How To Build Lean Muscle with These Tips To Cure The Skinny Guy
A Roundtable, featuring Joe DeFranco, Vince DelMonte, and Craig Weller
by Nate Green
Are you afraid of blowing away in a strong gust of wind? Tired of looking in the mirror and seeing vermicelli arms and Tinker Toy legs? Does your little sister ask to borrow your clothes… and threaten to beat you up if you refuse? Do you ever look at the 45-pound plates in the gym and wonder when you’ll be able to use them? Sick of answering questions that remind you of the one subject you try to avoid?
You aren’t alone: Lots of guys share your hypertrophy-averse physiology. Many of them manage to work their way into more mirror-friendly proportions. I’m one of them, and I report to two former skinny bastards who grew up to be Testosterone Muscle editors.
A select few end up as coaches who help guys like us get bigger, stronger, and more athletic. I talked to three of them: Joe DeFranco, a strength coach based in New Jersey who works with elite high school, college, and pro athletes; Vince DelMonte, author of No-Nonsense Muscle Building; and Craig Weller, a trainer based in San Diego and popular Testosterone contributor who’s a former member of the Navy’s elite special-ops forces.
I locked the three of them in a room and wouldn’t let them leave until they filled my tape recorder with nutrition tips, training strategies, and lifestyle adjustments that they’ve used to help themselves and their clients work up to larger shirt sizes.
Testosterone Muscle: Let’s go back to high school. How would I have picked you out of a crowd? What about now?
Craig Weller: I was a 98-pound weakling. I remember being on the eighth grade football team and looking at the roster to find out I weighed less than everyone on the seventh grade team. My dad actually listed my weight on the roster as 105 pounds because I was so damn embarrassed that I wasn’t in the triple digits.
But then I bought a Joe Weider program out of the back of a magazine and started lifting weights. I found better and better sources over time, and when I was a junior in high school I weighed 175 pounds and was deadlifting 405 pounds fairly easily.
I now weigh about 185 pounds, although I’m still recovering from my last trip to Nepal, where I lost about 20 pounds.
Vince Del Monte: I was a lot like Craig, but I actually grew up as a long-distance runner. I ran for the University of Western Ontario for four years, and even represented Canada at the National Triathlon Championship. So if I had any chance of building muscle, I probably made it worse with all that endurance training. At the time, I weighed between 135 and 149 pounds.
Vince’s jersey looks a little big
During my second year of University, I lived in a house with eight guys. They called me “Skinny Vinnie,” and it stuck. All the girls thought it was cute, which as we all know is the worst possible thing for a girl to call you. So I decided to make a change.
Luckily, one of my professors was none other than John Berardi. My friends and I used to follow him around the gym and copy what he did. We called him “The Bible of Bodybuilding.”
John invited me to a SWIS [Society of Weight-Training Injury Specialists] symposium. I met guys like Charles Poliquin and Ian King, and I decided to be a personal trainer.
Only catch was, I didn’t look like one. I went from 149 to 190 in six months. I now weigh 210.
No jersey, no problem.
Joe DeFranco: I was definitely a skinny bastard. I grew tall way too fast. I was 5’11” and weighed 125 in the eighth grade. My dad used to take me to his hardcore gym with a bunch of ex-cops and military guys and I’d just do what he did. Right now I’m about 225.
But what’s more important is that I’ve helped a ton of high school and college athletes gain huge amounts of muscle too.
TM:Philosophers have been debating this question since the advent of written language, so I’ll put it to you: What’s more important for the naturally skinny kid — training or nutrition?
JD: Nutrition, hands down. Listen, as soon as I get a real skinny high school kid, the first thing I have him do is just start eating a shit-ton of food. That’s obvious, right? But here’s the kicker: We’re not going to be too strict or pissed off if he eats McDonald’s a few times per week.
