In an era where every supplement company under the sun is selling you on the ability of their pills and powders to provide you with rapid results, I wouldn’t blame you if you’d cultivated the belief that an average protein supplement would enable you to grow muscle with such unbridled acceleration that you might begin the week as Conan O’Brien and end it as Dwayne Johnson.
At the same time, I will always remember the week following the 2012 Arnold Amateur Classic when I asked bodybuilding pro Josh Bowmar if he was going to be gracing the stage at professional bodybuilding competitions in the near future considering that he’d just won such a high-profile amateur physique competition. “No way,” he laughed. “I would need to work out for years before I could gain enough muscle to stand a chance in a pro contest.”
So who’s right — the marketing gurus or the bodybuilder? And exactly how hard is it to put on 10 pounds of lean muscle anyway?
That’s an excellent question. What’s the answer?
Steroids and human growth hormone aside, let’s assume that you’ve never lifted weights before in your life, and you’re an absolute novice to strength training and intentional dieting. If this is the case, the sky’s the limit. If you adapt your diet to accommodate a healthy bulking strategy, and you rapidly learn how to optimize your outings in the weight room, you can experience the sorts of muscular gains that will make lifelong lifters shed tears of fond remembrance, because they’re painfully aware that they’ll never experience those life-shaping moments again.
There’s nothing quite like the excitement of waking up in the morning and reassessing your rapidly improving physique. Every post-shower evaluation in front of the bathroom mirror is like its own ego-driven take on Christmas morning, where a new package is unwrapped daily, and you carry the gift with you everywhere you set foot.
Taking a look at a study conducted to explore just how speedily strength and muscle could be gained through resistance training, we discover that people on the high end of the training-frequency distribution were able to gain true muscle mass at an average rate of just over one pound per month. On its surface, this would suggest that an average person could gain one pound of lean muscle every month, or 12 pounds of lean muscle per year.
See?! It is possible to gain incredible amounts of muscle quickly!
You need to slow it all the way down before you start saying things like that within shouting distance of the diligent lifters who’ve been grinding away in the weight room five days per week for years just to sustain the hard-won muscle mass they’ve already claimed.
Case in point: A second study divided test participants into two categories of top 15 percent responders: high-responders and low-responders. While the high-responders were able to gain nearly 10 pounds of muscle in three months, the average muscle gains of the low-responders were closer to two pounds in three months, demonstrating just how wide the muscle accumulation gap is between groups.
Interesting! So am I a high-responder or a low-responder?
The surest way to discover which group you fall into is to optimize both your nutrition plan and your exercise routine, and then to see what comes out in the wash. But the reality is, you’re likely to migrate very rapidly from the high-responder to the low-responder category as time progresses and the rate at which you gain muscle decreases. In other words, you will belong to both groups as your training follows a path of natural progression.
This makes logical sense, of course; there’s a reason why most chiseled, theoretically drug-free weight trainees tend to max out somewhere between 210 pounds and 250 pounds no matter how much they train over several years, or even several decades. The rate of muscle accumulation tapers off dramatically — i.e., they don’t keep amassing muscular weight until they resemble the Hulk.
If you’ve never exercised before and you’re on the skinny side, you can realistically gain 10 pounds of muscle in only a few months, provided that you know what you’re doing in both the weight room and the kitchen. However, your mass-production party will eventually draw to a noticeable close; by your fourth year of regular weight training, you’d be lucky to pack on two pounds of additional lean muscle, and by year five, you may need to shift your mindset to one of pure maintenance.
Ideally, when it’s all over with, you’ll have maximized your genetic potential in a way that will leave you satisfied, and will leave you returning to the gym daily to maintain your muscle despite clear and obvious visual improvements now being relegated to the past.
One more thing: Even though 12 pounds in one year would be at least a 5 percent increase in overall body mass for most men — a significant and noticeable size increase — for some people, the idea of partaking in five training sessions per week, or 260 training sessions per year, only to gain 0.04 pounds per session, isn’t worth the effort. Honestly, it’s hard to argue with such logic. That’s why I’d strongly advise you to think of the weight room as a place to challenge yourself, listen to music and blow off some steam. If you’re lifting weights solely to gain muscle, the juice will never be worth the squeeze, and the strength will never be worth the sweat — no matter how quickly that strength appears.