If you want to know how long it takes to build muscle, as well as the best way to go about doing so, this page will show you how.
Here’s what’s covered:
- How Long Does It Take for Muscles to Grow?
- What Affects Your Rate of Muscle Growth?
- How Much Muscle Can You Gain in a Month?
- How Much Muscle Can You Gain in a Year?
- What’s Your Maximum Muscular Potential?
- How Long Will It Take to Reach Your Maximum Muscular Potential?
- What’s the Best Way to Build Muscle?
How long does it take to build muscle? That’s a difficult question to answer, because there’s no single correct answer that will apply to all people, all of the time.
The length of time it takes to build muscle depends on how much muscle you’re talking about and who’s doing the building.
Nobody can tell you exactly how long it’ll take to see results, because they don’t know.
That’s because muscle growth varies so much from person to person that it’s almost impossible to predict in advance exactly how much muscle you’ll gain over a given period of time.
However, what I can do is give you a rough idea about the amount of muscle growth you can expect to see after weeks, months and years of training.
Knowing approximately how long it takes for your muscles to grow will stop you wasting time, effort and money running around in search of some magic pill, diet or new workout program that’s making promises it can’t deliver.
How Long Does It Take for Muscles to Grow?
How long does it take for muscles to grow? And how long should it take before you notice a change in muscle size?
Research shows that the process of building muscle begins almost immediately after your first workout .
In fact, just three hours after you leave the gym, the rate of muscle protein synthesis – a key driver of hypertrophy – is already increased.
Your body is busy repairing the microscopic damage caused by that workout, as well as laying down the new contractile proteins that make each muscle fiber bigger than it was before .
To give you an idea of the time course of changes in muscle thickness during a strength training routine, check out the figure below.
It comes from a team of Japanese researchers, who took a group of untrained men, and got them to do nothing but the bench press three times per week for six months . Every week, they used ultrasound scans to assess changes in muscle growth in the chest, triceps and biceps.
As you can see, there was a small increase in muscle size from week to week. Those gains were small, and flattened out over time. But the pecs and triceps were still growing on a regular basis.
Don’t be discouraged if progress seems slow in those beginning weeks. It takes a while for short-term changes in protein synthesis to show up as actual changes in muscle mass, and you may not notice those changes for several weeks or even months.
What Affects Your Rate of Muscle Growth?
There are several important factors that affect the length of time it takes to see muscle growth. These include:
The genetic blueprint you were handed at birth. There are genetic factors outside your control that affect how long it takes to build muscle, as well as the maximum amount of muscle you can expect to gain naturally. Unless you’re willing to have your genes tampered with by a renegade scientist, there’s not much you can do about it.
The length of time you’ve been training. The more advanced you are, the harder it gets to build muscle. That’s because there’s an upper limit to the amount of muscle you can gain. The closer you are to your genetic potential, the slower the gains will come.
How well you recover. Sleep deprivation and psychological stress make it a lot harder to recover from any given workout. As a result, the adaptive response to your workout plan won’t be all that it might have been.
The type of training you’re doing. Some training programs work better than others when it comes to building muscle. Training variables, such as how often each muscle group is trained, how many exercises per muscle group you do, the number of sets and reps you do, as well as the amount of effort you put into each set, will have a big impact on the speed at which you build muscle.
The number of times you’ve travelled around the sun. Like a lot of things, building muscle becomes more difficult as you get older. You can still gain muscle in your forties, fifties and beyond, but it will take longer than it did in your twenties.
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Your protein intake. Protein is one of the most important macronutrients for building muscle, mainly because your muscles need it to repair and recover after training. Without enough protein in your diet, your muscles aren’t going to grow as quickly as they otherwise would.
Your calorie intake. Building muscle takes energy, and a diet designed to maximize your rate of muscle growth requires eating more calories than your body needs to maintain its weight. That means being in a calorie surplus, rather than the deficit required for weight loss. Even with a high intake of protein, restricting your calorie intake and trying to lose weight will mean a slower rate of muscle growth.
How Much Muscle Can You Gain in a Month?
Let’s assume all the muscle-building stars are aligned. By that, I mean you’re following an effective training program, pushing yourself hard in the gym, and eating enough food.
You’re also living a relatively low-stress lifestyle, and getting plenty of sound, restful sleep each night. You have the discipline to eat right and train hard on a consistent basis, week in and week out, for months at a time.
In this case, the average guy will see around two pounds of muscle growth in their first month of serious training, or roughly 0.5 pounds per week. Women can cut that number in half.
Gains do tend to slow down over time, so if you’re an advanced lifter, it might take six months or longer to gain the same amount of muscle.
