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’s going to take to build muscle, 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 sort of results you can expect to see after weeks, months and years of training.
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Knowing approximately how long it takes to build muscle will stop you wasting time, effort and money running around in search of some magic pill, diet or training program that’s making promises it can’t deliver.
How Quickly Can You Build Muscle?
For the average guy, it’ll take 3-4 months to gain around 5 pounds of muscle. However, that number assumes all the muscle-building stars are aligned. By that, I mean you’re new to lifting weights, training hard 3-5 days a week, eating enough food and getting all the protein your muscles need to recover and grow.
You’re also in your twenties with all the hormonal advantages that go with it, a relatively low-stress lifestyle, and getting 8-9 hours 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.
What if conditions are less than optimal? What if you’re in your forties, eating a crappy diet, and haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since the Obama administration? If so, your muscles will take longer to grow, and you’ll need to adjust your expectations accordingly.
How Muscle Memory Affects Your Gains
The length of time it takes for a muscle to grow 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 a muscle is gained, lost and then gained back again, it will grow more quickly during the re-building phase compared to the initial training period from an untrained state .
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. Instead, they hang around inside your muscles, which allows for a faster rate of growth when you start training again.
From Lawrence Schwartz, Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts:
“Muscles get damaged during extreme exercise, and often have to weather changes in food availability and other environmental factors that lead to atrophy. They wouldn’t last very long giving up their nuclei in response to every one of these insults.
“Since myonuclei are the synthetic engine of muscle fibers, retaining them should enable muscle size and strength to recover more quickly after one of these insults, and help to explain the phenomenon of muscle memory.”
All other things being equal, if you’ve been in shape before, your muscles will grow a lot faster than someone who’s starting from scratch.
The Law of Diminishing Returns
No matter how long it takes you to gain muscle, it won’t be too long before the law of diminishing returns kicks in.
Everything happens quickly when you’re just starting out. But you won’t keep building muscle at the same rate indefinitely, and your results are going to slow down over time.
In other words, the first 10 pounds of muscle might come in 12 months or less. The next 10 pounds might take twice as long. Adding another ten pounds might happen a lot more slowly, over a period of several years.
You can certainly gain weight at a faster rate, as the addition of fat will add a few more pounds (maybe a lot more depending on how relaxed you are with your diet). But if it’s just muscle growth you’re talking about, those numbers are roughly where the natural limits lie.
Can Anyone Build Muscle?
Anyone can build muscle. However, not everyone can build muscle at the same speed. Some lucky folks put on muscle relatively quickly when they start lifting weights. For others, the results come much more slowly, even if they lift and eat the same.
The figure below comes from a study where a group of guys with a similar build, age, and training history lifted weights for 12 weeks [4, 5]. It shows the average gains in lean body mass (a reasonable proxy for muscle mass) in both the high and low responders to resistance training.
When the researchers looked at the results of the men who built the most muscle and those who built the least muscle, they found roughly four times greater gains in muscle in the fast versus the slow responders.
To put it another way, you and a friend of a similar build could follow exactly the same training program and diet for the next six months.
But individual variations in the rate of muscular growth mean that he might end up gaining twice as much muscle as you do.
Research also shows a wide range of strength gains even in people following identical training programs .
Subjects were grouped into fast (those who made greater than 20% strength gains), medium (10-19% gains) and slow responders (less than 10% gains).
There was an average increase in strength of 29% for fast responders, 14% for medium responders and 3% for the slow responders.
In other words, some people respond extremely well to strength training. Some will get “good but not great” results. Others will respond a lot more slowly.
How Long Does It Take for a Muscle to Grow?
The process of building muscle begins almost immediately after your first workout . Just three hours after training, muscle protein synthesis is already ramped up. Your body is busy repairing damaged muscle fibers, as well as laying down the new muscle protein that makes each fiber bigger than it was before .
To give you an idea of the time course of changes in muscle thickness over time, 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 a week for six months . Every week, they used ultrasound scans to assess changes in muscle thickness 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. 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.
On a related note, it’s worth pointing out that gains in strength will outstrip gains in size when you first start lifting weights. You’ll get stronger far more quickly than you gain muscle. That’s because not all of those strength gains are driven by an increase in muscle size.
Rather, your neuromuscular system, the “chain of command” that transmits signals from the brain to the muscle, is doing a better job of using the available fibers in a given muscle. The fact you’re getting stronger doesn’t mean that muscle is being built at an equivalent rate.
Doubling the amount of weight you’re able to lift in a given exercise doesn’t mean that the muscles involved in lifting that weight have doubled in size. Nor does it follow that increasing the size of a muscle by 100% will produce an equal gain in strength.
What’s the Most Muscle You Can Gain?
If you have 20-30 pounds more muscle than an average, untrained, fully-grown man of your height and frame, you’re doing extremely well. Women can cut those numbers in half. That’s about as much as most people can realistically expect to gain over the course of their training lifetime.
Am I saying that this is the absolute upper limit for every single human being that has, or ever will, set foot on this planet?
But I am saying that for most people, it’s going to be there or thereabouts.
How long will it take to get within shooting distance of 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 muscle size 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.
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.
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.”
So if one of the greatest bodybuilders in history is saying that 25 pounds was as much as he ever gained in one year (and not all of this was muscle), there’s no way that a drug-free, genetically average guy can expect to do the same thing in a fraction of the time.
Summary: How Long Does It Take to Build Muscle?
To sum up, there are several important factors that affect the length of time it takes to build muscle, including:
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 more muscle. That’s because there’s an upper limit to the amount of muscle you can build. The closer you are to this upper limit, the slower the gains will come.
How well you recover. Sleep deprivation and psychological stress make it a lot harder to recover from workout to workout. As a result, the adaptive response to your training program 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 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 muscle is gained.
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.
The amount of protein you’re eating. Your muscles need adequate protein 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 total 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 to lose fat. Even with a high intake of protein, restricting your calorie intake will mean a slower rate of muscle growth.
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 training program 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.
Traits, in my experience, that a vanishingly small number of people seem to possess.
Gains in muscle size come relatively slowly, so you’re not going to notice them on a daily or even a weekly basis. But they all add up. Get your head down, train hard, and in a few months time you’ll have more muscle than you have right now.
See Also: The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet
If you're fed up spending hours in the gym with nothing to show for it, then check out The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet.
It's a "cut the waffle and just tell me what to do” PDF that tells you exactly how to go about building muscle. To get a copy of the cheat sheet sent to you, please enter your email address in the box below, and hit the “send it now” button.
About the Author
Christian Finn is an exercise scientist and former “trainer to the trainers” based in the UK. He holds a masters degree in exercise science, and has been featured in or contributed to major media on two continents, including the BBC and Sunday Times in the U.K. and Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness in the U.S.