaches.

    I can’t do much about temperature here, even with AC, it is 24C+, and it isn’t better outside.

  12. I feel that parts of my musculature are more ectomorphic than others.

    For instance, as part of my regular schedule, I’ll do a Max Pyramid hip belt squat to failure and be perfectly wiped out in my quads. But the next day, I’ll try it again and almost match the time of my “official” workout — maybe 85%.

    On the other hand, upper body exercises to failure really do wipe out the muscle’s output power for a couple of days. I’ve tried repeating a pull-down or overhead press the next day, and it’s obvious I’m unable to sustain the hold for anywhere near the time of the day before.

    Maybe ectomorphic is the wrong word here. Slow twitch versus fast twitch probably.

  13. @All – We are still in the stone age when it comes to quantifying muscle fibers and potential. I imagine someday that an athlete will be scanned in a pod and have an optimal program designed based upon genetics and muscle fiber components for each muscle group.

    No more years of bad programs and risking injury following protocols with low probabilities for our body types. Until that day comes – we test and then leave clues for the younger ectomorphs just beginning their strength training.

  14. Robb Wolf had a question on this week’s podcast about genetic based training protocol. The information he shared about a female, slow twitch dominant client was interesting.

    I do not practice HIT though I occasionally to one slow set to failure for variety. But as I understand it the benefits of machine-based, slow rep HIT aren’t just muscle gain. How do you intend to protect safety (including joint health) with increased volume?

    I really think that one of the big barriers to old ectomorphs like me is stress. Between my kids, my house, and my job I have such a high level of personal stress that even a great training program probably wouldn’t do much for me. Have your stress reduction ideas been helping you?

  15. @Geoff – You asked;

    “How do you intend to protect safety (including joint health) with increased volume?”

    Probably a combination of lower weight and faster movements. By faster, I mean still slow (3-4 seconds in each direction, as opposed to 5-10 seconds). I just started dialing this in, so I don’t have any firm ideas. My #1 goal will always be safety.

    It is too soon to see if my stress reduction program is helping my body composition, but I can already feel it helping my mood. More on those ideas in a future post.

  16. Peter S – I had a similar experience with headaches with shooting pain behind the eyes after straining on an incline bench press a few years ago. I tried rest and deep massage and neither one helped. Then I went to a chiropractor, who did a quick twist of my neck and cracked it. Over the next week the problem faded away and hasn’t returned.

    Also, I’ve found daily training to greatly increase performance. Just remember to give yourself a few days off when you feel yourself wearing down. You’ll know the feeling when you get there.

  17. At 5’7 and just under 160lbs, I would put myself in the ectomorph club also. My current approach ( and I apologise for referencing Richard Winett again ) is to do 1 set per exercise but do 2 to 4 exercises per muscle group. I train the upper body twice per week and the lower body once ( but I do sprints or intervals, either running or on an exercise bike ) two other days in the week, so my legs get worked. The exercises I utilize are mainly influenced by Bill DeSimone, but with one or two exceptions. Winett in his publication “Master Trainer” referenced at least one study that indicated that 3 sets per muscle group produced more muscle protein synthesis than 1 set, but 6 sets did not produce more than 3, which suggests that there is a case of diminishing returns. Winett and colleague suggest that as multi joint exercises effect more than one muscle group at a time and there is some overlap ( eg chest presses effect pectorals, delts and triceps ) that a routine can be constructed via mainly multi joint exercises so that muscle groups can be hit 3 times with as minimum an overall volume as possible. Clarence Bass has written about Winetts approach and adopts something similar himself.
    My upper body workouts have 12 to 14 sets and my lower body workouts have about 10. With 60 to 90 seconds between sets, depending on how long it takes me to change weights, my workouts take just over 30 minutes, not including warm ups which are an extra 15 minutes or so.
    I’ve found that this approach has been working fairly well. I used to also follow a Stuart McRobert approach, as heavy a weight as possible for low to high reps ( depending on my focus at the time ), but I used a rest pause approach thinking that the weight was as important than the effort. Often my form was less than perfect owing to the eagerness to add weight and / or reps. This over the years led to chronic aches and pains, with not too much to show for it in size or strength. I’m NOT criticizing Stuart McRobert at all….it was my interpretation of his approach that was at fault.
    Now with my hybrid DeSimone / Winett approach, higher reps, a 2/2 rep speed, a concentration on correct technique and working to either concentric failure, or a rep short ( no rest pause or post failure techniques at all ), I’m using less weight, and my strength might be a bit less, but muscle size wise I’m at least the same, or better than I was 10 years ago, and with the use of less cardio, but more slow movement and a better attention to diet, my definition is as good as it ever was. The best thing is, thanks to DeSimone / Winett and reading blogs like this one I’m STILL training, and relatively pain free ( any pain I have is due to past mistakes )…and as I’m never going to be the next Arnold that to me is more important.

  18. @Stuart G – Thanks for sharing. I might use some of your ideas as I dial in a program that works for me. My workout today used more of a 4/4 rep speed with 3 sets of 3 major exercises and I’m toast. The variance might be the reason.

  19. I too have tweaked my routine from the one in BBS.

    Nowadays, I still work out once a week the big 5 but I go for 5×5 or 3×8 (sets by reps) depending on how I feel and what I am after (strength vs. size). The last set is to failure so my log for a given exercise might end up looking like 55558. For those muscles that are hard to train (legs in my case) I start with a set to failure and take it from there.

    Regarding sets and reps, this approach is the best so far and by far.

    I don’t know if you care but your blog is quite neat language-wise so check out the typo in the 2nd sentence “…my life and I unlike my free weight…”

  20. @Txomin – Thank you very much for catching the typo. I fixed it.