Those numbers assume you’re in a small calorie surplus, which will typically mean putting on some fat along the way. If you’re trying to gain muscle as fast as possible, and eating enough food to fuel that growth, it’s highly unusual to put on muscle without adding fat at the same time.
That is, the number you see on the scale is likely to go up by more than a couple of pounds. But if it’s pure muscle gain that you’re talking about, a couple of pounds a month is about the limit.
What if conditions are less than optimal? What if you’re in your forties, your diet is more miss than it is hit, and you haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since the Obama administration? If so, muscle growth will happen more slowly, and you’ll need to adjust your expectations accordingly.
Contrary to the claims of some, you’re not going to gain 30 pounds of muscle in 28 days. It doesn’t matter how many supplements you’re using, what special foods you’re eating or how much training you’re doing. It’s not going to happen.
How Much Muscle Can You Gain in a Year?
It’s tempting to look at the amount of muscle you gain when you first start lifting weights, and plot your projected progress using the results from that first month or so of training.
“Great,” you think to himself. “At this rate, I’ll have another 24 pounds of muscle by this time next year.”
Problem is, basing your future rate of muscle gain on how much of it you’re building right now ignores the fact that there’s a physiological upper limit on the amount of muscle you can gain. The closer you get to this upper limit, the slower the gains will come.
Over the course of a year, you’ll be doing extremely well to gain 20 pounds of muscle. Most people are going to see muscular gains closer to 10 pounds. You can certainly put on more than that in weight, but not all of it’s going to be muscle.
Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, who combined great genetics and a Herculean work ethic with more than a little pharmaceutical assistance, was very happy when he gained 25 pounds in weight over a 12-month period.
Here’s what he wrote in Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder:
Many people regret having to serve in the Army. But it was not a waste of time for me. When I came out I weighed 225 pounds. I’d gone from 200 to 225. Up to that time, this was the biggest change I’d ever made in a single year.”Arnold Schwarzenegger
So if one of the greatest bodybuilders in history is saying that 25 pounds was as much body weight as he ever gained in one year (and some of this was body fat, it wasn’t all muscle mass), there’s no way that a drug-free, genetically average guy can expect to do the same thing.
What’s Your Maximum Muscular Potential?
What is your maximum muscular potential? How much muscle can you gain naturally?
In all honesty, I don’t know. Nor, for that matter, does anyone else.
While there are various methods for estimating your genetic potential for size, from the fat-free mass index (FFMI) to the muscle-to-bone ratio, individual differences make it very difficult to predict exactly how much muscle you can expect to gain over the course of your training lifetime.
But what I can do is tell you roughly where your “ceiling of adaptation” lies in terms of muscle growth.
Knowing the height of that ceiling will prevent you wasting time, effort and money trying to hit a muscular body weight that is beyond your reach without the use of drugs.
Here’s a quote from Schwarzenegger again, this time talking about the amount of extra muscle he gained over the course of his training lifetime:
Body weight is relative. With my frame and bone structure, I would probably weigh 200 pounds even if I had never taken up weight training. Frank Zane, without bodybuilding, might be only 140 or 150 pounds. So both of us have added about 40 pounds of muscle to our physiques and, since he is the smaller man, that makes his gain relatively larger than mine.”Arnold Schwarzenegger
Between them, Zane and Arnold won Mr Olympia, the top bodybuilding contest in the world, on ten separate occasions. This means they were genetically predisposed to building large amounts of muscle. Both also benefited from more than a little pharmaceutical assistance.
Based on Schwarzenegger’s estimate, both men added around 40 pounds of muscle to their frame compared to an average untrained man of a similar height and bone structure.
Are you in possession of similar genetic gifts? Are you taking anabolic drugs? Do you have a superhuman level of dedication, consistency and willpower?
If not, the chances of gaining more than that, or even matching it, are pretty slim.
For most people, gaining 20-30 pounds more muscle than an average untrained man of your height and bone structure is a significant achievement. That’s about as much as you can realistically expect to gain over the course of your training lifetime.
Am I saying this is the absolute upper limit for every single human being that has, or ever will, set foot on this planet?
No. But in most cases, it’s going to be there or thereabouts.
What if you have great genetics, and/or you’re on the juice? If so, depending on the quality and quantity of any anabolic drugs you’re using, that number is going to be considerably higher.
How Long Will It Take to Reach Your Maximum Muscular Potential?
Most people will need to train for somewhere between 3 and 5 years before they get anywhere close to their physical limits as far as lean muscle mass is concerned.
That’s 3-5 years of hard work, proper training and good nutrition. It’s not something you can do in 30 days, 12 weeks or even 12 months.
