If you take a look at the cover of any men’s fitness magazine, you’re likely to find a headline like the following: ‘5 Ways to Build Muscle Fast’, ‘Pack on 10 Pounds of Muscle in 4 Weeks’, or ‘Bulk Up in Just 2 Weeks’. Like most guys, you’ve probably bought these magazines, and you’ve bought into the idea of getting jacked in record time. But after a month of exhaustive workouts and more chicken breast than you count, you weren’t quite ready for your Arnold Classic debut. What gives? How long does it really take to gain muscle?
How does muscle grow?
Before you set your targets for muscle gain, it’s important to understand the science behind muscle growth. When you work out, the intensity of the exercise causes small tears in your muscle fibers. Your body then repairs those tears or replaces the damaged fibers during the recovery period.
In the case of replacement, the body fuses muscle fibers together to form myofibrils, which are new muscle protein strains. Muscle growth occurs when these myofibrils grow in both thickness and quantity. You’ll only see this growth when your body’s rate of protein synthesis is greater than its rate of muscle protein breakdown. And the kicker for all this is that it happens after your workout, not during.
Additionally, to achieve growth, the satellite cells around your muscles must be activated to add nuclei to your muscle cells. This directly impacts the growth of myofibrils.
Guys who are able to pack on freakish amounts of muscle are able to activate these satellite cells and fuel growth during recovery.
How do I activate this growth?
There are several ways to activate muscle growth, but there are a few techniques that are most common:
- Tension: You may hear trainers talk about TUT, or Time Under Tension. This is the length of time your muscle is contracting against some type of resistance. The longer that muscle faces tension, the more likely you are to activate muscle fibers and encourage growth. For example, if you typically complete a dumbbell curl in 10 seconds, slow down. Spend a few additional seconds lowering and raising the weight. You’ll feel the burn and achieve the level of fatigue necessary to get those bowling ball biceps.
- Fatigue: Speaking of fatigue, it’s important to work muscles until you reach fatigue. This means either going heavy or bumping up the reps.
- Variation: Don’t do the exact same workout every time you hit the weight room. Play with intensity and volume every time; make little tweaks here and there to shock your body and avoid plateaus.
- Sleep: Muscle growth happens during recovery, and if you’re missing out on sleep, you’re denying your body the opportunity to grow.
So how long does it take?
There are a lot of factors at play here. You need to constantly challenge yourself in the gym, you need to rest, and though we didn’t talk about this here, you need to monitor your nutrition (especially pre- and post-workout). Also, your level of experience matters, too.
If you’re new to lifting, you can expect more dramatic results than a veteran lifter. Newbies can gain upwards of 1-2 pounds a month during the first year, provided they stick with a solid program and diet. After the first year, your natural muscle-building ability could be cut in half, meaning .5-1 pound per month. However, it’s important to remember that no two bodies are the same, and you’ll need to experiment with routines and diets to figure out what works best for you. And, as your body adapts, you’ll need to make additional changes. The numbers above represent an average. If you do your research, stay committed, and set realistic goals, you can eventually add on the mass.