    When you do your volume approach, what rep speed do you use?

  21. Mmm…oddly enough I have doing HIT off-an-on and lately more structured since you mentioned that guy who wrote the hacking body book?? I was just thinking about earlier today how HIT doesn’t seem to be working for me. I read that MAX CONTRACTION book that makes sense but it is really for people who are genetically muscular to begin with.

    I have lost muscle mass. At first it was successful or so it seemed as I was sore. However, I have not been able to get the type of physique I used to have when I did the usual heavy weights/6-10 reps/structured routine of 10 or so exercises.

    Starting tomorrow, I’m going back to my old routine but HIT was not a waste as I will try to pare down the time spent lifting considerably.

  22. I must admit that I prefer to do 1 set of 3 different exercises over 3 sets of 1. This is for two reasons. The first is that 3 different exercises train the muscle with different movement patterns. Also I find that ( apart from the changes of weight between exercises, I now train at home using dumbbells and bodyweight exercises ) I can focus and train harder on 3 different exercises, I think that my focus would be watered down on an exercise trained on 3 sets to failure or close to it. I do occasionally train 3 sets of the same exercise, as a change, but it’s in a cumulative fatigue format, where the first two sets are a lead up to the last set which may or may not reach the desired rep count. In that instance I will only tend to use 1 exercise, and it will be seen as a break in intensity from failure training on all sets per muscle group. I use that approach all the time on bodyweight exercises like press ups and inverted rows which are difficult to add excessive amounts of weight to. I do 2 sets per exercises having a rep goal for each, I start with 2 minutes between sets and over the weeks reduce the rest time between sets by 5 seconds, if I can achieve my rep target on both sets.

  23. @Thomas – Two thoughts come to mind, maybe you weren’t eating enough or you needed longer periods of rest between workout days.

  24. Hey MAS,

    this has got to be one of the most thought provoking articles you have written.

    I am a 22-year old ectomorph who has been trying to tweak my BBS/HIT style workout with a one set to failure approach using MedX equipment. I found that performing this kind of workout every fifth day was optimal for me. However, as of recently I have been introducing multiple sets for several of the big compound movements. My approach is largely based on Martin Berkhans leangains.com program with the reverse pyramid system at the core.

    Starting with the highest load going to failure on the first set and then cutting it down on the subsequent sets has left me satisfied and more responsive to muscle growth. The nice side effect I like is that I get to spend a bit more time in the gym which I just genuinly enjoy.

    Try it out.. as long as you dont overdo it, you can only benefit from it.

  25. @Thomas – Two thoughts come to mind, maybe you weren’t eating enough or you needed longer periods of rest between workout days.

    I don’t seem to eat enough because I am vegetarian anyway but the HIT led to an increase my midsection (too much rest). But heavy aerobic just makes me hungrier and I though HIT would alleviate this but I need to find a balance that is why I think 2sets/8-10reps/heavy may be optimal for me. As a vegetarian I wouldn’t say I am constantly hungry but rather constantly unfulfilled/satiated. I feel like I need cheese all the time to satisfy my craving for fats.

    Also it is very hard to do max contractions in general alone for some reason. Better to have a partner or goal. Maybe I should move to Venice Beach and all those spectators at the gym will motivate me. I do seem to be getting stronger or at least maintaining my strength.

  26. I still work around TUL. However, it is far more productive to think in terms of Poliquin-like tempo metrics. In other words, if I am doing a set of 5 reps and my target is a 90secs TUL, each rep would be described as 9-2-7 or 12-0-6 or even 18-0-X. If I am doing a set of 8 reps in 90secs TUL, then the tempo would be 8-2-1 or 5-0-6 or 11-0-X.

    The reason for this apparent complexity (it is only apparent) is that I have discovered through experience that changes in tempo are a fantastic way to overcome plateaus and trigger further development/adaptation without essential modifications to the protocol (i.e., the exercises involved).

  27. @Txomin – I love that idea. It makes perfect sense to vary the rep tempo, especially when your total volume is less than the typical lifter. I am definitely going to experiment with this idea.

  28. Yesterday at the gym, I did a combination of plyo-weight training for the first 3 to 4 reps then completed the set per Dr. McGuff protocol. Also, I did two sets of everything instead of one.

    I liked the combination and I’m a bit sore – in a good way – today. I may continue with this for now.

    Lastly, I interspersed a few free weights in with the use of machines. Personally, I prefer the machines for really pushing out the last rep and partial rep at the end, which I would normally not be able to complete by doing say a bench press.

  29. I suppose I could be considered an ectomorph, 5’6″ and 135 lbs, fairly lean with reasonable muscle mass.

    I followed a HIT protocol for nearly 3 years, usually an upper / lower split done every 5 – 7 days built mainly around multijoint exercises. It allowed me to build up a high degree of strength for my size with minimal time investment. Eventually I plateaued on most exercises.

    While unpleasant, I didn’t mind the intense physical effort involved with the protocol. However, the psychological stress of always trying to add another rep or 1-2 pounds to the exercises began to wear me down. Instead of looking forward to working out, I began to dread it. Chasing numbers (extrinsic goals) killed my motivation and passion.

    I’m trying to rekindle things by adopting what I would call a moderate intensity, moderate volume protocol. Currently it usually revolves around an upper body push, an upper body pull, and a multijoint lower body exercise. I’ve been using a combination of free weights and machines.

    Frequency is usually every other day, although I often train the same muscle group the next day with no issues so far. Sets are generally 1 – 4, with 8 – 10 reps. Rep speed is usually 2/2 or 4/4 but I’ve been known to add in some 10-20 sec isometric holds. I still do the odd set to failure. Average TUT, I honestly have no clue.

    I should be keeping better track of things, but honestly I don’t care. I usually terminate a set when the bar speed slows down. It’s been working well so far, psychologically I’m much less stressed about working out. I believe you can increase volume / frequency if you reduce the intensity. The tricky point is figuring out where the sweet spot is, everyone will be different.

    Sorry for the long comment!

  30. some years ago, because of a recurring back problem, i fell into the hands of an excellent doctor who, in the process of analysing my body composition, pointed out the obvious that i was a bit of a weedy-looking chap and needed to put on muscle, specifically fast-twitch (for better support of tendons, joints and posture) and to increase lean body mass as slow-twitch muscles simply cannot grow to any significant percentage of LBM. he then also pointed out that i was carrying too much fat and should focus on sorting this out first before focusing on muscle building! this left me a bit bemused as i considered myself the classic definition of an ectomorph with low weight, little tone & sweep to my muscles and small joints. he pointed out that on a visible plane it may not look like i had much fat, but relative to my lean body mass (ie organs, muscle and bones) my body fat actually made up a significant percentage of my overall body mass – 18% to be precise, which just goes to show that everything is relative! the good doctor said that i should reduce body fat first before building up muscle, this way my goals would be built up on successive steps and easier to accomplish.
    having always been a keen outdoors man, i had a reasonable level and knowledge of fitness, but thought i was just the usual hardgainer and followed standard protocols. however, after this encounter, i chucked everything i knew in the trash and started again fresh. out went the scales to lose my obession with how much i weighed; in came cardio to focus on burning calories from fat; a proper nutrition plan was dialled in to focus on strongly reducing my calorie surplus down to inbetween TDEE & BMR; and suspended for the time being was anything resembling weight training. overall nothing too drastic or intense, baby steps and all that. after about two years i was down to under 10% body fat and boy did i look thin! but what jumped out at me was that my puny little muscle mass, having been completely neglected during this time, suddenly started standing out in decent relief against the rest of my body.
    at this point i cut back on the cardio (but still kept it going), slightly began upping my calories and went back to the weights, three/four times a week, upper-body only (the cardio took care of the legs) with a mix of compound and isolation exercises. strong focus on keeping work volume low, two to three sets at maximum weight for 5 reps max, the whole show done and dusted in 40 minutes – any more work volume couldn’t be supported by my nutrition levels.
    again, i never used the scales to weigh myself. my only criteria was, am i getting stronger? my focus wasn’t on massive gains, just the usual baby steps. was i able to add even 1 kilo to all my exercises every month or two? if so, then good – if not, i refocused on my diet to provide better fuel and on my sleep/rest patterns. and all the time made sure i stayed at this very low body fat, which luckily for us ectos is quite a bit easier than for our meso- and endomorphic cousins.
    fast-forward another three years and here i am today – since then, my fast-twitch muscle gains have been, i’ll be honest, modest, but as i’ve learned from my initial body fat revelation, everything is relative. because of my genuinely low body fat levels, my muscle mass is now crisply defined and i appear athletic and conditioned when stripped down to my shorts.
    i still have absolutely no idea what i weigh and it’s been a massive relief not wanting to know any more. all i care about is adding strength and keeping body fat low, supported by an adequate nutrition plan.
    sorry about the long post! to wrap up, us ectos focus way too much on body weight and on putting on mass. plugging away diligently and consistently and avoiding failure, fatigue and exhaustion are the main keys! it’s not a question of looking bigger, it’s a matter of looking the best for your type. i’m 47 years old and 6’1″ tall, no idea what i weigh, but i look trim and in shape and that’s just about the best feeling there is!

  31. @Phil – There is some good wisdom in your comment. About 3 years ago I began a similar path.

    https://criticalmas.org/2009/08/the-ectomorphs-dilemma/

    Recently I was convinced my arms were larger, so I took out the tape measure only to discover that they were smaller than when I weighed 25 pounds more. They just looked bigger. If I were still obsessed with numbers, this might have bothered me. Not anymore. A win is still a win.

  32. I see nothing in this that contradicts basic HIT philosophy. Small and skinny individuals can handle more volume-nothing ground breaking there. This is common sense. To put it simply-tge fact is that a 12″ arm will just be able to recover quicker and handle more volume than a 17″ arm…which can still handle more than a 19″ arm.
    I really think this is just another overcomplication. When I have trained ectos in the past I start with a multiple set protocal and reduces as they progress.
    Another quick point. When you talk onne set or multiple…what are you talking about? Per ex? Per bodypart? Per workout? What I mean is this-say you are doing one set per ex and one ex a “bodypart” and your workout includes a chest press, an overhead press, and a dip ex all in an effort to work chest, delts and tris… can you tell me when either of those three bodyparts are not worked? Let alone if you do a full body workout and include a pulldown or pullover cause then you are working the chest again with either and working the tris again if you do pullovers…not counting other bodyparts involved.
    Hope ya see my point.

  33. @dunhill – For this post, I was referring to the Big 5 workout in the book Body By Science although I’m guessing it applies elsewhere. That workout is once a week. It involves 5 exercises, each done 1 set to failure.

    1- Chest press
    2- Shoulder press
    3- Rowing motion
    4- lat pulldown
    5- leg press

    After all these years, I’m still learning about volume and recovery. I only started HIT 2 years ago, but I’ve been lifting since 1994. I come to agree with your statement that skinny individuals can handle more volume, but recovery time is probably too variable to make any general statements. My recovery time sucks. Always has, probably always will.

    My interest these days is less on the actual gym workout, but finding ways to accelerate recovery between workouts – be they nutritional, lifestyle or something I haven’t considered.

