Not all of us were lucky enough to be blessed with the muscle-building genetics of an Adrian Petersen or John Cena. Some of us were cursed to be "skinny-fat," meaning we have very little muscle mass, a small frame and a moderately high body-fat percentage.
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If that's the genetic hand you were dealt, then you just have to train smarter. What works for guys who are naturally big and ripped (who basically build muscle by just looking at a barbell) probably won't work as well for you. But that doesn't mean you're doomed to be walking around with toothpick arms and a spare tire forever.
Here are five tips to start building dense, ripped muscle:
Train With More Frequency
The typical bodybuilding prescription of training a muscle group once every seven days won't cut it. To get good at anything, you have to do it more often. You wouldn't practice a sport once a week, so why would you practice strength training once a week? If you want to get better at building size and strength, you have to practice more often. Doing this sends the signal to your body that it needs to change, it needs to build itself up bigger and stronger in order to handle the demands you are placing on it.
Olympic lifters train every day in order to get better at the snatch and the clean and jerk. Gymnasts do the same to improve their mastery of rings exercises. You should learn from them and train your squats, presses and pulls more frequently than once per week if you ever want to build a head-turning physique.
Make Body-Weight Exercises a Staple
While barbell exercises are great for getting bigger and stronger, you should also live on a steady diet of chin-ups, push-ups, inverted rows and dips. By keeping these in the rotation on a regular basis, it keeps you honest. When you're training with nothing but barbell exercises it's easy to eat your way stronger.
By getting a little fatter you improve your leverages and trick yourself into thinking you're making progress when in reality you're just getting fatter. While your performance on many barbell exercises will go up from getting fatter, your performance on body-weight exercises will plummet. So by making body-weight exercises a regular part of your training, you have a built in barometer for assessing your progress and keeping your body-fat levels in check.
Skinny-fat guys usually don't have an overabundance of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are the ones with the greatest potential for growth. Essentially, you want to maximize the development of those fast-twitch muscle fibers that you have and also try to "coax" your slow-twitch fibers into taking on the characteristics of fast twitch fibers.
To do this you should include some Olympic lifting variations in your program. The one arm dumbbell snatch or one arm dumbbell clean and press are two great choices to start with since they are fairly easy to learn and have a pretty low-injury risk factor.
Snatch-grip high pulls are another great move for building up the entire upper body and giving you a dense, powerful look. They're also easier to learn than full-catch variations like the clean or snatch.
Try doing 5-10 sets of 3-6 reps on these movements two or three days per week to start your workouts and fire up those fast-twitch fibers.
Utilize Heavy Carries
Heavy carries are an underutilized tool that should be in every skinny guy's training program. They build up total body strength and mass in a way no other exercise can. The most basic variation is the farmer's walk. To perform it you simply pick up two heavy dumbbells or kettlebells (or dedicated farmer's carry implements if you're lucky enough to train in a strongman-equipped gym) and walk for 30-60 seconds. Doing this will back functional mass on your calves, glutes, traps and forearms.
Some other options are to carry a heavy medicine ball, stone, sandbag or anvil in a bear-hug type position. You can also carry a kettlebell in the racked position or in the bottoms-up position, or you can press one or two kettlebells overhead and walk with them at lockout.
These movements are better at building abs than any type of crunch or sit up. They should be done at least once per week for 2-4 sets at the end of your workout.
Stimulate, Don't Annihilate
Most people think that it's too much volume that leads to overtraining. But that's not always the case. The human body can adapt to and tolerate huge workloads. Olympic athletes train all day, every day. Guys and girls in the Army run and do push-ups and pull-ups from sun up to sun down. Masons carry heavy bricks for eight hours a day. You can do more than you think.
What really contributes more to symptoms of overtraining is mental and emotional burnout that is often referred to as CNS fatigue. That overall fatigued, fried feeling comes from the constant "hard-core," "high-intensity" ritual of getting yourself all psyched up and training to failure on a regular basis.
Every workout you do shouldn't be a fight to the death. Think of training more like practice. You'll have good days and bad days and you should take them as they come. When you try to push through and set new personal records on bad days you end up with that over-trained feeling.
Worst-case scenario is that you get injured, which is what happens to skinny guys all the time and constantly derails their progress. Because of this, they end up on a never-ending cycle of progress-injury-rehab-start over.
If that sounds familiar, then it's probably time you tone it down just a bit and live to train another day. You can't come back to train tomorrow at full capacity if you destroy yourself today. Dial it back and maybe consider switching to decaf. You'll stay healthier and make better long-term progress that way.