Tall and skinny: I've never been able to build upper-body/arm muscle -- how do I bulk up?
September 7, 2010 1:34 PM   Subscribe

I'm tall and skinny and have never been able to build upper-body/arm muscle -- how do I bulk up?

I'm 29, and come from a long line of tall (over 6 feet), but skinny men. My problem is that I have always been unable to build muscle -- specifically on my upper-body/arms/abs, and I don't think I have any family members who have been able to do so, either. I even took a weight training class in college, busted my butt in it, and was unable to generate any results. I'm athletic and in great cardio shape, and I can easily run 5 miles, but while overall I am cool with my appearance, I'm starting to wonder if my lack of muscle build is diminishing my chances of getting a girlfriend.

What is the best way for someone like me to build some muscle, given my past inability to achieve this through traditional weight training? How do I start? What am I missing?
posted by TallRail to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
If you've been working hard in the gym and aren't getting good results, then there's a good chance your diet is to blame. Muscles can't grow without protein, and it's especially important to get some in you immediately after your workout. Talk to a trainer or dietitian for more assistance on this.

Finally, I doubt very much that your skinniness is preventing you from getting a girlfriend. In my experience as a skinny guy (6'5, 180 pounds through my 20s, no muscles at all) girls care much more about intelligence, sense of humor and kindness. Having a muscular physique doesn't hurt, to be sure, but don't put it all on your build. Getting big won't make much of a difference if you're an ignorant clod. (Not that I think you are. Just saying.)
posted by gabrielsamoza at 1:44 PM on September 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

What's your diet like? If you have a high metabolism you should be eating much more than you usually do. I'd try something like 3000 calories a day for a week or two and see if you don't notice anything. In terms of construction, muscles are like a building in that protein is the cement and carbohydrates are the electricity. You gotta give your body the materials it can use to build the muscle you want.

However, I'd doubt this affects your girlfriend-attracting abilities.
posted by rhizome at 1:46 PM on September 7, 2010

how do I bulk up?

Eat a lot of food and lift heavy weights. Starting Strength is a good a program as any to start with.

I even took a weight training class in college, busted my butt in it, and was unable to generate any results.

You were lifting a lot and never saw increases? You probably weren't eating enough. If your body isn't getting what it needs to build more muscle then it's not going to. Also, it's important to get a good night's sleep and I certainly had a lot of irregular sleep in my university days.
posted by ODiV at 1:48 PM on September 7, 2010

Eat a lot of protein and lift heavy. Heavier than you think you can. I'm a fan of Lyle McDonald's advice. Ignore the photos of the scary bodybuilders.

In general, a class is more about teaching you form than bulking you up. You're going to probably gain all over, not just upper body, if you really get into it.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:57 PM on September 7, 2010

Protein and weights. You can buy whey powder to make shakes with - super easy.
posted by djgh at 2:01 PM on September 7, 2010

6'5" here, and agreeing with all of the above. I managed to put on about 20 pounds of (mostly) muscle in the last year or so based on weights and increasing my diet.

I'd never had a big appetite before, but I found once I got into the habit of exercising hard 3-4 times a week I was able to put down a lot more food. Also, don't get caught in the trap that since you're trying to put on weight, you can just eat whatever you want. The substance of your diet is just as important as the amount of food you're putting down.

Also, protein powder is your friend.
posted by auto-correct at 2:06 PM on September 7, 2010

It's probably not this heavy, but if you do blood work anytime soon, have them check your testosterone level just to be sure it's in range.

posted by Studiogeek at 2:07 PM on September 7, 2010

Yes. Eat a lot. Try this book, embarrassingly titled Scrawny to Brawny. I followed the plan therein for a summer and gained a fair bit of weight and strength. Naturally both went away as soon as I stopped.

But there are some good discussions, shopping lists, recipes, workout plans, etc etc. Recommended.
posted by supercres at 2:12 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't add anything to the weight training + high protein diet comments, except adding press-ups to the mix.

But on the attracting women front, I don't think that's really a problem.

If you run a lot, maybe join a running club (women who like running are more likely to appreciate the runner's physique). Obviously don't do that just to meet women, that might be a bit creepy, but if you enjoy running, it's a good way of meeting likeminded people, including women.

(And please don't overdo the weight training - in general, women are not attracted to blokes with bigger tits than them.)
posted by finding.perdita at 2:15 PM on September 7, 2010

I'm just guessing here, but since you're accustomed to cardio work are you doing too many reps? When building muscle, I sometimes have to resist the urge to do more reps when I feel like I can. Instead, I put the weight down and put more weight on for the next round so my muscles are exhausted after 6 reps. If you can do more than 5-6 reps per set, you are not lifting enough weight to really challenge your muscles. They might get nice and toned, but not grow the way you want. Once I knew what weight was right for 5-6 reps per set, I tracked my progress daily. When I was able to lift that weight 8 times for 3 sets, it was time to up the weight by 5-10 lbs right away.

Also, you should only be working each muscle group once per week (maybe twice, but I've always heard once). I'm not an expert, but I've heard that it takes muscles at least 2 days to truly recover, and that's when they do the most growing. If you work the same muscles exactly 48 hours later, you're interrupting their growth phase. A pretty typical split would be chest one day, legs the next, back the next, shoulders the next, then biceps/triceps. Rinse and repeat weekly. I know you're focused on upper body, but there's a theory (I can't speak to the validity) that when you build the large muscles of your legs, it stimulates your whole system to continue building muscle everywhere that you've been working out.

Nthing protein powder. Especially right before / after working out so there's plenty in your system for your newly-aching muscles to work with. And adding more eggs, chicken, and fish to your diet will give you plenty to work with.
posted by Tehhund at 2:23 PM on September 7, 2010

Have you looked at any past questions on this subject? "I'm a skinny guy, how do I gain muscle" has come up a bunch of times before. Here's an old example of pretty much the same question with a great answer 2 comments in. But I'll give you the answer anyway because I'm a real helpful dude.

You don't give us your height and weight or describe what approaches you've taken in the past, but the typical frustrated skinny guy fails to get muscular because he doesn't understand how training and diet work, so he ends up getting info from muscle magazines or dubious internet sources, eating like a pre-contest bodybuilder so he can "get ripped" (read: nowhere near enough food, obsession with "clean eating" like chicken breast and brown rice) and doing a half-assed bodybuilding routine (read: tons of different exercises, lots of isolation, tendency to avoid hard work on basic movements). Read this article: bodybuilding has lied to you, and that's why you're still skinny.

So what do you need to do?

1) Learn to train. As a skinny beginner your goal needs to be to get strong all over. This means you don't focus on specific bodyparts, but instead on moving more weight than you did last time with multi-joint lifts, like the squat, deadlift, press, and bench press. When you've reached a point where you have a decent level of strength and an appropriate bodyweight, you can decide to specialize or focus on the small details. Doing it the other way around will most likely lead to continued frustration and failure, or if you stick with it for years, looking ridiculous because you have big arms and skinny legs and no ass.

Read about the approach on the Starting Strength wiki, then buy the book and learn the lifts. Whether or not you decide to follow the program (and you probably should), it's the best reference guide around for learning to perform the lifts. You can also avail yourself of the excellent forum.

2) Learn to eat. The specifics of this depend on your stats, but generally you need to eat a whole lot more than you think (4000-5000 calories a day is not unusual for a tall guy who trains hard), and you need a lot of protein. 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight is a minimum. Whey powder is a great way to make this easier. For really skinny guys who have trouble getting in enough calories, drinking a gallon of whole milk a day is a popular recommendation. It's cheap, portable, easy, and has a good nutritional profile for growth. This isn't something you do for the rest of your life -- it's just for a short time while you're gaining a lot of size, and it works. You should focus on getting calories from quality sources -- beef, poultry, pork, eggs, fish, dairy, rice, oats, fruits, veggies -- but as a skinny dude you need to not be super-picky about this stuff for awhile, or you won't get very far.

I can tell you all of this because I've been there. I looked like Skeletor a couple of years ago at 6' 145. Now I weigh around 200, I deadlift around 500, and I'm still growing. And I'd bet quite a bit that you'll have an easier time attracting women if you follow through with this successfully. A weak, skinny man tends to have a weak, skinny attitude. Hard physical effort, and the determination to set up a goal and pursue it in spite of difficulty, builds confidence and character. This is something that people who have never trained hard have a lot of difficulty understanding.

Big changes never come easy, but fortunately there is a wealth of quality information out there. Unfortunately there is perhaps an even greater wealth of misinformation, distortion, and speculation from people who have no idea what they're talking about. Separating the two can sometimes be difficult. My advice on that front is to always make an effort to understand why you're doing what you're doing. Be able to explain the reasoning behind your training program, and expect anyone giving you advice to do the same. Most of this stuff, when you understand it, is pretty simple and logical. When somebody gives you a piece of advice but can't provide a reasonable explanation for it, they're probably just repeating something they heard somewhere and don't really have a clue if it's true or how it applies to you. Good luck.
posted by JohnMarston at 2:33 PM on September 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

People with your body type are often referred to as "hardgainers" on weightlifting and bodybuilding message boards... You can find lots of tips and advice by googling that term.

The book "Starting Strength" is great, as others have mentioned. I also like the website stronglifts.com, which is in the same flavor as Starting Strength.

A good general recipe for gaining mass is:

1) focus on the big, compound lifts (5x5 squats, deadlifts, bench, standing press, rows, pullups)
2) doggedly increase your weight on the big lifts every week until you stall; back off a little and increment again. you'll be surprised how quickly your body can adapt, especially on big lifts like squats.
3) Eat like it's your job.
posted by JumpW at 2:41 PM on September 7, 2010

Usually I write really detailed posts to questions like this but I think I have a perfect article for you:

Pretend you're back in high school and mean ol' Mr. Berardi has just passed out a pop quiz. Luckily, there's only one question:

Which of the following statements is true?