  34. Try this, 3x per week:

    1 set bench press, 50-100 reps
    1 set bent row, 50-100 reps
    1 set overhead press, 50-100 reps
    1 set romanian deadlift, 50-100 reps
    1 set squats, 50-100 reps

    Go to failure on every set, and rest-pause an additional 5 reps. Add 20 pounds to the bar ever time you hit 100 reps. Use an underhanded grip for bench press and bent rows. Don’t worry about tempo; just lift as fast as you can without bouncing out of the bottom or throwing the weight up at the top. (i.e. about 1 second per full rep) Basically, it’s a fast breathing tempo (inhale to lower, exhale to lift).

    Barbells, dumbbells, machines; whatever you have will work. You might want to start with freeweight squats though; most people have a tough time just doing 50 freeweight squats, let alone doing it with weights. You can do leg presses, but squats are better. You can substitute pulldowns for bent rows, but use an underhanded grip. Whatever weight you would use for HIT, you have to use about half as much for this program, i.e. if you do HIT bench press with 40 pound dumbbells, start with 20’s.

    I wasted 20 years doing HVT, HIT, HFT, 5×5, 5×10, 5×20, pyramiding, etc. Never got arms bigger than 15″; just got strong and fat. Then I tried this routine, and I went from 2XL’s to 3XL’s in a year, while losing 85 pounds. I don’t currently have a measuring tape, but you can guess how big a man has to be to need to wear 3XL’s. You can guess how much muscle a man has to gain to grow a whole shirt size while losing 85 pounds.

    I read that Chris Jericho did 50-100 reps after he went of the juice and got better results than when on the juice, and there have been bodybuilders in the past that got big doing this sort of thing. I figured nothing else was working so I might as well try it out, and it worked way better than I imagined.

    Eat whatever you want; don’t worry too much about force-feeding, because this routine doesn’t rely on excess calories like other training methods. My diet has been 1400 calories a day for over a year, and I’m still growing, at a bodyweight of 210. Any supplement besides a multivitamin is unnecessary, but some creatine wouldn’t hurt if you insist on using anything.

    Any details you’ll have to figure out for yourself; I didn’t come here to get into a comment section discussion about the science behind it. Best success to you if you decide to give it a try.

  35. @Michael – I’ve never tried an ultra high rep protocol, but your comment has me interested. I seriously doubt I could do 3x times a week, but maybe 2x. I recover slower than the average lifter.

    You mention lifting a faster tempo. How important do you feel that is? The reason I ask is that I have had much greater success with a slower tempo. Less momentum in the repetition.

  36. @MAS, excellent blog…I’m 24 years old 5’11 inches and weigh only 128 pounds (ectomorph build) and am just starting out at the gym. I have gone through material by Drew Baye, Doug Mcguff, Bill De Simone and have settled on Bill De Simone’s exercises from his book congruent exercise..I’m currently doing the vertical chest press, 45 degree seated pull down, standing and incline dumbbell curls, straight arm pull down, assisted chinups, split squats, reverse lunges.

    I had previously around a year ago, given the gym a shot for 2 months using Doug Mcguff’s big 5 except the leg press (which wasn’t available) and had tried a paleo diet (Mark Sisson’s version) but wasn’t able to get much muscle/weight gain from it. Again I was completely hammered by the end of these workouts and could do only 1-2 workouts per week. This could have been due to poorly selected exercises – I was doing the flat bench press and almost a full range of motion at the time.. and unassisted chinups (which I was good at,,,doing almost 8-9 at a time) (but again these might have been done with poor form)

    So this time around I’m going for more reps/lower weights taken progressively higher in each workout – something Keith Norris (who claims to be an ectomorph) calls autoregulation. I’m also not going to complete failure but maybe 80% of failure in these sets.

    From reading your blog it seems as if you were following this approach (Pavel school? is this the same?) prior to turning to HIT?.. How were your results then as compared to now when you’re following the HIT protocol…I also wanted to incorporate wall squats (rather than wall sits which you’ve talked about) into my workouts .. Have you tried them? and what’s your experience

  37. @Cartman – Glad you like the site.

    Your current exercise plan sounds solid. Between McGuff, Baye and De Simone – you can’t go wrong. I only wish I had access to that knowledge when I was 24.

    1-2 workouts a week is perfectly fine. Many ectomorphs race back to the gym before full recovery has taken place. They are trying to catch up to the dedicated mesomorphs, which is next to impossible. Instead of adding workouts or volume, add more rest days. That is where we get stronger.

    There are different degrees of ectomorphs. Clearly you are far more ectomorphic than Keith Norris.

    The Primal Blueprint is a great book, but I don’t think you are the ideal reader. Many people that read that book are either overweight or sick. I suspect you can handle and thrive at a much higher carb level. You need to eat a lot. I think ice cream rocks for ectomorphs. Last year I consumed it almost daily and gained some size.
    https://criticalmas.org/2012/07/why-ice-cream-is-better-than-protein-powder/

    The Pavel approach is low reps, high weight, high rest. It kept me interested at a time I was starting to lose faith in lifting, but I now think HIT is far superior and safer.

    I thought wall squats and wall sits were the same thing. If you don’t have access to a gym, I would do a few body weight squats (slowly) and then back yourself into a wall sit.

    Last piece of advice, don’t fret too much about the minor details of the workout. Goal #1 is don’t get hurt. Goal #2 is eat a lot of nutrient dense food. Goat #3 is be patient and let your body recover fully. EVERY ectomorph I’ve seen with poor gains always made the mistake of exercising too much. Trust the process. We seem to require more rest than other body types.

  38. Thanks for the detailed reply. Ya, I had kind of figured out that the primal blueprint high protein/high fat paradigm wasn’t really working for muscle/weight gain as it wasn’t allowing me to get enough calories.

