Do you feel like you're constantly wondering when your hard work at the gym is going to start actually paying off?
Building muscle requires you to take in nutrients from food and transform them into lean tissue with the assistance of a strength training program and proper recovery. Clearly, this process is fairly complex. (Otherwise, everyone would be built like The Rock.) Although you probably want to build muscle quickly, it typically takes a good amount of time to start seeing real results.
However, the exact amount of time it takes to build muscle mass depends on the amount of muscle you want to gain, along with a whole host of individual factors, which we'll discuss below.
So, how does long it take to build muscle, and what are the tell-tale signs that you're on track to building the strong, athletic physique that will keep you healthy and crushing races for as long as possible?
How Long Does It Take to Build Muscle?
The amount of muscle you can actually gain and how quickly you can gain it is determined by many factors including genetics, nutrition, training, and hormones. Your starting body composition may also be an important factor to consider.
In reality, there is only so much food your body can process and turn into muscle mass, and gaining multiple pounds of muscle a week is not realistic. Similar to losing weight, gaining weight takes time, consistency, and patience.
Also, the type of weight you are looking to increase is important to consider. As an athlete of any level, you probably want to gain muscle, not fat or excess fluids. The faster you are gaining, the more likely you are going to see the scale creep up from water retention and fat, not just muscle.
For most people, gaining one half of a pound of weight a week represents a fairly quick rate of healthy weight gain. And for some — especially women — the rate of muscle gain may be even slower.
At this rate, the average person can gain roughly 25 pounds of muscle in a year. Of course, this isn't necessarily feasible in the long term. A more realistic pace is around five pounds of solid mass every six months.
Many people will need to take breaks from their bulk and cycle through cutting phases as needed. Plus, as your muscles grow in size, the rate at which you can gain steadily decreases.
The Difference Between Gaining Overall Weight vs. Building Muscle
Traditional muscle gain is achieved by gaining weight. Yes, you can gain a little bit of muscle while also losing fat, but this process is fairly slow and not as efficient as building muscle during a true bulk. If you want to gain some serious muscle mass, this requires weight gain.
The thing about weight gain and weight loss is that it is always a combination of lean tissue and fatty tissue — never one exclusively. This means that you will always gain some additional body fat when trying to gain muscle, and you'll lose some muscle when trying to lose body fat.
Depending on a number of factors, for each pound you gain, anywhere from one-third to two-thirds will result in fat, with the remaining will result in lean tissue.
This means that when looking at how fast you gain muscle, your rate of weight gain isn’t necessarily the best answer. You’ll need to check in with your body composition at the start of your bulk, and again after roughly 8-12 weeks to see where you land. A body composition analysis like a DEXA scan will tell you exactly how much muscle you’ve gained and where on your body, or you can try this quick test from the Spartan Training Division.
How to Build Muscle Without Gaining too Much Fat
Your rate of weight gain, genetics, training schedule, and the types of food you choose are all important factors for promoting healthy weight gain in the form of more muscle over body fat. However, the biggest determining factor might be your starting body composition.
Studies suggest that naturally lean individuals are more likely to put on weight in the form of muscle over fat. Similarly, those with a higher starting body fat percentage are more likely to add more body fat than muscle. (This has really only been evidenced in people who are naturally lean, not necessarily those that have dieted down to a lower body fat percentage.)
Good news for newbies: Research suggests that beginners tend to gain muscle more efficiently than those that are highly trained. Of course, this rate starts to decrease as you become more fit over time and some of this mass gain might be skewed due to increased water retention in newer lifters (11).
How long should you be on a bulk?
Bulking meal plans, just like weight-loss meal plans, put a slight strain on your body. And being on a long-term weight gain diet is not typically recommended for most people. The longer you bulk, the more muscle you potentially gain, however, you're also going to add a decent amount of fat in the process.
Many will aim to do a slower bulk, lasting anywhere from eight to 12 weeks during winter months when they don't mind gaining a bit of body fat, or during a time period where they require adequate fuel for their training.
You can certainly bulk for longer than this or until you achieve your desired weight. However, you might find more success cycling through a series of bulks and cuts to achieve your ideal physique.
How Can You Tell Whether You're Building Muscle?
The most challenging part about transforming your body is not seeing immediate progress or not knowing whether your hard work is even paying off. Before you start to panic that you are gaining too much fat or not seeing gains at all, here are five ways to check in with your progress and help you stay on top of your goals.
