How much muscle can you gain naturally

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One of the most common questions a beginner will ask themselves is: how much muscle can I expect to gain in a given amount of time? The short answer, nobody knows, it’s almost impossible to predict, because there are several factors that affect the rate of muscle growth.

What annoys me is the number of infomercials, supplement companies, fitness websites and bodybuilding magazines all promising unrealistic size gains in such a short amount of time.

Sadly, this only adds to the confusion, people get the wrong idea, follow inadequate routines, take ineffective supplements, buy products that promise fast results with little effort, only to become disappointed when they do not achieve what was promised.

I’ve seen countless websites where so called “fitness experts” promise muscle gains of 20lbs or more in 30 days or less, by reading “secrets” that can only be found by purchasing their product.

These unrealistic claims entice people to buy their useless products. It really annoys me whenever I see such advertisements because there are no secret formulas to building muscle, there are a number of factors that determine the rate of growth and it takes time, consistency and dedication. Let’s look now at the different aspects that determine rate of muscle growth.

1. Genetics

Everyone builds muscle at different rates, if a group of people all followed the same workout routine, diet, recovery etc, they will all make strength and size increases at different rates.

This is down to genetics, and someone with better genetics will build muscle more rapidly than someone with poorer genetics. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do about this, it’s completely outside of your control.

One such study of 10 pairs of identical twins, being identical, they share the same genetic structure. The twins were all separated at birth and reared in different environments. The study involved pedaling on a cycle ergometer for 40 minutes, 4-5 times per week at an average of 80% maximal heart rate reserve. The results showed a broad range of improvement in aerobic capacity and each pair of twins responded very similar. There was little similarity in response to training across all the different twin groups.

Whilst I understand that the study was based on endurance training and not weight training, this study clearly shows that genetics plays a significant role in the different rates of improvement.

2. Body Type

Your physical body size is a good indication of how much muscle you can expect to build. The size of your frame (as in bone structure) and the amount of muscle you have to begin with almost dictates your rate of growth.

To give you an example, let’s compare two different male body types, the first male is 6 foot 2″ and weighs 200lbs with a large bone structure, his body fat is 20%.

The second male is 5 foot 8″ and weighs 160lbs with a smaller bone structure, his body fat is also 20%.

The average male skeletal muscle mass is approximately 42%, which means the first male who weighs 200lbs will have a skeletal muscle mass approximately 85lbs. The smaller male who weighs 160lbs will have almost 70lbs of skeletal muscle.

If both males worked to the same routine, diet, recovery, schedule and all other variables being equal, chances are the larger 200lb male will build muscle at a much faster rate.

You also have to take into account body types. The above diagram shows the three common body types, ectomorph, mesomorph and endomorph. The type that will gain the most muscle is the mesomorph body type, the mesomorph group has a broader build and an average amount of body fat. The second body type, ectomorphs, are naturally slender, have less body fat and have a much harder time increasing muscle mass. The third group, endomorphs, have the highest body fat percentage, which means they have a harder time trying lose fat, but an easier time packing on muscle compared to ectomorphs.

Studies on Body Type

There have been several studies on body types and the effects on hypertrophy. One such study showed that mesomorphs built muscle more rapidly compared to ectomorph body types.

The subjects were divided into two groups, one group of slender (ectomorph) individuals and the other group of solid (endomorph) individuals. Each group performed the same workout routine twice per week for 12 weeks. After 12 weeks the solid group gained 2.3% muscle mass, whereas the slender group showed no significant muscle mass increase. Both groups showed comparable decreases in body fat, the slender group reduced their body fat by 10.8%, the solid group lost 11.3%. Both groups showed increases in strength (13.8%).

3. Testosterone

The primary function of testosterone is to stimulate the release of growth hormone and influence neural factors contributing to anabolic processes. The secondary function is to promote increased muscle mass, bone mass, and the growth of body hair.

Testosterone is primarily secreted in the testicles in males and ovaries in females. The average adult male produces 7-8 times more testosterone than the average adult female. The higher the level of testosterone in your body, the easier it will be to become bigger and stronger.

