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    Photo Credit: Kevin Caudill

Fighting the Skinny Gene: A Workout for Ectomorphs

By L.K. Regan

You've tried just about everything you can think of. You're in the gym almost every day, lifting every pound you can every way you can, but you just can't seem to bulk up. You don't want to resort to illegal substances, so you feel stuck at skinny.

Chances are you're an ectomorph. Ectomorph isn't a bad word, it's just one of the three basic body types: Ectomorphs are thin and don't retain either fat or muscle easily; endomorphs are prone to both fat and muscle; and mesomorphs are a balance of the two, with some fat and muscle retention.

Ectomorphs who want to build bigger, sculpted bodies face an uphill battle. But don't despair-it's far from a lost cause. To get the skinny on getting less skinny, talked to Devin Wicks, ACE, AFAA, a fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, and specialty strength coach for some of the University's premier sports teams, and asked him for advice on building a training regimen that will help ectomorphs safely build more muscle for the long term. Then we talked to Emily Bender, a certified nutrition consultant, author, and member of the faculty of the Hawthorn Health and Nutrition Institute, who gave us tips for eating to support Wicks' exercise program (and your health in general).

But first, a qualifier: Both Bender and Wicks point out that there are limits to how much you can change your body. If you're ectomorphic, you're not going to look like vintage Arnold, no matter how many bicep curls you do. Genetics play a huge role in the shape your body takes, and that's that. So along with diet and exercise, you should also incorporate a program for self-acceptance, understanding that your primary goal in working out should be to have a healthy body and mind to match, not to achieve an unattainable look.

The Exercise Plan: Bulking Up Through Periodization
If you've been trying to bulk up, you've probably been lifting as much weight as you can as often as you can. Ironically, Wicks says, this approach actually works against you, because it never gives your muscles time to recover. Instead, you want to devise a periodized program, in which you vary the intensity of your workouts over a set period of time, with mechanisms for checking your progress. The key to this program is to alternate periods of different degrees of muscle breakdown with periods of active recovery, in which you still work your muscles, but lightly enough to allow them to rebuild. You want to constantly present your muscles with different stimuli, so that they are breaking down and rebuilding in a variety of patterns; this will lead to maximum muscle development, with greater resilience.

Getting Started: Calculate Your Rep Max
To start a periodized program, you'll need to calculate your "one rep max" to get a baseline for measuring your progress. This is the maximum amount of weight you can lift in one repetition, such that if you tried to do a second repetition with the same weight, you would be unable to keep good form.

That said, it's dangerous to try to find that amount of weight by trial and error, so Wicks recommends you find the amount of weight you could lift for no more than eight to 10 repetitions, and then plug that number into a one rep max calculator. These are easily found online. For example, check out the One Rep Max Calculator. Obviously, your one rep max will vary by exercise; for example, you can bench press more than you can lift in a reverse fly press. So for each exercise you use in your workout program, you will need to recalculate your one rep max.

Now on to the program. Pick a series of exercises you feel comfortable you can do for a couple of months, hitting the gym to strength train three to work times per week. To get started, use your existing exercise regimen or develop a new one using the basic building blocks, such as bench press, squats, bicep curls, and so on. Just make sure you put together a group of exercises that cover all of your major muscle groups. (Want some new exercise ideas? Check out's Strength Training section).

For each exercise, you want to determine your heavy weight, medium heavy weight, medium weight, and light weight:

  1. Heavy weight: Also known as your sub max, this is a weight slightly less than your one rep max. Find the weight for this exercise at which you will reach fatigue in five to eight repetitions. Remember, fatigue means that you could continue to lift the weights, but not without compromising your form.
  2. Medium heavy weight: One degree lighter than your sub max is called your medium heavy weight. This will be a weight at which you will fatigue in eight to 10 repetitions.
  3. Medium weight: One weight lighter than your medium heavy weight is your medium weight. This will be a weight at which you will fatigue in 10 to 12 reps.
  4. Light weight: One weight lighter than your medium weight is your light weight. The will be a weight at which you will fatigue in 12 to 15 reps.
Now that you have your weight levels, follow the periodization program below, alternating muscle groups through the week.
Month 1
Week Weight Level Sets Repetitions
Week 1 Medium 3 - 5 10 - 12
Week 2 Medium heavy 3 - 5 8 - 10
Week 3 Light 3 - 5 12 - 15
Week 4 Heavy 3 - 5 5 - 8
Month 2
Repeat Month 1 exercises and repetitions, but increase each weight level by 5 to 8 percent. For example, if you were using 200 pounds for your light weight set in Month 1, you will use 210 pounds for your light set in Month 2; if you were using 250 pounds for your heavy set, you will increase that weight to 270 pounds. At the end of Month 2, recalculate your one rep max and check your progress.
Months 3 and Beyond
You can adapt this program for another two-month block and beyond. Just pick a different set of exercises than your previous two months, again covering all of the major muscle groups, and recalculate your weight levels. And this is only the beginning. Wicks provided us with a simple version of a periodized program, but they come in many versions and forms. Once you start seeing the results, you'll find there are endless variations you can try.

Sidebar on Eating Right: Nutrition Tips to Maximize Your Gains
All of that heavy lifting won't be easy; you need to sustain your periodized program with an appropriate diet. As with the exercise program, you should start with a baseline. Metabolic dysfunction can underlie persistent issues with body mass.

In particular, Bender suggests testing for a blood sugar imbalance. Many people are insulin resistant, which prevents energy from getting to their muscles because their cells have become desensitized to insulin and so are not taking up sugar. This situation can be caused and exacerbated by diet; the more refined simple sugars you eat, the more insulin your body produces, and the more resistant your body becomes. We'll provide some dietary solutions below, but you might want to find out where your insulin stands now. A glucose tolerance test from your doctor, combined with an insulin level test, can detect this issue. Both are commonly performed diagnostics. If you do find that you have a significant blood sugar imbalance, ask your doctor for help in solving it.

Even if you have a metabolic clean slate, you still want to eat right to support your exercise regimen. Bender offers the following tips for eating properly to support a periodized workout program-some of which may surprise you.
  1. Avoid refined carbohydrates: This includes white sugar, white flour, and most baked goods. Often called "empty calories," these foods lead to the fastest increases in blood sugar and offer nothing good in return. Bender says they're worse even than that; they're negative calories, because not only do they provide no nutrients, but they also force your body to expend additional nutrients digesting them.
  2. Avoid trans fats: Food labelling now identifies these little devils, which interfere with your blood sugar metabolism, raise your bad cholesterol, lower your good cholesterol, and clog your arteries. In other words, they significantly raise your risk of heart disease. (They're so bad, in fact, that New York City just banned restaurants from serving them.)
  3. Don't skimp on the healthy carbs: Think fruit, whole grains, and vegetables. Bender says that if you are eating a plate of food, half-yes, half-of the plate should be made up of vegetables. See The Truth About Carbs for more details on what types of carbs you should eat.
  4. Don't cut out protein or fat: Good news for fat lovers! You should always eat your carbs, of whatever form, with protein and fat rather than alone. Eating fat with fiber slows down the absorption of sugar in the body, allowing energy to reach your cells and helping with the absorption of minerals. For example, Bender recommends you eat apples with a little cheese and put a modest amount of butter on your broccoli. You need protein to build muscle, but it matters where you get your protein. Bender says that animal proteins provide the best protein source, especially if you eat organic and free-range meats. Also, the vitamins A and D in the butter and cream that you put on your vegetables are fat soluble-they are only found in fatty foods-and they efficiently escort minerals into your cells. So have a steak (in moderation) and put a pat of butter on your spinach.
For more nutrition information, you can reach Emily Bender on the web at Gourmet Helping Nutrition Consultation.