When I started working out, I was just over six feet tall and weighed about 155 lbs.
I was your average skinny dude.
After about 1.5 years of traditional “bodybuilder workouts,” I was…shall we say…a little less skinny (and I won’t even Photoshop the zit out):
I had gained about 20 pounds since starting in the gym (~175 pounds here), which isn’t very impressive considering most of it was gained in the first 10 months — the “newbie gains” phase.
Here’s another shot of me:
At this point, I had been training regularly for about 7 years, weighed around 190 lbs, and was about 16% body fat.
A big change from where I had started, of course, but that means that in the 5 to 6 years in between these pictures, I had gained just 10 to 15 pounds of muscle.
Again, not very impressive considering how much time and work I had put into my training.
To make matters worse, I was stuck in a rut and hadn’t seen much of a change in my physique in at least a year, maybe longer.
What was the problem, I wondered?
Was I eating the wrong foods? Was I doing the wrong exercises? Was I just up against bad genetics?
Well, this is where I decided to get serious about educating myself on the science of muscle building and fat loss, and I quickly discovered that I was making a lot of mistakes.
For example, I was working exclusively in the 10 to 12 rep range and doing a lot of isolation exercises instead of compound exercises, and I thought you just had to “eat big to get big” and “eat clean to get lean.”
This was a turning point.
Soon after that last picture was taken, I dramatically changed the way that I was eating and training, and here’s me just a few years later:
That’s me at about 185 lbs and 7% body fat, which means that I had gained another ~11 pounds of muscle since overhauling my diet and training.
And that is fairly impressive considering how long I had been training for (as you’ll see, most people with 7+ years of training under their belts should have very little muscle left to gain, if any at all).
And just for the sake of comparison, here’s a shot of me taken a few days ago, about four years after the above shot:
I’m currently 193 pounds and 9% body fat, which means that while things have slowed down (as they should), I’ve continued to gain a bit of muscle year after year.
How much will I ultimately be able to gain, though? How big will I be able to get without having to turn to steroids?
Well, that’s what this article is going to be all about.
This is one of the most common questions I get from beginning lifters, and if you dig around online, you’ll probably wind up real confused, real fast.
Some people say that no matter what you do, there’s an absolute ceiling to how much muscle you can build, and it’s probably lower than you think.
Others say that’s nonsense — that with enough hard work, you can get as big and strong as you want.
The rising rate of steroid use doesn’t help matters either, because while some guys are so freakishly huge that there’s little question as to whether they’re “natty,” many drug users aren’t so easy to spot and lead people astray in their personal expectations.
Well, here’s the truth:
Everyone has a hard limit to how much muscle they can gain.
It’s impossible to predict exactly, but there are several research-backed formulas that can give you a fairly accurate estimate of your ultimate potential for whole-body muscularity.
And by the end of this article, you’re going to have it taped — you’re going to know approximately how much muscle you can gain and why some people can gain more and some less.
Let’s get started.
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Table of Contents
Estimating how much muscle you can build is far from an exact science.
There are just too many physiological variables, which is why even genetic testing provides little more than a guesstimate.
That said, there are two physical traits that are highly correlated with overall muscularity:
Let’s take a closer look at each.
For decades now, people have observed that some big people are just “big boned.”
There’s truth here.
Research shows that people with larger bones do tend to be more muscular than people with smaller frames. Furthermore, they also tend to have higher testosterone levels and gain muscle faster when they start lifting weights.
What qualifies as “big boned,” though, and where do you fall on the spectrum?
Well, two of the best indicators of your overall bone structure are the circumferences of your wrists and ankles.
This is why, height being equal, people who have wider wrists and ankles tend to be naturally more muscular and have a higher potential for muscle growth than those with more slender bones.
We can largely thank a researcher named Casey Butt, Ph.D., for figuring this out.
He parsed thousands of data points from surveys, clinical studies, and case studies, and found that the single best indicator of muscle-building potential was the thickness of the wrists and ankles.
