Many people, especially men, struggle with looking skinny despite having good strength. This can be frustrating, as you may want to look muscular and toned. However, there are several reasons why some people appear skinny while still being able to lift heavy weights and build strength. Understanding the factors that contribute to this disparity can help you better approach your training and nutrition to achieve the physique you desire.
You Have a Fast Metabolism
One of the most common reasons why some people look skinny despite having good strength is having a fast metabolism. Your metabolism is the rate at which your body burns calories and energy. Someone with a fast metabolism will burn through calories quicker than someone with a slower metabolism. This means they may struggle to put on weight, including muscle mass, even with the same training and diet as someone else.
If you have a lightning fast metabolism, you likely burn through calories rapidly, even at rest. This makes it difficult for your body to store enough excess energy in the form of fat and muscle. So even if you are able to gain strength from your training, you won’t put on as much muscle size as you’d expect from the weights you lift.
Tips for fast metabolisms
If you have a fast metabolism, focus on the following to help build more muscle:
- Eat more calories, aiming for a surplus to fuel muscle growth
- Emphasize calorie-dense foods like nuts, avocados, and quality oils
- Eat more frequently throughout the day
- Choose nutrient-dense whole foods over processed foods when possible
- Get adequate rest and sleep to support muscle repair and growth
You Have a Small Frame and Lean Muscles
Another reason some people appear skinny while still being strong is having a smaller skeletal frame and naturally leaner muscles. The size of your bones and joints plays a role in your overall size and how much muscle you can carry. Someone with a lighter, smaller frame will never be able to get as large as someone with a heavy, thick frame.
Similarly, your muscle bellies play a role in how big your muscles appear. The term “muscle belly” refers to the bulk and meat of the muscle itself. Some people naturally have longer, leaner muscle bellies, while others have shorter, thicker bellies. If you tend to have smaller joints and longer, leaner muscle bellies, it can be harder to look jacked even at the same strength levels.
Tips for smaller frames
If you have a lighter frame and leaner muscle bellies, focus on the following for building mass:
- Train for hypertrophy with moderate weight and higher reps
- Emphasize time under tension by slowing lifts
- Get sufficient calories and protein daily for growth
- Be patient as mass may come slower than for others
You Don’t Have Much Body Fat
Carrying very low levels of body fat can also make someone appear skinny while still having good muscular strength. Even if you’ve built substantial muscle, it can be difficult for it to show through if you have single digit body fat percentages. Fat helps provide shape and size to your physique. With too little body fat, your muscles will look flat and deflated rather than full and bulging.
Some people stay extremely lean year round due to diet, genetics, or high activity levels. For example, a bodybuilder getting ready for a competition cuts to 3-5% body fat, sacrificing size for definition. Even with massive muscles built over years, they look much smaller on stage due to depleted body fat levels.
Tips for very low body fat
If you struggle to hold onto body fat, focus on the following for improving size:
- Increase healthy fats in diet from oils, nuts, seeds, fish
- Lift slightly heavier for lower reps to increase calorie needs
- Avoid drastic calorie deficits when cutting
- Consider a lean bulk phase focusing on gradual muscle gains
You Lack Muscle Fullness and Glycogen
Muscle fullness and glycogen levels also impact how big your muscles look. Glycogen is the stored form of carbohydrates in your muscles and liver. It helps your muscles look full and pumps up their size. Having higher muscle glycogen translates into visibly bigger, fuller muscles.
Some people chronically lack muscle fullness and glycogen due to low carb diets, high-rep training, inadequate carbs per workout, and other factors. If your muscles often look flat rather than full and round, glycogen depletion may be the culprit.
Tips for increasing muscle fullness
To improve muscle fullness and glycogen:
- Consume carbohydrates pre and post-workout
- Include carbs in your post-workout nutrition
- Train in lower rep ranges occasionally
- Avoid very low carb diets long term
- Target occasional refeeds or high carb days
You Have Poor Mind-Muscle Connection
Your mind-muscle connection when training can also impact your ability to build muscle size relative to strength. Mind-muscle connection refers to how well you can activate and contract the muscles you are targeting. If your mind-muscle activation is poor, other muscles tend to take over, resulting in misplaced hypertrophy.
