9 Best Exercises For Skinny Guys To Build Muscle And Strength

Best exercises for skinny guys

With such a vast array of different weight lifting movements out there, how do you know which to utilize in your workouts? After all, the last thing you want is to waste time on ineffective lifts right? This post shares 9 of the best exercises for skinny guys to build muscle and strength.

Compound lifts are the best exercises for skinny guys looking to build muscle and strength. They engage multiple muscle groups and allow the heaviest weights to be lifted. Examples include pressing, rowing, squatting, and deadlifting movements.

I use to be a skinny person myself (a measly 140lbs!).

But the 9 exercises in this post really assisted in bulking up my skinny frame and generally helping me to build a bigger and stronger body.

They’ve been cherry-picked from my 15 years of lifting experience so you don’t need to waste time on fruitless exercises as I did!

9 compound exercises helped me to transform from skinny to muscular.

Best Equipment For Skinny Guys To Do These Exercises At Home

Home gym equipment for skinny people to build muscle and gain strength at home.

Joining a good gym is the best way for skinny guys to perform these exercises.

This is because most of the movements in this list require a heavy barbell or dumbbell for the best results over the long term.

And gym membership is the most convenient way for a beginner to access this equipment.

However, here’s the home setup I use (should you be interested)!

It’s the Powerblock Elite EXP (you can find my opinions on the Powerblocks here) and the Flybird bench (see my hands-on testing here).

9 Of The Best Exercises For Skinny Guys

Speaking from experience, compound lifts are the best exercises for skinny guys looking to get big and strong.

These are big movements that work multiple muscles in a single movement. They are efficient muscle-builders and give you more bang for your buck compared to small isolation lifts like bicep curls.

Here are 9 of the best compound exercises- in my opinion- for skinny guys to gain muscle and build strength:

ExerciseTarget MusclesReasonEquipment Required
Bench pressPectorals, anterior deltoids, triceps, core.Horizontal compound pushing movement.Barbell, dumbbell, or bodyweight.
Overhead shoulder pressAnterior deltoids, lateral deltoids, posterior deltoids, triceps, core.Vertical compound pushing movement.Barbell, dumbbell, or bodyweight.
Bent-over rowTrapezius, posterior deltoids, rhomboid, latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, biceps, core.Horizontal compound pulling movement.Barbell, dumbbell, or bodyweight.
SquatQuadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, gastrocnemius, core. Compound leg movement.Barbell, dumbbell, or bodyweight.
DeadliftFull-body.Compound movement that works the whole body.Barbell or dumbbell.
Weighted pull-upsTrapezius, posterior deltoids, rhomboid, latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, biceps, core.Vertical compound pulling movement.Pull-up bar or power tower.
Weighted chest dipsPectorals, anterior deltoids, triceps, core.Horizontal compound pushing movement.Dip bar or power tower.
Forward dumbbell lungeQuadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, gastrocnemius, core. Compound leg movement.Barbell, dumbbell, or bodyweight.
Pendlay rowTrapezius, posterior deltoids, rhomboid, latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, biceps, core.Horizontal compound pulling movement.Barbell.

Next, I’ll explain why I think each exercise is so good for skinny people to get jacked!

1) Barbell Bench Press.

How skinny guys can do the shoulder press to build chest and arm muscle and gain strength.

The bench press can be replicated using heavy dumbbells like the PowerBlocks!

Why it’s one of the best exercises for skinny guys:

Bench pressing is popular with beginners and trained lifters alike for a very good reason- it’s a potent movement to build a big chest and powerful upper body…fast!

My favorite thing about the bench press?

Horizontal pressing is one of the best ways to quickly build your mirror muscles (i.e. the chest, arms, and shoulders!).

Variations of the bench press include:

  • Flat barbell bench press.
  • Incline barbell bench press.
  • Decline barbell bench press.
  • Flat dumbbell bench press.
  • Incline dumbbell bench press.
  • Decline dumbbell bench press.

These variations mainly differ in the equipment and angle utilized to target different regions of the chest.

I recommend skinny beginners start with the flat dumbbell or barbell bench press to hit the whole chest.

But the incline and decline variations can be great for emphasizing a bigger upper or lower chest, respectively.

The secret to building a big chest with the bench press?

Apply progressive overload by making small but regular weight increases. Adding 2.5kg/5lbs each week will do!

Bodyweight and dumbbell push up for skinny guys to build muscle at home without the gym.

Alternatives for skinny people without equipment:

  • Bodyweight push-up. Replicate the bench press using your own weight! No equipment is required for the push-up but it hits all the same muscles as the bench press. You can find my bodyweight workout here.
  • Dumbbell push-up. Do the push-up on dumbbells to put your body in a deficit position and get a greater stretch on your pectorals. I recommend using a sturdy pair of dumbbells like the PowerBlock EXP.
  • Chest dips. Dips are a great alternative to the bench press. It’s a similar movement pattern. You can do dips on makeshift bars, a power tower, on a bed frame, chairs, or even a kitchen countertop (see #7 on this list).