Butt also used the data to create a formula that allows you to predict your muscle building potential, which we’ll talk more about in a minute.
Every muscle has two main parts:
The main way that these vary in people is length — some people’s muscle bellies and tendons are shorter and longer than others.
This is significant because a muscle’s potential for growth is largely determined by the length of the its belly.
Muscles can’t grow longer, only wider, so if you start with longer muscle bellies and shorter tendons, then you’ll be able to gain more total muscle mass.
It’s that simple.
Here’s a good example of someone with very short muscle bellies and long tendons:
As you can see, he’s going to have a hell of a time getting big arms.
Just to compare, here’s a shot of my arm, which has a longer muscle belly and thus a greater potential for growth.
If you can fit three fingers, your muscle bellies are below average length. If you can fit 2, you’re about average. If you can fit 1, you’re one of the lucky few with longer than average muscle bellies.
If you ask the average gymgoer what bodily factor most influences how quickly you can gain muscle, he’ll probably answer “testosterone levels.”
And he’s right.
Testosterone is the primary hormonal driver of muscle growth.
Its muscle-building effects are so strong that research shows that artificially increasing your testosterone levels can put muscle on your frame without any exercise whatsoever.
Thus, it would seem a reasonable assumption that our testosterone levels would influence how much muscle we can ultimately gain.
Well, this is where things get interesting.
That assumption is certainly true if we’re talking about dramatically raising testosterone levels through steroid use. This most definitely raises the ceiling for muscle gain.
But here’s something that most people don’t know:
Fluctuation of testosterone levels within the physiological normal range doesn’t significantly help or hurt muscle growth.
In other words, if you increase your testosterone levels but they remain well within the range of normal, you’re unlikely to notice any muscle-building benefits.
So, while natural testosterone levels does influence muscle gain to a certain degree, it’s just not as important as most people think.
On the whole, your bone and muscle structures are much better predictors of how much muscle you can build naturally.
At this point you’re probably itching to know just how much muscle you’re going to be able to gain.
So let’s dive in.
Most equations for predicting your potential for muscle growth are solely based on your height because the taller you are, the more fleshy “real estate” you have to make muscle.
Thus, more height means more potential lean mass.
That doesn’t tell the whole story, though, because what if you’re below-average in height but above-average in bone size?
Well, to get a more accurate prediction of how much muscle you can naturally build, we can come back to Casey Butt’s work.
This equation is based on the data Butt collected on ankle and wrist measurements of drug-free bodybuilders ranging from 1947 to 2009.
It’s widely considered the most accurate way to estimate your genetic potential for muscle growth, and it can also be used to estimate the maximum potential size of each major muscle group.
Here’s what it looks like…
Chances are that looks like gobbledygook to you, which is why I made a nifty calculator that does all the math for you.
You may have noticed that this calculator gives you a “bulked weight.”
This is simply 104% of your “total body weight” to account for the “extra” weight that you’ll be carrying in addition to all that muscle, the way of water, glycogen, and food.
So, that’s Butt’s formula for predicting how much muscle you can gain.
Altogether, Lyle, Alan, and Martin have worked with hundreds of elite bodybuilders and athletes and are, I think, some of the smartest guys in the evidence-based fitness space.
Let’s look at what they have to say about muscle-building potential.
Lyle McDonald is a health and fitness researcher and writer, and his formula is based on his extensive reading of the literature and experience helping thousands of people improve their body composition.
Based on what he’s read and seen, here’s how muscle gain plays out for most guys (women can cut these numbers in half):
Lyle, also says that starting age and weight play a role.
Someone starting in the gym at 40 will probably gain less muscle over time than someone starting at 20, and someone starting underweight can probably gain muscle a bit faster at first than someone starting at a normal weight.
As you can see, Lyle says that guys can gain up to 40 to 50 lbs of muscle in their first 4 to 5 years of proper training, and, unfortunately, that muscle gain is fairly negligible from there on out.
Also notice that I said 4 to 5 years of proper training, not just training, or worse, “exercising.”
