Powerlifting for Ectomorphs and Hard Gainers


ectomorph training overhead dumbbells

I’ll be honest, I think body types are pretty stupid. The three major “somatotypes” are based on the outdated musings of a 1940s American psychologist and have no real basis in fact or evidence. You can’t roughly categorize people into three basic shapes and doing so ignores the fact that outside of generally having two legs, two arms, a head, and some genitalia, we’re all really different. Some of us are fat, some of us are skinny, some of us are barrel-chested, some of us have long arms and short legs, or long legs and short arms, or long everything, or short everything. As such, I don’t think it’s particularly useful to give powerlifting advice for ectomorphs. But when you repurpose ectomorphs to refer to “anyone who’s generally lanky and wants to get big”, you’ve got a pretty relatable topic going.

I think most ectomorphs are just young and skinny, and a lot of them haven’t put in the time or effort to grow. They see their classmates who are exploding in size (some of them are massively gifted, others are using steroids) and are wondering why they aren’t gaining muscle as fast. Most of the time, it’s a bad diet and poor sleep. Sometimes, it’s that they’re underestimating just how much they’re burning and overestimating how much they’re eating. And sometimes, it’s that they read somewhere they could gain 30lbs of muscle in a few months, did the math, and realized that half a pound to a pound a week wasn’t really the type of growth they were expecting.

At other times, skinny guys (and gals) see that most successful powerlifters are pretty jacked and often short, and they might be worried they can’t compete. Firstly – don’t think of viably competing with top athletes if you’re a beginner. You can think about joining competitions, but don’t expect to place on the podium. It’s a bad kind of pressure to put on yourself. Focus on what’s most important – beating your own progress, one session at a time.

Secondly, being tall or long-limbed (as ectomorphs usually are) is not a disadvantage in the sport of powerlifting. Unlike swimming, where you need short legs, long arms, and a long wide torso, or basketball, where insane height advantages are important, powerlifting is a sport where one leverage typically tends to cancel out the other.

Do you have short arms? Congratulations, the bench press is now a much easier lift. However, you gotta set your hips real low to deadlift. Do you have long legs and arms? Sure, squatting and benching might be a bit tough. But now you’ve got the length needed to pack on substantially more muscle and go up a weight class, plus your long arms let you deadlift from a better position. This is not the sport to worry about your body type. That being said, if you’re lanky and skinny, I’ve got a lot of personal advice to give you.

Shouldn’t Hard Gainers Just Eat More?

I won’t pretend that hard gainers don’t exist. There’s variance in all human beings. Some of us have incrementally more of a certain hormone. Some of us have genes that predispose us towards muscle growth and thicker, wider bones. You might win the genetic lottery, or you might not. At this point, that’s something you really shouldn’t worry about anymore.

If you’re reading this article, you’re likely not the type to pack on plenty of muscle very easily but eating way more won’t actually change that. Instead, it’ll make you a little stronger and a little chubbier, and fat won’t do you any good (especially if you don’t have the genes to become a thicc SHW lifter).

What you should do is get a realistic picture of what you’re eating and what you’re burning. Track your meals for a few weeks, until you can consistently maintain your current weight. That’ll help you figure out your base caloric intake. Then, add 200 calories a day and continue training. You can build muscle on a deficit as a beginner (even if you’re a hard gainer) but it’s definitely more efficient to eat enough to give your body the signal to invest in your muscles. You just can’t be stuffing yourself 24/7 and expecting good progress. You’ll see change, but it’s probably not the kind you want.

Long Arms? Long Legs? No Problem.

Like I mentioned before, certain leverages will give you benefits in some lifts, and disadvantages in others. Short legs and short arms are generally better for squats and bench presses respectively, but a shorter torso and longer limbs can help you pull more weight off the floor. In the end, among elite lifters, you will see dudes and ladies of all kinds (long-limbed, short-limbed, long torso, etc.) and they’ll generally lift crazy totals, with a predisposition towards one lift or another. Don’t worry too much about it.

You should try to get really, really good at the lifts you’re terrible at. I spent many months working on squat depth, ankle mobility, squat stance, and proper cueing to overcome my naturally long legs. They made for long-distance running, not squatting, I’m afraid. I also worked on my thoracic mobility, leg drive, tightness, and hand position to minimize the disadvantage that my long arms present me with in the bench press. Every bit helps – if you can shave off even just an inch off the range of motion in your bench press, you can put way more weight on the bar.

More Hypertrophy = Bigger Lifts

I recommend that a beginner starts by getting a basic foundation of strength. Learn to lift, get reasonably strong, and do your bodybuilding accessories while you’re training your lifts. But once you built a foundation of strength, you need to get as big as possible as fast as possible. Muscle growth takes years, and one of the most efficient ways to increase how much weight you can lift is to increase how much muscle mass you have on your bones.

If you aren’t close to your peak muscularity, you need to invest more of your training into hypertrophy and muscle growth. Bigger muscles can be trained to move more weight, but you need to get started on working towards bigger muscles. Ectomorphs will take longer to reach their peak, so they gotta start early.

That does not mean I am telling you to switch to bodybuilding. However, it’s important to recognize that bigger muscles aren’t necessarily weaker muscles, and bodybuilding and powerlifting are closer than you might have been led to believe. To get stronger, you’ll have to get a little bigger first. You can be strong and small – but you’ll be even stronger if you pack on extra mass while building strength, and then peak before a meet.

That’s my most important piece of advice for any would-be powerlifting ectomorphs. This is not as much of a body type-reliant sport as some of them are, but while it is a sport about strength, you’re only as strong as the muscle mass you carry. Lift, eat, eat a little more if you’re not growing, and lift a little harder if you’re not feeling sore. Or better yet, learn how to program for hypertrophy as a powerlifter, and learn the art of powerbuilding. Ditch Stronglifts and a neverending line up of triples and easy accessories. Learn to lift, then hit the weights, build your prime movers, recover properly (that means EAT and SLEEP), and be patient.

It’s Never Easy (Unless You’re a Genetic Freak)

Some people were put on this earth to deadlift 700lbs before their 18th birthday. Some people were put on this earth to yearn for a 700lbs deadlift and work hard for decades to achieve it. Hard work will never beat talent when talent works hard, but then again, that shouldn’t matter to you. Or to me. This is a sport where your goal should be to beat yourself, again and again, breaking your own records and squatting, pressing, and pulling more next year than you did last year.

Don’t worry about being one of us hard gainers, or “ectomorphs”. Eat, train, stay lean, gain muscle, and try to pack on as much lean meat onto your bones as you can. Don’t go “all in”. Take it a week at a time, and trust the process – and if looking at Instagram accounts makes you get jealous of other people’s progress rather than inspire you to push yourself harder, delete the fucking app, man.

Then go take a hard look in the mirror and learn to appreciate that you can be on this earth and enjoy moving iron, without the unneeded neurosis that comes with comparing yourself to others.

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