While you can get big fast with steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, you'll wreak havoc on your health. Natural muscle growth is a slower process that involves the proper strength-training routine and diet. How fast you'll see muscle gain depends largely on your body type and how well you adhere to your training regimen.
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Following a high-volume strength-training program and consuming enough calories will help you build muscle fast.
Concept of Muscle Building
Before you learn how to build muscle fast, you need to understand how you build muscle. Muscle growth is a product of your body responding to a stimulus in the form of resistance training. When you lift weights, you cause muscle damage. In the recovery period, your body repairs the muscle damage and then adapts, getting stronger and building more muscle to more easily handle future load.
To encourage the most muscle growth, the amount of stress on the muscles has to be optimal and that stress must be progressive, meaning that it continues to challenge your muscles to adapt. In addition, you must provide your body with the energy and raw material it needs to repair and build muscle tissue, so your diet must provide enough calories and sufficient amounts of the three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrate and fat.
Know Your Body Type
Your body type plays a starring role in how easily and quickly you put on muscle mass. It's primarily determined by genetics, so you can't do much to change it — but you can use it as a guide to tweak your diet and training program and set realistic expectations. People typically fall into one of three body type categories: ectomorphs, mesomorphs and endomorphs.
Ectomorphs are small framed and skinny with low muscle mass. Ectomorphs find it difficult to gain weight and put on muscle. They have a high metabolism, which means they need to eat more calories.
Mesomorphs have the classic athletic body type. Mesomorphs respond well to strength training and put on well-defined muscle mass easily. However, they gain fat more easily than ectomorphs, so they need to monitor their calorie intake.
Endomorphs are short with stocky builds and higher body fat compositions. Endomorphs gain muscle easily, but they also easily gain fat. They have slower metabolisms and find it difficult to lose fat.
Set Realistic Expectations
No matter what type of body you have, you can gain muscle mass, but you should set realistic expectations about how much and how quickly. Mesomorphs can put on a good amount of muscle quickly, and they can easily burn fat to get cut. Endomorphs can also build a lot of muscle quickly, but they'll have a harder time seeing definition.
Ectomorphs, often referred to as "hardgainers," will take longer to see gains. In addition, people with smaller frames won't be able to put on as much muscle mass as people with larger frames because their bodies simply can't support it, according to strength and conditioning coach Eric Bach.
Enjoy Your Newbie Gains
The good news is, no matter your body type, you can expect to see results quite quickly when you're first starting out. Assuming you eat and train right, beginners can put on up to 1.5 percent of their total body weights in lean muscle mass per month in the first year, Bach reports.
After that, gains slow to about 0.5 to 1 percent of total body weight for intermediate lifters in year 2 and 0.25 to 0.5 percent for advanced lifters in year 3 and after.
Get the Right Calorie Balance
Using newbie gains to your advantage means getting your calorie intake dialed in. This can take some time and adjustment. Since there is no one right number for everyone, you can only start with a best guess, then tweak it based on your results.
You first need to determine how many calories you need each day to maintain your weight. That's a rather complex number based on a lot of factors, including genetics, age, sex and activity level — so, again, an estimate is all you can possibly hope to start with unless you want to pay for expensive laboratory testing.
According to Legion Athletics, the average 160-pound male who gets about three to four hours of exercise per week needs around 2,240 calories per day to maintain his weight. More active males need more calories, while less active males need fewer calories. If you are strength training for gains, you can count yourself in the "more active category," meaning you might need closer to 2,400 calories each day.
Create a Calorie Surplus
To gain weight, you need to add roughly 500 calories to that daily goal — probably not as much as you thought. That's about the number of calories in an extra shake or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
A lot of people think they need to be downing gainer shakes and gallons of milk each day to put on mass, but your body can only use so many calories at one time — the rest turn into fat. To avoid gaining fat in addition to lean muscle mass, you have to be careful not to consume too many calories.
On the other hand, eating too few calories can lead to stalled gains and muscle loss. Start by adding those 500 calories to your daily diet; if, after a few weeks you are not putting on muscle, increase your calories slightly — by about 250. If you are gaining fat, decrease your calories slightly. Continue to tweak your intake until you find the sweet spot for optimal muscle gain without fat.
It's not just how much you eat, but what you eat. Consuming the right proportions of protein, carbs and fats can make a big difference in how fast you build muscle.
Pack in Protein
Protein makes up all the tissues of your body, including muscle tissue. Your body uses the protein you eat to repair muscle tissue damage and build new muscle. So it's crucial to get enough. But how much?
According to a 2018 review in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, your daily goal should be between 1.6 and 2.2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day. For a 160-pound person, that works out to 116 to 160 grams of protein per day. To give you an idea of how much protein that is, there are about 135 grams of protein in 22 large eggs or 15 ounces of chicken breast.
That's quite a bit of protein to take in over the course of the day. If you split it up between three meals, that's 40 to 53 grams of protein per meal. But that's not the best way to consume protein for muscle building.