(I’ll get to what proper training looks like in a minute.)
Furthermore, Lyle has observed that someone that has been lifting improperly for several years has the potential to make “year one” gains when he or she starts training properly.
And just to make things easier and more fun, here’s a calculator that’ll show you how much muscle you can expect to gain over the next year, based on Lyle’s model:
Alan Aragon is a published researcher and fitness consultant who’s been designing diet and exercise programs 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 this rate:
And for women, he says that these numbers should be halved because they start with less muscle and more body fat.
Let’s see how this works by way of example.
According to Alan’s model, a 150 pound male beginner can gain about 1.5 to 2.25 lbs of muscle per month in his first year, or 18 to 27 lbs.
Let’s say he does fairly well and gains 20 pounds in year one, and is now an “intermediate lifter” moving into year two. Looking above, he could now expect to gain 0.85 to 1.7 lbs of muscle per month, or 10 to 20 lbs in his second year in the gym.
Let’s say he now really dials in his diet and training and does indeed gain another 20 pounds of muscle over the year, putting him at 190 lbs and upgrading him to an “advanced lifter.”
Thus, his year-three potential gains are 5 to 10 lbs, and from there on out, his potential gains diminish more or less to a vanishing point.
Martin developed his formula for predicting maximum muscularity after observing and coaching scores of professional bodybuilding competitors, and it’s very simple:
Height in centimeters – 100 = Upper weight limit in kilograms in contest shape (4 to 5% body fat)
Here’s how this pans out for a few heights and poundages:
To calculate Martin’s predictions for other heights, multiply them in inches by 2.54 to convert into centimeters, and subtract from 100 for maximum weight in kilograms at 5% body fat (stage-ready shredded). Finally, multiply this number by 2.2 to convert back into pounds.
If your numbers are leaving you a bit deflated, I understand.
You probably follow quite a few bodybuilders, fitness models, and “gurus” on social media who put them to shame.
And that’s okay.
In fact, it’s good that you’re coming to this realization now, before unrealistic expectations can really sink their hooks in and set you up for major disappointment and failure later.
The good news, though, is this: no matter your genetic potential for muscle gain, you can build an outstanding physique.
It may take a longer than you’d like, and you may never be as big as that fake natty loser on Instagram, but you can transform your body into something truly special.
If you want to reach your natural potential for muscle growth, you need an effective diet and training plan.
You want to gain muscle and not just get fat, and you have to do more than just “eat big” to do that.
Fortunately, though, it’s not complicated. There are just five simple steps.
Let’s take a closer look at each.
(And if you prefer a 13-minute video overview, just click below.)
The biggest mistake people that “can’t gain weight” make is not eating enough calories.
Their natural appetites just aren’t up to it.
And by “it,” I mean consistently eating more calories than they burn, which is what you need to do to gain muscle and strength as quickly as possible.
There are various reasons for this, mainly physiological, but we don’t have to get into them here. All you need to know is that your body’s “muscle-building machinery” just works best when energy is abundant.
Another major mistake that “hardgainers” often make is the opposite of the above: eating way too much.
Unfortunately, it’s not.
You can’t force your muscles to grow faster by drowning them in calories, because beyond a certain point, they stop fueling muscle growth and just make you fatter.
That’s why a slight caloric surplus of 10 to 15% is just as conducive to muscle growth as a larger surplus of 30% or more.
That is, all you have to do to optimize muscle growth is eat just 10 to 15% more calories than you burn every day.
This is the point of diminishing returns, where increasing your caloric intake further contributes less and less to muscle building and more and more to fat gain.
This is why you should shy away from “dirty bulking,” as bodybuilders call it, and opt to “lean bulk” instead.
This approach is a win-win because it allows you to maximize muscle growth and minimize fat gain.
And, just in case you’re wondering, most people can gain muscle and fat at about a 1:1 ratio when they’re doing everything right.
In other words, if you gain a pound of muscle for every pound of fat while lean bulking, you’re doing a good job.
