You’re the envy of your inner circle, at least in one room: the kitchen. You can pound back a 4 for $4, a full Domino’s pie, and a carton of ice cream without gaining an ounce of body fat.
Now, you’re ready to leave that skinny guy honor behind and replace it with a new one, a lean and aesthetic build that the ladies dig and the guys idolize.
But with a metabolism of a hummingbird — which eats its weight in nectar a day — and the title of “hard-gainer” pinned to your name tag, how do you go from a skinny to aesthetic physique?
These nine tips will help you drop that excuse for good:
1. Know What an “Aesthetic Physique” Is
If by “aesthetic” you mean transforming into Arnold 2.0 or the second-coming of Phil Heath, there’s a website on the dark web (and probably an arrest warrant) with your name on it!
An aesthetic physique isn’t being so muscular or bulky that you can’t touch your shoulders or your traps swallow up your neck.
Instead, it’s a leaner, toned-down version of the classic Golden Era physique, including:
- A slim waist (that doesn’t fade into love handles)
- Visible and cut abs and obliques
- Symmetry between the upper/lower halves and left/right sides
- Cannonball-shaped shoulders
- Well-defined biceps and triceps
- Decently thick quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves
- Below 10% body fat
- Dense mass with clear definition between muscle groups
Your transformation will be similar to that of Henry Cavill prepping for Man of Steel, Chris Hemsworth becoming Thor, and Andrew Garfield evolving into the new Spiderman.
So just how many months (or years) stand between you and an aesthetic physique? According to Lyle McDonald, gaining 20–25 pounds of pure lean mass in the first year is reasonable!
It could take 18–24 months for skinny guys like you to build muscle until you reach a satisfying physique.
2. Use a High-Volume Mass-Building Routine
A balanced and calorie-rich diet will elevate you to a healthier BMI, and if you’re an ectomorph swimming in your clothes, any bit of weight gain will help you avoid the “that guy’s skinny as hell” stares.
But when your goal is an aesthetic physique, nothing — we repeat — nothing is more important than resistance training. More specifically, choosing a routine designed to build lean mass.
The trick is a high-volume, compound lift program that keeps the ego-lifting to a minimum, at least in the early days of training.
In 2015, researchers discovered that multi-joint exercises (lat pulldowns) are just as effective for enhancing muscle thickness and peak torque as single-joint exercises (bicep curls).
These compound lifts allow you to train with heavier weights to build foundational strength while also training more muscles at once.
Beginner routines like StrongLifts 5×5 and the Madcow Workout include exercises like:
- Bench press
- Military or shoulder press
After 3–6 months of consistent training, you’ll have mastered proper form and added some noob gains. You can then transition into a 50/50 split between isolation and compound exercises.
3. Follow a Macro Split Ideal for Mass-Building
Our first tip doubled-down on the fact that you’re not aspiring to be the modern Lou Ferrigno. But bodybuilders are an excellent source of knowledge for skinny guys looking to build mass.
The first dietary adjustment is creating a caloric surplus. Building muscle requires extra calories, and your body needs more energy now that you’ve looped a training program into your routine.
Once you have the calories sorted out, shift your focus to three things: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. That study, plus additional research from 2004 recommends the following macro split:
|Grams Per Kilogram of Body Weight
|Percentage of Daily Calories
Even upping your calories by 10% a day will feel like a lot, especially if being skinny isn’t by choice. So gradually increase your intake over several weeks and plan out 3–6 meals per day.
If your appetite is truly struggling, a mass gainer supplement can help you fill that gap. These shakes typically have 750+ calories per serving, 50+ grams of protein, and even added BCAAs.
4. Train for Symmetry & Aesthetic Proportions
One of the biggest SNAFUs we see with newbies training for aesthetics is confusing “aesthetic” for just muscular. In reality, an aesthetic physique is also visibly proportional and symmetrical.
That means there’s a balance between your upper and lower halves and your left and right sides. (Yes, we can all tell that your right arm is twice the size of your left … and we know why.)
The first strategy here is called unilateral training.
During exercises like barbell curls and leg presses, your stronger side will naturally take over when the weaker side struggles. In response, unilateral training trains each side individually.
Now, that doesn’t mean replacing all barbell bicep exercises with dumbbells or all two-legged leg exercises for single-leg variations. But adding in a few here and there will support symmetry.
The upper-lower aspect also brings back everyone’s favorite mantra: Don’t skip leg day.
While some muscle groups are stubborn and require extra training each week to trigger growth, your program shouldn’t include one leg day amidst four upper-body workouts.
(Jeff Seid’s namesake routine sticks to a once-a-week frequency plus two calf sessions a week to really hammer your legs and prevent the toothpick-y look!)
5. Add 5g of Creatine a Day to Your Routine
When combined with a mass-building program and a protein-rich diet, creatine is your Hail Mary in the aesthetic physique department.
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This sports supplement mimics your body’s natural creatine stores, which, in turn, raises IGF-1 levels (a growth hormone), lessens protein breakdown, and boosts training volume.