The overriding factor is that they have to put more calories in their body than they burn off. And for a hard gainer whose genetics are working against him, you can’t just have a caloric surplus of 100 or 200 calories a day. If you’re going to gain some size, you’ll need a lot more.
TM: But McDonald’s?
JD: Only at first. We tell them they can’t eat too much or have too many meals in a day, and eating McDonald’s or whatever will help them get used to eating big every few hours. Is it the best? Not really. But it does teach them to eat big and pack the calories in.
Once they reach a base point, then we put them on a balanced plan where they’ll get 40 percent of their calories from carbs, 30 percent from protein, and 30 percent from fats. Hell, for some of the really skinny guys, we’ll go with a 50-30-20 ratio. And these are all from higher-quality sources.
One of the biggest problems with these skinny guys is they avoid carbs like they’re scared of them. Carbs have gotten such a bad rap over the past few years that it’s absolutely ridiculous. If I take a look at a skinny guy’s food log, I’ll see an omelet for breakfast, a burger for lunch, and three pieces of chicken for dinner. Where the hell are the carbs? All that protein needs to repair the muscle, not supply energy in place of carbs.
In fact one of the biggest things that has led to the most dramatic changes is simply focusing on peri-and post-workout nutrition, and making sure they’re getting some carbs along with some high-quality protein.
TM: Interesting stuff. What do you think, Craig?
CW: I agree about timing. If I have a rough workout, I’ll usually have a full serving of Surge during the workout and another full serving directly after. I’ll then wait 30 minutes and have a high-carb meal, like chicken with a huge pile of brown rice.
TM: What about the idea that skinny guys can get away with eating more junk food, at least for a while?
CW: Maybe Joe’s guys are different. Most skinny guys I know are eating junk food for the hell of it, and aren’t even achieving a caloric surplus. They think they’re eating a lot because they’re chowing down on a lot of high-calorie junk food, but they’re not using these foods as part of an overall system to get bigger. They’re really just damaging their long-term health and their progress in the gym.
TM: So are carbs and protein the only thing we’re concerned about?
CW: I think a lot of guys are skimping on their fats, too. If your fat consumption drops below 80 grams or so a day, then your endocrine system isn’t going to function as well and your testosterone production may drop off significantly.
Personally, I go for about a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, but after I reach that I bulk things up with some healthy fats. It’s always something that’s worked for clients and me. I’ll eat eight whole eggs at a time and take in a lot of avocadoes, cheese, and Flameout.
Another good way of adding in healthy fats and sneaking in more calories is adding coconut milk to shakes. A can of it costs a little over a dollar and usually contains something like 75 grams of fat. I use about one-fourth of a can at a time. And it tastes good. I also eat almond butter with a spoon.
VD: I agree with both of you guys, but I think people should realize that eating a ton of calories without getting the proper vitamins, minerals, and fiber is kind of shooting yourself in the foot. Your body won’t be able to assimilate all that much if you’re not focused on the quality of the food.
So before anyone increases the calories, I think they should look at exactly where all those calories are coming from.
Let’s say a client of mine is eating 3,000 calories a day, and we want him to get up to 3,600. I’m going to have him go back and examine every single meal before we do anything else. I’ll have him look at the little details, like if he could be getting omega-3 eggs instead of normal ones, or if he could eat organic vegetables instead of the ones with all the pesticides. And I think once you make all those changes, then you can increase the actual calories.
TM: That’s an excellent point and one most guys wouldn’t even consider. Let’s talk training for the skinny guys. Kick us off, Vince.
VD: The first thing I want say is that “do what works for you” is some bullshit advice for beginners. It’s like Michael Phelps telling an eight-year-old that if you feel like doing backstrokes today, then do some backstrokes. Guys need a plan. They need a program and guidelines, and they need to know the principles that are going to contribute to the majority of their results. They have to know when to work on technique, strength, endurance, or hypertrophy.
So it’s a bit of a cliché, but I think guys need to find a great program, trust it, and stick to it for at least 12 weeks. Don’t jump around too much. See what you learn about your body during that time and gain some leverage. When you figure out what works for your body, then you can easily tweak the next program you do. A lot of guys are jumping from one program to the next with no new knowledge about how their bodies respond to each stimulus.
JD: I agree completely. Too many guys try so many fucking programs at once, it’s like they have ADD. Most of the programs out there work if you train hard enough. If you’re eating enough and busting your ass, then you’re going to get bigger and stronger if you’ve got a decent plan in place.
But I get a ton of emails where guys tell me they’re doing my “Westside for Skinny Bastards” program but throw in Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 template and Charles Staley’s EDT combined with some of Thibaudeau’s techniques. I write back and say, “You’re fucked.”
If you combine 20 different great programs, and do them all at once, you’re going to get shitty results. You have to stick to one thing for a while. Give it a solid eight to 12 weeks and I guarantee you’ll get results. In fact, if you were to use the “Skinny Bastards” template and constantly tweak the exercises and set and rep scheme, you could stay on that program the rest of your life.
VD: Right on! But here’s something else to consider: After the guys have followed great programs for a couple of years or so, I think they should have the courage to make their own decisions. A guy should know what applies to his body and what doesn’t, and should have the ability to tweak the program to his needs.
For example, if your back is your weakest muscle group and you know you should be prioritizing it, and you’re following an awesome program from Thibaudeau that says to do chest at the beginning of the week and back on the last day of the week, you should know to change the days around. You don’t need to email or call him and ask if it’s okay. You should know your body better than he does.
TM: Good point. Joe, you’ve written three different versions of “Westside for Skinny Bastards.” Do you still train athletes with that basic template?
JD: It’s evolved over time, but the bulk of the workout is the same. Max-effort training is still the best way to get stronger and look better. I really believe that maximal strength builds the foundation for all the other goals guys have.
But don’t get me wrong — I do high-rep stuff with the skinny guys.
If you take a genetic-freak athlete who’s absolutely jacked and did a muscle biopsy, you’d see a predominance of type IIB muscle fibers. These guys respond very well to max-effort movements. But skinny guys are usually more slow-twitch. Because they’re not as neurologically efficient, they’ll respond better to higher reps — six to 12.
In terms of frequency, three or four times a week is all they need in the gym. If you feel like you could train every day, you’re probably not training correctly. My facility attracts really motivated guys, and I actually have to convince them not to come to the gym on their off days.
CW: I agree with what Joe’s talking about, for sure. I also want to point out that I don’t think a guy’s results are necessarily from a specific method, but rather an internalization and adherence to a few basic principles. Maximal strength, as Joe points out, is huge.
I also don’t think that a skinny guy should worry about single-joint or isolation movements if he only weighs 160 pounds. Your rhomboids or your medial deltoids just don’t merit that much attention when you’re that skinny.
I also think guys need to spend more time on their lower body. Not equal time. More time. With my clients, loading the spine and doing heavy squats and deadlift variations has really caused a tremendous anabolic response.
That’s another reason why my conditioning stuff is usually posterior-chain and lower-body dominant. Even if our equipment is nothing more than a rock on a beach, we’re going to use it to stimulate as much of our bodies as we can. We’re going to move heavy, fast, and frequently. We’re not going to do curls with the rock. We’re going to push-press it, front squat, and throw it overhead as far as we can and then sprint to it.
TM: Wouldn’t conditioning be the last thing on a skinny guy’s mind? Wouldn’t that burn too many calories?
CW: The type of conditioning I do is so dependent on strength that I haven’t seen any muscle loss from it at all. We’re not swimming or jogging here. We’re moving heavy things for a repeated effort and more reps, or we’re doing some intervals. You’re getting a great anabolic response because you’re moving something heavy, loading the spine, and not encouraging your body to become smaller or more efficient.
