I get asked fairly often how much muscle you can really build naturally. That is, how can we determine our genetic potential in terms of building muscle? How big can we really get without taking drugs?
If you poke around on the Net, you’ll find a ton of conflicting opinions. Some people feel that genetics can prevent you from ever looking good, while others believe that you can accomplish anything if you work hard enough at it.
Neither, really. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
The first thing you should know is there really isn’t any way to know for sure what your genetic potential is when it comes to building muscle. While you’ll never be able to gain 250 lbs of lean mass naturally, it’s impossible to say with complete accuracy how big you’ll actually be able to get.
That said, worrying about such matters before you have 5+ years of proper lifting and eating under your belt is pretty pointless in my opinion. If you’re new to lifting, don’t even give a second thought to whether you’ll be able to build enough muscle, build it quickly enough, have the right proportions, etc. This can lead to unrealistic expectations and an early mental defeat.
The ultimate reality is that you are going to train hard, eat right, and let your body develop as it will.
While we don’t all have the genetics to be top-tier bodybuilders, any of us can build a strong, muscular, healthy body that we’re proud of, and that’s what it’s all about in the end.
So, with that out of the way, let’s address the actual issue of this post: how much muscle can you build naturally?
Unfortunately, there aren’t any studies that I know of that definitively answer this question. Which is why there are so many opinions and broscience theories out there.
These guys have collectively worked with hundreds of elite bodybuilders and athletes, and are speaking from not just an incredibly in-depth understanding of the body, but a wealth of real-world practice and results.
Let’s look at what they have to say, and then I’ll share my thoughts and experiences.
Lyle keeps his model very simple. (And as a note, this applies to men–Lyle says that women should expect about half these numbers.)
YEAR OF PROPER TRAINING
POTENTIAL MUSCLE GAINS
According to Lyle, both age and starting condition will affect this. Older guys will gain less than younger, and underweight guys can gain a bit more than this. And some people can just build more or less muscle due to other factors like hormones, genetics, and lifestyle.
As you can see, Lye says that you’re looking at 40-50 lbs of muscle you can gain in your first 4-5 years, and the gains are negligible from there on out.
Also notice that it’s years of proper training, not just training. Lyle said that someone that has been lifting improperly for several years has the potential to make “year one” gains when he starts training properly. (And I’ll get to what proper training is in a minute.)
Alan’s model addresses the issue a bit differently, but the numbers come out to be about the same.
RATE OF MUSCLE GROWTH
1-1.5% of total body weight per month
.5-1% of total body weight per month
.25-.5% of total body weight per month
According to Alan’s formula, a 150 lb beginner could gain about 1.5-2.25 lbs of muscle per month, or 18-27 lbs in year one.
Once he hits year two, he’s an intermediate lifter weighing in at 170 lbs (let’s say), and could gain .85-1.7 lbs of muscle per month, or 10-20 lbs in year two.
By year three, he’s an advanced lifter at, let’s say, 190 lbs, and is capable of gaining 5-10 pounds of muscle that year. His potential gains diminish from this point on.
Martin developed his formula 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 (4-5% body fat)
Here’s how this pans out for a few heights and poundages:
WEIGHT AT 5% BODY FAT
WEIGHT AT 10% BODY FAT
TOTAL MUSCLE MASS
To calculate numbers for other heights, multiply the inches by 2.54 to get centimeters. Then subtract 100 for your maximum weight in kilograms at 5% body fat. Multiply this number by 2.2 to get pounds.
Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.
This subject can lead to some extremely heated debates in weightlifting/bodybuilding circles.
Some people dismiss such formulas as useless because they don’t take into account drive, work ethic, and consistency. I disagree. My experience in my own training and coaching hundreds of others aligns with the above guidelines.
I did things well enough to ride my newbie gains, which added up to about 20 lbs in that time period, with 10-15 lbs of it being muscle. Not too good. And as you can see, I am not a genetic freak by any means. I was just a normal ecto-meso.
Here’s a shot of me after 6/7 years of improper training (I was working exclusively in the 10-12 rep range, doing a lot of isolation work, wasn’t squatting or deadlifting every week, had no idea what to do with diet beyond “eat a lot,” and so forth):
I weighed around 190 lbs here, at about 17% body fat (158 lbs of fat-free mass). So in the 5-6 years that ensued between these first two pictures, I had gained a measly 10-15 lbs of muscle. Pretty bad considering how much time I had put in.
As I talk about here, it was at this point that I decided to truly educate myself. And in the 3-4 years that have passed since then, I’ve radically transformed my body.
Here’s a current shot of me at 185 lbs and about 7.5% (171 pounds of fat-free mass):
If we compare the gains I made in the previous 3 years–about 5 lbs of muscle per year–against the above formulas, we see that I’ve done VERY well for being an advanced lifter. But that’s only because I made about half the gains I should’ve made in my first 6/7 years of training.
