You’ve seen the ads: the ones with the pale, sorry-looking schlub on the left and his beaming, jacked doppelganger on the right, with accompanying ad copy proclaiming that — with the help of this or that miracle pill — the guy added a side of beef to his frame in three weeks.
Clearly someone is falling for this blarney, or they probably wouldn’t keep re-running different versions of this same ad. Hopefully you got a chuckle out of it and turned the page.
Still: if you’re a dedicated lifter, or just embarking on a muscle-building quest, it’s reasonable to wonder: How long does it take to build muscle? What kind of gains are possible? And what can I do to maximize either or both? Let’s start with the basics.
How Do You Build Muscle?
Exercise, we often forget, is a form of stress after which your body needs time to recuperate. Pushups, pull-ups, squats, and the like cause microtrauma — tiny tears — in your muscles. In the hours and days that follow, your body repairs that damage, plus a little extra, so that you’re a tiny bit bigger and stronger the next time you work the same muscles.
This is known as adaptation: your body changes to meet the the demands of imposed stresses to better handle them the next time they’re encountered. Over time, you become measurably bigger and stronger, finally blossoming into a perfectly formed Greek god or goddess worthy of immortalization in marble.
Would that it were so easy.
What’s the Best Way to Build Muscle?
As simple as this two-step process may seem, there are millions ways to screw it up and only a few ways to get it right. Here are the principles science is pretty sure about.
1. Focus on multi-joint exercises
Perform compound movements like presses, rows, pull-ups, squats, lunges and deadlifts, with some additional isolation work — curls, triceps extensions, and lateral raises — to fully exhaust larger muscle groups and sufficiently stimulate smaller ones.
2. Lift heavy… and light
The kind of training that most people do in the gym (i.e., heavy lifting) targets your larger (faster, stronger, more powerful) type II muscle fibers. But studies show that your smaller type I “endurance” fibers also have growth potential (albeit not as much as your type II’s).
“So if you want to optimize overall muscle growth, you have to target your type I fibers as well,” says Trevor Thieme, CSCS, Openfit’s senior fitness and nutrition content manager. “And the way to do that is by including lighter weight, higher (12 to 20) rep sets in your training plan.”
In practice, that might mean going heavy on the bench press one day, and then banging out as many reps as you can in the push-up on another.
3. Stop a rep or two short of exhaustion
Lift to volitional (a.k.a. technical) failure, which is the point at which your form starts to break down. That’s opposed to absolute failure, which is when you absolutely can’t perform another rep.
4. Maximize total volume
Over a week of training, aim for 25 to 45 reps per muscle group, spread out over 5 to 10 sets.
5. Eat more
For optimal recovery — and to fuel your higher activity level — consume slightly more calories than your body needs for everyday functioning (i.e., everything besides working out), mostly from whole sources.
6. Increase protein intake
Strive to ingest 0.5 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day (possibly with the help of protein powder). The more active you are, the more protein you need for recovery and muscle growth. Fill the remainder of your calories with healthy fats (e.g., olive oil, avocado, nuts) and carbs, such as veggies, fruit, brown rice, and whole grain pasta.
7. Get rest
Take steps to minimize, or counterbalance, stress, and try to sleep no fewer than seven — ideally eight — hours per night.
It’s not rocket science, but the intricacies of building muscle mass fill avalanches of how-to books and yottabytes of online data. It’s a little like gardening: plants need water, soil, fertilizer, sun, and a heaping serving of time; muscles need exercise, fuel, rest, and (again) plenty of time. But how skillfully and consistently you mix and match these various components determines whether your plants — or your muscles — struggle or thrive.
So How Fast Can I Build Muscle?
Let’s assume you’re doing everything right: you’ve eaten wisely, worked out intensely on a well-designed program, slept, and recovered diligently. We’ll also assume that your muscle building genes (yes, that’s a thing!) are about average.
Assuming all that, says Tony Gentilcore, CSCS, owner of the Core Training Studio in Brookline, MA, “Untrained guys are likely to gain about one to two pounds of muscle mass a month.” After a year or two of training, he says, that rate slows by about half, and after four to five years, gets slower still, tapering off to a few pounds of muscle each year.
This diminishing-returns effect is nearly universal: “The body is an incredibly adaptable machine, but its transformation capacity isn’t unlimited,” says Thieme.
Disappointing? Consider: if he sticks to a smart muscle-building diet and exercise program, a soft-looking, 180-pound guy with average genetics can transform himself into an impressive-looking 215-pound athlete within the course of a single presidential term. That’s a remarkable change.
After that, improvements will come more slowly — a little more definition here, a little more muscle there.
Does that mean you should stop challenging yourself once you approach your genetic potential? “Not at all,” says Thieme. “Continuing to be physically active and challenging your strength, stamina, power, and endurance is hugely important at every stage of life for maintaining and improving health and wellbeing.”
So keep it up. And if you top out on muscle building, you can always change your focus to something else: endurance training, racing, yoga, team or other competitive sports. For many people, muscle building is the gateway to a lifetime of other enjoyable athletic pursuits.
“Building muscle isn’t the only worthwhile fitness goal out there,” says Thieme. “Never stop challenging yourself, and never stop improving.”