1. You're gaining weight overall.
Tracking changes in your body weight is one of the easiest ways to tell if your hard work is paying off. The scale might not always go up every day, but it should be creeping up slowly and consistently week after week.
You will naturally experience a lot of fluctuations in your weight due to changes in water weight, hormones, and dietary changes — especially in the beginning stages. But after three to four weeks, a lot of these fluctuations should even out and you should start to see the scale move in the right direction.
Track your weight at the same time each day and plot it on a chart to see your long-term progress.
2. Your clothes fit differently.
Building muscle will often mean your clothes start to fit differently (usually in a good way). If you’re noticing that your shirts are fitting a bit tighter around your shoulders, chest, and biceps, or your pants are getting snug in the thigh and hip area, these tend to be good signs that you’re gaining healthy weight.
3. You're building strength.
Building muscle and increased strength tend to go hand in hand. If you’re fueling your body properly and strength training multiple days a week, you should start seeing some progress in your fitness as well.
Feeling strong is one thing, but the best way to track this is to log your workouts each week. Note how many reps you perform and the amount of weight used, and aim to increase that amount each week. Training programs that utilize progressive overload are perfect for this.
4. Your muscles are looking larger.
Feeling puffier or bigger is normal, and likely a good sign that you’re growing your muscle fibers. Lifting weights increases fluids to your muscles, giving you that post-weight training pump — especially when you are just getting started with strength training. Over time, some of the water retention may diminish, but you should continue to feel bulkier.
One of the best ways to measure your visual progress is with daily or weekly progress photos. Stand in front of a mirror and take a full-body photo. Repeat and assess your visual transformation regularly. You will be both amazed and motivated by the results you see.
5. Your body composition has changed.
Ultimately, the most efficient way to measure your muscle gain progress is to assess your body composition at the beginning and at the end of your bulk. You can opt for an affordable and convenient at-home scale, or schedule a DXA/DEXA scan that estimates your body fat percentage within a 1.6% margin of error.
You should be seeing your lean body mass increase, more so than any body fat you’ve gained. If you’re finding you’re gaining a lot more fat than planned, you may want to slow down your bulk and revisit your nutrition.
4 Tips to Build Muscle Fast
The amount of time that it takes to gain muscle depends on the person and how long you can stick to your muscle growth goals.
Muscle protein synthesis requires a balance of adequate nutrition, strength training, and rest. While the details can vary depending on your fitness level, the basic principles of muscle gain remain the same.
Here are your quick tips for building muscle the right way.
1. Eat enough calories and protein.
You can’t gain weight without eating enough calories. Figure out how many calories you need each day and aim to hit that goal consistently.
Though this may surprise you, eating enough calories and protein is actually the number one thing you need to get right to build muscle.
2. Exercise for muscle growth.
Outside of eating enough food, you'll also need to train for muscle growth by learning hypertrophy training. Just hitting the weights here and there can help, but if you really want to see those muscles grow, you’ll need a solid, strategic plan when you head to the gym.
The right lifting strategy can depend on multiple individual factors. Some beginners can see muscle growth just from bodyweight exercises, while more advanced lifters will need a more specific training plan that incorporates the right weight and the right number of reps.
Typically, hypertrophy training emphasizes time under tension, or performing more reps at a fairly heavy amount.
Many experts will also suggest you try progressive overload by structuring your gym plan in advance, repeating the same training each week, and aiming to increase the reps and/or amount of weight for a total of four to six weeks. Then, switch things up again.
3. Take rest days.
Muscle growth happens during periods of rest. This means taking breaks from lifting weights and getting plenty of sleep are crucial to the muscle-building process.
This concept can be really hard for some to master, since it's human nature to think that lifting more, more often will result in more growth. But the opposite is actually true.
If you are lifting weights every day or multiple times a day, you are constantly tearing down your lean tissue and not giving it a chance to heal and strengthen — or grow! Being extremely sore all of the time is typically a good indicator that you're doing too much. Take rest days as you need them, at least one to two days a week.
Rest also includes getting plenty of sleep. If you aren’t sleeping enough or getting quality sleep, your gains will suffer. Prioritize rest and let those muscles recover.
4. Be patient.
Last but not least, give yourself time to be successful. Results take time and consistency, so be patient and stick to your regimen.
Gaining massive amounts of muscle mass takes years of hard work and training. You'll need to find a plan that is sustainable long term, and find a maintenance program that keeps you motivated to keep your gains.
Ready to commit to a training plan that will help you build muscle, get faster, and keep you race-ready all year long? Check out our programs at the Spartan Training Division now!