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.
Individual differences make it very difficult to predict in advance 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 bodyweight that is beyond your reach without the use of drugs.
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.
As you age, your ceiling of adaptation will get lower. The rate at which you approach it will also slow down. 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.
There are many different factors affecting the speed at which you gain size, some of which I’ve talked about here. But the maximum amount of muscle that it’s possible to build is determined mainly by the size of your skeleton.
Francis Holway, an exercise and nutrition researcher from Buenos Aires, likens the human skeleton to an empty bookcase.
The wider the bookcase, the more books it will hold. Likewise, the bigger the skeleton, the more muscle it can support. Here’s a brief snippet on this subject from The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance:
In measurements of thousands of elite athletes from soccer to weight lifting, judo, rugby, and more, Holway has found that each kilogram (2.2 pounds) of bone supports a maximum of five kilograms (11 pounds) of muscle. Five-to-one, then, is a general limit of the human muscle bookcase. The limit for women is closer to 4.1 to 1.
Holway experimented on himself, spending years in heavy weight training with a diet high in protein and supplemented by creatine. But as he closed in on five-to-one, inhaling more steaks and shakes only added fat, not muscle.
All of which might sound interesting. But it doesn’t tell you anything useful, as you probably don’t know off the top of your head how much your skeleton weighs.
Your rate of muscular gain is also going to scale up based on the size of your frame.
Scientists from the Netherlands, for example, used something called the fat-free mass index to assign a group of men to either a “slender” or a “solid” group. Both groups lifted weights twice a week for 12 weeks.
All the men put on muscle during the 12-week study. But the slender guys gained an average of just 0.7 pounds, compared to 3.5 pounds in the solid group. In other words, subjects in the “solid” group gained FIVE TIMES more muscle than those in the “slender” group.
If you have a large frame and sturdy joints, then you’ve got an advantage over someone with a smaller frame, as you’ll generally be able to lift more weight and deliver a greater training stimulus to the muscles each time you train.
One way to estimate frame size is to measure your wrist on the hand side of the styloid process, which is the bony bit on the outside of your wrist.
A wrist size of 19.5 centimeters and above indicates a heavy bone structure. A wrist size of under 16.5 centimeters is indicative of a smaller bone structure. A figure between those numbers indicates a medium bone structure.
Of course, this assumes that wrist size directly correlates with bone size throughout the body, which isn’t necessarily true for everyone. But as a rule-of-thumb, it gives you at least a reasonable idea. The bigger the man, the greater his muscular potential.
What constitutes a challenging but realistic long-term goal when it comes to muscle growth?
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.
For a genetically “average” guy who isn’t on gear, getting to a lean (8-10% body fat) 180 pounds is a significant achievement. If you can make it to 190 pounds while staying close to 10% body fat, you’re going to look pretty damn impressive.
Remember that muscle mass is relative to the size of your skeleton. So if you’re a lot shorter than average, the numbers I’ve just given are probably going to be out of reach.
If you want a customized estimate of the maximum amount of muscle you can expect to build, take a look at Casey Butt’s Maximum Muscular Bodyweight calculator.
It’s based on equations that Casey developed during six years of research and analysis of data from drug-free champions both past and present, and gives you a pretty good idea of your maximum natural potential at roughly 8-10% body fat.
Keep in mind that at 8-10% body fat, you will be able to see your abs. It doesn’t matter if your body fat scales say that you’re 10% body fat, as they’re largely useless when it comes to predicting body composition. If you can’t see your abs, you’re not as lean as you think.
In short, if you have 20-30 pounds more muscle than an average untrained man of your height and bone structure, you’re doing extremely well. 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 it’s going to be there or thereabouts.
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 click or tap here to enter your email address.