    So I’ve now increased my carb intake to normal levels through rice, chocolates, fruits and vegetables and some bread etc.. along with the fundamental non vegetarian food like lamb, chicken (all portions including those with fat)

    Your post on ice cream was a nice read 🙂 … However, I’m probably one of the few people on earth who wasn’t brought up on ice creams and have never developed a taste for them. Chocolates on the other hand, I love and will gladly experiment with them.

    Will keep you updated on my progress 🙂

  39. I’ve been working out for 55 years. During that time I took off three months to paddle a canoe from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, and a year to build a house. Otherwise I’ve trained consistently three to five times per week. No layoffs. As you get older, the main thing is to avoid injury. So hit everything less frequently. And go easy on the bench press or you’ll blow out your rotator cuffs. I break up the body into fifths, and workout Mon thru Fri, weekends off. Only nine or ten sets per day. I tend to keep the reps high. I feel high reps are safer than low reps with heavy weights. If I do something heavy I’ll go very slowly. I think what young guys need to know is that strength and health are more important than size. A race horse is not a plow horse. If you’re a race horse, enjoy it. At 65 I can do three sets of thirty dips. That’s ninety. And that’s along with three sets of pushups and dumbbell bench presses. And I do lots of pullups. Sprinting will build calves better than anything else I’ve ever tried. But the main benefit is that your ability to sprint increases. Trust me — the big young guys just keep getting bigger until they’re too big to do much of anything. I was in they gym business for fifteen years and knew lots of huge bodybuilders. They don’t look so hot now. I like full-body workouts, but they take too long. I did them for about thirty years and was strong and fit. With a single set I could increase strength but not keep any size. A good routine for me was three days of weights, two of kayaking and two of bicycling. No TV, but lots of good books. Strive for a balanced mind and body.

  40. @S. Brown – Thanks for sharing. I have found that when I push for size, I look great, but feel more achy. My movement isn’t as fluid. On the lower end, when I get super lean, I feel great, but my face looks gaunt and unhealthy. The good news is I’ve figured out my optimal weight range. Took me way too long to find it though.

  41. “Trust me — the big young guys just keep getting bigger until they’re too big to do much of anything. I was in they gym business for fifteen years and knew lots of huge bodybuilders. They don’t look so hot now. ”
    Who cares if they don’t look so hot when they’re older. Noone does. It’s only matters in your youth that’s why young guys care about that (I’m one of those young small guys, btw).

  42. Hello,
    I’ve just read this blog entry (which is one one-year old) but I can’t find any update, so I was wondering if you came to a conclusion about how to train as an ectomorph?

    (Maybe I should just read the comments, but there are so many!)

    Thanks for your time!

  43. @Carlo – Sounds like a good topic for a follow-up post. I’ll try and get something out in the next few days. Thanks.

  44. Great thread. My experience was a bit different, hi reps or increased TUL left me too sore or were just too tiresome. What worked for me was Stronglifts 5X5 (SL), greatly increasing fat consumption (no PUFAs) , and critical focus on proper technique and joint mobilization. SL is very simple, 3 multi joint exercises from: Squat, DL, BP, Row, Press, 3X/week, 5 sets, 5 reps. Having done free weights for 10+ years, I was surprised that training for strength had pretty much zero DOMS, which was common with endurance (hi-rep) or hypertrophic (to failure) training. The weights i’m moving aren’t crazy large, but I’ve had significant and rapid increase from baseline and am satisfied with the results, setting PBs in all lifts.

    I am mostly ecto, a hair under 5-11, 6.5″ wrists (i can touch all my fingers around my wrist, overlapping 3) 145lbs at my most extreme vegan/marathon days (not good!), generally 154-157 post vegan while still racing 5k – marathon, upto 164 after 3 months of Stronglifts but had to stop all leg work due to torn labrum from running accident so lost all my leg mass pretty quick (a trait of ecto?). Still 159-161lbs doing only upper body with some extra non-SL work like weighted chin ups and dips. With the exception of sickly lean 145lb days, bodyfat remained pretty constant throughout. 51 years old and counting.

    Despite running marathons I tend to be a fast twitcher (FT) by comparisons with training partners and teammates in baseball/hockey. This may be why I responded better to low-rep/high-set regimen.

    I’m not sure there is a one size fits all ectomorph program. There is probably a set of best practices, which overlap with any strength training program, the * require elaboration/validation for ecto’s, perhaps MAS can sort this out in his follow up!
    – start easy (SL starts with an empty bar, adding 5lbs each w/o), it takes time for
    muscle, and also joints, ligaments and tendons to handle greater/longer loads.
    – follow proper warmup and technique. The most stable position is the strongest.
    Dr Kelly Starrett’s “Becoming a supple leopard” was very helpful for this.
    * eat more, and probably more fat in particular. Protein recommendations are
    typically 1g protein/lb-of-bodyweight
    * 3x/week is sufficient in general, though intense cycles can break though plateaus,
    over-training should be closely monitored.
    * experiment with hi/lo reps/sets. Maybe FT respond best to lo reps, ST to hi reps?
    * what helped me break thru plateaus was occasionally adding 10lbs or so and
    for two workouts do 6-7 sets of 3 reps. I’ve seen people do squats of 10X3!
    * stick to multi-joint exercises, not isolation. Saves time & increases overall mass.
    – sleep lots
    – keep it fun/interesting

  45. @Mr Interested – I am on the opposite spectrum as you. What you’ve described to me I consider excessive training. I also think isolation is superior to multi-joint “functional” movements, which tend to have a high skill component. And lastly, I think ectomorphs need more carbs, not more fat.

