When most people get into lifting weights, they’re possessed by a single question:
“How fast can I gain muscle?”
And the answer is much harder to puzzle out than you’d think at first blush.
Some people urge caution and press you to “focus on the process” and “let the gains come.” Others (usually with something to sell) pass off wildly inaccurate estimates that puff up your expectations and set you up for disappointment later.
Who’s right? How long does it take to build muscle mass, according to science?
Keep reading to find out.
Table of Contents
If you’re doing everything right with your diet and training, you can expect to see a noticeable increase in the size of your muscles after about 1-to-2 months of weightlifting, and will start to see a wholesale change in your appearance after 6-to-12 months.
At this point you might be thinking (yelling?), “Two months?!? I/my friend looked way bigger after just a few weeks of pumping iron!”
And I don’t doubt it.
A study conducted by scientists at the University of Oklahoma found that just two workouts increased muscle size by a whopping 3.5%, and other studies have noted similar marked increases in muscle size after just a handful of workouts.
Most everyone has experienced the same thing when they start lifting weights—your muscles look and feel bigger in short order.
There’s a fly in the ointment, though:
Most of this increase in muscle size isn’t due to genuine muscle hypertrophy (growth), but to muscle damage and the subsequent inflammation and swelling. After your first few weightlifting workouts, your muscle fibers experience microscopic trauma (damage) that must be repaired, and part of that repair process involves edema (swelling), which makes your muscles puffy and plump.
While this feels good (who doesn’t like a good pump?), it fades after your first few weeks of weightlifting as your muscles become more resistant to damage.
Some people chalk up any increase in muscle size you experience during your first month or two of lifting weights to this swelling effect, but this is also an exaggeration. As shown in a recent study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, you begin gaining muscle more or less immediately after you start lifting weights. The inflammation and swelling from your workouts makes it look like you’ve gained more than you really have, but will have gained some.
In the final analysis, you can expect to gain a noticeable amount of (true) muscle mass after around 6-to-8 weeks of proper weightlifting.
To gain enough muscle to radically transform your physique, though, expect to lift weights consistently for at least 6-to-12 months. At this point, you’ll probably have gained at least 10-to-25-pounds of muscle, which will make a striking difference in your appearance.
And in case you’re curious, here’s a chart showing roughly how long it takes to build muscle over the long haul:
This chart was created by Alan Aragon, a published researcher and fitness consultant who’s been designing programs for improving body composition and athleticism for over 20 years.
Based on what he’s seen working with everyone from everyday gymgoers to Olympic athletes, most men can gain muscle at about these rates.
There are a few assumptions to keep in mind when interpreting these figures:
- You’re starting at around 10-to-15% body fat (as a man) or 20-to-25% body fat (as a woman). An obese person who’s 400 pounds isn’t going to be gaining 1.5% of their body weight in muscle each month.
- You’re training and eating properly to build muscle—not just “exercising” or “eating healthy.”
- You’re young to middle-aged. Once you pass the ~40-year mark, you can expect proportionally slower progress as the years tick by.
For example, a 150-pound guy who’s never touched a barbell before could expect to gain about 1.5% of his body weight per month in muscle, or about 2.25 pounds per month.
If he kept this up for about 12 months, he’d gain about 27 pounds of muscle. The math never quite works out this neatly, since muscle gain begins to ebb after around six months or so, but you get the idea.
Here’s another timetable that illustrates an expected rate of muscle gain over the course of your weightlifting journey:
This one comes from Lyle McDonald, a health and fitness researcher and writer, and his formula is based on his extensive reading of the research and one-on-one experience helping thousands of people build muscle and lose fat.
According to Lyle, guys can gain up to 40-to-50 pounds of muscle in their first 4-to-5 years of proper diet and training, and, unfortunately, that muscle gain is fairly negligible from there on out.
As I’ve mentioned before, 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.
Here’s how this might look in graph form:
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Everyone has a genetic ceiling for how much total muscle they can gain in their lifetimes (often referred to as their “genetic potential” for muscle gain). Some people have a higher ceiling than others, some people can reach their ceiling faster than others, but butts up against this inborn limit eventually.
There are no foolproof ways to know whether you have “good” or “bad” muscle-building genetics, though research suggests that people with thicker, denser bones tend to have a higher potential for muscle growth.
Protein provides your body with the “building blocks” it needs to build and repair muscle tissue.
