The following sentence will save you hundreds of dollars and cost me current and future clients: for physique purposes, programs don’t matter. Or, they matter, but not to the extent you believe. Nearly any reputable program has some type of squatting, some type of pressing, some type of pulling from the floor, and some type of rowing. Mind blowing stuff, isn’t it?
You are never going to find a program that has a result increasing secret set of exercises or a secret sequencing of exercises. There are no Holy Grail exercises. There are no Holy Grail programs. So stop looking. Results come from consistent training. That’s it.
Yet we’re constantly misled. We’re told squats make bigger arms. And deadlifts do just about everything. Not to take anything away from those important lifts, but for all around development—what most skinny fat ectomorphs seek—you have to embrace vanity. If you want big arms, you have to curl. Sure, you can do chin-ups and rows, and, over time, your arms will grow. But you’ll never match the growth you would otherwise have with isolation exercises. It’s like math. Why do long division by hand when you can use a calculator and get the answer much quicker? Now, this isn’t a squat bashing. I squat. I always have. And I will until I can’t. But there’s simply more to consider for a well rounded physique.
Everyone wants to know what program to use. But programs are poison. They lead to program hopping—the worst behavior any trainee can adopt. Progress is the ultimate motivator. And progress comes from practicing a handful of lifts consistently enough to get good at them. Doing barbell row for two weeks and then switching to dumbbell rows and then switching back to barbell rows before trying arc rows after moving to inverted rows after doing chest supported machine rows makes progress impossible to gauge.
Instead of focusing on a program, focus on having your mind in every session, lifting with a semblance of heart, and developing a worthwhile intensity while taking targeted muscles through a decent range of motion. Do that on a regular basis, and you can’t fail.
Rate of muscle gain
Skinny fat ectomorphs have to come to terms with their bodies. We will never be the Incredible Hulk. But that shouldn’t discourage anyone from reaching their maximum potential. Casey Butt created a rather accurate maximum muscular potential calculator.
Don’t use it.
Fixating on it yields an ill mind. Truly, it doesn’t matter. What should, however, is questing to always improve, regardless of where arbitrary numbers estimate failure. How fast muscle can be synthesized, however, is an important concept.
An idol of mine, Jon Call (Jujimufu), has undergone a tremendous physical transformation since 2001. I wanted to know his secret to lean mass gain, so I asked him. His answer was stunning.
It took years. 2002 I was 155. 2003: 165. 2004: 170. 2006: 185. 2007: 200. 2008: 215 (when I stopped tricking and started eating insane amounts of food). Now I'm 205 again. I've never gained a “lot” of fat no. But I have gained some of course.
Yeah. There was no secret. Unless you consider staying dedicated enough to train consistently over a span of five years a secret. Now, Jon gained fifteen pounds some years, which is encouraging. But the disclaimer is this: Jon is the most dedicated person I know. My birthday celebrations consist of cake, cookies, alcohol, and other guilty pleasures. Jon, on the other hand, celebrates with a shrimp circle.
For us peons, ten pounds of raw lean muscle gain in one year is downright impressive. This equates to less than one pound of muscle gained per month. Beginners will add a little more—fifteen to twenty pounds, and experienced lifters will add a little less—five pounds. And while this sounds good, on a tall(er) frame, it's barely noticeable.
Recently, I was working with a college lacrosse player who wanted to put on some size in his off-season. At 6'2” and 180 pounds, I didn't blame him for wanting to get bigger. We packed 15 pounds on him during the summer, and when he walked through the door on the first day of practice the coach looked at him and said, “I thought I told you to gain some weight.”
This kid went from 180 to 195 pounds, with only three pounds being fat, and his own coach didn't pick up on it until he got on the scale.
Granted, it's partially a height issue; if a guy who's 5'8″ put on fifteen pounds it would be a lot more obvious. But my point is most people aren't putting on fifteen pounds over a summer; they're adding five to ten, tops. And since it's spread over their entire body, no one really notices.
Reasons skinny-fat sufferers fail
Skinny fats fail because they either expect results too fast or they follow a program not suited to their own vanity (doing a squats specialization program when wanting big arms). This leads to either program hopping or bulking. (You might as well club baby seals.) Bulking is a pastime in which skinny fat ectomorphs try gaining fifty pounds of muscle in six weeks, resulting in tremendous fat gain, eight weeks of cutting, and being back at square one.
But this whole series of behavior cascade into lackluster progress and falling for gimmicks.
The creation of muscle
Lifting weights signals for the creation of muscle as a survival mechanism. A barbell is a predator. Throw that sucker on your back or above your throat and the body only cares about not getting crushed. It responds by getting stronger. In the presence of the right signaling, the muscle grows because larger muscles give capacity for stronger muscles.