A) Most people succeed in training well enough to grow, but they fail in eating well enough to grow.

B) Most people eat well enough to grow, but they don't train well enough to grow.

Pencils down. Okay, which is it? If you said "A," give yourself a gold star. But don't feel too badly if you chose "B." To an extent, both answers are correct. Most people probably train and eat incorrectly! But if I had to pick one answer that was more true than the other, I'd say "A" would be the best choice. If you're not growing, it's probably your diet, not your training, that's holding you back.

With this article I'm throwing down the gauntlet. This is your wake up call if you've ever made any of the following statements:

"I eat a lot of food. In fact, it feels like I'm eating all day! But I just can't get any bigger."

"I can't gain a pound of muscle. My parents are both skinny, so it must be genetic."

"I've always had a fast metabolism. That's why I can stay lean but can't get any bigger."

"I'm scared to go on a bulking diet because I don't want to lose my abs."

"I've tried mass-building diets before and put on a little muscle, but most of the weight I gained was fat."

Sound familiar? Then this article is for you, toothpick legs.

Also read: Massive Eating Part II
Other tips: I'd recommend the Starting Strength 3x5 program for as long as your can make linear gains with it. Do it for at least 3 months.
After that something like Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 is a great place to move on to.
Don't program hop.
Don't eat big for a few days and go back to your old diet for another few. Your diet is going to be the biggest and hardest change for you initially, not the training.
posted by zephyr_words at 3:02 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Finally, I doubt very much that your skinniness is preventing you from getting a girlfriend. In my experience as a skinny guy (6'5, 180 pounds through my 20s, no muscles at all) girls care much more about intelligence, sense of humor and kindness.

As someone who's (currently) 155 and 6'1" -- yeah, your skinniness isn't keeping you from getting a girlfriend. If it's anything, it's your lack of confidence because you're so skinny. There are lots of women out there who dig tall, thin guys. Lots.
posted by davejay at 3:49 PM on September 7, 2010

oh but having strength -- forget epic muscles that you can see from a block away -- is a very valuable commodity for putting a woman's interest to good use.
posted by davejay at 3:50 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's a facebook group devoted to chicks who dig skinny guys. I'm in it. I think there is nothing more attractive than a tall skinny guy. If muscles would make you feel better, by all means try more protein and lifting heavier weights to the point of fatigue. But know there are many girls who would love some tall skinny guy action. Good luck!
posted by shortyJBot at 4:15 PM on September 7, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for these great answers. Since someone asked, I'm 6'1" and 170. That would be about Obama's height and weight.
posted by TallRail at 4:21 PM on September 7, 2010

This site is right up your alley! Stick to it and after 3-6 months you’ll notice a significant change in your metabolism and muscle-mass.
posted by vkxmai at 5:05 PM on September 7, 2010

I'm almost identical to your height/weight stats (6', 170 lbs), and can say that I have had good results using a targeted protein supplement in my training regimen. Even though I don't train for bulk—I go in primarily for extended sets of pull-ups and push-ups—I've nevertheless bulked up beyond skinny, which I can only attribute to the fact that I make sure I get a lot of protein in my diet. Immediately after each workout, I make sure I ingest about 35 grams of protein. Beyond that, I make sure I eat a very protein-rich diet, and usually supplement another 35 grams of protein at the end of the day.

I know this doesn't translate into a super scientific test case, but I figured I could add a good data point that getting lots of protein in your diet will definitely make a difference.
posted by Brak at 5:21 PM on September 7, 2010

You are my boyfriend's height and weight (well, he's 3/4 inches taller). He's been weight training for a little bit now, but we dated for 2 years before that. By all means, work out for your health and self-image, but don't allow yourself to entertain the idea that your body is keeping you from getting a girlfriend. Lots of women like skinny men, and lots (like me) even dislike men with too much muscle mass/super defined six packs.
posted by 200burritos at 5:23 PM on September 7, 2010

You're 6'1" and 170?

When I started at the gym around exactly your age I was 6'2" and 140. I was ecstatic when I hit 170 about a year later. (And now that I'm above 180 I wouldn't mind being 175 again...)

So, I'm just trying to offer a little perspective that you probably aren't as skinny as you think - or at least that it's not being viewed by others as the bad thing you imagine it to be.
posted by dnash at 8:11 AM on September 8, 2010

100% sure you're not eating enough. Eat chicken breasts until you never want to see another one again and it turns to ash in your mouth, then eat more.

Food is fuel and you're probably running at 20% capacity.
posted by spatula at 11:34 AM on September 8, 2010

I'm starting to wonder if my lack of muscle build is diminishing my chances of getting a girlfriend.

No. That's patently fucking ridiculous.

If you want to gain weight, follow the above advice and stop running.
posted by P.o.B. at 6:40 PM on September 9, 2010

« Older Riddle Me This   |   The Fixodent to Her Wooden Teeth Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.