There are a lot of stories, especially on social media, that an actor landed a role or an influencer went on this muscle-building plan and gained 20 pounds of muscle in 6 months or even 30 pounds in a year.
This is physically impossible... at least naturally.
They may have gained that weight, but only a percentage of that weight was muscle. Like many things in marketing, there are a lot of smoke and mirrors and sometimes photoshop is involved when making these extravagant claims.
The process to build muscle is pretty simple, but even in its simplicity, there's only so much that can happen within a certain time period. The human body can only gain about one to two pounds of muscle each month. What's even more surprising and frustrating with this statistic is that only newbies (those new to lifting weights) seem to realize the high end of this muscle development. Even under "optimal conditions", individuals who have been lifting weights for years often find one to two pounds of actual muscle gain per month is about all they can get.
Even under "optimal conditions", individuals who have been lifting weights for years often find one to two pounds of actual muscle gain per month is about all they can get.
"Optimal conditions" mean that you are:
Eating the right amount and kind of food
Training appropriately for muscle growth
Our goal today is to let you know how you can achieve optimal muscle growth month after month.
As we've talked about before, unless you're new to lifting, getting one pound of muscle per month is pretty good and getting near two pounds is awesome progress. This may not seem like a lot but it adds up really quickly.
The Diet You Should Follow to Build Muscle
All that is needed to build muscle is for the muscle to undergo stress and then repair itself using available energy. It doesn't matter if you're dieting and eating under your maintenance calories or eating over your maintenance calories, you can build muscle. However, the body rarely sends extra calories to the muscles for growth when in a calorie deficit.
So often, when we see these astronomical muscle growth claims, it's done through a process called “bulking”. Or when a person eats more calories than their maintenance levels which causes them to gain weight. Due to the high intensity of their lifting sessions and general intent behind the bulk, they incorrectly assume they are gaining a ton of muscle. They aren't incorrect, but they aren’t ONLY gaining muscle. The majority of their weight gain is fat and water. When on a bulking diet, people choose either a clean or dirty bulk and both have their positives and negatives. Regardless of the type of bulk you do, going too high with calories WILL lead to fat gain and a higher body fat percentage which doesn’t have to happen when gaining muscle.
A pound of muscle or a pound of fat both require 3500 calories. If we can only gain two pounds of muscle a month, then theoretically we would only need 7000 additional calories each month to achieve our goal. Unfortunately, any overage in our caloric amount won’t result in 100% of those calories going into our muscles so a little fat gain is likely inevitable in any type of bulk.
However, the amount of fat gain is up to YOU.
In an ideal world, you would get down to your ideal body fat percentage. You would stay there for a period of time to really understand your ideal maintenance caloric range. Then increase your daily calorie totals by 200-300 calories to achieve the desired bulk. This will be the upper limit of your caloric surplus and we would flex in between your maintenance and bulk amounts to provide your muscles with the required caloric amounts while remaining in a healthy body fat percentage range. If you’ve ever tracked your food, you know how easy it is to increase your calories by 200-300 so this small amount won’t leave you feeling stuffed after each day.
The only other requirement a person would need to make with their diet is to make sure they are at least eating one gram of protein per pound of body weight. Usually, it’s helpful if the added calories are carbohydrates instead of fats. As long as fats are at least 20% of your total caloric intake, we can leverage carbs or protein for the additional calories. The last requirement for general health would be just ensure you're getting in at least 25-30g of fiber to make sure all this extra food is processed accordingly.
How to Train To Add Muscle
Many people think a person needs to live in the gym to truly make the gains they desire. Interestingly enough, a person could put on a great deal of muscle with one-hour lifting sessions 2-3 days a week. Again, it depends on the type of workouts and your training age (how many years you’ve been training).
A person new to lifting will have little problem growing muscle since most of the movements will be new to them. With each workout, they are giving their body a new stimulus and making the tiny tears which result in muscle growth. The more advanced lifters will need to create this same stimulus but it will require a very different plan.
For the new person, I’d recommend two to three days of full-body strength workouts, and three to four sets of big compound movements like the squat, deadlift, push, and pull movements. The full body style will limit fatigue in any particular muscle and result in growth without too much muscle soreness or DOMS (this isn’t a good thing). As the weeks and months progress, continue to become more and more comfortable with the movements and this will hopefully give you the ability to progressively overload the muscle which is the ultimate requirement for muscle growth.
For the advanced lifter, it’s a little more complicated. It’s more complicated because advanced lifters generally fall into two camps. On one side, you have the veteran lifter who knows the movements but hasn’t really pushed him or herself in years. On the other side, you have the person who goes all out every single day (I’m looking at you CrossFitters). They both actually suffer from the same condition, a lack of true intensity. Hypertrophy or muscle size can occur in rep ranges of 5-30, but require an intensity level that's pretty difficult. Due to the available energy in the body, the level of intensity can only be reached in the first 10-15 sets of any workout. So the individuals who chalk up 20-30 sets or hours of exercise often fail to see results because they're beating up their bodies for no reason.
An optimal workout plan for the advanced lifter is to focus on the body part they want to see grow. Find a compound and isolation movement for that body part. Program 10-12 hard sets across the week, hitting that muscle at least twice in the same week. So you could do two days of focused work, 5-6 sets, or 2-3 sets 4-5 days a week. Over time, they will progressively add reps and/or weight.
This may be the most simple workout plan you've ever heard of, but it works 100% of the time.
Why Rest and Recovery is Important
The yin to the training yang is rest and recovery. Muscles are torn apart when we exercise, the growth happens when we're sleeping and recovering. If you're not giving the muscle time to recover, you'll never see the growth you want. This is the other reason the avid gym goer who's there whenever the gym is open never seems that big.
There's no time to recover. Not only that, but our central nervous system also needs time to recover. Have you ever been at the bottom of a squat with an extremely heavy load? Or tried pulling your heaviest weight off the floor with a deadlift? Your eyeballs seem like they want to pop out because your whole body is pushing itself to the limit. That kind of session requires your stress levels to rest. This is another reason why I like either full-body or upper-lower workout sessions. Full-body sessions are rarely enough volume to elicit too much muscle soreness but just enough to elicit growth and then upper-lower sessions give one part of the body a full day's rest.
Does cardio kill my muscle gains?
Cardio definitely can slow down how quickly you experience muscle growth due to the high caloric expenditure often associated with cardio movements. Muscles need energy which comes from calories and if those calories are getting burned up doing cardio then you won't see the muscle growth you want. You can overcome this by increasing your calorie surplus even more, but a better solution would be to change how you do cardio. Most zone 2 style cardio utilizes fat oxidation for energy which will allow for the muscle development to pull from the glycogen stores. You can also separate your strength and cardio sessions. Do one in the morning, eat and replenish and then do the other workout later in the day. This way each workout will be fueled appropriately.
In short, yes, you can build muscle fast. We just need to recalibrate what "fast" is. One pound a month is really good progress and this can be achieved with only a 200-300 calorie surplus. With that low of a calorie surplus, there's little to no excuse to incorporate heavily processed foods just to hit your "bulk" goals. You can have abs throughout your muscle-gaining process, you just have to keep an eye on your calorie intake and make sure you're always pushing the intensity in your short focused workouts.