  46. Sorry, I had just started reading your work when I replied, have now seen your comments on squats (definitely tougher on tall folks, esp if they have a high ratio of femur/tib-fib length) and technical lifts vs isolation and this has given me pause for thought. I hope to read all your posts to understand your reply. Don’t quite get why isolation exercises are best for ecto’s. By isolation do you mean only in machines, or only single joint work such as biceps curl? From a cost/benefit standpoint, multi-joint work should stress more muscles in the least amount of time, which I had also understood to stimulate more GH. Multi joint exercises with machines would remove the technical element keeping it safe and allow complete control over TUL. Wall squats are tough, safe, and great for e.g. downhill skiing/snowboarding, but one probably needs a full range of motion under load to better deal with all the movements life throws at you (Rascal riders notwithstanding), such as your leg press variations superslow/static-holds. So aren’t you to some degree promoting multi-joint exercises, albeit with machines?

    I think we agree on one thing though, ecto’s need a lot more calories to build muscle! As you’ve pointed out, Ice cream works, and it’s usually 50-60% fat, so that’s where my fat statement comes from. That and the fact that since I switched from 5 meals of high carb to 3 meals of lo carb/high fat, i’m not falling asleep 1hr after breakfast, nor am I loosing focus at work thinking of food every 2 hrs. Perhaps there’s an untested middle ground (at least for n=me) between fat/carbs and I’ve only tested the end ranges.

    Great blog, full of ideas and your comments section has set the high bar for thoughtful civilized responses lacking in animosity!

  47. @Mr Interested – The short answer is I prefer exercises that have a low skill component and allow one to go to failure without risking injury. In most, but not all cases that means machines or some form of static hold.

    As for time commitment, because machines allow one to train to failure without getting injured (via slower movements and static holds), it actually is more time efficient. For example, you can do a 10 second negative on a leg press safely. You would seriously hurt yourself doing that as a squat of equal weight. A deeper level of muscular fatigue in a shorter period.

    That is the foundation.

    As for dealing with all life throws at you, that to me sounds like a skill question. Different sports will require different movement patterns. Those should absolutely be trained, but I would question if they should be done in the gym and under load. Skill movements benefit from repetition. Repetition means much higher volume, which would equate to either a very low load or no load at all. IOW, a skier will benefit greatly from core strength movements in the gym, but the finer finesse movements should be trained on the slope.

  48. Given the context you’ve identified (skill movements in sport) yes, repetition wins out over high loads – I don’t want to practice free throws with a medicine ball.

    By “what life throws at you”, I meant actions like lifting heavy objects out of a car trunk, carrying that old tube tv out of the basement, lifting a child from the ground to the top of monkey bars, changing car tires for winter etc. Intermittent activities that I don’t practice over and over. Technically speaking these would be category 2 and 3 movements as identified by K Starrett – there is a transition/disconnect from a position of high stability at some point. Strength training dynamic movements under a range of motion with heavy (relatively speaking) loads, I find these activities much easier and safer now, and less likely to cause strains, pulls and DOMs.

    Does any of this apply to ecto’s? It applies to everyone, but I think ecto’s more so due to having smaller joint capsules, ligaments/tendons/connective tissues. Understanding and training, with slow progression, movements of stability and strength under loads can ultimately help reduce injury with what life throws at you, and multi joint movements can help with that. I don’t think training with machines provide as much tolerance since the movements are restricted within a plane of motion, though cable movements are more dynamic. That being said, if they are multi joint movement machines it will be better then single joint machines like leg extensions, leg curls and arm curls done in a machine.

  49. @Mr Interested – I haven’t read Kelly’s book yet. I have it on hold at the library, so I can’t comment. He is the owner of a CrossFit gym, so there may be a bias in his recommendations. CrossFit does use high speed, high momentum movements under load with volume, which I believe is just the worst thing one could go if long term health is their goal.

    The second part of your comment will require an entire post to cover, which I was planning to do anyway. Hopefully by next week or the week after. I want to get Part 2 finished on my Gluten post first.

  50. I’m not a fan of Crossfit, his book didn’t proselytize. But if you’re moving away from free weights towards machines, his book will be of less benefit. Still, his underlying point is useful: how to apply his stabilization tips or remove faults, from everyday life activities.

    After reviewing a number of links on training for ecto’s, they all seemed to concur for the most part with your beliefs . More carbs are needed compared to meso/endo. Typically the articles would request something around 50:30:20 carb/protein/fat. Some recommend eating 500 calories over average needs of 15Xweight-in-pounds. They all recommended low rep, higher weight exercises, usually long rest, and heavily biased towards multi-joint work. Overtraining was strongly cautioned for ecto’s, though some still requested 4 w/o per week which I think is too much. Some point out sleep as being more important for ecto’s to prevent the anti-catabolism they are prone to. I didn’t find any scholarly studies, only opinions of CPTs, and of course, some have something to sell. e.g.
    http://webcast.bodybuilding.com/fitshow/other/bulkingforectomorphs.pdf

    One final point for your ecto training consideration, there are small and medium ecto’s, and large ones like yourself. Given your photos and the fact that you’re 40-55 pounds heavier then me, by comparison you look like a farm hand who could toss hay bales all day, or get very angry, turn green and lift a car off of someone.
    My natural disadvantages have directed my training focus completely on maximizing strength, not endurance or muscular hypertrophy. Maybe a bigger man has different goals and that can affect training design.