(Those with above-average genetics can gain slightly more muscle than fat, and those with below-average genetics may gain slightly more fat than muscle, but most people are in the middle.)
Want to know how many calories you should eat? Check out this article.
You’ve probably heard that a high-protein diet is best for building muscle.
This is true, and that’s why there’s so much talk about protein in bodybuilding circles.
Protein provides your body with the raw materials necessary for muscle building (amino acids), so if you don’t eat enough, you’ll struggle to gain muscle.
What is “enough,” though?
Well, it’s quite a bit more than most people are used to eating (but not quite as much as some people claim).
Research shows that eating about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day is ideal for muscle gain.
Either way, it comes out to around 30 to 40% of total daily calories for most people.
Now, while there’s little debate on the importance of eating adequate protein, carbs are another story.
Low-carb diets are a “thing” these days, but they really don’t deserve the hype.
They don’t help you lose fat faster, and they most definitely don’t help you gain muscle faster, either.
To the contrary, eating plenty of carbs helps you gain muscle faster in two ways:
So, here’s the bottom line:
If you want to gain muscle as quickly as possible, then you want to eat more and not less carbs.
A good starting place is to get 30 to 50% of your total daily calories from carbs.
Want to know more about how much protein and carbs you should eat? Check out this article.
“I’m bulking, bro,” he says, as he eats a pile of candy and washes it down with a quart of chocolate milk.
Don’t be that guy (or gal). Don’t let your lean bulk go “dirty.”
It’s easy to loosen the reins when you’re not restricting calories to lose fat, and this is a mistake.
If you want to maximize muscle gain and minimize fat gain, you need to regulate your calories and macros just as carefully when bulking as when cutting.
If you have too many cheat meals (or, worse, cheat days) while bulking, it’ll catch up with you sooner rather than later, because you will gain fat faster and faster, which will just slow you down in the long run.
Eating too many high-sugar, highly processed, non-nutritious foods causes other problems, too. For example…
Many people also find it hard to break away from an uninhibited, gluttonous style of eating when it comes time to finally get rid of unwanted body fat, making it even more difficult to reach their desired body fat percentage.
Want to know more about how to cheat without ruining your diet? Check out this article.
If you don’t get the first three steps right, what you do in the gym won’t matter very much.
Proper dieting is just that important.
If you do, though, the right workout program will make a huge difference in how quickly you can gain weight and muscle.
Sure, you can gain muscle and strength in many different ways, but decades of scientific and anecdotal evidence have conclusively proven that this is the most effective approach.
The reason heavy compound weightlifting is so powerful is simple: it’s the best way to progressively overload your muscles.
And by “progressively overloading” your muscles, I mean increasing tension levels in them over time. This is the primary driver of muscle growth, and while there are several ways to do this, the most effective one is just getting stronger.
That’s why the strongest people in the gym are also generally the biggest, and if you want to build a great physique, why your primary goal should be increasing whole-body strength.
Want to know more about how to build a workout program that really works? Check out this article.
I saved this for last because it’s the least important.
The truth is most supplements for building muscle and losing fat are worthless.
Unfortunately, no amount of pills and powders are going to make you muscular and lean.
That said, if you know how to drive muscle growth with proper dieting and exercise, certain supplements can accelerate the process.
Here are the ones I use and recommend:
In an ideal world, we’d get all of our daily calories from carefully prepared, nutritionally balanced meals, and we’d have the time to sit down, slow down, and savor each and every bite.
In the real world, though, we’re usually rushing from one obligation to another and often forget to eat anything, let alone the optimal foods for building muscle, losing fat, and staying healthy.
That’s why meal replacement and “weight gainer” supplements and protein bars and snacks are more popular than ever.
Unfortunately, most contain low-quality protein powders and large amounts of simple sugars and unnecessary junk.
That’s why I created ATLAS.
It’s a delicious “weight gainer” (meal replacement) supplement that provides you with 38 grams of high-quality protein per serving, along with 51 grams of nutritious, food-based carbohydrates, and just 6 grams of natural fats, as well as 26 micronutrients, enzymes, and probiotics that help you feel and perform your best.