And, unlike ZMA and fat-burners, research shows creatine actually works.
A 2003 meta-analysis of six training supplements found that creatine can improve lean mass gains by an extra 0.36% per week; strength climbed an additional 1.09% weekly.
Another randomized trial found that after eight weeks of creatine use paired with four weekly training sessions, the creatine group increased upper-body lean mass by an impressive 7.1%.
Most experts agree that the most efficient way to fill your creatine stores is with a loading phase. So start with 20g a day for a week before dropping down to a 5g maintenance dose daily.
6. Choose High-Calorie, Nutrient-Dense Foods
Everyone complains about being a “hard-gainer.” But more likely than not, you’re skimping on the calories, not getting enough protein, or following the wrong routine.
The now-done-to-death saying is absolutely true: Abs are made in the kitchen.
So skip the dirty bulk, Bear Mode, an eat-everything-in-sight diet that’ll help you scoot away from skinny (especially if you’re closer to skinny-fat). Instead, build your diet around high-calorie and nutrient-dense foods.
For example, housing a pack of Twinkies can stack an extra 270 calories to your current intake in a matter of two minutes. But the 8g of fat and 29g of sugar are wasted calories.
Some of the best high-calorie, nutrient-dense foods for clean bulking include:
A study from 2018 revealed that if you want to maximize muscle growth, the best strategy is to divide your daily protein intake between four square meals a day (0.4 g/kg/meal) to hit 1.6g/kg.
But while gains don’t exist without protein, that doesn’t mean carbs and fats are the enemies. In fact, your body needs both to fuel your workouts and maintain testosterone levels (2021).
As long as they fit within your macro goals and you avoid or limit trans fats (like those in processed foods) and simple carbs (like those in candy and soda), “aesthetic” is still possible!
7. Don’t Forget About Progressive Overload
Progressive overload is a training principle many newbies follow accidentally while hunting for new squat and bench press PRs. The goal here is to be just a little better than last time.
When you repeat today’s back workout next week, for example, you should be able to record more reps or sets or use a heavier weight — all of which increase your training volume.
Research published in 2014 proved that after 12 weeks of progressive overload training, men and women improved their biceps volume by 85.7 mL and 62.4, respectively.
But how does any of this translate to your training program?
Say your goal is to bench press 150 pounds for 3 sets of 5 reps. If you record 9 reps, 7 reps, and 6 reps, you’re ready to add 5 pounds to the bar next time. Or 2 ½ pounds for isolation lifts.
Once you hit a plateau where your muscles fail before hitting your goals, be ready to spice things up. Swap in new exercises, change the rep ranges or even lighten the weight.
8. Target the Aesthetic Muscles
We know what it sounds like here; we’re back-tracking. Earlier, we said to focus on symmetry and proportions, and now we’re turning the focus to specific muscles. Yes, but also no!
If you’re lanky or scrawny now, the worst thing you can do is say “to hell with my legs” while only training your upper half. Yet, to build a lean physique, some muscles need a bit more attention.
Turning to our list of what makes an “aesthetic physique” in tip one, that should mean building your routine to include more:
- Core work that targets all areas of the abs
- Bicep exercises, like dumbbell curls, hammer curls, and preacher curls
- Tricep exercises targeting the long, medial, and lateral heads for a horseshoe shape
- Deltoid training, touching on all three areas plus the traps
- Lat work to steepen your V-taper with exercises like lat pulldowns and pull-ups
After you transition away from StrongLifts or another newbie routine, extend your workouts to focus a little extra on the training strategies listed above.
Right now, you likely have the benefit of a narrow waist. The goal here is to widen your top half while also inflating the glamour muscles that combine to create an “aesthetic physique.”
9. Keep a Close Eye On Your Progress
Fitness gurus like Jeff Nippard and Jeremy Ethier build their routines around published research and scientific studies. But just because scientists say it should work, that doesn’t mean it will.
Dozens of factors impact how well a routine or diet will work for you, from your ratio of type 1 to type 2 muscles to your metabolism to something as simple as how much sleep you get daily.
The best thing you can do is monitor your progress and make changes accordingly.
For example, if you’re eating 300 extra calories per day, and your weight doesn’t change at all in a month, you might want to bump up your intake an extra 150 a day.
Or, if your 20” quadriceps only grow ¼” after eight weeks of high-volume training, add an extra leg day, follow a leg specialization program, or switch from a full-body program to a PPL.
Don’t forget to track your progress with weekly tape measure readings and weigh-ins. But also, use a fitness app like JEFIT to monitor how your 1RM improves as the weeks go by.
Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut to an aesthetic physique, and many would argue that the skinny-to-aesthetic transformation is the most challenging of all (compared to dad bods!).
Yet, it’s 100% possible with a proper diet, the right mass-building routine, supplements like creatine, and somewhat of an obsession with progressive overload.
The secret word here is “more.”
More training, more calories, more protein, more creatine, more weight, and more volume.