Genetics give you lots of good things: the color of your eyes, your full head of hair (maybe) and your charming dimples. But in other ways, genetics can be less kind: skinny legs, for example. If your legs are skinny, there's a good chance the rest of your body is skinny as well. While it will be a lot harder for you to build up your legs than someone with a naturally beefy body type, the right exercise program and diet can get you there.
You have to consume enough calories and protein and lift heavy weights to build up skinny legs.
Body Type Basics
The appearance of your legs and the ease with which you are able to build them up with strength training has a lot to do with which of these three body types you have: mesomorph, endomorph or ectomorph.
Mesomorphs have the "ideal" body type. They have a naturally athletic physique, a large bone structure and large muscles. Building muscle comes easy to them, and they are able to keep a low body fat percentage with relative ease.
Endomorphs also have a large bone structure and are often short and stocky. They can put on muscle easily, but they also gain fat easily due to a slower metabolism. Losing fat is harder for them than for mesomorphs.
Ectomorphs are the ones with skinny legs. They typically have a small body frame, low body fat and small muscles. They find it hard to gain weight because of their fast metabolism. For this reason, they are often called "hardgainers."
What It Takes to Bulk Up
Bulking up can be difficult for a hardgainer. It takes eating enough calories from the right food sources and hitting it heavy in the gym. Without doing both of these things, you can't grow your legs. In many ways, bulking up can be more difficult than slimming down, so you really have to commit and focus.
Finding the right starting place is challenging. If it's in your budget, several sessions with a personal trainer and/or sports nutritionist can help you dial in your lifting and nutrition program. Then, you can see what's working and what's not and continue to tweak your program on your own.
But First, Your Diet
You're probably keen to know what you should be lifting, how much and how often, but without the proper diet, all your hard work in the gym won't pay off.
According to fitness expert and best-selling author Michael Matthews, bulking up often involves eating a "slightly uncomfortable" amount of food. You need to eat enough food so that your body has the energy and raw materials it needs to build and maintain muscle mass. If you do not eat enough food, you will enter a calorie deficit, which will cause you to lose weight.
If you don't eat enough, you also won't have enough gas to do the tough workouts you need to do to build mass. Layne Norton, Ph.D., notes that ectomorphs with fast metabolisms may need 4,000 to 6,000 calories a day to bulk up. This means you'll need to focus a lot of attention on your diet and calorie consumption.
Bulking Up Diet
Simply eating a lot of calories isn't enough to bulk up. You need to eat high-quality foods with the correct macronutrient breakdown. How much of each macronutrient do you need?
Protein. You probably already know that you need protein to build muscle. According to Norton, no other macro tops protein for muscle building. He recommends getting 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. If you weigh 150 pounds, that's 150 to 225 grams, or 600 to 900 calories from protein daily.
Carbohydrates. Carbs are also important. They give you energy to get through your workouts. They also provide a ready source of energy for muscle building, which helps spare amino acids — the building blocks of protein — from oxidation. Aim to get about 35 to 40 percent of your calories from carbs each day.
Fats. The rest of your calories should come from fat. Not only do fats aid in energy production, they are also high in calories — 9 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram of protein and fat. For hardgainers, fats make a welcome calorie-building addition to meals.
Foods to Focus On
Some of the best foods for hardgainers to have in their diet plans to get enough calories and protein include:
- Whole milk and yogurt.
- Butter and oils.
- Pasta and bread.
- Nuts and nut butters.
- Fruits and vegetables that are high in calories such as peas, banana, sweet potato, dried fruit, corn and avocado.
Even with these foods, you still might not be able to meet your daily calorie goals. So in addition to your meals, Matthews recommends drinking some of your calories in the form of no-sugar-added fruit juice, whole milk and rice milk.
Skinny Legs Workout
With your diet on track, you can get into the gym and start putting those raw materials to use in transforming your skinny legs. There are more ideas of what the best leg workouts for building mass are than there are calories in your new diet. That's because muscle hypertrophy, or growth, is an exceedingly complex subject that even the experts don't yet fully understand.
So for now, don't worry too much about it. You can't go wrong by making it to the gym at least three times per week, targeting the major muscle groups in your legs — glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves — and developing a solid foundation of strength.
You need to build a base before you can start lifting heavier loads to stimulate muscle growth. If you don't gradually increase the load, volume and intensity of your workout, you risk getting injured, which will definitely not help you increase your leg size.
Once you've done that, physical therapist and neurophysiologist Dr. Chad Waterbury suggests the best leg workout for hypertrophy includes a total of 36 to 50 reps per muscle group per workout at a lifting intensity of 70 to 80 percent of your one-rep max, or 1RM, with rest periods of 60 to 120 seconds in between sets. As far as reps and sets, Waterbury recommends 6 x 6, 4 x 12 or 5 x 10.
Best Leg Exercises
You don't need to get fancy to get great legs. In fact, the Stronglifts website notes that you can build up to 43 pounds of muscle with just squats and deadlifts. You just need to lift enough weight at the right intensity. But if you want some more variety, exercises that are also effective choices include:
- Leg presses.
- Seated and standing calf raises.
You might notice all these exercises are compound exercises, except for the calf raises. Generally, heavy compound exercises that use more than one muscle group are more effective for building mass than isolation exercises that only use one muscle group.
Rest and Recovery
You might think that the best way to build a lot of muscle fast is to lift as often as possible. But it's not. In fact, it's counterproductive and can lead to muscle breakdown and overtraining.
Your muscles repair the damage done during your workouts and grow larger while you are resting. You need to give them adequate time to do that in between workouts. How long you need to recover between workouts depends on the load, volume and intensity of your sessions. Typically, you should wait about 48 hours before training the same muscle group again.
Proper recovery also depends on keeping up with your nutrition and getting adequate sleep.
- M&S: Your Body Type - Ectomorph, Mesomorph or Endomorph?
- Legion Athletics: The Best Diet and Workouts for “Hardgainers”
- Bodybuilding.com: Hardgainer Nutrition: How to Eat for Maximum Muscle Growth
- Bodybuilding.com: Layne's How to Guide for Bulking: The Macronutrients!
- Cleveland Clinic: Fat and Calories
- T Nation: The Set / Rep Bible
- Stronglifts: How to Build Muscle Fast
- Muscle for Life: The Definitive Guide on How to Build a Workout Routine
- Muscle for Life: The Ultimate Calves Workouts for Quickly Adding Size and Strength
- M&S: Protein Synthesis, Muscle Growth and Training Frequency