By far, the most reader questions I get are from ectomorphs who want size:

  • "How do I get big?" "I'm a hardgainer. How do I overcome bad genetics?" "I train all the time, but I'm just not getting bigger. Help!"

A lot of these kids sound almost frantic, and this in part lies the problem: too much stress (whether mental or physical) is not good for muscle growth. When it comes to training for the ectomorph, he has to train just enough to stimulate growth. Not more. Not less.

Program Design For The Ectomorph

When people start off in any field, whether it's bodybuilding or some other interest, they tend to emulate those around them and those they aspire to be.

So if you're an ectomorph looking to pack on some size, then you probably picked up a copy of MuscleMag or Arnold's Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding and started doing the routines in there. Or perhaps you emulated the big guys in the gym, and you pumped them for their "secrets" in between their sets on the bench press.

Ectomorphs, however, need to train differently from the big guys. You have to walk before you run. In general, ectomorphs need to follow these guidelines:

1. Eat

Bodybuilding 101, right? Yet time and time again, this is the #1 limiting factor among trainees. Eat a lot and eat often. If you are not eating 5-6 meals spaced evenly throughout the day, then you really are not doing enough to gain weight. Strive to eat the 3 square meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and 2-3 snacks in between.

The ectomorph has a limited capacity for stress, so it's best not to overtrain with many sets of many different exercises. Limit your sets to 4-5 of one exercise for each body part.

2. Pyramid Your Reps

Although programs such as 10x10 and 5x5 work great for the other body types, the ectomorph responds better to a pyramid of reps instead of a constant rep scheme. The reason is two-fold:

  1. The ectomorph can't handle too much stress and staying in one rep range for too long will overwork that particular motor unit. Pyramid training allows the trainee to briefly tap into increasingly larger motor units from set to set without overworking them.

  2. The ectomorph is still a newbie. The fact that he is still skinny means he is still at a young "training age" regardless of his chronological age. He needs to practice and warm up on the movement with higher reps before tackling heavier and heavier weight. And the ectomorph definitely needs to tackle the heavier weights in order to gain size.

3. Rest Long Between Sets

In order to tackle the heavy weights, the ectomorph must rest longer than normal between sets. Three to five minutes between sets is a good range to shoot for. Resting this long does 2 things:

  1. Your nervous system fully recovers from the previous set, so you're fully charged to lift heavy on the next set.
  2. High rest periods coupled with lower reps (i.e. 5-7) elicit a huge dump of testosterone into your bloodstream.

4. Train Frequently

An ectomorph needs to train briefly, intensely but frequently. An ectomorph cannot handle high volume workouts, so his volume should be spread across the week. Three times a week is best.

A Solid Approach To Training The Ectomorph

There is a program that (when tweaked) fulfills all of the training guidelines listed above. It is not a new program. It's been around for 60 years and is by far the most popular program in gyms all over the world. In fact, you may have been doing the program, never the realizing the name: it's Vince Gironda's 10-8-6-15 program.

The 10-8-6-15 program is self-explanatory. Perform 10 reps on an exercise, rest. Perform 8 reps, rest. Perform 6 reps, rest. Finally, perform a flushing set of 15 reps, and you're done with that exercise.

I know what you're thinking: "If this pyramid program is so effective, and I've been doing it all this time, why aren't I huge?"

For one thing, most people take the "everything and kitchen sink" training approach that they see in magazines. Ask yourself this: Is your chest program bench press, incline press, dumbbell press and dumbbell flyes? If you're doing this many exercises for the chest with a rep scheme of 10-8-6-15 on each exercise, then you're overtraining! If you're an ectomorph, then you should be concentrating on one exercise per body part and that's it.

The second thing is because of this "kitchen sink" approach, the workouts become too long and to compensate you fracture the workouts and follow a split routine. You end up training each body part only once or twice a week. This is great for intermediate and advanced lifters, but it sucks for beginners and ectomorphs.

Remember what I said about high frequency training for newbies? Weight training is a skill and like any skill, it needs to be practiced frequently for you to get bigger and stronger.

The 10-8-6-15 Program
Rest 3 minutes between sets.
Barbell Squat
4 sets, 10, 8, 6, 15 reps
+ 6 more exercises


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That's it, nothing fancy. For ectomorphs, simplicity and consistency are the way to go.

About the Author

James Chan

James Chan

James is a full-time police officer and NSCA certified personal trainer. He does personal training along with writing to help those who need it.

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