As you age, your ceiling of adaptation will get lower. The rate at which you approach that ceiling will also slow down, in part because of a decline in various hormones involved in the remodelling of muscle and connective tissue, such as testosterone and growth hormone.
But your age isn’t something you can change, so there’s little point in worrying about it. For older people with little or no proper training behind them, the potential for improvement still exists.
Will Brink has put together an informative video where he talks about how much muscle you can expect to gain naturally, as well as how long it will take to do it. It’s much in line with my own thoughts on the subject.
What’s the Best Way to Build Muscle?
The numbers I’ve talked about assume you’re doing everything right in the gym. If your training program isn’t set up properly, your rate of muscle growth is going to be slower than it otherwise would be.
So what does an effective training program look like? What’s the best way to go about building muscle?
First, make sure that each muscle is being trained 2-3 times a week, which you can do with a 3-day full-body workout, a 4-day upper/lower split routine or 4-day push/pull routine, or a 5-day push/pull/legs routine.
There are plenty of effective training programs out there, from full-body workouts to body part splits. You just need to pick one you can stick with.
If you want to gain muscle as quickly as possible, you’ll need more than just the handful of compound lifts, such as squats and deadlifts, found in most strength-training programs.
That’s because maximizing the development of the major muscle groups, or even the smaller ones like the biceps or triceps, requires the use of several exercises, rather than just one.
As far as training volume is concerned, aim for somewhere between 10 and 20 hard sets per muscle group per week.
If you’re just starting out, you’ll see good results near the lower end of that range, which should be enough volume for the average person starting a new strength training program.
An experienced lifter, on the other hand, who’s racked up more training hours will need a bigger training stimulus to keep the gains coming.
When it comes to reps, anywhere between 5 and 30 reps per set will get the job done. As long as you train hard and push yourself, high reps (15-20), medium reps (12-15) and low reps (5-8) can all be used to build muscle.
On the diet side of things, aim for around 0.7 grams of protein per pound, or 1.6 grams per kilogram, of bodyweight per day. Use a supplement containing whey protein, or some other form of high-quality protein powder, if you find it difficult to get enough protein from food.
Always try to beat what you did in your last workout, adding some extra weight here or an extra rep there. It won’t always happen, and there’ll be times where you end up doing the same number of reps with the same amount of weight you did in the previous workout.
You need to give your muscles a reason to get bigger, or they’ll stay the exact same size they are right now.
Finally, stay consistent. When you find something that’s working, stick with it, at least until you reach the point where the gains dry up. While there’s no reason why you can’t throw in a new exercise every now and again, just to keep things interesting, you don’t need to start a new workout routine every few weeks.
How Muscle Memory Affects Your Gains
The length of time it takes to see muscle growth is also affected by whether you’re building that muscle from scratch, or re-building muscle that’s been lost.
Re-building muscle that you’ve had in the past, but subsequently lost, happens more quickly than gaining it in the first place. That’s because of a phenomenon known as muscle memory .
When your muscles grow, they develop more nuclei – the “command centers” of a muscle cell that control what goes on inside that cell. However, those nuclei aren’t lost when you take a break from weight training.
Instead, they hang around inside your muscles, which allows for a faster rate of muscle growth when you start strength training again.
All other things being equal, if you’ve been in shape before, your muscles will grow a lot faster than someone who’s starting a resistance training program from scratch.
The Role of Cardio in Muscle Growth
Some folks take the view that cardio and weight training don’t mix. If you want to gain muscle, they say, cardio should be kept to an absolute minimum.
In truth, while cardio has the potential to put the brakes on muscle growth, a lot depends on the type of cardio you do, how much of it you do, and when it’s being done.
Running, for example, even if it’s done on a treadmill, tends to cause more muscle damage than low-impact forms of exercise, such as rowing, swimming or cycling. Because they don’t generate the same amount of muscle damage and joint stress, they’re less likely to impede recovery and slow your gains.
Timing is also important. If your main goal is to get bigger and stronger, avoid doing any intense cardio, such as high-intensity interval training, immediately before lifting weights. You’re better off doing it once the heavy lifting is out of the way, or even on a separate day.
You also need to think about the total amount of cardio you do. If all you’re doing is a couple of hours of moderate-intensity cardio over the course of a week, that’s unlikely to pose a problem. The more cardio you do, and the harder that cardio is, the more likely it is to harm your gains.
Building muscle is hard work. It takes ferocious consistency, discipline and sustained effort over a period of several years before you get close to the genetic limits of muscle mass you’re capable of gaining.
Even if you’re following the greatest weight training routine ever devised in all of human history, adding muscle to your frame takes persistence, an iron-fisted work ethic, and a good deal of patience.