When people gain weight through a committed strength training program, it involves more than just added muscle mass. A 10-to 20-pound weight gain typically includes not only muscle, but also fat, water, and carbohydrate storage. In short, it usually isn’t all lean muscle.
The ability to gain muscle, and how much one gains, is dependent on age, sex, physical condition, genetics, diet quality and, of course, training program. As we get older, hormone levels can drop, and men tend to put on muscle more easily than women due to their higher testosterone levels.
A good rule of thumb is that most healthy individuals can gain 1 to 2 pounds of lean muscle mass per month, at least in the early stages. After the first three months, a monthly increase of about half a pound is more likely over the longer run.
Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., who has conducted many studies at McMaster University in Ontario, says he expects the average guy to gain 4 to 7 pounds of muscle in the first three months. Yet, that’s only if he’s either new to lifting or returning from a layoff. The more experienced and dedicated you are, the less you can gain. In other words, there are diminishing returns over time and the gains become harder to achieve.
By Phillips’ measure, the average guy can expect to gain about 8-12 pounds of muscle over the course of a year. However, some guys may gain more or less than that.
Regardless of the program or the supplements used, Phillips never sees average gains exceeding about a half-pound a week, which amounts to 26 pounds over the course of a year. But those guys are the genetic freaks, the ones everyone would like to be.
Whether muscle comes easily to you or you’re a hard gainer, it all comes down to genetics. Some people have a predisposition and propensity to gain muscle easily, while others find such gains very difficult to come by.
Building muscle usually equates to gaining weight, which requires eating more than your body needs to maintain its current size. That’s not desirable for someone who’s already overweight. And no, you cannot turn fat into muscle anymore than you can turn blood into bone. If you plan to gain muscle, prepare to gain weight, and some of it will be fat.
Building muscle requires a very dedicated program of lifting at least three days per week, working all of the large muscle groups for 3-6 sets of 8-12 reps to failure. It’s important to give each muscle group a 48-hour break before training it again (i.e., Monday, Wednesday. Friday)
It’s also critical to get eight hours of sleep every night, with essentially the same bed and wake times. Your body releases more growth hormone (GH) during sleep than at any other time. Research shows that 70% of the growth hormone humans release occurs during deep sleep (from 10pm-2am), and the more deep sleep you get, the more growth hormone you produce. Growth hormone is a vital part of muscle repair. Protein synthesis also occurs during sleep, which leads to the last factor for muscle growth.
A high-protein diet is essential for muscle growth to occur. A common recommendation for gaining muscle is 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. Though there are varying recommendations, this is a simple, easy formula to remember. Remember that in addition to animal sources, protein can be found in lots of non-animal sources, such as beans, legumes, seeds, nuts and nut butters. Then there’s also eggs and dairy. A whey-protein powder supplement can also be useful between meals and before bed.
So, be prepared to train hard and often, to sleep well every night, and to eat plenty of calories, particularly protein. Always set realistic goals and remember that the one factor you can’t control is your genetics.