TM: Joe, I know you’ve got some interesting thoughts on lower-body training. Care to share?
JD: Allow me to steal a line from Alwyn Cosgrove when I say people either overreact or underreact to everything in the fitness industry. The answer is really right in the middle.
It’s definitely true most guys don’t train their legs, and if they do, it’s the shit they see in the mirror. So I give a lot of credit to Louie Simmons, who really popularized hamstring training through box squats, reverse hypers, and everything else. It was like a light bulb went off in the heads of thousands of guys.
But then guys stopped training quads altogether for fear of being “unbalanced.”
For an athlete, or a guy who’s trying to look good, the quads are just as important as the hamstrings. A lot of kids will gain 15 to 20 pounds within a two-month period by just focusing more on their legs, especially the quads. Hell, if you want three muscle groups that will put some size on your body, it’s gotta be your ass, hamstrings, and quads.
I’m a huge fan of single-leg movements like Bulgarian split squats and barbell reverse lunges. If you walk into my gym at any hour I guarantee you’re going to see someone with their back leg on a bench, holding dumbbells to their sides or a barbell on their back. It sucks and it’s hard as hell, but the weight just pours on.
TM: Vince, anything to add here?
VD: I think it’s really important to alternate a strength phase with a volume phase every three to six weeks, and to focus on biofeedback cues.
It may sound simple, but in a strength phase your primary focus should be lifting as much weight as possible. You’ve got to focus on how strong you’re feeling and not worry about how much of a “pump” you’re getting.
But when you switch to the volume phase, you need to focus more on what you experience during those reps, and on accomplishing more total work. You shouldn’t really care about how heavy it is, but how heavy it feels. Really try to establish that mind-muscle connection.
I think one of the most important things to realize is that you’re going to have to work your ass off to get where you want to be. But it’s kind of like saving up a million bucks. Are you going to go into debt again after you’ve worked so hard to get to that point?
Gaining appreciable amounts of muscle requires doing things that may be considered obsessive by your friends. It may cause you to re-examine your social life and your daily habits. But it’s only temporary. When you get where you want to be, you’ll have a completely different mindset. It’s definitely easier to maintain and keep growing once you’ve achieved your base, but it’s an all-out war in the gym and the kitchen until then.
TM: All right, last question. Give my your biggest, baddest tip for skinny guys looking to shed their medium-size T-shirts for good.
CW: Something that I’ve done before with my guys is to give them a cheap watch with a countdown timer that goes off every two hours. Wherever they’re at, they have to drop down and do 20 push-ups and polish it off with a Metabolic Drive protein bar. Sure, you’ll look stupid doing pushups in the middle of Sears, but who cares? Carry a protein bar with you wherever you go and I guarantee you’ll never be hungry.
TM: Damn, Craig, that’s messed up. What about you Vince?
VD: If I could make a blanket rule, I’d have all skinny guys stop counting reps and stop following a tempo. Your greatest enemy is thinking too much. Let’s eliminate that altogether and focus on training intensely to stimulate growth. I want my guy completely out of his comfort zone. Take whatever program you’re following, start with weights that are five pounds heavier than you did last week, and do as many reps as possible for each set.
The only thing I want you to track is your rest period. Use a stopwatch and keep it honest. It’s okay if you don’t finish the workout and end up vomiting in the washroom after 10 minutes.
TM: Wrap us up, Joe.
JD: Two meals per week, I want my skinny guys to do what I call Hour of Power. This means for the duration of one hour they have to shove as much food as they can into their body without puking. I don’t care what they eat — anything goes.
I’ve found this caloric influx two times per week actually helps skinny guys shock their muscles into growing. It also helps with their recovery. I recommend doing the Hour of Power on Wednesday and Sunday, or any other day you have off from lifting and can afford to be a bit sluggish for a few hours.
But no puking! You’ll lose precious calories.
TM: Awesome tips. Thanks for participating, guys.
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