I’m now approaching my genetic potential (according to the above formulas, I have maybe 10 more pounds I can gain, and it will take several years), but I could’ve reached this point several years ago had I been training and eating properly.
It’s also worth mentioning that my experience coaching hundreds of guys verifies my own experiences. You can gain a LOT of muscle in your first three years of training if you do it right. It really starts to slow down at that point. And if you’ve been training improperly for several years, you can make startling gains by doing it right.
Some people look to professional bodybuilders, who step on stage at 270+ lbs and shredded, and feel deflated when they’re told that they’ll never be much bigger than 190 lbs in contest shape.
Well, the reality is 190 lbs at 5% is huge by normal standards. You’re fitness cover model material. Girls will love you, guys will want to be you (cheesy, sorry).
Unless you’re trying to reach freak status–220+ lbs at contest lean–you can achieve the look you want naturally. Just know that it takes a few years of hard work.
I saved this for last because, quite frankly, it’s far less important than proper diet and training.
You see, supplements don’t build great physiques–dedication to proper training and nutrition does.
Unfortunately, the workout supplement industry is plagued by pseudoscience, ridiculous hype, misleading advertising and endorsements, products full of junk ingredients, underdosing key ingredients, and many other shenanigans.
Most supplement companies produce cheap, junk products and try to dazzle you with ridiculous marketing claims, high-profile (and very expensive) endorsements, pseudo-scientific babble, fancy-sounding proprietary blends, and flashy packaging.
So, while workout supplements don’t play a vital role in building muscle and losing fat, and many are a complete waste of money…the right ones can help.
The truth of the matter is there are safe, natural substances that have been scientifically proven to deliver benefits such as increased strength, muscle endurance and growth, fat loss, and more.
As a part of my work, it’s been my job to know what these substances are, and find products with them that I can use myself and recommend to others.
Finding high-quality, effective, and fairly priced products has always been a struggle, though.
That’s why I took matters into my own hands and decided to create my own supplements. And not just another line of “me too” supplements–the exact formulations I myself have always wanted and wished others would create.
I won’t go into a whole spiel here though. If you want to learn more about my supplement line, check this out.
For the purpose of this article, let’s just quickly review the supplements that are going to help you get the most out of your workouts.
Creatine is a substance found naturally in the body and in foods like red meat. It’s perhaps the most researched molecule in the world of sport supplements–the subject of hundreds of studies–and the consensus is very clear:
Supplementation with creatine helps…
You may have heard that creatine is bad for your kidneys, but these claims have been categorically and repeatedly disproven. In healthy subjects, creatine has been shown to have no harmful side effects, in both short- or long-term usage. People with kidney disease are not advised to supplement with creatine, however.
If you have healthy kidneys, I highly recommend that you supplement with creatine. It’s safe, cheap, and effective.
In terms of specific products, I use my own, of course, which is called RECHARGE.
RECHARGE is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored and each serving contains:
You don’t need protein supplements to gain muscle, but, considering how much protein you need to eat every day to maximize muscle growth, getting all your protein from whole food can be impractical.
That’s the main reason I created (and use) a whey protein supplement. (There’s also evidence that whey protein is particularly good for your post-workout nutrition.)
WHEY+ is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate that is made from milk sourced from small dairy farms in Ireland, which are known for their exceptionally high-quality dairy.
I can confidently say that this is the creamiest, tastiest, healthiest all-natural whey protein powder you can find.
There’s no question that a pre-workout supplement can get you fired up to get to work in the gym. There are downsides and potential risks, however.
Many pre-workout drinks are stuffed full of ineffective ingredients and/or minuscule dosages of otherwise good ingredients, making them little more than a few cheap stimulants with some “pixie dust” sprinkled in to make for a pretty label and convincing ad copy.
Many others don’t even have stimulants going for them and are just complete duds.
Others still are downright dangerous, like USPLabs’ popular pre-workout “Jack3d,”which contained a powerful (and now banned) stimulant known as DMAA.
Even worse was the popular pre-workout supplement “Craze,” which contained a chemical similar to methamphetamine.
The reality is it’s very hard to find a pre-workout supplement that’s light on stimulants but heavy on natural, safe, performance-enhancing ingredients like beta-alanine, betaine, and citrulline.
And that’s why I made my own pre-workout supplement. It’s called PULSE and it contains 6 of the most effective performance-enhancing ingredients available:
And what you won’t find in PULSE is equally special:
The bottom line is if you want to know what a pre-workout is supposed to feel like…if you want to experience the type of energy rush and performance boost that only clinically effective dosages of scientifically validated ingredients can deliver…then you want to try PULSE.