2) Overhead Shoulder Press.

How skinny guys can do the shoulder press to build shoulder and arm muscle and gain strength.

The shoulder press can be replicated using heavy dumbbells like the PowerBlocks!

Why it’s one of the best exercises for skinny guys:

Shoulder pressing is another movement commonly featured in workout programs designed to build muscle and strength.

Vertical pushing exercises like the shoulder press are a great way for skinny guys to broaden the torso V-shape.

One of my favorite things about the shoulder press- it’s a potent lift to build defined triceps too!

Variations of the overhead shoulder press include:

  • Standing barbell shoulder press.
  • Seated barbell shoulder press.
  • Standing dumbbell shoulder press.
  • Seated dumbbell shoulder press.

Standing shoulder press variations usually limit the weight you can press but it leads to greater core activation.

In contrast, seated shoulder presses usually allow more weight to be lifted as the bench helps to stabilize your torso.

Similarly, most people can lift more weight on the barbell shoulder press compared to the dumbbell press (better for strength development).

But the dumbbell shoulder press is popular with bodybuilders because it isolates the shoulder muscles more effectively (better for size development).

As a skinny guy, all shoulder press variations can help you to build upper body muscle and strength!

Alternatives for skinny people without equipment:

  • Handstand push-up. In terms of cost vs effectiveness, this is one of the best exercises for skinny people to build a strong upper torso. Prop your legs against a wall if you can’t do a handstand!
  • Things that weigh 1-10kg. Most beginners can’t realistically shoulder press more than 10kg/20lbs per arm for 8-12 reps. This means common household goods can be used instead of free weights. Try a sack of rice, a chair, a bag of sugar, etc.

3) Bent-Over Row.

How skinny people can do the barbell row to build back and arm muscle and gain strength.

The barbell row can be replicated using heavy dumbbells like the PowerBlocks!

Why it’s one of the best exercises for skinny guys:

All types of rowing movements are great for skinny people to build a broader and thicker V-shaped back.

The row is to the back what the bench press is to the chest.

And just like the bench press; the bent-over row is a great exercise to apply progressive overload to quickly build upper body strength and muscle.

Bent-over row variations include:

  • Wide-grip overhand barbell row.
  • Narrow-grip overhand barbell row.
  • Wide-grip underhand barbell row.
  • Narrow-grip underhand barbell row.
  • Wide-grip overhand dumbbell row.
  • Narrow-grip overhand dumbbell row.
  • Wide-grip underhand dumbbell row.
  • Narrow-grip underhand dumbbell row.

These are all variations of the same movement and they all activate similar muscle groups.

But changing your grip width and style shifts emphasis to different muscles.

A wide grip puts emphasis on the rhomboids and posterior deltoids, whilst a narrow grip emphasizes the biceps and lats.

All types of rows can be performed using barbells and dumbbells.

Barbell rows allow you to load more weight (better for strength) whilst dumbbell rows allow for a greater range of motion and muscle activation (better for size).

Pick your poison!

How to do the inverted back row.

Alternatives for skinny people without equipment:

  • Inverted bodyweight row. This is a cost-effective way for beginners to mimic the same movement pattern of the free-wt bent-over row. Just do your own due diligence for safety!
  • Ps. Although they aren’t the exact same movements, rows and pull-ups are both effective compound back exercises. In my opinion, they can be substituted for one another as a last resort (see point #6 on this list).

To find out how these exercises can be incorporated into a full workout program, you can check out my other post which explains how to go from skinny to muscular!

4) Barbell Back Squat.

How skinny guys can squat to build leg muscle and gain strength.

The barbell squat can be replicated using heavy dumbbells like the PowerBlocks!

Why it’s one of the best exercises for skinny guys:

Don’t skip leg day.

It leads to the dreaded chicken legs syndrome and upper-lower body imbalances which negatively impact athletic performance.

Of all the leg exercises, few can argue about the effectiveness of the barbell squat.

Squat variations include:

  • High-bar barbell back squat.
  • Low-bar barbell back squat.
  • Barbell front squat.
  • Goblet squats with dumbbells.
  • Dumbbell squat.
  • Bodyweight squat.

Each variation differs in the type of weight used as well as the position on your body where the weight rests.

Result?

Varying types of difficulty and emphasis on different muscles.

But generally speaking, barbells allow heavier weights to be lifted and are better for building muscle. But it’s not very beginner-friendly.

In comparison, dumbbells are safer for beginners but do not allow as much weight to be lifted.

Regardless of which variation you choose, a single squat movement recruits every muscle fiber in your body.

The leg muscles fire to drive the weight upwards whilst the core and upper body muscles are engaged to stabilize your torso.

This makes the squat highly effective for skinny people looking to build whole body muscle and strength.

Bodyweight squats and hill sprints for skinny people to gain leg muscle without equipment.

Alternatives for skinny people without equipment:

  • Bodyweight squat. You can’t get much more convenient than squatting your own body weight. Try propping a sack of rice or bag of sugar etc on your back for a makeshift weight!
  • Uphill sprints. This is not a direct replacement for squats. But uphill sprints can also be effective for building leg muscle, explosive power, and strength. The steeper the gradient the better. Aim for 10-second bursts at full intensity.

Squats should feature in every skinny person’s workout program in my opinion. To find out why you can check out my other article on why skinny guys should squat!

5) Barbell Deadlift.

How skinny guys can do the deadlift to build full-body muscle and gain strength.

The deadlift can be replicated using heavy dumbbells like the PowerBlocks!

Why it’s one of the best exercises for skinny guys:

All of the exercises on this list are great for skinny guys.

But if there’s one lift that reigns supreme- it’s the deadlift.

Deadlifting requires every single muscle fiber in your body to fire on all cylinders to lift a heavy weight directly off the ground.

This makes it an awesome lift for skinny people to build outright full-body strength and muscle.

Deadlift variations include:

  • Barbell traditional deadlift.
  • Barbell sumo deadlift.
  • Dumbbell deadlift
  • Stiff-legged deadlift.
  • Romanian deadlift.

Each variation shares one thing in common- they all work the full body.

But different stances emphasize different muscles to varying degrees.

For example, the traditional deadlift places emphasis on the back whilst the sumo deadlift is more leg-focused.

There’s no “best deadlift variation”. So pick one that you enjoy doing that is comfortable for your body shape.

The deadlift is one of the best exercises to load heavy and apply progressive overload for skinny guys who want to get bigger and stronger quickly!

How to: Powerbag Deadlift

Any heavy object can be deadlifted if you don’t have access to a barbell or dumbbell.

Alternatives for skinny people without equipment:

  • Lifting heavy objects off the ground. Sacks of rice, sand, and anything with substantial weight can be used by skinny beginners to deadlift at home without free weights!

Deadlifts should be included in every workout program designed to build strength and gain muscle. To find out why you can check out my other article on why skinny guys should do deadlifts!

6) Weighted Pull-Ups.

How a skinny person can do the pull-up to build back and arm muscle and gain strength.

Why it’s one of the best exercises for skinny guys:

The pull-up activates all of the muscles in your back and core, with a focus on the lats. This can help skinny guys build a wider V-shaped body.

Pull-up variations include:

  • Traditional overhand pull-up.
  • Wide-arm overhand pull-up
  • Underhand chin-up.
  • Band-assisted pull-ups.
  • Weighted pull-ups.

Changing between different grips can be a great way to target different muscles.

Gripping the bar overhand leads to better isolation of the back muscles, whilst an underhand grip is better for activating the biceps.

Similarly, a wide grip is ideal for targeting the rhomboids and posterior deltoids and a narrow grip is more suited to isolating the lats.

Most skinny beginners won’t be able to do more than a few unassisted pull-up reps.

Resistance bands for assisted pull-ups.

So start with band-assisted pull-ups before progressing onto unassisted bodyweight pull-ups.

Next, you can hold a dumbbell between your legs for weighted pull-ups!

Trust me- weighted pull-ups are one of the best exercises for skinny guys to build a powerful and imposing physique!

Door Towel Pull Up

Alternatives for skinny people without equipment:

  • Inverted back row. See “point #3 bent-over-rows” for details!
  • Doorway towel pull-ups. This is a crafty way to fashion a DIY makeshift pull-up bar at home. Simply get two towels, tie a knot on each, and thread them through the top of a door. Be careful though. This can be dangerous and can even damage your property. Instead, I always recommend a good pull-up bar if you have the space and money.

A skinny to muscular transformation requires a good nutrition plan as well as effective training. For more details, you can check out my other post for tips on how to stop being skinny.

7) Weighted Chest Dips.

How skinny guys can do the chest dip to build chest and arm muscle and gain strength.

Why it’s one of the best exercises for skinny guys:

If you find the bench press to be an intimidating exercise, then why not try the chest dip instead?

Unknown to many beginners, the dip replicates the same movement pattern of a bench press.

Just make sure you angle your torso forwards for full chest activation rather than angling your body vertically which shifts tension onto your triceps.

The chest dip is a simple but potent exercise for skinny people to build a stronger and bigger upper body.

Start with band-assisted dips before progressing onto unassisted bodyweight dips and finally weighted dips!

