So you’re an ectomorph/hard gainer and you’ve heard this many times: if you want to build size and strength then lift heavy and do the 6 basic compound lifts (squat, deadlift, bench press, row, pull up, military press). The 5 x 5 lifting program using these basic lifts has become very popular to accomplish size and strength goals but is this approach really practical for your typical ectomorph/hardgainer? Here are a few practical considerations that will allow you to make gains and get the most out of your lifting program while training safe.
Ectomorphs have a more delicate musculoskeletal structure and this makes heavy lifting more difficult. Ectomorphs tend to be tall and skinny with thin elongated bones and smaller joints. They have a slender frame with narrow hips and long limbs. Generally ectomorphs have the lowest proportion of type II muscle fibers and the highest proportion of type I muscle fibers. Most importantly ectomorphs have the lowest mechanical advantage due to having a combination of long bones with shorter muscles and longer tendons. Taking these characteristics into account, ectomorphs are not particularly suited for certain compound exercises performed with heavy loads under a full range of motion because there is a lack of mechanical advantage and risk of injury.
(an extreme example of an ectomorph)
The longer the bones the more torque produced around a joint. This combined with shorter muscles and longer tendons will result in range of motion and strength limitations when performing the bench press, deadlift and back squat with heavy loads under a full range of motion. The torque is especially pronounced at the end range of the back squat and the bench press.
When performing the bench press someone with long arms will have a much harder time bench pressing 135lbs for 10 reps with a full ROM compared to someone with short arms. The greatest difficulty in overcoming the resistance will be at the lowest point of the range where the bar is closest to the chest. This is because of extra torque and lack of mechanical advantage but also because the muscles of a long limbed person have to shorten and lengthen over a greater distance and at the bottom end of the range the pectoralis and triceps are close to being maximally lengthened which results in fewer cross bridge binding sites overlapping each other and consequently less force production. When lifting heavier loads (generally below 8RM) the bench press should be modified by using a wider grip and less range of motion. A wider grip will allow the chest to work more and take some of the load off the triceps as the bar moves lower. Reducing the ROM just below the sticking point ensures maximal muscle contraction and enough cross bridge overlap to overcome the resistance with good form. Range of motion is important for functional strength and it’s impressive being able to execute heavy lifts with full ROM but it is not necessary for building size and strength. What is important for size and strength is proper form and the degree of muscle contraction. The more high threshold motor units and type II muscle fibers that are recruited the greater the stimulus for adaptation. This is why isometric exercises are an effective way to build size and strength and should also be incorporated in the lifting program.
(isometric bench press holds with a wider grip allow maximal chest recruitment)
Practical considerations for the back squat are the same as those for the bench press. People with long limbs will have more difficulty at the bottom end of the range (around 60 degrees of knee flexion) where close to maximal knee flexion is achieved. This is because of the extra torque being generated around the knee joint and because the quadriceps are close to being maximally lengthened which results in lower cross bridge overlap. When lifting heavier loads (generally below 8RM) the back squat should be modified by limiting knee flexion to about 90 degrees. This will allow proper form, maximal contraction and enough cross bridge overlap. Simply stated, if you’re an ectromorph don’t do deep squats with heavy loads.
(“it can be seen that the moments of force at any joint angle are 25% higher for an athlete of 200cm than for one of 160cm. Therefore in the bottom range of the movement they are much more subjected to excessive loading” Click here for source )
There are certain considerations with regard to the deadlift. The longer the femur the more distance the bar has to travel away from the hip joint as it clears the knees which results in more torque around the hips and unnecessary strain on the lower back. Knee flexion should be reduced in this case possibly favoring a stiff legged deadlift.
(Stiff legged deadlift)
Most people can get away with doing only the basic compound exercises and lifting heavy to gain size and strength but ectomorphs will benefit from more variety. Ectomorphs have smaller and more delicate joints and are the most prone to injury. Therefore the exercise program should incorporate bodyweight and isolation exercises that target the same muscles but are easier on the joints and can be performed under control with proper form. While isolation exercises do not elevate testosterone and growth hormone to the same degree that bigger, more complex movements do, they can be performed with increased volume, more time under tension and shorter rest periods to induce sacroplasmic hypertrophy and to increase the size of blood vessels, giving the appearance of a bigger and more defined physique.
Bodyweight exercises are safer and easier on the joints because there is no external loading or direct force applied to the joint; there is also a much smaller chance of overexertion and losing control during the exercise. Bodyweight exercises also allow for progressive overload by introducing progressively difficult variations. Extreme calisthenics are becoming popular in the strength and conditioning world and more traditional lifters are incorporating them to build size and strength.
(planche sculpted physique)
While the more advanced bodyweight exercises like Planche variations may be impractical for most ectomorphs there exist other exercises and variations that can be easily executed. Some upper body exercises include wall assisted handstand pushups, diamond pushups, ring pushups, medicine ball pushups, forearm to tricep extension pushup, dips, inverted rowing, pull-ups, static tuck front lever holds and archer pull-ups. Lower body/core exercises include assisted or unassisted pistol squats, pistol squats that incorporate a static hold at 90 degree knee flexion, L-sits, plank variations, dragon flags and prone hip extensions. Youtube is becoming a popular place for extreme calisthenics with notable contributors like Hannibal for King, Barstarzz and Frank Medrano. There is a wealth of information available online on every possible bodyweight exercise variation.
Taking everything into account, if you’re a typical ectomorph/hard gainer you need to lift heavy to maximize gains while reducing your chance of injury. To accomplish this follow the suggestions outlined in this article: reduce your range of motion and use a wider grip for the bench press, do not do deep squats, limit knee flexion while doing deadlifts and incorporate more isometric exercises, isolation exercises and calisthenics. The idea is to make modifications to your program that allow you to train with ass kicking intensity while at the same time protecting yourself from injury.