For example, someone with a weak chest mind-muscle connection will use a lot of shoulders and triceps when bench pressing. They’ll get great at benching but build little chest mass. Focusing intensely on squeezing and contracting the pecs can build that connection.
Tips for improving mind-muscle connection
To build a better mind-muscle link:
- Use lighter weights and focus on feeling the target muscles
- Pause and squeeze muscles at the top of each rep
- Perform tempo lifts with a 3-5 second eccentric
- Use techniques like drop sets and partials
- Get a “pump” by doing high volume and isolation work
Your Strength and Size Genetics Differ
The final piece accounting for discrepancies between size and strength comes down to genetics. Some people are gifted with genetics that make them naturally strong, while others have genetics more suited for building size.
For example, tendon insertion points, muscle fiber type distribution, limb lengths, and other structural factors influence your mechanical advantages for each goal. If your genetics favor strength over size, you’ll get disproportionately stronger than your gains in mass.
Unfortunately, you can’t change your genetics. But understanding your genetic tendencies helps you set realistic goals and tailor your training accordingly.
Tips for strength-focused genetics
If your genetics favor strength:
- Train in moderate rep ranges of 6-12 for mass
- Use intensive techniques like negatives, partials, and intensity boosters
- Prioritize higher volume for increased hypertrophy
- Focus on feeling and contracting target muscles
- Be patient and consistent with your muscle-building training
Skinny Strong Sample Program
Here is a 4 day upper/lower body split optimized for building mass if you are skinny yet strong in the gym:
|Monday: Upper Body
|Tuesday: Lower Body
|Barbell Bench Press 3×8-12
|Barbell Back Squat 3×8-12
|Incline DB Press 3×10-12
|Romanian Deadlift 3×10-12
|Seated Cable Row 3×10-12
|Leg Press 3×12-15
|Overhead Press 3×8-10
|Leg Curl 3×10-12
|Lat Pulldowns 2×12-15
|Calf Raises 4×10-15
|Tricep Pushdowns 2×12-15
|Bicep Curls 2×12-15
|Thursday: Upper Body
|Friday: Lower Body
|Incline Bench Press 3×8-12
|Front Squat 3×8-12
|Bent Over Row 3×8-12
|Shoulder Press Machine 3×10-12
|Bulgarian Split Squat 3×10-12 each
|Cable Crossover 3×12-15
|Leg Extensions 3×12-15
|Lat Raises 3×12-15
|Hamstring Curl 3×10-12
|Standing Calf Raise 3×15-20
|Hammer Curls 2×12-15
Nutrition Tips for Skinny Strength Body Types
Diet and nutrition play key roles in building muscle size to match your strength levels if you have a skinny appearance. Here are some nutrition tips:
- Eat in a calorie surplus with sufficient protein (0.7-1g per pound of bodyweight daily)
- Time carbs pre and post workout for fullness and recovery
- Include calorie-dense foods in the diet like nuts, oils, nut butters
- Supplement with mass gainers or homemade gainer shakes for extra calories
- Don’t fear gaining some body fat – it will help you look fuller
- Focus on whole foods like meats, fish, eggs, quinoa, oats, rice
- Consider tracking calories and macros closely to ensure sufficient intake
- Get sufficient healthy fats daily from fish, nuts, seeds, oils
In summary, several factors can contribute to appearing skinny while still lifting heavy and building strength. From metabolism to genetics, everyone has a different propensity for gaining size versus pure strength. Patience and consistency are key – it simply takes longer for some people’s bodies to build muscle mass relative to their ability to gain strength.
Follow the individualized tips in this article for your specific situation. Over time, you’ll find the right training, nutrition, and lifestyle balance to build the muscular physique to match your strength levels. Consistently stimulate hypertrophy and muscle protein synthesis through proper programming and diet. Be patient, trust the process, and keep working hard in the gym.