You’ve no doubt seen plenty of 30-day transformation stories. If you read enough of these, you may think going from lean to muscular is quick and easy. In real life, however, muscle growth is a much slower process.
So, how much muscle can you really expect to gain in a single month?
“I’ve seen anywhere from a pound of muscle per month on the low end, all the way up to two pounds per week. So it does vary,” says Joel Seedman, PhD, an exercise physiologist who’s been training people of various fitness levels for nearly 16 years.
Whether you fall on the high or low end of this muscle gain spectrum depends on a variety of factors. Unfortunately, many of these variables are largely outside your control, including gender, age, muscle fiber type and how long you’ve been training.
Men have higher levels of testosterone than women, which makes gaining muscle an easier and faster task for men. “When [women] grow muscle, we’re relying on insulin-like human growth factor to do most of the job, so we definitely don’t have the same muscle bulk because of that,” says Heather Milton, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and a board-certified clinical exercise physiologist at NYU Langone’s Sports Performance Center.
That said, testosterone levels vary within the sexes as well. Some women have higher levels of testosterone than other women and may gain muscle easier as a result. Similarly, some men may have lower levels of testosterone than other men, and their potential for gaining muscle will be more limited.
According to Seedman, the ideal age range for gaining muscle is 18–25 years old. After the age of 25, testosterone levels begin to drop off a bit — especially in men. This makes muscle gain slightly more difficult, though by no means impossible. “It’s not as easy to gain as much, which is not to say you’re not still getting plenty of muscle, but the rate at which you can gain it is usually highest in that 18–25-year range,” Seedman says.
Then, you experience a sharper drop in hormones around the age of 40. This is a time when muscle gain becomes an even greater challenge. As long as you keep up with your training and keep your nutrition locked in, you can still gain a decent amount of muscle after 40, Seedman says.
3. MUSCLE FIBER TYPE
Things get interesting when you start looking at the muscle fibers themselves.
You may have heard terms like “fast-twitch” and “slow-twitch” muscle fibers. Simply put, fast-twitch muscle fibers (also known as type II) are great for performing tasks that require great strength, speed and power (e.g., sprinting, jumping, Olympic lifts), while slow-twitch muscle fibers (also known as type I) are ideal for activities that take a lot of endurance (e.g., distance running). We all have a mix of different muscle fiber types, but some of us lean more heavily toward one or the other (Think: sprinters versus endurance runners).
What does this mean for gaining muscle? Well, fast-twitch fibers have greater potential for growth. If you have more fast-twitch muscle fibers, you may be able to build more muscle in general, as well as build muscle more quickly than those with more slow-twitch muscle fibers.
“If you have more type I muscle fibers, you are going to grow [muscle],” Milton says, “but the difference is in the quality of the size and shape.”
4. HOW LONG YOU’VE BEEN TRAINING
In general, newer exercisers will see muscle gain more quickly than seasoned exercisers, Milton says. When you begin exercising, it doesn’t take much for your body to adapt and for physical and performance-based changes to appear. But as you gain more experience, it takes more effort to see improvements.
One exception to this rule is a former athlete or advanced lifter who returns to training after a period of deconditioning. “When you gained muscle in the past and then you lose it, it’s easier to gain it back,” Seedman says.
The reason is you’ve already built neuromuscular connections — or pathways between your nervous system and the muscles themselves — that enable your body to recognize when it’s being asked to create muscle mass. “So, rather than working from the beginning and learning a pathway, your body already recognizes that so you can naturally progress more quickly,” Milton explains.
When it comes to muscle growth, there are a couple of variables you do have control over: your diet and training.
“If we’re talking about the number 1 thing that can really maximize muscle gain, it really is diet,” Seedman says. When it comes to muscle gain, few macronutrients are more important than protein.
Strength training breaks down your muscles, while recovery — aided by adequate protein intake — rebuilds your muscles and enables them to grow back bigger and stronger. Therefore, it’s key to fill your protein supplies regularly. Aim for 1.4–2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day, as recommended by the International Society of Sports Nutrition. To break that down into more exact numbers: A 150-pound person needs roughly 95–136 grams of protein per day.
It should go without saying: You can’t gain muscle without strength training regularly. Assuming you’ve already got this covered, there are ways to tweak your strength routine to encourage maximum growth.
For one thing, focus on compound movements. These are exercises that involve multiple joints and work several muscle groups at once. Prioritize movements like squats, deadlifts, shoulder and chest presses, pullups, pushups and rows. “Those are going to be your master builders,” Seedman says.
You may be tempted to skip compound exercises in favor of isolation moves like biceps curls and triceps extensions, but unless you’re a bodybuilder who’s prepping to compete, you’re better off sticking to bigger movements, Seedman says. After all, rows and pullups build your biceps, while chest presses and pushups build your triceps.
Optimize muscle growth with three strength-training sessions a week. “That’s going to give you ample recovery, and it’s also going to allow you to stimulate that protein synthesis process on a frequent basis, which is important for continued muscle growth,” Seedman says.