There are two theories about how long you can keep building muscle.
The first theory states that you can keep building muscle basically forever.
Although progress will be fastest during the first six-to-twelve months or so after you start lifting weights (your “newbie gains” phase), if you eat and train properly, you can keep “sculpting your statue” until old age and injuries make heavy weightlifting impossible.
In other words, although your rate of muscle and strength gain may be slow, you’ll keep getting bigger and stronger for years or even decades if you keep at it.
The second theory states that there’s a hard ceiling as to how much muscle you can gain and that no amount of training, eating, or supplementing will raise that ceiling.
If you’re eating and training properly, you’ll gain almost all of the muscle available to you within a few years after you start lifting weights. After you hit this ceiling, you stop gaining muscle, and the best you can hope for is to hold on to what you’ve got.
Is there a hard genetic ceiling for muscle gain that you’ll butt up against?
Or, is building muscle more like mastering your golf swing—a quality you can keep burnishing for years on end, albeit with diminishing returns?
Here’s what most everyone agrees about muscle gain:
Most men who are eating and training properly can gain about 20-to-25 pounds of muscle in the six-to-twelve months after they start lifting weights (their newbie gains phase), and women can gain about half this amount.
After this point, progress slows down considerably, but you can keep gaining muscle at a decent clip. A good rule of thumb is that you can probably gain about half the amount of muscle you gained during your first year of weightlifting in your second year, and half that again in your third year.
For example, if you gain 20 pounds of muscle in your first year of weightlifting, you can probably gain another 10 pounds in your second year, and another 5 pounds in your third year (for a total of 35 pounds).
Opinions diverge on what happens after this point, though.
Some people claim that after your first three-to-five years of weightlifting, you’re done gaining muscle. Don’t expect to see any noticeable changes in the mirror or on the scale and, since muscle gain is the primary driver of strength gains, don’t expect to see your lifts go up, either.
Others claim that once you reach this point, you can keep gaining muscle and strength slowly but indefinitely. If you have the patience, know-how, and #dedication, your gains will compound over time and add up to significant increases in size and strength.
According to these types, although you might only be able to gain one-to-two pounds of muscle per year, after 10 years, you’ll have gained another 10-to-20 pounds of muscle!
These people are mostly wrong, but there may be a tiny kernel of truth in their thinking.
They’re mostly wrong because after your first four-to-five years of proper eating and training, you’ll have achieved almost all of your natural genetic potential for muscle gain.
As Dr. Eric Helms, a researcher, natural bodybuilding coach, and member of Legion’s Scientific Advisory Board, puts it, “. . . one thing is universally true—nobody can get bigger and stronger forever and everyone has a genetic limit. In general, the closer we are to our limit; the slower
progress will be and the more intention will need to go into training in order to make further progress.”
In other words, your rate of muscle gain doesn’t just slow down and then remain constant (gaining, say, one pound of muscle every year to infinity). Instead, you gain smaller and smaller amounts of muscle each subsequent year as you creep toward your genetic limit for muscle gain.
Now, there’s some debate among scientists as to whether this is a literal or practical limit.
That is, does muscle gain ever completely stop, or does it become so slow that it’s impossible to measure, see, or be practically relevant?
Some canny fitness experts, such as Menno Henselmans and Dr. Brad Schoenfeld, have rightly pointed out that there is no scientific evidence for a true genetic limit for natural muscle gain. In other words, we can’t say for certain that there is a “natty max” or what it might be.
Instead, this idea comes from the general observation that all (truly) natural bodybuilders and athletes eventually reach a point at which progress becomes so slow it might as well be nonexistent. For example, many veteran powerlifters can keep adding a few pounds to their one-rep maxes until their late thirties or forties, which is an indication they’re gaining some (very small) amount of muscle.
Your absolute potential for muscle gain may be what’s referred to as an asymptote—a point that you’re continually moving toward but never quite reach. Here’s what this might look like in graph form:
So, circling back to the original question, how long can you keep building muscle?