We know what exercises stress certain muscles. We know incline presses target the upper chest. We know rows build a big back. We know chin-ups do a lot of good for the upper body. We know curls work the biceps. And so on. So to build muscle, we simply need to pick a handful of lifts and consistently push the boundaries of our current level of adaptation.
Recovery and frequenct
Training frequency depends on recovery. The greater the stressor is, the greater the recovery must be. Martin Berkhan uses Reverse Pyramid Training, which consists of maxing out in some capacity every training session. This why he only train three days per week. Bodybuilders, on the other hand, train more frequently because they often use lower loads and stress the muscle on a local level. When a Powerlifter bench presses, he uses his entire body to push the weight. This is systematically stressful. A Bodybuilder, by contrast, wants the chest doing most of the work. So they localize the stress into the chest. Since the stress isn't as widespread, they can train more frequently. This also explains why some bodybuilders aren't as strong as their size indicates. They consciously neglect using more muscle mass because they only want the targeted muscle(s) working. Less muscle working means less weight lifted.
While training five or six days can work, it’s not optimal for a skinny fat. Not because of recovery, but because balancing between “bulking” and “cutting” requires fluctuations in nutrient and caloric intake. Maximizing absolute muscle mass is different than maximizing muscle mass while minimizing the likelihood of becoming Paula Deen.
There’s no reason to train, from a muscular standpoint, if you’re not optimizing the resultant growth. We want to grow on our training days and lose or minimize fat gain on off days. By training too frequently, this balance gets upset. So you can train six days per week, but you’re going to be growing six days per week. For most skinny fat ectomorphs, three or four training sessions per week is ideal because it means that three or four days you’re working on building muscle, and three or four days you’re working on losing or minimizing fat gain.
Methods and progression
Initial strength levels don’t matter, so don’t get self conscious. It’s all about slow progression, consistency, and small wins over time. If every week of the year you added one repetition to the amount of chin-ups you could do, at the end of the year you would be doing fifty-two additional reps. Now that’s progress.
For the absolute novice, progression should be linear. Using the squat as an example, go to the gym and find a weight you can do for ten reps without extreme fatigue. Next week, do the same warm-up, but add five or ten pounds to the weight you did last week. The week after that, another five or ten pounds. There will come a point where adding ten pounds becomes difficult. Bump it down to five pound jumps before you fail. For upper body lifts, use exclusively five pound jumps.
People, at minimum, reach high 200 pound squats for five reps on Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength. This simple concept of adding weight to the bar can take you a long way. But once five or ten pound jumps become too difficult, abandon the obsession of immediate strength gains.
People go ballistic after programs like Starting Strength because tangible weekly results fade. While strength gains are important, realize that no one trains with intensity and consistency and gets weaker. Progress comes with consistency. Yet people are apt to jump on programs like The Texas Method or 5/3/1 because there is a semblance of structure. But don’t get too caught up in this.
You need to do two things to get stronger: add weight and do more reps. The answer has never been: lift light weights for high reps, or lift heavy weights for few reps. The answer remains: Lift heavy weights for high reps.
Lifting a heavy weight isn’t a good indicator of hypertrophy. What is, however, is repping a heavy weight. Strength comes in many forms. Lifting a single weight for one repetition isn’t much of an indicator of anything unless you’re a Powerlifter or Olympic Weightlifter. Decreasing rest periods, increasing total volume, and altering time under tension are just some of the ways that overall difficulty can be jacked up without increasing total load. In, Getting Jacked for Dummies, Mike Guadango put together a sensible progression.
Week One: 3×8
Week Two: 3×10
Week Three: 3×12
Week Four: 4×8
Week Five: 4×10
Week Six: 4×12
Sadly, few people will follow this scheme because the weight on the bar doesn’t increase weekly. Yet, if five or ten pounds were added to the bar at the end of this six week progression, and it was continued across the year, nearly one hundred pounds would be added to any lift. If you can lift a weight for three sets of eight and, in six weeks, lift it for four sets of twelve, you're stronger. And if you’re getting stronger you will also be growing provided correct caloric and nutrient intake.
Skinny fats want broad shoulders, a narrow waist, and a low body fat. And nothing—nothing—contributes to this quite like the chin-up. The second most important lift is the deadlift. But in all seriousness, there’s no need to “neglect” any part of the body so ranking importance is silly.
These following programs are simple, not easy. They include high(er) reps than most programs. The reason the world is obsessed with 5×5 is because way back they found that 4-6 x 4-6 best produced strength. Five, being the middle, became the norm. But strength isn’t rep-range dependant. Like stated before, taking a set of ten reps at 200 pounds to a set of ten reps at 300 pounds means you got stronger. And that can happen without using low reps if you wanted it to.
