Why You're Still Scrawny and What To Do About It

Having trouble building muscle? Learn what you're doing wrong and how to fix it by reading this exclusive Q&A with STACK Expert Lee Boyce.

Scrawny guy flexing

You hit the weights pretty hard, but you still have trouble building muscle. And you look like a stick compared to the behemoths in the gym who are loading the bar with plates.

No one (with the possible exception of runners) wants to work out without putting on muscle. It's a waste of time and discouraging if  your hard work fails to produce gains.

Fortunately, there are ways to address the problem. A few things you might be doing incorrectly can easily be corrected. We spoke with STACK Expert Lee Boyce, and his advice can put you on the right path to bigger and stronger muscles.

STACK: Explain why focusing too much on muscles that most people want to get bigger is a bad choice.

Lee Boyce: When someone walks in and the first thing I see them do is Curls (or a similar exercise), I immediately ask them what their goals are. Whether it's getting bigger arms or just getting stronger in general, they need to first focus on big moves.

You're wasting your time if you think isolation work is the key to strength gains. If you weight 150 pounds and are string-bean skinny, and you go in and start ripping reps of Dumbbell Bicep Curls or Dumbbell Seated Shoulder Presses, you are really selling yourself short in terms of strength gains.

Another big mistake is segmenting your workouts. You may think that doing a chest, back, shoulder, leg or arm day may be the way to go, because you're working those muscle groups more. But you need to focus on working your entire body, especially if you're a novice lifter.

STACK: So what's the Boyce method for teaching people to get bigger?

LB: I really focus on primary movement patterns, such as the Deadlift, Squat, Standing Overhead Press and other big movements. If these movements get stronger, you'll get bigger.

If someone gets stuck and can't progress, I look at the weak links and address them with assistance movements that will help them continue their progress. No matter how heavy you can lift, at some point there will be a weak link that will prevent you from lifting past that number.

It's possible that you may hit this point when performing exercises with your own body weight. For others, the limit may be when lifting hundreds of pounds.

STACK: For someone who hasn't put on much muscle or is having difficulties, how should he or she begin? 

LB: It's critical to build a foundation. I don't care how much you can lift, you must know how to move properly by mastering the hip hinge, squat, push-up and essential patterns.

You also need sufficient mobility and flexibility. If you can't lift your arms overhead without arching your back or squat to a full range of motion, you shouldn't load those movements until you can master them.

These things are mandatory fundamental skills. When you can learn to move properly with your bodyweight, you can then begin to improve on it by loading the movements.

STACK: That may seem tedious to folks who want fast results. How will this help them in the long run?

LB: Putting in the foundation work will help you find where you are weak. Trying to perform an exercise with weaknesses—even if you're "strong" enough to lift the weight—will exacerbate strength imbalances that you already have and make things worse as you start to lift heavier.

For that reason alone, you need to start from the ground up, even if that means lifting less than you technically can.

The important thing is to do each exercise correctly. You may notice that you can lift less, but you'll start using muscles that should be working. You'll create a lot more growth and even burn more fat, because you're using more muscle.

STACK: Let's say someone has found some success with a specific exercise. Should they stick with it?

LB: The body is quite an adaptive machine. The principle of Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands really applies when you're trying to build muscle. The body will quickly adapt to whatever workout you're doing because of what a cool machine it is. This is often problematic with people trying build muscle since they think heavier is always better.

Changing the workout you're doing can kick start new gains and re-excite your nervous system. Switching from one style of training to another—even if it's for a brief interlude—is essential to your gains.

STACK: If someone is working hard and still not seeing results, what would you tell them?

LB: I'd probably look at what they are doing outside the weight room.

First thing is recovery. How much time are you resting between workouts. If you're training six times a week, there's a good chance your muscles don't have enough time to repair between workouts. So make sure to give yourself at least 48 hours before you rework the same muscle.

Second thing is sleep. I know life can be hectic, but you need to get enough sleep. Snoozing for just a few hours per night won't allow a release of testosterone, which is critical for muscle growth.

The final thing is your diet. There's not much someone can do to put on size if they aren't eating enough calories to repair the muscles they keep damaging.

The Workout

Below is a sample workout from Boyce that addresses common weak links and strengthens fundamental movement patterns. Before performing it, make sure that you master the bodyweight variations.

Perform grouped exercises in superset fashion.

  • Foam Rolling - at least 30 seconds for every major muscle group
  • Mobility Drills - Cradle Walks, Spiderman Walks, High Knee Walks, Arm Circles, Leg Swings
  • A1) Goblet Squats - 3x15
  • A2) Bodyweight Pull-Ups - 3xmax
  • B1) Scapular Wall Slides - 3x15
  • B2) Seated Row - 3x15
  • B3) Low Incline Dumbbell Press - 3x10
  • C1) Romanian Deadlift - 3x10
  • C2) Hanging Leg Raises - 3x10
  • C3) Standing Barbell Overhead Press - 3x10

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