  51. I’ve been reading these comments. It reminds me of an incident about forty years ago. I met a guy who had a very muscular natural build. I asked him to come over to my gym, and I tested him with some weights. He was weak. He couldn’t lift much of anything. And I know a guy who has Mr. Olympia calves and thighs. He has never lifted a weight in his life. He takes walks on the bike path, and is seventy years old. So don’t forget genetics. I’ve trained guys who started out thin and built up quickly. Other guys used the same weights and very little happened. Usually they weren’t eating enough. But sometimes they ate more and just got fat. I’m out of the gym business now, but the human body hasn’t changed. The enormous desire for size is keeping the surgeons busy. Most of the lifters I’ve known ended up going under the knife somewhere, usually the shoulders. Many of the steroid guys simply ruined their lives, or the lives of those around them. The muscles grow, but so do the egos. Not so with their testicles. A friend of mine lost the ability to produce testosterone for years. It may have been permanent — I never asked. I know his wife left him because of it. Choose the major lifts and work them hard. Give yourself sufficient rest and ALLOW your body to grow. It’s been my experience that calories are more important than protein, in the stages below contest bodybuilding. Few American men are deficient in protein. Even at my age, I can regulate my strength by the amount of food I eat. It doesn’t matter if it’s apple pie or sirloin. That doesn’t mean you should eat lots of junk. Your arteries will suffer. I’ve been lifting for 55 years. I read where some young guy said he doesn’t care about what happens when he’s old. Well, if he doesn’t care he may not get there, or he’ll get there looking and feeling like hell.

  52. I’m impressed you’ve been lifting for so long, you sound like a regular Bill Pearl!

    For sure eating is essential. A male orangutan who becomes a new alpha male will spend all his time eating to bulk up. I’ve seen weekly diets of a couple of powerlifters, it’s essentially all real food, no pills/powders, only one guy had an occasional optional scoop of whey powder. Unfortunately despite what the ads imply, very few people can lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, but we know the fat will come off over time thought consistent exercise.

    Training-dose/response is very wide in general population, upwards of 50% difference for aerobic training ranging from 0 increase of VO2 max to over 50% increase (Lance Armstrong), don’t know numbers for strength training, prob similar. Steroids are not always automatic muscle either, some subjects are poor responders, some have huge response. Even with no visual response from exercise, there is likely large internal improvements with BP, cholesterol, diabetes and stress response.

    Visual appearance is deceptive. Modern body builders weigh 70lbs more than Arnold Schwarzenegger due to year round steroid use. Yet Arnold was far stronger with his deadlift/squat being hundreds of pounds more, maybe because he was originally a national champion powerlifter.

    As for injuries, it’s true some lifters neglect mobilization work and unsafely push through the pain, but sometimes it’s genetic and nothing you can do about it other than change exercise. A person born with Type II or Type III Acromion and will always have shoulder impingement/rotator cuff problems no matter what they do, They should probably stay away from overhead press.
    http://www.aafp.org/afp/1998/0215/p667.html
    Similarly for those born with cox profunda (deep hip sockets) or non-spherical femur heads, over time they can develop cartilage defects in the hip.

    Keep eating and keep lifting!

  53. @S. Brown & @Mr Interested

    I don’t know the best way to measure strength. Many of the movements we use such as the squat, bench and Olympic lifts have a high skill component. A very strong person that doesn’t squat might squat less than someone weaker that has extensive practice in the movement.

    For me I decided chasing numbers as a metric of strength was futile since altering the speed of the movement can have a greater impact on intensity than actual pounds or reps.

    For example, a single super slow push-up (say 10 seconds) is harder to perform than 10 normal cadence push ups. But because I am doing far fewer reps than I did when I was in the military, looking at numbers it would appear I am weaker than my 17 year old self, when in fact I am much stronger.

  54. And increasing the mass moved for skilled exercises can occur after just a few session before muscules have grown, due to coordination of muscle motor units.

    The other factor is somatotype, e.g. in a bench press, a barrel chested short armed endo/mesomorph doesn’t have to move the bar as far as a long armed flat chested ecto. As well, the ecto has to initiate the move with a greater elbow bend, which is a weaker position and more difficult. Squats are affected by femur length, a short legged penguin type will move the bar significantly less than a long legged person, Force = mass * distance, so calories burned will be less.

    I still like my classic weightlifting moves, i just try to compare only to my past, not someone else.

  55. Oops, i meant Work (=calories or joules) = F * distance.
    Short limbs result in the bar moving less distance, so fewer calories burned.

  56. As I understand it, this discussion is about skinny guys trying to get big. Remember that you’re trying to overcome your genetics. Your body will try avoid the heaviest weights simply because it was not designed to lift them. Think of a race horse trying to turn itself into a plow horse. I had a friend many years ago who, when drunk, would lift VW Bugs off the street onto the sidewalk. He had no calves, huge thighs, and wide hips. He had a terrible build, and now weighs 350 pounds of blubber at 6′ 1″. He was stronger than most of you will ever be. Believe me, pure raw strength is not the full answer if you are trying to build an aesthetic physique. The one-set theory is attractive. I’ve increased my strength very rapidly while using only a single set. At the same time my muscularity has diminished. That is, I got stronger and shrunk at the same time. When I used to do pullups with a hundred pounds hanging from my waist, I was lighter than when I would do sets of thirty reps. Yet so-called experts say that is too many reps to gain size. Whatever the case, try not to get injured. Injuries can come from jerking a weight, but they also can come when you are simply pushing against a weight that isn’t moving. Someone mentioned Bill Pearl. Bill says not to go to failure. I also read where he said half a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is enough. I trained hundreds of men and women in my gyms, and my observation was that people with genetic potential will gain from nearly any program of resistance training. On the other hand, people with scant potential won’t gain no matter what training program they use. I’m talking here about gains in size. It’s like a redhead with pure white skin. They don’t tan; they just burn. With regard to gaining muscle, some people are like that redhead. Particularly people with short muscles. Flex your biceps and measure the distance from the base of the biceps to the inner crux of the elbow. If you’re at two or three finger-widths, you’re unlikely to build a huge arm. The same goes for the rest of your muscles. Big calves attach near the Achilles tendon.

