There's a reason people say Rome wasn't built in a day, and the same goes for your body. There's no hard and fast rule behind the speed of muscle growth.
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Factors like your hormones, age, caloric intake and training plan all affect the rate at which muscles develop. But that doesn't mean you can't begin to see results within only a couple of weeks with the right workout routine, diet and sleep schedule.
Step 1: Build a Strength-Training Plan
In order for muscle to grow, your body has to experience a level of tension it hasn't encountered in the past. Enter: strength training. There are several components that promote muscle gain (aka hypertrophy). These include muscle tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
Muscle tension occurs when the exercise or weight adds mechanical tension to the muscle. Muscle damage is the micro-tearing of your muscle fibers, which triggers an inflammatory response. Metabolic stress is the result of the buildup of metabolites like lactic acid. Unlike muscle tension or damage, you can't really see or feel metabolic stress. Over time, your body will adapt to these three stressors, building stronger (and bigger) muscles.
Now that you've got the basic physiology of building muscle down, you need to consider the specifics behind your exercise. Hypertrophy exercises usually involve 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 12 reps, and you'll gradually add more weight to your exercises with each workout session, according to the NASM.
When it comes to exercise frequency, set a realistic goal. After all, the best workout regimen is one you can stick to. Typically, you want to strength train about two days per week for optimal health, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
To make time for the training needed for muscle gain, you may want to spread your workouts over three days per week instead, although more research is needed to determine if three days of strength training results in faster muscle-building than two days, according to a 2016 study published in Sports Medicine.
The types of exercises you complete each day will depend on how often you plan to strength train each week. For instance, if you plan to strength train twice per week, consider devoting one day to a push routine and one day to a pull routine, according to the NASM.
A push routine involves muscles that contract as you push, like your chest, triceps and shoulders. Select a variety of exercises for your push day that target each of these muscle groups. Several examples include: barbell bench press (chest), dumbbell shoulder press (shoulders) and triceps cable extensions (triceps).
On the other hand, a pull routine targets the muscles that contract as you pull, like your back and biceps. Pull exercises can include barbell rows (back) or cable biceps curl (biceps).
Finally, let's not skip leg day! If you're planning to strength train twice per week, include the legs on your pull day, per the NASM. However, if your schedule allows you to strength train for three days each week, work your legs on the third day. Try exercises like squats, deadlifts and lunges.
To strengthen your muscles, you need to create muscle tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress. Creating a consistent workout routine and increasing the weight or sets and reps of your routine can help promote hypertrophy.
Step 2: Fuel Properly
Fueling your body is another key element to muscle gain. Extra calories are helpful to spur muscle gain, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, but that doesn't mean it's pizza and candy for dinner every night! Let's take a look at the three macronutrients (protein, carbs and fat) so that you're fueling properly.
Protein is often the first thing that comes to mind when you're looking to build muscle. According to a July 2017 meta-analysis in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, dietary protein significantly enhanced muscle gain during strength training.
However, that doesn't mean you need to load up on protein powder. Researchers of the above-mentioned study found that consuming more than 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight did not yield muscle gain. Instead, aim for about 1 to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day from lean protein sources like chicken or fish.
Carbohydrates are another key element to muscle gain. When you take in carbs, they are partially converted to glycogen, which is then stored in the muscle to fuel your exercise, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. As with your protein, your carb sources are crucial and should come from whole, healthy foods like vegetables and whole grains.
The third piece to the puzzle is fat. Roughly 20 to 35 percent of your daily caloric intake should come from healthy fats, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Fat is another source of energy that your body uses to fuel your exercise, which should be sourced from healthy foods, like olive oil, raw nuts and avocados.
To build muscle and fuel your workouts, you need to eat a variety of healthy proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
Step 3: Get Plenty of Sleep
Sleep is probably one of the most commonly overlooked steps to gaining muscle. Sleep deprivation hinders both your exercise quality and your nutritional choices. However, skimping on sleep hurts more than just your mental capacity to work out and eat healthy — it affects your physiology, too.
Glucose from carbs gets stored in the muscles as glycogen to fuel your workouts. However, much of this process occurs while you're sleeping, according to the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA). If you don't get enough sleep, your body isn't able to replenish your muscles with sufficient glycogen.
Another key process that is disrupted with sleep deprivation is the release of human growth hormone (HGH), one of the main compounds that help your muscles grow, according to the ISSA. When you sleep, your bloodstream fills with HGH, repairing muscle damage and building new muscle fibers.
A few easy measures can help you get the best sleep for building muscle fast. The National Sleep Foundation recommends sticking to a regular sleep schedule, avoiding alcohol and heavy meals before bed and creating a regular bedtime routine that includes powering down electronics.
Getting enough sleep replenishes your muscles with glycogen to fuel your workouts. Your body also releases human growth hormone while you sleep, helping your muscles repair and grow.
- ISSA: "Does Lack of Sleep Hinder Muscle Growth or Performance?"
- NASM: "Back to the Basics: Hypertrophy"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "4 Keys to Strength Building and Muscle Mass"
- National Sleep Foundation: "Healthy Sleep Tips"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Protein and the Athlete — How Much Do You Need?"
- HHS: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- Sports Medicine: "Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: "A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults"