How Much Muscle Can You Actually Gain?

Learn how strategic weight gain and mini cuts can put you on the path to pack on muscle and dramatically transform your body to achieve your most muscular physique.

We live in a world of extremes with a mentality of all or nothing. This mindset spills over into areas of life where you wouldn’t think such emotion would cloud people’s judgment. An example is the diet industry. You have diehard fans for all sorts of different diets, each thinking theirs is superior. A less obvious example of how the extreme mindset plays out is how people approach their rate of gain when trying to build muscle. You have the “lean gains” group at one end of the spectrum and the YOLO bulkers at the other.

Those in the lean gains camp are desperate to keep hold of their precious six-packs. They think they can get massive without adding any body fat if they just go slow and are meticulous enough with their calories, macros, and nutrient timing.

On the other hand, the traditional bulking mindset means you follow a “see-food” diet. You chase scale weight, convince yourself those 20lbs you gained in a month are all muscle, and then find yourself sobbing into your mass gainer shake when you see your reflection and realize you’ve been kidding yourself the whole time.

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The lean gains guys mock the bulkers and say they lack discipline and just want an excuse to eat junk. Meanwhile, the bulkers laugh at the lean gains folks for still looking the same as they did last year (and the year before).

As you can probably tell from my introduction, I’m not in favor of either approach. Instead, I think there is a middle ground that gives you the best of both - a sweet-spot for muscle gain. In this article, I’ll explain exactly how fast you should gain weight when trying to build muscle to get the best of both worlds.

Learning from Extreme Ectomorphs

As a naturally skinny guy, I always struggled to pack on size. I am the typical hardgainer or ectomorph you’ve probably read about. In addressing this issue, I have tried most strategies to gain muscle. This includes painstakingly trying to pursue lean gains and at other times taking the full-blown bulking approach. In fact, I actually look back on my early bulking attempts as fat-bulks and now call them “fulks”.

Given that most of my clients are also naturally skinny guys desperate to gain size, I have lots of experience at seeing what works and what doesn’t. I’ve also had a chance to see the psychology of both camps play out. You might think that skinny guys would all chase the fulking process in their quest to bulk up as quickly as possible. This is true some of the time, but on many occasions, the skinny guy’s identity is actually closely tied to their abs. The fear of them losing their abs or even getting a little soft prevents them from ever eating enough to grow.

Spoiler alert: If you never gain any weight on the scales then, you have not built any noticeable muscle mass!

So, step 1 is to accept the fact that to build a lot of muscle mass your scale weight has to increase. Once the reality for the need to gain weight is acknowledged, the next step is to decide how quickly to gain.

At the opposite end of the skinny-guy spectrum are those who want instant gratification. They want to be big, and they want it yesterday. They expect to get jacked overnight. Their desperation for rapid results means that they aggressively force their body weight up. This usually ends up with a skinny guy very quickly becoming a skinny-fat guy. As I mentioned earlier, I made this mistake myself when I first tried to bulk up. Fueled by the frustration of this failure, I began searching for a better way. What I discovered was that there was an ideal rate of gain that maximized muscle mass while minimizing fat gain.

Salmon filets and broccoli on left. Protein powder on the right.

Calories Are King

At this point, we have established that gaining weight is a must for muscle building. To gain weight you need a calorie surplus. A calorie surplus is when you consume a positive energy intake and your weight increases. As a recent research paper on muscle gain stated, “Strength training and positive energy intake are the most important factors related to lean body mass (LBM) gain.”

While a surplus is essential to making gains, you can have too much of a good thing. Years of coaching have provided me tons of practical examples of this. The research also illustrates this. One overfeeding study found that in young, lean men, 4.5 pounds of fat was gained for every 2 pounds of muscle gained. Many of the training programs in these studies are pretty pathetic, so, optimizing your training program could certainly improve the ratio of muscle to fat. Sadly, a great program won’t undo all the fat gain of a dirty bulk approach. The old saying of “you can’t out-train a bad diet” holds true. The truth is that even with high-quality training the ratio of muscle to fat you gain is heavily dictated by the magnitude of your calorie surplus.

This fact was perfectly illustrated by a 2013 study, which found individuals eating a large calorie surplus gained five times more fat than those that ate a more moderate surplus. Sadly, the group that ate more did not gain significantly more muscle. It seems that beyond a certain threshold of calories almost all weight gain is fat.

Related: BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) Daily Calorie Calculator

Reverse Engineer Your Rate of Gain

To accurately identify rates of gain that will maximize muscle mass while minimising fat gain, it is logical to consider how much you can realistically gain over the course of your entire lifting career. This allows you to reverse engineer yearly, monthly, and weekly rates of gain so that you can track progress and make dietary adjustments as needed.

In my experience, it is possible for a natural trainee to gain 40-50 pounds of muscle across their entire training career. For shorter guys, the lower end of this range is probably more realistic, and for extremely tall guys the upper end, or even slightly above, is a good target.

Woman powerlifter in black tank and shorts performing sumo deadlifts.

Progress Is Never in a Straight Line

Reaching the ceiling of your muscular genetic potential is going to take time. Sadly, it is going to take more time than you want. I’d say an absolute minimum of five years of consistent and optimal training is going to happen before you even get close. For most, it will take longer than that. Generally, the best part of a decade is needed to build a truly impressive physique that is close to the limits of your potential. While this might be a bitter pill to swallow, I have some more bad news for you. Regardless of how long it takes to reach your dream physique, your progress will not be linear.

Progress early on in your career can come very quickly. This is why any veteran lifter will go a bit misty-eyed and talk fondly about their newbie gains. That magical time when they felt like they grew from session to session and strength gains seemed to flow easily. The newbie gains phenomenon explains why your first few months of training should yield a disproportionate amount of your muscle gains. I have often seen guys gain 20 pounds in their first year of training. Some have even gained 25!

At this stage, it can be quite tempting to believe you can keep this rate of gain up. Sadly, this is not how it works. The repeated bout effect kicks in. The repeated bout effect is basically a sports science term for the law of diminishing returns.

The body is an incredible adaptive mechanism. Every time it is exposed to a stimulus, it adapts and subsequent exposures to the stimulus become less and less significant. Your weight training is no different. Each time you repeat a training session, the body is better equipped to deal with it. In the first few months, when training in the gym is completely new, the body makes substantial adaptations (e.g. muscle growth is quick). Gradually, the response to training will become blunted. In time, gains are much slower and harder to come by. This is even highlighted by the American College of Sports Medicine who states that “Athletes with a long history of heavy strength training may have less capacity for increasing lean body mass and strength.”

Long story short, your rate of gain will diminish each year. Building your first 5 pounds of muscle is a breeze. Building the final 5 pounds of your genetic potential, however, will feel like an uphill battle. You’ll need to persevere and grind for what seems like an eternity to gain those last few excruciatingly difficult pounds. With that little harsh dose of reality out of the way, let’s laser in on exactly how quickly you can expect to gain weight eat each phase of your training career.

Multiple experts have provided different estimations and equations to predict rates of muscle gain. While the exact methodology behind each is slightly different, the results they predict are all relatively similar. Furthermore, they accurately reflect what I have seen from working with hundreds of clients. So, here are what I believe to be realistic rates of gain for the average lifter:

  • Beginner (up to two years of good training): 1-1.5% of body weight per month
  • Intermediate (between 2 and 4 years of consistent proper training): 0.5-1% of body weight per month
  • Advanced (5+ years of proper training): 0.25-0.5% of body weight per month

Muscular man in black shirt and shorts holding green water bottle.

Putting Theory to Practice

I prefer working on weekly targets with clients. This helps them to keep focused on the goal. Additionally, muscle gain is an example of incremental marginal gains. You cannot under eat for 3 weeks then stuff your face for a week to hit the monthly weight gain target and expect good results. There is only so much muscle building you can do in any single day. Muscle gain is a case of relentlessly stacking one muscle-building day on top of another, one meal at a time. Consistency is key.

A 2019 review of the scientific literature also suggested a weekly weight gain target for natural bodybuilders. Their recommendations were 0.25-0.5% per week for beginners and a slightly slower approach for advanced bodybuilders. As such, I recommend the following weekly rate of gain:

  • Beginner (up to two years of good training): 0.25-0.5% per week
  • Intermediate (between 2 and 4 years of consistent proper training): 0.25% of body weight per week
  • Advanced (5+ years of proper training): 0.2% of body weight per month

For the observant amongst you, you’ll notice that the upper end of these targets equates to a slightly faster monthly gain than in the monthly rates of gain listed above. The reason for this is three-fold.

Firstly, the Garthe study used elite athletes and found that those gaining 0.2 % of body weight per week gained a very good ratio of muscle to fat. If highly trained elite athletes, who are close to their genetic potential can build muscle mass without much fat gain using a 0.2% weekly weight gain then, the average gym-goer should be able to do the same with 0.2-0.25%. Even the most advanced recreational lifter should get excellent results on this rate.

The second reason is practicality. Gaining any slower than this presents a real logistical issue. For example, according to the monthly rates suggested earlier, a 165lb intermediate should be aiming for 0.5-1% of muscle gain per month. 0.028-0.055lbs per day! Your scales might not be accurate enough to detect this difference. So, day to day you won’t know if optimal progress is being made. On a daily basis, that isn’t that big of a deal and can be solved pretty easily. The solution to this is fairly simple – weigh-in multiple times a week and track the weekly rolling average.

Sadly, relying on your weekly average scale weight can be problematic when you’re very advanced. The lower end of the target range is so small that an inaccurate scale, weighing in at a different time, or the macro and salt composition of your previous meal could throw things off enough to give false positives and wouldn’t show up on most digital scales as they only report to one decimal place. You might not be getting the full picture if you only rely on the slower rates suggested.

This leads me to the third reason for more assertive rates of gain than the theoretical models promoted by other experts. The risk of going very slowly is that you end up falling into the “gaintaining” trap. You train with the required intensity and volume to create the potential for muscle gain, but you don’t eat enough to realize this potential. Instead, all you do is accumulate the fatigue from hard training, but end up looking exactly the same. As someone desperate to build muscle, there is nothing worse than knowing you’ve wasted three months of hard training for no actual physical change in muscle mass.

The Solution

When working with clients, I prefer to have a degree of certainty about their muscle-building efforts being rewarded. I suggest they gain at a rate that we can be confident that they have gained muscle mass. With this assertive but not overly aggressive rate of gain, we know that muscle is being built. We also know that some fat gain will occur, and by sticking to the 0.25-0.5% weekly target this fat gain is kept in check.

The good news is that fat loss is much quicker than muscle gain. Whatever fat you do gain during a muscle-building phase can quickly be removed using a mini-cut. This is a 2-6 week hyper-focused diet. The goal with the mini cut is to treat fat loss like a bank robber treats his next heist. Get in, get the job done, get out, and get on with your life. In your case, this means dieting aggressively for a few short weeks to shed any body fat you gained while bulking, then get back to packing on muscle at a rate of 0.2-0.5% per week. Cycling through this process numerous times is the route to packing on muscle and dramatically transforming your body over the long-term to achieve your most muscular physique.

References
  1. Iraki J, Fitschen P, Espinar S, & Helms E. Nutrition Recommendations for Bodybuilders in the Off-Season: A Narrative Review Sports. 2019, 7 (7), 154
  2. Garthe, I. Raastad, T. Refsnes, P.E. Sundgot-Borgen, J. Effect of nutritional intervention on body composition and performance in elite athletes. Eur. J. Sport Sci. 2013, 13, 295–303
  3. Bouchard et al. The Response to Long-Term Overfeeding in Identical Twins. New England Journal of Medicine. 1990, 322, 1477-1482