We often hear some bold claims about how much muscle people are able to build in a short period of time. Those who are new to weight training are often confused about what to expect in terms of building muscle. The amount of muscle someone can build is determined by many factors including weight, age, gender, and overall fitness goals. It is important for athletes and gym goers to understand that building muscle takes time and is a process that needs constant attention.
People often confuse weight gain with muscle gain. Weight gain can stem from many different causes, including water retention, increased glycogen, and inflammation. True muscle gain occurs after an increase in protein inside the muscle tissue.
Muscle is a tissue that has the ability to contract and exert force. Muscle mass is maintained by a balanced intake of protein from meals and regular exercise. Muscle loss is a result of prolonged fasting and disuse (1). Proper nutrient intake helps build muscle by increasing amino acid availability for muscle protein synthesis (2). Amino acids are also required to achieve a positive protein net balance and prevent breakdown (3).
Muscle protein synthesis is contingent on several factors that will give people different results. Here are five major issues associated with muscle building:
1. Training Experience
One universal truth of weight training is that progress comes more quickly when people first start exercising. The more experience a person has with gaining muscle, the harder it is for them to keep up that same accelerated muscle growth they noticed at the beginning.
2. Muscle (Re)Growth
After a long period of disuse, muscle can be regained with less difficulty than building muscle from scratch. Athletes with lots of experience working out have the ability to bounce back into peak shape because their bodies are used to a more rigorous workout routine and nutrition plan.
Few factors influence muscle gain more than genetics. Genetics can determine hormone levels, muscle length, bone structure, and the speed of muscle growth.
In terms of muscle growth, and probably everything else physiological, the younger a person is, the better results they can expect. As people get older, they face what is called “anabolic resistance” that causes them to slow down and see fewer results.
5. Training and Nutrition
Training and proper nutrition provide the best environment for muscle growth. People will build muscle at a much faster rate when their training programs and nutrition are in check. Regular quantities of quality protein, for example, particularly before and after training, could greatly influence muscle gains.
Still want a more concrete answer about how much muscle you can build? According to fitness expert Lyle McDonald, there is a limit on muscular potential, which he roughly outlines below with the relationship between years of activity and average muscle gain per year.
Year of Proper Training Potential Rate of Muscle Gain per Year
1 20-25 pounds (2 pounds per month)
2 10-12 pounds (1 pound per month)
3 5-6 pounds (0.5 pound per month)
4+ 2-3 pounds
- Rennie MJ, Wackerhage H, Spangenburg EE, Booth FW. Control of the size of the human muscle mass. Annu Rev Physiol 2004;66:799-828.
- RE MJ. Increase in anterior tibialis muscle protein synthesis in healthy man during mixed amino acid infusion: studies of incorporation of [1-13C] leucine. Clinical Science 1989;76:447-54.
- Rennie MJ. Control of muscle protein synthesis as a result of contractile activity and amino acid availability: implications for protein requirements. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism 2001;11:S170-S176.