According to the review authors, the body can only use a certain amount of protein at one time. The rest is used for energy or broken down into waste products like urea and other organic acids. To maximize tissue building, the authors suggest aiming to consume 0.4 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight spread across four or more smaller meals each day. For a 160-pound person, that's 29 grams of protein at each meal.
Consuming Your Carbs
There's a misconception that carbs make you fat — they don't. Eating too much and eating unhealthy processed carbs make you fat. You need to eat a decent amount of carbs to have energy for your workouts.
How much carbohydrate you need depends on your workout frequency and intensity. The harder and more often you work out, the more carbs you need. If you have an active job and you lift intensely five days a week, you need a lot more carbs than someone who has a desk job and lifts three days per week. You also need more carbs on your training days than you do on your rest days.
Like your calories, this is also something you need to determine based on energy levels. If you're feeling sluggish during your workouts, it might mean you need more carbs. A good place to start is 2 grams of carbs per pound of body weight, according to strength and conditioning specialist Jason Ferruggia.
Facts on Fat
Fat is the least important of the macronutrients, although it's still important for your overall health. The rest of your calories after you've filled your protein and carb needs should come from fat. According to Ferruggia, when your carb intake is high, your fat intake should be low.
Because fat is higher in calories, with 9 calories per gram, compared to 4 calories per gram in protein and carbs, eating too much fat can make it easier to exceed your calorie goals.
Don't Worry About Weight
How much weight you lift shouldn't be a concern. Although conventional wisdom says that lifting heavy weights for a lower number of reps is best for building mass, research over the last several years has shown it doesn't matter.
In a 2016 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology, 49 subjects performed 12 weeks of whole-body resistance training. One group lifted 30 to 50 percent of their maximal strength for 20 to 25 reps, while the other group lifted 75 to 90 percent of max strength for eight to 12 reps. At the end of the study, the researchers found that there were no statistical differences in muscle size between the two groups.
Turn up the Volume
Volume — or the total reps and sets you do each week — makes more of a difference than the amount of weight you lift. Volume and hypertrophy have a dose-response relationship, according to a 2017 systematic review in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Data from 34 treatment groups in 15 studies showed that each additional set participants performed each week lead to an increase in muscle size of 0.37 percent.
A 2019 study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise showed similar results. Researchers divided 34 participants into three groups: a low-volume group performing one set of each exercise per training session, a moderate-volume group performing three sets of each exercise per session and a high-volume group performing five sets of each exercise.
At the end of eight weeks, all groups exhibited muscle hypertrophy, but muscle growth was significantly higher in the high-volume group.
The set and rep scheme that produced the greatest results in the study was 30 sets of eight to 12 reps for the upper body and 45 sets of eight to 12 reps for the lower body each week.
Rest Between Sets
The final variable is optimal rest between sets to maximize gains. Typically, anywhere from one to three minutes is recommended. However, a 2016 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that more rest is better for hypertrophy.
In the eight-week trial, 21 participants performed the same workout except for the rest periods, with one group resting for one minute between sets and the other group resting three minutes. While both groups gained muscle mass, the gains were significantly greater in the group that rested longer between sets.
Rest and Recover
Here's the most important part of building muscle fast, and it may seem counterintuitive — you need to allow plenty of time for rest and recovery. Your muscles don't grow while you're training them; they grow in the hours and days following your workout. In order to let them do their thing, you have to feed them and avoid placing more stress on them.
Therefore, you can't hit it hard in the gym every day with the expectation that more is better. Overtraining can actually lead to muscle loss, as well as other physical and mental problems. According to a review of research in Sports Medicine in 2016, the ideal workout frequency for hypertrophy is two workouts per week per muscle group on consecutive days.
On your days off, rest, stretch, do moderate-intensity cardio or take a yoga class. Keep your stress levels low, get at least seven hours of sleep per night, and keep your diet on track and you'll start to see those gains in no time.
Read more: The 6 Rules of Gaining Muscle Mass
- Built Lean: How Do Muscles Grow? The Science of Muscle Growth
- M&S: Your Body Type - Ectomorph, Mesomorph or Endomorph?
- Bach Performance: The Ultimate Guide to Building Muscle Without Getting Fat
- Legion Athletics: How Many Calories You Should Eat (With a Calculator)
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: How Much Protein Can the Body Use in a Single Meal for Muscle-Building? Implications for Daily Protein Distribution
- USDA: Basic Report: 01123, Egg, Whole, Raw, Fresh
- USDA: Basic Report: 05064, Chicken, Broilers or Fryers, Breast, Meat Only, Cooked, Roasted
- Jason Ferrugia: How Many Carbs Should You Eat Per Day to Build Muscle?
- Cleveland Clinic: Fat and Calories
- Journal of Applied Physiology: Neither Load nor Systemic Hormones Determine Resistance Training-Mediated Hypertrophy or Strength Gains in Resistance-Trained Young Men
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Dose-Response Relationship Between Weekly Resistance Training Volume and Increases in Muscle Mass: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
- Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Longer Interset Rest Periods Enhance Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men
- Bodybuilding.com: Rest And Overtraining: What Does This Mean to Bodybuilders?
- Sports Medicine: Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
- WebMD: Food Calculator