One of the most common questions I hear is something along the lines of “How long until I start seeing results?”. What are the expectations for natural muscle gain?
The short and simple answer is: it depends… Of course, we can dive a bit deeper into it.
I’m sure that most people have heard exaggerations from other bodybuilders about how they gained 30 pounds of muscle in only three months. Lots of muscle magazines give beginners unrealistic expectations about muscle gain. They show professional bodybuilders claiming that the product they’re endorsing will make you as big as them. In reality, the only way you’ll look as big as this guy is by taking steroids.
Natural muscle gain can be predicted by six primary factors which include how long you’ve been training, your hormone levels, your genetics, previous muscle memory, nutrition, and sleep.
Testosterone is one of the key hormones in muscle development. Men generally have between 7 and 8 times the amount of testosterone that females have *. This causes males to typically have a greater rate of muscle gain and higher potential for total muscle mass. Within the sexes, individuals can have vastly different rates of muscle growth and genetic potentials (the maximum amount of muscle an individuals genetics will allow).
Those with an average genetic potential will usually have fairly steady growth over time with proper nutrition and training. About two thirds of people will fall into this “average” category of muscle growth, while the other third will fall either above or below it. This means that some people will grow slower and may not be able to put on as much total muscle mass as others with the same nutrition and training. On the flip side of the coin, some people can build muscle fast with very little effort.
An investigation done by the BBC showed that some people simply can’t become overweight, despite a sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits. The subjects spent a month overeating and exerting themselves as little as possible. Each subject gained weight, but one person’s metabolism actually increased in order to cope with the excess calories and about half of the weight he gained was muscle! It sounds ridiculous, but it is possible, albeit very rare.
It doesn’t work for everyone… Sometimes life just isn’t fair.
Amount of time training
Typically if you’ve been working out for years you won’t gain muscle as fast a beginner will. The longer you train, the closer you get to your genetic potential which results in natural growth slowing down and eventually stopping. You individual frame is genetically predetermined to hold a certain amount of muscle weight.
Your hormone levels can vary if your training regimen does not elicit a large enough testosterone response. This is usually caused by errors such as not lifting enough weight or an insufficient range of motion. The amount of testosterone you produce will also depend greatly on genetics and gender.
Previous Muscle Memory
The human body is an incredible machine. It will get rid of anything it doesn’t need in a small amount of time which includes muscle. If you don’t work out for a couple of months and happen to lose 6 pounds of muscle, then start training again it will come back in a shorter amount of time than it took when your first started. This theory has been controversial in the past, but we are now starting to discover why this phenomenon occurs.
This function most likely has a significant amount to do with myosin heavy chain (MHC) isoforms which are a type of contractile protein in muscle fiber. They determine whether muscle fibers function as fast or slow twitch. Certain MHCs are known to change in response to resistance training.
There are several types of MHC that we’re concerned with. Fibers that contain MHC IIX are an undetermined type of fiber until they’re used. Once in action they become MHC IIAs. Muscle fibers that contain MHC IIX proteins serve as a source for creating MHC IIA fibers, but can also generate more fibers containing MHC IIX which eases muscle redevelopment.
An HC Study
A study was conducted with adult sedentary men that analyzed distribution of MHC isoforms, fiber type composition, and fiber size of the vastus lateralis (section of the quadricep) before and after three months of training, and again after three months of detraining. After three months of training, their MHC IIX content went from 9% to 2% and a corresponding increase of MHC IIA content from 42% to 49%. After the 3 months of detraining the MHC IIX content reached 17% which is higher than both before and during training. Hypertrophy was observed after the three months after training and remained higher than baseline even after 3 months of detraining. **
This means that there are seemingly more fibers available for growth after detraining than before you originally started training. This could explain part of the phenomenon known as muscle memory.
Nutrition is one of the most important factors in bodybuilding that you can control. Macro nutrients (carbohydrates, fat and protein) are the primary nutrients your muscles need for growth. Individuals who are active will require the same nutrients, vitamins, and minerals as those that are sedentary, but in greater amounts.
Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for building muscle. When you eat foods like fruits, vegetables and grain it is broken down in the digestive tract and stored as glycogen in muscles. If carbohydrates aren’t present you will not be able to realize the maximum benefits of training. Failing to consume enough carbohydrates post workout can lead to muscle detraining or loss of muscle strength.
Muscle tissue is composed of proteins, and protein intake must be adequate for muscles to grow. It’s generally recommended that athletes and bodybuilders consume around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight daily. However I’ve seen recommendations of as much as 2 grams per pound for endurance athletes.
Protein is a must, because it’s one of the major building blocks for muscle gain. It is generally recommended that you consume easily digestible carbs and protein before or during a workout and after a workout as well. Read about our MusclePharm Combat 100% Whey Protein review.
Fats are just as important as proteins and carbohydrates because they are essential for normal bodily functions. Fat is used to lubricate joints, line the insides of cells, heal scarring inside the body, and regulate hormone levels. Keeping hormone levels stable is an especially important function when trying to put on muscle. Of course, having the rest of the body running optimally will ensure better response to muscle stimulation
This one is a given. It’s always important to stay hydrated. Drink water before, during, and after training. Dehydration can compromise muscle growth, strength, stamina, speed, and energy. Most of my cramps during activity can be avoided with proper hydration. The body in general will not function properly without adequate hydration, making it the most important part of nutrition.
Vitamins and Minerals
It is important to note that the food you eat while trying to gain muscle should be dense in nutrients. A variety of vitamins and nutrients essential to proper bodily functions can be found in fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, meats, dairy, eggs, and some grains. Foods eaten in their raw form produce complicated chemical reactions in the body that are extremely beneficial, more so than any stand alone vitamin or supplement in pill form.
Sleep is one of the easiest ways to ensure maximum muscle growth. During this time your body restores your organs, bones, tissues, replenishes your immune cells, and circulates human growth hormone. Always try to avoid alcohol and sleeping pills as these will disturb your sleep cycle. Proper sleeping conditions are also important and usually consist of a dark quiet place where you can rest comfortably.
Assuming your nutrition and training regimen are good, these numbers can give a rough estimate for adults who have stopped growing (growth spurts skew the data).
0-2 years of training: 1.5 lbs of muscle per month
2-4 years of training: 0.5 lbs of muscle per month
4+ years of training: 0.25 lbs of muscle per month
1-6 months of training: 0.75-1 lbs of muscle per month
6-12 months of training: 0.5 lbs of muscle per month
1-2 years of training: 0.3-0.4 lbs of muscle per month
4+ years of training: 0.1- 0.2 lbs of muscle per month