  57. Pearls recommendation is well above RDA of 56g for adult male, so it’s gotta be enough for most activities. However Pearls dosage is still well below the 1g/pound that magazines like Men’s Health and many CPTs recommend, but you can bet they have ties to supplement companies and want to encourage more protein powder consumption. Still, why is it that powerlifters/bodybuilders eat 200-300g of protein, do they really need it?

    As for muscle attachment, alas i’m a three finger bicepselbow guy, but I’ve managed to get my no-cheat chin-ups to 5X8 BW+25lbs (BW=160lbs. +100 lbs is crazy!). And yes my arms look wayyy skinnier then most guys, but I’ve seen guys with bigger arms who can barely do 1X8 with no extra weight. That’s ok with me, I don’t want to have to buy new clothes.

  58. You don’t know who I am, so I don’t mind saying that at age 65 I can still do ten pullups with a thirty-pound weight. At forty pounds the arthritis in my hands hurts too much. I’ve been thinking about this size fixation that many lean guys have, and it occurred to me that some of us simply may not have the genetic programming for size. You do everything you ought to do, but the size doesn’t come become because the program isn’t there to build it. That is, you don’t have the software. However, it seems that almost everyone can greatly increase their strength. And by persevering, you can keep that strength for a long time. The recuperation routines seem to work the best, after the age of thirty. Work the muscle once per week, or once one week and twice the next. I was able to keep my arms fairly big for many years by working them every Friday, nine to twelve sets. Fours sets of three exercises, biceps and triceps. I was able to curl my bodyweight (one rep), so the weights were relatively high. If you can’t gain size doing that, plus eating like a horse, then you have a problem. I would do two other workouts per week: a leg night and a torso night. Even a skinny guy should be able to build a sixteen or seventeen-inch arm doing that (at average height). Now I workout five nights per week because I don’t want to be in the gym longer, and I do lots of cardio. I don’t look like a monster bodybuilder, but I look like an athlete, and I’m satisfied with that. I run sprints a couple nights per week, and go out in my kayak. But that’s me. If you want to get big, eat everything that isn’t nailed down without giving yourself heart disease. Emphasize the bench, dip, squat, press, upright dumbbell rows, horizontal pullups on dip bars (with weight), top dead lifts, and all kinds of pullups/chinups. Look, if you can do fifty dips and thirty pullups, are you really going to feel inadequate about your size? Add one rep to your pullup and dip per week and you’ll get there. But be careful! I was doing a heavy set of twenty-rep curls a year ago. At the end, while I was straining like crazy, the retina of one of my eyes tore out. The eye surgeon said there was no causal relationship, but I’m not convinced. Is any of this worth your eyes?

  59. @S. Brown – Wise words. I had no idea one could strain so hard from lifting to cause an torn retina. Wow.

  60. S Brown -great info/stories. Still thinking about 100lb pull ups. How much did you weigh in your prime anyways? MAS, didn’t you say you were shooting for 100lb pullups as well? Hope your surgery worked…lots of studies show increased eye pressure from breath holding during lifts (valsalva maneuver), increases risk of retinal detachment, kinda surprised your surgeon didn’t know this or was hiding it. Apparently if you’re shortsighted the risk is much greater. I’m half blind with a -9.5 prescription, so thanks for the wakeup call!

  61. @Mr Interested – That was an old goal before I discovered slow lifting. These days I focus more on intensity than a number of reps or a certain poundage.

  62. The 100-lb pullups were back when I was skinny as a rail. I weighed about 150, and was training hard at long-distance kayaking/canoeing. For instance, from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. I also would do eight reps with 75 or 80 pounds. I read that ectos are best at pulling, and that was certainly true for me. My strongest weight at 5′ 10″ barefoot was just under 180. At that weight I could still knock out about 35 pullups. A good pullup routine for me would be to warm up with two sets of between 30 to 35, then start adding weight for four more sets. I’d do compound sets: bench, then pullups, etc. Then I’d go to dips and horizontal pullups, adding weight with each set. This will put meat on you. It also keeps your testosterone high. Even today, my doctor keeps asking me after blood tests if I take testosterone. I’ve never taken anything. I believe the weights force your body to produce it. Another good compound set is dumbbell upright rows followed by dumbbell presses. Or the other way around. You don’t need to get fancy with this stuff. Reading this, it sounds like I’m some sort of braggart. I would never say any of this to someone who knew me. But maybe this info will help some young guy add a few pounds. When you reach the point where you can’t buy a suit, you’ll know you’re getting bigger. The pants that come with a large suit jacket will be way too huge on you. A tailor can’t make them fit. My main goal was strength for kayaking. I used to train with an Olympic gold medalist in the pole vault, and that guy was twice my size and strength. In a sprint there was no way I could stay with him, but I’d lose him over long distance. Even if you gain some weight, you’ll still have light bones, so you should try to find a sport you’ll be good at. It probably will involve endurance. I found that when I hit a sticking point with the weights, a hard kayak workout would pull me out of it. It forced blood into the muscles. I wish I knew the full answer to give you. More than anything, you need to enjoy it. I found out young that I could climb ropes faster than anyone else, and got the highest scores in physical fitness tests, but I hated team sports. I’ve spent my whole life training, and I’ve enjoyed every minute. Now I’m trying to figure out how I can keep this going another thirty years or so. Good luck. Unless I can think of some other advice, I think I’ll shut up.

  63. S. Brown, thanks for taking the time to provide the details, much appreciated. It helps me to see what others are capable of and their success/mistakes, which is why i’m reading MAS’s blog.

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