For men, the normal level of testosterone in the bloodstream is between 250 ng/dl and 1,100 ng/dl (ng/dl means nanograms per deciliter). Therefore, someone with average testosterone levels of 600 ng/dl will not make gains as quickly as someone who has 1,000 ng/dl of testosterone.

4. Gender & Age

Males have a greater muscle mass than females, and this is because of the higher testosterone levels that men produce. I believe most women are afraid of lifting weights because they don’t want to look too muscular, however it would take a woman a very long time to build a small amount of muscle mass. For this reason women should not be afraid of lifting weights.

As you age it becomes harder to maintain muscle mass. For most people, as they reach their late 30′s they begin to lose muscle mass at a rate of 0.5%-1% every year. This is primarily due to the loss in testosterone levels as we age. So, if you are an older lifter, you have to take this into consideration, as it will certainly affect the rate of muscle growth.

5. Nutrition

Diet and nutrition play a huge role in the rate of muscle growth. To build muscle your diet must consists of adequate nutrients, proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Poor nutrition will slow down the rate of growth, and eating too many calories will make you fat.

6. Training Routine

The routine you follow will also determine the rate in which you get bigger and stronger. A properly structured workout routine is not a professional bodybuilders routine, or one from a fitness magazine, it’s one that works for you, at your current training level.

For example, a novice lifter will benefit from a 3 day per week full body workout. However, an intermediate or advanced lifter will not be able to train in such a way, that’s because the muscles have adapted to training and more recovery is needed between workouts. More advanced lifters have to push their muscles harder during a workout, so upper/lower split or body part split routines work better, because they allow the lifter to work muscle groups to a much higher intensity.

Bigger compound exercises make bigger muscles. When you perform compound exercises, such as deadlift, bench press, squats etc, it works all surrounding muscles, making you stronger as a unit. Compound exercises will therefore make you bigger and stronger compared to someone focusing on isolation exercises primarily throughout their workout.

7. Training Period

The longer you have trained the slower the gains will be. Someone, such as myself who has lifted weights for over 10 years will make slower gains compared to someone who has lifted for a couple of months.

The most muscle you will ever gain is when you first start training. During the initial stages of a novice training their bodies become more efficient at contracting muscle fibers, this is known as the neural adaption process and has been studied several times.

During the early stages a novice will see noticeable strength gains but may not see any visual size gains, this is because the muscle has become fully efficient at contracting, using nearly all of the available muscle fibers to contract, the muscle itself has not become bigger, it has merely increased in efficiency.

Once the neural adaption stage has reached near maximum efficiency, the muscle then hypertrophies (becomes bigger), this is when the novice notices physical size increases. As the lifter gets closer to their genetic potential the rate of growth slows dramatically, this is because the muscles need to be worked to a greater intensity, which also means diet and recovery become even more critical to sustain growth.

8. Consistency

The most overlooked of all these factors is consistency. Many lifters (myself included) can honestly say they have not been consistent in their training. We all miss workouts, sometimes the odd workout and sometimes several at a time. Our diets aren’t always ideal, sometimes we “fall off the wagon” with our eating habits. Sometimes we don’t get enough rest, drink too much alcohol or get really stressed and fatigued.

It’s all part of life, the key is staying as consistent as possible, lifting weights for 3 months consistently and then stopping for 3 weeks will set you back. I often see guys at my gym disappear for weeks or months at a time, then when they finally come back they say “man, I need to get back in shape!”. These people wonder why they never make any real progress, please don’t be one of them, stay consistent!

The Big Question – How Much Muscle Can I Gain?

From my own personal experience I would expect the average adult male to gain approximately 2-5lbs of muscle per month, during the first few months of training. So then, for the first year of training I would expect someone to gain between 10-20lbs of muscle.

Guys with greater testosterone levels, bigger bone density and better genetics will be closer to the 20lbs mark. Those with smaller bone structures, lower testosterone levels and poorer genetics will be closer to the 10lb mark during the first year of training.

After the first year the rate of growth will drastically slow down. I would expect gains in the 5-10lbs mark for every year of training, and that’s the absolute most. This may sound slow, but imagine if you gained 5lbs every year, in just 10 years you would have gained between 50-100lbs of lean muscle mass!