There’s no two ways about it—if you aren’t eating enough protein each and every day, you won’t build muscle as quickly as you could.
Unless you’re brand new to weightlifting, you need to maintain a mild calorie surplus if you want to build muscle as quickly as possible.
The reason for this is a calorie surplus optimizes your body’s “muscle-building machinery,” greatly enhancing your ability to recover from and positively adapt to your training.
If you want to build muscle as efficiently as possible, you need to find a training program that enables you to . . .
- Do enough sets and reps each week to build muscle, but not so many that you can’t recover (and thus get bigger and stronger).
- Lift sufficiently heavy weights and take your sets close enough to failure that you maximize muscle growth.
These variables—also known as training volume and intensity—have a huge impact on how quickly you gain muscle.
Follow a program that includes insufficient (or excessive) amounts of either, and you won’t gain muscle as quickly as you otherwise might. Follow a program that strikes the right balance, and you’ll build muscle like clockwork.
Many people think that as long as they train hard and eat enough protein, they’ll build muscle toot sweet.
This is true to a point, but it misses another important piece of the puzzle: recovery.
There is no “one-size-fits-all” answer as to how much time it takes your muscles to recover after a hard workout, as the answer depends on many different factors such as age, training history, genetics, and your lifestyle, but you can optimize your ability to recover from workouts by . . .
- Sleeping 8-to-10 hours per night.
- Deloading every 8-to-10 weeks if you’re new to lifting, or every 4-to-6 weeks if you’re more advanced.
- Taking at least one day of complete rest from any form of strenuous exercise each week.
If you’re new to weightlifting you’ll rapidly gain size and strength because your body is hyperresponsive to the stimulus provided by resistance training.
As you become more advanced, however, you’ll gain muscle at a much slower rate, mostly due to something known as the repeated bout effect.
This simple principle states that the more you do a certain kind of exercise, the more your body becomes accustomed to it and the less adaptation is stimulated by it.
In other words, as you accumulate more training experience, you get less and less muscle and strength gain per unit of training effort. This is why your rate of muscle gain slows over time, as you learned a moment ago.
Women produce much less testosterone than men, and as testosterone is the primary hormonal driver of muscle growth, many people assume women can’t build nearly as much muscle as men.
This is both right and wrong.
The reason for this is that women start out with significantly less muscle than men do, but the muscle they do have grows equally fast in response to strength training.
For example, if a woman starts out with, say, 15 pounds of muscle and a man starts out with 30, and they both can gain about 1.5% of their body weight per month, this will only be about ¼ pound of muscle for the woman and about a half pound for the guy.
Research shows that if you want to build muscle as fast as you can, nothing beats compound weightlifting.
Exercises that involve just one joint and major muscle group at a time—also known as isolation exercises—can still have a place in your program, but if building muscle is your main goal, you should put most of your energy into compound exercises.
If you want to learn more about the difference between compound and isolation exercises, check out this article:
Progressive overload refers to systematically making your workouts more challenging over time, and it’s one of the best ways to maximize the muscle-building effects of weightlifting.
When you’re new to lifting weights, the simplest and most effective way to do this is to strive to add weight or reps to every exercise in every workout. If you bench pressed 135 for 5 reps last week, you try to bench press 145 for 5 reps this week. It’s that simple.
This forces your muscles to produce greater and greater levels of tension over time, which in turn helps you grow bigger and stronger.
If you want to learn more about the best ways to implement progressive overload, check out this article:
Studies show that if you want to maximize muscle hypertrophy, you want to do around 10-to-20 sets per muscle group per week.
What’s more, if you run into a muscle gain plateau, research shows that bumping up your training volume for that muscle group by about 20% is a good way to kickstart progress. For example, if you haven’t been able to gain much muscle or strength in your chest doing 10 sets per week, you’d add two more sets per week.
If you want to learn more about how many sets you should do to build muscle, check out this article:
In order to maximize muscle hypertrophy, you need to maintain a mild calorie surplus.
That is, you need to eat about 110% of your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) every day to gain muscle as quickly as possible.
If you want to know more about how many calories you need to eat to support your hypertrophy training, check out this article:
In addition to eating the right number of calories, it’s also important that you eat enough protein and carbs to boost hypertrophy and fuel your workouts.
Protein: Eat 0.8-to-1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. This is enough to maximize muscle growth—eating more than this won’t help you bulk up faster. This usually works out to around 20-to-40% of calories for most people.
Carbs: Eat at least 2-to-3 grams of carbs per pound of body weight per day. The reason you want to follow a high-carb diet while lean bulking is that this keeps your glycogen levels topped off, which improves your performance in the gym and positively impacts genes related to muscle growth. This usually works out to around 40-to-60% of calories for most people.
Generally, the best way to set up a muscle-building diet is to eat about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day, set your fat intake at about 20% of calories, and fill in the rest with carbs.
If you want to learn more about how to set up your macros to build muscle fast, check out this article:
If you want to get the most out of your hypertrophy workout plan, you need to get enough sleep.
Most people need between 7 and 8 hours of sleep every night, but if you want to maximize hypertrophy, you’ll probably do better if you aim for between 8 and 9 hours per night. At the very least, you should try to get enough sleep that you can wake up without an alarm.
If you want to learn more about how sleep affects muscle gain, check out this article:
- Choose cycling and other low-impact cardio instead of running.
- Keep most of your cardio workouts fairly short.
- Do most of your cardio workouts on separate days from your lower-body strength training workouts.
Stick to these principles and you’ll have no issue with your cardio sessions interfering with muscle gain. In fact, they’ll likely enhance it.
If you want to know more about how to combine strength training with cardio, check out this article:
I saved this for last because it’s the least important.
Unfortunately, no amount of pills and powders are going to do much to help you build muscle.
But here’s the good news:
If you know how to eat and train to build muscle—following the steps we just covered—certain supplements can slightly speed up the muscle-building process.
Here are the best supplements for building muscle:
- 0.8-to-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. This provides your body with the “building blocks” it needs to build and repair muscle tissue and help you recover from your workouts. If you want a clean, convenient, and delicious source of protein, try Whey+ or Casein+.
- 3-to-5 grams of creatine per day. This will boost muscle and strength gain, improve anaerobic endurance, and reduce muscle damage and soreness from your compound leg workouts. If you want a 100% natural source of creatine that also includes two other ingredients that will help boost muscle growth and improve recovery, try Recharge.
- One serving of Pulse per day. Pulse is a 100% natural pre-workout drink that enhances energy, mood, and focus; increases strength and endurance; and reduces fatigue. You can also get Pulse with caffeine or without.
If you consistently follow the advice in this article on diet, training, and recovery, you can expect to build noticeable muscle after around 1-to-2 months.
That said, most people won’t be elated about their progress until they’ve been doing everything right for 6-to-12 months, and it normally takes several years of proper training before you build a physique you’re truly proud of.
If you want to learn more about the best workouts you can do to build muscle quickly, check out this article:
Strictly speaking, you can’t tone your muscles.
That is, you can’t “lengthen” and “tighten” them, or fundamentally change how they’re shaped.
When people say they want to tone their muscles, what they really mean is they want to build some muscle, then get lean enough to make their muscles appear more defined.
Since everyone has a different starting point, it’s difficult to say how long it will take for you to get your body fat percentage into a range that makes your muscles appear “toned.”
That said, for most people at a fairly typical body fat percentage (maybe 20-to-30 pounds overweight), the best solution is to first spend a few months cutting to get lean, and then spend a few months bulking to build muscle.
Check out this article to learn whether you should cut or bulk:
By and large, women should train about the same way as men if they want to build muscle as quickly as possible. Although men and women often prefer to focus on different muscle groups (chest and arms for guys and legs and glutes for women), the fundamental processes at play are the same.
Thus, you should follow the advice in this article, and also ensure that you don’t fall prey to the many myths and mistakes that hold women back from making the gains they should, which you can learn about in this article:
The technical term for simultaneously building muscle and losing fat is body recomposition, and for most people it’s only possible during their first year or so of training.
This is because your body is hyperresponsive to the new stimulus provided by weightlifting and can build muscle even when you’re not in a calorie surplus.
The “recomping” process begins almost as soon as you start working out, and assuming you follow the advice in this article, will likely continue for at least the first 6-to-12 months of training.
Beyond your first year of lifting, however, “recomping” becomes far more difficult, and is only possible in certain circumstances (such as returning to training after an injury).
If you want to learn more about whether recomping is possible for you and, if so, how to pull it off, check out this article:
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