For most everyone, I like upper and lower splits. Beginners, however, do well on a consistent three day per week total body routine. Upper lower splits can be done either four days per week (A-B-C-D) or three days per week (A-B-C / D-A-B / C-A-B ). Most skinny fat ectomorphs, are best served with three heavy training days if trying to cut down, and four heavy training days if trying to gain.
A1) Back Squat 4×6-8
A2) Chin-Ups (25)
B1) Romanian Deadlift 2×8-12
B2) Incline Press 3×8
c1) Pushups 2 x max
C2) Thick Grip Barbell Curls 2×15
A1) Overhead Press 3×6-8
A2) Barbell Rows 3×8
B) Hip Thrust 2×10
C) Calfs 2×20
A1) Deadlift 3×5
A2) Incline Press 3×8
B1) Front Squat 3×5
B2) Chin-Ups (25)
C1) Dips 2 x max
C2) Thick Grip Hammer Curls 2×10
- For all exercises do at least five sets, including warm-up sets. So a squat workout planned for 3x6x135 will look like this: bar x 6, 95×6, 135x4x6.
- Strive for 25 chin-ups in as little sets as possible. At first, shoot for five. Then four. Three is ideal. Two is great.
- The 1's and 2's mean the exercises can be supersetted to save time.
- Do two sets to failure of dips and push-ups. Strive to add one rep to the total each week.
- Sprints are preferably done on a hill of about 50 yards, with 6-10 total repetitions. Sprint to the top, walk back down, catch your wind, and then go again. Do that a minimum of six times and a maximum of ten times.
- Farmers walks are done for 100-200 yards. Just grab heavy dumbbells and go.
A1) Incline Press 3-4×8-12
A2) Chin-Ups (50)
B1) Dumbbell Overhead Press 2-3×8-12
B2) Dumbbell Rows 2-3×8-12
C1) Lateral Raises 2×15-20
C2) Barbell Curl 3×10
A) Back Squat 3-4×8-12
B) Romanian Deadlift 3-4×8-12
C1) Calfs 2×20
C2) Back Extensions 2×20
A1) Overhead Press 4-5×4-8
A2) Chin-Ups 4-5×4-8
B1) Dumbbell Incline Press 2-3×8-12
B2) Barbell Row 3-4×8-12
C1) Dips 2xmax reps
C2) Thick Grip Hammer Curls 2×15
A) Deadlift 2-3×3-5
B) Front Squat 2-3×3-5
C1) Hip Thrusts 3×10
C2) Calfs 2×20
- For Sunday's Chin-Ups, use as little sets as possible to hit fifty reps. If completed in less than five sets, add ten repetitions to total amount (60). Once sixty is completed in under five sets, add another ten (70). Etc…
- For the exercises that are prescribed ranges of sets and reps, use the progression referenced from Guadango’s Getting Jacked for Dummies Article.
- Sprints and Farmers Walks follow same protocol as Beginner Program.
- Both the rules and the method of progression change from the novice to intermediate stage. My general rule of thumb is this: if you can do ten consecutive chin-ups, squat or deadlift 1.5x your body weight, and incline press your body weight, go with the intermediate program.
- You may be wondering where regular old bench pressing is. Most skinny fat ectomorphs will benefit from more shoulder and upper chest, so I opt for more incline work. Bench press fanatics can substitute it in place of barbell incline presses on Sunday.
- You can swap the days around. The template is this: upper-lower-off-upper-off-lower-off.
The programs aren't revolutionary, and there are hundreds out there that also deliver results. The routine itself isn't important. Picking something, sticking with it, and working hard trumps the “program.” So if you have something good going, keep going. But if you're looking for a fresh start, here it is. Adopt this philosophy and slow cook your way to solid gains.
Be sure to check out the previous installments in this series if you haven't already: Solutions for the Skinny Fat Ectomorph Part I – The Basics & Solutions for the Skinny Fat Ectomorph Part II – My Story
Drop questions or comments below. Ask me on Facebook and Twitter, too. As for this post, like it, share it, or do whatever the hell it is the cool kids do today if you found it valuable. Let's crush this disease and let the Skinny Fat Ectomorph Brohirrim be heard.
Other articles in the series:
- Solutions for the Skinny-Fat Ecto, Part I – The Basics
- Solutions for the Skinny-Fat Ecto, Part II – My Story
- Solutions for the Skinny-Fat Ecto, Part IV – Nutrition
Accompanying resource: The Skinny-Fat Solution