You can build muscle fairly quickly during your first two-to-three years of weightlifting, and you’ll probably keep gaining a noticeable amount of muscle over the next year or two. After your first four-to-five years of lifting weights, though, your rate of muscle gain will become vanishingly small.
That said, knowing that muscle gain is still possible at this point can be encouraging.
For my part, although I inherently enjoy lifting weights and the health benefits that follow, it’s also nice to know that I might be able to get a little bit bigger and stronger, even if the improvements are practically irrelevant and visually elusive.
Let’s say for a moment that muscle gain never really stops—that it continues at a snail’s pace indefinitely. Why don’t natural bodybuilders look bigger and stronger at age 60 than they do at age 30?
The two most likely explanations are age and injuries.
Although you can slow down the negative effects of aging by staying active, eating healthily, and getting enough sleep, you can’t stop them entirely. As you get older, your testosterone levels, energy, and ability to train hard and recover quickly will wane.
And as this occurs, it will become increasingly difficult to train hard enough to stimulate muscle growth.
Perhaps the single best way to scotch your ability to gain muscle and strength is to injure yourself badly enough that you can’t follow a proper strength training program. If your knees cry uncle while squatting, if your shoulders quail while bench pressing, and your low-back buckles when deadlifting, you’re going to have a tough time gaining or even maintaining muscle mass.
In other words, the reason we can’t keep gaining muscle forever is probably because we eventually tap out our ability to complete the kind of workouts that are necessary to do so.
Additional evidence for this idea comes from the fact that most powerlifters and bodybuilders reach their prime in their early to late thirties, after which the best they can do is try to maintain their strength and muscle. They may not have actually reached their genetic limit, but their bodies can’t handle the training that would be necessary to get them any closer.
There are cases where people who’ve been weightlifting for five, ten, or more years manage to suddenly gain a large amount of muscle mass.
When this happens, there are two possible explanations:
First, they spent much of their earlier years training and eating improperly. Not training hard enough, not doing enough sets, not doing the right exercises, not eating enough calories or protein, not sleeping enough, and so forth. When they correct these mistakes, they have the potential to make newbie-ish gains despite having been training for years.
Also remember that most people—even the most knowledgeable and committed natural bodybuilders—aren’t doing everything “right” 24/7, 365 days per year. Instead, their diet and training plans get interrupted by holidays, trips, illnesses, injuries, personal and professional vagaries, waning motivation, and so forth. Thus, many people can continue gaining muscle and strength for a decade or more but at a slower rate than they might achieve under perfect conditions.
I’m a prime example of this.
I started lifting weights when I was about sixteen, but I gained very little muscle or strength my first few years as I was putting most of my energy into competing in triathlons (which also meant I was intentionally staying pretty skinny). I didn’t really experience “newbie gains” until my ~4th year of lifting weights, when I dialed back my endurance training, ate more, and followed a proper strength training plan.
The second explanation for people who suddenly gain a large amount of muscle after years of training is *drumroll* . . . they got on drugs.
This may sound harsh, but it’s true according to the scientific literature.
No matter what anyone says, you can’t keep gaining a meaningful amount of muscle and strength indefinitely without taking steroids.
Remember this when people say their physique took “ten years of #dedication to build.” More like four-to-five years of proper dieting and training, followed by another half-decade of steroid use.
Although you may technically be able to keep gaining muscle and strength until your mid-to-late thirties, practically, you’ll have stopped gaining a noticeable amount of muscle and strength long before this point if you’re eating and training properly.
So, wipe the stardust out of your eyes and accept that you can’t keep getting bigger and stronger forever, but don’t adopt the defeatist attitude that your workouts are “pointless” because you can’t add another inch to your biceps.
For one thing, maintaining a great body is still a worthwhile project that takes consistent effort. Second, remember that progress is progress, and you may be able to wring a few more PRs out of your body before you’re done.