ATLAS is also 100% naturally sweetened and flavored as well, and contains no chemical dyes, cheap fillers, or other unnecessary junk.
So, if you want to build muscle and lose fat as quickly as possible and improve the nutritional quality of your diet, then you want to try ATLAS today.
RECHARGE is a 100% natural post-workout supplement that helps you gain muscle and strength faster, and recover better from your workouts.
Once it’s had time to accumulate in your muscles (about a week of use), the first thing you’re going to notice is increased strength and anaerobic endurance, less muscle soreness, and faster post workout muscle recovery.
And the harder you can train in your workouts and the faster you can recover from them, the more muscle and strength you’re going to build over time.
Furthermore, RECHARGE doesn’t need to be cycled, which means it’s safe for long-term use, and its effects don’t diminish over time.
It’s also naturally sweetened and flavored and contains no artificial food dyes, fillers, or other unnecessary junk.
So, if you want to be able to push harder in the gym, train more frequently, and get more out of your workouts, then you want to try RECHARGE today.
Whey protein powder is a staple in most athletes’ diets for good reason.
It’s digested quickly, it’s absorbed well, it has a fantastic amino acid profile, and it’s easy on the taste buds.
Not all whey proteins are created equal, though.
Whey concentrate protein powder, for example, can be as low as 30% protein by weight, and can also contain a considerable amount of fat and carbs.
And the more fat and carbs you’re drinking, the less you can actually enjoy in your food.
Whey isolate protein powder, on the other hand, is the purest whey protein you can buy. It’s 90%+ protein by weight and has almost no fat or carbs.
Another benefit of whey isolate is it contains no lactose, which means better digestibility and fewer upset stomachs.
Well, WHEY+ is a 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate protein powder made from exceptionally high-quality milk from small dairy farms in Ireland.
It contains no GMOs, hormones, antibiotics, artificial food dyes, fillers, or other unnecessary junk, and it tastes delicious and mixes great.
So, if you want a clean, all-natural, and great tasting whey protein supplement that’s low in calories, carbs, and fat, then you want to try WHEY+ today.
Is your pre-workout simply not working anymore?
Are you sick and tired of pre-workout drinks that make you sick and tired?
Have you had enough of upset stomachs, jitters, nausea, and the dreaded post-workout crash?
Do you wish your pre-workout supplement gave you sustained energy and more focus and motivation to train? Do you wish it gave you noticeably better workouts and helped you hit PRs?
If you’re nodding your head, then you’re going to love PULSE.
It increases energy, improves mood, sharpens mental focus, increases strength and endurance, and reduces fatigue…without unwanted side effects or the dreaded post-workout crash.
It’s also naturally sweetened and flavored and contains no artificial food dyes, fillers, or other unnecessary junk.
Lastly, it contains no proprietary blends and each serving delivers nearly 20 grams of active ingredients scientifically proven to improve performance.
So, if you want to feel focused, tireless, and powerful in your workouts…and if you want to say goodbye to the pre-workout jitters, upset stomachs, and crashes for good…then you want to try PULSE today.
Everyone has a limit to how much muscle they can build in their lifetimes.
No matter what we might do in the gym or kitchen, there is a point where we’ll simply stop gaining any muscle to speak of.
Thanks mostly to skeletal and muscular factors, some people can build far more muscle than most, and some far less. Most of us are in the middle.
Now, if the data says that your muscular potential is more average than you might have hoped, don’t give it much thought, because the reality is this:
If you’re a guy, all you need is 20 to 30 pounds of muscle at about 10% body fat and you have an outstanding physique by anyone’s standards.
And if you’re a gal, make that 10 to 15 pounds of muscle and about 20% body fat. Bring that to the beach and you’ll turn heads and raise pulses.
Furthermore, the good news is that anyone can achieve these numbers, regardless of genetics or anything else.
All they have to do is follow the five steps outlined above:
Do that, and I promise you’ll be happy with the results.