Dip Exercise using a Kitchen Counter (Advanced)

Alternatives for skinny people without equipment:

  • Push-ups. See “point #1 barbell bench press” for more details.
  • Kitchen counter dips. A 90° corner kitchen counter can be used as a makeshift DIY dip station. It’s a simple, effective, and safe way for skinny guys to do chest dips and build muscle at home!

If you’re new to working out, you may be interested in my other post to find out the best time for skinny guys to lift weights!

8) Forward Dumbbell Lunge.

How a skinny person can do the lunge to build leg muscle and strength.

Why it’s one of the best exercises for skinny guys:

The forward lunge is a great exercise for skinny guys to build legs.

I personally prefer squats over lunges. The former is a much more powerful exercise that works more muscles and allows you to lift heavier weights.

However, the lunge can be a great alternative for beginners who prefer not to squat.

It’s also a good exercise for skinny guys who want to target their hamstrings and glutes for a more shapely butt.

Alternatives for skinny people without equipment:

  • Bodyweight lunges. A cheap and convenient way to work the legs. Doesn’t provide much in the way of intensity though. Adding weights like the PowerBlock EXP to your lunge will make them much more effective for building muscle.
  • Bodyweight squats. See “point #4 squats” for more details!

9) Barbell Pendlay Row.

How To Build a Thick Back With Perfect Rowing Technique (Pendlay Row/ Helms Row)

Why it’s one of the best exercises for skinny guys:

The barbell Pendlay row is a bonus addition to this list.

It’s an exercise that I feel is highly under-utilized by beginners and a movement that helped me build a lot of explosive strength as a skinny guy.

It works similarly to the bent-over row.

The main difference with the Pendlay row is that your back remains near-parallel to the ground and you pull the barbell directly off the ground without opening up your hips.

Why is this exercise so effective?

It prevents lifting assistance from the legs and hips which commonly occurs in the bent-over row.

This forces you to generate maximum power from your back and arm muscles to get the barbell off the ground. All the while, your lower back works overtime to stabilize your body.

It’s a great exercise for skinny guys to build explosive pulling power and strength.

And this can also translate into a stronger deadlift and bent-over row.

Alternatives for skinny people without equipment:

There are no real alternatives to the Pendlay row!

Bodyweight variations don’t allow for enough weight to be lifted.


Looking to transform your body? You might be interested in my other post which explains if it’s harder or easier for skinny guys to gain muscle!

What Makes These The Best Exercises For Skinny Guys?

These are all compound movements that work for multiple muscle groups at once.

Not only does this give you greater muscle activation overall, but it also allows more weight to be lifted.

And lifting progressively heavier weights is the best way for skinny guys to build muscle and strength fast!

All of the exercises together in this list will work every single muscle in your body!


It can be frustrating not having a realistic timeframe to aim in your muscle gain journey. If you’re interested, you can check out my other post to find out how long it takes a skinny person to build muscle!

Best Way For Skinny Guys To Perform These Exercises

Here are some tips to build more muscle as a skinny beginner:

  • Lift slow and controlled. Concentrate on your mind-muscle contractions, control the downward phase of a lift, and avoid cheating by using momentum to help you lift a weight. Each rep should last at least 2-3 seconds.
  • 6-12 reps per set. This is the ideal rep range for muscle size and strength gains. Ensure you use a weight that challenges you for the allotted reps.
  • 3-5 sets per workout. Aim for 10-15 total sets per muscle per week. This usually equates to 3-5 sets per muscle per workout (depending on how many frequently a muscle is trained per week).
  • Lift heavy. Ain’t no skinny guy getting bigger and stronger without lifting heavy!
  • Progressive overload. Don’t just lift heavy weights. Lift increasingly heavier weights. This is the best way for skinny guys to build muscle and strength from these exercises. If you aren’t progressing you’re stagnating.

Conclusion

I’ve shared 9 of the best exercises for skinny guys to build muscle and gain strength fast.

They are all compound lifts that work multiple muscles in one movement. This allows you to maximize muscle activation, lift more, and get more bang for your buck.

Combined, all 9 exercises will work every single muscle fiber in your body.

Give it a go if you’re a skinny person looking to get quickly bigger and stronger!

Which of these exercises will you be trying in your next workout?

Feel free to send me a message if you have any questions! You can find my details on the “contact us” page.

You may also be interested in the downloadable Kalibre Blueprint PDF which details exactly how I gained 40lbs of lean muscle (it’s 100% free!). It details the exact exercises and nutrition (with printable worksheets) I used to go from skinny to ripped!

Thanks for reading guys!

Peace Out,

Kal

(Biochemistry BSc, Biomedical Sciences MSc, Ex-Skinny Guy)

Kal

I'm Kal (B.S, M.S)- a health & fitness writer and owner of Kalibre Fitness. I love to nerd out on weight training and nutrition. My primary interests are in muscle hypertrophy mechanisms and strength development. You can connect with me in the "Contact Us" section below!

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